Originally printed in Razorcake #85, April/May 2015, here is a printable PDF and full text of Kayla Greet’s super-rad One Punk’s Guide to Pinball.
This zine is also available directly from Razorcake.
One Punk’s Guide to Pinball
By Kayla Greet
Most people I play pinball with have childhood memories of being placed on a step stool and flipping to their heart’s content. My frame of reference is different.
While I’m sure my younger self had more than a few attempts at slaying the silver ball, my serious relationship with pinball began in 2008. That was the year I quit my job to travel the U.S. by train for two months, and when I got back my boyfriend and roommates at the time had discovered pinball. In less than sixty days they had become completely obsessed with it and scoured every bowling alley, laundromat, movie theater, and bar in a twenty-five mile radius to compile a list of “pins” in Tacoma, Wash.
We quickly discovered Shorty’s and Skill Shot, both located in Seattle. Shorty’s is a Coney Island-themed bar with sixteen pins, while Skill Shot is a DIY pinball zine which keeps a list of pins in Seattle much like the one we put together for Tacoma.
Within six months of moving to the Emerald City, I found a full-time job at Full Tilt (a pinball and ice cream bar), became a member of the Seattle Pinball League, and joined the staff of Skill Shot as a writer and editor.
My friend Tim Tournay puts it best: “Before I joined the pinball league I was a normal person. I had non-pinball friends, went to non-pinball bars, and participated in non-pinball activities. All of that has changed now.” The same adage holds true for me—many of my decisions on bars or restaurants I go to are driven by whether or not they have pinball.
Fast forward to today. I’m still living in Seattle, where pinball is absolutely thriving. We have a pinball museum, casual tournaments six days a week, two Seattle leagues, and a total of 424 machines across 119 locations in the metro area with even more spots in the works.
Many modern pinball machines have an attract mode that grab most people’s attention with flashing lights, sounds, and colorful artwork. It’s how they get their hooks in you. By the end of this guide you will understand why quarters aren’t just necessary for laundry, busses, or parking meters anymore.
Pinball’s History: Mob Shit and Outlawed
The basic concept of pinball was created in the 1700s in France with a wooden contraption filled with actual pins that a ball navigated through, called bagatelle. This same concept is also what inspired the pachinko machines in Japan.
It wasn’t until 1947 that designer Steve Kordek invented flipper bats for the game. You hear that? Flippers have only been used for a mere sixty-seven years and pinball is over three centuries old!
At the height of pinball manufacturing in the early 1930s there were around 150 companies making pins, mostly in Chicago which became the hub of the game because of David Gottlieb. He was a traveling businessman based out of the Windy City, pushing his hugely successful game Baffle Ball. Meanwhile in California, Harry Williams was adding electricity to his pinball tables. Word of his advancement spread faster than the tables and soon they were being emulated in Chicago. Williams relocated there to keep up with the competition. With lumber, wire, and steel in abundance, plus ports in Lake Michigan and railroads, the games were manufactured easily and spread across the nation quickly. Fourteen manufacturers remained by the mid-1930s, with companies like Gottlieb, Bally, Williams, Data East, and Stern leading the pack.
Pinball dominated in most American cities as well as in Japan with Sega and Data East. However, some spots like New York and L.A. decided to ban pinball in the ‘40s because it was seen as an illegal gambling opportunity. New York’s mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, and police went so far as to raid the city for thousands of pins, took sledgehammers to the machines and dumped them in the Hudson river. That is some serious mob shit right there. They also used the wooden legs to make 2,000 billy clubs for local law enforcement.
Enter Roger Sharpe in 1976. Sharpe proved to a New York judge that pinball is primarily a game of skill with a small percentage of chance. Two machines were brought in so there was a back-up available if anything went wrong with the primary. New York officials got suspicious of the second table and brought it into play. On a pin that Sharpe had no experience on, he called his shot and executed it perfectly. This Hail Mary skill shot was essential in saving pinball. End of argument. Ban lifted!
L.A.’s ban was thrown out in 1974. However, the city of Oakland only legalized pinball this year after over eight decades! The law there was rarely, if ever, enforced until 2014 when someone got pissed about a nearby pinball party disrupting their sleep. The city of Alameda, California still has a ban—this despite it being home to a fantastic, chronologically organized pinball museum.
Old School vs. New School
Pinball continued to evolve from a basic game with pins, wood, and metal balls over the years.
Between 1933 and 1977, the type of tables available to play were electro-mechanical (EM), meaning they operated on scoring wheels and relays. These tables have bells, clicks, chimes, and buzzers as the sensory experience and play at a much slower pace. There are generally only targets, spinners, and saucers (a recessed circle that usually increases your bonus when the ball falls into it. Once your score collects, it is kicked out of the saucer). Despite these older machines’ simpler appearance, they usually are some of the hardest to master. Thus, there is a small schism between those who love the classics versus players who stick to modern games, though its best to build skills on both.
