Get ready to O.D. on pinball nostalgia!
In late June, an event took place in Atlanta called the "2015 Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo." I've covered the video game aspect of the event in-depth, but the expo wasn't just dedicated to old-school coin-op and console offerings. It was also a celebration of all things pinball, and there was PLENTY to get excited about at this year's shindig.
I've always been a pretty big fan of pinball. The core mechanics are so satisfying, and you just have to love the feeling of a silver ball bouncing off the bumpers. Few things in life hit the spot, I imagine, quite like nailing that ramp shot and watching the ball zoom through a chute at high speeds.
The other appealing thing about the medium, to me anyway, are the aesthetics. Each and every pinball machine is a work of (unintentional or intentional) pop-art, a visual form residing somewhere between board game and miniature theme-park attraction. That the games themselves are oftentimes odes to obscure properties -- would you believe I saw units at the show modeled after the Robert de Niro "Frankenstein" movie and the 1994 Mel Gibson dud "Maverick?" -- make them all the more incredible slivers of ephemera.
If I had to guess, I'd say there were at least 100 unique pinball games on display, not counting a couple of duplicate machines. As far as playable offerings were concerned, it really ranged the gamut. Not only were all of the classics from the late 1970s and early '80s on deck, there were quite a few machines there that were even older. As in, from before Israel was recognized as an official state. Of course, all of the heavy hitters from the late '80s/early '90s Silver Age were there too, as were some newfangled machines from Stern -- really, the only company out there that still makes pinball units.
Even if for some stupid-ass reason you aren't a pinball enthusiast, I reckon the expo was worth the admission price based simply on the pop cultural appeal alone. Basically, these machines are more or less archived museum pieces you can play with, relics from a by-gone era that encapsulate the times much better than you'd imagine them to. Whether you were a disco-era punk rocker, a Reagan years metal-head or a 1990s gangster rap enthusiast, these machines offered you a unique slice of both your respective subculture AND own personal history. You don't have to be a pinball fan to appreciate these things -- indeed, as long as you have just the teensiest interest in relatively modern history, there's something of value for you to take away from them.
Now, who is ready to grease up their flipper fingers and start racking up some major nostalgia points?
HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS ON TOUR!
Next to Evel Knievel, wife swapping and doing lots and lots of cocaine, there is nothing in this world more 1970s than the Harlem Globetrotters. Considering their universal appeal -- after all, they DID make appearances on both "Scooby Doo" and "Gilligan's Island" -- the fact that they inspired their own pinball machine shouldn't be surprising in the slightest.
It's a pretty standard board, all in all. As you'd expect, there's a lot of red, white and blue, and despite being an almost 40-year-old unit, the bumpers still had a surprisingly hearty kick to them. Alas, it's pretty obvious what the most interesting thing about the machine is: the dual left-side flippers.
A lot of later pinball games kept the three flipper gimmick, although most of those moved the superfluous third lever towards the top of the playing field. The double-flipper set-up here, however, definitely makes the game more challenging; at least three times on my first playthrough, the ball actually got lodged in between the two, and forced me to either take a wild blind shot or just let the thing take a header down the drain.
There have been a number of Kiss-branded pinball machines over the years, but for my money, the 1978 original from Bally is still the coolest.
So much fire! With all that yellow and orange, this thing easily could've doubled as a Hobgoblin-themed unit. Of course, it lacked the technology to adequately emulate the band's music, but it's not too big a loss. Did I mention there is a shit-load of fire on the playing board? Because there is. A lot of it.
As one of the absolute best action films of the 1990s (as well as one of the most criminally underappreciated satirical works of the decade), I had very, very high hopes for the "Demolition Man" unit.
All of the grey lettering reminded me a lot of the old "Terminator 2" machine. Seeing as how that was one of the best units ever designed, that definitely boded well for this one.
