The Rare Pinball Files: a Deep Dive on Hankin's Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The Rare Pinball Files: a Deep Dive on Hankin's Empire Strikes Back (1980)
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The Rare Pinball Files: a Deep Dive on Hankin's Empire Strikes Back (1980)
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The Rare Pinball Files: a Deep Dive on Hankin's Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Published on
February 21, 2023
Updated on
February 27, 2023
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Last year, we wrote a guide to the best Star Wars pinball machines. The goal at the time was to give people (particularly Star Wars fans who might be new to pinball) a handy guide when deciding which of the many Star Wars pinball games to buy - from physical full-size pins down to virtual options from the likes of Arcade1up and PinballFX.

We even threw in a reference to the rare Segasa-Sonic Star Wars pin from 1987. But we neglected one big entry - the 1980 Empire Strikes Back pinball machine by A. Hankin & Co., which happens to be the first licensed Star Wars pinball machine ever made.

Why didn't we include it in the list? Frankly, because it's so rare! There were only about 350 games ever produced, and they were released almost exclusively to the Australian market. Considering that our reader base is 90% based in the United States, we didn't want to include too many references to what are primarily unobtainable games.

But then we received an email from Stephen Smith, a pinball collector and player from Australia, who wanted to know why we didn't include Hankin's 1980 game in our roundup.

Of course, it turns out Stephen owns a copy of the game and was more than willing to send some pictures and tell us a bit more about the game.

The Empire Strikes Back (Hankin, 1980) Rare Pinball Deep Dive

1980 hankin empire strikes back pinball flyer

Stephen was gracious enough to send us the following overview of The Empire Strikes Back, for those not familiar with the game.

"The Empire Strikes Back was made by Hankin Manufacturing and was released in 1980 exclusively in Australia. It was the very first licensed Star Wars pinball game ever. The licensing was arranged through Roadshow Licencing Corp Pty Ltd, the Australian representative of Lucasfilm Ltd which were the creators of the Star Wars saga. The original brochure has Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) inspecting the pinball machine.

luke skywalker mark hamil empire strikes back pinball

This machine has tremendous player appeal with lights around the backboard between two sheets of mirrored film, giving it a never-ending 'infinity' effect. Bright red strobing lights encompass Darth Vader’s head and gives the effect that he is in a ring of fire.

The gameplay revolves around key scenes from the Empire Strikes Back movie, with particular emphasis on the Imperial assault on Hoth. Players direct the Snowspeeders against the AT-ATs, hit the Rebel insignias to increase the value of playfield targets, then shoot down the four TIE Fighter rollovers to increase the bonus multiplier. Players also hit the Darth Vader drop targets on both sides of the playfield to raise the value for Dagobah and Bespin, then visit Yoda and Lando to claim the points.  

Hankin produced 5 pinballs and 2 conversion kits from 1978 to 1980. The Empire Strikes Back pinball was Hankin's most successful pinball. However, it was not enough, and they ceased producing pinballs and focussed on video-based cocktail machines and pool tables.

With only 350 of the pinballs produced and distributed in Australia, it is an extremely rare treasure for die-hard collectors."

hankin star wars pinball machine

For eagle-eyed pinball aficionados, you may notice the game looks just a tad familiar. Largely, the backbox and playfield look strikingly similar to the 1980 Bally game, Space Invaders. The upper playfield also has some similarities to another 1980 title, the Williams game Firepower.

Stephen was kind enough to share some photos of his copy of the game, plus some bonus shots of his impressive collection. He also answered a few of our questions, which we've shared below.

But first, the photos! We're kinda in love with the topper, as well as the colorful, hand-drawn playfield artwork. The Darth Vader focused backglass is also quite striking, particularly for fans of the franchise.

A Quick Chat with Stephen Smith of Australia

Stephen: "Just a bit of background. I have been collecting pinballs since 1980 and usually keep about 20 in my collection at home, rotating them with different machines over the years. It has now spread over 3 rooms in the house and I have attached a couple of pics. I have the Star Wars, Playboy and Kiss collection amongst others.

I have always been a Star Wars fan and thus the collection of those. The Empire Strikes Back machine was originally owned by a friend of mine since almost new, he then sold it to an operator friend of mine who operated it for a couple of years and then put it into storage in 2000 and then I picked it up. All 3 of us are located in Canberra Australia.

I enjoy playing all the Star Wars machines and don’t have a favourite. However, I have learnt for maximum enjoyment to play them in year order and enjoy the game play and technology for what it was in the day and then to move on to the next one. It is very difficult to go from the fast new Star Wars or Mandalorian backwards to the Empire which then feels ultra-slow in gameplay. For a game that is now going into it’s 43th year it is understandable the it is slower.

Alternatively, we have different nights of playing different eras. First session is the older pinballs such as the original Kiss, Playboy, Empire, and Nightmare on Elm Street. Next session includes Playboy 35 Anniversary, Baywatch, Stars Data East Etc. Next session includes Mustang, Simpsons, Playboy, Episode 1, Terminator, original Avengers, etc. Then final session G&R Jersey Jack, new Avengers, Star wars, Kiss, ACDC, etc."

Kineticist: Have you ever come across or owned the Segasa-Sonic Star Wars game from 1987? Do you have any desire to add that to your collection at some point?

