Stern Pinball has quite the history. First formed when the Stern family bought Chicago Coin in 1977, they eventually got rocked by the north american video game crash. They were then purchased by Data East and became Data East Pinball, which were then sold to Sega... which were then bought by Gary Stern, remaking them into Stern Pinball co.
Confusing? Not really, as Gary Stern has been part of the story since the beginning.
Still, we are here to talk about the ‘90s tables, and talk about them we shall. In the ‘90s, Data East was, unsurprisingly, the second largest manufacturer - When you consider that two of them were under the same roof (Bally/Williams) and one was in dire straits at the time (Gottlieb), it doesn’t come as a surprise. One of the things you learn going through the back catalogue of Stern titles is that during the heyday of Data East Pinball, they loved themselves some licenses. Thanks to that, there are a lot of tables we cannot actually access (yet) in Pinball Arcade, though Farsight having signed a deal with Stern to bring over some tables, we’ll see if this still holds.
Data East often made pinball tables that were big on licenses and short on originality and none exemplify that more than Phantom of the Opera. Two bumpers, two flippers, Multiball (named 2-3 ball play), and spelling out Phantom for max points. I know I repeat myself often when it comes to these types of tables but there really isn’t anything much to say about this table. It works, it’s relatively easy to navigate, and a lot of the shots are feasible for beginner pinball players. It’s a good table to start with if you haven’t done much pinball, though the ramp that triggers Multiball can be an issue to navigate.
Last Action Hero is a fun table based off the Arnold Schwarzanegger movie of the same name and while I wouldn’t call it my favorite table ever, it’s still quite enjoyable even through the silly stuff. The Ripper kickback is a bit too fast in my opinion, about as fast as F-100 Tomcat’s Yakov Launcher which at least had the advantage of a wide open playfield for the player to react. In this case, it’s going to bump off your flipper before you have the chance to do much of anything. Last Action Hero features arguably the silliest Multiball ever with M-Ball which is 6 ball Multiball. In my opinion, it’s impossible to even keep track of anything you’re doing with 4 ball, imagine with 6. There’s other sorts of Multiball (fortunately) on the table, but that one is the most memorable and the craziest. Still, as crazy as it is, it’s... kind of disappointing as the mechanical part (the crane) activates fairly rarely, and there’s no real point to it other than locking away balls. There’s a smart missile feature that I have no idea what it does.
I wanted to keep this one for last as nothing can convey how much I hate this table’s existence. Unfortunately, Starship Troopers came out after this one. At this point, Data East Pinball had been sold over to Sega, so this one’s all on the Sonic biz. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, of course, is a table based off of the movie... title. They literally stopped at “Frankenstein” and then called it a day. First of all, a muzak version of Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein plays throughout the game. Second, look at that Frankenstein’s arms. They are the tiniest thing in the history of Frankenstein. It looks like they glued baby arms to a 7 foot monster.
The table itself plays all right, but when you get the thematic this wrong I have to call it out. This is probably one of the weakest parts of Stern’s licensing - They make competent tables that can be fun to play, but their insistance on using top-notch licenses without really caring about them always feels like their tables are cheaply made.
The last table from the only people still making pinball tables these days is a culmination of decent enough design and actually caring about the license. Starship Troopers - based off the movie and not the actual books, goes out of its way to stick to what the movie established: Off-brand humor with good ol’ bug shootin’ action. Each target represents a different type of bug, and each planet you visit has a specific amount of these bugs. Once they’re all dead, a big brain bug pops out into the field and you have to hit it a few times with the ball to capture it. Unfortunately, it’s a bit off to the right of the table making it difficult to hit without the ball flying off in a direction you do not want it to go.
An emulation problem with the table is that practically no other table has a separate button for the second flipper on the same side. This one does, so they emulated it accordingly. Hitting R1 (on default controls) to use the second flipper feels extremely weird, which if you’re playing on the software, can lead to problems.
And... that’s it for Stern this time around. Their constant changes in ownership and pinball’s overall decline does not help, but if you’re a Stern fan, the ‘00s are all theirs. No one’s making tables except them, and for my final article, we may see a little side-by-side comparison of one of their actual real-life tables with Farsight’s emulation! Stay tuned.