Pinball Week, Day 6: California Extreme 2019

From Monday, July 22, through Friday, July 26, we will be running articles about pinball in the lead-up to Santa Clara, California’s “California Extreme” video game and pinball expo.

For the next five days, we will take a look at the history of pinball, the resurgence of its popularity, we’ll count down the 60 best machines of all-time and we’ll take a look at pinball games you can play on your computer, game system, or mobile device so you don’t have to venture to an arcade to get the experience.

We will also feature thoughts from various people in the world of video games and pinballs which range from owners to hobbyists to the gamers themselves.

We hope you enjoy it!

If you missed previous articles, you can find them here:

Pinball Week, Day 1: The Top 60 Tables of All-Time (#60-#41)
Pinball Week, Day 2: A Brief History of the Silver Ball
Pinball Week, Day 3: The Top 60 Tables of All-Time (#40-#21)
Pinball Week: Day 4: The World of Virtual Pinball
Pinball Week, Day 5: The Top 60 Tables of All-Time (#20 – #1)

The last weekend of July, each year, is a National Holiday for video game fans across the California Bay Area — and some parts of the nation and the world, as it turns out.

July 27th and July 28th of this year, California Extreme returns for the 23rd time. It’s been held, at least the last few years, at the Santa Clara Hyatt Regency across from Levi Stadium, the home of the San Francisco 49ers.

The show is multi-layered, featuring tons of arcade and pinball machines, classic, modern, and virtual, and also features sit-down stations where you can indulge in some old-school console gaming by way of a Nintendo Entertainment System or a Sega Dreamcast.

There are two huge ballrooms in the Hyatt that are dedicated to this event. Each hall is filled to the brim with arcade and pinball machines. There’s a $40 dollar entrance fee to this event, but once you get in, every single machines is set on Free Play, so you can leave your quarters at home. And the event is so popular, you actually have to wait in line, not unlike with a Disneyland attraction, to play what you want to play. The waits may be long, especially for the newer stuff and the classics, but it’s worth it all to get that thrill you might have had as a child

“I’ve been coming to this event and, eventually, helping out with this event since 2000,” says Mark Birsching, one of the head organizers of the event. He thinks about what he just said for a second, then says, “2001?” He looks at his compatriots who all share a laugh.

“It’s been a long time!” Shouts one of them.

“I saw you throughout the day, running around every which way, handling everything,” I say

Birsching smiles. He says, “Well, I don’t handle everything, I’m just more the ‘upper level’, uh…” He stops himself, perhaps registering how he might sound right now, then starts again. “I make a lot of decisions.”

Birsching is my liaison today, responsible for getting me (and, by proxy, The Workprint) into the show so that we could cover it.

And he’s being modest.

He’s been a mainstay at California Extreme since its inception, when it was a smaller event, held in Parkside Hall at downtown San Jose, California’s famous Tech Museum.

He’s been playing pinball even longer than that.

“Since I was eight years old,” he says. “I went to a bowling alley and somebody would say ‘Aw, I don’t wanna play this, you play this’ and I did. I’ve loved it ever since. This was before there were video games, before video arcades. There was only pinball and I think that’s why I prefer pinball to arcade games.”

The feeling is mutual. I love my retro-gaming. I have a PC with a nice graphics card which runs MAME, Future Pinball, and Visual Pinball through a frontend called “Pinball X”. Aside from what I covered in my article about the history of the game, it’s somewhat difficult to find a slew of pinball games, within five miles, all in one place.

The first stop on my tour through this year’s event is Stern Pinball’s exhibit. What Apple was to the “MacWorld” Expo in San Francisco, Stern is to the entire pinball world. Their highlight in 2016 was “Ghostbusters”, based on the hit 1984 action comedy. The year following that was their “Star Wars” and “Aerosmith” table. Last year, it was “Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast”.

This year, it’s “Black Knight: Sword of Rage”, the third in the popular “Black Knight” pinball series which started in the early 80’s with “Black Knight” and continued in the late 80’s with “Black Knight 2000”.

