Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Google: What makes pinball ownership possible

The internet is such a wonderful thing, sometimes we take for granted the way it has changed every aspect of our lives.  I was thinking, though, without the internet it would be really hard to own and maintain pinball machines.  Forums like RGP and Pinside are invaluable in their role of bringing pinball enthusiasts together to share knowledge, ask questions, and troubleshoot.  But even beyond that, Google combines their powers to let you dig for the specific topic you need, on every indexed pinball forum or website in existence.  Kids, life wasn't always like this...

Whenever a problem comes up on one of our machines, we just Google it.  And there is almost always a result that either walks through solving that exact problem, or is close enough.  Frequently with detailed pictures.  Pinball owners love taking detailed pictures, thank goodness.  Say, for example, you just can't remember which side up a particular ROM chip goes, or some other board detail.  You can almost always find images someone has taken of your exact machine's boards.

This may all be self-evident, but I'm just saying, before the internet, before Google, it would be much harder to share maintenance knowledge of this kind.  It would all be in silos in the form of seasoned pinball operators and electrical engineers.  You'd have to know somebody.  It's good to stop every once in a while and think about that.  This goes for every detail-oriented hobby, really.

It also makes navigating my way across New England to pick up pinball machines infinitely easier.  Actually acquiring the machine is also key to pinball ownership.

Thanks, Google!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Asheron’s Call 2 is back!

They like to say that there are certain life moments in which you will always remember where you were.  On December 30th, 2005, I was dancing on top of the great Deru tree, bearing witness to the end of the world. The sunsetting of Asheron’s Call 2. It was like losing a friend for those of us who still knew and loved the game. Players cried, and went through stages of real grief over it. And to this day, people on the Facebook group comment about how much they miss their Tumerok Hivekeeper (ok, that was me), or playing in a Drudge rock and roll band. If you look in the comments section on any AC2 YouTube video, you'll see a constant theme of "oh man, this brings back so many memories, I wish I could play again."

The developers who worked on the game also had an emotional investment in it, and felt the same loss when the closure was announced, especially since they'd really done some great things with the Legions expansion just prior. There’s a really good article on The Game Archaeologist about the story of AC2 and its final days from the dev side of things by former Producer Eric Heimburg.

SO, those were sad times, and even though we’ve had time to get over that after SEVEN YEARS, I would still go back if I could.  People have, during that time, worked on emulating the game, but not with complete success, and I don’t personally want to get into the weeds enough to figure that stuff out (though the fact that they were doing it is yet another indicator that this game holds a special place in peoples’ hearts). The people at Turbine who made the decision to axe Asheron’s Call 2 are long gone, but are there any remaining who still remember, or feel the level of affection for the game that I do?

Evidently, there are. And holy @#$%*… they just did the unthinkable. Asheron’s Call 2 is back.

It’s free to play, all you need is a subscription to the original Asheron’s Call. There have been some changes made, so the old installations of the game won’t work. It would be astounding if people actually HAD old installations, of course; for me that was at least two computers ago.  You’ll need a fresh download, which they provide here. Also, old characters are not there. Which I think is a good thing overall. I am perfectly happy to start over and get re-acquainted with things.

Over the years, I’ve tried to get back into games I used to love. My husband and I dabbled a little in World of Warcraft, and I installed Dungeon Keeper, Caesar III, Sacrifice, and even the Sims. They were all fun for a few hours’ walks down memory lane, but then I’d move on to other things. This is different.

Thanks, Turbine. Thanks for listening, for caring, and for taking the time to do something like this when all hope was lost. I can’t wait to go back, and I hope this allows some people who never knew AC2 to discover and enjoy it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Should you buy a pinball machine?

Pinball machine ownership is an expensive and time-intensive hobby.  Is it worth doing, especially if you are lucky enough to live somewhere you can still play pinball in public?  Let's have a look at the pros and cons of home pinball ownership.

Image by Fred Bellet via Tampa Bay Online


Condition control.  This is probably the number one reason to own a pinball machine.  Machines in public places are not always taken care of and maintained.  It hurts the play experience, and this is something you may not even realize until you've played a well-maintained machine.  As a pinball owner, not only will your machine be played more gently (and mainly just by YOU), you can keep it in tip-top condition.  You control the pitch of the playfield, you control the various program settings (profanity filter on/off, score resets, ball save timers, etc.).

Access to specific machines. Another benefit to seeking out your own machines is that you aren't limited to whatever machine happens to be onsite at your local bowling alley or bar.  If you always loved Terminator 2, you can get a Terminator 2 pinball machine.  For a while, my local airport actually had Medieval Madness, and I looked forward to playing it any time I travelled through there.  But then one day it was gone.

Tinkering.  If you're a tinkerer, oh man, is pinball ever the hobby for you!  Even if your machine is running perfectly, there are endless opportunities for tweaks, polishing, and improvement.  A pinball owner's work is never done.

Some of history's greatest men were tinkerers...

Modding.  When you own your own pinball machine, you can do with it as you please.  Pinball modding presents a whole world of fascinating options.  From practical additions like Invisiglass and Cliffy protectors to decals and flashy decorative mods like undercabinet lighting and playfield toys, modding allows you to improve the play experience and make your machine more uniquely you.

