Years ago, when I was in single digits, my Grandmother took us to a local Round Table Pizza where I’d dump quarters into Pac-Man, Centipede, Paperboy, Marble Madness…whatever might have been in rotation at the time. What really caught my eye, however, was the sleek looking pinball machine in the corner. I didn’t understand what I was looking at so, when an adult put a quarter in to play it, I stuck around to watch. There was something so alluring about what I was seeing. The blinking lights, the roller coaster-like ramps and the way the ball would travel so smoothly along its metal edges, the noises and music. It was something different from the stuff I’d played.
“You don’t have the skill level for this,” my little brain told me. Hell, I was lucky to pass the first maze on Pac-Man at the time. What business did I have trying to play that thing?
A few years later, my Mom took us to her friend’s apartment complex for a nice pasta dinner. The husband of this friend was huge into entertaining — and dealing with kids — and he promised to take us all down to the complex’s gameroom so we could shoot some pool. As we did, I noticed a pinball machine against the wall. This one turned out to be “Elvira and the Party Monsters”. As a teen, I thought Elvira was beautiful, so I was instantly sold. But it was the game itself that pulled me in and didn’t let me go. Instantly, the husband fed quarters into the machine and off I went, eventually triggering the “Boogie Monster” event. Elvira yells “LET’S BOOGIE!!!” and, essentially, two finger puppets propped on a couple small metal spikes move up and down to silly music for about five or six seconds before Dracula yells, “THANK YOU, BOYS!” I loved the music, the lighting, the fact that I did something so minor — but got rewarded for it. It made me smile. Sure, there was Elvira with her ample cleavage sticking out and the game just looked sleazy…but there was a modicum of class and some presentation to it as well.
But it wasn’t until just a few short years later where my passion for it would be fully solidified.
A video arcade opened up at my local mall. It was the early-to-mid 90’s. Video games had progressed somewhat. The old favorites were still there but Mortal Kombat II, NBA Jam, and Killer Instinct were now a thing. The Terminator 2 gun game was a favorite of mine. That sat next to the basketball-for-tickets contraption in the corner until Aerosmith’s lightgun game, “Revolution X” (you heard that right) took its place…but also in that area was another pinball machine: “Twilight Zone”, based on the 1959 TV series. It was unlike anything I’d seen in a pinball game. Rod Serling’s unmistakable voice greeted, praised, and taunted every player who dared to take the game on. I must have watched a dozen players play that thing before I finally got brave enough to play it myself. I still sucked at it but I never forgot the multiball callout, the extra ball from Talking Tina, the insane “JACKPOT” event you got when you hit the piano during multiball…To say I was obsessed with this game was an understatement. I fell in love…which is why I was heartbroken when the arcade announced they were closing and began to sell off their video games and pinball machines. “The Twilight Zone” was listed at $500 dollars. Yes. You read that right. These guys were selling what is now a near $10,000 dollar machine for a SPLINTER of the cost. Of course, I was all of 16 or 17 back then, working at a video store and where the hell was I supposed to put such a thing IF I could afford it?
Alas, there isn’t much of a happy ending here. The arcade would close and I wouldn’t see my beloved “Twilight Zone” for 15 years…
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
IN THE BEGINNING…
For most people, pinball is a game your parents played when they were kids, featuring a silver steel ball you could knock around for a few minutes, sending it at bumpers and drop targets and small tunnels, orbits, and ramps which would trigger various sounds and nice light shows, points be damned. The fun wasn’t racking up points or getting a high score. That was for the professionals who made it into a competitive sport. The pinball machine was fun to play and appealed to all ages — but like any video game out there, they took skill to master. Regardless of the appeal, various titles appeared in bars, arcades and pizza places around the nation and the world until it encountered its first of two peaks in the 1980’s.
