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The joy of pinball

4:00 PM on 01.26.2012 // Chad Concelmo

You walk into an arcade. Whether you just finished playing miniature golf, swinging a bat in the batting cages, or just decided to make your way to one of the few remaining standalone arcades hidden in some random downtown nook, it doesn't matter. You are in an arcade and you are happy.

As you walk around on the gaudy, gloriously retro carpet, the smell of lukewarm pizza and burnt popcorn fills the air. The light of a claw machine reflects off the side of an unpolished token dispenser. Kids run past you, waving long trails of red tickets in their hands, as you make your way to the very back of the cabinet-filled room.

You have one destination in mind.

A pinball machine.

Sadly, the above scenario is becoming less and less common. And not just because there are fewer and fewer arcades left in the world. In the small number of arcades still remaining, pinball machines themselves are becoming a rarity, being rapidly replaced by massive Dance Dance Revolutions and driving games so expensive they drain your wallet after only a few plays.

And that is a real shame.

Because playing pinball is one of the greatest joys in the world.

I will never forget my first experience playing pinball.

I was six years old and accompanying my parents to their weekly bowling league.

I remember those trips to the Bowl America like they were yesterday. While my parents were bowling, a friend of the family would always bring me to the bowling alley's arcade: a small, modest room hidden behind the snack bar.

I would look forward to this arcade trip every week.

As my parents would try their best to pick up splits, I would melt into the world of Crystal Castles, Star Wars, and Centipede. I was in heaven.

Outside of the minimal number of cabinets, the arcade had only one pinball machine: Haunted House. It was a ridiculously rad pinball machine -- one of the rare "triple level" machines with sets of flippers on platforms above and below the main table. Yup, below. It was that rad.

Being so young, though, I could never reach the machine. I was too short to play it.

One night, however, my parent's friend lifted me up and let me try Haunted House for the first time. I got to insert the quarter into the glowing red slot. I got to pull back the plunger. I got to activate the flippers. And I got to do this all by myself -- well, outside of the woman with the glorious perm struggling to hold me up.

The first time I saw the metallic ball bounce off a bumper and slide through a gate, I was mesmerized.

I had fallen in love.

All these years later, my love of pinball has not changed.

I am just as obsessed as I was as a child.

Every time I walk into an arcade or bar, I immediately check if the establishment has a pinball machine. Or, even better, multiple machines.

If they do, that is where I spend my night. Just me, a pinball machine, and a draft beer resting on the sloped glass top.

This joy I get from playing pinball comes from many different things.

There are the technical reasons: the unpredictability of each game; the engineering that goes into creating each machine; the way pinball machines have evolved over the years; the physical interaction between you and the game.

But, for me, there is so much more to it than the flawless, mathematical design that goes into building a successful table.

For me, pinball is an experience like no other. It is some kind of unique hybrid between the interactivity of videogames and the passivity of, well, watching a shiny metal ball roll around. It's a strange, exciting, communal experience that no other form of entertainment can duplicate.

Every since I was a child, I have been obsessed with the beauty of pinball machines and the way their design can result in such a surprisingly exhilarating experience.

I used to build my own makeshift tables using bulletin boards, rubber bands, and marbles. I would even name the darn things.

Adventure Lair.

Pirate's Cove.

Chad's Pinball Madness!

(Yeah, they weren't the best names.)

The amount of money my poor mother had to spend at office supply stores because of my obsession was staggering.

But it wasn't just designing these tables that gave me so much pleasure.

When I would pull the rubber band back and let loose the marbles, watching the colorful balls make their way through the push pins and thumbtacks would bring a huge smile to my face. Every single time. Heck, it still does!

Regardless of the size or age of the table, the experience is the same.

The randomness of the ball's path. The unexpected sounds and flashes of light. The marvel of seeing a table full of impossible-looking loops and spirals (the more loops and spirals the better!). The feeling of standing at a machine, hands pressed comfortably against either flipper, knowing you have to react at a moment's notice to control the mayhem playing out in front of you. The satisfaction of mastering the "flipper hold" and launching a ball up a jackpot-activating ramp. The loud clack that echoes throughout the entire arcade when you match numbers and are granted a free game.

All of these factor into the joy that is playing pinball.

And don't even get me started on multiball.

Okay, get me started.

For me, there is no powerup in game history that will ever top the excitement of getting multiball.

Yeah, getting the spread gun in Contra is great. Kuribo's Shoe is fantastic! But when you are standing at a pinball table ... and you lock a few balls ... and then those balls are released to the fanfare of flashing lights and sounds ... and you frantically start slamming the flippers, not even sure what the heck is going on ... and the chaos starts to grow and grow as your points multiply at an alarming rate?

My God. There is nothing greater.

Keeping multiball alive for a long period of time is the closest I will ever get to an athletic achievement.

From the simple joys of Target Pool to more recent masterworks like Twilight Zone, Addams Family, or Indiana Jones, no matter how old or new the table, I will always look at pinball machines as things of classic beauty.

And as much I love videogame pinball (Pinball FX2 is, hands down, my most played XBLA game), nothing can top the wonderful, nostalgic feeling of playing at a live table.

With the rate they are disappearing -- and STERN Pinball, the only maker of pinball machines left, quietly shrinking -- who knows how long pinball will still be around? Even the thought of pinball machines being a thing of the past makes me sad.

I would ask you to stand up and take action, but I have no idea how to start stuff like that! I guess play more pinball? Support more arcades? Write a letter to ... someone? Chain yourself to a machine and refuse to leave until ... something happens? I have no idea. #occupypinball?

I guess the best thing you can do is just enjoy the hell out of pinball machines while they are still around.

I know I am.

In fact, I think I am going to go play one right now.

Bride of Pin-bot, here I come.



Chad Concelmo,
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