Much like 2015’s “Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons”, It’s a unique game for Stern in that it doesn’t involve a major movie or television property like Batman or “Game of Thrones” or a legendary, world-renowned rock band like Metallica or Aerosmith playing a part in its theming. It’s a modern piece, as only Stern could deliver, with its trademark LED lighting, rock music soundtrack, and full video display, showing us the Knight in all his CGI splendor.

It’s the work of veteran pinball designer, Steve Ritchie, who has not only designed some of the most classic tables in pinball history, he also was on the creative teams for the “Black Knight” machines prior to this one.

“I think we got this comment [from a friend],” He says. “He goes, ‘THE ARTWORK LOOKS LIKE IT WAS DONE WITH A MELTY CRAYON!’ And I don’t see that. I see good, old school pinball art.”

Ritchie is 69 years young. He has a quick sense of humor and he’s gruff. That’s a lethal combination. He’ll tell you exactly what’s on his mind — but, sometimes, it won’t exactly be pretty. He started at Atari, back when two young men named Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs worked there. “My stories about the two of them aren’t funny, they’re nasty, but I’ll tell you,” says Ritchie and, at first, it’s fairly benign. Wozniak was a “great guy” and a “great programmer”, but Ritchie laments working around Jobs or even getting near him. “He stunk,” he says. “I’d say hi to him but he’d never say hi in return.” He pauses, then says, “I can’t even bring myself to say his last name, I never liked him. Woz was way, way into what he did…Jobs was a dick. He treated his wife terribly…and his daughter.”

A hush falls over the room. Everyone knew this about Jobs but you can tell Ritchie treats this as a professional tragedy. He doesn’t want to say any of this about a colleague…but, since the question was asked, at the very least, RItchie tries to inject some dry levity into things, and strikes a somewhat forgiving tone about one of the Silicon Valley’s folk heroes: “He’s proof that the bad die young, too…unfortunately.”

Steve Ritchie
Veteran pinball designer Steve Ritchie takes questions at California Extreme 2019.

There’s a bit more fun to be had when it comes to discussing the reasons why the Magna-Save was put dead center on the machine rather than near the right flipper: “I KNOW that anybody who had EVER played ‘Black Knight’ and ‘Black Knight 2000’ expected the Magna-Save to be next to the right flipper. We couldn’t do that because we already had the button and, it’s like…personally, I’d already mastered the use of that button. I’ve used it to launch balls, I’ve used it a million times in other games, so…I’m ok with it.”

He’s back to having fun now, but he’s not through:

“I’ll also say this: you can modify the feature on your cabinet. You’ll completely wreck the resale value…” The crowd laughs. “And, THEN, I’ll have to do a condemnation video about you! The green button will remain there and people will know how to start the game.”

The reason for the revival of “Black Knight”?

“I had previously done ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Game of Thrones’. Those two were, how shall I say, ‘approval-heavy’. With ‘Star Wars’, [almost everything was approved’.] With ‘Game of Thrones’, they said stuff like, ‘No humor,’ and I was, like, ‘Really?! No humor?! Damn…[they said], ‘No nudity,’ and I’d never put nudity on a game anyway, but it’s like…you know, you submit a piece of art, it comes back with, like, five or six things circled, ‘do this’, ‘change this color to puce…whatever…do other things and, eventually, it comes back with just one circle and I just initialed it after a while.”

The one thing he won’t let slip is his or Stern’s next project.

He simply doesn’t like discussing them.

Stern’s list of games on exhibit are insane this year: all versions of “Guardians of the Galaxy”, The Munsters”, “Deadpool”, “Aerosmith”, “Iron Maiden”, and “Black Knight: Sword of Rage” are all on display (as well as their predecessors right next to them) but there are two Stern games I have yet to play in “The Beatles”, a table obviously based on the legendary band of the same name and “Batman ’66”, a table based on the TV series with the late Adam West and Burt Ward.