When Pac-Man fever began to infect the world populace back in the 1980’s, pinball fell by the wayside. The boom continued with titles like Donkey Kong, Frogger and Centipede, forcing the industry into a slump which saw a complete lack of innovation. New tables felt like clones of older titles. Eventually, even the coin-op arcade era crashed and burned. By then, it was Gottlieb, Data East (run by the son of Gottlieb’s founder) and Capcom releasing solid hits while Williams was producing powerhouse classics like “The Addams Family” and “The Twilight Zone” which sold machines in record numbers, ushering in a short-lived pinball comeback throughout the 90’s.
By the end of the 90’s, pinball was once again in a rut. Williams and Sega (who bought Data East) were the only two pinball makers left. Sega sold its stake to Gary Stern who would eventually go on to create Stern Pinball while Williams attempted to go on making new machines incorporating video screens on their playfields. This saw some success but they weren’t able to match the success of their early 90’s machines and ended up selling the rights to their machines to another company while they would go on to make slot machines.
From 1999 on to the present, Stern Pinball remains the biggest producers of pinball machines in America with Jersey Jack Pinball, Dutch Pinball, Heighway Pinball, Spooky Pinball and Multimorphic following suit with their own machines.
THE SECOND COMING
Today, pinball is arguably bigger than it’s ever been.
Arcades, once extinct, have evolved into the ever-popular “arcade bar”, establishments which serve food and drink (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, depending on the location) while you indulge yourself in revisiting your inner child. One of these, “LVL UP” in Campbell, California (400 E Campbell Avenue), features an impressive collection of 10 tables. I say “impressive” because the place is fairly small. LVL UP caters to just about everyone and anyone you could possibly think of. They offer video games, pinball, board games, trivia, and even a mini version of pool. It’s a family place where parents and kids can come and eat and play…but it’s adults only after a certain hour.
David Ramsey is the chef and owner of the establishment, housed in a historic theater building. His food and drink menu is as diverse as the slate of games he has to offer, featuring game-themed drinks like “The Thai Fighter” , “Hadouken”, and my personal favorite, if only for the clever name, “Sake Bob-omb”.
“That ‘Twilight Zone’ pinball table over there,” one of the bartenders says to me, “that particular machine is basically on loan.” I told him I recognized the digital alarm clock mod instead of the standard analog clock that comes stocked with the original game and how I’ve seen that machine before at California Extreme in Santa Clara, just down the freeway. He nods, “Yep. Same machine. The owner will probably take it when CAX comes back to town.”
While I am overjoyed with the notion that my area has an arcade bar, I cannot help but be worried about the future. Not long ago, we had “AFK” in downtown San Jose close and Nickel City around the corner from our place just shut down.
“The emphasis here is on ‘fun’ and really tying in the food and drinks to feed that atmosphere. As much as we would like to think we will be swimming in a vault full of quarters like Scrooge McDuck, we are realists and understand what really pays the bills are the food and drink.We know as long as we keep those our primary core objectives, we will position ourselves to be successful.”
But while pinball is a means to bring in customers and propel business, it’s also a diamond in the rough to others.
I am standing inside of Bobcat Batteries (210 San Jose Ave, STE 2) in a fairly dusty, industrialized part of San Jose, just off the northern end of Almaden Expressway and San Jose Avenue. It’s a hole in the wall, like many of the other businesses which surround it, such as metal shops, a bus yard, and a place which sells feed for livestock. Bobcat Batteries specializes in selling car batteries. My car is fine (knock on wood), so you might be asking yourself why I’m here or, hell, even mentioning this place in an article about pinball. It’s because the owner, Gary, is a pinball aficionado and houses several machines on his shop’s property.
“My obsession with pinball started when I was a kid,” he says to me. “It was a huge part of my childhood. Growing up, unlike now, we didn’t have video games. All there was, was pinball.” And, like myself, Gary fell head over heels with the silver ball and began collecting machines — and every Thursday night, from 7 PM and ending at 10 PM, he opens his shop to pinball nuts like himself, offering gamers the choice of playing 17 different pinball tables which span from 1973 (Williams’ “Gulfstream”) to 2000 (Stern’s “Striker Xtreme”) and includes his personal favorite, Bally’s 1978 vintage “Playboy” table. Gary doesn’t serve food and drink. In fact, no alcohol is allowed in the shop during pinball hours. It’s pinball. The good stuff, served raw and tasty as fresh Sashimi. Take it or leave it.
