Pingame Journal

I Now Know Better

Last updated on: 8/5/2011 5:08 PM 
Created on: 11/2/2016 2:22 PM 


When I first got into pinball way back in 1991, there was one particular machine that drew me in. At first I refused to play Funhouse because of the ugly head in the middle of the playfield. After watching others play and hearing the humor I had to give it a try.

The DePaul student union was the perfect display of pinball in its last golden age. Titles were being swapped around every few months and there was no shortage of players waiting in line to get in on a game. The titles I dropped the most quarters in were Black Knight 2000, Terminator 2, Rollergames, Whirlwind, The Addams Family and of course that blasted Funhouse. At the time I didn't know the names behind the designs nor did I even know the right order of the games in terms of age. What I did know is that my favorite tables to play were the ones in which you needed to complete modes to reach the end.

I admit, when I got into pinball I was nuts for Pat Lawlor. While the Steve Ritchie counterpart games were easy to understand and figure out, I just had an easier time figuring out the little tricks of the Lawlor tables. Considering that Pat Lawlor is most known for the craziness of his designs I guess that means I am a bit crazy myself, but I take pride in that.

Back then I skipped many a physics class to instead study the physics of "how to win a replay." Plus, being a resident of Chicago I had access to a couple of Williams' test sites. I had no idea at the time the type of history I was experiencing first hand. I was playing test games, sample games, maybe even one of the prototypes that was put out as a test game. Over the years I crossed paths with other pinball fans. Jason (or JPW) had to become my first mentor showing me how to do drop catches and bounce passes. Those were great tricks to impress my friends at school. More recently I met over a dozen local pinball collectors in Chicago who I am now in league with. While I am far from being a PAPA champion I am better skilled at the game.

Looking back at those games I first started playing, (and by looking back I mean playing them at shows or other collector's places,) I started to notice something. The games, while great, are starting to feel a bit old to me. I remember being drawn to the theme of The Getaway and when playing always trying to get to Red Line Mania while always falling short. After owning that game for a few years Red Line Mania became a walk in the park. I could never own a Funhouse, it is a great game but I have played it so much that if I was to own it, I would probably be bored of it. I had a blast playing Cirqus Voltaire when it hit the streets. The game was different, it was crazy, and until 2 years ago I considered in a tie with The Twilight Zone as "The Game of the 1990s." Sadly it just no longer had the rush for me that it use to. I guess it gets added to the list of games I just outgrew.

One physics class I didn't ditch taught me Newton's Third Law: For every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. I went exploring, and while there are some games I grew tired of, there are games I originally didn't like on location that now, not only do I understand, but have fun playing. Even more surprising is that many of these titles are games that are "B" and "C" games on many collector's lists. If I started out being nuts for Pat Lawlor, today I moved onto enjoying the underrated games. I even have come up with a list of all the games that I originally thought were duds but now I know better.

My first encounter with No Fear was at North Pier back when there was an awesome arcade over looking the Chicago River. At first I was totally excited to see another game with a talking head, after all that game with Rudy was a winner. This game took fan design layout to the level of uber-fan being the only modern fan design with an upper flipper and loop shot. However, my inability to aim on a playfield that fast resulted in too many shots to a post and then the center drain. After spending several dollars to have every game last no more than a minute I came to the conclusion that this game is not for me.

I ended up not seeing a No Fear again until 2002 when it showed up at a show in Kalamazoo. I was watching other people play and enjoying the light shows and the DMD animations. With my interest peaked I watch closer and saw the modes the game offers. It was like I was learning it again for the first time. I had to play it and suddenly my opinion started to sway toward the positive. It took me almost a decade to discover how good this title is.

While the general collector population says it is Getaway, I find this to be the best Steve Ritchie game. How can it not be it has a tribute to the best of every other Steve Ritchie title out there? It has the T2 mystery award shot complete with "Get Out", ramp combos for Payback Time, recreations of our favorite modes from Star Trek: The Next Generation, a re-implementation of the super charger from Getaway, the fast U-turn from Black Knight 2000 and to top it all off, Steve himself taunting you as you play.

