Friday, June 17, 2005

Pinball Renaisance

Pinball Renaissance

By Tom Buckner

English 1C Spring 2004
Special Project

Close your eyes for a moment and let your imagination take over. You are standing upright, slightly bent over the immense machine which looms before you. Your palms are on each side of the machine, fingers over the edge and touching a button on each side. The machine talks in lights and colors, stimulating the already building excitement inside of you to even greater heights. The field below you shines with energy, beckoning to be experienced. Various routes, choices, pathways, and journeys wait for you to travel them. Immersing you in another world is this machine’s goal. Pouring adrenaline through your veins is the key for this machine. The time arrives for your journey to begin.
The start button brings this machine to life. Lights and sounds erupt from everywhere at once. A bright and shiny metal ball emerges from someplace and sits at the starting gate, so shiny that your reflection is trapped within the ball, ready to journey with it. You pull back the plunger and release, shooting the ball into the machine and starting its chaotic adventure. The ball races through lights, across gleaming bridges and ramps, and through tunnels and caves, always emerging someplace else with speed and purpose. This ball’s path is not random, however. You are in control.
The two buttons on each side of the pinball machine are your gateway to interaction with the world below you. Every press sends your message to flippers within the game field which quiver and react like extensions of your thoughts. With these flippers you control the direction of this ball. You can stop the ball completely and survey the field above, then sending the ball flying up a ramp or into a hole. Every path causing your score to rise and lights and sounds increase. Making your way around the field by way of the shiny ball you complete many goals. Around and through the field your ball goes, disappearing once again in a special place.
Suddenly the machine erupts in brilliance and music, rattling in urgency. From the bowels of the machine spew forth not one, but two more shiny balls to join your one. These three balls race in different directions across the field, your eyes darting to follow each one. Your fingers working the flippers form every conceivable angle and motion. Your entire body is moving and dancing with the combined movement of each ball as you send them further and further into the game. Jackpot! Super Jackpot! The crescendo continues to build. Another jackpot! One ball escapes, swallowed through the hole of doom. The remaining two promenade below you, daring you to try and control their movement. Another escapes, leaving you with one.
As you send this ball up and around another spiraling ramp at the top of the field, a loud clapping knock shudders through the entire field and announces itself to everyone around you. A free game has been awarded for all of your effort. Finally your first ball finds to a way to elude you and disappears. Even the loss of this one ball isn’t the end. It could signify the beginning as the second of three total balls pops out and eagerly waits to fulfill its purpose in the game. After a seemingly endless amount of time your last ball finds its way to the end, your game complete. As a reward for your endurance, the game requests your three letter abbreviation, signifying to everyone that you made it among the elite. You have left your mark and the adrenaline fades slightly. In anticipation you press the start button again, beginning your free game fresh. Who knows what this game reveal.
This is the game of pinball; alive and flourishing today despite some hiccups along the way. Pinball is a game of skill and follows the laws of physics and gravity. Each game has a different theme; some based on reality, others on pure fantasy. They have evolved through the years from simple balls falling down through metal pins to highly technological and digital adventures which interact with the player. The pinball machine has survived the video game and found its way into the hearts of collectors and players. Everyone should stop at a pinball machine and see how far they can get on three silver balls.
Pinball machines originated in the 1930s and flourished as challenging entertainment and gaming for about 60 years. With video games making their way from arcades to the house, the last major pinball manufacturer stopped producing pinball machines in 1999 (Williams). Since that time, the popularity has grown for pinball and a new pinball manufacturer has risen to continue making these beautiful machines. They are currently selling their machines as fast as they can make them. What exactly makes the pinball game so fun and why should you play one?
