Curious about what the most expensive pinball machine is? Keep on reading to find out!
The Most Expensive Pinball Machine
You’ve never seen a game like Magic Girl before—and unless you’re a serious pinball fanatic with cash to burn, you probably never will. The machine costs $16,000, and most are in private hands. The artwork is all custom, created and drawn by renowned pinball artists instead of copied and pasted from TV or movies. You’re treated to a hypnotic preamble of whimsical music and flashing lights before you can even rest your fingers on the flipper buttons. The playfield—the surface on which the ball rolls around—promises even more wizardry, most courtesy of a phalanx of hidden magnets manipulating the ball with their invisible fingers: Like the raised platform in the middle of the machine that lets you plan a mini game via magnetic flippers. Or the genie-like character named The Janx who promises to save an errant ball from slipping away by holding it in place with its polar magic. There’s even a levitation chamber that sucks the ball up off the play surface and suspends it in mid-air. Well, it’s supposed to, anyway. Source
John spent more than 6 years and over a million dollars of pre-order money developing a working prototype. This included rent on a giant studio, capital equipment, playfield parts, cabinets, salary for himself and contracted employees. At the same time, he worked on 2 other “official” pinball projects (retro zombie adventure and alice in wonderland) which he also took pre-order money on. In May of 2015 he finally announced he was out of funding, and not only couldn’t finish the magic girl prototype, he had no way of funding the manufacturing of them. One of his buyers (Bill Brandes) tried to make a deal where he would license the theme and find a way to manufacture them. Between various volunteers, they took one of the prototypes as far as they could in a few short weeks (which included getting the vacuum formed ramps completed) so it could be shown at the northwest pinball show. Not only did the shots not work so great (the mylared art was bubbling), but there was no ball search turned on, and many of the features were turned off since they weren’t complete. On June 10th, Bill announced that after analyzing the status the prototype was in, and the immense amount of custom parts and mechs, that he could not move this project forward.
On February 14th, 2017 Both John and Scott sent out emails that the games would be ready for shipment. Reports are saying it plays exactly as it did at the northwest pinball show (which is to say most of the features don’t work).
The thing is, none of the machines actually work—not as originally promised by their creator, John Popadiuk. He is a renowned game designer with a lineage that shoots back to some of the biggest pinball manufacturers in the business. In 2011, he announced that he would be creating a truly unique machine that would challenge the boundaries of gameplay and price tag. Serious pinball enthusiasts jumped at the chance to own one.
Today, there are two dozen or so Magic Girl machines out in the wild. The exact number varies depending on who you ask and whether or not you count prototypes. But there’s no doubt about the surplus of angry customers and lawsuits.
“I’m proud of the work,” Popadiuk says in a phone interview from his mother’s home in Canada. “I’m not proud about it taking so long and destroying my career. But, I’m proud of the work.”
Papadiuk grew up in the 1970s, and, like many kids of that era, was a die-hard pinball fanatic. At the age of 14, he befriended Norm Clark, the head designer at Bally Pinball, a leading manufacturer at the time. “He would send me brochures and stuff in the mail,” Papadiuk recalls, “but he made the mistake of inviting me to Chicago for a tour of the their new pinball factory. I basically stayed and said to he’d have to hire me.” Popadiuk began work at Bally in 1980 at the age of 18, helping to develop prototype games.
He worked at Bally on and off for more than a decade, even after the company and its sister brand Midway were acquired by Williams Electronics in 1988. He returned for a full-time stint in 1993, and began a solid 7-year stretch at Williams that would encompass what many regard as his best work. As a designer, Popadiuk was responsible for the creative vision of the machines. He was the conduit between the players and the artists and engineers who made the machines operate. He was an idea man who knew the technical aspects of the games, but excelled at putting on a show that would separate players from their quarters.
World Cup Soccer 1994, for example, is known for its clever goalie “toy,” which is what pinball enthusiasts call features within the game. It had a rewarding series of special operations, including a satisfying multi-ball system, which is often the top honor a player can achieve. You can see Twitch pinball streamer Dead Flip play the game on live stream for more than three hours below.
Popadiuk also had a penchant for including magnets in his games to interact with the metal ball. It’s a technique most prominently featured in his 1995 game called Theater of Magic, the predecessor to Magic Girl. “It seemed like he could make the ball do magical things,” said Chris Kooluris, a collector, Magic Girl owner, and controversial figure in the pinball community thanks to his outspoken nature. “His games from the ’90s are renowned for being some of the best games ever.”
In the late ’90s, Popadiuk worked on a project for Williams that attempted to mix solid physical pinball with a digital video game. It was called Pinball 2000 and it never found success. Increasing financial challenges forced Williams out of the pinball industry by 2000. Popadiuk was out too.
However, even as the commercial demand faded away, an enthusiast market sprung up. A core group of pinheads—a term pinball fanatics welcome despite its other pejorative connotation— remained, many of whom had grown up with the game and now had disposable income to spend. The demand for privately owned pinball machines rose along with the idea of the man cave.
“It went from being more about machines in public spaces to private collectors wanting machines in their homes,”says Popadiuk. “There were no boutique companies at the time to serve them.” Even after a decade away from designing pinball machines, Popadiuk’s reputation hadn’t faded.
“At some point, people started coming to him with a lot of money for him to build them a machine,” says Scott Goldberg, Chief Marketing Officer of American Pinball, the company that would years later help Magic Girl finally see the light of day. “He wasn’t out chasing the money.”
Magic Girl‘s troubled path hasn’t deterred other companies and buyers from similar efforts. In 2015, a machine based on the Predator movie franchise reportedly failed after years of development and pre-orders because the distributor, 20th-Century Fox, wouldn’t approve a licensing deal. Another machine, based on The Big Lebowski, from a company called Dutch Pinball has also reportedly suffered various setbacks and caused a great deal of frustration among buyers.
While Magic Girl didn’t revolutionize the pinball industry in the way that some pinheads hoped it would, it remains one of the most valuable collectible machines around, at least for the moment. There’s a Magic Girl listed on ebay with a Buy-It-Now price of $40,000— though that price was reduced from $45,000. Even Kooluris, who invested $23,000 in the machine, is confident he won’t lose money in the long run. He does, however, plan to move it out of his living room and replace it with a game that’s more fun to flip.
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