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Gaming Made Me: Pinball

Pinball was my rock n' roll

A pinball table is more than balls, flippers and lights, although the uninitiated may see it as an almost literal collection of bells and whistles. I see tables in the corner of bars quite often, usually neglected and often unplugged, and was delighted to see an Addams Family machine – one of the great designs of its kind – in Larian’s studios a couple of weeks ago. It was as quiet as a crypt, missing parts dooming it to a long sleep. That's often the case and it makes me sad because all of those lights and sounds helped to make me. This is one reason why The Pinball Arcade has consumed many of my evenings.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been playing The Pinball Arcade almost every day, trying to master even the most obscure and obtuse tables, and doing so brought back memories of trips to Affleck’s Palace and a local bowling alley/arcade in my teenage years. Affleck’s is a Manchester institution, an alternative department store that has contained shops dealing with all the various subcultures of youth and beyond in the years I’ve known it.

There are goth stores, full of capes, cobwebs and the kind of large stompy boots that make people look like moody Megamen. Punk and club culture are represented, and there are places for piercings, amazing cartoon hair styling, tarot readings and fetish gear. For a long time, I didn't have a style of my own so I spent my cash buying bootleg VHS tapes of crappy horror films and shitty recordings of gigs. It seems amazing that I paid for those things now but then I remember that the internet hadn't happened back then.

While my friends wandered off to look at posters of Kurt Cobain and have their tongues pierced, I pumped my money into The Creature From The Black Lagoon and Scared Stiff, bruising the heel of my hand against the glass whenever a ball drained right after launch and gradually learning to shed my British inhibitions and follow the advice of Umberto Eco – “You don't play pinball just with your hands, you play it with your groin too.”. He’s right. So how the hell does digital pinball replicate the full-body experience?

Well, you could play while standing, leaning your crotch into your desk and rolling your pelvis across the angles. Somebody has probably made a custom peripheral for that sort of thing but it’d have to be sold with enough wet-wipes to clean the Forth Bridge. For a long time (and maybe still), the next best thing was to play unlicensed recreations of tables through Virtual Pinball. They’d always lack the physicality of an actual machine, of course, but there’s a joy in having the history of the game stored so efficiently.

Pinball Arcade takes the same approach, with the benefit (and high cost) of official licenses. Seeing Gottlieb, Williams, Bally, and Stern tables side by side is an achievement in itself, a little like seeing Sonic and Mario at the Olympics together for the first time, but speaks more to the lack of any activity in the real world of pinball production. It’s hard to remain competitive and to retain rivalries when the field of play has collapsed like the turf of Gotham City Stadium.

The beauty of the table selection is that it allows Farsight to demonstrate the diversity of experiences. From the blockbuster nineties tables, often attached to weighty TV or film licenses, and packed ramps and moving parts, to the severe and rule-bound machinery of the eighties. My time with actual tables has mostly involved binging on the likes of Attack From Mars and Medieval Madness, fast high concept tables with a B-movie theme.

Both of those tables were in regular circulation at my College bar during University days, and both were designed by Midway’s Brian Eddy[1]. They’re both included in The Pinball Arcade and are a fine starting point for anyone unfamiliar with specific machines or the rapid changes that took place during the game’s short history. Medieval Madness could be a reskin of Attack From Mars, with similar placement of targets and ramps, and a similar pace of progression. In narrative terms – and all tables have a narrative, even the most simple – the player is defending Earth from flying saucers or laying siege to the castles of various comically named barons and dukes.

At the centre of the tables, those elements are represented by a plastic toy – a saucer, which shakes and glows with every strike, or a castle that shudders and sinks into the table when destroyed. As the table’s story progresses, the features become more resilient but even the most high-scoring targets and combos don’t consistently endanger the ball. Keep the thing in play, aiming for anything that flashes, and your score will escalate. The rules are simple and every soundbite and moving part of the table directs you toward the next stage.

