Ranked: The 20 Best Pinball Machines of the 2000s

Ranked: The 20 Best Pinball Machines of the 2000s
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Ranked: The 20 Best Pinball Machines of the 2000s
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Ranked: The 20 Best Pinball Machines of the 2000s
Published on
April 18, 2023
Updated on
May 13, 2024
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It was 1999. The threat of Y2K loomed. Would society collapse because of a computer error? Would we all be doomed? No, we would not, which was a relief because the next decade brought us such game-changing things as the Motorola Razr phone, the iPod classic, LimeWire, reality TV, MySpace, and polos with popped collars. 

But where was pinball during all of this? That’s a great question, and the truth is pinball almost died during this period. The mid to late ‘90s saw Bally’s pinball division sold to Williams and the death of Gottlieb pinball. Capcom and Sega would enter and exit the market by the end of the decade, with Stern acquiring Sega’s assets. Then, Williams closed its pinball division in 1999 after the failure of Pinball 2000, their last pinball hardware and software platform.  

If it seems like Stern was the last manufacturer standing, it’s because they basically were. Almost everything released between 2000-2009 was released by Stern. There was a one-off home game from Chicago Gaming Company called Vacation America, released in 2003, but the list below is Stern-heavy, and rightfully so. If Stern didn’t crank out the following pinball machines (and more), there wouldn’t have been the momentum that led into the 2010s and today, and who knows if new manufacturers like Jersey Jack and Spooky would have ever come about. 

Knowing now that pinball in the 2000s was synonymous with Stern, here are the top 20 pinball machines from the new millennium.

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The 20 Best Pinball Machines of the 2000s

Lord of the Rings (2003)

lord of the rings pinball machine best pinball 2000s

Shortly before Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy concluded with The Return of the King - and long, long after J.R.R. first released the fantasy novels - Stern released The Lord of the Rings pinball. Much like the movies that are still highly praised for their creative and technical achievements, the game has also become a classic. 

The game features callouts, music, and scenes (rendered in DMD form) from the movies, shining a spotlight on favorite characters like Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, and more, and taking players all over Middle Earth to locations like The Shire, The Mines of Moria, and the final destination, Mordor. 

The playfield offers endless flow-based play and objectives that complement the machine’s multiple modes, including Fellowship Multiball, Two Towers Multiball, and Return of the King Multiball (named for each respective book/movie). Players have to defeat the toy of the creature Balrog who blocks a ramp entrance, and the cherry on top is actually the One Ring toy at the top of the playfield that features a spinner and catches the ball in mid-air coming off the jump ramp, enticing passersby to be the One Player to Rule Them All. 

The immersive theme, beautiful artwork, and kinetically satisfying gameplay make it easy to understand why Lord of the Rings rules this list. Players risk turning into Gollum protecting this precious pin.   

The Simpsons Pinball Party (2003)

the simpsons pinball party best pinball of the 2000s

Debuting in 1989, The Simpsons is the longest-running American animated series, longest-running American sitcom, and the longest-running American scripted primetime television series, so it’s only fitting that our favorite Springfield residents are amazingly showcased in pinball form in The Simpsons Pinball Party

The game requires players to complete six tasks to reach the Super Duper Mega Extreme Wizard Mode. These tasks include 5 Super Jackpots, which features a shot of the iconic Simpson couch in the upper playfield; Alien Invasion, which makes players hit a TV shot and work through seven TV modes; Daredevil Mania, which features Daredevil Bart navigating ramps, bumpers, targets, and loops (complete with a toy of Bart on his skateboard); Scratchy’s Revenge, unlocked after completing four Itchy & Scratchy multiballs; Springfield Mystery Spot, which features an Otto shot; and Secret Stash, which features a Comic Book Guy target. 

The machine features voice recordings from the cast, as well as the notable music and sound bites most recognized from the show. A talking and moving Homer head is a highlight, along with plenty of other humorous references and easter eggs for Simpsons fans. The challenge and excitement the game offers, plus the spot-on fan service, make this one a must-play. 

Spider-Man (2007)

spider-man pinball stern best pinball 2000s

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy brought new life to the Marvel web-slinger in the ‘00s, and the Spider-Man pinball that came out soon after also made a mark on both fans of the superhero and pinball enthusiasts. 

