Date: September 2014
If asked to named countries with a rich pinball heritage, it's unlikely Hungary would be one of your first answers. But despite being part of the communist bloc throughout the '60s, '70s and '80s, pinball has long been a well-established form of entertainment across the country.
Indeed, by the '90s the number of machines being operated in arcades, bars and hotel in Hungary was between 20,000 and 30,000.
Due to its advantageous trading relationships with other socialist countries during the '60s and '70s, many of the machines were sourced from Spain and Italy. Manufacturers such as Recel, Zaccaria and Segasa found a ready market in Hungary, while US-made games also found their way into the country in the same way as they did into several of Hungary's neighbours - through ports in the former East Germany.
Hungary was truly a hotbed of pinball activity in eastern Europe well into the '90s.
However, changes to regulations, the rise of alternative forms of entertainment, and increased prices took their toll on pinball's popularity in Hungary, just as it did in the rest of the world. The game is now a much more seasonal product, operated at riverside and lakeside holiday resorts during the summer months, and in the capital, Budapest. Amusement arcades have all but died out, and the number of pinballs in operation has declined dramatically such that it is now estimated at just 300-400 machines.
But the flip-side of this decline has been the rise in the number of machines in private collectors' hands. Once virtually unheard of, there are now around 1,500 pinballs in private ownership in Hungary, and more than a tenth of these are in the collection which forms the Pbal Gallery in downtown Budapest.
Pbal Gallery is Hungary's homage to the silver ball. A hands-on museum with more than 130 machines on display and ready to play, from the earliest pre-flipper games right through to the very newest models, it is the work of Balázs Pálfi who purchased the 400m2 basement in which his collection is housed in August 2010.
In the three years which followed, a programme of renovation and construction took place, along with refurbishment of the machines which would eventually call Pbal Gallery their home. Working with Attila Vigh who is a lawyer, the permits necessary to run a museum were secured, and Pbal Gallery officially opened to the public in April 2014 with Attila as the manager.
The story of how the museum came to exist goes back to 2009 when, after a long wait to buy his first machine, Balázs was offered a container of fifty pinballs. He told Pinball News what happened next. "The initial plan was to sell the majority of the fifty games within six months, while keeping just four or five machines for my small personal collection. Unfortunately I was not an expert at pricing the pins properly, so I sold the better machines while the less popular ones remained in my possession. A few more swaps weakened the collection even more. I had no space for them, but I still owned 25 machines. So then came the idea that I should create a collection of some form, in order to make it available to others to play. I managed to restructure the collection over the next two years until I felt that I was able to create more than just a huge games room."
But both Balázs's and Attila's interest in pinball stretched much further back than 2009. Balázs told us, "I was about 5-6 years old when I first met pinball. It was love at first sight, and it has persisted to present day with only a small interruption. I also admired arcade machines, but if I had some coins and could choose between arcade and pin, there was no question which I was going to throw a few credits into."
Attila too was attracted by pinball as a child, although he wasn't a keen player of the game. Instead, it was the artwork which grabbed his attention. "The first pinball table I spotted - at the age of 11 - was a Space Station from Williams in a local arcade. The machine, the theme, somehow reminded me of Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey - even though I couldn't really understand Kubrick's work at such a young age - so I immediately fell in love with this fine piece of artwork. At the same time I encountered the beautiful Swords of Fury too, which was the first machine I bought for my collection as an adult. Strangely I didn't play on these machines back then, I only admired them and just stared at them a lot, I preferred arcade machines as a kid, but now definitely the opposite is true, although I've got some dedicated Midway arcade cabs, an Atari System 1, plus a Nintendo cabinet in my home collection at present."
Between acquiring his collection of 25 machines in 2009 and the opening of the museum this year, another 145 pinballs were added to bring the total up to 170, of which more than 130 are displayed. These were mostly sourced from Europe with around a fifth coming from Hungary, but more specialist titles came from further afield. In fact pinballs were purchased from around 17 different countries to complete the museum's current collection.
Of these, both Balázs and Attila have a special affinity for the oldest machines which were the more difficult to obtain, while Attila also has a eye on some of the more interesting modern titles too. Balázs said, "I'm most proud of the machines which came from the furthest source, for example the first Bally machine - Ballyhoo, 1932 - and the first pinball with flippers - Humpty Dumpty, 1947. I bought these from the US, but I'm also really proud that we can endear and show to our visitors locally-forgotten arcade machines such as Sega Basketball or Midway Shooting Gallery." Attila continued, "I'm clearly most proud of the oldest woodrail machines, but I also find the Alvin G. and Capcom pins very interesting. And there is a weird connection that binds me to Pin2k machines somehow, too."
To take on the role of a museum rather than merely being an extended game room, informational cards are displayed on top of every machine, and the collection is arranged thematically to showcase specific elements and advancements in the game through the years.
Attila says the information cards encourage visitors to learn more about their favourite games and ask questions about the different designs. "Our future plan is to add to the pinball memorabilia already hanging on our walls by making an extra wall decorated with photos of movie/pop stars and writers who are connected to pinball in some way, such as Umberto Eco & Haruki Murakami."
But there are other ways guests can discover pinball's rich history, as Balázs explained. "In addition to information cards and displays, we put an emphasis on guided tours. Visitors are really pleased to take advantage of this opportunity, and we are always convinced of their further interest by the questions which follow the 25-minute tour."
As well as individuals, the museum also plays host to school trips, tour groups and company parties. Attila feels the relaxed and family-orientated atmosphere ensures everyone can have an enjoyable time and be a part of pinball's global resurgence.
He told us, "Nowadays pinball is flourishing for the umpteenth time. Stern's AC/DC (produced since 2012) has been the most successful machine in terms of sales numbers in the last 20 years. More than 17,000 people took part in pinball tournaments worldwide in the past 3 years. There are increasingly numbers of pinball-themed clubs and game rooms created. Five pinball sports associations were established in Austria last year, and the average age of pinball players has decreased by 4 years in the United States in one year which means that a new generation has been conquered by pinball too. Pinball to the young generation doesn't only mean the retro feel understood by their parents. Today's youngsters experience similar enjoyment to the joy their parents lived through 20-40 years ago."
No matter how attractive the machines on display and however much enthusiasm the staff can instil their guests, any museum has to have a stable financial basis and a plan for funding into the future. Balázs explained how the Pbal Gallery is a non-profit operation which he expects to make a loss during the first couple of years, but he hopes it will at least break even after that. He told us, "if any gains arose, I'd surely reinvest them into the project, as this is the only way to continue to stay an interesting spot of colour in the palette."
The museum is funded by visitors who pay according to the amount of time they spend there, starting at 500 Hungarian Forints (HUF) and increasing by HUF200 every 15 minutes, up to a maximum cost per day of HUF2,500. Those large numbers sound a lot, but the maximum daily charge equates to roughly €8, $10, or £6, so visitors get good value for money.
Because the Pbal Gallery is classified as a museum, there is a 15-year moratorium on disposal of the exhibits which limits how quickly they can rotate games, but they have plans to introduce several more interesting machines currently being worked upon in the workshop.
They are also holding the Hungarian Pinball Open tournament on November 7th-9th as part of the IFPA European Pinball Championship Series. They will open up an additional 85m2 of extra pinballs for this event, and the museum plans to push back their closing time until 2am on the Saturday.
Pbal Gallery's normal opening hours are 4pm to midnight five days a week, from Wednesday to Sunday. You can find them at Radnóti Miklós utca 18, Budapest 1137, and find out more information about the museum and their exhibits at their website pbalgallery.hu/en.
© Pinball News 2014