No quarters necessary.  Unless you want to give your kids the world's heaviest piggybank, all machines can be set to free play for a home use environment.  You'll get a lot more practice in when all you have to do is hit start, believe me.  You'll try riskier moves, and if the ball drains in the process, or you tilt the machine, oh well; the next game is just a button push away.  If you want to become more skilled at pinball, nothing helps more than having a machine in the next room when you've got a few minutes to spare.

"All my friends will be so impressed!"  Well... not necessarily.  I mean, that's what we thought at first, but we've actually found that most of our pre-existing friends aren't that enthusiastic about pinball (though they may be impressed anyway, in a "wow, you guys are amazingly obsessed" kind of way).  They aren't calling up all the time to come over and play, and when they are over, there's a weird hesitation barrier to pushing the start button.  On the flip-side, people we weren't as close to, like my daughter's best friend's mom or the neighbors across the street, turned out to love pinball, and now we share that much more common ground.  And we've made new friends in the pinhead community, too.  You don't have to ask that crowd twice to attend a pinball party at your place.


Expense.  Buying a pinball machine will generally cost you thousands of dollars.  And shipping is certainly not trivial either; that'll run $300 - $400 or so.  You're not going to make back the initial costs on the quarters you save.

Ongoing expense.  Bulbs go out.  Pinballs get dings and wear, and need to be replaced (about $1 a piece).  You need lint-free cloths, and the proper cleaning solutions, and wax, and other maintenance supplies.  If a plastic piece on the playfield breaks, it's off to Ebay or one of the pinball parts suppliers for a replacement (if one exists).  Your DMD display will probably die at some point and need to be replaced. 

Learning curve.  Unless you want to just shell out for the local pinball repairman every time something goes wrong (if there even IS a local pinball repairman in your area), you'll have to learn how to fix stuff.  That can be a positive or a negative, depending on your temperment, but every time a new problem surfaces, it's on you to figure out how to fix it.  Granted, the online pinball enthusiast community is a priceless source of information, support, and advice.  I say it's on you to fix it, but you're not alone.

What if it breaks forever? It's always possible that a permanent failure will occur, something that just can't be fixed. For the most part, though, that doesn't happen. As complex as a pinball machine is, it mostly boils down to simple electronics and triggers, and a computery motherboard or two.

Under playfield view of Bally's The Shadow

Bigger than a bread box.  Pinball machines are a huge piece of furniture, and getting them into the house can be a hassle.  If/when you move to a new residence you have to factor in that hassle amongst all the other hassles inherent in moving.  It's pretty much the equivalent of taking your refrigerator with you every time you move, multiplied by however many machines you wind up owning (and you can fool yourself into thinking you'll stop at one, but overwhelming case evidence is against you there).


In the end, owning a pinball machine vs. playing on site is a lot like owning a home vs. renting. And just like home ownership, it's not for everyone.  One thing to remember if you do become a collector, though; your local arcade still needs your support!  Don't forget to drop a quarter in those machines now and then, even if you become an obsessive addicted pinball collector. :)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Geekumentary Review: The Pinball Passion

"Video games are kind of like checkers; pinball is chess."

- John Kosmal, competitive pinball player

After TILT and Special When Lit whet my appetite for pinball documentaries, I went looking for more and found The Pinball Passion.  This one came out in 2008, when pinball was being kept alive by the home enthusiasts, expos, big public collections like the pinball museum in Las Vegas, and of course Stern (who became the last manufacturer standing in 1999 when Williams shut down).

The Pinball Passion is a 2-disc set with some great bonus material including a behind the scenes tour at Stern Pinball. It's a comprehensive film that covers several interesting aspects of pinball. It provides some nice highlights on the evolution of pinball as told by reknowned members of the industry such as Alvin Gottlieb, Roger Sharpe, Gary Stern, Pat Lawlor, and Steve Ritchie.

They talk about the depth and modes of pinball machines, something that would probably be very illuminating to many people (myself included, prior to falling in love with the hobby).  The often told legend of Roger Sharpe vs. the New York City Council is related; this story pops up in almost every pinball documentary, but I do enjoy hearing it, it's pinball canon and a dramatic pivotal moment in pinball history.

There is also some good discussion about the challenges of public play pinball.  Arcade machines simply don't have the same magnitude of maintenance requirements that pinball does.  A well-maintained machine is a joy to experience, but, as the documentary points out, if a player walks up to a machine with a broken flipper, it creates a distasteful experience that will probably turn them off to pinball in general.  It's hard to get the mainstream public excited about pinball when so many on-location machines are not kept in good working order.

One of my favorite parts is the discussion on Stern, and how they have adapted to survive.  Some people hate Stern; they hate that machines have gotten cheaper (production-wise) and more standardized, that Stern is said to "literally buy toys from Wal-Mart and put them in the machines" as opposed to some of the amazing and unique machines that came out of the golden age of pinball.  It's a legitimate point of contention, but bottom line, in my opinion, they have done what they had to do to keep making pinball, and I salute them for that, I really do.

One of the only things I didn't like about this documentary concerns the DVD menu.  The options are to play the movie, or "Mode Select" and "Wizard Mode".  That may be a clever way to label these sections in line with the subject matter, but I have NO IDEA what is in them.  They probably should have stuck with "Settings" and "Bonus Material".  It's a minor objection, though.  The film has been dedicated to the two new pinball machines they could have bought, but instead made this documentary.  Truth.  Thanks, guys, your efforts are greatly appreciated.

Pinball Passion
A Pinball Story Told by Pinball People
Bracken J. Batson and Beau B. Bellgraph, 2008