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January 11, 2013

Slate: Can this man save pinball?

(Continued)

LAKEWOOD, N.J. —

All of this stuff has something in common: It's expensive. In comparison with the cost containment that's characterized the last two decades in pinball manufacturing, Guarnieri has spent money like a Russian oligarch who's just bought himself an English soccer squad. First, he assembled a team of underemployed pinball-industry stars like designer Joe Balcer and programmer Keith Johnson. Then, Guarnieri gave them the latitude to build whatever they wanted. "I just said, 'I want you guys to do the best thing you can.' The danger in that is that it almost never ends and you don't know what it's going to cost," he says. The game's higher costs have been passed along to collectors and operators. While the cheapest full-size Stern pinball machine will cost you a little less than $5,000, the Wizard of Oz retails for $7,000.

Two years after Jersey Jack Pinball got off the ground, Guarnieri says the Wizard of Oz is almost ready. There are now 15 test machines on location, giving pinball obsessives the chance to ogle and play the long-awaited, still-not-quite-finished game.

(A review on the forum Pinside of the game at iPlay America in Freehold, N.J.: "Beautiful pin. Nothing that I've seen in videos online does it justice. The code is bare bones. As long as the game gets programmed well it will be a huge achievement.") Guarnieri, though, is finding out that the last few yellow bricks on the road are the toughest to traverse. He's still waiting for the circuit boards to be finalized, and the programming isn't quite done either, meaning the test machines only show "30 percent of what the game is." Last year, he told the Chicago Reader that the games would be ready by late spring or summer 2012. A few months ago, Guarnieri told me he'd be shipping them in January. Now he says he expects the 1,500 customers who pre-ordered the Wizard of Oz to start getting their machines in mid-March.

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