Tuesday, August 2, 2011

My Seattle Pinball Report

Claire and I just got back from a week-long trip to Seattle, where we spent some time with my family and saw her friends Jon and Dana get married.  As ever, I had one eye open for pinball machines while we were wandering around SeaTown.

Monday was a rough start to the trip.  Boston airport?  Dry.  Atlanta airport?  Nothing.  SeaTac airport?  No pinball machines that I could find!  But then the next day my Dad took us down to the Georgetown area of South Seattle to get some lunch, and while we were waiting for the place to open, I found a 1978 Charlie's Angels machine at a bar called The Mix.  I put up a score of like 100,000.  Here's a photo of my Dad giving it a try:

Next we went around the corner to the Fantagraphics Book Store where Claire and I and Liz Prince (who was also on the trip) bought some books and records.  As we were leaving the store I noticed that they had one of Jim Woodring's FRANK backglasses on the wall, which we have blogged about before.  It was so cool seeing one in real life - it looks GREAT!  I hope someone will build the whole machine.

The next day Claire and Liz and I ended up at the great pinball bar Shorty's which had the regular assortment of awesome machines, but this time they also had Rolling Stones and the brand new Tron!  I hadn't played either of these machines yet, so I was stoked to try them out.  Mini review: Rolling Stones was not fun to play.  I personally hate the music of the Rolling Stones, but I still found it annoying that songs I started by hitting a shot would then be abruptly cut off by hitting other shots.  The (Mick Jagger?) narration was totally obnoxious and I couldn't believe that so many parts were simply plastic cut outs that were standing up.  Most of them were already snapped off on the machine I was playing on, and that game is only a year or so old.  Ugh.  I will not be playing that game again, unless I am stranded somewhere and it is the only machine around.  Tron on the other hand was totally fun and had some really tricky shots.  It felt like a simple playfield layout that was still challenging.  While at Shorty's I got a replay on Avatar and Medieval Madness (natch!)

On Friday Claire and Liz and I went to a movie at the Bellevue Square Mall (or the one across the street, the lincoln-something mall?)  The lobby of the movie theater had a Simpsons pinball machine, but it was out of order.  As we were leaving the theater, we hit an upscale arcade that was attached to a bowling alley below the theaters.  I searched for a pinball machine, but all I could find was an Ultra Pin machine:

The basic idea of an Ultra Pin machine is that there is a giant video game in the shape of a pinball machine.  The "backglass" has a monitor in it, which can display an image of a real backglass and a dot matrix display (or alpha numeric display) emulator.  The "playfield" is actually a giant flatscreen monitor, which can be set up for about ten different pinball machines.  Supposedly the machine is rigged to respond to bumps and nudges.

I bought two credits ($1 for the credits, $2 for the card which carried the credits - UGH)  This was my first time playing video game pinball, so I set the machine to Medieval Madness so I could compare it to my own real MM machine, or the MM I played at Shorty's less than 48 hours before.

In my humble opinion The Ultra Pin is a giant pile of digital crap.  It seems like something a video game company threw together overnight, using a bunch of 20 year-old programmers who have never played a real pinball machine in their lives.  The (ENTIRELY DIGITAL) flippers were somehow LESS responsive than real mechanical flippers (??!) and had a crazy 0.5 second delay that made gameplay almost impossible. Also the playfield was stretched and squashed to fit the monitor, screwing up all of the trajectories of the shots.  The flippers flipped up way too high and the machine did NOT respond to bumps and nudges.  Also the slingshots did not behave like ANY pinball machine I have ever played.  Bounces that clearly should have fired them did nothing.  I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  It totally sucked.  It is not pinball.  Not even close.

I'm pretty sure most of my gripes could be fixed by simply consulting someone who has actually PLAYED these games in real life.  Hopefully this company will do just that and improve future versions.  As it stands now, it's a real shame that Williams signed off on this project and allowed its creative property to be misused like this.  You would hope they would have gotten to test it out.  I can't believe they did, or some of these problems would have been fixed.  

I will never play an Ultra Pin again.  I'll save my $3 for a real pinball machine, thanks.

That night we had the rehearsal dinner, which coincidently was at a pizza restaurant in Georgetown, across the street from The Mix!  I headed back in at got a 287,000 on Charlie's Angels (hit all the drop targets at the top and on the right, plus got all the top lanes, which felt good).  Then on Saturday, I dropped Claire and Liz off for pre-wedding stuff and headed back to Shorty's where, after an hour of trying I finally got a replay on Tron on my very last game.  I also got a match, but had to leave the two credits for some other pinhead.  I had to get to the wedding!  

