Space City Pinball League, Season 2 Week 5: Kicked by a glitchy kickback

Another week, another league night. This week we were promised a “surprise blast from the past.” I was thinking we were going to get to play something, like The Addams Family, Attack from Mars, Earthshaker, Whirlwind, Space Shuttle, or Genie. You know, a true blast from the past.

The game wound up being The Sopranos, one of the earlier titles after the Sega factory became the Stern factory. I got to watch it being played, but would never get to play it the whole night for a variety of reasons. The dot matrix animations still have that “late Data East/Sega era” look to them, and it’s not just the orange gas plasma display as opposed to the more modern red LED display that the new Sterns have. I’m not sure how to describe it exactly; maybe it was the dot matrix animation artist working on the games from that era, and/or the font(s) they were using. (For whatever reason I find the Williams/Bally displays from the same era, up until Pinball 2000, much more appealing.)

Anyway, I was manually late-added into the group originally consisting of Rusty Key, David Pollock, and Cory Westfahl. I had not played against any of these players in league play yet, and was sick of the software’s “random” groupings putting me against at least one other player who I had played in earlier weeks. So, I asked Phil to put me in that group and he agreed. (I forget what the alternative was, it may have been the group Ruben was in.)

So things get off to a slow start given that we are waiting for a machine to open up for our first game. Luckily, The Walking Dead opens up relatively quickly. Rusty and David happen to blow it up with scores of 23,131,430 (first) and 23,049,360 (second). By some miracle I eek out third with 13.9M+ despite barely making the extra ball shot and (I think) not getting a multiball mode going at all.

If only I could say it got better as the night went on. It did, but not in our second game on Metallica. I managed a paltry 11,300,020, only good for fourth. Rusty, on the other hand, took first place again with a whopping 119.5M+, which was good for one of the high scores, and is a league record for this table. Anyway, so that’s two games, 3 standings points.

Our next game was on Kiss, and I put up some respectable scores during warmups, so certainly I should be able to repeat that performance, right? I manage a personal best for league play. Unfortunatsely, it’s a paltry 4.0M+ good for fourth (again). This time it was David with the runaway first place of 44,993,630, missing the 45M mark by less than the value of one pop bumper hit. Three games, 4 standings points… and one pinball player/blogger wondering if he needs his head examined.

Next up would be Game of Thrones. Oh, and did I mention this was the game on video for the week? Well, as you will see when you watch, it’s a performance I’d rather forget: all of 2,303,380. The malfunctioning kicker really didn’t help. Given I’ve put up much, much higher scores on this game, this was a huge disappointment. Obviously, this was yet another fourth place finish, putting me at 5 standings points on the night after four games. I would need a first place finish on The Hobbit to still be able to drop the 9 points from Week 4 (which is bad enough already).

And so, we would play the last game of the night on The Hobbit. I got the only stuck ball of the night. I had run up a 40K good enough for an early lead after ball 2. The ball had gotten stuck about ½” up on a lit kickback (on the bottom of the outlane switch), which is held in place by a post during play. The post had dropped because the game had fired the kickback already. Phil’s ruling at the time of the incident (the “ruling on the field”) was that the ball was essentially over and it was “normal course of play.” I’m obviously not happy about it, but I try not to let it throw me.

I start ball 3 with a deficit of around 13K and change to overcome. Thankfully, I have a great ball and get all kinds of points everywhere I need them. Knowing I have more than enough points, I relax a bit and pile on to my lead, signing off with a total of 90,003. Note that last week, I scored a bit higher and it was only good for third place. This time, next to Rusty’s 27,977, Cory’s 50,687, and David’s 53,629, I would finish the night with a first place victory. Five games, 10 standings points.

(Of note, Phil later admitted the ruling was incorrect, and he also noticed I won in spite of it. Like I would expect most players to be, I’m not as easily upset about these kind of rulings when they don’t wind up costing me a game.)

It could have been much worse, of course. As it is, I still slip back a bit and I am now 11 points back from the cutoff from A division to B division. I would possibly need to gain 12 points, depending on which player I need to out-seed due to the tiebreaker (season outscored percentage; mine is currently 41.63% and this loses against all but one player currently at 44 adjusted points, and is probably behind most of the other players higher than me).

The takeaways from this week are:

  1. I feel I have finally gotten the hang of Kiss and The Hobbit, two games I felt were not exactly my strongest games last week (and in the case of Kiss, going back to week 1).
  2. I can win games in the clutch at least some of the times in league play, and even in the face of an adverse league/tournament official ruling.
  3. I have underestimated the competitive level of pinball in Houston in general. There apparently has been a lot of pent-up demand for tournaments and leagues and any illusion I had of just waltzing in and taking first place in a tournament within a couple of months was quickly dispelled. We’re at a little over a year, and the best I’ve been able to pull off is a second place.
  4. If I really want to make the A division playoffs, I have little room for error. Probably more like no room for error, in reality.

Here’s hoping I finish the season on a high note.

