Popular Science

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

Tom McNamara

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

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

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