I’ve put together a list of the best Stern pinball machines. Stern has been the leading manufacturer of the best pinball machines for the past 20 years, ever since Williams shut down their pinball division and left pinball enthusiasts high and dry. While initially some of their games were not the best received, the past 10 years they’ve really cranked out some amazing games. I’m going to go through and list the best Stern pinball machines I’ve played, and probably mention some that I didn’t care for as well. I’ll try and keep this list updated as new pinball machines come out.
Best Stern Pinball Machines 2010 to 2022
2010 is the place where you can draw the line and say this is where Stern started to turn it around, after almost going out of business in 2009. This basically involved them picking better themes, moving to the limited/premium/pro models, and the adoption of more modern technology.
Avengers Infinity Quest was my latest new in the box purchase. While I wish it was based on the movies, the comic book representation wasn’t too bad and allowed some creative freedom on some things. The game centers around trying to collect the 6 gems to defeat Thanos. It’s a pretty difficult game overall, but the chief difficulty in my opinion is that the modes don’t have enough voice instruction to tell you what your objective is. The playfield is very nice to shoot, another Keith Elwin fun game.
Another Keith Elwin, the 4th on this list. Basically, every game he does has been awesome so far. Jurassic Park was his second game after Iron Maiden. The game has a lot of interesting shots, probably more than his other three games in my opinion. I really like shooting the game, the rules aren’t entirely clear for a new player though. Everyone that ones one though raves about how much they like it.
This is based upon Comic Book Deadpool and not the movie Deadpool unfortunately. So because of that you get some advantages and disadvantages. I’d say the main disadvantage is that the callouts aren’t being done by Ryan Reynolds, so the audio just isn’t the same.
The game itself is really fun, with a katana that you can lock balls on, and some interesting modes battles. I don’t like it as much as some games on this list, but there are some people that swear by it. I’d like to own one someday to see what it’s like in home use.
This based upon the original trilogy movies luckily and doesn’t include any of the latest movies nor the prequels. I think they did a good job with the movie scenes and modes, but the colored arrows are really confusing at times…I have a hard time figuring out where to actually shoot when shots are all flashing different colors.
The Star Wars pro and the premium are both kind of barren compared to other games of this era, I think a lot of the money went into the license. Plays very fast with a lot of combos. Steve Ritchie, the guy behind Star Trek, AC/DC, and loads of other games was the designer on this one.
Before I bought the game, I never cared for Iron Maiden music. In fact, I wasn’t even initially interested in the game at all. But after playing it, I had to have it. Keith Elwin designed the game, the best pinball player in the world turned designer, and it shows. Every game he’s made has basically been amazing so far. The playfield is very fast and features lots of combos, and has great callouts. The modes are well designed and interesting, and honestly I kind of like their music now.
This is the game that really started the turnaround in my opinion. Initially upon release it was panned for being barren and not very deep rules wise, but gradually people came around to the fact that it was just a different type of game than had been produced for the past 10 years. Instead of being long playing with a deep ruleset, it was very hard with short ball times and a shallow ruleset. Once people understood this, it went from an undesired game to one of their hottest titles. I love the game, I actually bought one new and owned it for a long time.
Tron was game that started the Limited Edition (LE) craze. Instead of just producing one model, Stern started producing LE models with extra stuff on them. In this case, they made ramps with color changing fiber optics that were kind of amazing. This caused Tron LE to become one of the hottest games in the collector market, even to this day. Realistically there isn’t much of a difference between the pro and LE model outside of some cosmetics, they’re both really good games. Tron is like Iron Man, a short and quick type of game. It’s probably the last great game of that style before they switched back to the longer/deeper style of game that they’ve continued till today.
Walking Dead is another one of those games that started out slowly due to disappointment with the theme integration and the code. There isn’t much integration from the show in the game, and that disappointed a lot of people, and initially the rules weren’t complete on release. Eventually though the rules got completed and the game became a masterpiece. It’s more a generic zombie game than a Walking Dead game in my opinion. Very fun though, kind of gross to look at, lol.
One of the most hyped games in recent memory due to it being another Keith Elwin game and the fandom around Godzilla. The games shots and rules are excellent, and if you like old school Godzilla movies this will be right up your alley. I’m not a huge fan of the old movies so the theme is one of the weaker ones for me personally, but the game is fun to play, and would be a great game to have at home. The main thing I like is that they brought the 70’s rock song Godzilla into the game for multiball, I felt like that was a pretty cool addition.
Initially, this was probably one of the most unfinished games Stern ever released. Unfortunately, the hype was some of the highest at the time. The code was barely functioning when came off the line, leading to people dumping their LE’s right away. Initially when I played it, I thought it was terrible as well. But eventually they got the rules fixed, and then it became amazing. Some of the voices are, well, not great, but the modes and playfield are awesome. I owned an X-Men pro for quite a while, still one of my favorites. It has two different wizard modes, one for completing the heroes (Danger Room), and one for completing the villains (Dark Phoenix). I think initially there was going to be a third overall wizard mode for completing both but they scrapped that.