Oh, yeah…they’re one of the best battery shops in the area, too.
But these two locations simply scratch the surface.
If places like LVL UP and Bobcat Batteries are where you can go to get some of the good stuff, then the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, California (1510 Webster Street) is the “doomsday vault” of the pinball world.
Founded in 2004, the machines here are set on “free play” for customers who pay a small, flat fee at the door, and just in case you thought this was all fun and games, each machine includes a placard which details each machine’s history and the various unique quirks which made them famous.
The museum was the brainchild of former museum exhibition designer Michael Schless who had become somewhat disenchanted with the lack of representation of pinball in your average museum. 18 years ago, Schless began collecting machines, acquiring nearly 40 of them and displaying half of them in a small, rented room, an establishment in Alameda which he dubbed “Lucky Ju Ju”. In just three years, after collecting donations (and removing an outdated ordinance banning the operation of pinball machines in Alameda), Schless opened “The Pacific Pinball Museum” which is currently home to nearly 90 games ranging from 1879 all the way to the present, covering nearly 150 years of pinball, if you’re keeping up with the math.
“There’s a nostalgia associated with pinball, it’s been with American culture for years,” says the museum’s Program Manager, Chris Rummell. “Pinball’s main distinction from video games is that it exists in the physical realm. It’s a steel ball racing around a playfield rather than a virtual depiction. That physical interaction is striking, especially for those who grew up on video games.”
And Rummell could not be more correct.
Whereas the creation of your average video game is something special, one could argue that the conception of a great pinball table takes a true artist. Placing objects on a table for the ball to hit and ramps for the ball to sail upon are half the battle. It takes thought to create stories and goals on this type of canvas and each table’s playfield is painstakingly designed, painted, and finished. Once all the pieces come together, a great pinball machine could easily be compared to American muscle car, a feat of ingenuity and grace.
This is what the Pacific Pinball Museum lives and breathes for.
“Our mission is to preserve this important part of American culture and to highlight all the science, technology, and art it takes to make pinball possible.” Rummell says. “Pinball has a fascinating history, and we think being able to not only see but actually play machines spanning the decades is the best way to show that history.”
PINBALL IN THE DIGITAL AGE
As gaming moves further into the digital age, pinball is already beginning to adapt.
In order to NOT have a repeat of the late 90’s pinball semi-crash, various apps and websites have attempted to preserve pinball their own way.
Pinside, for instance, is pinballer Robin van Mourik’s idea of keeping tabs on the pinball scene. It’s his take on the IPBD (The Internet Pinball Database). Originally created to see if he could handle coding and learn to keep a database, his website has become a multifaceted wonder. On top of the usual forums for pinball fans to connect with one another, the site also provides Internet pinball fans with an extensive catalogue and history of every pinball machine ever made and also tells them where they can go, anywhere on the planet, to play their favorite table. Without features such as these, places like “Bobcat Batteries” would probably have to rely on word of mouth.
Like most everyone I spoke with, Robin’s obsession with pinball also began at a very early age when he fell in love with one of the key aspects of virtually every modern pinball machine out there: the lights on the table.
“And, as you grow older, you find the hobby contains so many different aspects,” he says. “There’s research, the hunt, the purchase, the restoration, the playing, fixing tech issues, building up a collection of cool games that resonate with you. There’s so much to like about it.”
For Robin, video games are pre-programmed and fairly predictable and pinball is not. “The pinball is wild! The physics of the ball have often been imitated (ironically by the video game world) but never have they been able to fully capture the wildness of real pinball.”
Pinside HQ is based in the Netherlands (Hazenkoog 17B, 1822 BS Alkmaar, Netherlands) and Robin’s door is open to pinball fanatics every Friday night, featuring a gameroom stocked with 30 different tables for the discerning player. His goal is simple: human connection via the great game of silver ball.
