Saturday, August 18, 2018

2018 Southern Fried Gaming Expo BLOWOUT! (Part Two — The Pinball Games!)

At long last, we finally get around to checking out the pinball games at Atlanta's dandiest celebration of all things old-school coin-op entertainment!


By: Jimbo X
JimboXAmerican@gmail.com

OK, it took me a little longer to wrap up our (already three-month) late retrospective on the 2018 Southern Fried Gaming Expo but trust me, folks, the wait was well worth it. 

Well, probably not, but still, there was plenty of great pinball-themed nonsense to soak up, and I am more than happy to share that silverball joy with you today in photographic essay form.

So how about we do away with the needless pleasantries and hop right into the proverbial sack of discourse, why don't we? Yeah, I didn't think this encounter with the coin-operated relics of yesteryear would be considered nonconsensual, neither ...


Grand Lizard!

That backboard art is pretty much everything I love in life in one piece of kitschy, ephemeral art. Lotsa' bright, pastel colors? Check. Half-nekkid people wielding comically-oversized, highly impractical weapons? Check. A giant frog monster who looks like his head was resized by about half a week before the first prototypes went into production. You better goddamn check that one off the list, fella'.


I suppose the general theme of Grand Lizard is pretty generic — ultimately, it's just another by-the-numbers Conan The Barbarian/Dungeons and Dragons wannabe generic sword and sandal fantasy table, and it's not like there aren't enough of those out there in pinball-land as it is. Still, it's a pretty decent looking unit, I suppose, with some pretty interesting aesthetics. By the way, have you spotted the baboon yet?


Of course, the most noteworthy thing about the table — besides the fact its namesake sounds astonishingly similar to a title in the Ku Klux Klan — is the eponymous "Grand Lizard" situated near the top of the playing field. Granted, Father Time has taken its tool on the Grand Lizard on this particular set, to the point the prop looks more like a weather-beaten frog than a Satanic serpent. Oh well ... at least the tongue ball chute still looks fairly intact.


Raven!

Yeah, I'm just gonna' go on ahead and assume that isn't the pinball unit's original backboard art. For the curious, here's what that is supposed to look like. Sorry, guy, but you just ain't gonna' beat some glorious, 1980s B-movie box art-caliber graphic design like that, that's for damned sure.


As you can no doubt see for yourself, the playing field for Raven is pretty basic. For a mid-1980s unit, this is actually astonishingly minimalistic, with those plastic Fallopian tube ramps more or less the only distinct mechanical feature of the table. We all know the 1980s was a time that wholeheartedly embraced style over substance, but shit, even by Decade of Decadence standards this stuff just comes off as brazenly half-assed.


You know, as ubiquitous as the whole female Rambo archetype was in the 1980s, for the life of me I have no idea which text or character the trope comes from. I mean, you've got that one Hispanic chick from Aliens, but beyond that, I can't think of a single militarized femme from that epoch's pop cultural landscape. Hell, for all we know, Raven got the whole ball rolling and has yet to receive its due credit 30-plus years later; personally, I'm just mad we never got a G.I. Jane board, complete with a barracks rape scene multi-ball mode.


Star Trek!

I am not, nor have I ever been a fan of Star Trek, but even I have to admit this is a pretty groovy little unit. It's a rare table that's able to pull off the whole "retro" aesthetic without coming off as desperately nostalgic, which is EXACTLY the words I'd use to describe most of the "old school" obsessed modern pinball units that are getting churned out these days. 


Here's a board that demonstrates why the "less is more" approach is always a smart one to pursue when it comes to pinball table design. The bottom half of the board is pretty-clutter flee, with pretty much the entire space reserved for some truly lovely table art. The color palette here is just fantastic, with the oranges and blues just beautifully fading into the blackness of "space" towards the top half of the unit.


There's nothing truly remarkable about the gameplay Star Trek offers, but it's nonetheless a solid pinball experience overall. All of the obstacles are spaced out pretty evenly, and the sound effects are just superb. It's far from being a candidate for best licensed table ever, but it's certainly one of the more underappreciated tables from the time frame ... and I certainly much prefer it to the Next Generation table that's more widely celebrated by seemingly everybody except for myself.


Paragon!

You know, pretty much the only time I ever hear the word "Paragon" is in conjunction with the phrase "paragon of virtue," and as obvious by table's backboard art, that's probably not what this unit is about. I suppose the R-rated sword and sorcery fantasy novel artwork speaks for itself. Part 1970s Budweiser art and part Napoleon Dynamite drawing, there's a lot of things you can call this display, but assuredly, "boring" isn't one of the descriptors likely to pass your lips.


