zophar53's Blog

Posted on Oct 3rd 2016 at 08:00:00 AM by (zophar53)
Posted under Pinball, Arcade games, expos, events

There's just something about going to a live event that's special. Seeing so many people gather with friends and strangers alike to share their passions, and seeing those passions take shape in all sorts of fun, creative ways, is powerful. It's encouraging and uplifting to be able to step away from the all-too-common toxicity of the internet at large to see the best of what a fan base can be. This is even better when the event is local. I've traveled to shows and expos in the past, and while that's fun and carries with it an added layer of traveling adventure, it can also get expensive. A local event gets you all the excellence of a good con without the potentially prohibitive cost of a flight, gas, and/or hotel room.

So it's with this in mind that I'm going to break from the norm and hold off on writing an October/Halloween post for the time being. Instead, I wanted to share my experience at the 2nd annual Cleveland Pinball and Arcade Show I attended a couple weeks ago. I went to the first CLEPIN as well, and I'm happy to say there were some fantastic tables on display this year, making for an even better show than in 2015.

This year there were more than 120 tables on display from every era, all set on free play, as well as a pinball tournament held by the World Class PAPA (Professional & Amateur Pinball Association) Circuit. In addition, almost every table and cabinet came from private collections, with many of them being up for sale. Each machine had a card on it with a price and phone number for the owner in case you were interested in buying or if it needed service.

There was so much on display that the games were spilling out into the hallway leading up to the hotel ballroom where the event was being held. While certainly not the main event, I still couldn't help spending some time here to play a bit of Donkey Kong, Galaga, and Time Crisis II. I had to make a conscious effort to walk away from Time Crisis specifically, as it was always my favorite in the series and I'd never played it on free play before. Unlike most of the TC machines I've played the gun recoil was actually in good working order and part of me wanted to play through the entire game right there. But seeing as it was the final day of the show and there was still so much to see, I walked away early.

Not being able to attend the first two days, by the time I got there the tournament was in full force. I didn't do much research to find out who the leaders were or how things were shaking out, but it was fun to see the intense play and equally intense gazes from the judges' table as they kept a close eye on things.

Each table had a camera directly over it to keep a watchful eye against cheating

One of the first things I noticed right away was that there didn't seem to be any organization to the layout of the tables. This probably has to do with the fact that they all came from personal collections and were simply lined up as they arrived on a given day. I'm told that the inventory was slightly different day to day depending on the schedules of their owners. This resulted in more than a few instances of older tables being placed right next to newer ones, but no one seemed to mind. Turnout was great, as even though it was the last day there were still sometimes lines 2 or 3 people deep for the more popular tables.

Proof that even the worst movies can still make for some awesome pinball designs

There were some tables I was hoping to see that weren't present, namely Terminator 2, Harley-Davidson, and Gorgar, but there were more than enough unique designs and things I'd never seen before that I didn't end up missing them. The first of which being the Demolition Man table. Not only does it have a good layout with a lot of interesting things happening, but it also sports two big handles on either side of the table with trigger buttons to activate the flippers and thumb buttons to launch the balls. It also had the standard buttons on the side for flipper activation, but let's be honest here, why in the world wouldn't you want to use those handles?

Another neat one was the new Ghostbusters machine. It was only released earlier this year, but featured the cast and music from the original film in addition to narration by Ernie Hudson, the actor who played Winston Zeddemore. It was definitely one of the highlights of the show.

I think we all know what the correct answer is when someone asks if you're a god

Ghostbusters may have been the newest table on display, but it wasn't the only one making a case for pinball innovation in the modern era. The two machines that were among the most eye-catching were The Wizard of Oz and The Hobbit.

Released in 2013 and 2016, respectively, they both feature huge digital screens that take up more than half the area of the backboards. They're basically monitors, and display smooth animation using characters and scenes ripped directly from the source movies. I have no doubt there are purists who would scoff at such things in a pinball table, but it was undeniably attracting. They'd seem gimmicky if not for the tables themselves being well-designed. The Wizard of Oz table in particular was highly enjoyable. Seeing such a vibrant world come to life in a form I'd never seen before gave it new life like I hadn't experienced in quite some time. Both machines were fun to play, and active enough that my only complaint was that I was barely able to keep track of what was happening on the monitors because my focus was on the game, which is where it should be. In the end, I was impressed at how far pinball displays have come, but felt like it was a bit of a waste if you weren't able to appreciate it without taking your attention away from the game itself. It also seemed like a bit of a cheat. Monitor displays can easily show anything you want, whereas with a dot matrix display there's something of an art form in creating lively, expressive scenes. A colorful, well-done dot matrix display on a pinball table will always have more personality than a monitor.

After checking out the newer tables I started heading toward the older machines. High Speed was there, which is one that I played a ton of back in the day, but one I hadn't discovered until then was The Getaway: High Speed II. This actually ended up being my favorite table of the entire show.