It was a fun game and all, but it just didn't have enough of the game's weird humor for my liking. That's a pretty uninspired board, especially considering all of the awesome tibdits from the movie the designers COULD'VE used for the unit. No Taco Bell co-branding, or an ATM that spits out cursing citations, or any references to rat-burgers whatsoever? The lack of a "three shells" mini-game here is absolutely inexcusable, guys.
THE SIMPSONS PINBALL PARTY!
Way back in the early 1990s, there was a "Simpsons" pinball game. While that wasn't on display at the expo, this much more recent title was.
Seeing as how it has literally been 10 years since I last saw an episode of "The Simpsons," I am not quite sure I'd catch any nods to the show that came AFTER Hurricane Katrina. Alas, from what I saw, Stern did a pretty good job representing the finer points of the long, long, long-running series. There was an actual TV on the playing board that streamed "Itchy and Scratchy" clips, and considering the limited space the designers had to work with, they managed to put a TON of references to the show on the board. I mean, they found a spot for Cletus, the Slack-Jawed Yokel on here ... that's got to be worth some kind of pay-raise, if you ask me.
There have been a ton of "Star Trek" pinball units over the years, but if I am not mistaken, this late '70s offering from Bally was the first.
It looks like the board is an homage to the classic television series and the first movie. To be fair, the playing field is a little bland (so much negative space!), but it nonetheless provided solid gameplay.
And on top of that, the bumper artwork was just bitchin'.
SINGAPORE and KILROY!
Are you ready to kick it old-school? I mean, really, REALLY old-school? Like, before your grandpa was even born? Well, good then, because I have two machines for you that were origianlly released in 1947. Yes, just two freaking years after WWII ended.
Up first is "Kilroy," a Chicago Coin Machine Company release that's obviously paying homage to the "Kilroy was here" urban legend from World War II.
The unit -- which not only looked beautiful but played astonishingly well -- didn't have flippers. Instead, you just pulled back on the plunger and let gravity (and good old fashioned luck) dictate whether or not your silverball wound up in the 5,000 point "repeater hole." Also, I don't think I can adequately describe just how satisfying it was to watch the balls bounce of those white bumpers at the bottom of the photo. They were essentially extra-strength rubber-bands, and watching the sweet inertia unfurl before was just a damned cool experience.
"Singapore," also released in 1947, was based upon ... well, I'll let you take one gander at the squinty-eyed fellow wearing a Raiden hat on the headboard and tell me.
Unlike "Kilroy," however, this one did come with flippers you could fiddle-faddle around with. Despite being released before the People's Republic of China existed, the core gameplay here feels astonishingly modern.
And also, I have to give the maddest props in the world to however maintains these things. These wooden machines were in absolutely phenomenal shape, with only the slightest wear-and-tear. Vintage pinball maintenance guy, whoever you are and wherever you are from? Rest assured, we here at The Internet Is In America salute you. Hard.
DR. DUDE AND HIS EXCELLENT RAY!
While the 1980s pinball market was anchored by awesome, original IPs like "High Speed" and "Funhouse," by the time the early 1990s arrived, arcades across America were dominated by units based on the hit TV shows and movies du jour. "Dr. Dude and his Excellent Ray" stands out, because not only is it NOT based on a popular, pre-existing property, it doesn't seem to be a rip-off of one, either.
Without a license, "Dr. Dude," admittedly, feels a little bland. I mean, the overall gameplay is pretty solid, but there's not that much memorable about the title. Although I will give the game major recognition in at least one category...
...that being, "outstanding achievement in the field of dude-ology."
Speaking of "rip-offs," I will give you ONE guess what popular, 1970s series Bally's "Eight Ball" is shamelessly exploiting.
That's right ... "T.J. Hooker."
Tim Burton's 1989 magnum opus remains one of my all-time favorite movies. I was absolutely tickled pink to see a vintage unit at the expo...
Unfortunately, the glorious board was out of commission. But on the bright side?