They’re extravagantly designed tables, complex and multi-layered but relatively easy to master. Many of pinball’s most famous licensed tables are similar – Star Trek: TNG, The Addams Family, The Twilight Zone, South Park – and many of that type are represented in The Pinball Arcade. For the longest time, I saw these constructions as the natural evolution of the earlier, more simple devices, but in the tradition of hoary old pinball wizards down the ages, I’ve learned to appreciate the challenging and austere tables of earlier times.

Black Hole is one of my current favourites. I’ve only played the real thing on one occasion, when I spent most of a day with it, and I’m determined to master it now that I have a decent digital copy. Here’s the thing though – Black Hole gives me the heebie jeebies.

Horror is a common theme of pinball, linking back to its roots in the sometimes seedy side of pop culture and Americana. It comes in many forms - mostly with a wink and a nod - including the sassy camp of Elvira, the freakish talking head of Funhouse or the silly monster mash-ups of tables like Class Of 1812. In a purely thematic sense, Creature From The Black Lagoon is the ultimate pinball table – the player is a guy on a date at a drive-in movie theatre watching a Universal horror film. It manages to combine a little of the Charles Atlas approach [2] to bullies with fender fixations and a 3d hologram of the creature. It’s more American than apple pie.

Black Hole is a sci-fi table but it contains a couple of terrifying elements. The first was an innovative second table, mounted beneath the primary surface. You can see it in action here. You can also hear it and the sound is the other disturbing part of the table. The escalating scales are like an alarm waiting to happen and the voice could only speak from the dread depths of space. Of course, technical limitations meant that all voices in pinball machines of this period sounded pretty much the same, whether they were knights or robots, but here it adds to the feeling of a doomed mission[3].

When the ball enters that second table, gravity flips. The surface is angled away from the player and the flippers are above rather than below. Because the space is compact, the struggle to survive is frantic as the ball falls upward and is desperately fired back toward safety. If the pieces aren’t in place by the time the ball slides between the second set of flippers, the voice solemnly informs the player that the “re-entry attempt has failed”. The ball has become a vessel and it is lost in space with a literal skeleton crew.

Black Hole reminds me of a coffin. The shape is recognisable - how had I never noticed the resemblance before? - and the engineering inverts the architecture of the machine to build a prison within a prison. There’s enough space to fit entire worlds between the player and that miniature tomb at the table’s centre. Even the blatant lack of symmetry in the flipper placement seems designed to unsettle.

While The Pinball Arcade may not be able to represent all of the craftsmanship and invention in any table’s design, it does manage to capture the feel of the machines that I’ve played accurately. Small touches - such as the erratic movement of the plastic figures on Attack From Mars and the irritating clicking noise that accompanies it – are as authentic as can be, and the physics are variable from table to table as well, reflecting the gradient of the slope and speed of the surface. I’ve sunk as much time into it as almost any game in the later stages of the year, and while having such an impossibly large collection of tables doesn’t stop me from wanting to visit the Pinball Hall of Fame and pull off a cunning heist, it’s a digital museum as much as a game.

As well as popular tables, Farsight have recreated rarities, most notably Goin’ Nuts, an early Gottlieb experiment that only had ten production units. Every play begins with three balls on the field at once and targets and bumpers add to a time limit. When only one ball remains, the time begins to count down. I’ve never played anything quite like it and, along with the Pachinko-like Central Park, which has such a wide body that flippers are of extremely limited use, Goin’ Nuts is at the extreme end of the tables on offer, but throughout the expanding collection, different skills and playstyles are tested.

There are tables like Centaur, with its weird and faintly disturbing monochrome body-modding aesthetic. It’s as different from the later licensed machines as Quake is to Call of Duty: Ghosts. There’s a flipper and some balls, sure, but that’s the gun and the ammunition[4]. Where a nineties table rewards the player for hitting almost any target or ramp, Centaur doesn’t dole out anything but the most meagre scores unless sequences are hit in precisely the right order at the right time.

