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Before Action Videogames, There Was Pinball

by Ron Newcomb on 07/14/11 09:43:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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I recently attended the Northwest Pinball and Classic Arcade Game Show.  Located near Seattle's Space Needle, this annual event charges a one-time entrance fee to play as much pinball and videogames as desired.  For example, I was able to play the original TRON video game from 1982:  a flightstick paired with an analog knob enabled much gameplay variety for its day, and its black-lit, fluorescent-lined cabinet stood out from the lesser machines that surrounded it.  But as I was mostly well-versed in the videogames of old, I found a sudden interest in the old pinball games.  Specifically, the evolution of pinball from the old days of electromechanics to the modern computer era, and the parallels with action videogames.
For starters, if you play an pinball game from the sixties, the playing field isn't tilted as sharply as a modern one's is, and the various kickers and bumpers don't seem to strike as hard.  It's not unusual to see the ball leisurely move horizontally rather than curving sharply downward toward that gap between the flippers. ("The drain" as it's called in pinball lingo.)  Compared to their modern cousins, these pinballs games move as if in slow-motion, and are almost meditative to play. 

Another common theme was the theming.  There's a heavy influence of billiards and card games on pinball.  Many if not most early pinball games displayed playing cards or billiard balls in some form, usually in combination with another theme such as noire detectives or royal kingdoms.  The connection here is easy to see:  pinball, billiards and cards frequently rubbed shoulders in the same venue, so it stood to reason that a potential pinball player would be familiar with those older forms of game.  One gameplay trope of pinball games is striking all of a collection of targets, and this maps well to collecting all pieces of a set of cards.  Royal flushes (the best and most difficult collection to acquire in poker) received a lot of attention, and sinking a billiard ball into a pocket maps well to shooting the pinball into a particular, possibly lit-up, hole.  I found it difficult to find an older pinball game that didn't reference billiards or cards in some way.

But if it did, then it referenced 70's fantasy instead.  Volumputous princesses, Conan-inspired heroes and alien settings each gave pinball the beginnings of narrative aspirations, sometimes all at once:  Conan visits alien worlds, Conan saves alien princesses, Conan is an alien princess.  The various chutes and pathways for the ball become roads and waterways, and drop targets become killable monsters.  The playing field goes through modes representing (extremely roughly) the Hero's Journey.  Can you destroy the six wizards to get the six gems of power before the world drains away?

Throughout the eighties pinball went computerized and the themes went mainstream, pulling from movies, TV shows, and other bits of pop culture.  But pinball's peak had passed.  Although the early nineties would see the best-selling pinball game of all time -- The Addams Family -- by the turn of the century pinball's core demographic had been overtaken by the videogame, and pinball itself left the mainstream.

So it was with something like wonder that I discovered an "indie" pinball game, Galactic Girl.  Made by one guy over the course of three years, Galactic Girl was retro, a seventies throwback.  First, it was electromechanical, not computerized.  The score readout was an oversized odometer with only four digits. Unlike modern pinball games where you get a million points just for using the plunger, a spinner here would give you one single point per full revolution.  Galactic Girl even sounded different, with loud thumps and meaty ker-chunks replacing the modest clicks of computer-controlled mechanics.  I could see bare wood between the painted streams decorating the playfield.  The titular Girl might even be an alien princess.  In a bikini.

To this lifelong videogamer, the evolution of pinball looks like a blueprint for the ongoing evolution of action videogames.  While high scores, points, and number of "lives" remain popular in both to this day, the progression from game vis-à-vis a game, through adolescent power fantasy, and then (finally?) to the popular movie-licensed titles, is identical.  Only one small company remains that manufactures pinball games, and it debuted its latest in a special corner of the showroom floor.  Gathered around was an audience a bit older than I, a group for whom perhaps videogames came too late to capture their imaginations in youth, a group I wonder will be mirrored in fifteen years' time by my own generation, the NES generation.  

And the new pinball game that had them enthralled was none other than TRON.

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