The curious story of Magic Girl, the would-be greatest pinball machine of all time | Popular Science
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The curious story of Magic Girl, the would-be greatest pinball machine of all time

At $16,000 it was the world's most expensive pinball machine. It was also the most fraught.

Magic Girl Pinball Machine

The flashing purple lights and intricate artwork by renowned pinball artist Zombie Yeti help give Magic Girl its aura.

Tom McNamara

You’ve never seen a game like Magic Girl before—and unless you’re a serious pinball fanatic with cash to burn, you probably never will. The machine costs $16,000, and most are in private hands. The artwork is all custom, created and drawn by renowned pinball artists instead of copied and pasted from TV or movies. You’re treated to a hypnotic preamble of whimsical music and flashing lights before you can even rest your fingers on the flipper buttons. The playfield—the surface on which the ball rolls around—promises even more wizardry, most courtesy of a phalanx of hidden magnets manipulating the ball with their invisible fingers: Like the raised platform in the middle of the machine that lets you plan a mini game via magnetic flippers. Or the genie-like character named The Janx who promises to save an errant ball from slipping away by holding it in place with its polar magic. There’s even a levitation chamber that sucks the ball up off the play surface and suspends it in mid-air. Well, it’s supposed to, anyway.

The thing is, none of the machines actually work—not as originally promised by their creator, John Popadiuk. He is a renowned game designer with a lineage that shoots back to some of the biggest pinball manufacturers in the business. In 2011, he announced that he would be creating a truly unique machine that would challenge the boundaries of gameplay and price tag. Serious pinball enthusiasts jumped at the chance to own one.

Today, there are two dozen or so Magic Girl machines out in the wild. The exact number varies depending on who you ask and whether or not you count prototypes. But there’s no doubt about the surplus of angry customers and lawsuits.

“I’m proud of the work,” Popadiuk says in a phone interview from his mother’s home in Canada. “I’m not proud about it taking so long and destroying my career. But, I’m proud of the work.”

AIN’T SEEN NOTHIN’ LIKE HIM

Papadiuk grew up in the 1970s, and, like many kids of that era, was a die-hard pinball fanatic. At the age of 14, he befriended Norm Clark, the head designer at Bally Pinball, a leading manufacturer at the time. “He would send me brochures and stuff in the mail,” Papadiuk recalls, “but he made the mistake of inviting me to Chicago for a tour of the their new pinball factory. I basically stayed and said to he’d have to hire me.” Popadiuk began work at Bally in 1980 at the age of 18, helping to develop prototype games.

He worked at Bally on and off for more than a decade, even after the company and its sister brand Midway were acquired by Williams Electronics in 1988. He returned for a full-time stint in 1993, and began a solid 7-year stretch at Williams that would encompass what many regard as his best work. As a designer, Popadiuk was responsible for the creative vision of the machines. He was the conduit between the players and the artists and engineers who made the machines operate. He was an idea man who knew the technical aspects of the games, but excelled at putting on a show that would separate players from their quarters.

World Cup Soccer 1994, for example, is known for its clever goalie “toy,” which is what pinball enthusiasts call features within the game. It had a rewarding series of special operations, including a satisfying multi-ball system, which is often the top honor a player can achieve. You can see Twitch pinball streamer Dead Flip play the game on live stream for more than three hours below.

Popadiuk also had a penchant for including magnets in his games to interact with the metal ball. It’s a technique most prominently featured in his 1995 game called Theater of Magic, the predecessor to Magic Girl. “It seemed like he could make the ball do magical things,” said Chris Kooluris, a collector, Magic Girl owner, and controversial figure in the pinball community thanks to his outspoken nature. “His games from the ‘90s are renowned for being some of the best games ever.”

In the late ‘90s, Popadiuk worked on a project for Williams that attempted to mix solid physical pinball with a digital video game. It was called Pinball 2000 and it never found success. Increasing financial challenges forced Williams out of the pinball industry by 2000. Popadiuk was out too.

CAN’T HEAR THOSE BUZZERS AND BELLS

As consumer tastes changed, the commercial pinball market would spend the next decade or so in a tailspin, leaving the large Stern pinball to create a steady stream of machines plastered with pop culture characters from hits like Lord of the Rings.

However, even as the commercial demand faded away, an enthusiast market sprung up. A core group of pinheads—a term pinball fanatics welcome despite its other pejorative connotation— remained, many of whom had grown up with the game and now had disposable income to spend. The demand for privately owned pinball machines rose along with the idea of the man cave.

“It went from being more about machines in public spaces to private collectors wanting machines in their homes,”says Popadiuk. “There were no boutique companies at the time to serve them.” Even after a decade away from designing pinball machines, Popadiuk’s reputation hadn’t faded.

