A Century of Pinball - No Replay
February 19, 2012 5:18 PM   Subscribe

In the 1930s in Chicago, it started pouring heavily, and ex-forestry ranger Steve Kordek ran into a building to get out of the rain. The company was Genco, and Steve was hired to work there at 26, which began a long, long career in pinball. Designer of over 100 games, he worked at Genco, Bally and finally Williams, retiring along with Williams' exit from Pinball with the ignoble shutdown of the Pinball 2000 project, a story told in the documentary Tilt (which has extensive interviews with Kordek). Here's a video of Steve in 1994. This week, Steve Kordek passed on, having celebrated his 100th birthday last month. Here's video of his 100th birthday party, with heartfelt tributes from friends and colleagues, and a few words from Steve himself.
posted by jscott (23 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
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posted by Faint of Butt at 5:19 PM on February 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

One last little comment: You know those two flippers at the bottom of every pinball game?

Steve's idea.

posted by jscott at 5:21 PM on February 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

posted by theplotchickens at 5:21 PM on February 19, 2012

Awwww. I know pinball was a dying industry, but this makes that all far too literal.

Thanks for helping me spend oh-so-many quarters across the years, Steve.

posted by hippybear at 5:28 PM on February 19, 2012

posted by gemmy at 5:37 PM on February 19, 2012

Man, I'm really sorry I missed the era where you could meet some fat guy in a suit with a cigar and he might say, "I like the looka you, son! Come design pinball machines for me!"

posted by cmoj at 6:38 PM on February 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

Steve was an amazing guy. He still worked daily at the Williams plant well into his 90s and even after the shutdown of the pinball division.

How many of you can walk down the hall and talk to someone that's been in your line of work for seven decades?
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:12 PM on February 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

I guess he got the high score.
posted by JHarris at 7:28 PM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I just recently completed a kluged together Virtual Pinball rig, so I've really been getting into Pinball & its history lately. Steve Kordek has indeed got an impressive resume. Here's a listing of the machines he's designed over the years.
posted by ShutterBun at 8:27 PM on February 19, 2012

Steve Kordek was also part of the documentary Special When Lit, which is another great pinball documentary along with Tilt.
posted by hippybear at 8:39 PM on February 19, 2012

One last little comment: You know those two flippers at the bottom of every pinball game?

Steve's idea.


Erm, kinda sorta. The flippers were already there, but budget constraints forced him to limit it to two, which proved to be a hit.
posted by ShutterBun at 8:40 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

He was the first to put them on the bottom and keep them as the dominant core gameplay, which they've been ever since.
posted by jscott at 8:46 PM on February 19, 2012

Yes, there was a time when flippers were everywhere. The iconic pair at the bottom of the table is a relatively new thing.

I notice on the ipmdb list of games designed by Kordek that he slowed down in the mid 70s. He has three games designed in 1977, 1 in 1978, then one off in 1983, and a last one in 2003 after Williams shut down for "Chicago Pinball," a game called Rat Race.

Most of my favorite tables come from the 90s, some time after he stopped designing, but there's no denying those later tables I love built off a solid foundation laid out by many people like Steve Kordek.
posted by JHarris at 9:54 PM on February 19, 2012

posted by me3dia at 10:38 PM on February 19, 2012

Pinball isn't completely dying. Plenty of us still love it, and there are exciting new arcades opening up even now.

Plus, you have gems like the Williams Pinball Hall of Fame and Pinball Arcade on modern gaming consoles, as well as PC software like Virtual Pinball.

Thanks for this post.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 12:34 AM on February 20, 2012

Cool. My grandfather worked his way through art school as a pinball mechanic. Then he had a career designing car interiors at GM.
posted by Goofyy at 3:30 AM on February 20, 2012

posted by Lutoslawski at 7:42 AM on February 20, 2012

I'm a latecomer to the love of pinball - there were never many machines around in my home town as a kid, and the few near-ish arcades were busy committing suicide-by-shitty-unplayable-1990s-video-game. That said, there's a great little pinball place near where I live now, and I run into a lot of people my age or younger who actively play. Some of them are the kind of people I can pretty easily imagine building a pinball machine from scratch. I suspect the game has a future, at least until the singularity hits and we disassemble all the machines to make computronium for our uploaded brains or whatever.

posted by brennen at 4:17 PM on February 20, 2012

'Probably mentioned before, but the internet pinball database has plenty of searchable info on genco, williams, et al.

Mr. Kordek was highly esteemed by analogally everyone at the Chicago Pinball Expo.
posted by onesidys at 8:03 PM on February 20, 2012

Williams Pinball Hall of Fame is overrated. The table software is not recreated with the best accuracy. Visual PinMAME is a better way to play, but even then any computer recreation of pinball is going to lack the essential physicality of the real thing.
posted by JHarris at 3:11 AM on February 21, 2012

They're getting better. A decent Visual Pinball cabinet with a well designed table behaves very realistically, although sometimes a bit of imagination is required for things like clear plastic habitrails, etc. On an HD monitor with a high enough frame rate, the effect is remarkably lifelike.

Of course, what's more difficult to reproduce is the tactile feel of it all. High end Visual Pinball cabinets can include solenoids to mechanically "click" when flippers or jet bumpers are activated, and even things like tilt and nudge sensors can be employed.

The other cool thing about it is that it's all open source and fan-driven. There are some extremely talented and generous individuals out there!
posted by ShutterBun at 4:02 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just watched "Special When Lit," which could be considered sort of a companion piece to "King of Kong," but man, was it depressing. The whole thing was mostly peoples impressions and memories of pinball as a way of life, and how sad it is now that it's gone. Very few specific people mentioned ( a few current champs are momentarily highlighted, and Kordek gets in a few soundbites) but it had no end, even one of "anticipated hope for the future." Just: everyone's closed now, pinball is unknown except to a few VERY eccentric people we've shown you, and aint that a shame.

Great idea for a documentary, and they seemed to have plenty of access to the right people, but they seemed intent on delivering a message of "pinball is dead" from the get-go, and anyone pretending otherwise (during the film) was to be disbelieved and/or gawked at.
posted by ShutterBun at 12:43 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

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