At least we got a goddamn adorable "out-of-order" sign out of it!
THE INCREDIBLE HULK!
This Gottlieb unit came out in the early 1980s -- interestingly enough, though, it DOESN'T seem to be based upon the old Lou Ferrigno TV series.
I absolutely loved the artwork on the board. It looked just like a late 1970s Marvel comic book, and you have got to admire the designers for not overdoing it with the green motif.
And it features the Hulk punching an explosion near the ball drain. It simply doesn't get much cooler than that, does it?
Imagine, if you will, a pinball version of "NBA Jam." Essentially, that's what "NBA Fastbreak" is, right down to using the same in-game announcer!
The game tried something really different; instead of just whacking the ball until you sunk it down the drain, you were actually trying to outscore the CPU by hitting trick shots bumping buzzers. There was even a giant hoop near the top of the screen that you LITERALLY slapped the ball into. Needless to say, it really got me thinking about the possibilities of a similar game, only with an NHL or NFL license.
This was easily one of my favorite units at the expo. It was inventive, it had an unorthodox license and it really felt like something from a different era. I have no clue who in the hell is featured on the backboard, but it doesn't matter; this game was awesome, and I am forever appreciative that I got a shot (pardon the pun) to play it.
You know what would've made a great pinball game? "Caddyshack." You know who wanted to make a "Caddyshack" themed pinball unit, but couldn't get the rights to it so they made a shameless rip-off of the property anyway? If you said "Gottlieb," you sir, would be extraordinarily correct.
Of course, there's no Bill Murray or Rodney Dangerfield, but you do get plenty of gopher jokes. Also, the board artwork is just freaking beautiful -- there's so much detail, and the little additions (like the palm trees) really make it pop.
Of course, all of this makes me wonder about what other 1980s R-rated comedy movie pinball machines we could've had. My lord, would a "Revenge of the Nerds" machine with an animatronic Booger and an LCD Stormtrooper rape mini-game had been awesome, or what?
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows. Unfortunately, *I* don't know what lurks in this game, because the unit at the expo wasn't functioning.
It's a pity, too, since the playing field was very, very pretty. It may not have been a very good movie, but the pinball machine looked to be something very much worth sinking a few quarters into.
I mean, how many '90s machines came equipped with daggers underneath the Plexiglas? Hopefully, I will get my hands on a functioning machine this time next year...
"Taxi," overall, is a pretty forgettable title. For one thing, it has nothing to do with the old TV show -- what a lost opportunity there, no? Alas, the game did have some WTF appeal, primarily in the form of this beyond weird backboard. First off, it is scientifically impossible to determine what ethnicity the cab driver is -- he could be Eastern European, Indian, Italian or a really light-skinned Jamaican. Secondly, who decided the passengers for this thing? Dracula, Santa Claus, Mikhail Gorbachev and a brunette version of Marilyn Monroe -- that's such an utterly random line-up that I am convinced there it no way it could possibly be random.
The first "Jurassic" movie was the biggest hit of 1993, and this was unquestionably the biggest pinball hit of the same year. It would have been easy enough for Data East to just coast off the popularity of the license, but this is actually a damn well-constructed table, with plenty of cool mechanical features and a downright gorgeous playing field.
In terms of artwork, the film is very well-represented. Pretty much all of the primary characters from the film make an appearance, and virtually every breed of dinosaur prominently featured in the movie is likewise on display. Not only do you get a giant velicoraptor head and the iconic "Jurassic" gates as obstacles, you even get a few oblique nods to the Michael Crichton book -- note the pterodactyls plastered on the metal chutes.
Of course, my absolute favorite thing about the game is the hilarious portrait of Wayne Knight near the ball drain. That shit could not get anymore unflattering if they tried, folks.
I very well could be wrong here, but I think "Xenon" is something of a sequel to "Pinbot." That, or it's a really, really weird take-off on "Xanadu." Or maybe it's none of the above, and just a really inexplicable original title.