This is the game that blew the hobby up to new levels. Instead of just pro and LE models, they also made premium models, which were essentially the same as LE’s with different cosmetics. All the LE’s sold out immediately, and the game became a runaway success. I believe at the time it was Stern’s best selling game ever and may still be, but since they don’t release sales it’s hard to know other than from rumor’s.
The goal of the game is to play the 12 song modes and reach the Encore wizard mode. This is very difficult to do because of the games high speed, in fact despite owning the game for 10+ years I’ve never made it there. The scoring on the game is different than most games as well as it has a high risk reward factor. Instead of shooting shots for jackpots, you essentially hit song shots to add onto the song jackpot total, which is collected via the cannon. When you drain your ball though the jackpot goes back to zero, making it a high risk reward thing. The premium is a lot more desired than the pro on this game due to the swinging bell, the drop targets, the color changing inserts, and the lower playfield.
Metallica was next music pin after AC/DC, and was a big success. All the models are equally fun, in fact some prefer the pro over the premium/LE due to the fact that the hammer blocks the view on the upper part of the playfield and honestly doesn’t work that well as a lock either. I really like the game overall other than it can become a little wood choppy at times (meaning you have to hit the same shots over and over). I’d definitely buy one if it became available in my area.
Best Stern Pinball Machines 2000 to 2009
This next section details some of their early games, which is a much smaller list unfortunately. While they made some good games during this time, the majority of them suffered from either bad theme, bad rules, or bad playfield. Like Indiana Jones was a great theme, but the playfield and the rules were too repetitive for home use unfortunately. Batman had an amazing toy crane but had very uneven rules and honestly the crane didn’t even make much sense. There were some gems though, here they are below.
Lord of the Rings
Probably my favorite game of this era, it’s either this or Simpsons Pinball Party. I give the slight edge to the Lord of the Rings themed pinball machine just because it’s a more intense game and I love the theme. Keith Johnson programmed it and did a fantastic job. The main goal of the game is to play the 6 modes to get to There And Back Again, and each of the movie multiballs to get to Destroy the Ring. The theme integration is amazing, with Gimli providing some awesome custom speech jackpot callouts.
The Simpsons Pinball Party
A complete masterpiece of a game, still one of my favorites. This game had a great ruleset, a great playfield, and all kinds of custom callouts that made the theme integration fantastic. Keith Johnson also programmed it and did an amazing job. The basic premise is that you have to complete the various modes around the town like the Monorail mode to get to Alien Invasion, a very funny wizard mode. There are actually a ton of different wizard modes in the game, like there’s even a wizard mode for collecting all 27 Cletus children, lol. Highly recommended game if you can get your hands on it.
This is probably the first game Stern produced where it actually felt on par physically with a Williams game. Before this their Whitestar board system kind of left the slings underpowered and the flippers would overheat, leading to gameplay not on par with some of the best Williams games. With the new SAM board system, Spiderman was the first game in my opinion to integrate the theme, rules, and playfield in a magical way. It was actually pretty slow out of the gate, the rules were unfinished and the game got dinged as a result. Lyman Sheets though worked on the programming on his own time and gradually turned the game into a masterpiece. It’s very similar to a game from 10 years earlier from Williams, Attack From Mars.
Pirates of the Caribbean
From a toy standpoint, the pirate ship is probably the best toy Stern produced during this time. And the theme is one of the best of the games of this era. The rules though aren’t that great on this game, they’re pretty repetitive. Basically, the issue is that you have to hit the ship and chest way too many times in relation to everything else to get to the wizard mode. The game is still fun, but not to the level of Simpsons, Spiderman, or Lord of the Rings.
Best Stern Pinball for you?
What’s the best Stern pinball machine for you? First you have to ask yourself, are you into shallower rulesets like Medieval Madness by Brian Eddy or Twilight Zone? Or are you a pinball wizard where you want the deepest ruleset possible like World Poker Tour? Gary Stern has made games for almost everyone, from a universal theme like Monopoly to very niche themes like Rush. While they haven’t made the best selling pinball machine of all time (Addams Family by Pat Lawlor), they have made games that have sold thousands. Before they became Stern Pinball, they were actually Sega pinball, and before that Data East Pinball. In those day, they made great games such as Starship Troopers, Last Action Hero, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Jersey Jack Pinball actually forced Stern to up their game when they came out, which is also a major factor in my division of machines above. They popularized the limited edition model, which Stern copied and then came out with the additional premium and pro editions. Video games have actually been a big boost as well I believe, with digital pinball games increasing demand for the real thing.
I recommend first picking out the theme that you like best, and then picking out the model you can afford. Typically the more popular themes are more expensive, so you may not be able to afford the LE models of like Tron. Then use the ruleset as the tiebreaker if there are multiple themes that would work.