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My Pinball Philosophy
Date of Writing: 15th September 2005
Many people like pinball. I have yet to meet the person who doesn't know what it is, and I have rarely come across people who didn't like to play at least two games on my machines. The fact is that pinball is not only for nostalgic adults, it's very intriguing to younger people as well - maybe because it is different from PlayStation and Internet, and since we got so used to our everyday virtuality, we don't get exceptionally excited about this stuff. Pinball is a change from that; it's real, it's something you can touch, examine and feel when you play it. Who needs force feedback joysticks and 3D shutter glasses if you can have a real game right in front of you? It's certainly one factor that amazes everybody about pinball.
The Next Generation
Way back when, people were actually "forced" to play pinball because except for some other silly automatic games, pool billard, darts and slot machines there was not much else to play. Nowadays arcades have lost their attraction of being a place of fun because people have all the entertainment at home. Your personal computer can simulate pinball, you can play against thousands of other people in online games, and the latest video card is capable of bringing even more realism home to you so you can forget about your own imagi-nation - which you still needed when you played pinball. You had to figure out what the game was telling you. Most young people who I meet and talk about pinball with aren't even aware that pinball machines (especially modern ones) have a theme and a backstory. True, early electronics and especially electro-mechanic games didn't tell much of a story, but a theme was there and you kind of had to inte-grate the pinball game into it in your head. Launching a ball at a sinkhole and hearing an explosion sound is not what you would want to do if you wanted to be a member of a Star Trek crew, but once you play the pinball game, you get a feeling that the ball is not hitting that sinkhole, but a phaser is fired at that Borg ship you must destroy. Reality is merged with the imagination of the player which is enhanced by sounds, visuals (DMD animations make a great effort in that) and some physical toying (it just feels better and it's more believable to shoot the ball from a cannon than only punching it with flippers).
Now, most people who have never played real pinball games before don't pay a lot of attention to that relationship. They simply enjoy plunging the ball and having a good time. So there must be a fascination about pinball itself that drags the youngsters away from their computer chairs and makes them want to play with the silver ball again. Of course none of the people I know go in bars and cafés only to play pinball, but ever since some of them were here and played my machines, they get back to me telling me about that game they saw in that location - and how well it played.
Physics Make the World Go Round
If there is still an attraction to pinball even in this spoiled half-virtualized society, its fascination must cater to a basic level of entertain-ment that we kind of have in our instincts. I would theorize that factor number one is movement and reaction. Which little child has not been fascinated by moving and rolling things? Every child has got some toy with wheels on it or they even get these tricky little assem-blies where balls roll down a line of changing ramps which react physically to weight and movement. Later some of these children start playing with model trains or racing cars, some want to have an R/C airplane, and some (like me) see a pinball machine and love it from the first moment. It's all about movement and reaction because if something rolls, it triggers a greater awareness of its presence in our mind and later the concept of controlling movement by understanding the involved physics is appealing to us. Pinball is by far not the only game about controlling physics and avoiding a ultimatum. In the pinball case, the ultimatum is the drain of the ball between the flippers or through the outlanes, and I am confident that 99% of all pinball players hate outlane drains a lot more than center drains - because in the center there could have been a chance of catching the ball had it still touched one of the flippers, but the outlanes are uncontrollable unless you can bump the whole machine correctly. Control equals satisfaction. We are in control of the ball's movement, so we can use the ball to achieve our goal. As a pinball player you forget that the ball is an object that has its own "life" or that it is at least out on its own unless you can touch it with the flippers. Once you grasp the way the physics work, you get "the hang of the game" and you start to use the ball as your means to success. It is no longer a standalone object that rolls around by chance, but it's an extension of your control over the game. Still, the large randomness that counters your control puts the game on the edge in every moment when the ball comes down to the lower part of the playfield, and you know that it will come down no matter what you do, plus the machine gives the ball even more random movement using devices like bumpers to change its direction. Thus you are in constant battle with the game and that is what most people find exciting. You are actually attempting to control something that you can never have full control of, and this is what makes pinball an eternal game that never dies.
Is Pinball Dead?
