Space City Pinball League Season 7 Preseason: An era of new beginnings

Can you believe it’s already been four months since the end of season 6? The start of season 7 of the Space City Pinball League at Eighteen Twenty Lounge is upon us in a few short days. It’s an exciting time and there’s a lot to consider when looking ahead at what’s in store.

I’ll get to my own situation in a bit, but it’s a safe bet that most of last season’s A division is likely to return. Most of them are at Texas Pinball Festival right now, so I probably can’t get confirmation even if I tried. In addition to being one of the better players in the league, Erich Stinson is the new director of the event at Eighteen Twenty Lounge, so he’s a given to return. I mean, we can literally go down the list and I don’t have any real doubts until we get to about 24th or so, well into B division: Phil Grimaldi, (Erich as mentioned previously), Bryce Revnew, Cory Westfahl, Austin Knight, Fred Revnew, Rob Torres, Jeff Mleynek, Frankie Griffin, David Pollock, Billy Joiner, Jason Cortez, Ruben Zepeda, Marc Gammons, Melvin Jiles, Jamie Jenkins, Joe Cuellar, Brad Berryman, (me), Matt Quantz, David Dronet, Blake Dumesnil, Chris Gonzales, Chris Dyer. Below that we start getting into players I am not as familiar with that may or may not be coming back, as well as quite a few players who played 3 weeks or less, and most of them did not play week 8, some didn’t play week 7. (Technically I’m not that familiar with a couple of the names I did mention, but everyone who qualified in A division played at least six weeks out of the eight and thus I would assume is likely to return barring evidence to the contrary.)

Some idea of what kind of momentum everyone is going to be riding into the new season (not intended to be a complete list of tournament finishes, just the higher/more relevant ones): Phil won the Texas Pinball League finals for the spring season (in addition to placing first in the Houston qualifier); Bryce finished ninth at the Texas IFPA state championship and second at the December monthly tournament at The Game Preserve; Cory won the Three Strike Tuesday on January 30 and February 27 and also took fourth at the most recent Einstein’s Drainiacs; Erich finished sixteenth (last) in season 7’s A division playoff, with no WPPR ranked tournaments since; Austin finished twelfth in season 7’s A division playoff, also with no WPPR ranked tournaments since; Fred finished fourth in the TPL finals and won the most recent Einstein’s Drainiacs as well as the Three Strike Tuesday on February 6 and March 6; skipping down a bit, Matt won the Three Strike Tuesday on March 13 as well as finishing fairly consistently near the top at Einstein’s Drainiacs (fourth, seventh, sixth, and sixth again) the past few months.

I’ve probably missed a few finishes that would otherwise be considered notable in there. (Note that this does not include results for the Texas Pinball Festival tournaments, as they were still ongoing at press time.) You can look these up for yourself if you’d like. And then, you can compare them to my performances since winning B division back in November: four appearances at Einstein’s Drainiacs finishing fifth (of 15), twelfth (of 12, as in last), ninth (of 16), and fourteenth (of either 15 or 17) respectively. Out of those four months, two players who finished higher in the fall 2017 league season finished lower than me at an Einstein’s Drainiacs tournament: Jamie Jenkins, once, in December; Joe Cuellar, twice, in December and February. Both Jamie and Joe have win percentages of 60% against me in Matchplay (Jamie with five games, Joe with fifteen).

It’s really tough to look at the statistics objectively and put that next to my own concept of myself as a competitive pinball player. Keeping in mind that B division first place is really seventeenth (out of officially 35 players as submitted to IFPA, though there were 50 overall that showed up for at least one league night), there’s a pretty consistent pattern, and it shows my skill peaking at slightly above average, and often dipping down to anywhere from average to near bottom. I know I’m capable of playing well. It’s just a question of if I can string together enough of those games to win a three- or four-strikes tournament like Three Strike Tuesday (which I have yet to play in) or Einstein’s Drainiacs, or for that matter, enough league nights to qualify for (and hopefully win) A division.

We’ve got an exciting season ahead, and it should be thrilling not just for the players, but for those following along as well.

Eighteen Twenty Lounge
1820 Franklin
Houston, Texas
Regular season: 19:00 (7 p.m.); March 21, March 28 (Wednesdays), April 9, April 16, May 7, May 14, May 21, May 28 (Mondays)
Finals: 18:00 (6 p.m.) June 4 (Monday)

Einstein’s Drainiacs 2018 March: A pretty fast flameout

Another second Sunday, another drive out to Mason Road in Katy for the monthly tournament. I was feeling pretty good about this one going in, given I put in at least a halfway decent performance the month prior. I came with a fresh haircut and had enough time to spend a few minutes at Starbucks prior to the tournament to decompress.

The tournament started a bit later than the nominal 1 pm start time, but I enjoyed the opportunity to get in a few extra warmup games (I am intentionally omitting some score pictures, and there were a couple I simply forgot to take, but the ones posted do reflect the best I did during warmups). We had a crowd of fifteen at the start, plus two more that would late-join after the third round. No changes were made to the game lineup, it was the same nine machines that we had last month (and really, that’s about all there is room for).

