Editorials April 10, 2014

UFG Covers The 2014 Texas Pinball Festival: Day's 2 & 3!

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

On Saturday, there was a swap meet in the parking lot of the convention center. I have to admit that I didn’t walk around it too much, but on my side, I was trying to hurry in from traffic to catch the first seminar - a talk with Roger Sharpe. Sharpe is one of the modern pioneers of pinball, helping to bring it out of bars and into the mainstream. Before 1976, there were still states that made pinball illegal. However, Sharpe stood before the city council of New York City and proved that pinball was a game of skill. From that moment on, pinball soon became legal across the United States. Sharpe held a Q/A session and the audience didn’t want to let him go! Among the topics were developing, licensing (he licensed T2: Judgment Day), the origins of The Professional and Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) which in turn began a ranking system for pinballers, and the book he wrote on Pinball. Ultimately the story about him proving pinball is a game of skill just blew my mind; I was in the presence of an icon. However, it seemed that he just saw himself as a player, nothing more and nothing less.

The next seminar featured Gerry Stellenberg of Multimorphic. This was especially exciting! I saw this machine on the floor the day before and was extremely curious. Stellenberg spoke of a likely near future where pinball has transitioned to a home game rather than a commercial game. The P3 is his vision; a pinball table with interchangeable parts, a LCD screen on the floor of the board (where the owner of the table can just switch the game on a whim changing the playfield with removable fixtures and mechanisms), changeable the artwork on the side using magnetic vinyl, etc. The end result is a very futuristic looking pinball machine with potentially limitless options.  The display game was Lexy Lightspeed - Galaxy Girl and it played like using a traditional playfield with a few interesting gameplay mechanics (ramps, bumpers, etc) and the interactive LCD set up to act as your main point screen. Although I thought the game was a bit vanilla, the excitement is in the technology, and this table pushes the boundaries of ordinary pinball.

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The next two seminars featured Gary Stern, president of Stern Pinball, talking about the origins of his family in the pinball business, and Jim Schelberg featuring a slideshow of pinball in all sorts of media. I couldn't attend these, however. I got hungry and had to grab a bite and play a few more games on the floor. While walking through the large room, a special game close to my heart spoke to me. Black Hole! This was the first pinball table I’ve ever played; my uncle owned a bar in Puerto Rico and he had this game. I have fond memories of my uncle handing me a fistful of quarters and letting me loose to conquer the Black Hole. The computerized talking and the lower playfield reversed and under glass within the main board brought me back to my childhood in less than a minute. This type of feeling is hard to put into words, but needless to say I had a smile on my face the whole time.

I walked around a bit more and heard another familiar sound, this time from the teenage years. A literal choir of angels belting out almost angrily, "Ahhhhhh!" with an instantly noticeable synthesized guitar solo. I recognized this straight away. Black Knight 2000!!! I beelined to it and pressed start. Man! Best game ever! Featuring a split-level playfield, Magna-save, and a draw bridge leading to the skyway ramp. It was certainly one of a kind. I couldn't even tell you how many quarters I plunked into this at my local arcade growing up and I played the heck out of it this day. Unfortunately, my time eventually had to end as I noticed someone waiting behind me to play. So, I relinquished control to him and headed back to the seminar room to listen about the Medieval Madness remake.

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Medieval Madness was released in 1997 and this remake is absolutely true to the original except for a few slight mods. First off, the playfield is absolutely the same as the original. If you aren’t a pinball enthusiast, you most likely won’t notice a difference from 17 years ago. The internal CPU board has been upgraded with today’s technology to make for easier plug n play, all the lights have been replaced with LEDs, and there is an internal shaker motor installed. The presenters, Rick Bartlett, Doug Duba (part of Chicago Gaming who are actually making the remake), and Dave Orman (design engineer) were on hand to explain the inner workings. I have to be honest, the talk about ohms and circuitry was way over my head, but I did catch a few things for day I start my own pinball project.

Paul Faris was on hand for the following seminar, but I wasn’t able to catch this one in time. From what I heard I missed one of the more interesting of the bunch. Faris was the artist featured on loads of machines from the 70’s through the 90’s, starting in 1976 with Night Rider to Playboy, Xenon, Andromeda, Total Recall, Batman, TMNT, and many more. Chances are if you played pinball in the 80s and 90s, you’ve seen his artwork.

The final talk of the festival was by “Jersey” Jack Guarnieri of Jersey Jack Pinball. His company made The Wizard of Oz, a brand new machine with technology used to enhance classic gameplay. All the bells and whistles are included in this beautiful table, showcasing multiple LCD screens (including a 26” monitor which shows your score), animations, movie clips, etc. With this being Guarnier’s first table, he definitely spared no expense. That said, his next table (The Hobbit) is supposed to be a major sight to behold.  I spoke with a few pinballers at the show and they said they had already preordered this $8K work of art. He also mentioned he was in the talks with veteran designer Pat Lawlor (designer of Addams Family and Twilight Zone) for a third project. Exciting news, indeed! After that, he handed over the seminar to Butch Peel, the go-to guy at Jersey Jack Pinball for the electrical portion of the machine. He went into detail about the menu system, how to change settings, and a few other things that were, admittedly, way over my head. All in all, an exciting talk!

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This was a pinball auction afterwards, which was fun to watch, but I didn’t stay long. I wanted to play more!! So I spent the rest of the night playing everything from the Electro-Mechanical to the digital.

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The third day started bright and early, and I beelined it to the developers of The Pinball Arcade, Farsight Studios. I spoke with a bright eyed Norman Stepansky, Audio Guru and QA at the studio, who was more than happy to answer my questions. The biggest question I had was when the patch was finally going to come for the Vita! You see, with the subsequent DLC that have become available for the Vita and PS3, for whatever reason certain tables just played extremely slow, artwork wasn’t available in high enough quality, and things of that nature. He assured me the patch had been submitted to Sony and they were just waiting for it to pop up on the store. Sure enough, two days later it became available…funny how that works. They were showing off The Pinball Arcade for PS4, and let me tell you it looked absolutely gorgeous. He also said an Xbox One version was in the works as well. Other than that, we mostly chatted about the enormous turnout for the Texas Pinball Festival and how exciting it was to see so many people gather together for a pastime that he held deeply. It was an awesome chat to say the least!

The third day also marked the end of various tournaments that had been progressing throughout the Festival as well as the Festival itself. There was plenty of cheering throughout the day while I tried to squeeze the last few games in before they closed their doors. It was a long, yet satisfying three days and I enjoyed every second of it. Next year the Festival will be March 27-29th and I plan on being a part of it. Who knows, you might even see my name on the top scores on Black Knight 2000!

Click here to go back to Day 1!