Post-1977 machines began using solid-state (SS) electronics consisting of transistors, circuit boards, CPUs, and audio boards, many of which are completely controlled by software. Scores are recorded on a plasma screen and, depending on the era of machine, you’ll have either an alpha-numeric display capable of letters and numbers only, or a dot-matrix display (DMD) complete with animations and cut scenes. DMDs, on the whole, are orange, though a select few have been modified to be in full color!
Animations on the display give the player a better idea of what the game’s goals are and is more immersed in the table’s theme. Licensed games like Indiana Jones, Batman: The Dark Knight, and Tron include detailed likenesses of the characters and sometimes clips from the respective movies.
In 1999 Williams released Star Wars: Episode I and Revenge from Mars (a sequel to the wildly popular Attack from Mars) via an innovated concept called Pinball 2000. These tables projected a screen directly onto the playfield in an attempt to merge fans of both pinball and arcade games. Williams hoped their exclusivity with the Star Wars project would be very successful. It completely backfired. Obtaining this license was coupled with a sequester, or gag order, from Lucas Ranch which made the design process less communal. The Williams team was only allowed to discuss the project with a handful of people. Also, Jar Jar Binks—possibly the most hated Star Wars character—is a large part of the game. The pin was released at the same time as the movie. This endeavor sadly bombed and drove Williams/Bally out of business as well as mirrored the subsequent downfall of pinball in general.
This left Stern Industries the monopoly of pinball manufacturing for over a decade up until today.
Jersey Jack Pinball popped up last year with its Wizard of Oz table decked in LED lights and an LCD plasma display that caught many player’s attentions. They plan on releasing The Hobbit next. A company in the Netherlands called Dutch Pinball is releasing The Big Lebowski pinball and gaining a ton of buzz about it. Spooky Pinball is another new pinball outfit and has released an original game called America’s Most Haunted. I’ve been lucky enough to play it twice and it’s really awesome.
“I Love Pinball, but I Suck at It”
Even the simplest machine has hundreds of switches, optics, coils, targets, ramps, coin mechanics, and other parts. Then there’s a tiny metal ball slamming into anything on the playfield crossing its path, thrashing around as if it were in a circle pit at its favorite band’s show. It’s an amusement park of chaos beneath the glass. But pinball is a tangible game, consisting of equal parts physics, skill, and luck that can be manipulated in your favor. All too many times I meet people who adamantly enjoy the game, though admit to being terrible at it.
What’s really cool about pinball is it gets cheaper as you build skill. All machines have a base replay score that goes up each time it’s achieved, making it more and more of a challenge. If you are able to continually earn replays, you could be playing several games on just fifty cents (note that some newer games cost up to a dollar a play, but some are only a quarter). Here are some basic moves to master.
First things first: there is never any good reason to be flipping both flippers at the same time. Never. Not only will it not save your ball from draining, it ensures zero ball control and flags you as a newb. Make every flip matter and try to minimize flailing.
Dead Pass: Probably the most terrifying move to try and all you have to do is absolutely nothing. As long as the ball is not traveling straight down the middle (SDTM) of the playfield, let it make contact with the flipper and bounce off the rubber ring over to the next flipper. For example, if the ball is screaming towards your left flipper, don’t flip, do nothing, and it will dead bounce over to the right flipper where you can trap it.
Trap: As the ball comes to the flipper, given the right momentum, you can lift the flipper and hold the ball right on the flipper, keeping it in a trap. From there you have time to settle down, think, and focus your shots. This skill is super beneficial during multi-balls and is referred to as a cradle separation.
Cradle Separation: In this move, which is definitely advanced, you have one ball on one flipper and two on the other. Or any combination of one and one, one and three, and so on depending on how many balls are involved in the multi-ball. Apollo 13 is the largest that comes to mind, with a thirteen ball multi-ball and Indiana Jones: Pinball Adventure will hit you with eight at the same time. Once you have this set up, look for your jackpot shot and trace it back to your flippers. Figure out what moves you need to execute in order to hit that shot and then exploit it for as long as you can!
Slap Save: I’ve found many people new to the game have a fear of shoving or nudging the machine. This is so crucial to coercing the ball to go where you want it and ensuring a longer play time. When I first started playing, I lacked the upper body strength needed to move a table while playing so I used to wedge my leg under the front of the machine for leverage. Slap saves are done by simply hitting the side of the table that you’d like the ball to land. These are so important for when the ball is heading SDTM and is potentially the only move that will allow you to regain control. Otherwise it’s Drain City, population you.
