I guess the website should have tipped me off about the expo in advance – it was done in crude HTML and featured the kind of layout scheme that would have been the height of excellence on a Geocities site circa 1999. That is, it had fluoro coloured text and a visitor counter at the bottom currently sitting pretty at around 7,000 visitors.
I heard about the expo through Kotaku AU so I suppose I thought the videogame connection would be stronger than it was. If I told you that going in I thought the average age would have been somewhere in the early to mid twenties, you wouldn’t think me crazy, but by the time the crowds had arrived the average age of the people in the hall would easily have been somewhere in between forty and fifty.
As I stood at a pinball machine playing something with an American Diner theme, a group of young men close to my own age came up and looked at a machine adjacent to my own. Laughing awkwardly at it like it was some kind of relic from an era that hadn’t quite gotten old enough to become ‘cool’ again, they were expressing how I felt but was a bit more reticent to show. I tried to ignore the fast growing age gap between myself and the majority of the attendees as I played my fill of the Gilligan’s Island, Jurassic Park, Star Trek and Johnny Mnemonic machines (does anyone even remember the movie Johnny Mnemonic? The scoring system was in gigabytes – a storage size itself soon to become as redundant as the pinball tables themselves). I tried to stick to the modern ones because they felt more videogamey.
One of the oldest Pinball machines on display was a Buck Rogers themed machine and it played at a distinctly slower pace than something like the Jurassic Park pinball machine – a table that could easily be twenty years it’s junior. Buck Rogers’ playing field was nowhere near as inclined as the other, newer tables, and the ball was never in a hurry to make it back to the bottom. It was less aimed at skill and reflex, much happier to just be about the experience. Back when it was still new, I’m sure the novelty of hitting a shiny ball with electrically powered flippers was much less diminished.
It’s funny how the life-cycle of the pinball machine and its multi-decade history seems so closely mirrored in the videogame industry – pinball machines started life as slow and clunky apparatus, eventually refining their designs over the years until their peak in the 90’s. These new tables were quick and sent the ball ricocheting around the field faster than players could keep up. It’s clear that in their day they would have sucked down dollars like a thirsty, inefficient, gas-guzzling Cadillac. Table designs were refined over time so that they performed their job better - making their owners money, even if that meant introducing more cheap shots like the one in the Jurassic Park machine where, if you land your ball in the ‘bunker’, it shot back out directly at the gap between the flippers. I lost count of how many times I lost a ball to this feature and every time felt like a cheap death – reminding me of any number of instant-kill things from Resident Evil 5; the chainsaw zombies; the crocodiles; the laser beams. If these tables were the peak of their industry, does that spell an ominous omen for games? Have we reached gaming’s apex and are about to be superseded by some new, more fashionable diversion?
I doubt it, but it’s closeness to modern gaming is probably why I spent more time with the Jurassic Park machine than any of the others – it was the most familiar territory. It was so ‘videogamey’ that it even featured a non-mechanical ball launcher, shaped like a gun, complete with trigger and ‘smart missile’ button. When your ball is ready to launch, you have the opportunity of timing your shot to hit an image of a raptor on the LCD screen, scoring you extra points.
Which reminds of another aspect of pinball’s progression through the years that seems to be mirrored in videogames own course through history – many of the early machines only had a vague and loose gameplay connection with their fictional elements. In the more modern tables, for example the Johnny Mnemonic table, its design was integrated with the story of (in this case) the film it was to accompany. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen more than a few minutes of the 1995 movie, but the pinball machine incorporates the “future technology” aesthetic of the film, an example of which is the previously mentioned gigabyte scoring system which, in a time when Hard Disk Drives were measured in megabytes - even kilobytes – would have been impressively futuristic.
I hung around long enough to see the real pinball wizards turn up – people wearing pinball shirts who stood around the loudest, most impressive competition machines and engaged in play with an often physically boisterous manner. I watched a balding man in his mid to late forties – the age of mine and my friend’s parents – hammer away at the table, thrusting his pelvis forward in sync with a particularly well timed shot. Pinball will probably never be cool for me while my parent’s generation are still enjoying it. I wonder if in another thirty years kids that are my age now will be embarrassed by the videogames that I’m playing and my method of engaging with them. “You use your hands? On a keyboard? Why don’t you just jack in and use your interface like everyone else.” They’ll call me a dinosaur, but I won’t care – because Jurassic Park was awesome.