Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pinball at Disney Quest

We just got back from Disney, and it was a great time!  Being pinball fans, though, we were on the lookout for any pinball gaming to be had while on vacation.  Gotta get our fix.  We knew there were some pinball machines at Downtown Disney's Disney Quest arcade, but also had heard ominous reports regarding their state of function and cleanliness. 

I probably should have, but I just didn't have the heart to take any pictures.  These machines are not being well cared-for and it's just sad.  So many people pass through a place like this, it'd be a perfect opportunity to show them that pinball is still alive.  They've certainly dedicated a decent amount of space to it.  There were something like 7 machines in a row, flanked by two virtual pins that I didn't get a chance to really scrutinize.  There was a Batman, Tron, Pirates of the Caribbean, and a few other reasonably good ones.  But playing this Tron compared to our own was like night and day.  The flippers are weak and dying.  The playfields are filthy.  I don't think they are at the proper angle either, because the ball was drifting more lazily than it should have been.

image taken by another pinsider

It was my first time playing Pirates of the Caribbean, a machine I'm very interested in, and I could tell while playing that it had so much potential to be fun, but its condition was preventing that.

Why?  Why spend the money and floorspace to put the latest pinball machines here, and then let them degrade like this? 

For one thing, one fee gets you in the door and everything's on free play.  There's no motivation whatsoever for whoever operates these machines (I'm told it's Disney) to keep them in tip-top condition.  A fun play experience won't get them any more revenue than a mediocre one.  Unfortunately, the result is that people think THAT is what pinball is like.  Boring and frustrating.

I was strikingly reminded of those commercials with abused animals.  In exactly that way, it made me want to take them all home and treat them properly.  I think I had a taste there of one reason people wind up with huge pinball collections.  I felt a strong emotion of curation; of wanting to take care of something and maintain its beauty.

I am going to try to find the right person to contact and throw out a plea for them to give those machines a good cleaning.  It'll likely go nowhere, and I will probably never know either way, but one has to try.  Sadly, I hear things are much the same for pins at Universal Studios, and it's the case at our local bowling alley.  I guess it's nothing new, but I expected more from an empire like Disney. 

What it boils down to, at the end of the day, is that a pinball operator needs to be as passionate about pinball as the home collector to keep these machines working as intended.  And while it might seem like a great idea for a home enthusiast with machines to spare to simply contact their local pizza parlor, movie theater, or pub and offer to provide and maintain a pinball machine in exchange for a revenue split, life's not as simple as that anymore.  Rules, regulations, and liability issues simply cannot be ignored most of the time.  There's seemingly no easy way to bridge the gap and create passionate casual (meaning unlicensed without large routes) operators in the face of these issues.  Too bad, because that's how the general public would rediscover the true pinball experience.  It's something I continue to think about.  Where there's a will, there's a way?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Breaking the iParty Shackles

As the true Halloween experience we grew up with dwindles in the rear-view mirror of today's political correctness and safety awareness machines, I realized there's a part of it that I'm actually letting slip away through basic laziness: the creative exercise of making your OWN costume.  Not going to iParty and grabbing whatever happens to be left on the shelf in your kid's size.  I must shamefully admit now that so far, that's what I've been doing.  I know not everyone has succumbed to this apathetic approach, but I also know I'm not the only one.

When I was a kid, Halloween was magical.  We got to go trick or treating by ourselves.  On the actual night of Halloween, October 31st.  If that fell on a Wednesday night, so be it.  We would go out there and trick or treat our little hearts out, late into night.  These days, there are scheduled hours for door to door candy collection, and you're lucky if it actually gets to happen on actual Halloween night.  Or night at all for that matter; day-time trick or treating is quite common now.

This sort of dumbing-down of Halloween might be responsible for my lack of zeal when it comes to costumes, particularly this year for some reason.  But I can't say the lack of creativity is my kids' fault... because I never gave them the option.  I only just this morning told my son, "You know, when I was a kid, we made our own costumes.  Once I was a dinosaur, I sewed a big huge t-rex costume all by myself!  And one year I was a table..."