With web slingers that launch the balls into play, the game offers battles against four iconic Spider-Man villains, all complete with their own toys on the playfield. Sandman guards a bank and rises and falls until players hit the moving 3-bank target (and then hit Sandman, himself). The Dock Ock target moves forward and backward and includes a magnet that captures the ball. Green Goblin hovers over pumpkin bombs and flashing targets. Venom has his own side ramp players must use to get to him.  

The playfield’s layout encourages combos, and rules allow for novice players to enjoy it just as much as advanced players. The game is a classic from the era and definitely one of the best Steve Ritchie games

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! (2004)

ripley's believe it or not stern best pinball of the 2000s

Based on the franchise that showcases eccentricities and curiosities from all over, it’s only fitting that Ripley’s Believe It or Not! pinball is surprisingly one of the better pinball machines from the decade.    

The artwork and playfield feature many of the unusual things showcased over the years, such as a shrunken head (who narrates the game along with Mr. Ripley himself), a temple, and an idol. There’s also a spinning disc to send the ball in multiple directions, and a magnetic crane. Inclusive of, well, the world, there are seven modes that relate to the seven continents. Players travel with Mr. Ripley around the world, aiming for targets like tombstones, penguins, boomerangs, and even Bigfoot. 

The sounds and lighting really bring the theme home. The game promotes a good amount of the player doing their own investigating around the playfield to figure out what to do next versus having their hand held the whole time. Some players find this refreshing while some find it a little more frustrating. Not everyone wants to put in the time needed for its steep learning curve. Still, the game is a blast to play. With an appearance by Bozo the mind-reading dog, how can it not be?

Batman (The Dark Knight) (2008) 

batman the dark knight stern best pinball machines of the 2000s

Before getting more or less redone as Batman 66 in 2016, there was this Batman (The Dark Knight) pinball from 2008. Christopher Nolan reinvented Batman as dark and serious in 2005’s Batman Begins, and by the time the 2008 sequel The Dark Knight hit theaters, Stern was ready to go with this machine inspired by the blockbuster. 

The highlight feature of the game is the Scarecrow’s crane that carries a wrecking ball. The crane swings out over the playfield and stops on various designated spots, needing players to target and hit it for it to move on. There’s also a Bat-gadget mini-playfield where players can collect weapons designed for Batman by Lucius Fox. 

A feature wheel that needs to be completed includes familiar characters like Bruce Wayne, Alfred Pennyworth, Commissioner Gordon, Rachel Dawes, The Scarecrow, The Joker, Harvey Dent, and Lucius Fox. There’s also a Bat Signal challenge that requires completion of Joker, Scarecrow, and Batmobile multiballs, respectively, leading to a projected and flashing Bat Signal. Bat Missions include locating the Joker, rescuing Rachel, and more. 

The game mixes callouts from the movies with voice actors doing impressions and uses music that isn’t quite as epic as Hans Zimmer’s score, but fans of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series will enjoy the ride. 

Pirates of the Caribbean (2006)

pirates of the caribbean best pinball 2000s

Arguably one of the biggest surprises at the box office in the ‘00s was Disney’s adaptation of a classic ride. Pirates of the Caribbean hit theaters in 2003, and four subsequent movies followed, as well as Stern’s Pirates of the Caribbean

There can’t be a pirate game without a pirate ship, and that’s the much-loved large toy featured on this playfield. Players aim to sink the ship, while there’s also a Kraken nearby that needs to be defeated. A treasure chest toy - dead man’s chest, to be specific -  also requires players to spell out KEY to open it, revealing rich booty inside. And a spinning disc makes up the island Tortuga. 

Fans of the franchise love the delightful theme - especially the music and the callouts straight from the movie - and the gameplay is fun and challenging. Navigating the compass of tasks has players humming, “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me.” Fun fact: a decade later, Jersey Jack took their own swashbuckling stab at this theme

Family Guy (2007) / Shrek (2008) 

best pinball of the 2000s stern family guy shrek pinball

Same machine, but two different games. How does that happen? At the time, Family Guy was more geared toward the American audience because it wasn’t available on European television. Shrek was very popular in Europe, so that’s one reason we have this Family Guy/Shrek recycle. 

Thematically, the games couldn’t be more different. Family Guy is true to the show in its obnoxious and sometimes dark humor and is definitely geared toward adults, whereas Shrek is very family-friendly and a great way to introduce children to pinball. One fun feature is the mini-pinball playfield, labeled as Donkey’s mini-pinball in Shrek and Stewie’s mini-pinball in Family Guy. Family Guy showcases all six of the Griffins on the playfield, while Shrek swaps them out for Shrek, Fiona, Donkey, Puss-in-Boots, and Magic Mirror. 