This Bally table is certainly emblematic of the late 1980s/early 1990s transitional period, released just before LCD screens became common features. The playing field is exquisitely detailed, with lights galore and bumpers that have a very, very nice kick to them. I also really liked the translucent tubes up top, which are a nice change of pace from your run-of-the-mill metal tunnels.
And because I would be remiss if I didn't mention it -- dat ass.
The newest pinball game on display was this Stern-designed WWE-branded unit. Believe it or not, this thing was released earlier this year, and is the first mass-produced pinball game to run off Linux. That means that new LCD screen content and voice clips can theoretically be downloaded and added to the game ... pretty nifty, huh?
I really don't know what's going on in pro wrestling these days, but it seems like all of the modern-day stars are well-represented. It's a very old-school-looking table, through and through, although the playing field features certainly appear more advanced than anything us '90s kids grew up with.
The coolest thing about the unit had to have been the awesome "mini-ring" near the top of the playing field. You can't really see it here, but there are two flippers inside the "ring," which is basically a giant bumper. On the headboard, an LCD "match" takes place, with each bumper shot registering as "an attack." And if you knock the ball in that little hole? That counts as a "pinfall." Really, really cool stuff here, no doubt ... think these guys can craft us a UFC pinball game anytime soon?
And lastly, we turn our attention to "Gilligan's Island" -- a pinball unit from the early 1990s, based on a television show that was cancelled in the 1960s and popularized by nonstop cable TV airings in the 1980s. And I played it in the 2010s. Yeah, I'm all sorts of disoriented right now, too.
I was never a huge fan of the show, so I really can't tell you why I enjoy this one so much. It's just a very well-designed board, with lots of colors, smooth controls and some very challenging obstacles. It simply reeks of unadulterated early '90s ephemera -- a strange statement, I know, seeing as how the source material was spawned during the LBJ administration.
It's just so tacky, yet eye-catching. So tawdry, yet utterly compelling. It's unquestionably unrefined and about as classy as a monster truck rally, but at the same time? It has such an unpretentious purity to it, coupled with a simplistic charm that's equal parts hopelessly dated and perplexingly timeless. Not only does that describe the aesthetics of the game, that seems to sum up the allure of pinball gaming as a whole.
Fellas, I just cannot express to you how happy I was that I went to the expo. There was just so much unfiltered video game and pinball happiness, and my inner eight-year-old was squealing with joy the entire time.
Everything I loved about the arcades of my youth came hurdling back to me. The feeling of the joystick in your grasp, pulling back on the pinball plunger, even rolling your palm across a nice and oily trackball -- those are the multi-sensory joys you'll never, ever forget. And it wasn't just about getting a chance to relive the games of my past, it was also about exploring the titles that came out before and after my time. Having the opportunity to play games that ranged the spectrum from 1947 to 2015, I really felt like I had a transcendent multimedia (and to some extent, historical) experience -- I didn't just get to play as many games for free as I wanted for four hours straight, I got to experience damn near seventy years of of popular culture and consumer technology evolution hands-on.
I saw pinball pros brushing shoulders with beaming, smiling families. I saw old-school gaming lard-os sharing control deck space with hipster twenty-somethings. Eighteen-year-old girls experienced "Tapper" for the first time, while four-year-old boys encountered their first actual pinball machine. There were head scarves and yamakas and cowboy hats and afros and dudes in wheel chairs and representatives of every walk-of-life in-between all commingling, and breathing and existing as one, for nothing more than love of the games. That's not just a damned amazing fanboy sensation, that's a pretty fucking amazing human experience.
If you're an Atlanta local, yeah, you pretty much have to experience this for yourself. If you live in a state that borders Georgia, you might think about attending, too. Needless to say? I cannot wait for 2016's hootenanny ... and each and every incarnation of the expo after that, for as long as it's still up and running.