Get ready folks - you are about to get hit with so much pinball nostalgia, you may never fully recover.
By: Jimbo X
By now, longtime Internet Is In America readers should know quite a bit about the Southern Fried Gameroom Expo. For those late to the party, it can best be summarized as this: a yearly, multi-day event in Atlanta where people bring hundreds upon hundreds of old school arcade games (along with some retro consoles and a few more contemporary systems and set-ups) and you get to play them for pretty much as long as you want without having to chuck down any quarters whatsoever. Granted, you still have to pay to get into the event - which also includes movie screenings, special seminars with game designers, concerts, cosplay competitions, game tournaments, a ton of tabletop gaming and even the aberrant appearance by the dude from The King of Kong or The Last Starfighter - but considering the chunk of change you'd otherwise have spent playing the units, the $20 entry fee can hardly be considered gouging.
Since we've already covered the video game side of this year's event in-depth, we now turn our attention to its pinball offerings.While old-school coin-op video games can trigger some heavy sentimental thoughts, in many ways, pinball arouses an even greater sense of nostalgic wonder. For one thing, video games, in their purest form, are still a multi-billion dollar a year industry, and even if arcades themselves no longer exist, you can still play pretty much every arcade hit ever - sans, of course, the joy of getting your hands on the physical unit - just as long as you have a Chromebook and a steady Wi-Fi connection. Pinball, however, isn't something you can just emulate in-browser. The whole experience is anchored around the tactile, of actually rubbing your palms over the solid state hardware. While you can do a pretty good job emulating Street Fighter II on a computer, you will never, EVER be able to recreate what it was like to play Funhouse back in the day unless you actually have access to one of the old school machines.
So, wondering what wondrous old-school and new-school devices you missed out on if you didn't catch this year's hootenanny in Atlanta? Well, dry up those tears of regret, Sonny, this photo-journalistic recap will fill you in on everything you weren't there in the flesh to experience...
Calling this summer's all-vag Ghostbusters "controversial" is sort of like calling slavery a "slight misstep" in American history. Indeed, the hyper-polarizing film has pretty much led to a civil war in geek America, with nostalgic, traditionalist beta males (whom practically worship the 1984 original as a sacrosanct object) declaring a full-fledged civil war against the social justice warrior nerds who have "weaponized" the film solely on the account of the female casting. Despite the presence of the cardboard "Gyn-busters" next to the unit, pinball kingpins Stern wisely decided to model their latest table after the now 32-year-old original ... which, thankfully, means we wind up getting 100 percent more Rick Moranis and 100 percent less Melissa McCarthy in this pinball machine than what we're seeing at the cineplexes this summer.
Bone Busters, Inc!
Oh, this fuckin' game. Released by Gottlieb in the late 1980s, the unit was obviously an attempt to cash in on the Ghostbusters-mania gripping elementary school America. Along the way, though, I think the designers of the unit accidentally stumbled upon an even better idea that could probably could have spawned a multi-million dollar cottage industry all by itself. A bunch of mustachioed Banana Republic commandos and chicks in way-too-tight military duds, battling hordes of skeletal monsters with weaponry that appears to be part Rambo machine gun and part hookshot from Zelda? How did this NOT result in a syndicated cartoon and half an aisle of tie-in action figures?
Pretty much everything about this unit is just cocaine and consumerism bliss from the later Reagan years. You've got the bright pastels that wouldn't look out of place on Miami Vice, the macho-military toughness imported from Magnum P.I., the casual sexism from well, every pop cultural construct of the decade, plus the morbid humor and ghoulish violence of properties like Dinosaurs Attack! And don't even pretend that blue and purple light-up skull placed atop the headboard doesn't make you want to relive 1989 - you know it does.
