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Pinball Wizardry

Michael Marsh
From the Print Edition:
Tiger Woods, May/June 2008

With each hand commanding a flipper, your eyes fixed on the ball and cigar smoke illuminated by the flashing lights, your body language tells it all. Just 15,000 more points till that coveted EXTRA BALL! Go ahead: yell, cuss and talk trash. You're no kid anymore, and no crotchety codger with a coin dispenser and cigarette breath is gonna throw you out for tilting his machine. In the new world of privately owned pinball machines, this baby is yours.

Twenty years ago, 99 percent of pinball games resided in arcades, restaurants or pubs. Today, six of 10 belong to individual enthusiasts who represent a worldwide subculture united through conventions, trade shows, chat rooms, blogs and common love for this seminal arcade game. "Ah, yes," says Karl Friedrich of Phoenix, whose hand-eye coordination might rival that of a concert pianist. "The glorious results of a misspent youth." With a "Sopranos"-themed machine (by Stern) taking center stage in his game room, Friedrich is hardly alone. But in this field solidarity hardly breeds consensus. Ask a dozen different collectors which game's top dog and expect a dozen different answers.

To the outsider one "pin" may appear interchangeable with any other in terms of the general experience. But even the casual newcomer to this hobby will marvel at the distinct features and subtle nuances of each individual game from an engineering point of view. No two playfields (the surface on which the ball interacts) are the same, while game strategy can range from the simple to the increasingly complex where the progression of objectives resembles a rudimentary "plot" taking place on a multilevel playfield. Talk about pinball for the gifted!

But with thousands of pins from which to choose, subjectivity truly reveals itself when choosing a theme. For those not willing to share their game rooms with Tony Soprano, there's always Elvis, "The Twilight Zone," NASCAR, World Poker Tour or James Bond. Even the stogie-sporting Governator has three machines to his credit: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (by Williams), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (by Stern) and Last Action Hero (by Data East). So crack your knuckles, bust out them quarters and let her rip. After all, what's wrong with a little misspent adulthood?

Distributors such as Betson Enterprises (www.betson.com, 800-524-2343) feature a selection of pins ranging from $3,000 to $5,000.

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