Overall, it’s a fun and quirky game, and it just depends on what theme players will enjoy more. Go with Family Guy if funny callouts and hitting drop targets to spell out FART is your idea of a good time, or stick with Shrek to hear the film’s fun soundtrack, including Smash Mouth’s “All-Star” (a legal and creative battle that turned out to be a headache for Gary Stern).  

Elvis (2004)

elvis pinball machine stern best of the 2000s

Before Baz Luhrmann brought The King to the silver screen last year, Stern brought Elvis to arcades by way of pinball. 

People think of two things when they think of Elvis: his music and his hips, and luckily, this machine delivers on both of them. A mechanical Elvis figure sings and dances to his music in the center of the playfield, moving in sync and even raising the microphone to his mouth whenever he sings. His hips shake away while he sings “Hound Dog,” “Jail House Rock,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “All Shook Up,” “Burning Love,” and more, with some recordings from his television specials. 

The gameplay is fast-paced and exciting, with multiple flippers, ramps, and targets that offer players a challenging, entertaining, and thematic experience. Certain drop targets bring about Gifts from Elvis, and others help get him on the music Top 10. Spell out ENCORE to get an extra multiball after the game. 

Overall, the Elvis pinball machine is a great, underrated addition to any pinball collection (just ask Brian Littrell of Backstreet Boys fame). It's a fun and exciting game that combines classic pinball gameplay with the timeless music of Elvis Presley.

The Sopranos (2005)

best pinball machines of the 2000s stern sopranos

Tony Soprano and his mafia family dominated HBO in the ‘00s, and Stern’s Sopranos pinball machine was an offer to fans and gamers that couldn’t be refused. 

The mobster theme makes for a fun game, and adult callouts (read: cursing) from the cast, including the late James Gandolfini, make players feel like they’re part of the family. The modes tie in great with the show, including a Truck Heist, a “Party at the Bing” multiball, a Stugots multiball complete with a Stugots toy boat, and a safe to crack. Players get to really feel like they’re climbing the mafioso ranks. There’s also a “Bada Bing!” shot that takes players to a themed section of the playfield inspired by the Bada Bing! strip club from the show, complete with pole-dancing women figures. There’s also a talking fish toy for when players “sleep with the fishes.” 

It also turns out that finishing the game is a little more fulfilling than the show’s series finale.  

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

terminator 3 rise of the machines

While the movie version of Terminator 3 didn’t meet Terminator 2’s high bar, the pinball version of Terminator 3 ended up being fairly comparable to Williams’s Terminator 2, thanks to its speed, flow, and better payoff of the theme. Both were designed by Ritchie, and Terminator 3 marked Ritchie’s return to pinball after a seven-year break. 

The machine has a polished metallic look that would make Cyberdyne proud, and the playfield houses a shiny T-X skull and a plastic half-melted Arnold face. A gun handle attached to the front acts as the ball launch. It’s a fun pin with tight shots and clear goals. There’s also a back-box gun game called RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade). Video and hurry-up modes also keep players chasing the target. The metal ramps have an amazing flow, and Arnold’s callouts are the ultimate fan service. The Final Battle against the T-X is a literal and figurative blast but also challenging. Many players say, “I’ll be back,” to try and beat this one.  

Nascar (2005)

stern nascar 2005

Many machines on this list were inspired by movies and TV shows, but Stern niched down and made a machine catering to fans of The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, aka NASCAR. The early 2000s saw a rise in NASCAR viewership, so it’s no surprise Nascar pinball took shape.  

The biggest draw for NASCAR fans is the track that goes around the outside of the playfield, where the ball acts as a race car, complemented by the speedway plunger. It’s some solid theme integration that really pays off a sport here cars drive in circles. The modes are simple and good, and the multiball is fun.  A test car rests on a mechanic garage target for which to aim, and it’s an extremely fast playfield that requires players to be on their guard at all times.  

Monopoly (2001)

stern monopoly pinball best pinball of the 2000s

It’s crazy that Stern thought, “You know the worst board game out there? What if we turned it into a pinball machine?” Okay, okay, my bias is showing on this one, but luckily the Monopoly pinball machine isn’t going to end as many friendships as the board game.