His little face lit up at the description of what being a table entails, and that's when it all hit home.  As a busy working parent, it takes effort to do a big elaborate costume planning campaign.  It's so much easier to buy a pre-made costume.  A few years back I put together my own Black Widow costume for myself, but I've been selling my own kids short by not giving them the same opportunity to really create something unique.

That ends now.  It might be too late for THIS Halloween, but next year, it's on like Donkey Kong!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Frankenstein Pinball

The second pinball machine we ever bought was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  It's based on the 1994 movie, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, that starred Robert De Niro, Kenneth Branagh, Helena Bonham Carter, John Cleese, and Ian Holm among others.  How I missed this movie back then I can't fathom, but after getting the machine of course we acquired the DVD (the widescreen version, which is evidently somewhat rare).  Not a bad film.  Not a bad pinball machine either.

Anyway, our Frankenstein is a re-import from I think France, as the coin slots list the price in francs.  It smells funny, too, kind of like pipe tobacco.  But it all seems fitting for a Frankenstein-themed pin.  Like Frankenstein, though... it's got some issues now.

First off, there is a row of lights out.  This isn't an uncommon thing to happen to a pinball machine, but it's proving hard to solve in our case.  After failing to track down the problem we brought in a technician, Sarah St. John from Pinball Wizard.  It really feels like bringing your kid to the pediatrician.  You sit there while they do all their work, just wanting answers in the form of something trivial and easily resolved.  Turns out whatever is ailing our light row lies in the brain (it would more typically be a wire somewhere in that row, like old Christmas lights, if a connection is broken somewhere down the line, all lights on that row go out).  For now, the main board has been removed and taken to the workshop over at Pinball Wizard.  Yeah, we removed Frankenstein's brain is what I'm saying.  It's abnormal, trust me.

Frankenstein playfield.  The left Jackpot and Change Scene are two of the lights that are currently out.

Row 2 showing the 6 problem lights on our machine

There is another issue I've taken on as my job to fix though.  There is a little Frankenstein on the playfield (not that little, actually) that will throw pinballs at the backglass during multiball.  It's awesome.  That part works fine, but his head also turns from side to side, surveying the playfield as you play.  Or it used to, anyway.  Now it still turns, but way too far, now he's doing the scene from Exorcist.  So the motor's broken.  Our technician said to just open up the body, take out the motor, and replace it, but that it might be hard to find a replacement because it is an older motor.  I took a picture and went to a local model plane store near my work (how convenient!).  They didn't have that model, an Airtronics 94102 servo motor, but they had a basic motor they sold me for $8.  It looked about right.

Took it home last night and it fit perfectly.  The only thing I am having trouble with is plugging the connector into the circuit board under the playfield.  It looks the same but seems tighter than it should be, and won't plug in all the way without more force than I'm willing to give it.  In the meantime I have ordered that exact model of servo motor online, for $11.  I'm going to try using the actual motor, and see if the connector pins fit better.

Of course, during all of this I can't test anything, since the main board is off at the shop.  But it felt pretty good doing a motor replacement like that, and made me feel like I'm not entirely useless when it comes to maintenance work on our machines.  Because it's important to me to learn this stuff, and not only that, it's important to eventually teach it to our kids.  I'm thinking big-picture here.

Update: The actual motor arrived, and while at first I had a tough time plugging it into the board, I got it in.  Now the only thing that's left is to get back the motherboard in time for Halloween!  Also, the lights were fixed, and the new chip Sarah installed actually had us hearing callouts we never heard before.  She fixed things we didn't even realize were broken.

Friday, October 19, 2012

New-Found Respect for the Nintendo 3DS

When the Nintendo 3DS first came out, I admit it.  I was a hater.  A detractor and a scoffer.  It's not my normal style, but I felt like the 3D was a total gimmick, and most review sites backed up my lukewarm reception with their own.

