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January 11, 2013

Slate: Can this man save pinball?

(Continued)

LAKEWOOD, N.J. —

Guarnieri likes his early returns. The games, he claims, have been attracting the rarest breed of pinball player: the human female. And between Dec. 28 and Jan. 3, the Wizard of Oz machine at iPlay America earned $347 — a fraction of what the iPad-dispensing skill cranes brought in but a better haul than video games like Big Buck World and Guitar Hero. (For a $7,000 machine to pay for itself in a year, an operator has to earn $135 a week after splitting the game's proceeds with the location owner.) As of now, just 100 of the 1,500 Wizard of Oz games he's sold are destined for retail establishments rather than private homes. But Guarnieri believes if he can deliver this kind of return consistently, there's a "real place again for pinball machines on commercial locations," perhaps even at pinball-averse mega-chains like Chuck E. Cheese's and Dave & Buster's.

Right now, at the moment when his games must prove their worth in the marketplace, Guarnieri is in the same spot where Pinball 2000's creators found themselves 13 years ago. In the end, 3-D pinball was probably too gimmicky to become a go-to American amusement. But Pinball 2000 didn't fail as quickly as it did because those holographic aliens couldn't attract attention — it was because the money men lost faith in the project.

That won't happen with Jersey Jack Pinball. When I step up to play the Wizard of Oz at Guarnieri's factory, he stands watch at the side of the machine. Since this isn't a finished game, there's no protective glass covering the machine. As I miss shot after shot, Guarnieri loses patience and grabs the ball, rolling over various parts of the playfield so I can listen to the speech calls. ("I don't like this forest, it's dark and creepy," says Dorothy, alarmed.) Finally, the ruby-slipper flipper hits the ball just right. "Oh, look, the monkey just took your ball!" Guarnieri says, as if it's the first time the primate has ever done such a thing. As soon as the silver ball rolls free, I'll be off to melt the witch, save Toto, and maybe, if I'm lucky, meet this wonderful wizard that I keep hearing so much about.

Levin, Slate's executive editor, writes about sports.

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