While I find the table art on this one interesting, I can't exactly say I find it all that interesting or impressive. Granted, whoever designed it had talent, but the whole thing is laid out in such a pell-mell manner, like a 14-year-old really into Game of Thrones was asked to design a slot machine or something. And like I'm going to give a fuck about that extra flipper when you put a damn tiger-lizard-eagle-person right next to the ball drain. Jeez, talk about cannibalizing your own product features, no?


So yeah, Paragon, unfortunately, is a pretty forgettable little table with a theme that feels like it could've been lifted from about 15 or 20 of its contemporaries. Which ... much like the chimera that's plastered all over this motherfucker, whose name I can only assume is literallly "Paragon" ... shows the aesthetic and mechanical shortfalls of commercial hybridization in full.


Time Warp!

This board is literally the Frankenstein's monster of pinball tables. I can almost assure you the guys at Williams came up with this one by simply looking at all of their abandoned projects and leftover props and saying "fuck it, might as well mass produce something with all this shit." And I assure you, that steadfast dedication to quality product is glaringly apparent with the table itself just as much as it is with this woefully uninspired backboard art.


I mean, pardon my language, but what the shit-ass-fuck is supposed to be going on here? You've got glowing pyramids and dinosaurs and some dude with a mustache trying to grab a bunch of planets like a homosexual version of Galactus, and I'm still not sure what half of the stuff up top is supposed to be. What is that above the astronaut, anyway ... a fucking German soldier from World War I?


A lot of these older boards tried desperately to create a sort of countercultural vibe, but this one just comes off as hopelessly cluttered and insincere. Like, even if you were into Blue Oyster Cult and retarded metaphysical shit, would one look at this crap even for half a second make you stop and think about dropping a quarter or two in the coin slot? Let's face it: the "intended" target for this one wouldn't have even bothered stamping out their rat-weed-filled cigarettes to even look at this one.


Gold Wings!

Yep. This board clearly wasn't trying to capitalize on the success of any popular Tom Cruise movies involving fighter jets and shit. While hilariously awful attempts to mimic actual I.P.s is nothing new in the pinball world, this has to be one of the most shameful ripoffs I've ever seen in the medium ... and considering that includes Hollywood Heat, that's fuckin' saying something.


But really, outside of the sheer novelty of playing a very unlicensed Top Gun pinball game, there's just not a lot to talk about here at all. The artwork is pretty humdrum, the mechanical features are about as basic as it gets and the overall design is just painfully bland. Unless you really have a hard-on for the blue and grey color scheme, you're probably not going to get much out of this experience whatsoever.


Still, you have to give Gottlieb a little bit of credit for thinking way outside the box when it came time to crib lines from the movie. Pretty much anybody else would've found a way to put "I feel the need for speed" somewhere on the table, but they instead opted for a bumper referencing a solitary line of dialogue about the perils of "jet wash." Shit, if these guys were given the go-ahead to make a Ninja Turtles pinball game, they'd probably eschew the "Cowabungas!" and "Radicals" for a little speed bump reading "pork rind?"


Mousin' Around!

At first glance, I thought this was a table modeled after Mouse Trap. But considering Mouse Trap didn't have any creepy, sexualized mice with humongous rat tits nor fat dudes chomping on cigars on the game board, I soon learned the error of my ways.


I can't be the only person who gets a weird Chuck E. Cheese vibe from this one. I mean, this thing looks like the interior of a Chuck E. Cheese, right down to the clashing blue and red color scheme and plastic shit all over the place. The only thing missing, really, is an obstacle modeled after the shitty pizza and black parents punching the hell out of one another next to the ball pit


Not that you really need me to tell you this, but this is a pretty forgettable pinball unit. The overall gimmick is uninteresting, the artwork is just kind of meh and the overall gameplay is quite mediocre. It's playable and I suppose it has a little bit of charm, but on the other side of the token, I can also easily see why this one never became an arcade staple.


Congo!

Man, finding this thing made the entire show worth it. Granted, I'm not the biggest Congo fan out there (in fact, I don't think I've even seen the movie all the way through), but just the fact that a pinball game was made as a monument to the film makes me all kinds of giddy.


