January 30th, 2009
Almost nobody is “good” at pinball. For the most part, people who plug quarters into pinball machines suffer from a sort of selective amnesia. The Goldberg-machine-like complex of tracks and flippers and fun contraptions lures you in narcotically. It’ll be fun, you tell yourself, just one game. Thirty seconds later, you curse disgustedly as your last ball slips past your helplessly thrashing flippers, leaving you angry and out of quarters and not even one hundredth of the way to a high score. You vow never to play another game, yet the next time you’re in a bar or an arcade, you’ll find yourself feeding quarters into a pinball machine, chasing some mythical fun you’ve never actually had like a crazed junkie.
Why is that? Pinball machines are rigged to win, just like all arcade games. Yet unlike video game machines in which the game’s advantage is hidden deep inside the circuits that run its code, the pinball machine’s edge is purely mechanical and, what’s worse, flaunted openly. There are times when no matter how or when you flick your flippers, the ball will bounce right through the space between them. The scoring is so arcane, complicated, and specific to each machine that it’s effectively arbitrary. The bumpers conspire against you. And lest you forget who’s boss, that track that runs along the outside of the bottom flippers is there to remind you—do not pass Go, do not collect a hundred dollars.
You can’t learn a pinball game the way you can a video game. There is no algorithmic predetermination—the super bomber doesn’t always appear from the top right when the music gets ominous. “Good” players do improve their chances with judicious (and subtle) hip checks (lest they incur a tilt penalty or the wrath of the arcade manager). But ultimately, and this is I think the reason why pinball has endured in the digital age, the pinball machine and all its flashing lights are just a intermediary between the player and the inexorable laws of the universe. You are competing not against a programmer’s code but against gravity and mechanical advantage—and the odds are stacked against you. But, buoyed on perhaps by the elusive promise of an extra ball and the satisfying physical sensation of a well-timed flick, you’ll stave off the inevitable Game Over for as long as you can, because you know one day there’ll be no more quarters.