By all means no. There are a lot of nostalgic pinball players out there who don't like the direction pinball has taken, and apart from that it's a fact that only one company exists today that still manufactures new pinball games. But let's face it, everything returns now and then, music, clothing, hair styles, why not pinball? In fact, pinball is still a very attractive game because it provides an old but working concept of interactive entertainment which is just different from the forms of entertainment we know and take for granted. When pinball started losing to the video games in the 80s, it was because they were brand new and never heard of before. Today video games are so much of a standard that it's become very hard to find a kid who is not familiar with them. Pinball might not be brand new and unheard of, but it's something that was never in the possession of your normal everyday family. Pinball machines didn't have a home-use culture, they were built for the streets, but today more and more people want their own machine at home, and it doesn't seem that this will stop. As I said, many people who come here to play are fascinated by the game either because they pay close attention to it for the first time or they rediscover a great game they didn't have much interest in before they came here. And after this, they start dreaming about having their own game at home. At least for this home use pinball will always have a market - it might not be very big, but it will grow and adapt to the home-use scheme that we have established for so many things; last I heard this was "home theater". Who is to say that theaters couldn't make use of a pinball machine standing in the lobby?
The fact remains that pinball has not lost its appeal and contrary to what many adults think, teenagers and students like me are not close-minded to it. We don't sit at home playing Counter-Strike all day (in fact I rarely play multiplayer games), we still have some other stuff to take care of because some things never change - we want friends, relationships and some entertainment away from the screen, and if pinball finds its way back to the streets where it belongs, and if a new company like Mr. Pinball Australia comes up with some really good designs (instead of Stern's mediocre license stuff), pinball could be "cool" again.
To me, pinball means a lot. I care a lot about what I spend my time with as I'm not one to lie down lazy and watch time pass by. It bores me and there are days when I've got nothing to do and I'm frustrated as hell. Pinball is the ideal thing to fill those days, but there are also times when I have the feeling that something's not right. As I'm writing this, I have actually made up my mind about Stargate and my next DMD game, which will be Johnny Mnemonic, but I have to sell Stargate to get the money and space for JM, which is something that was unthinkable to me two months ago. I find myself cycling pinball games like other people cycling video games - play it through and get the next. Lots of collectors don't want to give their machines away because they feel a little more nostalgic about them than I do, so they keep their games and make more room and spend more money on even more games. Since I can't do that at this time, I am forced to sell both for space and money. But most of the time selling a machine isn't as bad as it sounds. When I was just getting started, I thought that I could never sell and that I would never be unsatisfied with one of my games, but then my skills evolved and I needed a greater challenge. It meant goodbye to some good games that I might have kept if I had more money and space, and some of these games will make a return once my life has changed for the better, but that doesn't mean they will be as good as they used to be - greater skill means greater need for challenge and some older games I had will be back, but not among the machines I play regularly. They would have to be second and third class games that stand next to the first class machines I am now buying - and keeping. At this point I can say that two of the games I own are what I have been looking for, and it can hardly get better than that - but it can get more and as long as I have room and money to spend, it will get more. The third machine, Stargate, turns out not to be the perfect game I hoped for; it's not the third first class machine in this row that two machines already fill. Johnny Mnemonic is the trade and it might be the third in this line, but as I've learned from experience, you can never be fully sure about that unless a certain time has passed and you still want to play the game anytime.
Selecting the right game is like an art - you have to know exactly what you are doing or you'll throw the game out and buy a new one as quickly as I'm doing it now. What went wrong with Stargate? It's a fine machine and it still appeals a lot to me, I enjoy the time I spend playing it, but it's too easy to beat. I don't need to do much to reach one of the two wizard modes and to me a pinball game is never only about highscores; I need an ultimate goal. There are older games I value that don't have such a goal, but when it comes to DMD games, I know what is standard and I want to take advantage of this standard. Stargate doesn't give me the challenge I need to keep this single machine interesting. True, the more machines you have, the easier it is to say, "I'll keep it nonetheless, it's a second class game to fill unused time." But three or four machines isn't particularly much and I want to get the most out of my money and wasted space. So I'm trading and searching as long as it's necessary until I found the games I want to stick with for a longer time until I can move on and have more than four games in a room, after which I won't need to worry so much about swapping.