And to be fair, even if the game wasn't based on a movie about killer monkeys, it'd still make for a well above average pinball unit for the mid-1990s. The artwork is great, and the design is just top notch. It's complex without being too cluttered, and they actually had the gumption to build the artwork into the obstacles instead of trying to build the obstacles around the artwork ... an engineering mishap that many a pinball designed made back in the day, as evident by the existence of Waterworld.


So yeah, they kind of ripped off Creature from the Black Lagoon here, but hey, if it works, it works. It's not technically a hologram, nor does a giant monkey hop out of it (which is a huge disappointment, obviously), but it does have quite a bit of stuff going on underneath it. It's hard to describe, but once you see it in motion, you'll be like "Oh, OK, I get it. That's not that cool, but it's kinda' cool, I guess." Which, for 1995 consumer standards, nearly constituted a ringing endorsement.


Meteor!

What the shit-fuck is supposed to be going on here? The first time I looked at this backboard art, I actually struggled to determine what I was looking at for a few seconds. That has to be one of the worst uses of a pink-on-blue color scheme in the history of anything ever. Artwork this fugly, in my humblest of opinions, simply shouldn't exist outside of early 1990s Trapper Keeper binders.


You know, if somebody asked you to dream up the most generic 1980s pinball theme you could think of just as a larf, I'm pretty sure this is what 99 percent of the American populace would see in their reveries. I mean, it's just so devoid of personality, or really, any distinguishing characteristics whatsoever. This is the kind of pinball game you'd play at a hole in the wall restaurant once on a road trip and never think of again for the rest of your life ... hell, even if you DID actually play this game at a hole in the wall restaurant once on a road trip, you probably STILL don't remember it even after I reminded you. THAT is how forgettable this game is, really.


At first glance, I wouldn't even think this was a pinball game. To me, it looks more like some cruddy 1980s toy set, or maybe the front page of a spiral bound notebook they had on sale at the dollar store. I really can't say this is one of the worst pinball games I've ever played, but I can certainly say it's a strong contender for least memorable pinball game I've ever played. Shit, I already forgot the name of this fucker and it's only been, what, three paragraphs now?


Eight Ball Champ!

I could've sword I played a variation of this game, only instead of a bunch of dapper-looking British chaps on the backboard, it was some meth-head Marlboro Man wannabe with some skanky barmaid in the background. And no, it wasn't the one with the unauthorized Fonzie, either.


Speaking of generic table designs, shit, do you think they could've found a way to make this one less traitless? I mean, the whole table artwork design is basically a facsimile of an actual billiards table, albeit with a few blinking lights here and there. I mean, that's like being commissioned to make a football-themed pinball table and painting the whole table like an actual football field. I mean, how stupid would that look and shit?


It just dawned on me how common the phrase "shoot again" was on some of these older units. Was that an official catchphrase for Bally Midway, or was it just so ingrained in the pinball vernacular that it was kind of like saying "the end" before the credits on a movie started rolling? I'm just surprised that a grand total of zero concerned parents groups ever accused the industry of promoting teen suicide. Shit, if Ozzy or that queer fella' from Judas Priest would've said "shoot again" in the outro to any of their songs, I promise you at least one lawsuit would've come out of it.


Road Kings!

And we close out the 2018 expo with the best. Well, actually, that's a bold-faced lie. Road Kings probably isn't the "best" of anything, but it WAS perhaps the most interesting unit I found at the show, and something I had never heard of (or seen) prior.


Part Mad Max, part Knight Riders (not the TV show, that one movie directed by George Romero) and all homoeroticism, Road Kings is the leather bondage fetish post-apocalypse Road Rash in pinball form we never knew we wanted, and the execution is thankfully every bit as awe-inspiring as the premise itself. I mean, a full QUARTER of the playing field is taken up by a giant steampunk penis ... if that doesn't tell you we're in store for all sorts of greatness, I don't know what does.


In a way, Road Kings epitomizes everything that's great about pinball ephemera. It's kitschy, it's kooky, it's outdated, it feels shamelessly capitalistic and just wallows in the low-culture of its own existence like a pig rolling gleefully in its own dookie. More than a bizarre tribute to the norms and folkways of yesteryear, this thing truly does represent a type of commoner's art, a sort of weird cultural artifact demonstrating what the masses of 1986 thought was socially appealing. And color me tinkled pink that even then, knee deep in the Reagan Years, arcade amusement targeting juvenile audiences was THIS enamored by the idea of commercialized machismo. Thank goodness that nonsense stopped being part and parcel of contemporary gaming culture, right?


...looks like I stand goddamn corrected, after all. 

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