Round 1 went up, and I would find myself assigned to The Walking Dead, playing first and grouped with John Carrol, Catherine Gammons, and Tim Hood. It was a pretty ho-hum game through the first two balls, but during the third ball I got Well Walker Multiball started which I played very well, which accounted for most of a score of 137.1M+, easily the best score I’ve ever put up on this game (at least, I don’t ever remember breaking 100M before if I did). I didn’t get make the high score list or anything, but it was easily enough for first place. John was only able to put up a 7.7M+, which Catherine easily surpassed. That left who would get the other strike down to Tim’s last ball. Catherine had 26,363,460, and Tim had a good 24M+ before the bonus countdown, but would ultimately wind up short with 26,115,440, just 248K+ short (not all that many points on this game).

On to round 2. I would be on Champion Pub, playing fourth grouped with John Speights, Craig Squires, and David Pollock. Craig got off to a commanding lead with 44.3M+ on the first ball. He would only expand upon that lead by the time I played my ball 3, with a total of 89.4M+. I didn’t actually need to play my third ball, as I was able to scrap together 10.6M+ which was good for second, but I would sign off with 16.4M+ after playing out. So far so good.

My fortune would change rapidly in round 3. The game was AC/DC, and I would be playing third, behind Marc Gammons and Catherine Gammons, and ahead of Craig Squires. Going into ball 3 I was facing Marc’s 26.9M+ and Catherine’s 10.6M+, with a score of 9.9M+. To ensure escaping without a strike, I needed to top Marc’s score clinching at least a second place. I was only able to put up 18.4M+. Craig had 13.4M+, so I needed Craig to have a relatively dud ball for my score to hold up for second place. Well, Craig’s third ball was no dud. He would surpass not only my score but Marc’s as well, signing off with 39.8M+, and there was strike one.

The fourth round would send me to Ghostbusters, playing second behind Catherine Gammons, ahead of Jeff Cook and Joe Cuellar. As usual, it came down to who could get the video mode and max it out (worth about 60M, which is a lot harder to earn actually playing pinball on this particular pinball machine). As is becoming usual, I would get an impossible to max out video mode. Strike two comes down to luck. Sorry, but this isn’t poker, and it’s a load of crap to get one step closer to elimination on what amounts to pure chance. I don’t have intermediate ball scores for this one because they are nearly impossible to get without delaying the game (thanks for that too, Stern Pinball). But in this case, it’s not like they even matter.

Moving along to the fifth round, I’m on Ironman as the first player of a group rounded out by John Speights, Jeff Mleynek, and Cory Westfahl. First ball: 878K+. Not great. Jeff puts up a 7.2M+ and Cory a 2.0M+ by the time I’m up for ball 2. I’m only able to get to 2.50M+, and by the time I’m up to play ball 3, I’m looking at needing to beat Jeff’s 8.3M+ to have any hope of not getting a third strike. That doesn’t even come close to happening, as I’d sign off with an embarrassingly bad 3.6M+.

Game of Thrones would be the sixth round game I was drawn for, with Jeff Cook and Tim Hood being the first two players in the three-player group. On my ball 1, before scoring a single point, the ball would get stuck in the lane feeding the bumpers (which has always been flaky on this particular playfield but I’ve never actually gotten a ball stuck there before). I’d get the ball on my right flipper and quickly drain after scoring a mind-numbingly low 187,800. This was after Jeff and Tim put up scores of 79.3M+ and 34.2M+ respectively. Ball 2 didn’t get much better, and after racking up two tilt warnings trying to unsuccessfully save the potential last ball of the tournament, I’d get a ball save only to tilt with a score of 4.1M+ (to Jeff’s 80.0M+ and Tim’s 60.5M+). And that’s the end of the line. I would finish fourteenth out of the field of 17.

Arguably, the events of this last game could be called bad luck as well. If so that would make two out of four strikes from luck as opposed to pinball skill. Even setting these aside, I should have been able to keep winning after the first game instead of just petering out like a candle in a rainstorm. I definitely can’t let slumps like these define who I am as a player, and it’s obvious by now one good game on The Walking Dead or Guardians of the Galaxy will not win an entire tournament. It’s going to take consistency over 12 to 15 games (according to history) to win an Einstein’s Drainiacs tournament in the current four strikes format (possibly more than that if we have more people show up). By contrast, putting up 20+ standings points in a league night only requires consistent performance over five games (with room for one really bad game if the other four are first place finishes).

Oddly enough, my inspiration may come from the golf world, more specifically from the recent second-place finish of Tiger Woods at the Valspar Championship (his best performance in five years, matching his tie for second place in 2013 at the Barclays tournament). For those unfamiliar with the backstory or who just don’t follow golf, Tiger has dealt with injuries from a car accident, the fallout from the public revelation of an extramarital affair, and more recently, legal issues stemming from a prescription-drug-related DUI. I will expand upon this in a later post.

