Originals

08/16/2012

The Pinball Apprentice

Coming of age in the old school arcade.

By: Ryan Winslett

Filed Under: Life Reflections

I found myself walking through the home of a complete stranger, entering a kitchen where a woman in full chef garb (Katie, I would later discover) was making omelets for half a dozen hungry people waiting patiently in a line. I was ushered around the corner, away from the smell of fried eggs and ham and into a cacophony of beeps, boops, crashes and the unmistakable ratta-tat-tat of buttons being mashed.

The large room I entered was supposed to be a garage, but Greg Davis, the owner of the house, had transformed the space into a personal arcade outfitted with 20 immaculately maintained pin tables. Greg was hosting the August tournament for the Arizona Pinball Players League (APPL) and I looked on as another dozen folks hunched over the machines, smiling or gritting their teeth while their eyes stayed focused on the dancing silver ball.

______

I was probably seven years old. I was at a bowling alley with my family and I had been sent to find my father in the arcade. He was playing a pinball machine, one of those loud, obnoxious games I had never paid much attention to. The name of the machine escapes me, but I remember it had something to do with cars. My dad asked if I wanted to take a turn and then helped me onto a bar stool so I could get a better view of the table. He showed me how to use the plunger to send the ball onto the playing field and I was off and running.

But then I tripped. And then again. And again. Keeping up with the ball was too tricky and it seemed fated to dart down one of the drains or directly between my desperately kicking flippers just about every time it made its way down the table. I ran out of balls in a matter of seconds. Pinball was stupid.

______

I plopped down on a bar stool next to the kitchen counter and exhaled, having royally botched my run on the Addams Family table. I had been in the game room for less than three minutes before returning, defeated.

“That good, huh?”

It was Dan Roth, and he, like the rest of the folks milling around, was waiting for his next turn on one of the 14 tables being played for the tournament. Dan, it turned out, was playing in the A Division. I made a lame joke about playing in the Z Division, which broke the ice for a discussion about all things pinball. Unlike me, Dan’s first time playing evolved into a lifelong passion. He said he and his wife have a Pinbot table in their home now.

“But I didn’t want him to be lonely,” Dan said. “So I got Bride of Pinbot, too.”

Dan and I talked a little about the history of pinball and how, back in 80’s and 90’s, home video game consoles began to overshadow dedicated arcades. During that same time, though, digital arcade games were choking out the majority of pinball culture.

______

I was 16 and vacationing with the family in Laughlin, Nevada. My mom was attending a week-long radiology convention, which meant five days of swimming, tennis and video games for my brother and I. We had taken this trip before, so we had learned that it was best to save up all of our arcade tickets – hiding them under our clothes in the motel room drawer like a squirrel stocking up for winter – until the last day. After that much playing, we knew we could have just about any prize behind the counter.

 

Like every year we visited Laughlin, I remember eying the select number of pinball tables they had available for play, tucked away in some dark, forgotten corner. I had barely bothered with the machines throughout my childhood and, even now, I couldn’t understand the appeal of the things. Unlike the dump truck token drop machine I had mastered the timing on, doing well on a pinball machine wouldn’t add to my growing mountain of prize tickets. And besides, why would I play pinball when something like Tekken Tag Tournament was available?

______

I stepped up to The Twilight Zone table and felt my fingertips start to sweat. Before attending this APPL event, I had only been playing pinball on physical tables for a couple of months, and even then only during a few specially planned trips. I had started lurking on pinball forums and browsing random top 10 lists, and many tend to agree that The Twilight Zone is one of the best experiences you can have with a ball and two flippers. I also happen to be a huge fan of the show, so seeing Rob Sterling and all of his wonderfully twisted tales represented on a beautiful playing field set my heart aflutter. This was the one table I desperately wanted to play, and I only had three balls to make my time with the machine count.

I did poorly. Other than my half-decent run on Elvis, that was actually par for the course on the day. I had played a few tables during warm-ups and done alright, but things just weren’t going my way during tournament play.

Keep in mind that I have no business playing in a pinball tournament in the first place. I was there for fun and, despite how many times I groaned as I watched the ball make a beeline for the drain on Monopoly, Dirty Harry and Dracula, I was still having a wonderful time. I was surrounded by like-minded, easy-going people who just wanted to play some pinball.

I called over the judge to record my abysmal score and gave The Twilight Zone a final look, desperately wanting to ignore the rules and hit the red, flashing start button just one more time. I’ll do better next time.

______

It was May of 2009 and a new game called Zen Pinball had debuted on the PlayStation Network. It was getting good reviews and I guess I had a few dollars to burn because, despite my general lack of interest, I decided to make the purchase.

The tables weren’t based on anything in the real world, but I was surprised to find I was really enjoying myself. I learned that pinball tables had rules and objectives, a fact that had escaped me clear into adulthood. All this time and I had figured the object was simply to keep the ball moving as long as possible.

I devoured every table that was released for Zen Pinball. I also picked up The Pinball Arcade more recently and quickly fell in love with its collection of real world tables. That led to an itch at the back of my mind: Could I find these tables somewhere in my home state?

Then there was a chance encounter with Mark Pearson while working on a possible story for my local newspaper. Mark is one of the organizers of the APPL and he asked if I’d like to be kept in the loop about upcoming tournaments. I said I would like that very much.

______

There is something about pinball that is finally clicking with me. I think it’s the spontaneity of the game. No matter how well I do, that ball always has the potential to do something unexpected.

As legendary designer Harry Williams used to say, and as Dan quoted during our chat at the APPL event, “The ball is wild.” And no matter how hard you try to fight it, the table always wins.

After a while, each table begins to take on a personality of its own. I hate some because they are full of high-risk shots that I always manage to botch. I love others because something about their layout is perfectly in sync with my own play style. Some tables feel like a grudge match, while others feel like a waltz. All, though, demand that I keep coming back for more.

[art credit 1, 2]

Filed Under: Life Reflections

About the Author:
Ryan Winslett is an Arizona-based journalist and freelance writer. He is a contributing writer for Gaming Blend and his work has also appeared on Joystiq, Gamasutra and Joystick Division. His only crime is loving too much.

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