Space City Open: A day of redemption

So today was the Space City Open, a long awaited pinball tournament. First, before I get into the meat of this post, Phil was kind enough to host this tournament from his house with his quite well-maintained and diverse collection, and I would like to extend my thanks to him for doing so.

I went into this tournament with the most positive mindset I could put myself in. I’ve been having a pretty lousy week, to say the least, and it took quite a bit of energy to block all of that out this morning and afternoon and focus on the goal at hand.

For the most part, I feel like I succeeded in maintaining focus through the ups and downs. I had some great games and moments in this tournament; I also had quite a few not-so-great games and moments.

We’ll start at the beginning. We had 14 players, and there were eight different games: Diner, Dr. Dude, Dracula, Firepower, Iron Man, Tales from the Crypt, The Simpsons Pinball Party, and Whirlwind. Phil does have other games there, but those were the eight chosen for the tournament. (Judge Dredd was also on the list but due to technical problems it was a last-minute scratch.) The tournament format was a seven-round match play tournament.

Groups were drawn, and I wound start the first round on Iron Man with Brian, Blake, and Dick. I’m pretty sure I’ve never played Iron Man before today, so I had no clue what to do as far as strategy. So, I just sort of winged it, basically just trying to make the shots that were lit and taking hints from the score display as the game went on. This worked as I took first place in this game and was off to a great start. I put up a 9.1M+ with the next highest score being 7.3M+.

My good fortune would be interrupted by an absolutely crummy game of Dr. Dude against Ruben and Rob. I could barely muster a 1.9M+, but there was still a contest between Ruben and Rob with the former eeking out a victory with 5,049,580 versus the latter’s 4,910,970. I just could not get it going. I would have a decent start to a ball, and then BAM! Right down the toilet. I finally got the Mix Master lit (the next-to-last step before multiball) and then lost the ball down the left outlane (I think).

I would quickly return to form in the next game on The Simpsons Pinball Party against James and Garrett. It was not an easy victory by any means as I also began this game with outright disasters on my first two balls (of a 3-ball game). However, I managed to get a monster of a ball going on my third ball of the game, stacking several modes and both multiball modes. I was pretty sure I had won the game early on but kept playing because I was “in the zone” and needed to ride the wave to build my confidence back up. I would sign off with a 29,926,940 (oh, so close to 30M) with the runner-up (Garrett) finishing with 5.7M+.

On to the fourth round. I drew Diner with Rob, Danny, and David. I know the ruleset of Diner even though I have had very little experience actually playing it. This game brought the only stuck ball of the tournament for me; I managed to get the ball wedged behind the spinner. It wasn’t going to budge with any reasonable amount of nudging (defined as any amount that would not set off the tilt sensor), so we had to pull the glass and put the ball back on the plunger lane. This was a minor distraction in the grand scheme of things; I managed a 1.7M+ for second place next to Rob’s 2.1M+ and sub-1M scores from David and Danny.

The fifth round was probably the most dramatic moment in the qualifying rounds. I drew Whirlwind against Phil, Rob, and Blake. (For some reason the software liked to keep putting Rob and I in the same group.) Phil got off to a fairly early lead, and my back was against the wall going into my third ball. Again, I started off with a couple of lackluster balls, and I wasn’t building on that great of a score going into the final ball of the game. I was facing Phil’s score of 5.1M+ or so (it may have been a little higher) with a score of somewhere in the 1M to 2M range. I was able to complete multiball and score a “Million Plus” shot (scoring 2M). I would sign off of this game with 6,056,720 and could only sit back and wait for Phil to complete his last ball. To my amazement, Phil drained fairly quickly and after his end-of-ball bonus, his score only added up to 5,841,910. It held up! I managed to win a game against Phil! I couldn’t believe it.

Round six saw me playing Dracula alongside James and David. By contrast this was a pretty ho-hum game and the scores were nothing really spectacular, but I did manage to win with a 21.9M+ with David in runner-up at 11.1M+.

For the seventh and final round, I drew Tales from the Crypt alongside Cory, Garrett, and David. This was another game where I had the first two balls go rather badly. It wound up being mostly for moot, but I did score 146.7M+. It was only good for third alongside Garrett’s 237.8M+ and Cory’s 246.5M+.

So after a brief intermission, we began the semi-finals. Our first game was on The Simpsons Pinball Party. To say the least, I did not get off to a good start at all. I managed only 1.2M+, which probably wouldn’t have been enough to beat a couple of grade-school kids much less the tournament finalists. In fact, I would dare say this is the worst game I’ve ever played in a pinball tournament, ever.

