Sunday, October 19, 2008

Silver balls, hot dogs and beer.

The early to mid 1990s were truly a grand time to be in your late teens or early 20s.

The Simpsons had started, Beverly Hills 90210 (the real version) was a happening, Melrose Place was just around the corner, Twin Peaks was brilliant for one season, U2 were putting out Achtung Baby, grunge had taken hold, you could kit yourself out in a druggy shirt from Big W and be thought to have a sense of fashion, guys who couldn't grow beards were able to give sideburns a go, Tom Cruise was still a decade away from going nutso, Bill Clinton was a young, bold Presidential candidate, John Howard was an old, washed-up politician consigned to the scrapheap, and above all else, it was a golden age of pinball.

The 80s were dominated by video games - space invaders and Pacman, quickly replaced by Galaxia, and the mighty Galaga, before ending up with car simulated driving games like Pole Position. Pinball games at this time were rather staid and dull, but there were stirrings in the late 80s.

In 1989 a game called Earthshaker came out that at certain points in the game would vibrate to simulate an earthquake.

Then in 1990 the brilliant Funhouse was released by Williams Electronic Games.

Now I became acquainted with Funhouse while at university in Adelaide. The greatest take-away/hamburger shop in all the world, The Blue and White Cafe on O'Connell Street in North Adelaide had the game. At 60 cents for one game and 3 for $1, it was perfectly priced for poor uni students, and was incredibly addictive. It featured a Luna Park type face which you needed to hit a certain number of times to open its mouth. Getting 3 balls swallowed would start multiball.

When you are at uni there are three people you need to be on a first name basis with - the person who pours you your beer at you local pub, the barista at your regular coffee shop, and the guy who makes you your hot dog with the lot, or yiros meat and chips, or hamburger at the local take away.

I spent a hell of a lot of my Austudy to be able to get to the point where on a crowded Thursday night at around 12:30am, I could enter the Blue and White Cafe, which was crowded with students from every college around North Adelaide, and instead of wait 15 minutes to get to the front, I could put up a finger, and Tony behind the counter knew I was after a hot dog with onion, bacon and cheese. It only happened once, but by God it was worth it.

What also was worth the money was that Tony was also an great pinball player and occasionally, when my mates and I would be sitting outside having done a 2am minimum chips and sauce run on a Tuesday night, if it was quiet and Tony had been playing pinball, he would sometimes let me know he had just got the replay on Funhouse and it was mine if I wanted it - a 60 cent free game of pinball, if that wasn't worth spending $2.50 every single night of the week on hot dogs, then I wasn't studying an Economics Degree!

And then one day in 1991, my mates and I ventured in to the Blue and White and Funhouse was gone. It was replaced by a Terminator 2: Judgement Day game. It cost $1 a go, or 3 for $2. Sorry Tony, we said, shaking our heads. Can't do it. We be but poor students, $1 a game is just being plum greedy.

Tony, ever the sage, tilted his head and said "oh look, it's pretty good". Oh we laughed, and said we'd humour him - just this once, just to show that we are good loyal customers - one game (there's a dollar I'll never see again!) never again I says, too expensive, too much, too... hey this ain't bad...

It was just the beginning. Pinball was about to hit an absolute peak. Video games were quickly becoming passe - especially as the great Sega Mega Drive meant you could play them at home. And soon pinball game were taking over hamburger joints, video arcades and pubs.

Best of all, was pinball while at the pub with your mates. Three guys could stand around and chat and rest a beer while taking it in turns playing - 3 for $2, what an absolute bargain! And pinball, unlike video games, is social. You can chat while playing pinball, whereas video games generally involve immersing yourself in the game. Plus the table of a pinball allows for spectators in a way that video screens of the past did not.

From 1992 to 1996 a plethora of great games were produced. Any major film blockbuster needed a pinball game. There was The Simpsons game (not real good, lacked imagination), Star Wars (came out in 1992 - I liked it, but it wasn't around in many places), Lethal Weapon 3, and Johnny Mnemonic - have never seen the film, but I can't believe it could be better than the game.
But the one game that really set the world of pinball on fire came out in 1992. Terminator 2 was the first to use a dot matrix screen (kinda of like a basic video game screen) as the scoreboard, but the one that made use of it and which also featured the most inventive game play thus far, was a little gem called The Addams Family. This game was the Sgt Peppers of pinball. Once played you could never go back to the old games. It shaped the future (well the next 4 years at least). It used stacks of phrases from the movie "That's the spirit Thing, lend a hand" "The Mamushka!" "It's Cousin It!". Getting a ball locked for multiball caused a plastic hand (Thing) to emerge out of a box and pick it up. It had different gameplays based on aspects of the game - my favourite was hitting Cousin It, which meant hitting certain bumpers giving you a bonus score for each hit (all the while an animation of Cousin It was bouncing around on the screen.

