When considering buying a used pinball machine, aside from price, the first thing most people consider is condition. Due to the large number of interrelated systems and components, a shiny veneer is really only the tip of the iceberg, and condition is far more than outward appearance.
As anyone familiar with the sales of used automobiles or watercraft, whether privately or professionally can attest, a small investment of time cleaning the unit for sale will yield a higher perceived value to an uninformed or inexperienced buyer than replacing failing components and investing the time and money required in going over all the electronic and mechanical systems to ensure they are solid and reliable.
The common assumption most people make is that if the owner took care to keep the unit clean, they have also taken the same care with every aspect of maintenance and upkeep.
Sadly, this is seldom the case. It is far cheaper to buy a can of Windex and spend half an hour passing a rag in preparation for resale.
Remember your first car? Maybe it was old, and had a few miles on it, but it looked so good shining in the sun, the smell of perfume and cleaning products filling your nostrils, the engine already warm and running smoothly. Perhaps you took it for a quick ride around the block, and made it back without incident. So you pulled the trigger and were now mobile and ready to enjoy your trusty new (to you) steed to take you where you needed whenever you pleased.
But the next day, when you turned the key, it would not start. Probably just a battery. Bad luck, nothing a few dollars at the local repair shop wouldn’t take care of. So you boost it with your Father’s car and off to the local mechanic you go. It makes it halfway there, a few more blocks than your test drive, and all of a sudden you notice a red light on your dashboard, and become aware of the unmistakable sickly sweet smell of boiling antifreeze.
You turn off the car, let it cool down, and then continue your journey. As you’re pulling into the parking lot, you notice that the engine is revving up, but there is a lag between the sound of acceleration and the sensation, your transmission has warmed up and the freshly topped off before you bought it transmission fluid is low. Now you understand the look on your Fathers face when you said it was just a battery. You know the rest, and it doesn’t end well. Your shiny new toy needs so much work that even if your best friend is the owner of the shop and willing to ply his trade for free, it will cost far more than the value of the car to fix in parts alone.
This time, listen to Dad, and as you wind on down this road, remember that all that glitters is not gold.
At Pinball Medics, we purchase games from many sources, private and commercial, and we can say with certainty that when buying a used machine that is more than a few years old, there will always be problems, and most sellers will not point out the deficiencies. They will tell you how they installed a new back-glass, changed all the plastics on the playfield, and spend two hours buffing and polishing the playing surface. And the recent “full service” they performed by changing a $30 rubber ring set (even then they often only change the visible rubbers that are easy to reach) means the game is ready for years of trouble free service and fun. They claim they don’t understand why after spending $300.00 for a new back-glass the flippers still can’t get the ball to the top of the playfield, and the computer randomly crashes. It must just be the way this game is. And when the game fails, they will tell you it must have happened when you moved it, if they take your call at all.
It is important to know that there are not many options available when it comes to repair, and many people are reluctant to buy a machine for this reason. Pinball Medics is the only professional repair service available in the Ottawa area, however many private sellers will tell you there are cheap repair options. Unfortunately, we are the only actual company with a published address, phone number, and physical location that will offer a warranty on our work, and because we prioritize our services for clients who purchased a reconditioned game from us, it means we must turn down a large percentage of service requests we receive.
Of course there are a few self proclaimed Pinball Technicians that will try to convince you that since you are a beginner without a background in software, mechanical engineering, electronics, or Pinball in general, you don’t understand the complexities that contribute to the myriad issues these machines may exhibit, and that you should accept these issues as par for the course. Rest assured, there is nothing that can’t be fixed, and stating otherwise is simply not true.
Some will even resort to school yard bullying techniques when confronted with the truth.
The reality is, most older games require extensive and expensive reconditioning to play as they should, and beyond that, must be test played and dialed in by a conscientious and picky technician over a prolonged period to ensure any real expectation of reliability.
After over 5 years of running the Ottawa Pinball Arcade, Canada’s largest, Pinball Medics is in the unique position to truly know what it takes to make even older classic games from the 70’s reliable, and play better than new. Some will claim we go too far and are too picky, but a visit to any arcade or bar with Pinball Machines we know of will illustrate our point far better than anything we can say. Most operators tend to only use newer games on route, and sell them after they are worn out and damaged, requiring a great deal of effort and expense to recondition.
If you have ever been to a pinball show, whether right here in Ottawa, or across the U.S.A., you will understand. The norm for most classic games out there involves weak flippers, non-functional features, power supply and computer issues, and more mechanical issues than you can count. Games that “work” often don’t last a day, and the number of non working games becomes apparent after the first few hours when they begin to fail to operate in short order. This is as true of private sellers as it is with route operators, two of the most common sources of Pinball Machines for the general public to purchase from.
There are a handful of collectors that really do take great pride in their work out there that will put the time and money in to make their games reliable, and see the opportunity of putting them in a Pinball Show to be played by the public for a couple of days as the ultimate stress test to confirm their work and to ensure their games are solid, because when you have a medium to large sized collection, there are not enough hours in the day to thoroughly test play them.
At Pinball Medics, we face the same challenge, but we are fortunate to have a Pinball Show every day at the Ottawa Pinball Arcade, where we operate over 30 Pinball Machines that are on upward of 14 hours a day every day, and get played regularly, allowing us to test them extensively before sale. This is the only way to ensure they are solid.
We don’t do this for some altruistic purpose, it is so we don’t have to spend time and money servicing them constantly, either while they are in the Arcade, or in a clients home. As we mentioned, we do have a published address and contact information, and a reputation we value greatly, and can’t afford to be running back to customers constantly to repair the games we sell. And we do take great pride in our work.
When we do take a game in for service that we have not previously restored, we offer clients the option of us running it through the Arcade for a week or two to ensure it is 100%, as many issues can not be detected with a few test plays, and many of the hardcore players that frequent the Arcade are very picky and will notice even the smallest issues, bringing them to our attention so we can correct them. In fact, we encourage people to email us with any noticed faults with games whenever they play there so we can maintain them to the highest standards imaginable.
Ultimately, there are a variety of sources to buy a Pinball Machine from, whether from a local operator or collector, a Kijiji reseller / flipper, at a Pinball show, through collector forums, or on Facebook, and they will in many cases be priced much lower than our machines. Despite the lower price point, we still encourage our potential clients to go see them first and try their games before ours, confident that after playing our machines, you will see that you get what you pay for, and beauty really is often only skin deep.
Have a good story about a Pinball purchase gone sideways? Leave it here in the comments section, and if it’s a good one we’ve never heard before, we might just include it in future editions of our Buying and Selling Pinball Machines in Canada series!