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Pinball Action!

Pinball? Damn straight!

Forget that Mortal Street Kombat Super Sonic Mario Hedgehog crap, if you ever thought about it at all. For pinball is the thinking person's arcade diversion (or is that a contradiction in terms?). Of course, pinball, like video games, demands a high level of hand/eye coordination, which is often how kids justify spending hours on end playing the damn things. But instead of staring blankly at a flat screen trying to outwit some human-generated program, the very essence of pinball is to pit oneself against the forces of nature, specifically, the fundamental laws of physics. One must try to manipulate a silver ball to specific points across an angled plane before gravity eventually prevails, rather than jumping around beating the shit out of a pre-programmed opponent. Kinda like the gulf that separates that computerized dance/techno/ rave/house drivel from no-nonsense, straightforward punk rock, or the difference between inferior digitized CDs and classic lo-fi analog vinyl.

In pinball there's no need to identify with a violent, macho persona as in those brutally escapist battle-type games, rather, the ball (you) is unarmed, androgynous, and pretty much open to equal opportunity. Not to say that those who play pinball are necessarily pacifists, as I've often witnessed people kick, punch, and curse machines when they lose. But overall pinball is fairly bloodless (except in the Dracula game) and there isn't any disembowelment involved, i.e. heads torn off, spinal cords ripped out, guys on fire, etc. And, despite rumors to the contrary, I have found no direct evidence that the mob controls the pinball market. If you don't buy any of these rationales, just remember two simple words -- cheap thrills. So if you (like me) are easily amused, up to a little challenge, and most importantly, have some extra change, read on.

Unfortunately, all the cool pinball games from the '70s and earlier (like KISS, Playboy, Rolling Stones, Evel Knievel, and Fireball) are now collector's items, so chances are slim that you'll ever get to play those anywhere. During the '80s pinball was overshadowed by the explosion of video games, and to my knowledge no really great machines came out. However, plenty of the other ones that were made during those years remain. They're relatively boring by today's standards, but still a bargain at only 25¢ per game. The last few years have brought an onslaught of new, more colorful, technologically superior, and strategically more complex games packed with all sorts of wild stuff: six-ball action, weird magnetic trickery, lighted animation, ramps galore, extra flippers, stereophonic sound effects -- the works. One stupid "innovation" though is how the scoring systems are jacked up so ridiculously high. Ten million points is considered a low score, and with some practice, scores upwards of 100 million are not uncommon. Unsurprisingly, the games coming out these days also cost more to play: 50¢ per game, 75¢ for two, or a "best value" of three games for $1.

It's no accident that the most popular among the current wave of games have movie tie-ins. It makes perfect sense in this age of overstimulation that ultra-hyped movies with blockbuster potential are heavily promoted through these costly machines (about $3,000 each). Both cater to short attention spans demanding safe, inexpensive, yet riveting entertainment. Logically, the film industry, with its already over-saturated marketing campaigns, has come to dominate the themes of the best games, so as to even further increase exposure to this target audience from a film's premiere through the time of its video release and beyond. This extended publicity works the same way as those movie soundtracks with godawful songs that linger with endless airplay long after their film's theatrical release is over. Apparently, the Last Action Hero game has had more staying power than the actual movie. I avoided that film like the plague, but I wouldn't mind playing the game sometime, if I ever find one.

Ironically, it seems that these games are frequently far more intense, gripping, and fun than the actual movie (or whatever else) they're based on, as in the case of Jurassic Park. I'd like to think otherwise, but the theme of each game often makes it more or less attractive for me to play than the game itself. For instance, the Star Trek: The Next Generation game is quite good, but since I hate that show I'm less inclined to play it. Same goes for the Lethal Weapon and Terminator games. Just as unfortunate are the good themes wasted on lousy games, like The Simpsons and Batman. Sometimes particular games make little sense unless you're familiar with what they're based on. I actually went out and rented The Addams Family video just so I could understand just what the hell the game was all about. I soon realized that I was had by the devious corporate advertising ploy described above. Sucker.

Usually pinball is only found in out-of-the-way places, as I have yet to find a single accessible, concentrated hotbed of games. But every major shopping mall generally has a small arcade, and each arcade generally has a few machines. Any self-respecting bowling alley has some games, and the atmosphere can't be beat. I've heard the new Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas has a huge selection of machines. Locally, Electric Wonderland has locations around Portland where you pay a $1.75 entry fee and once inside, all their games operate on nickels. Among the throng of obnoxious children at these places I frequently find their machines in disrepair, so caveat emptor. Pool halls, bars, or any venues where bands play are good places to check. And theres always the possibility of randomly stumbling across a game at a convenience store, bus station, or elsewhere. The small arcade in downtown San Diego I frequented last summer also featured "private adult viewing booths," but that's a whole different article.

Anyway, here's a brief description of some of the best games, selected because of their fairly broad accessibility and good themes:

Star Wars

Judging by the number of quarters I've pumped into this one, my all-time favorite. A cool game based on the film trilogy that blew me away as a child. The gang's all here -- Jabba the Hut, Darth Vader, the Sand People, Chewbacca, the list goes on. Blow up the Death Star for 50 million points. Yoda tells you to "use the force." Needless to say, don't try playing with your eyes shut.

Rocky and Bullwinkle

My current fave, a perfect combination of the classic '60s TV cartoon with a great game. I'm lucky enough to have one just down the street from my apartment at the 21st Avenue Quick Stop (open 24 hours!). Go back in time with Sherman and Mr. Peabody. Earn big points in the Loose Moose or Spin 'n' Win modes, or by thwarting the evil schemes of Snidely Whiplash. Score a "Hat Trick" and see the plastic Bullwinkle on the lighted display panel pull a rhino, a lion, or Rocky from his hat.

Indiana Jones

Another good movie (the first one anyhow) paired with an excellent game. Actually, I haven't seen many of these around, and the few machines I have played weren't working properly. (I wonder if it has been recalled or something, since recently it has mysteriously disappeared from three different places where it used to be.) Although it's noisy as hell, it looks cool enough that as soon as I find this machine somewhere nearby in good condition I'll undoubtedly be headed for financial ruin.

The Twilight Zone

The game I see around more than any, and the most expensive too ("Best Value" = 6 games for $2). Rod Serling just won't shut up while you play, but this game's many unique features, like the Gumball Machine, make him tolerable. I once scored 449 million points on this one, my highest score ever on any machine.

Jurassic Park

Okay, a lame movie, but a badass game. This machine actually vibrates when you hear dinosaur growling and stomping noises. Spell out "CHAOS" and deal with six balls in play all at once -- not advised for pregnant women or those with heart conditions. To start the "Tri-Ball mode," shoot the plastic T-Rex and he'll take the ball in his mouth, chew it up, and eat it. Unbelievable.

Now if they would only make a pinball game based on the Melvins! Or perhaps River's Edge, or a Crash Worship machine would be really cool...

Originally appeared in issue #3 of the print zine Bopsicle, Spring 1994.

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© 2004-2011 Steve Mandich