Like all the best pinball tables, it has an interesting design that's busy while still keeping the lower half of the play field relatively open. It's reminiscent of its predecessor, but with some very obvious differences. First, there's not the usual Start button and plunger-style launcher. Instead, it has an ignition key (complete with fob) and gearshift lever for these actions. It gives an awesome first impression, and feels even better to actually interact with.

Second, the rear of the play field features a "racetrack" ramp encircling a supercharger. When the ball gets in that area, the supercharger propels the ball around the racetrack ramp over and over at high speed before shooting it out to one of the rail ramps that branch off it. Between all the potential action and the background music of none other than "La Grange" by ZZ Top, I could've played this table all day.

There were also some oddities I'd never even heard of, like the wide-bodied Q*Bert's Quest, which had a weird second set of flippers below the main ones that flipped out to the sides. Or Mystery Castle, which, while being a fairly unremarkable table in general, happened to have the best feeling flippers I've ever felt in any machine. I'm not sure if it was in the flippers themselves or the button internals, but they had a tactile quality to them that made me feel connected to the movement like no other table I'd played. The best way I can describe it is like that of a mechanical keyboard as compared to a standard rubber membrane type.

Another unique table was Revenge From Mars in 3D. Released in 1999 and supposedly the last pinball machine under the "Bally" label, it had a display monitor similar to the Wizard of Oz and Hobbit models, albeit of much lower quality. What made this table so interesting was that the ball interacted with what was happening on-screen. You actually select from several different locations where invasions were taking place and had to hit the aliens with the ball to defeat them. There were also certain actuation points in the play field that you could hit to set the UFO on fire. It wasn't quite as fun as I was expecting, but it actually worked pretty well and I appreciated the design and concept.

All in all, it was a great turnout of tables and I was pretty impressed. I was also happy to see how many families and young people had come as well. The TMNT machine had a steady flow of traffic, and seeing a pair of young boys playing it with their dad gave me all kinds of warm fuzzies. There was also something I witnessed toward the end of the day that made me reflect in a way I wasn't expecting.

I was waiting in line to play the Tron Legacy table, and right next to it was the Metallica table. I'd never seen this particular table before so I had just finished giving it a try myself. It was pretty fun, and the stylized art made me want to know who the artist was. Anyway, there was this group of three kids, probably around 11 or 12, that was waiting behind me to play Metallica. They were active, kind-of-but-not-really rowdy, so basically, perfectly normal 11 year-olds. As my turn finished up and I turned to wait on Tron, they happily began their own game, and were incredibly stoked to play it. One of them in particular was boasting about how he had played it a lot and was really good at it. When his turn came around he was the most enthusiastic in the bunch, jumping up and down when he got a multi-ball (something I'd failed to do myself), and angrily smacking the table and pushing away from it with a vocal display of disgust when he eventually did lose.

I watched these three boys with growing interest. First, they weren't just excited about the table itself, but about Metallica the band as well. Now, I'm perfectly aware Metallica is still an active band and is still making music, but I doubt anyone would disagree that they're well past their prime, so it was a welcome surprise to see these kids so excited about a band that was at peak popularity over a decade before they were born.

Second, and more relevant to me, was that for the first few seconds of watching them run around themselves and borderline shouting, I was actually judging them in a fist-shaking "those darn rowdy, obnoxious kids" kind of way. But very quickly that feeling started to dissolve as I thought the situation through. I was no older than them when I was in the middle of my first major rush of games enthusiasm. And, quite often, I was so into my game and got such a joyful rush of adrenaline from doing well at them that I would react in the exact same ways, more than likely annoying a nearby grown-up or two in the process. Heck, I still get that way sometimes. The only difference now is that I control my reactions better as an adult than I did as a kid. I realized that what I was seeing was my own self reflected back at me twenty years later. It was something of a revelation and made me smile more and more as I parsed it out in my head.

I love seeing pinball tables in all their flashy glory. Seeing so many of them together makes me think of how they've changed over the years, like how when they all started giving you 3 balls for your quarter instead of 5. Then they went to 50 cents per play, then $2 per play. Is it weird that I'm more ok with the increased price now than I am with the fact that you only get 3 balls per game instead of 5? Maybe I just need to get better at pinball so 3 balls lasts me longer.

I was also incredibly disappointed when tables started being released that had a big button to launch the ball instead of the standard pull-back plunger. It's kind of like when slot machines started including buttons, or even ditching the pull handles completely. Actually, since early pinball machines resembled slot machines in many ways, and were in some circles considered gambling, even to the point of being made illegal, it's a more apt comparison than some might think of. That said, a pinball machine may not need a plunger to launch its ball anymore, but I'll always be of the opinion that any pinball table that doesn't have some fancy gimmick launcher should have a plunger.

