Pinball purists keep the ball in play at Tacoma show

Say the words “pinball wizard,” and most people’s thoughts tend to run toward Pete Townshend and the rock opera “Tommy.”

But for true pinball devotees — the ones who remain enamored of the game despite the digital revolution — the words are more likely to conjure up names like Dennis Nordman and Greg Freres, the pinball designer and artist who collaborated on recent pinball sensations like “Dr. Dude,” “The Party Zone” and “Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons.”

Not surprising, then, that at Saturday’s 2015 Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show at the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center, a live and in-person presentation by Nordman and Freres was a big draw.

Saving the pinball market during what Freres called “the video game tsunami” had its torturous years.

“I’ve had more layoffs than I’ve had jobs,” Nordman said. “I’m so fortunate to be able to make a semi-living at this.”

Weirdly, though, pinball now appears to be making a comeback, attracting new converts for its retro nature and for the relative simplicity and purity of the early games.

When the Pinball & Arcade Show made its debut eight years ago in a little pizza parlor in Oak Harbor, it attracted just a handful of fans. Last year’s extravaganza took up 37,000 square feet at the downtown Tacoma convention center.

This year’s show, which started Friday and runs through Sunday, takes up 45,000 square feet and, according to Brian Cady, is now one of the three biggest pinball and arcade game shows in the world.

Cady, who has a day job as an IT architect, is board president of the nonprofit, all volunteer-based organization that puts together the pinball and arcade game show each summer. He’s thrilled by the increasing numbers.

“It tells us the fact that our group is creating a fun, family-friendly environment for these games is resonating with folks,” Cady said.

For many, the show’s biggest attraction is the array of games — more than 400, all set on free play and ranging from vintage pinball machines from the 1950s to prototypes of games still in development. This year’s prototypes include “The Hobbit” from Jersey Jack Pinball and a new “Kiss” pinball game from Stern.

But there are also purveyors of hard-to-get machine parts — replacement flippers, relay coils, fuses and bulbs — presentations by top people in the field, tournaments and prizes.

“What makes it special for all of us is seeing the excitement of the spectators here,” Cady said. “When they see the game that brings back the nostalgic feeling, their face lights up, and they just go to the game.”