It’s always a thrill to play games you’ve never played. Two years ago, when my wife and I attended this expo, “Batman ’66” was advertised but wasn’t on the show floor, much to our disappointment. Here it was, in all its glory. I didn’t exactly love the table but, then, it’s hard to hear anything when the sound of hundreds of people and an equal number of various machines are in your ear.

“Batman ’66” is a good Stern pin. The theming for the table is spot-on and it’s obvious Stern put more thought into this “Batman” then they did with their horribly ordinary Chris Nolan “Batman” table. The table is colorful and beautiful with Stern going all in with clips, audio, and music from the 1966 TV show. The lighting is nice and bright (I love the little “Bat” symbol” that appears when you light up the bottom slingshots) and the ruleset is pretty straightforward, yet complicated being that there are several missions to complete. I love the Batphone and Batmobile shots — though, for some reason, the designers thought to put the stupid crane from “Batman: The Dark Knight” in this table. Why, exactly? Is this a homage to that game? It’s just arbitrary and weird and doesn’t seem to serve any real purpose. The gameplay is also fairly slow, which is odd. All in all, I like the table but didn’t totally love it.

I attempt to wait in a line to play “The Beatles” but there’s a 4-player game going on and a slew of people waiting for a turn after that. A 4-player game is a good 20 minutes to a half hour depending on skill level, so I take the time to visit some tournament halls to see if I can get at some pinball action I’m not able to in the main hall.

After a quick jaunt upstairs, I’m told by the attendant that I can go in and “look, but not touch.” The look on my face obviously said “I need clarification on what you just said,” and she says, “You can’t play a single game in the tournament hall. But go in and take all the pictures you want!” Of course, I try to sweet-talk her with my badass press credentials, to which she says, “Nope, but try the taco bar downstairs. They might give you a discount.”

This hall features some classics in “Sorcerer”, “TRON: Legacy”, and “Attack From Mars” and the it’s obvious they’re mixing in some youth here with “Wizard of Oz” and American Pinball’s “Houdini”…but the attraction that makes me think about breaking my vow to “look, but not touch” is Dutch Pinball’s “The Big Lebowski”, a machine so rare, there are only 40 in existence on the entire planet. That’s less than 1 per state in our country if you’re doing the math and, if that doesn’t seem like a small amount to you, “Twilight Zone” sold over 15,000 tables all over the world at one point.

The table has a second playfield under the main playfield (a’la “Black Hole”) modeled after a bowling alley (complete with pins), as well as a model of Walter and The Dude’s bowling alley settled in the right corner (complete with tacky neon on the side) and, of course, The Dude’s signature drink, The White Russian on the middle right side of the table. It’s a gorgeous looking table, one which “really ties the room together”, if I can use a phrase from The Dude, and begs to be let loose if only the pinball goddesses manning the desk outside weren’t frowning upon us.

However, fortune has smiled on me: when I make my way downstairs, a Beatles table opens up for me to play. This is a table I didn’t expect much from. The previews from Stern made it seem like it was an afterthought, a palate-cleansing quickie designed to hold the average gamer over for the next big table. Additionally, I had read the early reviews: Stern copied the layout from “Seawitch”, an older game from their catalogue.

If I were giving out prizes at CAX, “The Beatles” might have been “Best in Show”.

This table is gorgeous and one of the best things Stern has put out in recent years. Sometimes, less is more. It’s a throwback to the old EM (electro-mechanical) tables, featuring bumpers, drop targets, and an orbit loop. No ramps are present here. The object of the game is fairly simple: collect songs, get multiball. The songs are, of course, sizeable samples of the band’s songs, including “Hold Your Hand”, “Ticket to Ride” and “Drive My Car”.

The color on the table absolutely pops with gold and sky blue lights in various spots. The one gimmick is the arbitrary spinning vinyl record which can alter the path of your ball on the way down, but it’s hardly an issue and doesn’t add much to the challenge. It’s not asking a lot. Unlike Stern’s other EM throwback, “Whoa Nellie Big Juicy Melons”, however, the game keeps you coming back for more because of the theming and because the gameplay is both smooth AND quick, which is something I never thought I’d say for a table as basic as this one.