The silver lining to that cloud was that I got to pick the next game. I thought about it for a few seconds, and then selected Whirlwind, as this was one of two games where I had outscored Phil in the qualifying rounds (the other being Dr. Dude which I was much less familiar with). I was able to put up a 4.6M+ to Phil’s 6.1M+.

Ruben then selected Dr. Dude for the last game of the semi-finals. Basically, this game decided who would advance to the finals, as Phil had pretty much clinched his spot in the finals at that point. It was a pretty uneventful game until the last ball. I got a multiball going, and was able to get enough Mix Master bounces to score the jackpot (which on this game is a flat 5 million). Not only was this good enough to beat Ruben’s score, it was good enough to beat Phil’s as well, which was a much-needed confidence boost.

The finals began shortly thereafter. I was playing alongside Phil, Garrett, and Brian. We would start, again, on The Simpsons Pinball Party. I didn’t do much better, with only 4.9M+ good enough for third. If I was able to come close to the score I had put up earlier, I might have been able to eek out second and top the 16.1M+ put up by Garrett. On the other hand, Phil’s 76.9M+ was going to win barring a miracle.

The next game was Whirlwind, selected by Brian. I was only able to put up a 3.1M+ to Phil’s 8.8M+ and Garrett’s 4.8M+. Had I been able to make at least one Million Plus shot during multiball, it might well have been a different game altogether. This finish was good enough for third place in the round and kept me in a position to at least salvage a decent showing. The question was, could I refocus and get it done?

Brian selected the machine for the third and last game of the finals, which was Firepower. It’s a game I feel very confident playing, having been the very first pinball game I remember playing as a young kid (I think I was all of 5 years old when I played it the first time). I selected to go first, which I felt would give me an advantage in this situation. Whether it actually did or not is up for debate, but I had an absolutely great game with a good multiball during my third ball. I would sign off with 310,200, good enough for first place on the game and putting me in second place overall for the tournament. Second place was Brian’s 188,260, and third was Garrett’s 106,110. Phil managed all of 15,270; not that it really matters, as the only way he was in danger of not winning was if he finished last and Garrett finished in first place, and even this would only have forced a tiebreaker for first.

I am glad I was able to salvage a second place finish, but it’s still one place short of where I want to be. It was disappointing to do so well during the qualifying rounds and semi-finals only to run into the trouble I did during the finals. It’s not even a case of putting up an otherwise decent score and then having someone (like Phil) come in with a monster score that dwarfs it. A sub-5M score on The Simpsons Pinball Party is embarrassingly low and I am still frustrated at myself a bit, as I picked a really bad time to “lay an egg.”

I experimented with strategy in Whirlwind a bit. I was having difficulty making the plunger skill shot. Back when I was a teenager playing Whirlwind at arcades (such as Fame City and the Time-Out at Northline Mall, if anyone remembers those), I had mastered the art of plunging really short, and sweeping the drop target bank for 600K (the best you can do with just a plunge is 500K knocking down the middle and bottom targets). For the third ball in the finals, I simply went for a full plunge to feed the upper flipper and try to make the million and multiball release ramp shot. Of course, I missed it, and eventually had to settle for the right saucer shot to start multiball. I figured this gave me better chances to win the game than a possible 300K (which was the best I had done on the skill shot on this game all day) and the ball cradled on a lower flipper if I was lucky, or down the outlane if I was not.

Oddly enough, I think Whirlwind was the only game where strategy as such required that much thought. On all the other games, it was either very obvious strategy, or in the case of Iron Man, I was just winging it. There’s a point at which the strategy becomes so obvious to me that I no longer even think about it. The tables that come to mind where this is the case for me would include High Speed, Firepower, Black Hole, Beat Time, Liberty Bell, and Roller Disco. This is by no means an all-inclusive list, and it is likely no coincidence that every table on that list was made before 1987. Earthshaker, for example, has enough complexity to it that the strategy is not always obvious to me (though one can rarely go wrong pounding the ramp shot to oblivion, one reason it’s not well liked as a tournament game). As counterexamples from the EM era, Fireball and Blue Chip stand out as examples of tables with relatively deep strategy. I could probably write a whole post about strategy in pinball, and at some point I may do exactly that.

In conclusion, I had a great time despite the result. Phil was a great host and hopefully this is the first of many tournaments he will be hosting at his place. The crowd was fantastic despite the turnout being a bit low; fourteen players was still enough to have a very fun and interesting tournament. And, I’m not giving up the hunt for the ever-elusive first place. I didn’t expect it to be this hard to catch.