When George Gomez, Vice President of Game Development for Stern Pinball, found out he'd be designing The Avengers (2013) pinball machine, he was truly excited. The 2012 film of the same name was a box office juggernaut, grossing more than $600 million domestically. Tasked with designing the game, Gomez spent a weekend traveling back in time, so to speak, playing each of the machines he’d designed—from Corvette (1995) to Transformers (2011)—with the hopes of, as he told ICHEG, “consciously creating something different.” For Gomez, The Avengers was not only a valuable license, but also an opportunity to combine his love for comic books with his talent for pinball design to offer pinball players a new spin (or in this case, flip) on Marvel's popular super hero franchise.
Gomez, who describes himself as a “huge Marvel fan,” grew up reading Marvel comic books and still remembers the first issue he picked up—Fantastic Four #39. The story of how Reed Richards (aka: Mr. Fantastic) worked tirelessly to replace the Fantastic Four's powers after the group lost them in a battle with the Frightful Four, struck a chord with Gomez. What did it mean to be superheroes without super powers? What reader couldn’t relate to feelings of loss or powerlessness? The characters, as Gomez explained, "weren't one-dimensional."
Gomez felt the same way about The Avengers, a team of comic book heroes who first appeared in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s The Avengers #1 in September 1963. Originally composed of Ironman, Hulk, Ant-man, and Thor, the team took on and swapped out a variety of new heroes over the next five decades before settling on Captain America (Chris Evans), Ironman (Robert Downey Jr.), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Blackwidow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in director Joss Whedon’s recent film. As one might suspect, a team of superheroes that includes a Norse god, a millionaire play boy, and a green, muscle-bound monster with an anger problem also must contend with super egos and frequent internal conflicts.
As Gomez and his team began designing The Avengers pinball, they believed those stories of internal strife appeared much more interesting than a meditation on good and evil. Rather than rehashing plot points or making “a stuffy game,” the design group focused instead on the challenging task of assembling the Avengers team. To that end, each Avenger has his or her own ramp or target shot: an Ironman lane on the upper-right part of the playfield; a Blackwidow cross-playfield ramp; a set of four-bank “T-H-O-R” stand-up targets on the middle-left of the playfield; a Hawkeye lane on the left of the playfield; a Captain America lane just to the right of the Hawkeye lane; and a Hulk figure which turns, raises its arms, and sits behind four "H-U-L-K" drop targets at the top of the playfield. Players expend much of their effort making these shots in order to assemble the Avengers before assaulting the "Helicarrier" (sub-wizard mode) and ultimately engaging in the "Battle For Earth" (wizard mode).
Yet the game, as Gomez admits, is less about defeating the Avenger’s enemies than about playing pinball itself. In the tradition of such pinball machines as The Simpsons (1990), FunHouse (1990), and Medieval Madness (1997), The Avengers heckles players as they hit or fall short of their targets. For instance, a typical game features frequent humorous commentary from the Hulk, including such lines as "What Hulk ever do to puny player," "Hulk want bonus, too. Give Hulk bonus," and my favorite, "Hulk smash you to people paste!" Indeed, Hulk’s figure and his fiery comic banter are focal points of the game.
Although The Avengers pinball is not a faithful adaptation of Whedon’s film, it captures the spirit of the comic book and pinball’s ability to celebrate and lampoon even the most serious of subjects, stories, and characters. Those interested in learning more about The Avengers and other comic book heroes can visit The Strong's American Comic Book Heroes exhibit and play Stern's The Avengers pinball in The Strong's new Game Time! exhibit, opening April 13.