Other than that, this is one of the most fun tables Stern has put out in some time, an unexpected surprise.

The last table I hit before moving on in my quest to pick the minds of the people around me is the aforementioned “Houdini” by American Pinball.

“Houdini” LOOKS great. I’m a huge fan of machines with a “showmanship” theme to it (like “Theatre of Magic”, “Cirqus Voltaire”, etc.) and it also has an air of mystery with an industrial steampunk vibe tossed in. The toys include a Ouija planchette on the right side, Houdini’s magic chest in the far right corner, and my favorite, a mini theater with red curtains surrounding the stage near top center which you can interact with.

The problem I have with the machine is that it plays extremely slow. Even if you felt like you got every bit of the ball with the flipper, the speed feels slower than it should be. Even when the ball falls, it rolls slow. Nearly every shot feels clunky as a result.

The ruleset is decent — though it’s annoying when you it tells you to shoot at a ramp or orbit — and a couple ramps and orbits are lit up next to the one they’re telling you to shoot at. And that’s another problem: the machine talks you through EVERYTHING in detail: “SHOOT THOSE BLINKING BLUE RAMP SHOTS TO MAKE HOUDINI CATCH A BULLET IN HIS MOUTH”; “SHOOT FOR THE TWO RAMPS WHICH MAY OR MAY NOT BE ALTERNATING, WE HAVE NO IDEA, BUT SHOOT AT THEM ANYHOW”…dude, just let me play. Light the ramps I’m supposed to be shooting at and let me go.

Also, the video display is fine. It’s neat when you lose a ball and the curtains “close” on the display. But Houdini walking around? Not so much. The animation for this is just plain stiff and his likeness is plain terrible.

Anyhow, it’s a nice table but the lack of momentum and speed kills it for me.

It’s here that I meet “Barak” (“like the former President” he says, “but without the ‘C’ in the middle”) who is just an attendee at CAX. He’s been coming to the expo for some time, having fallen in love with pinball when he was a kid.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

“I played it when I was young,” he says. “I had an Atari 2600…oh, and a Magnavox game system…but pinball was what I came back to. Pinbot was my favorite. I love that table.”

It’s amazing the answers you get when you ask somebody what their favorite table is.

For Mark Birsching, it’s just slightly different, yet very close to what Pinside’s Robin van Mourik told me in “A Brief History of the Silver Ball”: “I love Black Knight 2000 and Black Hole…but I think any machine that I work on until I finish it is my favorite.”

And for Steve Ritchie, it’s fairly simple: “I like The Addams Family,” which is something Ritchie has in common with Rick Priesting, a representative of Zen’s “Pinball FX 3” virtual pinball system. If you haven’t seen these, it’s absolutely insane.

We covered the world of virtual pinball in “A Brief History of the Silver Ball” as well as “The World of Virtual Pinball”. The latter covered the various apps which allow you to play a good game of pin on your phone, tablet, game console, PC, or Mac. “Pinball FX 3” was one of these…but we didn’t exactly touch on how an app such as PFX3 applies to a virtual cabinet.

At California Extreme, Zen has their cabinets on full display. They’re a little bigger than your average pinball cabinet but they house around 80 games (of their creation, not licensed titles) on one cabinet. Rick says that the company has been shopping the PFX3 cabinets to various arcade bars around the country and that a major company may be signing on, as soon as Tuesday, to feature their virtual pinball cabinets full-time..

When I ask why this place doesn’t just install pinball games in their arcades, Rick says, “It’s a maintenance issue. [The establishment] attempted to put pinball games in but the clientele is rough with everything so you’d have constant breakdowns. With a cabinet like ours, you just have to worry about the upkeep of the computer hardware and software running things. There’s no downtime, there’s no breakdowns, there’s nothing to repair. People crowd around the sucker and they like it.”

Whereas Steve Ritchie of Stern tells me that “virtual pinball is pinball, but not real pinball”, Rick says he thinks that Zen’s brand of software-based virtual pinball can co-exist with regular pinball.

