Special When Lit - My Pinball Story

Posted By: Michael
Posted On: 04/18/13 07:55 AM

Author Photo: Michael I just watched a pretty interesting documentary on Pinball called Special When Lit. It mapped out the industry over 30 years up to its decline when the major pinball machine manufacturers started to close around 2006. It had interviews with engineers, manufacturers, arcade owners and of course pinball players from the tournament circuit.

The film seems to try to both shine a light on the people involved in the "magic" of pinball as well as explain its demise.

It points to video games as a huge part of the downfall. But there was a resurgence of pinball in the early 90s (when i became an enthusiast myself). So the video games obviously weren't the end all be all. I think a lot of the success pinball saw in the 90s was due to a bunch of state of the art machines they were making at the time. I got good on Earthshaker and Bride of Pinbot but i got really excited when Addams Family came out because it was so much more intense. At which point I and a few of my pinball buddies were just waiting for the bowling alley to get the next new machine. Twilight Zone, Attack from Mars, and Medieval Madness (my fav) come to mind. Then the industry starts to decline again until total dismantlement 10 years later.

I found it interesting that while they explored the cultural reasons for the failure, they didn't explore it far enough. They never discuss that the mentality of the American has changed to the point where for the most part nobody can appreciate the value of a man vs machine scenario anymore. Online gaming would be a big part of that as well as social networking. The idea that anyone would do anything at all if they couldn't get feedback from peers these days is sadly laughable. They also don't discuss the pitiful conditions the machines were allowed to fall to. So I'll do that now. enjoy!

Pinball is the epitome of a zero peer feedback activity. Its you and the machine. No bullshit - No excuses.

I remember going to Don Carter's in Kendall (torn down =[) . I would meet up with some friends. Maybe bowl, then play some Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter against whoever else was there. You play someone, you beat them and you get feedback from them and from whoever else was watching while waiting to play. You lose, you get feedback from whoever just beat you (or so i imagine - i never lost). That's part of life and I understand it. As the night wore on and the population of the arcade would wind down, a few stragglers would end up on the pinball machines. It was always the same people and at first I wasn't one of them. My friend Mark, however was. A lot of times he was my ride home so I would go play single player Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter II until I ran out of quarters while he played Bride of Pinbot. I'd usually be broke long before he was done and I would go watch him play and be bored to tears. He could play for hours on one quarter because he kept getting free games. I totally didn't get it. It's not like I had never played pinball before, but it just didn't seem that interesting to me. So one day I am waiting for him to finish cause I have no more money and I'm whining at him to quit so we can leave when he slams a token down on the machine next to his. He said something to the effect of (shut the fuck up and play that). The machine was Earthshaker.

It totally looked unappealing. Its got a picture of a douche in a red convertible with a girl driving on what I guess was supposed to be a road somewhere in California. Whats fun about that? But whatever. I take the quarter and plunk it in and start playing. I wasn't completely inept but if you don't have any pinball experience, the only goal is to not lose the ball down the hole. It was easy enough and I made the quarter last about 10 minutes which is halfway decent return on investment. But then I was done. Mark was still playing. I had already heard another tell tale Click from his machine indicating that he had earned another free game. We had both been playing for 10 minutes or so but I didn't earn any free games. So I figure his machine is easier to get free games on. I tell him I want to play that machine. So after he is done with that game he complains that Earthshaker sucks but agrees to switch anyways. I took his next free game and he payed to play Earthshaker. Like 5 minutes later Im done with his first free credit and started a second game ( he had like 4 credits in there at that point ). Then I hear that fucking click come out of the Earthshaker machine. He has already got a free game. WTF? He did in 5 minutes what I couldn't do in 10 (thats what she said). So when I clear Bride of Pinbot of all its credits, I start watching him play Earthshaker. It really was akin to watching a ballet performance (they make that reference a lot in the documentary). So at this point I have just decided that Mark is a pinball wizard and how cool was it that I knew him. I wasn't all that cool so it was valid to say that at the time. But since I was really paying attention now, I wasn't just observing how good he was at pinball, but also began to understand the rules of the game. That ramp is useless until you've hit that. This ramp is worth more if you hit that post first. It's a series of tasks that have to be accomplished in order and in allotted times and if you don't take the tasks into account, regardless of your skill at keeping the ball in play, your luck will run out long before you earn any significant points. But whatever, eventually we went home...Earthshaker well populated with free credits for some kid to excitedly discover the next day.