On Sunday, which was our last day in Seattle, I finally made the trip down to the Seattle Pinball Museum, which was EASILY the pinball highlight of trip.  I have added it to our "PINHALLS" list on the right sidebar of this blog so you can easily find information for it next time you are in Seattle!

Here is the entrance, with a sandwich board out front so you know what awaits you inside.  This is only a few blocks from the International District bus/light rail stop.  It's a $7 admission fee and then all the machines are set to Free Play.

Inside the machines are lined up in chronological order, by release date.  This first wall was mostly elecromechanical machines, and a lot of them have information cards on top of the back boxes, so you can learn more about the machines.  I went right down the line and played them in order.  It was really cool seeing how certain innovations were introduced and how the designs got more and more complex.  I also finally got to play Four Million B.C. which is the first game I've played with "Zipper Flippers" which close up the center drain gap when you hit a certain target.  Super fun! 

On the other wall were some games with alphanumeric displays, all the way up to modern day Stern machines (I played everything except Rolling Stones).  You can also see the upstairs area in the above photo, which I got a tour of during my visit.  I gave the owner some copies of Drop Target #1 and #2 which he seemed to really dig, so he showed me around the museum and told me about his plans to expand into the upper level with some more machines.

Lastly I took this photo of some great side art from old machines.  The Seattle Pinball museum also had a ton of backglass art hanging on the wall, which was great to see.  This place already has an awesome start and it sounds like it is just going to get better and better.  The staff was super friendly and there were a ton of families and kids in there on Sunday.  I hope this place will be around for a long time so I can visit it every time I come home to Seattle to visit my folks.  If you are in the area, I HIGHLY recommend swinging by to check it out!

Claire and Liz and I had red-eye flights back to the east coast on Sunday night.  At the SeaTac airport we saw one of those interactive wall screens that was running a hotel ad in the form of a playable pinball machine, with the theme of a hotel lobby.

It played about as well as the Ultra Pin, with a second-long delay between when you touched the flippers and when they flipped.  As you can see, Liz was not amused.  The graphics were pretty neat I guess, and it's cool that a major hotel chain would think to use pinball to promote their services, but I am officially super NOT into video pinball.

Claire and I flew out of Seattle at 1am and landed in Minneapolis three hours later.  We only had a 20 minute layover to catch our flight to Boston, which was on the other side of the airport.  As we were dashing along a moving walkway I saw a small arcade area with THREE pinball machines (Nascar, the Stern Indiana Jones machine and... one other one I couldn't make out).  It was heartbreaking...  Finally, an airport with pinball, but no time to play!  Next time Minneapolis, next time!


  1. I've been stuck in the Minneapolis airport before. It has great pinball machines in several arcades. I had a really good game on Wheel of Fortune there once.

  2. Airports seem like SUCH good places for pinball machines. It's a shame they can't be found in more of them.

  3. So, there actually WERE pinball players consulted on the Ultrapin project. It was worse than the final version. The delay you see is caused by the LCD monitor; video games on HDTV can experience similar delays. Unfortunately this delay is a deal-breaker for playing good pinball, since precise timing is necessary. It is possible to get good at playing Ultrapin, but you have to ignore and re-learn a lot about playing pinball. Not good.

    Manchester, NH had pinball at the airport last time I was there. Not Boston. Shoulda hit an arcade on the way to the Boston airport...

  4. Sorry my Ultra Pin review was so harsh. I'm glad to know they consulted some pinball people. It's just a shame about the delay and some of the design stuff, because it actually IS a cool idea. It just has poor execution at this point. I don't see why they wouldn't just take a high-res photo of an actual playfield and then make sure it shrinks proportionately to the monitor (even if that means some dead space on the sides!). It would also give the flippers the right shape, and if they referenced the flippers in the up position, it would tell them how high they should flip. That sucks about the LCD monitor thing. They'd have to figure out that time-delay thing before I ever played again.

    I fly out of Manchester sometimes, so I'll have to give it a look over next time I'm there! Sadly, we had to catch our bus to Boston at 4am, so there was no time to swing by the Pinball Wizard Arcade in Pelham en route. Next time!