I have heard people say the strategy here is to just catch the ball and let the modes time out. That's not playing the game! I probably love this game more than the average person because I play the modes and always try to complete them. I also wondered if the moving jackpot idea originally planned for Twilight Zone would work and No Fear answers with a resounding yes. It all adds up to an incredible rush trying to get to Meet Your Maker. There are many games where I am so close but not quite there, knowing that I can (and have) beat the game just keeps me coming back for more.

Now with my pinball palette expanding beyond the tastes of modes and stop and go play, maybe its time to just go crazy and try something totally different. Now what would be totally different? Let's start with a casino that you need a train or taxi to get to. There is an elevator that you need to ride in, can double or lose your score at roulette, take a chance at a slot machine, dive into a sewer, and to tie it all together there will be this group of people who go all homicidal maniacs on each other. Lucky for me those are the ingredients for Who Thought of This? (More commonly known as Who Dunnit?)

When the game hit the street I was still a bit of a Pat Lawlor snob and missed the modes. This game is completely void of modes, as I discovered and enjoyed Penthouse Party, however the game didn't really do much else for me. I specifically remember a friend of mine who rated this game as the best ever, of which I just scratched my head at that statement. Then, about 2 years ago at the Heartland show, my friends and I came across an example of this title in "like new" quality. Much like No Fear it had the flashlamp effects and DMD animations to draw me in (not to mention a nice throw back in the cool Mousin' Around style of ramp) but this time I found what makes this game tick.

It turns out my enjoyment isn't so much what this game offers on the surface, which explains why I didn't get it at first. Who Dunnit is all about the fine details, such as using the slot machine to act as a ball saver and collecting items to increasing your scoring potential and that sets this game out as something totally different. Now that I like different, I look forward to opportunities to put more playtime on this title.

I realize that not liking Who Dunnit put me in the minority but I was a true lemming when it came to my original opinion of a later model Sports themed game. I spent years playing NBA: Fastbreak with the mindset of "shoot the basket", "shoot is flashing, hit those shots", and "shoot the basket some more." While I played like that I never really enjoyed the game much. To top it all off, while I was use to scoring Millions and Tens of Millions, the 1, 2 and 3 point scoring left me flat.

In 2007 a gracious collector had me over at his place for a pinball night. I'm not sure why but when everyone else was playing in multiplayer games, I went over and played the open NBA. During the third game I started seeing how certain shots I was hitting lit up inserts on the playfield. My mind started connecting the dots and when that game was over I studied the playfield and what all the inserts were telling me. Ok, fresh start time. From then on I played that game trying to do what I was suppose to (which isn't always shoot for the basket, but then leads to shooting for the basket.)

So after all the years of being in the majority and turning my nose up at the machine, could it be I actually like it? Having a chance to play the game a few more times since then it turns out that yes, I have to go against the grain. Turns out this game falls into a category of play style where you must hit every shot on the playfield. Now that my skills have improved from the point of "hit the big toy" I have a new appreciation for games that force me to have to take the risky shots at some point. Plus, now that I understand the pinball rules, the basketball tie-in makes perfect sense and I have come to appreciate the really, really low scoring. This also makes it a great game for head to head competition because the rules are so simple it becomes fun to try clobber your opponents by getting deeper toward the goal of the Championship Ring.

Now I am sure there are still going to be those who tell me I like a game that is junk, and now that I have changed my opinion on another title they would be correct. Junkyard hit the streets with what had to be the most vibrant cabinet art in all of Pinball. When I first found this game on test I was a box-o-modes pinball player, the idea of collecting and piecing together junk and shooting toast at a dog left me flat. Hitting the wrecking ball was fun but trying to collect the jackpot during multiball with the wrecking ball in the way proved to be beyond my skills.

When my friends and I were on a road trip the other year we found Junkyard on location at an Interstate rest stop. Either my improved skills, the friendly competition factor, or a bit of both, helped me get into this game. Now that I have outgrown the box-o-modes style of play I like the idea of collecting certain pieces of junk to enable a specific mode. It is different and not a rule overly used in other games. Having the ability to aim now allows me to lite the "ball recycled" feature on the outlanes adding another fun dimension to game play.