So the next time we went to Don Carter's, when I was done whooping everyone's ass at MK, I went to the pinball machines. It wasn't immediate for sure. Once you start attacking the machine at the task level, your mind wanders away from keeping the ball in play and you definitely see a lot more go down the drain. It's not just the concentration factor either. When you play the machine correctly, the ball moves much faster...on good machines anyways. There are some machines where the ball will actually slow down when you do something right, but I have always felt that the best machines are the ones where the momentum of the ball is increasing if you are playing well. So I start to get pretty good at working the tasks and protecting the ball. Do that well enough, lock 2 balls, get a multi-ball and shoot for jackpots. That machine was set up so with 2 jackpots, or maybe even just one if you had racked up enough shit points, you could get a free game. So after about 2 weeks, I could play Earthshaker indefinitely on a single quarter.

The best part was, I could play by myself with no one around and no feedback from my peers because the machine was giving me all the feedback i needed (she also said that). It wasnt like single player video games either because I wasn't playing an algorithm. There were patterns for sure, but in the end physics was the driving factor and could subtly change the game from shot to shot. You were essentially playing a fractal and I really did enjoy it. After a while I understood why Mark felt that Earthshaker sucked. It didnt suck, but it wasn't that challenging. It had limited tasks and possibilities. I never really got TOO into Bride of Pinbot though. I appreciated the complexity of the game but it had a really wide flipper gap and that meant you HAD to tilt the machine. I got halfway decent at tilting, but ultimately decided that if titling was a requirement for a machine that I'd never really embrace it. So over the next couple of years, I played and mastered machines like Addams Family and eventually Medieval Madness. These machines were state of the art and offered story, comedy, even celebrity voice-overs. They were a big draw too. All of a sudden, there were a lot of people at the pinball machines. People were showing up because they heard Don Carter's had this machine or that machine. The popularity had a downside too. While it was nice to have people around to discuss this hobby with, all of a sudden you had to wait in line to play.

Anyhow this brings me to my last reasoning for the fail of the industry that wasn't mentioned in the film - Quality and Maintenance. Certainly I had grown out of pinball as other things became priorities. I think I had finally gotten a girlfriend around that time and I am sure that kept me from my pinball duties but I wasn't against playing when I saw one of my favorite machines at an arcade or movie theater or bar or whatever. But it really seemed like by 97 or 98 that you would be throwing your quarters away. A flipper might be broken. The plunger might be weak. The balance would be off so that you couldn't get a ball to go up a ramp no matter how perfect you hit it. It became disheartening. Also, the machines that were coming out were getting very weak design wise. They were relying heavily on licensed media. Here's a Hulk machine to go with the movie, but it was an uninteresting machine with lame physics, retarded tasks and it seemed more designed to eat quarters than to create an enjoyable experience. Weird right? Bottom line capitalism destroying an industry? So while I love pinball and would really enjoy a good game from time to time, the rare instances I would see some machines, it was burnt into my head that those machines were either broken or lame. Any business school temp knows that its easier to keep a customer than to get a new one and they lost me. If I was brought into the hobby by word of mouth but the industry couldn't be bothered to keep me enthusiastic about it then that's on them. If I knew where solid, well designed machines were I am certain I would have hooked a few of my friends on pinball. I wish the Special When Lit documentary would have discussed that aspect of it since it took the time to interview heads of companies who were near to tears discussing how sad it was that no one cared about pinball anymore. What's really sad is that the other impeding factors would probably make a resurgence of the genre an impossible occurrence. If it was only a fad, like a game of pinball itself when it was done correctly it had momentum that could have kept it alive for a lot longer. Those moguls need to stop pretending the ball snuck down the sides when they let it drop right down the middle into the drink. But i know what you are thinking.

Relax, its only pinball! (SEO LOL).

Addition:
I thought this was cool. While i was looking for an image of Medieval Madness, I found this video...its digital now. I will be getting this for sure!