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

“Those illustrations on the playfield and scoreboard always made the game seem so exotic and interesting, when, by and large, one pinball game was pretty much like another in my eyes. Paddles, tubes, plungers…all that James Bond stuff in the background was a big lie.”
-- T.G.

This thoughtful quote comes from a reader’s response to my first column. You might think at this point I would go off about how every pinball machine is a unique and magical snowflake, even Dr. Dude!

But you know what, T.G.?

I used to think the same thing.

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Nostalgia Ain't What It Used To Be

When pins moved from electromechanical to solid-state (in the late 70s), they started to become more interesting, as they now had software-based rules and logic. Just like with computer games, as pinball machines got more RAM, digital sound, fancier graphical displays, and more processing power, gameplay got more sophisticated.

I must admit that those older electromechanical machines aren’t much fun to me. I can certainly appreciate their aesthetics -- from those crazy Spanish backglasses to gleaming woodrails -- but I prefer the gameplay depth that you just can’t get without a CPU. I mean, I can appreciate Paul Newman’s good looks, but he wasn’t the dreamboat of my generation -- we had John Cusack.

I do, however, enjoy his spaghetti sauce.

Paul Newman’s, that is. I don’t know if John Cusack makes spaghetti sauce. but if he does, he’s welcome to bring some over to my house any time and I’ll try it.

We can even play pinball.

No Quarter

Times changed and pinball went digital, but all the complexity this added went unnoticed to most people. You still only had one quarter at a time, and figuring out what you were supposed to do from the little rules card, playfield text, or audio cues you could barely hear over the Fleetwood Mac blasting in the arcade –- well, it was tough. To be honest, back then I had no idea there were any rules for pinball other than DON’T LOSE THE BALL. Of course, the machines were set up to take those balls and quarters as quickly as possible.

Since many people’s first exposure to pinball was like this, who can blame them for thinking one pinball was pretty much like the other, just with different art and toys?

Lost In The Zone

It wasn’t until I got a pinball machine of my own that I discovered how complex a well-designed game can be…a game with depth and replay value, something you never get bored with.

And that game, dear reader, was Midway’s 1993 Twilight Zone.

Twilight Zone is probably the most mechanically complex pinball machine of its time, and that time was a very good time for pinball. The late 80’s to mid-90s gave us pins like The Addams Family, Indiana Jones, Creature From The Black Lagoon, Tales Of The Arabian Nights, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Medieval Madness -- all offering very different experiences. Just like a Molyneux game differs from a Sid Meier or Will Wright game, so Pat Lawlor’s Twilight Zone has a completely different gameplay style from Steve Ritchie’s Black Knight 2000 or John Popadiuk’s Theatre of Magic.

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TZ has a lot of toys – a clock that really tells time, a gumball machine that dispenses pinballs, a magnetized mini-playfield, and the mysterious white Powerball. These gadgets aren’t just for show – they’re all part of TZ’s complex rules and modes (see Bowen Kerin’s rules sheet for TZ).

A pin like TZ can be intimidating when encountered in the arcade, and like other pins of its era, it can take a long time to master. That’s why I only really understood it when I brought it home. Set on free play, you can take the time you need to experiment, plan strategies, even find hidden Easter eggs (yup – many solid-state pins have them, just like video games).

Unfortunately, owning a pinball machine just isn’t practical for most people...and I'll talk more about that in one of my next columns.

DISAPPEARING ACT

In a way, T.G.’s problem with pinball was one that industry never solved. For the average person, it just wasn’t worth the time and quarters to try to get an enjoyable experience out of a pinball machine. It happened to arcade games, too -- why stand there for hours trying not to DON’T DIE DON’T FREAKING DIE OH CRAP I DIED in Dragon’s Lair or get to the end of Pac-Man when you could just play a video game at home on your computer or console, free play, forever?

Pinball as public entertainment went away, and became a mostly private hobby. This was inevitable, like the obsolescence of vacuum tubes or death of a Spinal Tap drummer.

If only they had figured out how to shrink a pinball machine down to the size of an Atari 5200...

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Still, pinball is not a lie, T.G.. Most of the time, the James Bond stuff really is James Bond stuff (sometimes an Aston Martin DB5 is just an Aston Martin DB5). Pinball really is interesting, and certainly more exotic today than it ever was. It’s a truth wrapped in a riddle, cloaked in an enigma, hidden at the bottom of a huge sack of quarters. You’ll just have to take my word for it. And next time you’re in town, come over and play Twilight Zone.

We’ll even have spaghetti, if that darn John Cusack ever shows up.

[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.]