When the new larger 3DS came out, our son inherited the "old" 3DS from his Dad.  My daughter had inherited my older regular DS, and as our trip to Disney approached, it became more and more evident that the old one wasn't going to make it.  The thing was literally hanging by a single hinge.  I mean, really it was almost as old as she was.  And knowing that both an Adventure Time game and a Skylanders game are slated for the 3DS this year, I decided it was time to get her a replacement.

I went into the local Gamestop (where everybody knows our name) and they happened to have a used pink 3DS available.  As the clerk walked me through the features, things I had dismissed as silly like the augmented reality stuff activated by cards, or the shooting game that uses real faces to make the characters, I realized that while that stuff wasn't very interesting to me, it probably would be to the kids. 

I surprised her that night with it, and she immediately started investigating the thing.  Because it had a previous owner, all sorts of games and features were available that my husband hadn't unlocked his old DS, so suddenly the kids were working together to get it all going on my son's DS as well.  I was especially appreciative of the feature where you have to take the DS for walks in sleep mode in order to accumulate what the kids are calling "pig points" that can be used to buy puzzle pieces for different puzzles.  They love that part.

And then we went to Disney.  You might think I mean that having these was the best thing ever in the sense that it kept the kids quiet and waiting patiently in lines for busses and rides.  The old "tv babysitter" concept.  I won't deny there was a small element of that in there, but it was by no means the true benefit.  Though this picture shows them both intent on their own games, the majority of the time was excitedly checking to see if anyone new had "visited" them (loads and loads of visits, from all over the world, and the DS shows you where people who visited your DS are from, a little geography they actually cared about).  They worked together and showed each other new things, complimenting each other when they would finish a battle or a quest, or make a new cat soldier.  The coolest thing about it all was, neither one of them played a single DS cartridge game.  This was all stuff that is just baked into the handheld itself. 

They both took pictures of things we saw at Disney, and my son started emulating the park photographers, taking family pictures where he would direct us to "make scared faces" or "point at the ground" like they had.  So cute.  They had hours of fun just recording pointless little voice snippets and coloring the speech balloon icons so that they formed patterns.  They made, re-made, and re-re-made their Mii characters just to play with hair and face options.  Oh, and I almost forgot; you can turn off the 3D, and that is advised for children under 7.

3DS, I may have judged you prematurely.  I think the handheld phase of my own gaming career is over, but I'm very impressed with the creative and teamwork-encouraging elements you've incorporated.  Silly things that a grown-up wouldn't think twice about, but they were captivating and amazing to our children, in an interface that allowed them to explore and discover new features all on their own.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Some of 'em are green

Long have the rumors fluttered about regarding Avengers being the next Stern title, and in that time, I've pondered the likelihood of a Loki and Hulk pair of Limited Edition versions.  Along the lines of what they did for X-Men, with a Wolverine and Magneto LE pair, and a third regular version.

How could George Gomez NOT be referring to that here?

If my guess is correct, my son may be getting the most kickass Christmas present of his entire young life. And honestly, what else could it be? As for which would be Loki, between red and blue, I would assume red, leaving blue for the pro model machine.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Indie Pinball Machines

While Stern may be the only pinball manufacturer remaining from the golden age of pinball, they are by no means the only source for new pins.  There are actually people out there building indie batches of pinball machines with pricetags in line with new Stern machines.  This is really interesting because it's a gamble, you're not buying from a company with a proven track record and you have to go through the learning curve with them.  In some cases an established industry veteran designer is involved, though, as is the case with Ben Heck's Zombie Adventure.  The payoff of that gamble for the collector is to own something extremely unique; in many cases these machines are being made in runs of 20 or 30, as opposed to several thousand.  Below I've rounded up a few I've come across, but there are definitely more out there, including some already completed.

