October 22, 2018

I am no pinball wizard


About a week ago I took a day to head downstate to visit some friends and family. As a social animal who has known these people either my entire life or, at the very least, over a decade, getting the chance to visit and catch up is always appreciated. After finishing out my visiting time, I decided to head back home, but not before making one last stop at the Michigan Pinball Expo in Rochester.

The pinball expo started in 2010 as a place for local enthusiasts of this very American pastime to gather up their machines, set them to free play, and let the public come in and play rare old tables and the newest releases. They also hold tournaments, but I’ve never gotten in any of them. Quite frankly my pinball skills are terrible, but I still enjoy playing it.

I didn’t get to go to the arcade very often as a kid, so my experiences with pinball were limited to those few trips, the dusty diner near my aunt’s cabin, any machines my relatives owned, and video pinball games on the Atari 2600 and Nintendo Entertainment System. It was only relatively recently that I found arcades that were still open and still had fairly well-maintained pinball machines, but that doesn’t mean I’ve improved an awful lot.

The mix at the expo is really quite impressive. This year the oldest machines dated back to the 1950s, but at the 2011 event there were a couple machines built in the 1930s, before pinball even included flippers and was much more like the Japanese game pachinko. Seeing all of those machines in one place really lets you get an idea of how the medium has evolved and changed over time, both in design and in technology. The dings and rattles of the old machines have given way to sound samples and music on newer ones.

There were also a few anomalous machines there: “Granny & The Gators” and “Baby Pac-Man” are two combination pinball and video game machines, where the action alternates between the two. In past years the expo also featured “Revenge From Mars,” a pinball machine that combined the board with a holographic screen display (it and “Star Wars: Episode 1” were the only machines to do that). This year also had a strange two-player “Joust” machine, where a player stood on either end and tried to hang in there, knocking balls at the other side of the playfield. There was even a custom-built “Predator” machine one attendee is still working on.

Mechanics aside, one thing I really enjoy about the older pinball machines is the artwork. Every game has a theme, with artwork on the table and backboard that frequently looks like it would be at home either spray-painted on the side of a van or on the pages of a pulpy ‘50s magazine or comic book.

This year’s new releases on display for people to try out included a machine based on the band AC/DC and another on the “Transformers” franchise. Despite the fact that there are only two pinball manufacturers left in the world, a few new machines come out every year, and they always seem to be quite popular whenever I’ve seen them around.

The drive between here and Metro Detroit is frequently a boring one, but little side trips like that can definitely make it much more fun and interesting. I’ll definitely have to try and make it to next year’s event, and perhaps last in a game longer than a minute.



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