The good news is, since I’m not going to the Texas Pinball Festival, I have a good week and a half before the start of the new season of the Space City Pinball League on Wednesday, March 22. I will also expand on this with more details later in the week.

Today’s Klax on MAME

So today I finally took the plunge and played Klax for the first time in years with difficulty ramping turned on. I was able to put up a score of 678,889 which I certainly feel is at least respectable given the circumstances. I tried to get through the first levels as quickly as possible, but still wound up with a nearly impossible quantity of tiles coming at me by the time I reached the seventh level I played, wave 17 (I selected wave 16 at my first warp screen).

The difficulty ramping made the game as obscenely difficult as I remember as of last time I played on a regular basis in MAME. At the very end, I had a tile to catch every half second. Once the pace increases to one tile every two seconds, it’s already a bit difficult to figure out where that tile should go before lining up for the next one. At one tile per second or faster, the three-second pause after each completed Klax start to become crucial to staying in the game.

A while back I downloaded a copy of Atari’s offical operator’s manual for Klax. It states:

Difficulty Ramping increases the game difficulty as the time after the last coin inserted increases if it is set to yes.

Based on my observations, I think the manual is possibly incorrect and it is more likely a function of the number of waves completed after the last coin is inserted. Also, the accuracy of this description is questionable for games set to free play as I would suspect the difficulty resets after each continue.

Nevertheless, I’m starting to become very curious as to how Paul put up his 2.86M+ score. I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but on these settings scores over 1M are pretty damned difficult to come by, and 2M really starts to push the boundary of what I would accept with no evidence. Hopefully someone can come forward with a copy of the video so I can see for myself.

Status of record score attempts, 2018 February

So recently I came back to the original reason for starting this blog: record score attempts, primarily on classic video games. For a while, I kind of pushed that to the side when the competitive pinball scene began blossoming again here in Houston.

And then I heard about two big controversies regarding record scores and times. First was the Todd Rogers/Atari 2600 Dragster record controversy (since thrown out, and Mr. Rogers is now banned from the Twin Galaxies site), and second was the more recent controversy over Billy Mitchell’s Donkey Kong record attempts. (I will probably write about both of these on my other blog, Rant Roulette within the coming weeks, as they are a better fit for that blog than this one.)

Between the two of those, I found myself on the Twin Galaxies website more often in a week than I had been in the previous year or so. And I started looking at the scores in a few games in particular. Those games are Klax, Centipede, Millipede, and Galaga.

The eventual goal of almost everyone in competitive gaming is to be the best. In this case, that’s a world record or a number 1 ranked score. Or, at least something which was a number 1 ranked score at some point in time. I’ll be honest here, I’m aware that I am starting to get up there in years. Centipede, Millipede, and Galaga were brand new when I was in elementary school. Klax was still relatively new when I started high school, a product of the infamous late 1980s/early 1990s puzzle game craze, right before Street Fighter II exploded onto the scene (and we all know the rest of that story). To say the least, there’s only so much time left for me to find a working game I want to be competitive on and learn it. That could be only 10 years from now. If I manage to still be competitive after that, I’ll be amazed at myself.

Right now Twin Galaxies is down, so I’m working from memory on what exactly the scores were. The Klax record is probably the one I have the best chance to beat, at 2.6M+ 2.83M+ (Paul Hornitsky, 2012). That’s medium difficulty, with difficulty ramping on. Just to get my confidence back, I’ve been practicing with difficulty ramping off. The difference is stark: with ramping on, tiles start coming much more frequently, and thus the strategy with ramping on is to score a lot of points quickly early on. My original goal is not to take down the record, but just to get over 1 million to submit to Twin Galaxies, which should stay within at least the top 5 for quite some time (particularly if I get to 1.5M+). Eventually, I might get good enough to make a legitimate attempt at the world record, but then again I might not.

Centipede and Millipede (tournament settings) have many scores well into seven digits (the millions). Realistically, my goal in playing these is to just have my name on a relatively good score (100K or greater for Centipede, TBD for Millipede). As time goes on, I may aim for higher scores, but the reality is anything over e.g. 1M on Centipede is going to take physical stamina I may no longer have.

Galaga (tournament settings) is going to be much the same situation, with a lot of scores I can tell are going to be out of my reach.

I’m not ruling out other titles, but right now these are the three four titles I feel most confident in.

Which brings me to another issue. Right now my living situation is such that I don’t have room for an arcade cabinet. I hope to change this by the end of the year, meaning my first actual record attempt might not be until early 2019. If I can get one together sooner, great. If not, I’m not going to push it. This is something that I plan to make happen; it is just a question of timing.

[Edit: The record for Klax was actually 200K+ higher than I remembered, as I found when the TG site came back up a short time ago. Added Galaga, since it’s another title I feel reasonably confident in and I had added it to my TG profile.]