“Many Pinsiders have become real life friends through the website and that’s my other goal,” He says. “I love it when there are Pinside meet-ups and people meet [in real life] for the first time but act as [long-time] friends. That’s great to see and a huge motivator for me!”
My last stop on pinball’s journey through history resides within the virtual world.
In 2000, a project called “Visual Pinball” was created by programmer Randy Davis. It’s a full on virtual simulation of actual pinball, imitating the physics of a real machine and has only improved over the last two decades. The software is open source, meaning any developer can try to improve it and it’s notable for providing almost near replicas of nearly every pinball machine imaginable as well as original tables created by various coders and artists who have made this their hobby.
The Windows-based program is extremely popular in the pinball community, attracting hundreds of people of various backgrounds who have done everything from provide feedback, improve coding, create their own tables (replicas of existing tables or full-blown originals), and/or using the software as a base to create an actual “Virtual Pinball Machine”, a physical machine which can hold as many games as the builder allows.
I was able to speak with four of the various (anonymous) programmers and gamers who have utilized VP in different ways.
ME: What do you think attracts people to pinball?
“XENONPH”: I think the attraction to pinball is deeply ingrained into the subconscious. It started when we were children and we get our first ball, and we learn the laws of gravity. From the dawn of humankind, we have been fascinated with round objects that can roll. Then, you throw in a bunch of flashing lights, sound effects, and the ability to interact and control this rolling silver ball with flippers! What could be better?
“STAT”: Pinball – it’s an old, old Game, still existing in [modern times]. I also played as a child. [It was a] “Cocktail Table” but cant remember which one it was. “Black Knight” was one. Also, “Funhouse”.
“BOLTBAIT”: Pinball is a game that can be played by people of all skill levels. A beginner can challenge themselves to get better scores and even win a free game by matching the last digits of their score with a random drawing at the end of each game. As you get better, an intermediate player can win a free game by keeping the ball in play long enough to beat a specific score. Then as you learn the rules of the game and begin to complete the specific objectives of a table you can stretch your quarter into hours of fun.
“KABS”: I’m not sure, maybe the lights, music, sound bites that get stuck in your head, the challenge of being able to keep the ball alive for as long as possible…
ME: What sets pinball apart from your average video game?
“XENONPH”: With pinball, you are controlling a ball with gravity, instead of a bunch of pixels with a sword. It’s a totally different experience. You have a more physical connection to pinball, as it is actually gravity moving the metal ball towards your flippers and not a videovgame engine.
“STAT”: Pinball is like playing a small version of mini-golf in a bar.
“BOLTBAIT”: I think it is the analog nature of the machine itself. In a video game, the characters always act the same… in pinball, the ball is free to bounce in different directions depending on the way you hit it with the flippers. I think this is one of the most difficult things to simulate in a digital pinball game–something VP does extremely well. Pinball machines also require a great deal of maintenance–they play differently when dirty or broken. They can be setup by the operator to be more difficult by adjusting the angle of the playfield, for example. So, unlike video games, every pinball game in the wild plays differently. One critical difference is the fact that nudging the machine can affect the ball in play. So, you learn to manipulate the machine to keep the ball in play. Of course, you can’t push the game around too much or you risk “tilting” the game which causes you to lose the ball in play along with any bonus you scored during that ball. Finally, unlike video games, you can win a “game”. In a video game, you can only extend your game, but pinball machines allow you to win additional games. As a kid, I used to put a quarter into a game, win a few games and sell the games to the next kid in line.
“KABS”: For me, it’s being able to see it all in front me. I choose what challenges to go for, there is no wrong way, and, most of the time, I’m in control of what happens.
ME: What got you into pinball?
“XENONPH”: My brother worked in an Arcade in Southern California when I was a kid. I would spend most of my time there after school, and on weekends. He would give me pockets full of these quarters that were painted red. This was back around the time when arcades first started switching to tokens, instead of quarters, because of new gambling laws. I would play “Black Knight” and “Xenon” for hours!! (Also played a lot of Tempest, and Battlezone!!) I was hooked after that. Can never thank my brother enough for having the coolest job in the world when I was a kid! He is the reason I have this addiction!