Ideally, you become friends with someone who owns pinball tables and will let you wail on them for free. Or, if you’re lucky enough to have a museum in your area, like the ones in Vegas, Alameda, or Seattle, you can pay a cover charge and play to your heart’s content. Otherwise, just keep quarters on you and stick to it. The majority of pinball skill is repetition, timing, and muscle memory. Everything else is memorizing rule sets on individual games and most modern pins have a cheat sheet of how to play them directly on the table. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make better!
Interest in pinball and match play is erupting like crazy in Seattle.
A few months ago we adopted a team play model from New York, which engaged eighty people in a weekly league. Every Monday night, two teams meet up for match play at one of the six bars hosting games.
Pinball Seattle is much like a bowling or dart league where teams pick their strongest players, best machines, and battle each other.
Four rounds of matches (two singles—solo, head-to-head play, and two doubles—cooperative combined scores between the two teams) are played, points are assigned, and one team goes home a winner. This formula is repeated over eight weeks until top teams emerge for the playoffs and finals.
Before the start of this bar league, there was and still are very standard “three strikes you’re out” tournaments that occur weekly, monthly, and annually. Turnouts at these events can be anywhere from fifteen to hundreds of people, based on the frequency and prizes. In Seattle even our Wednesday Flip Off at Add-A-Ball is averaging thirty-five players a week and has a record attendance of forty-seven! I lovingly began to equate these to punk shows.
Weekly pin tourneys are much like the five dollar show your buddy’s band plays on off nights at the local bar. You see the same familiar faces from the community out, having a few rounds after work and singing along to the same tunes that your friends penned week in, week out.
Monthly tourneys are the active touring band of the circuit. Many of the weekly crowd will make it out along with the occasional friends who dropped out of the crew of regulars. These folks still love the community and the scene, but have cut back on going out, save for the handful of times something dear to them comes to town and they’re willing to shell out ten bucks for it.
Annual tournaments are the big ones. The fest-size shows people travel out of state for. Folks will pay anywhere from twenty to a hundred dollars in a weekend for some extremely challenging matches. You’ll find most of the die-hard enthusiasts here and get the rare sighting of some legends of the game.
The way these competitions work is simple. Everyone buys into a main pot and is slated to play one random person on a randomly selected game. No extra balls are played in the interest of fairness and time, interference with your opponent’s game results in a loss for that match, and order of play is decided by a coin flip. The highest score after three or five balls, depending on the era of the machine, wins. Once you lose three matches, you are out of the running. If you make it to the top four, you win cash and glory!
As a punk, some of my core values are equality, inclusivity, and acceptance. Booking shows and supporting bands taught me about how badly people get fucked over when they’re trying to do what makes them happy, or treated awful for the way they look and who they are. That kind of shit bothers me a lot.
I’ve noticed the competitive pinball niche skews male. I’ve tried to sort it out and make sense of it and one thing I’m sure of is that it’s not malevolent. But there does exist a long-running culture, embedded subconsciously, that doesn’t encourage women to be strong or combative within our society in general. While pinball playing doesn’t seem to be a sport requiring strength, oftentimes skillful nudging and shaking of the table is necessary to save your ball from draining and often women lack the ability to move 350 pounds with their arms. Though beyond that, early on pinball was marketed with images of attractive females in skimpy outfits. Sadly, this is still happening as Stern just announced Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons, a supposedly tongue-in-cheek game about boobs. The main character, a farmer’s daughter, holds melons at chest level with Daisy Dukes on while being literally drooled over by farm hands, one of which is drunk. How any female would feel respected playing this is completely beyond me.
I became an advocate for females playing more pinball in an attempt to push a much-needed cultural shift and have written several articles for Skill Shot on the topic.
I also started a women-only monthly tournament called Babes in Pinland after being inspired by Belles and Chimes in San Francisco. Nearly a year later, I’m still meeting girls who come to Babes for their first tournament. While, yes, this excludes men, I think that opening a space for women to feel welcome and comfortable absolutely trumps that.
Sure Plays a Mean Pin… —More like The Who Cares?!?
As a pinball enthusiast/addict, I want to go on record saying I never want to hear reference of “Pinball Wizard” ever again. There’s so much more to the game than that damned song. Basically what a person is telling me when they ask if I have a supple wrist is, “Wow, that’s a neat hobby that I don’t know anything about but I heard this Who song once!”
One of my favorite moments was playing the game Funhouse, while listening to Funhouse by The Stooges, between bands at the Funhouse venue for a show. While I wasn’t taken down there by three Puerto Rican girls to play a lonely pinball machine like in Rancid’s “Olympia, WA,” I did find that music has a huge relevance in the game… much more than a popular song from a rock opera.
Sometimes it’s the music that’s programmed with the table that I end up loving. The song during multi-ball on William’s Monster Bash sticks in my head every time. ZZ Top’s catchy “La Grange” plays on a loop in William’s The Getaway. Bally’s table Xenon has an atmospheric tune composed entirely by Suzanne Ciani. Not many women are involved in game development, so Ciani’s work on Xenon stood out to me a lot. She was one of the first to program a voice—her own—onto a pinball machine.
