Day 288: My Childhood School Of Witchcraft And Pinball Wizardry

originally published October 14, 2012

I don’t get a lot of complaints about my subject matter. Sure, sometimes I’ll prattle on a little about a particular brand of beer, or that palpable connection between the ethereal concept of heaven and the visceral world when one’s teeth crunch into that first stick of bacon on a Sunday morn, but my readers appear to be on board with all that.

Still, one reader in particular (my mother) has commented that I spend too much time writing about video games. As if hearing her plaintive cry, Ms. Wiki has responded by teaching me the history of pinball.

Those crazy be-mulleted days, slamming flipper buttons, heaving one’s pelvis manically against the cabinet, just shy of registering a TILT, firing for the multi-ball whilst the frenetic hi-hat of Neil Peart slithered and snapped through the tinny speakers overhead… that all started with this:

That’s right, lawn bowling. From this style of game came the tabletop incarnations, including billiards, shuffleboard, and something called bagatelle. Bagatelle is the true ancestor of modern pinball:

If you’ve never played bagatelle, you aren’t missing much. It’s heinously dull; you flick the ball onto the playing surface, then watch as it plunks through the pins into a designated point-value. Then you make a note of what you scored and walk away, hoping to find something more interesting to occupy your time.

The ball ricochets off of pins, which occupy most of the real estate on the old bagatelle tables. These pins gave us the name ‘pinball’. Wow. I just learned something.

The first coin-operated pinball machine – and again, we’re just talking about flicking a ball onto a Plinko-ish table here – was called “Baffle Ball”. In 1932, distributor Ray Maloney was having a hard time getting ahold of Baffle Ball machines to sell, so he designed his own game, “Ballyhoo”. The game was an even bigger hit, and it led Malone to start the Bally Company.

Over the next few years, electronic lights and noises found their way onto the tables. These were still bar distractions. There wasn’t much skill needed, and anyone who bragged that they were pinball experts at this point were likely just lucky and drunk. Actually, lucky and drunk isn’t a bad combination, if you can pull it off.

The Humpty Dumpty game, introduced in 1947, was the first machine to offer up flippers. Flippers meant that the game was controllable, there was finally a legitimate element of skill in this otherwise innocuous pastime. Along with the Humpty Dumpty table you had Triple Action – both games featured flippers, though they were angled outward, the opposite of the modern pinball configuration.

For whatever reason, the heart of pinball manufacturing was in Chicago. In 1932 there were 150 companies in Chicago making pinball machines. One of them was Gottlieb, the company that would later unleash Q-Bert upon the world. Between Gottlieb, Bally, and a handful of other manufacturers who continued to thrive after the war, pinball experienced a Golden Age.

Maybe it was inevitable. The 1950s saw the explosion of a baby-boom youth culture with unprecedented disposable income, while at the same time the world of pinball had evolved from a bar-room distraction to a point-tallying, competitive game. Multi-ball was invented in 1956, and over the next couple decades the sounds got richer and the lights got brighter. One piece of artwork from the ensuing film actually found its way onto the walls of my childhood home: an Elton John-themed pinball façade.

In the 70’s the advent of circuit boards and microprocessors led to the replacement of turning reels to measure scores with brand new digital displays. The games themselves were mere variations on a perpetually constant theme – it was the unrestrained imagination of the designers that kept things interesting. The Who helped out by depicting the hero of their Tommy album as a deaf, dumb and blind pinball master (okay, wizard).

Unfortunately, glitzy sounds and digital score displays weren’t enough to maintain the profitability of pinball once the video game explosion crippled the market. Manufacturers had to get creative – kids weren’t going to plunk quarters to flick a steel ball in and around a bunch of twinkling lights and bumpers when there were spaceships to destroy on the Galaga machine down the aisle. So they started making ramps, talking machines, and crazy blinking chase lights.

But it wasn’t enough. Gottlieb switched its focus to video games, while Bally slipped off the pinball stage in 1988. By this time even the arcade game industry was taking a hit, as home video games had begun to evolve beyond Pac-Man blips and crazy rape-the-Native-American insanity, and kids were finding more immersive pleasure in playing video games at home. It simply wasn’t feasible to have a pinball machine in one’s basement.

Okay, confession. We had a pinball machine in our basement. I grew up having no idea just how rare and exciting this was, instead swooning over the prospect of having a complete arcade in my house like Ricky Schroeder on Silver Spoons. Still, my fingers became nimble and my skills – not transmittable to anything in life since – improved. Not only that, but we had this thing:

As such, I always tended to gravitate toward the pinball aisle of my childhood arcades. I lost interest in the 1990s when pinball machines began incorporating on-screen video game components, and ludicrous scores. Some games were so multi-leveled and complex, I couldn’t see where my ball was half the time. It used to be that scoring a million points meant absolute and complete domination over a pinball machine – suddenly you could rack up a couple million on a single ball, no problem. This was my first lesson in the effects of inflation.

Pinball has witnessed the development milestones of 20th century gaming technology, as well as its societal mores. New York and Los Angeles both banned pinball machines from the early 40s through the mid 70s. Fiorello LaGuardia believed that the machines robbed children of their nickels and dimes, while others worried that they might be considered games of chance (and thus inherently dangerous, I guess).

I have always seen pinball as the perfect blend of chance and skill. One could learn to hug the ball to the flipper and time its descent perfectly before flinging it up whatever ramp or through whichever gate gave out the highest score. But sometimes the ball just plummets down the middle, untouchable by any absolving flipper.

One could see this as a metaphor for life if one really wanted to put in the time. Me, I’m still recovering from my last Google Images search, wondering why my childhood pinball machine didn’t look like this:

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