Follow The Silver Ball: A Neighborhood Pinball Primer

Pinball! For some, it's worse than a public nuisance. For others, it's a place to stash your jacket in a crowded bar. And for a growing number of us, it’s the reason you’re there. A quietly beloved American past-time, the game is enjoyed by the geekiest of gamers, lone bar-hoppers and cool kids alike. Today, machines are popping up all over San Francisco. Here's a closer look at some of the top machines in your neighborhood. 

But first, a little history, because it's only in the last few months that some of these games have become legal here.

Once a game of luck—a launched ball randomly bounced off of “pins,” pulled by gravity to its inevitable end—pinball became closely associated with gambling, vice and organized crime by the 1930s. Thousands of cities across the country banned it because of the sinister associations.  

The introduction of flippers in the 1940s expanded the audience by providing an active, skill-based role for the player, but that hasn't stopped the controversy. San Francisco has for decades required permits for arcades. As Hoodline covered recently, an anti-arcade movement that had roots in the 1960s succeeded in banning pinball along with video arcades from neighborhood areas in 1982 (specifically Upper Haight). 

The situation has only changed in the last few months, with the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors altering an ordinance and a police code to allow the machines back. One reason the issue came up? A well-known Upper Haight parlor, Free Gold Watch, had run up against some neighbors trying to use the old regulations to go after it.  

So with that history lesson out of the way, here’s where you can find the fun and machines in some nearby neighborhoods. (Have your own favorites? Tell us in the comments.) 

Upper Haight

The Upper Haight hosts a few different varieties of venues for the game. Amid the high-end shoes of Doc Marten’s you can find the 1975 classic “Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy.” It doesn’t take long to realize this gorgeous game is homage to Elton John. As you’d expect from a 40-year-old game, it’s slow and can be out of order. 

Nearby in Cole Valley, neighborhood favorite Finnegan’s Wake currently offers Demolition Man and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Pro tip: When playing Demolition Man, use the “gun grips” instead of the traditional flipper buttons to score more points. 

The aforementioned mecca of SF pinball is also located in the Upper Haight. Free Gold Watch has 34 pinball machines and additional classic arcade games. Home base for the self-proclaimed San Francisco Pinball Department, this print shop and game room is open most days from 10am to 7pm. Family-friendly, FGW is a gem that is worth the trip, whether you're nearby or making a special venture (and with the new rules, you won't be breaking any city ordinances). 

Lower Haight 

The pinball of Lower Haight can all be found on the same side of the street between Fillmore & Steiner. Local clothing store and art gallery DSF* has two '80s machines near the front: Firepower and Police Force. The latter is a machine that features jungle animals dressed as cops and robbers. Suspend your disbelief and go with it. 

The go-to spot for pinball in the Lower Haight is neighborhood dive bar Molotov’s. Two machines are perched at the front of this dog-friendly spot. Both current offerings, Theatre of Magic and South Park, are great for pros and beginners alike. Aim to get the Mr. Hankey multiball on South Park and you won’t be disappointed 

The Castro 

Touted as San Francisco’s first gay sports bar, it’s not surprising to find pinball at the Pilsner Inn. Though the machines rotate (as they do most places), this bar always has three to play. Current offerings include Avatar, Indianapolis 500 and World Cup Soccer, a player’s favorite. 

 A short trip up Market Street and you’ll find Lucky 13. Heralded for its draft beer selection, outdoor patio, cheap drinks, free popcorn and goldfish, this classic dive bar also has two pinball machines tucked away upstairs. In addition to The Addams Family and Attack from Mars, you’ll enjoy great people watching from above. With $3 draft beers at happy hour, Lucky 13 is almost too good to write about. 

At the other corner of the Castro, you’ll find Moby Dick, a Castro staple that prides itself in welcoming devout regulars and newcomers equally. The friendly atmosphere is what we noticed first when visiting the spot, along with the tasteful whale theme, salt-water fish tank above the bar and three well-maintained pinball games in the back: The Champion Pub, The Lost World Jurassic Park and Theatre of Magic. 

 The final pinball spot on this tour is 440 Castro, a super friendly bear bar located across from the Castro Theater in the heart of the Castro. 440 recently got a Congo pinball machine. Based on the unforgettable 1990s movie, this game is a jaunt through the jungle in search of diamonds. 

How To Play 

Want to up your pinball game from pure chance to (some degree of) skill? Start with these tips.

Keep the ball alive
Focus on keeping the ball from draining with flippers. Don’t worry about where you are shooting the ball, just play for as long as you can. Note: machines are tuned to take a small nudge during play, but if you’re too aggressive you can “tilt” and lose your turn. 

Check out skill shots
Every machine has specified skill shots which can score points, earn bonuses and even get you closer to multiball. You’ll usually find instructions for skill shots, multiball and other ways to garner points under the glass on the bottom left of the machine. 

Multiball, specials and modes
Once you get the hang of aiming (think about flippers, timing and angles, like how you’d use a tennis racket) go for multiball; the pure thrill of playing with several balls at once. This is where the points live on many games ... which can lead to replay. There are also various modes and specials you can activate if you shoot the right places. When in doubt, shoot for the flashing arrow and lights. 

Nearly every game you’ll encounter has a “replay” score which entitles those who meet or surpass it to a free game. When you achieve this goal, the machine will usually emit a satisfying “knock” or “pop”, which lets pinballers within earshot hear of your mastery. 

In addition to reading the abbreviated instructions under the glass, there is plenty of information about particular pinball machines online. Sites like the Internet Pinball Machine Database and Pinside provide more info which can make the difference between a good and great game. 

Pinball machines are often swapped out, as these vintage creatures need repair, but this handy map helps avid pinballers in the Bay Area stay on top of what’s where (did we mention that Oakland has also just done away with its old bans?) . Stay tuned as the game continues to evolve and thrive. 

Legalized It

One more thing. To celebrate the new pro-pinball rules, District 5 supervisor London Breed will be hosting a victory party at Free Gold Watch on Thursday, December 11th Wednesday December 10th from 6:30 to 8:30pm. From her newsletter:

"After three different pieces of arcade legislation (one buying us some time, one overhauling the Police Code, and one changing the Planning Code for the Haight), we have finally—and thoroughly—made San Francisco safe for Pac-Man. The outdated arcade bureaucracy is gone. Please join me to celebrate this victory for small businesses and pinball fans of all ages."

*DSF is a Hoodline advertiser. 

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