The Bonebusters, Inc. playing board is just something I want to spend hours dissecting. Yeah, you get all of the skeleton buns and heavy metal iconography you would expect from a unit of the like, but there's also all of these really, really weird details. For example, what in the blue fuck is Santa Claus doing hanging out near the ball drain? They don't even try to make it make any sense, and again, that's why the late '80s and early '90s were clearly the greatest epoch in human history. Well, uh, just as long as you don't look at the unemployment numbers and violent crime rates, anyway.
And for those of you who don't think pinball represents a legitimate form of artistic expression and/or cultural commentary, I'd strongly advise you to take a gander at the craftsmanship on this unit. Just this little six inch carve out near the dark, dank topmost corners of the machine that you can barely see anyway has more graphical nuance and subtle mechanical detail than most massive-scale corporate architecture projects nowadays. And if the idea of cackling skeletons busting out of a mausoleum driving an old-timey truck with giant fucking springs welded to the front of you doesn't make you tremble with terror, you must have died a long, long time ago, pal.
That a Judge Dredd pinball game got made in the 1990s isn't surprising in the slightest. What IS surprising, however, is that this unit came out a full two years before the lackluster Sly Stallone vehicle was released. As a result, it's a much, much more reverential adaptation of the cult comic book series, and yes, the ultra-violent I.P. does lend itself to a pinball game rather well.
To me, the unit had more of an old E.C. Comics vibe to it more than anything else. That can largely be attributed to the inclusion of the Dark Judges from the comic series, whose ranks consist of a horde of zombie police officers who canonically rule the in-universe stand-in for Hell. So, needless to say, it certainly packs a bigger aesthetic wallop than a crappy caricature of Rob Schneider, that's for sure.
All in all, this is a very solid table that feels equal portions old and (what-was-then) new school. The art-style and general mechanics feel very much like a game from the 1980s, but all of the neat electronic doo-dads and bells and whistles just reek of Clinton-era technocratic excess. It may not have the vaunted reputation of many of its cohorts, but there is no denying this Dredd is an all-around excellent little coin-op.
VPCabs' Virtual Pinball Units!
Now, at first glance, these things look like hobbled-together Franken-machines, with headboards jammed onto the bodies of unrelated machines, with a tertiary game wedged into the playing field itself. But take a closer look - those aren't solid-state pinball units, the whole dadgum things are COMPLETELY virtual!
Yes, upstart VPCabs (they were on ABC's Shark Tank, they will remind you over and over again) has indeed brought computer-simulated silverball to the masses via their virtual pinball cabinets. Using PinMAME - which is basically the exact same software used to "translate" old-school arcade games to today's P.C. and home consoles - you can "download" a bevvy of classic pinball tables, complete with all of the ramp shots and bumpers and authentic sounds, and play them anytime you want thanks to the magic of the Intraweb and one REALLY big digital video display screen. Oh, and you can also use the machines to play both totally new, built-from-the-ground-up games as well as the pinball equivalent of .ROM hacks - which means, yes, you can FINALLY experience the fantastical euphoria of playing a Phantasm themed pinball game in the comfort of your own mancave. Well, theoretically, anyway.
But why stop there? In addition to the more classical pinball units (which, yes, do indeed play just like the physical state machines we've been pumping quarters into for years), there were also some awesome arcade/pinball fusion systems that used integrated vertical screens to create an all-in-wonder devices allowing you to play both Turtles in Time and White Water on the same miraculous hardware. Granted, the units are a bit on the pricey side, but come on - this shit is way cooler than having a fridge or a living room furniture set, ain't it?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!
A lot of people refer to the first TMNT live-action movie as the symbolic end of the 1980s and the metaphorical starting point of the 1990s. You could probably say the same about this pinball unit, which in a way, represents the last hurrah of the New Coke generation and the first gasps of Crystal Pepsi America.
While the machine is clearly meant to capitalize on the popularity of the 1990 movie, the art-style seems to also pay homage to both the inescapable late 1980s cartoon as well as the original indie comic book series. Compared to a lot of contemporary games, the playing board is pretty devoid of atmosphere, with the group shot at the bottom taking up almost the entirety of the table. That said, there are some pretty cool elements, including a spinning pepperoni and mushroom pizza that, uh ... just kinda' spins, it appears? Granted, it's not as cool as the design feature in Twister, but hey - I'll always take a semi-decent gimmick when it's offered to me.