Another thing that makes the perfect game is flow. Stargate has little of that. It's bumpy as hell and the ball takes a lot of random movement from the kickers and the steep playfield. It's like a rush and the multiball modes enhance this rush, but once you get used to that, the machine must prove whether it can challenge and entertain me beyond the initial excitement you get when the game is new. Well, since it's easy to reach the top goal and a game usually doesn't take under seven minutes, I find that flow and challenge are missing. Instead I keep playing Star Trek: The Next Generation and it feels as cool as it used to feel when I started playing Stargate next to it. STTNG has not lost any of its beauty, coolness, challenge or flow. In fact, the better you get in it, the better the experience becomes. It's still an outstanding experience to reach warp 9, the loop-ramp combo is still one of the coolest moves in the game and shooting the ball into a sinkhole with the cannons is a satisfying feeling. I have control over this game, I can pull the trigger and see a result that makes me look at it as if I had really hit that Borg ship with a phaser. Part of this experience comes from the better implemen-tation of the theme - better music quality, more speech and a license to boot that has captured millions of fans; all this adds to the cool-ness factor of the game, so a good theme can keep a pinball game alive for a longer time, be it licensed or original. Part of this is why I have not sold The Machine, and I'm perfectly secure that I'll never do. And while I said the same about other games (including Stargate), I think it's safer to say about The Machine because it has been here a lot longer than any other game. But flow is another factor that I won't sell this game for, and it's one factor that makes me replay STTNG instead of Stargate - long loops and ramps, speedy ball move-ment and the anticipation of where the ball will go with the next shot are what makes flow. The Machine doesn't have any outer orbits or a wide open playfield, but it has three small loops that can be hit so perfectly well! It makes me love the game next to the theme and design, and it has not lost any of its beauty over 15 months. I bet the same might happen with STTNG; it's too beautiful, too cool and plays too damn well to let it go. And if my next game does the same, it will be the third game in my row of first class games. And if the flow is right, it's only a matter of challenge that determines how long the game can be extensively played before it becomes boring. I've been told that Johnny Mnemonic is a very fast and very tough game, and I have never even beaten it in Visual Pinball (which is easier to play than real machines for most games) in one year. And if this is what it is, I'll gladly give Stargate away for that.
Conclusion: my pinball philosophy is, theme & design follows challenge follows flow. If the game feels right and you get control over the ball, it's a good game. If the theme can add a strong point of coolness, even better. But if the game is challenging and a bastard to beat, the theme is not that important.
The whole theme-challenge-flow thing doesn't go that well for classic pinball games. As you can observe on my website, I've had some experience with classics until I started moving on to DMD games. Why did I move on? The answer is challenge, however there are still some older games that I want to buy again later as second and third class games, because I liked one of the three facts (most of the time it's the theme) very much and don't want to miss it. Most of these games are advanced electronics, but there is one early electro-nics game I want to have although I never played it in reality; Space Shuttle. This summer I tried to get one again, I had money and space this time, but I lost it. The wall on the left side of my window is plastered with Space Shuttle postcards and photos that I installed because I want to keep this edge exclusively free for the day when I find this game. Space Shuttle is... like the purest pinball game I've known. Great theme which is very powerfully converted into pinball even though the technology doesn't allow for a lot of room there, good flow for a classic game like that which has a much more symmetric design than DMD games, and most importantly, Space Shuttle is a game about points, not goals. Players don't have to read the rules before they start playing, they will comprehend the few rules in a matter of minutes and get multiball very easily. In the end this means that this game is all about pure pinball - whoever controls the ball best will win. It's the game to test who is the master pinball player because you can't use knowledge of rules to your advantage and you can't use a specific move to plunge your score lightyears away from the other players; you have to play pinball as it was meant to be, by flipping the ball at targets and not much else. But why is this challenging, and why doesn't it get boring? I've been playing an excellent computer conversion of Space Shuttle on my PC for over a year and I've wanted the machine all of that time, sometimes less, sometimes more, but even if I'm not hyped about it, I know it's still the classic game I want to have next to all the new, complex, challenging games I look for. Maybe it's the fact that Space Shuttle hasn't got many rules and thus every game is different, because it comes down to what pinball really is, a random game you have to control, and you pay a lot more attention to this than to the big lightshow you get with DMD games. Plus, Space Shuttle looks and sounds so classic that I just adore its style. I guess you have to fancy old stuff to enjoy this part of pinball, but this is what made me get so many older games before I started DMDing - I liked the older games for their style and their original themes, the only problem was the missing challenge. Somehow Space Shuttle has kept that challenge on a different level, and I hope this will prove true once I get the real machine.
The bottom line is, there are lots of other classics, but there is only one I want so much because I believe it can compete with my DMD games. It's like a balance between old and new, the pure pinball game and the fancy new stuff that is complex, modern and charged with challenge on another level. I hope to integrate both in my collection one day, as that is what defines pinball for me. It is a classic game which lives on in classic and modern ways, and it's what I believe will always keep me interested.
|© 2005 Maximilian Schulz - Williams, Bally, Gottlieb and all other names, all pinball games and software mentioned on this site are trademarks of their respective owners.|