Players might dismiss it upon one or two plays, but those who come back find the gameplay to be deep and entertaining. There’s a universal appeal in that everyone knows the source material, and much like the game, this pinball experience can take a while. There’s a 360-degree spinning flipper above a Water Works saucer that protects the shot and then clears the saucer when you land the skill shot. There’s also a dice roll feature and Uncle Pennybags callouts. If you find a copy with a ColorDMD installed, we think the color animations do a lot to help bring the theme together.  

The artwork on the playfield and the backglass are pretty much what you’d expect of a Monopoly-themed game! It’s easy enough to make the ramp shots, and the odd angle shots make for a nice challenge. A blinking light tracks your spot on the Monopoly board, and there’s no need to fear being sent to jail in this iteration.    

World Poker Tour (2006)

work poker tour best pinball of the 2000s

Even more niche than their NASCAR pin is Stern’s World Poker Tour pinball machine, inspired by the internationally televised gaming brand that airs poker tournaments around the world. The good news is players may only lose quarters during gameplay and not hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

The theme incorporates poker playing to a T, with modes familiar to any card player, like Steal the Blinds, Play the Button, Know Your Outs, A Chip and a Chair, Spot the Tell, and Change Gears. Multiballs include Ace in the Hole, All In, No Limit, and Poker Hands. Side Pots can be won, and there are Chip Trick shot combos to master. Winning cities/countries light extra balls, and Texas Hold ‘Em helps players advance in events. 

Overall, it’s a drop target mania with a wide-open playfield and an upper playfield to keep things fresh. It feels a bit like an old-school throwback, and it appeals to both casual and advanced players. Another perk is there’s no need to bluff in this version unless you want to claim it’s not fun, so you can have the machine all to yourself. 

Wheel of Fortune (2007)

wheel of fortune best stern pinball machines of the 2000s

Pat Sajak, Vanna White, and their great big Wheel of Fortune come to life in Stern’s take on one of the longest-running game shows out there (fun fact: Sajak and White hold the record for longest-running television show hosts of all time). 

Contestants, consonants, and vowels are the highlight of both the actual game show and the pinball machine. Lonnie, Maria, and Keith are the three bobble-headed contestants on the playfield, and hitting any of them during play will make them guess a consonant. Players can also choose to aim for a ramp to spin the wheel or hit another contestant to change turns. Collecting all the consonants will award a 1 million bonus, but players can also opt to buy a vowel at the scoop for 25k. Collecting all the vowels will award a 2 million bonus. 

There’s also a Wheel of Fortune multiball, trip multiballs, ramp multipliers, and free spins. Fun thematic modes include Wheel Frenzy, Risky Spinning, Keep It Spinning, Ramp Rampage, Combos, Stop the Wheel, and Contestant Hurry-Up. 

The shots are a little more stop-and-go, but callouts from Pat Sajak keep players immersed. It has a great flow, and the theme integration has players ready to shout out, “Wheel! Of! Fortune!” Don’t expect a final wizard mode, though, as the code for that was never completed. 

RollerCoaster Tycoon (2002)

rollercoaster tycoon best pinball machines 2000s

By July 2002, the PC game RollerCoaster Tycoon, in which players build and maintain their own amusement park, had sold over four million copies. Its success was surprising, and it spawned a dozen sequels and spin-offs, but before those were released, Stern released a RollerCoaster Tycoon pinball machine in the summer of 2002. 

In the center of the playfield is a troll in a dunk tank. Does it fit the theme? No, not really, but it’s there! Overlooking that, there are also three colored roller coaster ramps, one of which sends the ball screaming under the flippers. Callouts in the style of carnival fun and people screaming on roller coasters enhance the theme, and collecting more visitors in the park feels like playing the PC game. 

There are a few multiball modes, multiple strategies to adopt, and also a fun Scrambled Eggs spinner ride. RollerCoaster Tycoon is a family-friendly machine, and kids really flock to it, especially with its bright amusement park design. Truly fun for all ages. 

Playboy (2002)

best pinball machines of the 2000s playboy

Speaking of family-friendly, next up is Stern’s Playboy pinball machine. Bally put out a Playboy machine in the late 70s, and Data East put out a 35th anniversary one in 1989, but Stern dusted off those bunny ears to revamp Hugh Hefner’s adult magazine for a new pin in 2002. The result mixes well the classic feel of the 1978 one and the better shooting from the anniversary one. 