Quetzal Pinball's Captain Nemo

This project's being done in Spain, and limited to a run of 30 machines with a pricetag in the neighborhood of $5500.  One of the most interesting features is an LCD embedded right in the playfield.  There MAY be a couple pre-order slots still available on this, but after this weekend's Expo, I bet those will be gone if they aren't already.

Predator Pinball by Skit-B Pinball

The latest details can be found here.  This one's going to be a run of approximately 250 machines, in the $5000 neighborhood.  If it were a video game, it'd be rated "M" but they are including a "family" setting option.  You can still pre-order these.

Update 10/25/12: Predator is reportedly SOLD OUT.

Ben Heck's Zombie Adventure

Designed by John Popadiuk and Ben Heckendorn

People have been hankering for a zombie-themed pin.  This one is kind of wacky with a very retro feel, so it might not satisfy what many people have in mind, but it's certainly unique!  Like Nemo, it incorporates an LCD screen.  Pre-orders are closed.

Circe's Animal House

Heighway Pinball

Quite a unique theme, based on mythology and the theme has a very pub-centric element.  The owner has created a thread where you can comment and post questions.  You can still pre-order this one.

Update 10/25/12: Heighway has punted the Circe's table in favor of Full Throttle, a motorbiking theme of some sort.

I saw that most of these people are at the Chicago Pinball Expo this week, so hopefully we'll see a lot of new information come out of that.  The Predator pinball team will actually have a machine present at the expo.  Eagerly awaiting pictures!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Gangnam Stylin

If you haven't heard of Gangnam Style, you literally might be the only one.  It's a thing now.  And while the original video is cool enough and quirky enough to stand all on its own, we live in a golden age where you're not limited to the original.  I've embedded a few of the best ones I've seen below, but it's the tip of the iceberg.

It's official; if you aren't prepared to burst into this dance at a moment's notice, you are no longer cool. The good news is, these moves are within even a white man's reach.  I need to go practice now.

Gangnam Style


Klingon Style


Minecraft Style


Gandalf Style


Deadpool Style

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Waxing the playfield

In the days long before we became pinball owners, all we knew was, "Owning a pinball machine is a lot of work!  You have to wax the playfield!"  I'm being serious, that was the one and only thing we knew about pinball ownership.  And it sounded scary.

Now, of course, we know better.  Waxing the playfield is the least of your worries as a pinball owner!  But exactly how to do it is less clear.  This thread on Pinside is a very good read, but also illustrates that there's probably no exactly right way to do this, and that when people aren't necessarily all talking about the same thing when they say "wax the playfield." Some key summary points of this thread:

  • Machines older than 10 - 20 years may require different cleaning and waxing methods than newer Stern machines
  • Home Use Only (HUO) machines may require less protection than machines on route (located in public places).  Some say don't worry about waxing a HUO machine
  • Most people use Novus 1 to clean machines (Novus comes in 1, 2, and 3 versions that are successively more abrasive) 
  • Novus 2 is for polishing minor scratches, and contains mild abrasives.  According to Stern's website, it should be used to "wax the playfield" but some argue that it's not actually a wax
  • Steve Ritchie, designer of one of the newest Stern machines, AC/DC, said that you should use a canuba-based wax on AC/DC.
  • Consensus seems to be never use Novus 3 on a playfield.  That's for other machine parts that are in bad shape
  • Never use Windex on a playfield!  On the playfield glass, yes.
  • Don't spray any kind of product directly on your playfield.  Spray it on the lint-free cloth you are using to apply the product
  • For real waxing, use Carnauba wax, but never a wax labelled "cleaner wax" as it will contain abrasives and bad stuff
  • Never use water-based products on your playfield
I've seen plenty of people say "don't use Mill Wax" but I've also seen it advertised in game magazines as the go-to, and seen people posting that they DO use it.  We are not planning on using it on our machines, I will say that at least.

I've also read elsewhere that you should not wax or Novus a New In Box (NIB) playfield for a while when you first get it, to allow the playfield to "cure".  Some owners don't even PLAY a new machine for like a month to allow this curing to take place.

