[Playfield is a slightly irregular column about all things pinball-related, lovingly constructed by Octopus Motor's Sparky.]

An Introduction To Pinball

A playfield is –- watch out, I’m gonna get technical here -- the flat wooden thing the pinball rolls around on. I know, not terribly exciting. Pinball columns are required to be called “For Amusement Only” or something that incorporates a cheap joke about balls…and I’m not the type to go for the low-hanging fruit.

Or maybe I am.

Pinball columns are also required to start with the author waxing nostalgic about the good olde days. Back then you could walk into any local pub and there in a dark corner, slugging back his ale, would be a lanky Viggo-Mortenish type who went by some nickname like “Strider” or “Blast Hardcheese” or “P. Diddy”, but who was in fact Aragorn son of Arathorn, king of Gondor, sixteenth Chieftain of the Dúnedain, last descendant of Anárion.

And in the _other_ corner, there would be a pinball machine.

History, I Think I Love You

Well, sorry - I didn’t really play pinball in the good olde days (and by “good olde days”, I mean “the 80s”). There weren’t any around to play, besides a few down at the beach boardwalk arcade: Haunted House, High Speed, maybe an F-14 Tomcat. But the beach was an hour away, the pins were often broken, and I never had enough quarters. I did enjoy looking at them, though. Compared to, say, a Qbert cabinet, a pinball machine is 500-pound, high-voltage Fabergé egg.

So let’s just skip ahead to the early 90’s, when a friend and I used to go to this little hole-in-the-wall pizza place that had a Williams Black Knight 2000. The machine wasn’t in the best shape (frankly, neither was the pizza), but we had a few more quarters in those days, and the Black Knight’s challenges were worth every one:

"NO WAY!" [mp3]

The Black Knight was rude and obnoxious, the game was fast, the music just plain rocked. And the backglass kinda reminded me of my favorite Frazetta painting, The Death Dealer. I couldn't help but love this pinball machine.

Aw, c’mon…I also love that painting of dogs playing poker.

Further Down The Return Lane Spiral

Ten years and 2000+ miles later, I noticed a classified ad for a “Black Knight pinball” in the paper. Was that the machine I remembered? I wasn’t sure, but I convinced my boyfriend that we had to go check it out. The seller had a huge garage full of arcade stuff in various states of repair – and there next to a Simpsons pinball, a gorgeous old Seeburg “trashcan” jukebox, and possibly a large crate labeled “9906753” sat a Black Knight 2000 in all its red and yellow glory. The seller switched it on, hit the start button, and drew back the plunger:

"I AM THE BLACK KNIGHT" [mp3]

Yeah, that was the voice I remembered, all right.

The BK2K was in decent shape - just a blown transistor - and at a great price (ah, those halcyon pre-Ebay days). We brought it home, enlisting a friend to help drag it up the steep brick staircase to the house and into the living room. With the head folded back and its legs slowly bolted on one by one, the machine stood up like a wobbly newborn colt.

That night I sat in the dark room just watching the machine's attract loop play. It seemed bigger, brighter, louder than I remembered, like an alien spacecraft that had just landed in front of me on a desert highway.

Not that I’ve ever been visited an alien spacecraft.

Although it would explain a few things.

Too Late For An Intervention

Soon we were going to pinball events and collecting more pins: Space Mission, Creature From The Black Lagoon, Twilight Zone. Our workroom is now filled with old cabinets, parts and playfields. We even started building our own custom pin (that’s a whole ‘nother column). I've played dozens of pinball machines since those days back at the pizza parlor - everything from Air Aces to Zip-A-Doo, but the Black Knight 2000 will always be my favorite.

In future columns, I’ll talk about how to bring home a pinball machine of your own, and how to fix it when something inevitably breaks. I’ll even take you deep inside the tangled, throbbing guts of a pinball machine, like those CGI flythroughs on “House” but with more wire and solenoids and, sadly, much less Hugh Laurie.

Technical, but hey…I told you this wasn’t for amusement only. See below for more pictures on the beloved Black Knight 2000:



(Click for bigger pics.)

[Yes, Sparky is still working on They Came From Hollywood. She has written for Gamasutra and Computer Games Magazine (RIP). She and her husband collect 500-pound, high voltage Fabergé eggs.]