Between the Mello-Yello colored ramps plastic ball tunnels and April O'Neil's absurd cleavage on the headboard, pretty much everything about this table screams "it's not the 1980s anymore and we don't know what the fuck you people are into anymore." A particularly memorable unit - aside from the license - it may not be, but it certainly scores a lot of nostalgia points for just existing. And hey, speaking of instant nostalgia...
Originally released in 2007 to coincide with the last of the Raimi Spidey movies, Stern's Spider-Man is a unit that IMMEDIATELY reminded me that "holy shit, I'm old now." Upon looking at that Topher Grace Venom and "Hello from Plank Road" Sandman, I almost shat myself when I realized the much-maligned third Spider-flick came out a decade ago.
While the unit definitely capitalizes on its associations with Spider-Man 3, the table actually pays tribute to all of Raimi's movies. You've got Dock Ock and The Green Goblin in there, not to mention an oblique nod to Randy "Macho Man" Savage's BONESAW from movie numero uno. And of course, you also have Kirsten Dunst's beaming, pre-Marie Antoinette face all over the place, which makes this thing feel all shades of 2004 up in here.
And give these Stern guys some credit, they pay attention to the license. Pretty much EVERY major action scene from the 2002-2007 trilogy is represented as a bonus mode in some incarnation, from Otto Octavius' fusion malfunction all the way up to the "Unity Day Festival" mayhem from the first movie (you know, that part with Macy Gray in it, for some reason.) Strangely, the company would later re-release this unit sans the Raimi references, instead slightly modifying the board to give it the aesthetics of the Ultimate Spider-Man comics - although, from my observations, it appears they didn't do too much to change the looks of the Venom, Green Goblin and Sandman "action figures" mounted all around the playing space.
Now here's an all-but-forgotten unit that ought to make you groan for about 15 or 16 different reasons. For starters, good lord, that headboard is hideous. Granted, I knew you probably weren't going to find a decent Don Johnson lookalike for a pinball photo shoot, but geez, couldn't you have at least chosen somebody who DIDN'T look like he was on lunch break and kind of afraid of the bikini models?
Not that you even remotely need me to tell you this, but the whole dadgum machine is a ripoff of a certain, highly popular 1980s television series (yep ... Diff'rent Strokes.) If the bright pink lettering wasn't too much of a clue, the unit even periodically spit out this warbled mess of audio that kinda' sorta' but no really sounded like the synthesizer music from Miami Vice. Next to Mr. Pibb, this has to be about the most shameless ripoff of anything in the 20th century.
So yeah, this is really just an embarrassing, personality-less throwback to the most superficial elements of 1980s popular culture. Alas, it's still a fairly competent little pinball game, and the gaudy bright pinks, purples and oranges start to grow on you after awhile. Try as we may to resist the temptation, we just don't have it in is to avoid the allure of the tacky, I suppose.
Bobby Orr Power Play!
Now this one is really strange. For one thing, it's a licensed game that also makes use of generic stand-ins. For the life of me, I can't figure out how Bally was able to secure the Chicago Black Hawks (back when the nickname was still two words) imagery but then find itself having to merge the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens into a fantastical, composite team representing the entire nation of Canada. Even stranger, it pays homage to Orr in the absolute nadir of his pro hockey career - remember, Orr only played about two dozen games with Chicago over the course of two years before he finally retired in 1978.
As you would expect a machine from the late 1970s to be, this one is fairly bare bones in terms of features and aesthetics. There is a lot of red, white and blue, with fairly limited bumpers and buzzers. It's the definition of an "old-school" pinball experience - basic atmospherics, Las Vegas-style lighting, buzzing bells for no reason and straight-up, unadulterated, no gimmicks-needed flipper-meets-silverball goodness. Panache, it may not have, but it still brings the goods when and where it counts.