Then there’s William’s White Water in which the player advances from raft to raft via a series of shots in order to get to the final mode of the game. Each time you hit one of those shots the song changes ever so slightly, keeping the same basic theme. Black Knight 2000, also by Williams (can you tell I like them the best?) plays a radical ballad in which the black knight laughs an evil laugh and shouts things like “Give me your money!” Go to YouTube and look it up, it’s something everyone needs to hear.
On the flip side, there are bands are inspired enough by pinball to reference it in songs! Remember, we’re not talking about Tommy or Pete Townsend or Elton John anymore. Here’s a short list of bands that are probably on your radar and their song that mentions the silver ball: The Clash’s “Koka Kola,” Generation X’s “Kiss Me Deadly,” The Queers’ “Girl About Town,” Big D And The Kids Table’s “Pinball,” In Flames’ “Pinball Map,” Sage Francis’s “Runaways,” Black Label Society’s “Superterrorizer,” and The Blood Brothers’ “Six Nightmares in the Pinball Masquerade.” Surprised? I was too.
Other honorable mentions of punk rock/pinball tie-ins include: Stiff Little Fingers’ score the soundtrack to the computer-simulated game Pro-Pinball: Timeshock!, Hot Pinball Rock Volume 1 and 2, which features songs written specifically about pinball and was included in a mid ‘90s zine called Multiball, and a studio in Canada that’s doing a series of John Peel-style band recordings plus pinball playing called Pinball Sessions.
Fanzines: The Silver Ball in Print
Independent, small press publishing has a strong presence in pinball with three popular titles and hopefully more to follow.
Gordon Orneleas, who ran the punk fanzine WDC Period, along with friend Brad Hayden started Skill Shot seven years ago simply because of their love of the game. It has since to become the Seattle area’s main pinball reference guide with the most current list of tables, organized by neighborhood and printed in each issue, along with features, news, and gossip. They have so much community support that they can cover the breadth of the metro area and often are one of the first to announce game changes. Full-size, double-sided, zine subscriptions are five dollars, or you can get the whole collection (issues 1-33) at skill-shot.com.
Drop Target Zine is run by Alec Longstreth in California and Jon Chad in Massachusetts. The two comics met at college and discovered their affinity for pinball at the same time when meeting at a pool hall for a project. With most of the U.S.A. between them, they are limited to one zine a year that culminates when they return to their alma mater to teach workshops. This zine covers interviews, personal narrative comics, and detailed drawings of dream machines they wish existed. Issues are five dollars and are half-size zines, bound with a screen-printed cover. It’s available at droptarget.blogspot.com.
Slam Tilt Zine out of Australia is a new addition to the self-published passion for pinball and was inspired by Drop Target. There is only one issue so far, but it is fantastic. It covers interviews with local players and artists who use pinball parts, maintenance, how to play, and where to find machines in Sydney. It’s a half-size zine, bound with a screen-printed cover. It’s five dollars and available at slamtiltzine.com.
Punk Pinball Parallels – Subculture Crossover
My attraction to punk and pinball often run on parallel tracks. Both are capable of building a subculture of misfits. Both have roots in political action. Both are huge proponents of music (several bands have machines themed after them, and AC/DC pinball even has a headphone jack built into it). Both were considered seedy and underground. During its ban, you could only find pinball in speakeasies and hidden spots. Proving to the Man that a pinball ban was bogus is really awesome. Fortunately, the negative connotations of the game have faded away and pinball is ramping up for a resurgence.
I’ve been told by a veteran of the game, Dave Stewart, that he loves playing with punks, as they’re often the most open and inclusive people. Now that pinball is getting its much-deserved resurgence, more friends who I know through music are jumping into the hobby. I’m seeing them pop into local barcades, play pins while bands are on, and every so often, play in local tournaments.
Me? I’m sitting close to the top thousand players worldwide (out of 19,000 ranked players) and am ranked fortieth in my state. I’ve dived head first into this hobby: running tournaments, writing for pinball zines, captaining the top team in my league, and generally elevating people’s interest in pinball. Last year I even got a pinball tattoo! Now if only I could hold back enough quarters to afford my own table.
- PAPA—Professional Amateur Pinball Association (papa.org) Tutorials, techniques/skills, match play videos, host annual world championship tournament, located in Pennsylvania
- IFPA—International Flipper Pinball Association (ifpapinball.com) Calendar of all sanctioned tournaments, authority on pinball rankings, tracks World Ranking Pinball Points (WRPPs) for all player profiles
- IPDB—International Pinball Database (http://ipdb.org/search.pl) Information about every known pinball machine ever made, includes photos, features of each table and a synopsis of the table
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