Why I Bailed on Stern Pinball

No More Stern Pinball

In the past few years I have sold all of my Stern Pinball machines from my game room collection. I sold a Stern AC/DC Premium, Aerosmith Pro, and Walking Dead Premium leaving nothing but games from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s in the collection.

In this article I will explain why.

I purchase pinball machines that I enjoy (our course), but for a pinball machine to last long-term it has to be great and somewhat “collectable.”

In fact most pinball machines never make it through to my game room. Often, I restore a pinball game, play it a ton in the garage and learn it is not good enough.

When your game room is up three hefty sets of stairs like mine, you choose carefully. I don’t haul up any pinball without expecting to keep it for several years at least — and some of the pinballs in my game room I have had for over twenty years.

What Makes a Collectable Pinball Machine?

The word collectable means different things to different people…

To me a collectable pinball machine has to check off these boxes:

  1. Has to a be a great pinball machine from a gameplay standpoint.
  2. Has to be a theme I like (or at least don’t dislike). I think of fun pinball machines like Indianapolis 500 or No Good Gofers that did not last long for me with race cars & golf not being my thing.
  3. Pinballs with nice art are much more likely to last in my collection. Who wants to be stuck looking at something ugly every day? If it is ugly, the gameplay better be awesome.
  4. A collectable game should be getting rarer as time goes by. With no more being made — you have to wonder how hard it will be getting back if you sell. Or will you even be able to afford it later? I should have kept that damn Safe Cracker!
  5. Also much like real estate, I want to own in a neighborhood where the values are steadily rising. The same goes in pinball. If your machines are appreciating more than inflation, they are better than cash and obviously more fun. Even if you are lucky with the state lotteries, why not be smart about your money? Pinball machines are not exactly cheap, especially when you own ten or more of them.

Appreciating Pinball Machines vs Depreciating

When you can find pinball machines that are appreciating, why buy depreciating ones?

While there are Stern Pinball machines like Tron that have appreciated over the years (thanks to Stern not re-releasing the game), most new pinball machines from Stern or Jersey Jack will lose value after purchasing new.

What has been the appreciation of 80’s and 90’s pinball machines in the past ten years?

Some rough estimates below of games I own or are pursuing:

  • Twilight Zone = 3x increase
  • White Water = 2x increase
  • Creature from the Black Lagoon = 3x increase
  • Fathom = 3x increase
  • Centaur = 3x increase
  • Quicksilver = 4x increase

Let’s look at the values of the Stern games I decided to get rid of recently:

  • AC/DC Premium = cost new $6500, current market for used stock game = $5500
  • The Walking Dead Premium = cost new $6600, current market for used stock game = $5600
  • Aerosmith Pro = cost new $5300, current market for used stock game = $4000

This may look like what you expected, but not long ago buying popular new Stern pinball machines was closer to money in the bank.

iron-man-pinball

The Birth & Death of Collectable Stern Pinball Machines

Ten years ago I came close to buying an Iron Man. I was looking for a new pinball machine and Stern put out a game that played fast and challenging (somewhat of a rarity at the time.)

The art on Iron Man was decent and really nice in contrast to other Stern pinballs of that time period (24, CSI, and Wheel of Fortune are all so ugly).

But I still passed on buying a new Iron Man and figured I would get one used for around $3,000 in a few years.

Well that $3000 Iron Man day never came. They stopped making Iron Man machines by the time the game caught on. Before you knew it, Iron Man was selling for $1000 or more above its price when new.

That stoked heavy FOMO in me (fear of missing out) and woke me up to the fact that newly released Stern pinball machines can be collectable if the game becomes popular. Supply and demand rules after all.

The next year Tron Legacy came out and Stern produced only 400 units a special Limited Edition. The Limited version had unique lighting features and even a special multiball mode not found on the regular Tron version.

Once again, these games shot up in value. Something had changed in the pinball market and we realized that newer games could also become hot collectables.

Once Stern put out a pinball based one of my favorite old rock bands, I jumped off the fence. So I bought a new AC/DC Premium.

I felt like a genius as within a few years my AC/DC was worth a good bit more than what I paid for it.

You can buy a new game, play the hell out of it and still sell it for a profit? Sign me up for that every day of the week!