Stephen: No I haven’t actually. The first I read about was in your blog and I would love to get my hands on one if I could. If you ever hear of one for sale can you let me know. I have a friend in Spain who is searching around for me.

(editors note - if you know of one available for sale, drop us a line at

Kineticist: Didn't see Stern's The Mandalorian in that lineup! Was it just not pictured or is it not part of your collection? If it's not part of your collection, why not?

Stephen: I am in the process of getting the Mandalorian Stern LE and it should be in the collection by the end of the week.

Kineticist: Have you ever played Bally's Space Invaders? If so, how does playing Empire Strikes Back compare? The playfield layouts aren't 100% the same, but they are pretty close.

Stephen: It is interesting when you compare the 2 machines. I was at a local tournament recently and had a play on the Bally and they both have an almost identical design and feel. There must have been an untold back story as:

Empire was designed by David Hankin and the artwork was by Mike Eggleston. It was released in June 1980 exclusively in Australia.

Space Invaders was designed by Jim Patia and the artwork by Paul Farris. It was released in April 1980.

I can’t find any anywhere that they reference each other’s work or concepts and yet they are so similar.

The most unusual feature of both was the infinity backglass which was both unique and remarkable. It is a coincidence if they both came up with it at the same time and I think it is a small world and they shared their ideas and concepts. Empire Strikes Back was not exported to the US which is also interesting. I wonder if that was a contra-deal with Bally not to have 2 similar machines released together.

David Hankin and Mike Eggleston at Newcastle Pinfest

As a side note David and Mike joined us at Newcastle Pinfest event last year where they signed autographs and were treated like royalty. [Editors note, another reader reached out to let us know that this particular event was the first time Mike Eggleston had ever made an appearance at pinball event. Nobody in the pinball community had ever met him. He was actually surprised at all the attention he was getting.]

Kineticist: Is there a Star Wars property you'd like to see turned into a machine next?

Stephen: Any Star Wars pinballs are good pinballs. Hopefully not too quick though so I can save up for the next one, or I will have to decide which of my other machines to move on.

Kineticist: Generally speaking - what do you enjoy about playing and collecting pinball machines?

Stephen: In early 1980’s, I was in high school and after school we would go to the local pinball centre which had about 20 machines including Kiss, Playboy, Genie and Centaur. We enjoyed both playing the games and the general comradeship. I then went on to University and bought a pinball run with machines in milk bars and pizza shops to help pay for Uni. I had about 20 machines including the ones above and also the Fireball Classic, Simpsons and Black Knight and others.

However, I got distracted by the end of Uni, sold the run and all the machines. I then became a Psychologist which I am still actively practicing today.

I prescribe “playing pinballs” as my own stress reduction therapy and is required for at least 1 hour a day. That is my claim to my wife Cassandra anyway. I think she knows the truth that I just like playing them. The majority of the times comes down and plays as well.

The current collection started when our children were about 12, my wife and I restarted buying pinball machines and other arcade machines for our games room. This was of great amusement to our kids and their friends who did not even know what a pinball was (let alone play one). Our children are now 25, 29 and 30 and they still come around for a “hit” on the pinnies. We ended having all their school formal parties and many other impromptu parties at our place over the following years. The kids had pinballs, big buck hunter, Sega-rally, pool table and an air hockey to play.

To this day, many of their friends still came to play the pinball machines. Funny thing is that most of the high scores of each machine belongs to one of them. The top scores are Mak, Dylan and Griff who are all under 25 and are better players than myself. We hope we have encouraged another generation of pinball lovers.

The games room has been and will always be an integral part of our family’s recreation entertainment time. So much that my wife bought me life size terminator statue for our wedding anniversary to sit next to our Terminator 3 pinball. I am only hoping that a life size Darth Vader will be the next anniversary present.

Overall, we enjoy playing pinball, going to tournaments and meeting liked minded others.

Kineticist: Most of our readers are in the United States - can you tell us a little bit about the pinball scene and community in Australia?

Stephen: The pinball scene and community is Australia is quite large and growing each year. There are local and national tournaments being held all over Australia on a regular basis which attract thousands of players and spectators. There are also numerous Australian Associations and online dedicated sites.

Kineticist: For anyone visiting Australia - what three public pinball locations are essential visits in your book?

Stephen: Australia is 6th largest country in the world, and we have pinball activities all over the near 3,000,000 sq miles of it.

However, for a pinball road trip, you could start in:

Townsville which is a city at the top of Australia and is well known for our Army Combat Engineering Division and well-known pinball player – Hilton Smith. Visit the ‘Empire Alternarcade’ for $20 unlimited pinball play nights as well as competitions and general family fun.

Then meander 1500 miles to Melbourne to the Australian Pinball Museum which showcases a wide selection of pinball machines and pinball artwork. The museum is run as a not-for-profit operation with aims to promote pinball and provide a place where rare and unusual pinball games can be played and enjoyed. A great halfway stopover when traveling between Melbourne and Adelaide on the way to Perth.

Then travel to the other side of Australia, a mere 2200 miles away to the West Coast Pinball Festival which is a fun community event held over 3-days in Perth, Western Australia focused on sharing the joy of playing pinball.

Between these 3 great pinball locations, there are many pinball opportunities on the way. In order from travelling from Townsville to Perth, look up the following for competitions, public places and exhibitions:

We've been told that Mandalorian is now in transport.

If you have a rare pinball game in your collection, and want to talk to us about it, send us an email at!