Bottom line, I think the gist I'm getting is that you don't need to wax a playfield very often at all, especially a newer one, and that when you do, you should use Novus 2 first to clean and prep the playfield, then go over it with a carnauba-based wax.  You should be VERY careful not to get the wax on parts of the playfield you don't want waxed (for example, the lower playfield window of AC/DC Premium/LE).  If you ever see dirt on your flipper rubbers, or ball tracks across the playfield, you should clean that up with Novus 1 and a lint-free cloth.  Replace your pinballs every now and then, maybe 4 times/year if you play regularly.  Can anyone confirm this conclusion is more or less on the money?

I'm not sure if the Turtle wax in the above video is the right way to go, and some comments on that video said that the presenter did some things wrong (which is par for the course, this is a seemingly subjective topic with no consensus).  For us so far, we've been cleaning with Novus 1 for the most part.  Even that will typically make the playfield beautiful, and will make the machine play a LOT faster, so be prepared for that result.

In the end, I think it's safe to say that none of this is an exact science, and maybe I was sort of right about waxing the playfield being a complicated thing.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Wilhelm conspiracies

I don't really know what to call these, maybe Wilhelm conspiracies? Things done by television shows and movies, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not; sometimes by connected filmmakers, sometimes not. Is there a name for this? Because it certainly seems to be a pattern...

Wilhelm Scream

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle?

Don't know if you've noticed, but tv sitcoms and movies have been using the same newspaper habitually.  It's almost more impressive than the Wilhelm, but WHO is that woman??

Go have a look, from Dallas to Charmed, there is a jaw-dropping number of documented cases of this one.

Fringe, I see wut u did ther...

OK, this one was on purpose, but I appreciate the effort.  I really need to get back into this show...

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The case for a pinball resurgence

Recently there's been some talk about whether or not arcades may be making a comeback in the United States.  Ars Technica just ran an article about some of the new bar/arcade combinations that are springing up across the country.  Surprisingly, they are saying that more arcades are opening than closing now.

Most of the examples they mentioned don't involve a lot of pinball as far as I could tell.  But rumor has it, pinball is on a major upswing too, and I am one of those people who think it is making some degree of comeback.  I submit the following pieces of evidence to build my case.

Pinball prices spiking. 

"Pinflation" as some call it is causing much angst and debate in the pinball community.  Newcomers lament the fact that the most popular classic machines fetch prices approaching five figures (so do brand new, or NIB machines, for that matter).  Demand is very strong at the moment.  As collector and competitive player John Reuter pointed out:
"Lots of new people are coming into the hobby and it is fueling the price increase. Location pins are part of the story, and so are clubs, leagues, conventions and tournaments etc. The biggest factor of all is the home market. Pinball wasn't marketed directly to the consumer for many years and that has begun to change. There were never enough pinballs built in the whole history of the game to supply a significant consumer market and  pinballs are pretty much the ultimate collectible."
There's no faking demand.  And even with these higher prices, people are still buying machines.  Believe me, it's an impressive sight to walk into someone's basement and see a row of pinball machines all gleaming and flashing and beckoning.

New manufacturers. 

For many years, the last remaining manufacturer of pinball machines was Stern Pinball.  They have been producing a handful of new machines each year and in doing so have probably helped a lot in keeping pinball alive in the new millennium. 

World Poker Tour Pinball

But in the past few years, other companies have sprung up.  Long-time designers have done individual micro-runs of new machines.  The biggest news on this front is Jersey Jack Pinball, a company that's been working on a state of the art new Wizard of Oz pinball machine, complete with LCD display and software updates via wireless connectivity.  The machine looks gorgeous, and is due to start rolling off the assembly line by the end of the year.  And it has "ruby flippers".  Oh yes, they went there...

Video streaming by Ustream

Reuter also points out that computer technology has made it more possible for indie style pinball designers to create one-off machines without necessarily being an established pinball manufacturer. Boutique style, if you will.