Then I pursued another killer game with a theme I liked — The Walking Dead Premium. And another rock band themed one with amazing art and fun game play in Aerosmith.

I was fully on the Stern bandwagon after years of feeling kind of meh about Stern’s overall quality of pinball machines.

Jumping off the Stern Bandwagon

The collectable nature of recent Stern pinball machines has sadly died by Stern’s own hand.

Even though Stern knows the large majority of the pinball market are home collectors, they display little empathy toward pinball collectors.

Stern started making new versions of old games.

First Stern produced a “Vault Edition” of Iron Man and owners of the game instantly saw their $5,000 or even $6000 Iron Man pinball machines instantly crash in value.

That was OK, my AC/DC was still worth about $1500 or so more than I paid for it. But wait for it…

Stern got me too. They released the dreaded Vault Edition of AC/DC Premium. This instantly wiped out any potential gains while also making selling it harder.

Thanks Stern!

The AC/DC Luci Edition owners might have giggled that they still had a rare and desirable version of AC/DC, but then Stern went ahead and eventually launched a Luci Vault Edition.

AC/DC Premium Pinball

No Stern Pinball Machine is Safe from the Vault Effect

Stern clearly will re-launch any popular pinball machine they can. About the only one they have not re-released is Tron.

Believe me, if Stern can put out a version of Tron they will someday. They also could put out a new version with better artwork making your old version not only worth less but harder to sell.

This feels like a war on collectors. Which is somewhat unusual for a company that sells collectables.

This is the main reason I sold all of my Stern pinball machines and why I have stopped considering buying new ones. But that is not the only reason.

Stern Pinball Machines Build Quality Should be Better

My Stern machines also were more trouble to maintain and just built weaker than the rest of my collection (games from the 70’s – 90’s).

While one would expect that new pinball machines take years to develop problems, I had issues out of the box with my machines. Here is a quick rundown of some of the issues:

AC/DC Premium

  1. Wacky drop target switch that would rapidly jump up and down.
  2. Flasher socket that never worked.

The Walking Dead Premium

  1. Curling head decals that had to be replaced.
  2. RGB lighting system would frequently go completely bonkers.
  3. The playfield was covered in dimples looking like an orange peel.

Aerosmith

  1. More dimpling nastiness. The playfield was quickly starting to look like crap.

In comparison my games from the 80’s and 90’s (once restored) typically just need cleaning, new bulbs, or new rubbers once in a while.

Aerosmith Dimples

Sweet Dimples

The Great Pinball Dimpling Controversy

The hubbub about pinball machine “dimples” in online forums has led to some colorful debates.

I understand that many people on Pinside and other pinball forums often are newer to the hobby. They may not have experienced new pinball machines back in the 80’s or 90’s.

The common rallying cry is:

“But all playfields dimple. It’s a steel ball hitting wood, you dummy.”

Sorry that is the wrong take. This dimpling issue is new and was not normal with older pinball machines.

I witnessed brand new Williams, Bally, & Data East games back in the early 80’s and 90’s. I have never seen anything like this until recently. Earlier Stern machines from this century did not dimple either. I don’t recall dimpling with my Lord of the Rings or Ripley’s Believe it or Not machines.

Some changes in clearcoating methods or the quality of the wood clearly has changed. It is not acceptable to me that $7500 dollar pinball machines now damage so easily.

Note: recent Jersey Jack pinball machines are suffering from dimpling and other playfield quality issues also, this is not just a Stern issue.

In Conclusion

I won’t be looking to buy more new machines from Stern any time soon, even though I am intrigued by Stranger Things (the one at The Pinball Palace already is heavily dimpled).

The machines are built poorly, are too expensive for what you get, and they are rapidly losing value (or will once Stern vaults your game). Yet they keep getting more expensive.

Why buy new when 90’s Bally/Williams often come at half the price, with often better gameplay, more inventive design, superior build quality, and are holding their value better?

Personally I am focusing more on 80’s games as they feel like the best bargains right now and likely will appreciate in value. Many of the hot games from the 80’s are getting nearly impossible to find in any condition.

It is not all bad news for the Stern family though, the classic Stern pinball machines from the 80’s are a great value and many are rapidly appreciating. So if you want to get something for the home arcade with the name Stern on it, go classic Stern for now. That is your best bet (my advice — get a Meteor for starters).