Space City Pinball League, Season 2 Week 4: Insert Tolkien to continue

The more astute observers will note this entry is two weeks after my entry about what happened in week 3. Due to weather-related concerns on March 8, week 4 was postponed until this week (March 15). It was well worth it, though, as we got to play the new game from Jersey Jack, The Hobbit. I had heard about this game and was genuinely excited for a chance to play it.

I had one chance to play The Hobbit during warmups; my other warmup games were on Wrestlemania (this time an LE) and The Walking Dead. Curiously, I wound up being in a group that did not play The Walking Dead during league play. My first game on The Hobbit wasn’t that great, so I’m glad my paltry score of 24,926 came during warmups. (Jersey Jack games are very low scoring, and unlike Stern games, score using the ones digit; the “free game” award on The Hobbit was at 190,000 at this point.) The other games in the lineup were Game of Thrones (LE), Star Trek (Pro), and Kiss (LE).

So, we would get down to business at 7:30pm. I would be grouped with Ruben (again), Robert (again), and Michael. We would start out out the night playing Kiss. This was another game where I really never got much of anything going. I would manage all of 3.3M+, good for fourth (last) next to Michael’s third-place 4.2M+, Ruben’s 5.0M+, and Robert’s amazing 29.8M+. Not a good start, to say the least.

The second game was on The Hobbit. Phil was running video of everyone playing The Hobbit (which is on YouTube now), so I was just a bit more nervous than usual. Surprisingly, I was able to settle into a groove and run up 90,457. A lot better than my warm-up game, but again Robert and Ruben were able to top it with scores of 184,261 and 115,184 respectively, so I would wind up in third. I honestly feel like I did better than my third-place finish would indicate. However, both Robert and Ruben were able to get multiball going whereas I was grinding out points from ordinary one-ball play. Had I been able to get a multiball going I might well have been able to pull out at least enough for second.

On we would move to Star Trek. I was able to stay in this game the whole way. I was facing Robert’s 13.0M+, Michael’s 14.0M+, and Ruben’s 22.4M+ with a score of 9.3M (I think, it was definitely between 9M and 10M). I got a reasonably good start to ball 3, but wound up signing off with a 11.3M+ which wasn’t good enough for anything higher than fourth (last). This is probably the most frustrating game of the night, as I had a legitimate chance to come in higher and I was not able to convert. I know I need to work on this as it’s only going to become even more frustrating to have this happen as the stakes get higher. So after this game, that’s a fourth, a third, and a fourth in a four-player group. Four standings points in three games.

Our fourth game of the night would be Wrestlemania. Having played the Pro version in week 3, I felt more confident about being able to put up a decent score and maybe turn the night around. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Again Robert and Ruben would finish in the top two slots with 32.3M+ and 8.4M+ respectively, and I would manage 7.6M+ good for third, saved only by Michael’s even worse score. Given my performance on the Pro version of Wrestlemania in week 3, this is disappointing but to be fair the LE version makes the wrestling ring much tougher with the spinning disc.

We would wrap up on Game of Thrones. Despite mistakenly picking the wrong house (I wanted Martell but wound up with Stark from accidentally hitting the button too soon) I would rack up a pretty solid 95.5M+, good for second behind Ruben’s 112.7M+. I was aided by a multiball where I hit quite a few jackpot shots (I originally wrote “just about everything but the kitchen sink” but that’s kind of exaggerating). This was also a winnable game at the end, but I couldn’t keep the ball in play long enough on the last ball to actually make it happen. This would bring me up to 9 standings points (more on that later).

I wrapped up the night with a round on Ice Cold Beer and a game of Ladybug on a multi-arcade unit, both also set on free play. I was too exhausted to play much else. I don’t think fatigue was a factor towards my lacking performance; my only second-place score of the night was the last game. If it were about fatigue I would have simply gotten worse as the night wore on, certainly not better.

Anyway, about the standings. If the league season were to end now, I would be in B division, 5 points from the cutoff for A division. Not a good spot. If I can make the remaining weeks and do better, it’s almost certain the 9 points from this week will be dropped from the final tally in favor of a higher score. (The two lowest scores are dropped, though I effectively have a zero for my week 2 score since I was unable to attend.) The margin for error here is more like a distinct lack thereof, if making A division is still part of my plans. Of course right now it is, but that could well change between now and the end of week 8.

Either way I feel I will be a better player for the experience. I wish a league like this had been around in Houston in the 1990s. For all I know, there was one and I just never knew about it, or they were targeting a slightly older demographic. (Most of the players in SCPL appear to be no younger than about 30. It is difficult to say when my pinball skills were at their peak, or even whether or not I have peaked. I definitely remember putting up some monster scores in my early to mid-20s though.)

I’m learning that league play is a different beast. It requires a lot more focus and consistency than tournament play. Winning a tournament just requires that you be the best player that one day; winning a league season requires one to be a reasonably good player week in and week out (well, in this case, at least 6 out of the 8 weeks of a season) and then to be the best player during the playoffs.

Four down, four to go… here’s hoping the last four weeks are good ones.