Video game reproductions like Pinball Arcade by FarSight Studios have been reproducing classic old pinball tables such as Theater of Magic, Medieval Madness, and Funhouse for XBox, PS3, mobile devices, and other electronic platforms.  They are actually using the original software that runs the real machines, so that leads to a pretty accurate rendition.  They have run a successful Kickstarter to acquire the license to do Twilight Zone, and are currently at 67% on their funding goal for Star Trek: Next Generation. 

In addition to emulations of classic tables, there's a lot of simulation of totally new video pinball tables.  One example is Marvel Pinball.  I've found this collection to be really fun (it has Blade!), and there are some things it does that you could never do in a real pinball machine. 

New users joining pinball fan sites. 

Sites like Pinside are seeing a noticeable increase in new forum members.  A welcoming community is extremely important for newcomers to a hobby like this, as both a knowledge resource and a source for buying machines.  A spike in new members on a site like this means increasing interest in the hobby.

New printed materials.

In addition to the new Pinball Magazine issue that launched this month, I just ordered a book on pinball, The Pinball Compendium: 1982 - Present with a publish date of February, 2012.  You can bet the authors and especially the publishers believed that there was sufficient audience to warrant that.

Those aren't the only signs, either.  There are more pinball tournaments springing up, with plenty of participants.  Places like Pinball Wizard Arcade in Pelham, NH, which opened just over a year and a half ago, partly because the owner, long-time pinball route operator Sarah St. John, had a feeling that the hobby was gaining traction.  Last month, I participated in my very first pinball tournament there (their second annual).  I came in like 70/100, but let me tell you this; it was exciting!  And that tournament was tiny compared to ones like PAPA (Professional & Amateur Pinball Association), with serious cash money prizes.

I recently spoke to another arcade operator who told me that a West Coast pinball distributor said that pinball is already back big-time on the West Coast, and that he predicted it'll be as big on the East Coast within the next 5 years or so.  Nobody can predict the future, but someone in that part of the industry could certainly spot a trend.

Honestly, it all makes sense.  Those of us who grew up playing pinball are adults now, with nostalgia and disposable incomes.  As Ars Technica pointed out, these uncertain financial/political times tend to make one yearn for simpler days.  It's true that prices are spiking, but if you want a specific piece of nostalgia badly enough, that's not going to stop you.  The other thing about pinball that is not the case with most video games is that you can flip it on and play for 5 minutes... or a couple hours.  You don't need to form a raid party or get your gaming group together, and there's a lot to be said for that flexibility when a working adult gets home at 6 or 7 at night.

But nostalgia isn't the only thing going on here.  There are plenty of 20-something younger people getting in on this hobby and acquiring classic pinball machines for home use.  They don't have prior memories of pinball, and are more often discovering the hobby through video game adaptations like Pinball Arcade.  Something about the hobby is compelling enough to both young and old to get people to drop thousands of dollars on a high-maintenance (and very heavy) leisure commitment.

Owning a pinball machine is not a feasible option for everyone.  But while the video game simulations have gotten very good, there is simply no substitute for the actual kinetic experience of playing pinball, especially a well-maintained machine.  If arcade games, which can actually be emulated quite well for the most part, are making a comeback, pinball has double the justification to do so.  That, I believe, is what will help pinball get a foothold in more public venues.  We're not talking, nor will we probably ever be, about things on the scale of Japan's arcade scene (check out 100 Yen).  But enough to support more than one pinball manufacturer when combined with the private owner market?  It seems likely.

I considered making a documentary about it (I'd have to cut back on playing pinball though, which is problematic).  There are a slew of topics I just touched on above that need some serious exposition, and I barely scratched the surface.  Don't even get a passionate pinball enthusiast going on the LEDs vs. incandescents debate!  So, that's what I'm obsessed with right now, and that's what is going to occupy this blog for the near-term.