A Guide to System 11 Pinball Machines

System 11 pinball machines are 30 years old or more. So why should you care? Let me tell you why.

I probably don’t have to tell you how pinball prices of more recent machines are through the roof after a perfect storm of crazy inflation, supply chain shortages, and increased pinball popularity.

So finding a great pinball machine for less than $3,000 is starting to be next to impossible. Not of all us are wealthy, got into crypto early, or have been lucky at casino games — so finding affordable great games is welcome.

I know that empty space in your gameroom is driving you batty. Let’s get that filled!

System 11 pinball machines are certainly simpler than modern day machines in terms of the software and rulesets but they match up very well in terms of everything else. They are FUN which is what these things are all about.

These classic pinball machines contain an amazing amount of creativity, unique features and robust build quality.

It cannot be overstated that these vintage 80’s pinball machines were made in a different world. Pinball was big business back then as pinball machines were placed on location all over the place.

Back then you would regularly see pinball machines in:

  • Restaurants
  • Laundromats
  • Drug stores & other retailers
  • Convenience stores
  • Nightclubs
  • Bars
  • Bowling alleys
  • Neighborhood recreation centers (yes these used to be common)
  • Shopping malls

The bigger designers such as Pat Lawlor typically had on average an entire year to concept, design, and build new pinball machines. That is an advantage for pinball machines of the past compared to many machines from the recent twenty years developed in a more rushed or cash constrained environment.

I would also venture to suggest that much of the tooling, craftsmanship, and materials were generally superior back in the 80’s as well.

Modern day has its own advantages that we understand, but so does the past.

What About Maintenance?

System 11 pinball machines once restored are mostly rock solid. In fact, personally I have had to fix or tweak issues more on newer Stern titles than any of my System 11 pinball machines.

System 11 pinballs are also less troublesome than most DMD pinball machines that came after being that the newer pinball machines were much more complicated.

The most troubled area in general on this era of pinball are the scoring displays. Replacing them with modern LED displays is very easy to do. After replacing the high voltage retro displays with modern low voltage LEDs a good amount of load off is reduced from the internal power supplies and infrastructure.

The Best System 11 Pinball Machines to Buy

Let’s look at the best System 11 pinball machines of all time. What should you look to buy?

Let’s do this in reverse order to make it more dramatic, shall we?

Games to Possibly Avoid

Pinball machines of this era are like pizza. Even when bad, they are still pretty good. But these System 11 pinballs are not the cream of the System 11 crop.

  • Big Guns
  • Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Ball
  • Game Show
  • Millionaire
  • Police Force
  • Pool Sharks
  • Riverboat Gambler
  • Road Kings

Middle of the Pack

These are all fun System 11 pinball machines and a few of these you could argue are actually pretty great games.

  • Bad Cats
  • Banzai Run
  • Black Knight 2000
  • Cyclone
  • Dr Dude
  • Fire!
  • Grand Lizard
  • Jokerz!
  • Mousin’ Around!
  • Rollergames
  • Swords of Fury
  • Transporter

Top Ten System 11 Pinball Machines of all Time

10) Earthshaker

Designed by Pat Lawlor, arguably the greatest pinball designer of this era. Earthshaker has an amazing playfield design, cool theme, great art (check out the backglass!) and it is just oozing in personality.

Earthshaker was the first game to feature a shaker motor. While this gimmick has been placed in many machines since, it is worth credit for the idea of doing this for the first time — and the shaker motor in this game possibly is the best overall use of such shaking action.

The ramp in the middle of the game is very easy to hit over and over again. That is the main flaw of the game keeping it from ranking higher. But it is still an awesome System 11 pinball.

9) Elvira and the Party Monsters

This was the very first Elvira pinball machine and to some it is still the best. This System 11 classic has great humor, crazy Dennis Nordman ramps, great Greg Freres artwork, and decades later is still a very entertaining (and collectable) pinball machine.