“At some point, people started coming to him with a lot of money for him to build them a machine,” says Scott Goldberg, Chief Marketing Officer of American Pinball, the company that would years later help Magic Girl finally see the light of day. “He wasn’t out chasing the money.”

Magic Girl Pinball Prototypes

Prototype Magic Girl machines during the build process.

Zidware

NEVER SEEN HIM FALL

In 2011, Popadiuk and his company Zidware announced plans for Magic Girl, described as a super-limited game that would build off the success of Theater of Magic. “It was going to be a small run,” says Goldberg. “First it was going to be five, but then it grew to about 20.”

Pre-orders began when Zidware had little more than a two-page website with a description of the machine and the unprecedented price tag of $16,000. Within a few weeks, Zidware had finalized 19 pre-orders, but Popadiuk claims he had more than a hundred inquiries from people wanting to get in on it. “Guys in the hobby heard it was selling out and they wanted in,” says Kooluris. “John was still this rockstar.”

“I didn’t expect to sell even four games,” says Popadiuk. “I couldn’t believe the enthusiasm from the community. So many people were encouraging me to do this.”

The whole situation was unprecedented. “In 2011, the highest priced machines were going for around $6,000,” says Kooluris. “But the prices on some collectible machines were going up. Well-known machines like Medieval Madness and Cactus Canyon were going for up to $15,000.” There would be far fewer Magic Girls than either of those. It was a tempting proposition for a serious collector.

Once Popadiuk got started, however, the obstacles came almost immediately. He’d hit the multiball jackpot in the boutique pinball world, but all that action quickly became too much to process and balls started slipping past the flippers.

“Obviously, I didn’t put enough thought into what it was going to take,” said Popadiuk. “When I worked at Bally and Williams we had large teams of engineers, planners and manufacturing gurus. They would take our final production design and basically get it all ready and onto the production floor.” Without the support system of a big company, Popadiuk was an artist trying to make his way in the unfamiliar world of business and manufacturing.

Magic Girl Switch Diagram

A diagram of the switches built into the Magic Girl machines.

Zidware

There are anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000 parts in a typical pinball machine, and Magic Girl goes beyond typical (though, the official parts list has yet to be uploaded onto the website). The game required a variety of custom-made and laser-cut pieces, which slowed down production, especially since those elements weren’t the norm during Popadiuk’s first stint as a game designer.

There’s also a lot more to building a pinball machine than assembling the parts and installing the lights. The game runs on a complex system of code that includes multiple game modes, set-up screens, and diagnostics for the complex array of switches and sensors that help the machine react to the movement of the ball.

Making changes to a pinball playfield requires lots of foresight and communication across all involved parties. Even small changes in geometry can have a profound effect on game play. “It might not sound like a big deal to move a ramp or a post a half-inch” says Kooluris, “but it affects everything from the engineering to the artwork.” Everyone in that chain needs to get paid for their services along the way.

Magic Girl LCD screen

The LCD screen at the back of the machine is partially obscured by the tall plastic pieces on the playfield.

Tom McNamara

THERE’S GOT TO BE A TWIST

In 2011, before any of the Magic Girl machines were even close to finished, Zidware announced development plans for another game called Ben Heck’s Zombie Adventureland, which would be a collaboration with renowned video game hardware modder Ben Heckendorn. Zidware planned an edition of 99 home machines, plus 25 units that were meant to be coin-operated. The company reportedly took 100 pre-orders, with customer deposits ranging from a few hundred dollars up to paid-in-full orders of the $10,000 asking price.

Heckendorn’s involvement, however was short lived. According to his post on the Pinside forums, his involvement with Popadiuk was never even committed to a contract and consisted mostly of brainstorming. The name of the game was eventually changed to Retro Atomic Zombie Adventureland after Heckendorn’s association with the project dissolved. Heckendorn became an outspoken critic of Popadiuk’s as time went on.

In 2013, Zidware announced yet another game, this one based on Alice in Wonderland, and took an undisclosed number of pre-orders with a minimum deposit of $250 for the $10,000 game.

During this period, Popadiuk continued work on Magic Girl and he launched a development blog to track the game’s progress in May 2012. The company had just moved into a bigger, better studio space and the blog documented work being done on the game, though it focused heavily on aesthetic developments like artwork and design.

The blog continued semi-regular updates for three years, including pictures and lots of examples of the graphics. By 2014, most of the identifiable pieces of the machine had taken shape at last in prototype form. Then the updates stop abruptly on May 15th, 2015. The comment section on the last post is laced with Magic Girl buyers asking for refunds.

Magic Girl Blog

The last post in the Magic Girl development blog before it went dark.

