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December 24, 2003

Pinball Fantasies

(All photographs courtesy of the Internet Pinball Database, unless otherwise specified) Anatomy of Obsession Eight Ball Deluxe My earliest memory of pinball is watching my Father walk away from a game of Eight Ball Deluxe with more credits on the machine than he paid for. For those who don't know, this means he scored so many points the machine just kept handing out free games until he got tired of playing. I thought this was pretty cool and so it is probably obvious my obsession with the silver ball started around then. One of the first machines made to actually "talk" to the player ("Shoot the... Eight ball!"), Eight Ball also had nice-feeling shots and good gameplay- make all 14 balls by hitting the standup targets and then shoot the 8, which was at the end of a cool little chute at the top, to score points and start the process over. Up through the early 1990's you could still occasionally find an Eight Ball machine in arcades or bars, even though it was originally manufactured in 1980.
Banzai Run Despite the nostalgia I feel for Eight Ball, it is the experience I had at a University of Minnesota sponsored pinball tournament in 1995 with this machine, Banzai Run, that arguably solidified my destiny as a fanatic. For some reason I was taking the U of M tournament very seriously- I already knew I wanted to be the best pinball player on the planet and I seemed to be living up to that standard fairly well that night; I had made it to the finals and was just waiting for the last semi-final game to end so I could see who I would play last- either Paul Madison or some other fellow who's name I forget. The two were going at it on a World Cup Soccer machine, with Paul well in the lead. That's when the tournament director leaned over to me and whispered, "You know Paul is the World Champion, right?" Stunned, I became literally slackjawed watching Paul attain the World Cup Soccer "wizard mode" and proceeding to win the resulting "multiball" challenge with only one hand on the flippers- calmly using the plunger to serve up about 30 balls onto the playfield with the other hand.
After Paul won it was decided I should choose the machine we would play on for the championship. I chose Banzai Run because I thought it looked old and the least likely to have a "wizard mode" which Paul could use to his advantage. Wrong. On his last ball, Paul deftly navigated the vertical playing field on the backboard of the machine (a feature unique to this game), paused a moment at the top to let everyone see he was about to make the very difficult "Jackpot" shot, then flipped... And won the tournament. I was totally jazzed to have played Paul, even though I was beaten, and immediately when I got home looked him up on Altavista (no Google back then!). Sure enough, he was the bona fide grand champ of the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association world championships held earlier that year. As it turned out, Paul was not eligible to accept the cash prize for winning since he wasn't a U of M student, so I got the $80 a couple days later. Hey, I can make money at this, too? Perhaps a career in pinball? Alas it was not to be, as 1995 marked one of the last great years in pinball manufacturing history. More and more kids were playing Nintendo and not bothering to shell out money in arcades, and pinball was at the bottom of the coin-op heap because it is so difficult to keep machines in working order. Manufacturers gradually went out of business, culminating in one of the saddest event of my game-playing life, the closing of the Williams pinball division. Williams made all the best machines and had the most creative and talented game designers in the business. Nevertheless, between the time I played Paul in late 1995 and October 25th, 1999 (the day Williams announced they were closing up shop), several excellent (arguably brilliant) games were released which I had a lot of fun playing. My favorite, though, was... Twilight Zone Many aficionados will tell you Twilight Zone was the best pin ever made. Explanation? Depth, baby, depth! Starting on the surface, TZ has about a zillion toys and mechanical features including; an actual working gumball machine, magnets under the mini-playfield, a working light-up clocktower, and just a ton of things to hit for points (onetime wizard Bowen Kerins does a good job elucidating most of them here). Perhaps most notable was the innovation of a single ceramic pinball that would randomly replace the regular steel balls during play. The ceramic ball is much lighter and zooms around the playfield at about a zillion miles per hour. Going a little deeper, you will find Twilight Zone has probably the richest sound effects bank of any pin ever designed. Incorporating voiceover from a Rod Serling sound-alike, spooky original music, jarring synthesized sound effects as well as a seemingly endless stream of "borrowed" sound effects cameos not only from the television show but from countless previous Williams classic games, TZ impressed not only those playing or watching the game, but anyone in earshot. Finally add a pinball convention called "modes" which was coming into fashion around the time of Twilight Zone's release in 1993. Starting a "mode" means you have a short amount of time to complete a series of "trick shots" in order to receive a (relatively) large point bonus. TZ featured a door with light-up panels (pictured) that kept track of which modes you had started. If you managed to start all the modes during a single game (no mean feat), you were rewarded with perhaps the "holy grail" of pinball "wizard modes," called... "LITZ (Lost In The Zone)." I recall my first LITZ quite well- it was at a Pizza Hut in Roseville, MN, sometime after the U of M tournament. My friend Colin was the only witness. When LITZ started we were both flabbergasted; a visual and sonic orgy unfolded before us as the machine screamed "Don't Touch the Door!!! Don't Touch the Door!!!" and other near-obscenities... But it was too late, the door was opened, the mode had started and by the time it was over I was baptized in mega-points; a pinball wizard is not a pinball wizard until he has achieves his first LITZ. I am a pinball geek, no doubt. Any others out there?

3 Comments

omg! i loooove pinball too! i have limited space for numerous pinball machines so lately i've been obesessing over computer similations. "pinball fantasies" is an awesome game that i played when i was a lil kid -- have you played it? well, i don't know where to get another copy because the one i had got destroyed when i moved... can u help me?

Gosshhh... i came on this page when looking for LITZ scores on the net. I have just accomplished a little 445.072.060 . I want to know if it's a good score or not!

"a pinball wizard is not a pinball wizard until he has achieves his first LITZ." Yeah that's true. LITZ is like making more than the maximum scoring on a Electromechanical game (mostly more than 100.000), wich make the score getting back to zero again.

I think LITZ is the most exciting Wizard Mode ever seen. It always do something to me.

Check http://www.glue.umd.edu/~dstewart/pinball/PAPA5/RULES/tz.txt, at the bottom they list typical high-scores for Twilight Zone. Your score is not bad.

I must say, the Tour the Mansion mode on Addams Family is pretty darned exciting as well- lots of crazy lights and crud. For a while back in college, I was getting Tour the Mansion every time I played AF, and it was a very clean machine with no defects or broken parts, too.

My latest pinball experience was in San Francisco a couple weeks ago, played Indy 500 at heavy metal bar on Haight for about an hour. Pretty clean machine, but the modes were not working so high scores were difficult!