Houston Arcade Expo 2015 (Including Pinball Tournament)

Finally, I am to the point where I can write about the goings-on at Houston Arcade Expo a couple of weeks ago. Remember, even though I’m writing about it now, this actually happened a couple of weeks ago (weekend of November 12-13). My primary reason for attending was, of course, the pinball tournament. This was my first big pinball tournament, and I am certainly hoping it will not be my last.

After reading the rules, I knew I would have to spend at least $40 on entries in order to have any realistic chance. That’s pretty much exactly what I did. I’m not going to go into detail on each machine, but I am going to mention a few highlights.

The first highlight was that the first time I ever got to play Wizard of Oz (full LCD game from Jersey Jack Pinball) was in the tournament qualifier. I worked my way up to it after posting some decent and some rather embarrassing scores on some other games. I knew up front that in all likelihood I would either be playing each game only once and maybe trying again on a couple of machines if I had fairly decent scores across the board, or aborting after spending my first $10, $20, or so if I just didn’t have it. I had maybe $5 to spend on retries. My game on Wizard of Oz was either the seventh or eighth game that I posted a qualifying score on, and I would like to think it was a decent score given it was the very first time I played it at all. As shown in the gallery, my score was 65,371. At the time I posted it, it was near the top (I want to say fourth or fifth). By the time the dust settled, it was a somewhat disappointing 20th of 37.

The second highlight would have to be my score of 70,537,370 on The Addams Family. I hit a double jackpot during multiball and rang up a good number of points on other features, so again, I felt like this was a decent score at the time, but it would be pushed all the way down to 25th of 37 by the time qualifying ended. Not long after I played it, I noticed it resetting in mid-game on another player.

The third highlight, which is perhaps the biggest, was my score on an EM Gottlieb called Captain Card. I posted 56,120, good for 6th out of 35. This ranked higher than the scores posted by Phil Grimaldi (41,470), Carey Fishman (43,190), and Jon Drew (54,210).

It became obvious well before I even left to head back over to the hotel, that my scores would not be good enough to qualify. On one hand it was disappointing, on the other it freed me to enjoy the rest of the expo. More on that later.

Most of the games in the tournament area (14 out of 16) were in good condition with no noticeable issues, or perhaps minor issues I didn’t notice. The two notable exceptions were Wild Wheels and Earthshaker. Wild Wheels would not complete the startup sequence without power-cycling the machine, and in fact had a power switch installed on the power cord to make this easier. Once started, the game played fine. Except that I wound up starting a two player game without realizing it (I must have hit the start button again after the initial reset thinking something didn’t register). Fortunately, the tournament director was cool about it and even gave me the benefit of the doubt (higher score of the two players).

On the other hand, Earthshaker had at least three obvious problems. To be honest, the case could be made that it should not have been in the tournament lineup at all. The specific problems I found were the plunger not being strong enough to make the 100K skill shot (the best I could manage was 50K), the fault line diverter was not opening, and I was unable to get a proper three-ball multiball (multiball started with one ball locked and another plunged into play). The second of these is perhaps the most frustrating problem, as the ramp is difficult to make, so making it when lit for lock only to not actually lock the ball is a huge downer. I’m not saying this excuses my rather embarrassing score of 1.26M+ (31st of 36, when I needed around 4.4M to place in the top half) though it should be kept in mind.

Yes, I realize this is a 25+ year old game we are talking about, but four older games (two electromechanical-era pinballs and at least two older solid state games) played fine with no issues. So it’s not just the age of the machine. I do appreciate the effort that goes into setting machines up for a tournament (or for free play in a hotel ballroom in general), but I can’t imagine the owner not knowing about at least the plunger and multiball issues (unless the thing had been sitting in storage just prior to the event, in which case the safer assumption after any substantial length of time a game has been in storage is that the game is not tournament ready until otherwise verified).

Oddly enough, there was a Gilligan’s Island in the tournament room, apparently intended for a side tournament that either never happened or is somehow missing from the results (partner play, I think?); it may have been played later in cash games. I got to play it a bit and I noticed no major issues. I’m not sure what the full story is, but even though I’m much less familiar with Gilligan’s Island than I am with Earthshaker, I would rather have played the former than the latter.

Anyway, the sum total of this is that my tournament experience wound up being just a rather expensive pinball lesson. So, what did I learn for my $40? For that matter, what can you learn that cost me $40 to find out?

First, I learned this format is somewhat biased towards those with deeper pockets. I say somewhat biased because you still need the pinball skills to qualify for and win the tournament. That is to say, of two equally skilled players, one with enough money to play each game twice and another with the bare minimum to play each one once, the first player will probably qualify in a higher spot. I’m not saying this is a bad format, just that it can get rather expensive, unless one is very lucky and strings together top quality performances on many games in a row.

I really needed to show up with $60 minimum, ideally closer to $100, to have a decent chance at qualifying. Given it’s $25 to get into the show, then add in plus food, and I’m looking at $100 to $140 for the entire weekend, not even counting a T-shirt (which I will want next year).

Second, I learned I probably still have quite a bit to go as far as pinball skills to be truly tournament ready at this level of play. I’ll just come out and say it here: I’m a lot older than I look, and years of not playing and having to spend months for what I had to finally come back to me probably didn’t help. The window I have to be known as a pinball tournament champion and/or videogame record holder may be as short as two years or even less. On the other hand I may have good enough health (physical and mental) to make competitive pinball tournament attempts and videogame record attempts for another decade or longer. Garth Brooks said in a song lyric, “I’m much too young to feel this damn old.” That’s exactly my sentiment.

Third, I learned (in the figurative sense) how to make lemonade out of the lemons I was handed. I still had a good time and posted a few pretty damn good pinball scores, which showed that I still “have it” even though I wound up coming up with bupkis in the tournament.

I posted the pictures I took in no particular order. Some are tournament scores, some are not. The higher score on Wizard of Oz is in the main arcade area (look closely, you can see the Mata Hari I played later in the background). One is from a console videogame (a homebrew Atari 2600 game I forgot the name of). I’ll go back and label these when I have more time.