It was a game that required thinking, timing, skill.
After Addams Family came some other fantastic games that built upon its legacy. The pirate themed, Black Rose; Getaway:High Speed II with its turbocharge loop, the woefully boring Fish Tales, The wide-bodied Twilight Zone, and the brilliant Star Trek: The Next Generation, World Cup Soccer (complete with a goal keeper you had to try and get the ball past). All were brilliant, but my favourite, and the one which swallowed the most of my dollars was Judge Dredd. It was based on the comic book, not the movie, and had so much going on - with loops and ramps and different modes, that each game was pinball chess.

Now I was fortunate that my girlfriend at the time (and now wife) also loved pinball. Not being one to sit by idly while all the boys played pinnies at the pub, she began to play, and she was seriously good. Once in 1995 we were on holidays in Melbourne and in a video arcade one night we decided to play one of the best later years game - WHO Dunnit it was a truly inventive game that had as one of its aims, the solving of a crime. To unlock clues you had to do certain things - hit a ramp, or make a loop shot. We were both playing unbelievably well this night, so well that we were getting extra balls and multiballs on our extra balls, and replay after replay. And then suddenly the machine went bezerk. Every ball in the machine came flying out of every hole and we were playing the ultimate multiball ever. What we hadn't known, was that the machine had a feature that at midnight it would start "Midnight Madness" which was pretty much every feature lit, and every ball being used.

Have to say it was one of the highlights of the trip (well we had just seen the Crows get beat by Richmond).

By 1996 pinball was well on its way down. Video games were getting much better graphics, and Generation X had grown up (a tad) and were out of uni and no longer spending money down at the Blue and White (well at least not as often).

In 1996 two games - Junk Yard and Tales of Arabian Nights came out. They were good games, but they signalled the end. They were trying too hard - there were too many features, too many gimmicks, trying too hard to be a kind of video game as well as pinball, and the scoring had gotten stupid - for Addams Family you would be looking at around 30 million points to get the replay; with Junk Yard, needing a billion points wasn't out of the question.

And alas as with all things, the Golden Age was over. Billy would cheat on Allison just one last time; Grant Show would go off to a burgeoning movie career, U2 would decide to try something different and bring out a pop album, and The Simspons would err, well they would keep going (ok not everything comes to an end). But according to wikipedia there were only two pinball companies left in 1997, and by 1999 production was all but over.

A great loss. Now it's all Guitar Hero (a game I first saw in Japan in 2001 and thought "will NEVER catch on in the west") and games where you have to dance. I don't know what uni students do now at a pub. But those nights standing round the pinball shooting the breeze, matching shouts of pints with shouts of games, screaming "get the extra ball!" finding the edge of just how far you can rock the machine before hitting the tilt, and then praying to get the match at the end in the vain hope of a free game, are treasured memories.

Now the internet being what it is, a few weeks ago I came upon a great little site called (rather unimaginatively) the internet pinball database. They have a top ten ranked by users of the site, and I have to say I violently disagree with it.

Thus without further ado here's my top ten. A list which will mean everything to those who know, and nothing to those who don't.

1. Judge Dredd - if only for the "Sniper" and the "Bad Impersonator" modes.
2. WHO Dunnit
3. The Addams Family
4. No Fear - great 1995 game with heaps of features, ramps and fun
5. World Cup Soccer - one of the first with an over-arching objective (that of reaching the Cup Final)
6. Star Trek: The Next Generation - it featured among the many modes, "Q's Challenge", which always began with this little passage:
Q, "Bonjour mon capitaan!"
Picard, "Q, what are you doing here?"
Q, "Why don't we play a little game?"
Pickard, "Q ... we don't have time for your games."
7. Apollo 13 - based on the movie - where else can you hear Ed Harris in a pinball game?
8. Black Rose - had an excellent scoring feature involving firing "broadsides"
9. Funhouse - most likely very dated now, but where it all began.
10. Tales of Arabian Nights - the last fun gasp of a great period.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ah....good times, although much to my shame I don't even recall which pinball machine the blue & White have in there at the moment & I was only in there last night! (in fact a table and chair now sit where the two machines used to be.
For sheer dollars spent Addams family is clearly no. 1, with honorable mentions to Indiana Jones, twilight zone, fish tales, world cup & junkyard & of course where it all started Funhouse, damn you chucky.
With all this reminiscing next you'll be talking about when australia was a powerhouse at cricket