Pinball games employ many treats to the viewer in an attempt to capture their attention and make them want to play. Modern themes that pinball games are built around include The Addams Family, The Simpsons, Star Trek, Star Wars, Playboy, The Terminator, and more recognizable big names. Each game has different missions and goals which the careful player is always trying to reach. Each contains numerous ramps leading to different areas, multiple levels, flashing lights, music and soundtracks, multiple ball action, free game awards, top gamers scores, one to four players, and many other enticing elements. As my project shows, the colors and displays on pinball machines are works of art in themselves. Even the playfield is carefully and functionally designed to provide hours of play. Earning a high enough score can get you a free credit on the machine and maybe even your initials. It is possible to continue playing a pinball machine for quite some time on (currently) two quarters.
Manipulating the ball(s) accurately can reward you with special missions, bonuses, and lots of fun side games. As an example, one of my favorite current games is called “Attack from Mars” by Bally. In this game some of the key elements include hitting shaking Martians at four different points on the field, completing six attack waves to conquer the universe, earning extra balls, multiple balls numbering from 2-4, “total annihilation”, combos, jackpots, super jets, video game mode, and more! Each of these can be accomplished by hitting the ball into or through various parts of the playfield. Each game has different goals but all possess the same exhilaration of trying to accomplish these goals. The success of pinball has been hard and long and continues to struggle today.
Pinball began like the old Pachinko games with a ball falling through various pins sticking out of the playfield. Several holes awarded points depending on which one the ball fell into. Balls bounced off of rubber bands and any manipulation was done by the player by moving the whole machine. With the advent of the coin-operated vending industry around 1931 the pinball machine really started to take off (Madness). Improvements included an anti-tilt mechanism to prevent the player from abusing the machine.
In 1942 the city of New York outlawed pinball machines saying that they were “a game of luck rather than a game of skill” (Madness). Many other states followed state and soon pinball was seen as a gambling device. In the 1970s this ban was lifted everywhere and the pinball machine returned to the world of entertainment. 1947 was the biggest change for pinball machines with the advent of the flipper (oscar), allowing the player to manipulate the ball more. Later advances showed drop targets, magnets, dot matrix displays, multiple balls, extra balls, and energized bumpers and targets. Pinball machines used popular themes to increase sales and made machines appearing to be works of art. The pinball industry was thriving and the pinball machine could be found in many stores and arcades. The birth of the video game would create ripples in the pinball world.
Video games quickly surpassed pinball machines in popularity but never in its uniqueness. Pinball was and still is a game founded in reality. A real ball travels around a well designed field following the rules of gravity. Skill at manipulating a real ball is something that can never be captured with a video game or even a video pinball simulation. Still, with the entertainment industry climbing into the homes of millions of people, the pinball industry has turned more into a nostalgia and collectors scene. The shrinking popularity of the pinball machine can be seen with any visit to an arcade. Many do not even have pinball even more and if they do, the machines are not prominent and rarely visited. Cultures video game expectations disappoint the new player of a pinball machine. It is usually not until the new player watches a veteran that they begin to understand, appreciate, and get excited about the complexities and excitements found within the game.
Today the underbelly pop culture of pinball is as invigorating as ever. I attend several pinball conventions across California and Oregon every year. These conventions feature hundreds, sometimes thousands, of old and new pinball machines, all set on free play, and most for sale. Hundreds of people show up to play their favorite game or find a new favorite. Competitions are held and prizes are awarded. Old and young people standing in front of various machines having fun is like watching generations together at a reunion. Everyone shares the love of pinball and many discover it for the first time. A common thread in an otherwise uncommon world. Pinball will continue to withstand the turbulent times and continue to fascinate people of all ages and backgrounds. Become a pin-head and go play some pinball.