It almost seems broken at first, refusing to allow progress, but realise that sequences can be interrupted by a scuffed shot and everything falls into place. It’s the first table I ever played that punishes wild play rather than treating an accumulation of accidents as an eventual route to success. You play Centaur with a sniper rifle instead of a machine gun or a rocket launcher.

Sadly, there’s less diversity in certain aspects of the table themes. Cactus Canyon[5] is a true pioneer in that it has two damsels in distress, one of whom is sometimes in two forms of distress in two different locations at the same time. Bride Of Pinbot has more than a passing resemblance to a blow up doll. Elvira’s Scared Stiff table eventually runs out of innuendoes and might as well just start shouting “COCK” while the dot matrix display prints “MAMMARIES” until the plunger spews out some ejaculate and the fuse blows.

The art tends toward the cheesecake stylings of comic book and cheap sci-fi book covers, and almost every female voice is thanking, offering or begging. The exceptions are delightful and the well-spoken lady English lady who rallies London’s defenders during the Attack From Mars is a personal favourite. An entire book could probably be written about the intersection of popular, geek and arcade culture that contributed to this element of the designs. I don’t think there’s a single table in the Pinball Arcade that – thematically or narratively – puts the player in a female role and many of them communicate as if they were machines of sexual pleasure[6].

It’s probably (at least partly) an element of the canon of texts that inspire the themes, as well as an assumption regarding the likely audience. I wonder how different the American experience of arcades was - my first experience of real tables came in an overcrowded, overpriced room full of families eating McDonald's.

I’ve been faintly obsessed ever since. I love the thrill that comes with discovering a weird and challenging ruleset, or the pleasure of seeing arcane mechanical trickery at work. I even love the narratives and themes as a whole, particularly the minimalist robotic motifs of the early eighties. The Pinball Arcade isn’t just a nostalgia trip, it’s also a chance to play tables I’ll never encounter in the wild, or to research those that I might be able to spend time with at some point in the future.

Eco wrote more, in that paragraph quoted earlier: “… you achieve this [playing with your groin] not by jolting the ball but by transmitting vibrations to the case, the frame, but gently, so the machine won't catch on and say Tilt. You can do it only with the groin, or with a play of the hips that makes the groin not so much bump, as slither, keeping you on this side of an orgasm.[7]” Hubba hubba.

If you see a pinball table in the wild, put your arms around it, position yourself so that it rests in the angles of your body and play. They’re much more than reclining fruit machines with gaudy pin-up artwork. Don’t think of them as the outdated horizontal expression of an arcade cabinet’s vertical wish fulfilment. Think of them as a container for entire worlds of pop culture and twentieth century history crafted into as diverse a range of challenges as you’ll find on any hard drive.

Right. I’m off for a cold shower. Cheers, Umberto[8].


[1] When the pinball work dried up, Eddy worked on Psy Ops, which was one of the first games to make lobbing ragdolls around a room more fun than shooting them.

[2] They kick sand in your face so you build enough muscle to snap their arms off like twigs.

[3] Even the celebratory Space Shuttle table, from 1984, has a voice that seems to speak from a screaming hell-void between stars. The fact that its rollover targets spell 'USA' suggests the ill-fated vocal samples may have been part of a Soviet propaganda campaign.

[4] Carrying the first-person analogy forward, I'd love to see the pinball equivalent of Amnesia or Gone Home. Any suggestions?

[5] I love Catcus Canyon but the right-hand ball drain is an abomination. It hates me and I hate it.

[6] There's a Weird Science vibe to a lot of the sex talk in pinball tables.

[7] I'm aware that the quote is from a work of fiction rather than one of Eco's fine essays. But I like to think he's cavorted with a table or two.

[8] I should mention why there are no references to Zen Pinball 2. Partly it's because I haven't spent a great deal of time with it, but I also haven't found any tables in the currently released crop that stack up well against the authentic designs. I enjoy the use of the Marvel license though (not so much Star Wars) and the physics are solid.

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