The single most powerful area of nostalgia for me is the arcade. Gaming is not the bastion for true nostalgia as most people understand it as in our current era, pretty much every game that has ever been can be played in multiple legitimate or pirated forms. The arcade itself is an experience that is uniquely difficult to access in this climate of software ubiquity. The dim cave like atmosphere, the flashing lights, the smell of body odor and ozone from a cavalcade of power sucking electronics has gone the way of the Dodo.
As the arcade shrivels into a husk, the most tragic loss is the experience of the Pinball machine. As a child, I had an intense love for pinball that stood out even amongst the Ninja Turtle and Pacman cabinets. There was a complexity and chaos to Pinball that no other game could match. To this day, playing digital pinball games on an Ipad or Xbox doesn’t quite emulate the feeling of navigating an actual ball through a labyrinth of bumpers, ramps, and hazards.
To this day, when I walk into a pizza joint of any kind, I scope it out for a pinball machine. When I see one, no matter what it’s state, I must donate pocket change to it. Over the last ten years, I have not had the opportunity to do that much.
I heard about Pinball Museum from our local newspaper and at first didn’t believe such a thing could exist in Brunswick Ga. I don’t want to go to negative on this town, but there is just not much to do in regard to entertainment. The museum itself stands in the shadow of a chemical plant I like to call “The Big Bastard.” Formerly a castle themed bounce house emporium for kids, Pinball Palace reminds me of a hokey pizza place from some distant childhood memory. The chains around the drawbridge add a nice touch, but overall the outside could also be a bad mattress store with a medieval theme.
Then you enter. I wrote my graduate thesis on literary nostalgia as a young man, but only at the moment of my first sight into the interior of Pinball Palace did I understand the druglike high nostalgia can produce. This sight was a mix of shivers and euphoria.
I felt like a kid entering The Goldmine arcade at the Oglethorpe Mall in the 80’s. The dim lights, the crowded room filled to the brim with buzzing machines, the cacophony of music and clicks, I felt like I had walked into another dimension. This is a place of pure, WONDERFUL gaming of an archaic type.
I paid my entry fee and stayed my allotted hour sampling the wares. The machines are all set to “Free Play” which means there are no quarters needed. At first I wondered if the experience of the games would be lessened with the pressure of money invested for three balls thrown to the wayside. But as I drifted from machine to machine, experiencing ramps, targets, ball locks, and even the occasional multi-ball chaos, I realized that having free play in the museum allowed a new way to experience the machines almost the way one absorbs a text.
Each game of pinball starts with the basic understanding of the core “keep the ball in play” concept. But each game offers a great deal of secrets and devices that can be worked in a variety of ways. The chain reactions that various paths unleash map strange routes to the high scores. To see the complexity of a pinball game slowly unveil itself is a thrill, and players have enough time to relax and access these games in leisure. Each game reveals so much about the video game industry in its own native time, and some of them tell amazing stories about the cultural zeitgeist that created them. Pinball palace gives gamers a chance to interact with games in the way a historian would. There is so much to see and experience.
The best way to go forward from here is to just discuss a few highlights. Be sure to check these gems out when you go to Pinball Palace.
The best part of any pinball machine lies in the toys and gadgets that can be activated in pursuit of highscores. Older games have sparse mechanisms and rely on simple bumpers and Pachinko style slots. Most of the machines from the 60’s and early seventies lack even rudimentary ramps, which I found surprising.
Funhouse has a fantastic set-up with a lovely tangle of ramps, an alternate launch spring, and a labyrinth of doors and targets to hit. This table manages to mix challenge with an ease of play that gives every turn a hint of achievement. The theme itself is a bit generic, and reminds me of older games where plot was thin and flashing colors were all that motivated a player forward.
Enter Rudy: the ventriloquist dummy-esque carnival barker that mocks the player as the ball bounces around the table. We all know these guys, the irritating miscreants shouting at passersby to throw balls at bottles or climb a rope ladder to win an oversized knock off Winnie the Pooh. Rudy’s head sits in the upper corner of the machine with an arrow pointing directly to his mouth. One of the main jackpots in this game is to time the ball so that it Rudy must eat it.
This would be all well and good, but the icing on this cake is the fact that Rudy’s mouth opens and closes as he speaks, giving the illusion that the jackpot is just out of reach. The desire to achieve this incredibly difficult shot will keep you at Funhouse for a major portion of your time at Pinball Palace. And it is extra soothing that a failed shot at Rudy registers a loud grunt of pain as the dummy register the impact.
One day Rudy. One day you will eat that damn ball.
A view of the play area for Funhouse
Classic gaming enthusiasts can’t miss Gorgar. Tucked in the dimly lit back alley of what I believe to be Pinball Palace’s most amazing pieces sits an oddball relic of gaming history. Gorgar is a table designed by Williams and released in 1979. It has the awesome distinction as the world’s first talking pinball machine. It’s amazing in a world of such fast paced advancement that simple sound effects could have ever been considered a groundbreaking feature.
Gorgar sports a very limited amount of phrases to taunt the player. Good luck deciphering them during play, he has the diction and enunciation of a broken Speak and Spell. The table is fun with a demonic theme and weirdly sexual imagery of the demon in a hellscape. There are no ramps with this machine, but there is a magnetized target for the player to contend with, which though primitive still manages to be fun as hell.
This machine is a real beast when it comes to difficulty. One of the employees and I chatted about highscores as I struggled to keep the ball up for more than 15 seconds (don’t laugh, this machine is cruel.) I’m used to being able to dominate a machine fairly quickly, but this monster punished me the whole 25 minutes I was in combat with it.
While the speech is an impressive advancement, the one thing that tickled my nostalgia bits was the other sounds associated with bumpers and target hits. At first I thought Williams sampled their video game archives with this machine, as any gaming enthusiast will recognize effects from their classic arcade games like Defender, Joust and even Robotron 2084. A little research revealed that these sounds predate the golden age of arcade gaming with Gorgar. All of these sounds may have started with this machine.
Silver Ball Mania
I’m not gonna lie, I don’t remember much about playing this machine as I was so totally captivated by its bat-sh*t insane artwork. I remember liking it immensely. My six year old son also spent most of this time with this game, so there must be something great there.
It’s an older machine similar with play mechanics akin to Gorgar. But really, let’s talk about this art. I am not sure what kind of imagery this is, it makes me think of Silver Surfer with a hint of vaporware 80’s inspired insanity. I seem to remember it having a sticker bragging about “quality mirrorballs” which is just hilarious. But what sticks out to me is the image of the Silver Surfer mascot playing the game and REALLY GETTING HIS HIPS INVOLVED!
I mean…that hot metal lady thinks this whole setup is just fantastic. I don’t know what dimension these two exist in, but the hyper sexualization of a pinball machine would make it a prime vacation destination. I should supervise my kids pinball choices a little closer on the next visit.
I need to ask my wife if pinball skills are sexy.
Coming soon: Part 2.