When I was younger, (which is more than a decade ago, but not long enough to be the “good old days”) my father would bring me to La Jolla Village Square. In that shopping mall was a place called Yellow Brick Road, which was a Capcom test arcade. There, I would meet with friends and unofficially compete against other groups of players to see who could “hold” the Street Fighter II machines.
These were not mere quarter munchers. These were gladitorial arenas, forty-five inch wide screens, with seats for the competitors, meticulously maintained controls, and a constantly changing roster of challengers.
One mantra. “Winner stays, loser pays.”
While I was establishing my fighting game “street cred,” my father would sometimes stay for a few games, but not anything so forward, down, down-forward, punch. He would head towards the back of the arcade, usually the deserted area next to the skeeball and the whac-a-mole ticket dispensers.
There, behind all the glitz and glamour of the arena, were the pinball tables. I never saw the appeal. Where was the satisfaction in knocking a metal ball around a table? I would never understand.
Then, one day in high school, I was in line on the Darkstalkers Nightwarriors machine. The current champion was playing an aggressive Pyron that relied on one move over and over. I observed him for a few matches and I felt confident I could take him out with a non standard Morrigan. But that battle was five quarters down the line. So, I had some downtime. I saw an Addams Family pinball table. The movie had come out a few months ago, and the table was a tie in. I had just watched the movie, so I was intrigued. I put a quarter in and launched a ball up the chute.
A few minutes later I had lost all three balls straight down the middle.
Then my turn was up on the Nightwarriors machine and I gave no conscious thought to pinball for a few weeks. Whether or not I won the game is lost to memory (I would like to think I won that match, my Morrigan at the time was pretty good) but the memory of the Addams Family table remains. It has lingered with me long after I stopped going to video arcades to beat up people. I now do that in privacy of my own home, in the company of friends.
A month or so later I was waiting for a movie, and there, in the lobby of the theater, was an Addams Family pinball machine. I gave it another shot. This time, I learned with subtle timing, I could actually aim the ball. My time and score were both much higher than my first experience. From then on, I was hooked. I started playing them, not only when I had downtime between matches, but just to play them.
There is a physical, tangible aspect of pinball that cannot be captured with sprites or polygons. There is an actual metal ball on the table. It may stray from where you were sending it with the flipper. It may hit a bumper so hard that it jumps and hits the glass with a crack so loud that it snaps you from focus and you lose the ball for a moment. You learn things about physics and geometry. How to pass a ball from one flipper to the other. How to “save” a ball that has already fallen into one of the outlanes. “Tricks” that may work on one machine, but not the next, because each machine is different.
Not just stepping into the same river twice different–we’re talking physical defects. It doesn’t matter if you’ve played twenty other Twilight Zone tables, the next one you find will be unique. Maybe the left flipper is weaker. Maybe there’s a slight tilt to the right. You won’t know unless you put your money in and give it a shot. Even then, it may just take your money and not let you play.
Either way, it’s a gamble, but when you win, and you find just the right machine, there’s nothing like it in the world. It’s just sad that now that I’m able to appreciate them, they’re getting harder and harder to find.