There are a lot of parts here that honor the risque theme: a magnetic peek-a-boo curtain that reveals a model behind it, a “tease screen” that drops with each bumper hit, revealing saucy photos, and a trifold centerfold assembly that unfolds to reveal another model, just like in the magazine. Not to mention all the scantily clad women drawn on the playfield. And yes, much like the magazine, there is nudity. 

Players have to “collect” all 12 playmates named after the months, and once completed, they may play Mansion Mania. The multiball is okay to start, but way more fun to play, really upping the ante. There’s also a skill shot magazine that reveals some playmates and a rotating photo board that showcases even more models. It’s a great pinball machine to play with so long as the material doesn’t make you blush. 

Indiana Jones (2008) 

stern indiana jones top pinball machines of the 2000s

Everyone’s favorite archeology professor made his pinball debut in 1993 when Williams released Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure to great praise, and 15 years later, Stern released their own Indiana Jones pinball machine

Did Stern’s take on the game live up to Williams’? Unfortunately, the consensus is no, it did not, though some players find both machines to have their own merits. It’s hard not to love anything Dr. Jones-related, and this game offers thematic multiballs that come from the Ark (from the titular Lost Ark) and the Crusade (from the titular Last Crusade), as well as a Temple of Doom scoop. The John Borg-designed game grows on players, not to mention it looks great. Lots of shot variety and objectives in the lower playfield keep the replay factor high, and overall it’s an easy game to understand and play. It’s perfect for kids and casual players.

High Roller Casino (2001)

high roller casino best pinball machines of the 2000s

Before Stern had World Poker Tour, they had a much more broad gambling arena with their High Roller Casino pinball machine. The six games available on this playfield floor are Craps, Slot Machines, Roulette, Poker, Hi-Lo, and Blackjack. Roulette pulls focus, given the roulette wheel toy in the corner. Players can plunge the ball in the roulette wheel for a skill award, and matching the number of the flashing bumper leads to a win. Shooting a Slot Machine raises a mini-ramp, and shooting again spins the slot. Players can shoot the Slot Machine multiball and earn heavy jackpots that way. Bank drop targets help players collect their best hand, and a backbox animated Roll ‘N Win wheel picks the prize. Collecting a “Super Duper Mega Extreme Jackpot” during multiball makes players feel like winners. 

Overall, it’s a fun game with easy rules to pick up after a few plays. The mini-games really service the theme, and, much like a casino, they keep players coming back for more.  

Sharkey’s Shootout (2000)

sharkey's shootout stern best pinball of the 2000s

Sharkey’s Shootout has a special place in pinball history, given it’s the first tournament-mode pinball ever. Stern teamed up with Incredible Technologies - makers of Golden Tee Golf - to bring tournament modes in the vein of Golden Tee to pinball. “It’s more fun to compete” was its tagline, and compete, people did. It’s also worth noting that this game is essentially Sega’s Golden Cue since Stern bought all of Sega’s game assets in the late ‘90s.

The pool-inspired game features a magic eight ball that integrates well with the theme. Magnetic diverters and grabbers work within the eight ball and make for a fun watch. Some rules become clearer the more it’s played, but the smooth shots, great ramps and flow, and pop bumpers make for a solid time no matter what play. Shooting drop target cue balls further the game of pool, and players must beat other characters to get to the wizard mode, where a black widow opponent named Jeanette Lee awaits. 

Some say it’s a more modern version of Bally’s Eight Ball Deluxe, but Sharkey’s Shootout still manages to be its own pool shark. 

NBA (2009)

best pinball machines of the 2000s stern NBA

Ball is life. Or pinBall is life? Can’t it be both? With Stern’s release of their NBA pinball machine, it sure can. Stern tackled the NFL in 2000, but their National Basketball Association machine was the better slam dunk. 

Basketball can’t be played without a net; luckily, this machine has its own on the playfield. The backboard has a magnet center, and when players shoot a basket, the magnet grabs a hold and drops it into the net. Players get to take their pick as to how they want to shoot. There’s a ramp shot off the flippers pointed at the basket, a jump shot made after the ball goes up a ramp and circles below the rim, and a free throw shot, where the ball is thrown through the air and lands in the hoop. There are 20 teams, and NBA players featured, including Kevin Garnett of the Celtics, LeBron James of the Cavs, Kobe Byrant of the Lakers, and more. 

The callouts are basically a play-by-play, really immersing players in an NBA game. Much like a game of basketball, it’s fast and requires some strategy to complete all the challenges. It’s a fairly forgiving game and is great for beginners, and fans of the sport will no doubt enjoy it.