The modes are straight forward but I have yet to master any of them so the game play is still a challenge for me, which is good. On the flipside however, the game has only 5 shots in its playfield layout. From experience, my opinion is more favorable with tables that have more shots. The other thing that scares me is that I do not follow the faith of the video mode. Spelling D-O-G is easy to do and puts the player into video mode frequently. While I am slowly growing fonder of the game, at the same time it seems that there is something awry with this relationship. I could be on my way to totally digging this game, or maybe I just had a good time playing it recently. In either case I plan to put in some more play time, something I would not have considered years ago.

Creature from the Black Lagoon has so much cheese and so much fine detail put into the game that it should be one of my personal favorites. I find myself not being drawn into layout of having every shot less than half way up the playfield. (Let's just ignore the fact that I already said I like NBA: Fastbreak.) I felt that the playfield would have benefited from a more diverse layout with less repetition. Luckily, the game designer went on to create Congo proving that yes, while I have grown out of mode based games, I have a thing for playfields with crazy shot layouts.

Congo was a game that had a difficult time drawing me in due to its lack of defined modes. Being spoiled by Pat Lawor's Mansions and Door Panels I always walked up to a Congo with the thought "ok, now what?" Somewhere along the way I learned that while shooting up the middle was great when I was a weak player, I enjoy games that require me to shoot all parts of the playfield. Congo, with the jewel collection, requires you to hit shots if you want the goal of multiball. That started to draw me back into revisiting this game. Not to mention the time I was trying for the skill shot and ended up plunging the ball to the left outlane. That alone convinced me that this game needs further exploration.

This game is rising up on my favorites list for a completely different reason than some of the others. I, for one enjoy the main play tune. I also have no clue what the majority of the rules are but I keep coming back because the shots on the game just continue to become more fun to hit. My time on this game is limited but every chance I do get to play, it seems I don't want to stop. For those of you who are of the camp that a game is only good if the rules are incredible deep and the wizard mode is unobtainable, this game blows your theory completely out of the water.

The enjoying games with crazy shot layouts is now drawing me into games that, given the time I entered pinball, would have never appeared on my radar. Because I entered into pinball in the 90s there were many older titles that I never had a chance to play due to being pulled of location. Therefore, I took it on someone's word when they told me that Fire is a great game. I got a feel for the orbits, the ramps, and saw the many stand up targets the game has but it didn't do anything for me.

Time passed, about two years to be exact, and I decided to give Fire another chance. The shots are interesting, aiming up the middle (which has more than one shot in addition to target banks) requires more precision than you would expect. The lock mechanism is so well designed it is fun to watch. In order to lock a ball one ramp must lower, and the corresponding ramp on the other side of the playfield must be raised to feed the ball to the lock saucer. It is one of those old school gimmicks that is so simple and yet works so well.

This time I got hooked on the game because starting the multiball was not a gimmie. One has to get the correct ramp to lower that feeds the lock that is needed and then one needs to make the shot which isn't a sure thing. Then to start you need to shot up the middle ramp, which I remind you seems to require precision. Our friend Terry from Pinball Life summed it up best, "Games from that age made you work for multiball, you had to earn it. Games today treat multiball as your God-given right." Fire will now get the nod as a personal favorite because it is just so different. From the lighting effect under the playfield inserts to the dead-end ramps it integrates elements you don't see that often and then end up working together.

Many of these games appear to be off the radar for the typical collector as they are just not "mainstream" enough. Most, if not all, of the games I have listed here I got into because I rediscovered them again at shows or in rare cases, still on location and not in the hands of many private collections. Now it could be that my skills have improved, or I have matured, but I have learned that in the end, I prefer the "B-title" pinball games. This makes the upcoming year of pinball shows something to look forward to. Not only will I get a chance to check out Sterns latest offerings, but as the same time I get to discover an old title again for the first time.

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