|By Zach Patterson||Monday, 12 May 2008|
I’m not going to sit here and claim that I’m the most educated or informed person on pinball games, but I’ve loved playing them since I was old enough to see the playing field. I grew up during a licensed age of pinball machines, where you could find the big blockbuster summer movies or popular shows in pinball form at your local arcades. I have fond memories playing Terminator 2, Simpsons, Star Wars, and other classics at arcades at the beach and at home. However, the pinball industry kinda collapsed in a hurry during the 90′s, and there is only one major company out there still making them, and very few even come out anymore. It’s understandable to a point, because pinball machines have a lot of moving parts (moving parts = maintenance), and aren’t near as flashy as a DDR or Time Crisis or racing game machine. So not only will they end up being more expensive to maintain, but they may not pull their weight in attracting customers. All the same, pinball has been an arcade mainstay for generations, and to this day, there are few games you can find that can be picked up and enjoyed as casually as pinball. With that in mind, when my brother invited me to a pinball convention in Allentown, PA, I looked forward to rekindling a bit of my youth for a moderate entrance fee. Of course, the first thing I noticed there was that there were some true “pinball wizards” there. Middle aged dudes who were true pros, tilting machines like a pros and thrusting their hips into the machines with each tap of the flippers like they were anxiously mounting a fine young woman. You see them racking up huge scores on a single ball and there’s equal amounts appreciation and bewilderment on how one becomes that good at pinball. Luckily, however, there were many people like myself there just looking to play some machines and have a good time. It was pretty great to have such a wide selection of games on free play. They had games from the 50′s up to the 2000′s, and it was interesting to see how games changed over the years. All the early machines were very simple and use just consisted of bumpers, some lights, and ball locks. Many of them were made of wood, and it was impressive to see them in such good shape. Pinball was obviously a much different beast in the past as well, since I was actually rather surprised at how much slower the old games were compared to the hard flipper launches of modern machines. The older games from the 50′s and 60′s required much more care to score points and I admit I didn’t have near as much fun on them, but they were a nice history lesson at the very least. What I really enjoyed was the aged licensed games and the ability to just jump into these games and see what the developer of the machine did with the license. Demolition Man, the forgettable Snipes/Stallone action flick from the 90′s was actually an awesome pinball table, with futurist gun handle triggers mounted on top of the machine to control the flippers. Baywatch, developed by Sega, went with a beach themed table with primitive use of the LCD screen to show short clips of the lifeguards running or diving into the water when you hit ramps. Then of course there was the classic Simpsons pinball machine from the early part of the series, and not far away from it was a 2004 Simpsons Pinball Party, which was one of the coolest and most complex machines I’ve ever seen. Then there were some oddballs like Big Hurt Frank Thomas baseball
pinball or Street Fighter II Pinball, which seems like bizarre things to make into a pinball machine, but there they were. I really enjoyed the Family Guy machine, which was another recent one, which included a mini-pinball machine minigame on the board once you hit the one ball lock enough times. It was a nicely done and interesting machine. Even non-licensed games like the one Soccer pinball game gave you a real appreciation for the designers of these games, where they took the idea of pinball, and allowed you to transform the ball into a soccer ball and try to get it past a moving goalie while hitting ramps and “defeating” other teams. Cool idea, executed well. There were even a few other newer games that had multiple levels, where the field of play would be below the current one and you would view it through a transparent viewing glass, or you would launch the ball up to a higher plane to play in a small field pinball area. A lot of these games, and especially the older classic games, had great art on them, since that pretty much was the first thing the person would see when looking at them, and it had to
catch their eye. Lots of ladies with BBTs in provocative poses, or dudes in dramatic action poses, and of course most of the 90′s machines prominently featured their license on them. One machine from 1980, Future Spa, had about the most ridiculous premise for a pinball machine (a spa in some vast utopian Flash Gordon-esque future), and the machine was just loaded with muscle bound mustachio’d dudes and near naked bountiful breasted women (click the pic for a closer view): It’s a shame that pinball machines are pretty much relegated to these kind of events, because it’s not like they stopped being fun. Each machine had its own twist on the same basic idea, and most of them were genuinely creative in their layout and use of theme. It’s so easy to pick up and play these things and immediately see what the creators want you to do, and that’s a credit to smart design, since it is not always easy for the average joe to pick up something and know exactly what to do. The beauty of them is that you can play them mindlessly with others or by yourself and have fun, or you can carefully plan shots and aim for big points and massive multiball combos when playing competitively. To this day, they are a great reminder of pre-video gaming and how much fun just keeping a ball from falling down a center divide can be. Look for conventions near you and visit one. They are a great trip for anyone who appreciates pinball.