“STAT”: In general, I was hypnotized…with ALL the games and consoles [which were out by 1970]. Later, in the 80’s to 90’s, it was a great time for me because pinball became bigger.
“BOLTBAIT”: Having a paper route as a kid and access to several machines. With a paper route, I always had money in my pocket and there were at least 5 rotating machines at the bowling ally about a mile from my house. When I was growing up, pinball machines were all over the place. A burger place about half a mile from my house had one machine. A mall about 5 miles from my house had a game room with TONS of video games and a hand full of pinball machines. Even the Payless Drug Store half a mile from my house had 2 machines. It was a different time in the 70’s and my parents allowed me to ride my bicycle all over the place.
“KABS”: When i was young, maybe 9 years old, I used to always go bowling to watch my dad and uncle play. All the bowling centres had a lot of pinball and arcade machines. I would get coins from my dad and uncle and go play what ever pinball machines were there and hyper olympics.
Since the creation of Visual Pinball, we’ve had copycats in both the “homebrew” programming world and the professional world.
Future Pinball was created five years following the release of Visual Pinball — but was discontinued due to an arguably inferior physics system and weaker graphics.
Two years after the demise of Future Pinball, Farsight Studios introduced “The Pinball Arcade” for the Mac, PC, various gaming consoles, tablets and phones. It’s still around today, but a little stripped down. We’ll get to that on Thursday.
Last, but not least, is the Pinball FX app which provides gamers with original tables and very real physics.
The existence of the software isn’t meant to replace actual pinball, says “BoltBait”. In fact, the entire point of Visual Pinball mirrors the mission of the Pacific Pinball Museum.
“Playing digital pinball machines allow you to learn the rules of a table before you play the real machine,” he says. “[It all] serve as a recorded history of the machines of the past. Long after a real pinball machine falls into disrepair, future generations will be able to play those games having the same experiences as those of us who lived through the time period where these machines were common.”
Thus, pinball goes boldly into the future and is therefore on the way to immortality.
THE END IS THE BEGINNING
I’m 41 years old.
A long time has passed since I was at that Round Table Pizza, since I was at that apartment gameroom, while Elvria complimented me on my…ahem…ball-handling.
I’m at the main Facebook campus in Menlo Park. My shift ended a half hour ago. Every Friday, I visited their “Arcade” which houses an impressive five pinball machines: Bally’s “Creature From the Black Lagoon” and four Stern tables in “Metallica”, “Rollercoaster Tycoon”, “The Simpsons’ Pinball Party”, and “Game of Thrones”. The latter has grown on me. Obviously based on the hit HBO series, it’s comprised of about half a dozen ramps and orbits which you must hit when the lights in front of them flash to prompt you. I’ve locked three straight pinballs up which triggers the “Blackwater Multiball” event. This tosses all three balls you’ve locked at you at the same time. The object, at this juncture, is to hit certain targets to get a jackpot which ultimately leads you to a free replay and, eventually, a spot on the high score list…which is big on Facebook’s big campus.
I have become a seasoned pinball vet. Whereas, as a kid, I couldn’t actually afford a “Twilight Zone” table and ended up making a “Twilight Zone”-themed version of the customizable game “Crystal Quest”, inspired by the pinball machine and practically pulled every string I could so that I could get a hold of the Atari Lynx version of “Elvira and the Party Monsters”, I now have virtual video versions of the tables on my Mac and on my gaming PC at home. I’ve invested in a joystick and button set built for two players which comes complete with pinball flipper buttons on the sides. And, when I’m not able to play at home, I have virtual versions of the games on my phone if I have that itch for a quick fix.
I’ve played my favorite tables more times than I can count. In fact, I’ve played over 100 different tables in my my 41 years on this planet. I still have that child-like feeling each time I do.
I adore retro-gaming. I have a soft spot for my pals, the Centipede, Donkey Kong, Mario, Pac-Man and the rest…but Robin at Pinside puts it more poetically beautiful than I can:
“[With pinball], there’s [another] world under the glass…and that fascinates me to no end.”