8) Radical!

Speaking of crazy ramps…wow just get a load of this playfield on this one! Outside of recent Stern games designed by Keith Elwin, few games in the past 20 years have displayed much creativity in terms of layout and shot design.

This pinball machine has that in spades.

7) Diner

Diner is very similar in terms of the overall design, rules, and concept of Taxi. While newer than Taxi, Diner does not quite stack up to Taxi in terms of overall fun or challenge. The flow of the layout and the shot geometry is not in the same league either.

That said, Diner is still a classic pinball machine.

6) F-14 Tomcat

This System 11 pinball machine was very popular and 14,502 were made. Most machines were played A TON. So decades later many F-14’s are kind of beat up, but if you can get a nicely preserved or restored copy you will be amazed at the ball speed and overall intensity of this pinball machine.

5) Space Station

An under-appreciated sequel to Space Shuttle. But the sad thing is other than the art, Space Station is superior in every way. Better gameplay, much more challenge, better technology, and much better music (features some of the best music of any pinball machine of the 80’s).

Space Station was the first pinball machine to have two colors of general illumination lighting.

4) Taxi

Mark Ritchie along with the late great creative genius Python Anghelo formed a great pinball team. Python came up with interesting concepts, themes, or gadget ideas while Mark managed the design, created fun layouts, and brought it all home.

Taxi is possibly their best creation and achieves what any great game should strive for — something that is immediately fun, easy to understand, but hard to master as picking up Gorby, Marilyn, Dracula, Pin*Bot, & Santa Claus before your ball drains is tough.

3) High Speed

Released January of 1986, High Speed was truly a giant leap of innovation in pinball. It is hard to explain how much of a sea change this was.

One way to make sense is to consider that this was Steve’s first new pinball design since Black Knight which was back in 1980. So Steve had over five years of ideas, concepts, and schemes working in his brain. I think maybe that is part of how this felt like such a giant leap.

The frenzy that this pinball machine brings with the fast looping shots, spinners, insane amount of flasher light bulbs, and the police beacon light on the top of the machine. It still thrills decades later.

It is crazy that the very first System 11 pinball machine ends up being one of the best ever.

2) Pin*Bot

I was just a young lad on a break in my Army med school snack bar when I saw Pin*Bot for the first time.

My mind was blown seeing that face shield open up after hitting each color and loading a ball in each eye socket to start multiball. Wow! Python Anghelo was an amazing artist and pinball was his canvas.

Just like High Speed, Pin*Bot also has crazy flasher lights and mor lights on top of the cabinet head as well. Williams put everything they had in these machines and you can still feel the passion, creativity, and engineering mastery today.

1) Whirlwind

I could have easily put High Speed or Pin*Bot here. I could have flipped a coin. But Whirlwind gets the nod simply based on having a little bit more.

Those other games had cool toppers that were lights. But Whirlwind has a FAN THAT BLOWS AIR ON YOU! What could beat that? You get multiball starting and the storm is coming and there goes the wind! It is just perfect and so over the top.

Speaking of over the top, while pinball had seen a spinning disk before in Fireball, Whirlwind has THREE spinning disks.

Add on top of it all a genius playfield design that with some of the better aspects of Earthshaker.

This machine also has:

  • SIX pop bumpers
  • Drop targets
  • Two different multiballs (and you can see balls as they are loading and getting ready)
  • Great rules and software (at least for the era)
  • Insanely great ball speed and flow

It is a complete experience and kick ass pinball machine in every which way.

There you have it. That is our guide to System 11 pinball machines.

If you have the crazy pinball prices blues or the DO I SERIOUSLY HAVE TO WAIT A YEAR FOR MY GODZILLA PREMIUM TO BE DELIVERED? blues — you should consider loading up on classic System 11 pinball machine for your gameroom today.

These classic pinballs were among the best ever made, are a much better value than modern pinball and are oozing overall creativity, passion, and build quality.

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