Editorials April 10, 2014

UFG Covers The 2014 Texas Pinball Festival: Day 1

Written By: Ricardo Benitez
Date: 04/10/14

I’ve always had fond memories of arcades when I was younger. That sense of excitement and the feeling of heat from the quarters about to burn through my pocket. The independence I felt being left alone in the arcade while my parents went shopping nearby. Drowning in a sea of “sensory overload” as the mass noise of multiple machines in an enclosed space almost overwhelmed me. At least until I heard something special. That special first machine I chose out of what felt like millions. Honed in on the choice I made all other noises stopped. All I heard was the one machine, the one game that would cure this itch. Plunking in the first quarter, nothing else in the world existed. Just me and my pinball game…

I thought I would never feel this again – the joy of playing on a real life pinball machine. I thought this would just be a childhood memory, forever lost in the abyss where the first taste of pizza belongs. But I felt it again this past weekend at the Texas Pinball Festival in Frisco, TX. Over 400 machines were at the festival, including classic pinball machines, new prototypes, arcade classics, an updated MAME cabinet, and more. Beyond that were dealers, sellers, parts distributors, game developers - everything one would expect from this special type of get together. All of this was set up in a huge 40,000 square foot conference room, and let me tell you, the electric beeps, boops, and whistles was just as deafening as arcade were in the 80s and 90s!

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It wasn’t all fun and pinball, although that was the initial draw. The organizers of the Texas Pinball Festival decided on embarking on a mammoth endeavor. They decided it’d be fun to break the world record for the number of people simultaneously playing a game of pinball. The line was staggering. The old world record was just 100, but a glance at the line showed that this would be broken easily. World record attempts such as this is no easy task to prove. The logistics to even attempt a world record include hiring an accountancy firm to audit player numbers, setting up video cameras everywhere including the ceiling (how they mounted that camera up on those high ballroom 30+ foot ceilings I'll never know), and even have what I assume were volunteers post at set locations to verify that everyone started playing at the same time. The unofficial number ended up being around 270, but to verify this, it will end up taking more than a few weeks.

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Once the attempt concluded, the halls opened and everyone rushed in to their favorite game. I played a few classics, but shortly thereafter learned of a seminar concerning the ColorDMD system. I played an Addams Family table that had a color screen that advertised the ColorDMD so I decided to walk in and take a listen. Randy Perlow took to the stage and explained the origins of the company as well as the inside workings and what is available for the ColorDMD. In layman’s terms, DMD is short for Dot Matrix Displays. These were the orange screens that had little action sequences and showed the score without needing a dedicated score counter. They allowed for clever animations and ultimately a more engrossing pinball experience. The ColorDMDs are a natural evolution that keeps the original feel of these tables while adding a bit of bling. They are actually LCD screens that emulate the dot matrix and add color for select tables. They also provide the SIGMA unit which allows the user to upscale the DMD to HD, looking like a smoothing filter, as well as scan lines. All in all, they are extremely exciting technology. I'm telling you, first hand, these ColorDMDs breathe new life to the machine. There’s nothing like looking up at the DMD and still being surprised of the color or smoothness of the display.

After the talk, I headed back to the main floor to play some more games. In the bit of time I was in the seminar, I was shocked as to how full the large room was! Just about every table was being played and the noise was almost deafening. There were lines to the newer tables (AC/DC, Metallica, The Wizard of Oz) and sellers/dealers were talking up their wares. It was absolutely exhilarating. I headed down and started jump onto some tables. Here are a few that I played.

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Getting my fill of pinballing, I went up to the second and final seminar of the day. It was a talk with Steve Ritchie, the Master of Flow and possibly the designer of the pinball machine you played the most (whether it be Star Trek: TNG, T2: Judgment Day, or my personal favorite, Black Knight 2000). Ritchie spoke of what it takes to make a pinball machine in this day and age, specifically, AC/DC. Even though Ritchie is the lead designer, he doesn’t micromanage every detail. A pinball machine of his making is quite literally the sum of its team. It was a fascinating look into the inner workings of what many people take for granted as "just happening."

While Ritchie and others were signing autographs, I decided to head back onto the floor and check out some of the rarities. Hercules, billed as the largest pinball machine ever made, was a sight to behold. The pinball was the size of a billiards ball! As exciting as this sounds, the gameplay was much slower than what a regular pinball table will give allowing for plenty of time to react. I then heard the dulcet tones of The Twilight Zone. I went to check it out. This Twilight Zone had the ColorDMD set on the smoothing and LEDS replaced all the lights on the table. Even though the gameplay hadn’t changed, it felt like a totally different table. I was shocked at how a few mods can change the feel of a classic. I went to get a soda, and saw in the area they had a Joust pinball game. I didn’t even know this even existed! It’s a one-vs-one facing each other and whoever gets the most points win; there’s a spinner in-between the two players which allows the ball to escape onto the other player’s half, making it more difficult to control. Very solid action packed table! I then meandered to a few of the classic tables and tried my hand at 2001 and 6 Million Dollar Man before I called it a night. By this time I had been there for seven hours and my body was ACHING. That said, I was looking forward to Saturday!

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Click here for Day 2 & 3!