August 25, 2013

Photo Essay: Pinball Forever (Or, At Least, Since the 1930s)

I'm no Pinball Wizard.

In fact, many of the games I play - that I love playing - I play badly. Pinball included. Bowling included (despite having two bowling trophies). Many video games included. Chess and checkers not included, I'm really good at those.

But what does it mean to be good at a game? During some games, it means merely beating your opponent. But what about pinball - especially the early days of pinball, before multi-player was even possible?  Pinball began in the 1930s as a single player, solo game, during which a marble (not even a ball) was launched from a galley and bounced around some pins (hence pinball) until it landed in some kind of hole, which had been designated a points value, which then translated into some kind of cash prize, or maybe a free drink or a snack from the bar.

But with the crackdown on gambling, pinball makers had to get crafty in their player rewards, to keep the players playing, placing their nickels (and eventually quarters) into the coin slots.

They added bumpers with a voltage just strong enough to keep the ball (now, a ball) bouncing around the playing field. They gave free bonus balls after certain points thresholds had been reached (ushering in the add-a-ball era).

And then, they created game play that required certain non-point goals to be reached, actions that must be completed, making the points not matter so much anymore.

At Pinball Forever in Santa Ana, a few, limited, lucky VIP players can enter a time capsule of pinball machines dating back to the beginning of time (well, pinball time: the 1930s) and witness - even play - the evolution of pinball from pins and holes to bumpers and flippers and depressions that eject and return the ball back into play.

In the 1950s room, I was launching and flipping and bouncing and leaning and trying not to tilt (no tilting!) when one of the owners approached me and asked, "OK, so do you know how to play this?"

"I was just trying to keep the ball in play..." I confessed, with the sinking feeling I should be doing something more.

"Oh, that's how I started playing too," she said. "That's how we all start. But let me explain this one..."

And it turns out, as pinball machines became more sophisticated, with lit-up back graphics and wood rails, they required you to accomplish certain feats - to strategize where the ball goes - and not just keep it out of the gutter.

You have to hit certain letters in a row.

You have to hit certain numbers in a row.

You have to knock certain cards down, in a row.

All the while, you have to keep the ball moving, always moving, scoring points...

...flipping flippers...

...bumping balls.

If you play these pinball machines correctly, it's exhausting.

While I was at Pinball Forever, I didn't try to master any one pinball game.

I was more interested in the novelty of each new game, with each new theme...

...though I found the strategy was often the same, though the graphics of the game might change, with new lights, new colors, and new sounds.

Is it ever enough just to keep the ball in play? I mean, you can't keep the ball in play forever - you've all these other balls (as many as nine more!) waiting to be launched. If you just stay on the first ball, you'll never finish.

And you've got to finish in order to move onto the next pinball machine.

I don't want to play the same pinball machine all night, the same game forever.

I want to know what it's like to play them all.

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