Pinball wizard or pinball gizzard? Tourney tales

June 15, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 15, 2018

I now interrupt my extended — nearly finished! — recounting of last month’s poker (mis)adventures (and my political-tweet interludes) to recount this week’s pinball (mis)adventures!

After getting hooked on pinball over the first half of 2017, I participating in a couple of Raleigh-based tournaments each month. However, I cut back on my competitive play earlier this year, since I felt that my skills were stagnating. But my friend K— began running pinball events on the second Wednesday evening of each month at Quarter Horse, an arcade that opened last year in downtown Durham. I wanted to support K—, and the event is about as convenient to my home as can be, so I’ve played in it regularly.

On Wednesday evening this week, I was running a little late and got to Quarter Horse just a few minutes before the competition’s scheduling starting time of 7:30. As we had 16 players, round 1 began with four groups of four players. My quartet was assigned to The X-Files, a 1997 Sega machine based on the hit television show. (The table’s development was apparently tied into the first X-Files movie, which came out in June 1998.)

The website that K— was using to run the tournament assigned me to the fourth and final slot. This is like being the home team in baseball, in that you know just how much you need to score to come out on top when you start playing your third and final ball. (If you have the best score at that point, you don’t automatically forfeit your last round on offense in pinball, as home baseball teams do in the ninth inning, but you can.)

(Also, I never claimed this was a perfect analogy — get off my case!)

In this tournament’s format, the top two players on each table advance to the next round without a strike, while the bottom two players get a strike. A player who receives her or his third strike is eliminated from the field, which ends when only one eligible competitor remains.

Incidentally, if there are six or more players, but their number is not divisible by four, a table can have three players. The way K— runs his event, the top two players on a three-person table proceed without a blemish, while the person with the lowest score receives a dreaded strike.

At any rate…

I scored about 900,000 on my first ball, which was the poorest outing of our quartet. On the bright side, the high score after one ball was less that 2 million, so I was still in pretty good position.

As it happened, I had a strong ball — I think it was my second — and emerged with one of the top two scores. So far, so good.

In round 2, I played in the third position on Dirty Harry, a 1996 Williams table based on the action film series starring Clint Eastwood. Third is a pretty good position. Also, the game doesn’t seem to be widely available, and I’ve played it a fair amount at Quarter Horse, so I felt like I had a pretty good advantage.

K—, playing second in our group, got off to a fantastic start, but I wound up with the No. 2 score when the round ended.

One of the players in the group was apparently new to pinball. He reacted unexpectedly when there was an issue with one of Dirty Harry’s most troublesome features: Its cannon.

In pinball, a cannon is a playfield feature that launches the ball at high speed. (The plunger or its equivalent, which initially puts the ball in play, doesn’t count as a cannon, at least to my mind.) The cannon in Dirty Harry is supposed to represent the protagonist’s iconic .44 magnum, and it sort of does when seen from a very low angle; alas, that’s not how most people get to view it.

In any case, the Dirty Harry cannon is supposed to take in the ball and fire it when the player pulls the trigger. In some cases, the ball will sort of leak out of end of the cannon. In other cases, the ball gets stuck and won’t move.

That’s what happened to our novice player, who turned to us in consternation when his ball got hung up. I told him that he could try nudging the cabinet, meaning bump the cabinet laterally.

Much to my surprise, the player then lifted the cabinet roughly six inches off the ground and then dropped it with a crash. The ball stayed put.

Someone wiser than me counseled the player to wait for ball search to kick out the ball. Indeed, when the machine entered this mode after not having registered any new scoring for several seconds, it knocked the ball back into play almost immediately.

At any rate, the end of the match brought up round 3, which saw K— playing first and me going second on The Who’s Tommy, a 1994 Data East machine that I particularly like. (This was a tie-in with a musical that opened on Broadway in the spring of ’93.) I once again got through without a strike.

K— and I were assigned to the same quartet yet again in round 4, which saw us paired with two other players on Bally’s terrific 1995 table, Theatre of Magic. K— had another excellent game, and while I never got a truly dazzling run going, I again managed a second-place finish in the group.

As K— announced the round 5 pairings, he mentioned that I was the only player left in the tournament without a strike. (We’d eliminated four players at that point, leaving us with a trio of quartets.) My group this time saw K— playing first and me last on No Good Gofers, the 1997 golf-themed Williams game.

I got off to a good start, beating everyone else’s score with a first ball that racked up roughly 1.5 million points. However, I wasn’t able to play as well on my other two balls, and K— and another player finished with the top two scores. I’d now sustained my first strike.

Even so, I was doing better than everyone else in the field, which was reduced from a dozen to eight in the fifth round.

Round 6 featured two quartets; mine was assigned to Dialed In!, a fantastic 2017 machine from Jersey Jack Pinball developed by legendary pinball designer Pat Lawlor. I played second, once again behind K—.

He had a strong first ball, but mine was terrible. I wound up with roughly 2,500 points, which is atrocious on almost any machine released after 1980.

(Pinball doesn’t have a consistent scoring structure from table to table, but Dialed In! is especially parsimonious. By way of comparison, it’s hard to score less than 100,000 on a bad first ball on almost any other machine of recent vintage. In fact, a table like The Addams Family, which is somewhat stingy with points, will award a minimum of 100,000 in end-of-ball bonuses even the player drains almost immediately. On some tables, such as Shaq Attaq, it’s nearly impossible to score less than 3 million on a poor first ball.)