Space City Pinball League, Season 2 Week 3: Follow the yellow brick road?

Earlier in the day, I really looked forward to returning to pinball league night. I had missed week 2 due to illness (there were a couple of other reasons as well, but feeling ill was probably the overriding concern of mine). I had gotten the news that Wizard of Oz would be in the lineup. Indeed, I was able to get in a few games during the warmups, including one score of 287,992, also good for Yellow Brick Road Champ of 26 (I think? I didn’t get an actual picture with the score, silly me). I also got in a rather smashing 245.6M+ on Game of Thrones in warmups. Unfortunately, for the most part my good fortune did not carry over through to actual league play…

The announcements were started with the news that Wizard of Oz would not be in the lineup for league play due to it “acting strangely” during warmups. To be fair, the outhole kicker was taking multiple tries to put the ball in the plunger lane for whatever reason (weak or failing coil?) and there was a point where the game went down and would not boot back up. I suggested to leave it powered off for about five minutes and then turn it back on, which fixed that problem, but not the others. So the lineup wound up being KISS, Mustang, Game of Thrones (LE), Wrestlemania, and The Walking Dead.

I was in a three-player group this week with Bruce and Robert. I knew very little about either of my opponents going into this, so I was hopeful I would be able to put up a decent performance and get back toward the top of the standings.

Our first game was on KISS, which I had some familiarity with from the first week. Surprisingly, for whatever reason, I had just a decisively awful game. I would sign off with a 3.6M+. Bruce managed a somewhat better 7.8M+, while Robert would blow it up in multiball with a 62.5M+ good enough for first place.

I would do better on The Walking Dead. I certainly felt like I was in pretty good shape with 24.4M+ before Robert’s third ball, but it would only be good for second as Robert would barely eek out a first with a 26.8M+. Bruce posted a 16.5M+, which is not an awful score by any means, but would still only be good for third.

Moving on, the 245.6M+ I posted on Game of Thrones LE in warmups had me pretty confident going into our league game on the same machine. Unfortunately, confidence doesn’t mean a damn thing in the absence of execution when it matters. I would post a 3.9M+ which is just a putrid score compared to Bruce’s 36.2M+ and Robert’s 54.9M+.

The night was not over yet. Our next game was on Wrestlemania. I jumped out in front to a huge lead on ball 2 as I had the ramp shots back up to the ring dialed in and mastered the ring flippers. (This game uses two player-activated kickers as flippers, and they are a bit difficult to get the hang of for players new to this particular table.) I would wind up with 37.8M+, eeking out first place against Robert’s 36.2M+. Bruce posted a respectable 26.4M+ but again it was only good for third.

Finally, it was time for Mustang. Robert set the pace with a 56.3M+ that was just uncatchable barring a miracle from either me or Bruce. I did eek out second with a 27.6M+ and Bruce would again post a respectable score (24.7M+) only good enough for third.

I would finish the night with one first, two seconds, and two thirds, for a total of 13 league points. This is an improvement over week 1 where I only put up 10, but still a bit disappointing. The real disappointment is a personal record I’ve set for myself in tournament and league play, and it’s the biggest disparity between my best score on a machine in practice/warmups versus the actual tournament/league play itself. My league night score was 1.58% (about 1/63) of the highest score I was able to post during warmups. It’s supposed to be the other way around, of course. This is a record I hope I don’t beat any time soon.

I am starting to like Game of Thrones and Wrestlemania, and in general I am starting to warm up to the newer Stern games. For quote a long while, I still preferred the last Williams, Bally, and Gottlieb games over what Stern was producing. In fact, I am only now discovering great Gottlieb titles I had only read about on Usenet rec.games.pinball, that I really wish I had gotten a chance to play “back in the day.”

I’m not sure why I didn’t like Stern games, though I’m pretty sure bad memories of South Park (technically a Sega game, but it was no secret Stern was a continuation of Sega the way Sega’s pinball division was a continuation of Data East) didn’t help. There are still a few of the earlier titles from after the Stern takeover that I am not a huge fan of, and many of them I never really got to play; having two of the major manufacturers fold up shop did not do wonders for location pinball, not to mention the last two games from one of those manufacturers was using a completely new concept (Pinball 2000) that I am actually quite grateful never caught on. Imagine how much a Game of Thrones, KISS, Mustang, or Wrestlemania would suck being crammed into a Pinball 2000 cabinet.

Wizard of Oz was definitely fun to play. This wasn’t the first time I got to play a Wizard of Oz; that was, of course, the qualifier for the Houston Arcade Expo tournament (which see). I am still surprised I managed to post the score I did then, though I am glad I was able to beat it even if it counted for bupkis as far as league standings are concerned. I am glad we have Jersey Jack deciding to join what many declared a dead or dying business. Heck, I am glad we have other manufacturers who have decided to step up the plate. All we need now, are operators willing to take a chance on location pinball again (and the location owners and players to make it work).

(Before leaving, I did play some Ice Cold Beer and get a 1750; that is what the last picture is. I have done better than that, but I consider that score a highlight of the night.)