Pinball machines have always presented a great challenge for the developer and designer of the game. The message trying to be conveyed is one of excitement and challenge. Designers have used the pinball to express their artist as well as functional minds. As Chad Dresbach asked in his thesis on pinball, “could machines be designed which may cease to be 'generic'
and non-constructive, and instead be designed to reinforce an idea or concept, or even communicate some message” (Jensen).
One major message trying to be conveyed by the designers is one of advertisement. The back glasses (the backboard of the game showing the title score, etc) of pinball machines are more visually stimulating than just about any other advertising I have ever seen. The designer tries to incorporate an immense array of information and stimulus in a given area using bright colors, lights, sexy scenes, scary scenes, or any other of a wide assortment of fancy things to capture your initial attention. Many designers are well known for their individual artistic talents in creating and designing a game to the point where players and collectors seek only games made by these people. During World War II many messages on pinball machines were changed to reflect patriotism or anti-Japanese themes in reflection of the country’s mood. Messages in pinball games can include anti-drug themes, advertising for a hit movie or show, or something depicting challenge and excitement. But the true message behind pinball is about having fun.
Pinball began as an amusement and will always continue to be an amusement. For me, nothing comes close to the excitement of pinball. I want to complete the missions, experience the results, get my name on the scoreboard, and play multi-ball. Sometimes I just want to see how many targets I can get or see if I can reach the pinnacle of the game. This is where the true meaning of pinball comes into play; the pure fun and enjoyment of playing or watching someone else play. I love to rack up some free games and then leave the machine. This is when some kid comes by, presses the start button out of curiosity, and realizes they can play the game. It is so exciting to see someone who has never experienced pinball begin hitting that ball around the playfield and watching the lights and sounds reflect their play. The seed has been planted for a future pin-head.
I approached my project portion of this paper much like a graphic designer would. Graphic design has been in use for years to promote events, concerts, advertising, flyers, etc. Their purpose is to have a single full page presentation that will capture the eye of the reader. They place these ‘ads’ in newspapers, magazines, bulletin boards, or send them to people by mail or email. I wanted to accomplish the same thing. I hoped that after only viewing the project somebody would want to play a pinball game or find out a little bit more about pinball machines. I used pictures from manufacturers that they used in advertising, pictures of my own, clip art, and some imagination. I created the project from scratch without using a template or design to follow. I have done some graphic design work of my own and so relied on the experience from that to help in the design of this project.
This project would be used to attract people to read the rationale part of my project or to attend some pinball event and really get them interested. It could be used to introduce a web site dealing with pinball or a site that sells pinball machines.
Every section of my collage was used to stimulate and emphasize the underlying message of playing pinball. At each of the upper corners is a large image of a back glass from actual machines. These images really illustrate the bright and vibrant artistry that goes into a machines back glass. This is the key to a good and attractive machine because it is facing the viewers like a painting, trying to beckon them into their world; in this case into a game of pinball. At the bottom two corners are advertising sheets from two different games. These show the type of graphic design that goes into trying to sell and promote a new pinball game.
At the top of the page and middle right are several smaller icons from various games by Stern Pinball, Inc: Striker Extreme, Harley Davidson, WackADoodleDoo, High Roller Casino, and Roller Coaster Tycoon. I included these recognizable names and funny or exciting sounding names to stimulate and energize the viewer to some degree. A wide and numerous assortment of game names to show the variety of pinball games in existence. Naturally, these are small in numbers compared to the thousands of pinball machines which have bee produced. The bottom center includes the logo of the Oregon Pinball Owners and Players because I wanted to show that there are even organizations that deal with nothing but pinball. This particular organization puts on the Pinball Odyssey at the Medford Armory every year with tons of pinball machines to play for free, buy, and sell.
I also included some clip art found on the web from Microsoft and used to stimulate the picture even more. I wanted the picture to be busy but not overwhelming. These images like the two balls, pinball machine, and flipper-ball-bumper graphic all added a little color and helped hide the corners and squareness of some of the pictures so the entire composition looked smoother.
I wanted the piece to appear fun, colorful, and full of life. These are the qualities of pinball I wanted to express. The rationale part was written to back up my desire to spark interest in pinball. I especially hoped that the beginning ‘dream’ sequence would really stimulate the readers’ imagination and put them into an actual pinball experience. I wanted this to be the biggest argument for it of the whole paper. It needed to really hit the reader with excitement or curiosity. I hoped that the reader would think that they were missing something by never experiencing this wonderful thing that they were reading about. The rest of the rationale would help back up my argument by revealing the true real-world nature of the pinball game. Combined together I hoped that any reader would immediately want to try their skill at pinball or, at the very least, give them a better appreciation of something they knew very little about to begin with.

Works Page

Jensen, Russ. “The Dresbach Thesis.” Russ Jensen’s Pinball History Page. . 2004.
Jensen, Russ. “The Year That Could Have Ended Pinball.” Russ Jensen’s Pinball History Page. . 2004.
Medford Pinball Odyssey Homepage. .
Microsoft Clipart Online. .
Mr Pinball. .
oscar@acc.umu.se, “Pinball History.” .
Pinball Madness. “History of Pinball.” < http://www.pinballfun.com/hist.html>.
Rossignoli, Marco. The Complete Pinball Book: Collectiing the Game and Its History. Schiffer: PA. 2002.
Stern Pinball, Inc. .
The PinGame Journal. .
Williams Electronic Games. .

Games played specifically for this project (minimum 4 games each):
Attack From Mars 1995 Bally
World Cup Soccer 1994 Bally
JunkYard 1996 Williams
Star Trek Next Generation 1993 Williams
Laser War 1987 Data East

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