I felt a lot of pressure as the third and fourth players in our group played their first balls. There were three reasons for this, two of which should be obvious: I’d just gotten my first strike, and my first Dialed In! ball had been horrendous.

The third reason was that the person in slot three in our quartet was O.D., who’s probably the Triangle’s best competitive pinballer. He’d won nine of the dozen pinball tournaments he’d played prior from Dec. 31 through this week; his 23rd-place finish came in a 123-player event, far larger than any I’ve ever participated in; he also finished seventh in a field of 43 and fourth out of 35 people.

As it happened, I’d help hand O.D. his first strike in round 3 on Tommy. But now that we both had one strike, he seemed to be in a much stronger relative position.

Luckily for me, I had a terrific second ball. When it ended, I had about 310,000 points. I don’t remember how the rest of the game went, but when it was over, K— and I once more had the two best scores.

We moved on to round 7 with just six players. My trio was assigned to Revenge from Mars, a fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek science-fiction-themed machine that Bally released in 1999. (This was the last mass-produced game from Bally, which made 370 pinball tables and related games between 1932 and the end of the 20th century, according to the pinball fan site Pinside.)

I had a really nice ball — I think it was my second — and made it to another round without a strike. K— was the odd man out this time around, leaving him with his second mark of doom.

For round 8, K— and another player with two strikes faced off, while I played O.D. and J.S. on Medieval Madness, a feature-packed 1997 Williams game that is currently Pinside’s best-rated table of all time.

O.D., slotted first, had a weak first-ball score of about 777,000. I can beat that if I play well, I told myself.

And in fact I did play well, scoring about 16 million points. With my second ball, I tacked on another 4 million or so.

I scored somewhere in the vicinity of 3 to 5 million on my last ball. When it ended, I had a huge lead on my competitors. O.D. had about 4 million after finishing his third and last ball, while the player going third had around 1 million.

Both of my rivals this round had two strikes. One of them was going to advance in the tournament; the other was going to be eliminated. A nervous wreck, I walked away from the table, hoping that player 3 would get 5 million or more — easy enough if you’re in the flow.

K— had won his elimination match. We passed each other in the small arcade, and he must have noticed how anguished I seemed. In an effort to get me to relax, he said, “You’re on the verge of eliminating [O.D.]” I think I replied with an anxious “Maybe.”

When I circled back toward Medieval Madness, I saw player 3 walking off in disgust. He hadn’t managed to pass O.D.; consequently, he, K— and I would play for the tournament’s top three prizes.

I called out K—’s name as he went to put the outcome into the website. “You spoke prematurely,” I said, referring to his speculation about round’s results.

For round 9, the three of us faced off on The Walking Dead, a gory 2014 Stern machine based on the hit TV series about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. I hadn’t traditionally had much success on the machine, but I’d done a practice game earlier in the evening that had netted me some 60 million points, so there was cause for hope.

I didn’t do as well as on that practice game, but I put together a few solid balls. When the game was over, K— and I moved to a championship confrontation while O.D. was consigned to third place in our 16-person tournament.

The 10th round pitted K— and I against each other on Star Trek: The Next Generation, an enjoyable 1993 Williams table styled after an obscure science-fiction TV show. Since K— had two strikes and I just one, I had a big built-in advantage: He’d have to beat me twice in a row to knock me out and win the championship, while I only needed one win to take the title.

“This is new,” K— commented, as we’d never faced each other with a pinball title on the line. After we’d inserted our quarters, we shook hands and I wished him good luck.

Playing first, I had a decent start, although I repeatedly had trouble hitting the Start Mission sinkhole that I kept aiming for during the first mission I played, Rescue. (As a consolation, I think I hit the hole that leads to promotions twice.) When I started my second mission, Asteroid Threat, I aimed for Start Mission yet again, as the mode requires; unfortunately, it took a bad carom and drained straight down the middle, ending my ball. Still, I’d registered some 70 million points, which was nothing to sneeze at.

My second ball wasn’t spectacular, but I managed to get to about 200 million points.

K— ended his second ball by sliding the table to the left and tilting. I waited for a few sections before approaching the machine so as to give the tilt mechanism time to settle down.

However, the table was pretty far to the left, and there was someone playing the adjacent machine on that side, so I was anxious to try to straighten the table in its space. Unfortunately, I managed to tilt it instead.

That put me in an unfortunate position. K— trailed by roughly 80 million to 200 million, but he was going to play last. A strong showing by him would force a final showdown.

I couldn’t bear to watch, instead stalking around the arcade and occasionally peaking back the TNG table. When I saw K— back away from the machine, he pointed at me. I thought that meant I was the tournament victor — and it did, although I kept on trying to get the machine to display the game’s scores to verify it.

K— lifted my hand in victory. He asked me if it was my first pinball tournament title; it was, I confirmed.

K— went to the microphone to announce the outcome for the small group in the bar. After mentioning that I’d won my first-ever championship, I pointed at someone and bellowed, “And you were there!”

I was handed a gift card for $50 at the bar, which I promptly pocketed. (It will probably take me months to use the whole thing.) O.D., K— and I posed for a photo.

I played some Revenge from Mars, Medieval Madness and Walking Dead to try to wind down, getting one or two good scores on each. Then I took a circuitous post-tourney walk, covering near 2 miles on foot before I arrived at my car and drove myself home.

Fun night!


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