Come to think of it, how cool would team-specific pro-sports team tables be? Of course, I'd love to get my hands on a Raiders-themed table (complete with a "parking lot stabbing" monochrome mini-game on the digital scoreboard, naturally), but a "retro NHL" unit would be spiffy, too. Hey, the NBA already tried it out, and the end results were pretty awesome, if you asked me.
And here's another more recent-ish Stern offering, a table based on the venerable X-Men license. Keep in mind, this table isn't patterned off any of the live-action Hollywood films; rather, it's a strict homage to the comic series, as evidenced by the artwork featured on the headboard.
To me, this thing just bellows "early 2000s." I don't know if it's the slight manga-influence or the ample CGI gloss on everything, it just screams "Saddam Hussein's still alive" like C-list Mutie Banshee (he has super vocal cord powers, you see.) Also, the inclusion of some SUPER obscure characters - Omega Red AND the Shadow King, anybody? - makes the already weird table even more surreal.
Of course, my favorite thing about the unit HAS to be the gigantic half-Wolverine up top. Yes, it certainly looks cool and reminds me of the old Fox Kids cartoon, but note how he's positioned to the circular disks and a row of light-up switches. Call me crazy, but amid such accouterments, old Logan here looks like he's moonlighting as a crappy club DJ. Hey, he already has the prerequisites to do some mighty fine LP scratchin', don't he?
Rob Zombie's Spookshow International!
Here's one of the more recent pinball units on display - a machine dedicated to the White Zombie frontman, who also has the added honor of being single-handedly responsible for killing the entire Halloween franchise.
Although the side panels look like they could be promoting everything from World of Warcraft to the latest Manowar album, the table itself is clearly meant to pay homage to the vaunted filmography of Mr. Zombie - in particular, his first two outings, House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects.
Clearly meant to mimic the more minimalistic units of yesteryear, this table is fairly devoid of clutter. You've got the Capt. Spaulding stuff up top, that big headed statue guy to the side, and towards the lower end of the machine? Well, it's really, really sparse, almost as if the designers realized there really isn't a whole lot they can do with the Rob Zombie license so they just said "you know what, fuck it, let's just make half the thing a giant tombstone with a bunch of light-up stickers on it." All in all, it's a decent unit, but unless you are a hardcore fan of Rob's movies, you'll probably walk away from this one fairly unimpressed.
When you reflect on old-school pinball, Gorgar ought to be the kind of thing you visualize in your head. It's corny and cheesy and over the top and filled with juvenile imagery and has an art style that feels lifted out of a really, really bad D.C. comic book from circa 1979. And oh my god, is it ever awesome!
Isn't that playing field, as the kids today call it, "tits?" The whole thing looks like it could be the backdrop for some sort of teenager-catering board game from the early, early 1980s. Hell, take out the half-naked cave people towards the flippers and you could probably sell the table art work as the cover of an early Slayer album or something. This is the kind of thing that automatically puts you inside the same mindset as an insecure, 16-year-old suburban metal head, circa 1982: "man, I can't wait to get drunk while listening to The Scorpions and score with some skanky, huge-haired goth babe, but first? Baby, I gotta beat my tops on fuckin' Gorgar."
I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up the unit's big historically significant feature. With the ability to utter no less than seven words, Gorgar was one of the first pinball machines with audio capabilities advanced enough to sort of kind of imitate human speech. Sure, hearing a warbled death metal retard voice grumble "me got you" doesn't sound that impressive now, but way back in 1979, when this sumbitch first came out? It was like the future man, the fucking future. (Oh, and in case you were wondering? The unit at this year's expo may or may not have retained its audio capabilities - surrounded by two dozen other, louder machines - not to mention the general cacophony of a bunch of shouty kids playing Pokken on a large screen television - it was kinda' hard to make out what exactly was pouring out of this thing's speakers.)