The pinball scene is nowhere near as thriving as it was in the 80s and 90s, and due to their complexity, delicacy, and uniqueness of their parts, a pinball table requires much more care to keep in good repair than more traditional upright game cabinets. That said, there are still a handful of companies doing some awesome things with pinball machines these days, and the niche community that provides repair, upgrades, advice, parts (many of which are custom-made since the developers are no longer around to make them) and keeping the interest is admirable. I'm glad people still care about pinball in 2016 and aren't just keeping the scene active, but continuing to make new tables. I've actually started down a rabbit hole of poking around sites like the Internet Pinball Database (which provided various background research for this article), Pinside, and YouTube videos to learn more about them. It's pretty fascinating stuff.

Pinball Arcade

And while owning an actual pinball machine can be financially unreasonable (many of the newer tables can cost upwards of $5-6000 or more!) and a maintenance commitment beyond all but the most dedicated, there are some great digital pinball platforms that are worth checking out if you're looking for a fix and don't have many options in your area. The best options are Pinball FX2/Zen Pinball 2 and Pinball Arcade. Digital pinball physics have come a long way, and these feature some of the best out there. All three are similar in that they're free-to-download shells with the tables being in-game purchases, either in bundles or individually. The major differences between the two are that Pinball FX2 and Zen Pinball 2, both by Zen Studios, focus on fictional tables, while Pinball Arcade makes extremely accurate reproductions of real-life tables. The Zen stuff is really fun because without having to worry about the logistics of making their tables in a physical form, it lets them do crazy things with table designs and character interaction that wouldn't be possible in reality. With Pinball Arcade, every time they want to release a new table, they hold a Kickstarter campaign to fund the licensing fees and development costs. They've been hugely successful and give each table recreation a loving, museum-like treatment. When you buy a particular table, you don't just get to play it, you're able to look at the table up and down, view their promotional fliers, mess with options like tilt sensitivity, and even pay an additional 99 cents for access to internal "Operations Menus," which enable things like emulator options, ball control, and other things. Both platforms have been ported to Steam, consoles, and iOS/Android, have dozens of tables at this point, and are particularly great experiences on tablets.

Pinball expos aren't as common as other cons, so they're always worth checking out when they come around. I'd be interested in hearing of others in the midwest, or anywhere really, that are worth keeping an eye out for if anyone happens to be traveling. Do you have any pinball show stories or unique pinball table designs you've seen that you'd like to share? Let's hear 'em! I'll be looking forward to CLEPIN in 2017, but I took a lot more photos from this year than I could post here, so if you're interested in seeing them all, and in their full resolution, feel free to check out my album here, and then go play some pinball!

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Many people here know how fond I am of pinball and that I have a decent collection of machines at my house (I did a Top 10 at one point on my blog and tracked my Fathom restoration).  I can't touch on everything here, but I'll try to discuss a few of your points.  I'm in complete agreement with you concerning the Jersey Jack machines (WoZ and Hobbit).  While beautiful and somewhat fun to play, I can't help but feel that moving away from dot matrix is super distracting and a bit of overkill. Heck, I'm not even that big a fan of dot matrix and though I've had a few machines, I've sold them for 80s alpha numericals, which to me have better art design, gameplay, and feel more like pinball.  I'm trying to score big, not watch movie clips.  I also despise the low scoring on those JJ machines; it feels like I'm going nowhere.  Also, not a fan of the Pinball2000 series games (Revenge From Mars & Star Wars: Phantom Menace).

Secondly, I too am not a fan of pins with push button launch.  To me, a big part of pinball is the skill shot from the plunge and that is almost entirely taken away with push to launch. Sure, some machines like Bram Stoker's Dracula have a skill shot based on timing, but once you figure the timing out after a few games, you can hit it every time, removing all skill involved.  Funny that you say it's like slot machines considering Bally was also in the slot machine business and when they dropped out of making pins, they continued to make slots.

I think HS2 the Getaway is a great machine and agree that the La Grange soundtrack is awesome and the Supercharger a fun toy. Still, something about the original HS pin attracts me more. I think it has to do with the more difficult to obtain multi-ball setup and of course, HS was a big seller and staple in every arcade while I was growing up.  I simply can't fight the nostalgia.

Congrats on playing a Mystery Castle and a Q*Bert. Those are rare and the former is highly sought after by collectors and goes for a decent amount.  Although I don't really care for newer pins, I thought Metallica was really well done.  Big cheers to them for really thinking about their fans with this pin. The song selections are fantastic and include mostly older tracks.  I still haven't played a Ghostbusters, so I'm a bit jelly there as well.

And finally, 3 ball for life!  Five ball should only be used with EMs. That's just one of the unwritten rules of pinball.  Get those skills up!

Nice article man and I'm glad you enjoyed your time there. If you every get the chance, you should check out one of the PAPA events near Pittsburgh.  I highly suggest signing up for Pinburgh (which now fills fast). I played in it 3 years ago and had a blast.

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