Editorials April 10, 2015
UFG Covers The 2015 Texas Pinball Festival: Day 1!
Written By: Ricardo Benitez
Another pinball weekend has passed at the Texas Pinball Festival in Frisco, TX. It would be easy to cut this editorial short and just say that I had an amazing time; you should try to make it out next year! But, that wouldn’t do the event justice. I made it at 5pm Friday, March 27th, to help break the barricades down for the primo spot at whatever looked the brightest, coolest, or most amazing table. As I walked in, the first table to catch my eye was already taken. It was an acrylic see-through pinball table illuminated with color changing LEDs. I made sure to mark it on my mental map as got the lay of the land. Though the event was held in the same place as last year, the layout was slightly different. That said, it seemed that the changes allowed for more walking and breathing room between tables. The vendors were out in full force, selling everything from decals and neon lights with all sorts of designs to full restorations. No matter how much money you brought with you, you could easily run out in an hour's time!
As I walked around, I noticed lines already building around two spots near the rear of the floor, so I went to investigate. To the left there was one table cordoned off behind black curtains on all sides except the front. As I looked over 6-7 peoples' shoulders I caught a glimpse of The Dude! Dutch Pinball set up an alpha table of The Big Lebowski - all pending licensing and still working out kinks. Looking at my clock, I waited in line, hoping I would make it to the first seminar featuring Jim Schelberg. I made it through the line and marveled at its originality. First of all, this isn't a re-theme, this is a completely new pinball machine. The alpha I played had plenty of chutes, three playfields, and a large color dot matrix screen. The main attraction was definitely the sub playfield featuring a replica Brunswick bowling alley. It was a nice touch and a fun distraction to the fast paced action on the main playfield. The sounds and songs from The Big Lebowski film proudly blasted through the speakers adding to the fun. If the line wasn't so long I would've tried to play again.
After stepping into the world of The Dude, I wandered into Jim Schelberg. Unfortunately his talk was just about to finish, so I stuck around for the Stern Pinball Update with Gary Stern. Stern Pinball has a long and illustrious history of developing pinball games, continuing even after the mass popularity of pinball declined into the new millennium. One of the highlights of the festival was his The Walking Dead table, as well as Whoa Nellie! - Big Juicy Melons. I've always found Stern's machines to be refreshing, a constant evolution of pinball. Stern sticks to the essentials of what makes pinball great, but never steers away from innovation as long as it doesn't detract from what makes Stern tables unique. I like to explain Stern machines as what you remember pinball being. High speed, kinetic, and loads of fun. If you go back to the machines you played when you were younger, you'll notice it doesn't match what you remember. It’s like watching Knight Rider as an adult. It's still neat, but definitely not as cool as you remember. Modern Stern machines continue with high quality that we remember but stand out as great “new” tables - proudly continuing Stern’s tradition of renovating the genre.
As far as this write up, WWE Wrestlemania, Whoa Nellie, and The Walking Dead are new to the Pinball Festival and are as fun as they are addictive. Wrestlemania features the new WWE Superstars, Jerry "The King" Lawler and Michael Cole have play-by-play commentary, and an upper playfield is in the shape of a ring, with flippers activating the bumpers in the ring. Whoa Nellie is a strange beast, combining a retro mechanical feel with modern technology. Whoa Nellie was completely full every time I passed it. Lines were staggeringly long and I had no chance to play, but from what I saw, it looked as if a game from the early 70s with an almost nostalgic design, hand drawn graphics, and even a mechanical scoring reel. I'll be on the lookout for Whoa Nellie and I recommend you do the same. The Walking Dead features a bunch of zombies in the playfield based on the AMC show. A bloated zombie is constantly in the way of your ball which adds to the quick excitement. Back to the seminar, though. Gary Stern mentioned the license expired on AC/DC and isn't planned to be renewed. Metallica, Walking Dead, Star Trek, and Mustang are all still being built. Gary Stern mentioned he is a casual player, not a pro, but for being a casual player he definitely knows what makes a great and commercially viable pinball game.
I caught a quick bite at the food truck (some sort of fancy hot dog. It didn't matter, I was starving) and came back to the seminar room to see Steve Ritchie speak. Steve Ritchie is the designer of some of my favorites from the past and present, including Black Knight 2000, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and recently AC/DC and both Star Trek: TNG (1993) and Star Trek (2013). He spoke of the newest Star Trek and thanked everyone who contributed to it, from playtesters to the illustrator that worked on the flyers. Licensing in pinball was a recurring theme in the seminars over the next couple days. Stern mentioned game licensing being necessary for pinball to continue to thrive due to popularity in bars. Steve Ritchie said depending on the team they work with, working with licenses can either be a nightmare or a dream. He said working with the Star Trek license was horrible at first but improved as time went on. The AC/DC team, on the other hand, was a dream. He also gave an insider peek on relations between pinball designers, saying he's always had good rapport with everyone he's worked with and it was common for them to take ideas from previous designers' tables and incorporate them into their own. It was a great talk, for sure.
All the guests came together and gave autographs, so I left the seminar room and came back into the main area and did what anyone would do with 100s of games around. PLAY! I finally got lucky and was able to play the acrylic game. I asked around and they called it a "Super Straight." The name matches the play, just straight forward EM pinball, but obviously the eye catcher was the see through cabinet, allowing you to see all the workings of a pinball machine. It was pretty amazing. There are so many different parts and pieces working in tandem together. By this time the powers that be dimmed the lights and we really got to see those LED lights change away. It was definitely the showstopper of the show. I walked around and saw an old favorite, Demolition Man. No lines, so I just went up and plunged the ball. This was definitely my best play of the night, achieving the highest score I've ever gotten on any table. A lot of fun!
I invited a couple friends and they brought their kids, a 12 year old and a 6 year old. It was interesting to see how they interacted to the mass amount of sounds and lights displayed on the huge convention center floor. As they walked in, they both went to the Indiana Jones game and were lost. They wanted to learn about everything! So, I explained about the flippers and the plunger and the point of the game, which is to keep the ball in play as long as possible. After a few tries, they fell right in and enjoyed themselves. But, this had me wondering do kids today need to be explained how to play? How to use a plunger? Did I have to be explained when I was younger? In this era of tablets, Xbox Ones, PS4s, and Steam, is there any room for pinball anymore outside a collector's man cave? Little did I know, this question would be answered the next day by "Jersey" Jack Guarnieri, of Wizard of Oz and Hobbit table fame.
Retrospective thoughts aside, I played a few more games, including a small video game section with Dragon's Lair and Street Fighter 2, then had to be pulled away because the kids needed to get home. Heartbroken, but understanding, we left the festival for the night, but looked forward to a full Saturday of Pinball Madness.
Click here for Day 2!