While Waterworld will forever be remembered as one of the greatest cinematic flops of all-time, it did manage to permeate the American pop culture landscape a little bit deeper than most (selectively) recollect. It's not that the film tanked for a lack of marketing effort - between the trading cards, the action figures and the crappy video games that were too sucky to release even on the Virtual Boy - the guys behind Kevin Costner's, ahem, Waterloo, did everything they could to get the masses interested. And without question, this pinball unit from Gottlieb is easily the best thing to come out of Waterworld ever existing.
It's always been hilarious to me how seemingly the worst possible licenses for pinball games often wind up being among the best models to ever hit arcade floors. You'd expect popular ephemeral licenses like The Simpsons and The X-Files to lend themselves naturally to pinball translations, but what do you know, among the hardest of the hardcore, the top licensed tables are head-scratchers like The Twilight Zone, The Addams Family and Bram Stoker's Dracula. Well, it looks like we can add Waterworld to the illustrious list of "who'd thunk that would have worked so well in silverball form?" I.P.s, like Maverick and Johnny Mnemonic.
It's hard to pinpoint what, if anything, the machine does particularly well. Here, I think it is more a comprehensive showing - hardly anything about the table can be considered unique, but everything it tries, it pulls off with a lot of success. That the playing field largely resembles a Chuck E. Cheese coloring book freebie circa 1995 is just a bonus.
...and for fuck's sake, you mean to tell me you aren't nigh-impressed by the craftsmanship on this mini-figurine of Dennis Hopper on a Sea-Doo? I'd weld that son of a bitch to my car as a hood ornament, if I could.
Spaceballs ... uh, sorta!
And last - and for once, most certainly least - we come to a fan-made pinball unit paying homage to Spaceballs. On the digital display backboard, the creators of the unit describe their creation as a "prototype," and to be frank, calling the actual machine a "work in progress" would be a considerable overstatement.
...yeah, that's it. The bumpers are there, the flippers are installed, there's a ball drain included and it looks like there might be some additional bric-a-brac up top at some point. As to how a non-functional prototype of a prototype managed to sneak its way on to the expo floor is beyond me - but hey guys, I'm all ears if you need a third party play tester for next year's outing.
All right, to wrap up my thoughts on Southern Fried Gameroom Expo 2016? Well, it was really awesome and I'm already pumped, primed, excited, exhilarated, enthused about next year's outing. As I've been saying for at least four articles now (here's parts uno, dos and three-oh, if you aren't in the loop) it's not just that the SFGE is about old school video gaming that makes it such a tremendously fun event. Yes, it's absolute grade school ecstasy to walk around for a couple of hours playing classic video games and pinball units without having to lug around a small suitcase of quarters, but the real appeal of the event is in its spirit of good will. There is no anger or animosity or any know-it-all pricks running and around trying to pound "newbs" or show off their Dig Dug skills like it's going to get them laid. Instead, it's a collective, carnival atmosphere paying tribute to the good old times - the games, the pinball, the music, the pop cultural ephemera, the pre-Internet civilization as a whole.
A vintage video game exhibition, you say? Well, it is on the surface, but socioculturally? It's much more a playable recount of the last 40 years of the American consumer experience, showing the young and old alike just what took place to get us from the $1,000 calculator to the $100 laptop. Low culture amusement and digital tomfoolery? It's certainly that, but at the same time, it's also an impressive, comprehensive chronicle of the changing American psyche since the late 1960s. From the innuendo-filled, casually sexist pinball games of the early 1970s to the nuclear warfare paranoia of pioneering arcade games like Missile Command to the deluge of licensed coin-ops in the 1990s, you can see the national mentality twist, turn, contort and reshape itself, one arcade cabinet at a time.
Does the SFGE merely tell the story of old-school video gaming? Take a closer look, my friends - what the expo is REALLY telling us is the story of us.