Zidware

In May, Popadiuk emailed a letter to buyers containing a long statement about the future of the company and the machines for which it had already taken pre-orders. In it, he cops to his lack of business acumen. “First and foremost, my apologies for not being a better businessman,” he wrote.

Just days later, another email announcement declared that a company called Pintasia had signed on as a third-party to help get the games manufactured. Pintasia was started by a serious pinball enthusiast named Bill Brandes who hoped to finish the games as part of a licensing agreement. The announcement outlined complex strategy that involved creating more editions of Magic Girl and issuing credits to those who had pre-ordered the other games that would be next in the plans for production.

Magic Girl debuted in prototype form at the Northwest Pinball Show in June that year, but it was missing most of the truly magical elements buyers had been expecting. “It looked incredible,” says Kooluris, “but none of the cool features really worked.” The game was apparently much farther behind than Brandes expected. In June, Pintasia announced it would abandon the projects altogether. Magic Girl seemed dead.

ALWAYS GETS A REPLAY

Then American Pinball stepped into the messy situation. Started by Dhaval Vasani, a veteran in the contract manufacturing business, American Pinball set out to make a Houdini-themed game with Popadiuk in the designer’s chair. “Vasani had been introduced to John and learned what he was capable of,” says Goldberg. “He went through the due diligence and learned really quickly that there was a whole lot of rigamarole happening. But he also realized people would invest in a game that John made.” American Pinball publicized the idea of giving Popadiuk a second chance and signed on as a third party contract manufacturer to finally deliver the Magic Girl machines. Roughly six years after the first pre-orders, deliveries were finally scheduled, made to a spec provided by Popadiuk.

By this point, lawsuits had been filed by customers seeking to recoup some of the money that had been tied up for years with no final products delivered.

For those who received their Magic Girl machines, the excitement was hampered by technical issues. “Popadiuk originally had this big plan to have the ball shoot up and freeze in mid-air,” says Kooluris. On his machine, however, this feature only works if you use your finger to push the ball into the levitation chamber. He suggests that adding a small ramp or making a change in spacing could help the feature along, but also notes that kind of DIY effort shouldn’t be necessary on a super premium product like Magic Girl.

The flashy raised area in the middle of the game also seems inaccessible during regular play. A plunger should grab the ball when a special mode is activated, then launch it up through a hole into a raised plastic platform. Even when Kooluris removed the glass from his machine and activated the launching mechanism with his hand, the ball would still immediately fly back out onto the main playfield.

Many of the simpler magnetic features don’t quite work, either. The magnet meant to save the ball before it drains down the out lane on the right-hand side of the field isn’t strong enough to make the save. That quirk is particularly troubling because it’s a feature that worked meticulously on Theater of Magic way back in 1995.

“It flips,” says Kooluris, dropping a term pinball enthusiasts use to indicate that a game is playable , “but it isn’t finished.” There’s currently a Facebook group of Magic Girl owners in which they discuss how to get the game working as promised with the prototype.

Some contractors who helped work on Magic Girl also claim that they have been left without promised compensation. The person responsible for coding the game is a UK-based engineer who posts on Pinside forums under the name Applejuice. He claims he’s still owed a substantial part of his fee, as well as a Magic Girl machine for his work. He has started updating a development site about the game’s code to help buyers identify and remedy some of the known issues. These allegations weren't explicitly addressed confirmed or denied in our interview.

With Magic Girl out in the world, conversations in online pinball communities are once again shifting to the status of Popadiuk’s other planned games. According to American Pinball’s Goldberg, Retro Atomic Zombie Adventureland and Alice in Wonderland are far from finished, but Popadiuk told me that “both games are very far along,” and that the Alice in Wonderland game will be his best work.

American Pinball has moved forward with its Houdini machine without Popadiuk’s involvement. It hasn’t written off working with the designer to deliver his other games, but Popadiuk first has work to do. “They have told me that once I get a pre-production Retro Zombie done, they’ll decide if they want to manufacture it,” he says.

Magic Girl’s troubled path hasn’t deterred other companies and buyers from similar efforts. In 2015, a machine based on the Predator movie franchise reportedly failed after years of development and pre-orders because the distributor, 20th-Century Fox, wouldn’t approve a licensing deal. Another machine, based on The Big Lebowski, from a company called Dutch Pinball has also reportedly suffered various setbacks and caused a great deal of frustration among buyers.

While Magic Girl didn’t revolutionize the pinball industry in the way that some pinheads hoped it would, it remains one of the most valuable collectible machines around, at least for the moment. There’s a Magic Girl listed on ebay with a Buy-It-Now price of $40,000— though that price was reduced from $45,000. Even Kooluris, who invested $23,000 in the machine, is confident he won’t lose money in the long run. He does, however, plan to move it out of his living room and replace it with a game that’s more fun to flip.

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