Space City Pinball League Season 7 Week 1: Making a statement

I arrived at Eighteen Twenty Lounge well before the scheduled league start time of 7 pm. A lot of familiar faces were there. And quite a few familiar games from last season made their return. The most notable new arrival was Houdini, the new game from a new company, American Pinball. The remainder of the lineup was mostly the usual suspects from last season: Dialed In, Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy (new to the league), Batman 66, Ghostbusters, and AC/DC Vault Edition (which was removed from league play due to a malfunction).

I would start the season off with a very fortunate grouping: I would be placed in a three-player group, with my opponents being Clay Harrison and Agustin Montes. I’ve been grouped with both of these players exactly once before at different times: Agustin back in Season 4 Week 6, and Clay in Season 5 Week 7.

After a short delay waiting for Agustin to arrive and then for a game to become available, we would begin on Dialed In. The first ball was relatively low-scoring for everyone, with no player scoring over 10K (I had 9,310, Agustin had 9,510, Clay had 4,920). Ball 2 was a relative dud for me (the phone scoop was supposedly lit to start multiball but it didn’t happen; not sure if it was a bug or just bad timing on my part), leaving me starting ball 3 well behind at 23,250 to Clay’s 56,490 and Agustin’s 64,790. Fortunately, I would break through starting multiball and running up a considerable tally, eventually signing off with 125,760. One game down, five standings points on the board. Things are looking good.

We would next compete on Star Wars. This is a game I’m not too confident playing, but it seems like I do relatively well on it every time I touch it. I would begin with 114.2M+, which could have been a bit more had I not botched the skill shot. This would be good for an early lead, but by the time ball 2 was over, Agustin would come back with 187.5M+ to my 170.4M+. I would sign off with 284.1M+ without getting a single multiball during the entire game. I was a bit nervous about this holding up and in other groups, it might well have been beaten. But Agustin only managed 245.7M+ and so I would finish the second game with a perfect ten standings points.

On we would go to Batman 66. This would be a relatively close, low-scoring game. I played last in the group, so I would have the benefit of knowing how well I would need to do on ball 3 to win. Clay had posted a 25.4M+, Agustin had finished with 18.4+, and I started ball 3 with 11.8M+ which was certainly within striking distance of the lead. Unfortunately, I was only able to muster up a 20.9M+ good for second place. There went my chance at a perfect 25. However, a total of 13 standings points after three games is still damn good.

Our next game would be on Ghostbusters. I’ve grown to dislike this game, at least as set up at EinStein’s. Well, the settings seem to make the difference: nobody else cheesed the video mode for ridiculous scores the way they would at EinStein’s. We did not get a single video mode during our game, and it was a relatively low-scoring game all around. I would start off with a first ball of 11.6M+, while Clay and Agustin both put up sub-1M duds to start. I would finish up with 30.3M+ and Clay would take second with 16.5M+. Four games and a very respectable 18 standings points. Up until this point, I had never finished a league night with more than 21 standings points with the new 5-3-2-1 scoring. I was on the brink of making history.

We would wrap up on Guardians of the Galaxy. Yes, the same title on which I put up 167.7M+ good for a grand champion during the 2018 February EinStein’s Drainiacs. I felt confident wrapping up the night on this game given that performance and how I had been doing the whole night. This would be another relatively low-scoring game, but I would take the lead after ball 2 with 11.9M+, which by the time I started ball 3 I knew would be good enough for at least second place as Agustin only managed 5.5M+. I would have a relatively productive ball 3 and wrap up with 16.1M+ total, not exactly a score I felt confident would hold up until the end. But Clay could only muster a total of 11.7M+ so it was more than enough. Five games, 23 standings points, one happy player.

I would hang around after my games to see if either Phil Grimaldi or Melvin Jiles, both in position to tie or beat my 23 standings points, could do so. Phil would almost immediately post a last-place finish in his fourth game taking him out of the running; Melvin was never really in contention to take first on his game of Ghostbusters after Chris Palis put up well over 60M on his first ball. Tim Hood was the last player who could possibly have tied my 23 standings points, and he would finish the night with 21. (I don’t know the details of his last game.) I would get in a couple of games on Houdini before I left.

This is the first time ever I have started a league season at the very top of the leaderboard, and the most standings points I have posted in one night. I will concede that the scores I put up weren’t the best and, for that matter, really weren’t typical of a 23-point night, nor were they representative of the best I am capable of. They were good enough, but I’m not going to stay at the top with scores of this caliber week in and week out.

One thing’s for sure, I’m looking forward to week 2.

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.