“It’s bringing people into playing pinball that never would have been attracted to real pinball, naturally,” he smiles with glee. “Our stuff is the ‘gateway drug’, so to speak. You get them in and kids end up playing [our stuff] and then playing [other stuff[ on their PlayStation and they find video versions of real tables and they play those, then they come here and see the real versions and go, ‘Oh! This is the game that the video version is based on!'”

“Back to the Future” pinball on Pinball FX 3.

To the people who scoff at the notion that virtual pinball isn’t real pinball, Rick simply says, “I say to them that it isn’t really trying to be real pinball. We live in the same world. It’s about enjoying a game and having fun. Who’s going to judge another person’s taste in games? Can’t we enjoy both?”

But what about the purity of real pinball vs. virtual pinball?

Rick says, “There’s an arcade in Chicago called ‘Logan’s Arcade’. They had a Star Wars celebration there and we got permission from LucasFilm to promote our virtual cabinets there. Logan’s, mind you, is a hotbed of hardcore league pinball play. There are gamers there who, traditionally, do not like [what we have]. One of the most cynical players just walked up to me and was basically like, ‘This isn’t really pinball’ and we got into a conversation and [I convinced him to just try it out]. We were watching this guy the whole time and, by the time we were ready to leave, he was enjoying himself! He’s like, ‘It’s got flipper lag but once you get used to it, it’s not so bad!”

The best thing about virtual pinball, according to Rick?

“The immediate response to culture in the country,” he says. “If there’s another Star Wars movie, you’re gonna see a virtual table based on that just a month or two later. That would normally take a real pinball company a couple years to do, plus we can add elements you can’t find on a traditional pinball machine. And, our cabinets can connect to the Internet so you will always have the new media I was telling you about.”

It isn’t coincidence that both Rick and Priesting mention “The Addams Family”. The table, as I discussed, was crafted by Pat Lawlor whose “Twilight Zone” is my, personal, #1 Table of All-Time. It took me some time to locate it but that machine was in the second hall this year, a bit beat up with the top right and left flippers stuck and not functioning correctly. I’m so used to playing that game that I could live without the two top flippers (you can find ways around it but it cuts out half the fun) but it always breaks my heart to see a table that’s a bit worse for wear..

“Twilight Zone” is just one of the games I look forward to playing when I am at this expo. “Elvira and the Party Monsters”, “TRON Legacy” and “Black Hole” are high on my list to play as well. The latter was absent two years ago, much to my sadness, but it made an appearance this year –until it was shut off for half the time I was there due to a malfunction. Luckily, the owners showed up to fix it and I got to play the 1981 Gottlieb classic as if it were brand-new. I even finally schooled a kid who played the turn before me and showed him how to hit the famed second playfield underneath the main one. It felt good to show somebody how to put the same smile I had on their face.

When I visit CAX, I’m always looking forward to new experiences but, ultimately, it’s the camaraderie I live for. Myself, I can play versions of these games at any time. I know where to go to get my physical “Twilight Zone” fix or just a straight pinball fix and, if I can’t get that, I can just get on my PC, phone, or tablet and play some virtual pinball. But it always feels good to see a new generation fall head over heels for an obsession I’ve had for years.

“This is a community show,” says Mark Birsching. “People bring games because they want to bring them. They want to show them off, they wanna play their games and have others play their games and they want to talk to each other. Without the volunteers here, we wouldn’t have a show. There’s five or six different tournaments, both arcade and pinball, in the show, so…in the end, it’s about the game community.”

Matt Perri
Matt Perri
Matt Perri is one of those literary Ronin you’ve never heard of until he shows up and tells you he’s a literary Ronin. He’s a native Californian, a film buff, old school gamer geek, and a sports/entertainment fan. A lifelong Giants, 49ers and Sharks fan, he also covers the world of pro-wrestling, writing recaps for WWE Monday Night RAW and Total Divas at Scott’s Blog of Doom. You can follow the guy on Twitter via @PerriTheSmark as well as here at The Workprint and his own blog, Matt's Entertainment.

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