Primarily from about 1998 to early 2002 and sporadically after that, I took an interest in laser tag, particularly (at the time) the Laser Quest just down the road (13711 Westheimer Road, between Eldridge Parkway and Texas Highway 6) from where I was working at the time (Westheimer Road at what was at the time called Old Westheimer, Road now called West Houston Center Boulevard). I did also play at many of the other laser tag centers that had existed in the area, including the two other Laser Quests we had (6560 FM 1960 West (long before it was known as Cypress Creek Parkway) and the one in Clear Lake/Webster, which I cannot remember the address of right now), all three locations of LazerRage (Spring, Humble, and Stafford), as well as Space City Laser Tag (using Lasertron equipment), Laserzone using Laser Force equipment (not Zone Empire/Ultrazone equipment as one might think!), and Track 21 (one of the later versions of Zone Empire gear, long after Ultrazone’s competitive scene took a dive).
I had planned a return trip to the nearest Laser Quest for a few last sentimental games, though this was after Houston’s centers had shuttered. At first that was going to be a road trip to San Antonio (we unfortunately lost Austin’s center much earlier than the two remaining in Houston) or North Richland Hills (the sole DFW area center remaining in Texas). Then, it turned into a planned trip to Tulsa, not necessarily even a road trip at this point as I was open to flying up there.
And then, as luck would have it, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
And then in September, Versent Corporation (the operator/franchisor of Laser Quest centers in North America) decided to throw in the towel, yet another casualty of the raging pandemic. The home page was changed to read “Thanks For The Memories – We Are Now Closed” and went on to thank everyone for their patronage over the previous 27 years.
I only ever got to play in one real Laser Quest tournament, the second and final year of the iNAC (Individual North American Challenge–remember, this predated Apple’s iThings by several years). I was able to walk over to the Austin Laser Quest center from the back room of the motel room I was in (I was with my mom). I did horribly, nowhere near enough to qualify, but all the smack talk about how I wasn’t good enough to actually play in tournaments died down a bit, as at least I got my ass out there and tried.
Other fond memories, which unfortunately I have no documentation of, include many rounds of pinball on a Revenge From Mars at the Champions Village Laser Quest center (6560 FM 1960 West), as well as many games of Point Blank and Police Trainer, including a time during which I had all six slots on the board for beating the game at commissioner level (leading the next guy to sign it “NO DUALIST” (sic) to contrast with the five other “DUELIST” entries).
I can see laser tag being problematic in something like the COVID-19 pandemic. To their credit, Versent did try to diversify and catch a piece of the escape room action, presumably re-purposing the party rooms (or perhaps other parts of the LQ centers) as escape rooms when not being used for parties. That too was going to be problematic in a pandemic of this sort, though, with a lot of location-based entertainment taking a huge hit. Even Chuck E. Cheese’s had to resort to selling take-out pizza at some locations to try to stay afloat, and will probably lose a fair number (but not all) locations before it’s all said and done.
Nevertheless, it’s upsetting to me to see an institution like Laser Quest take a fall in such a brutal manner. No word yet on what’s going to become of all the remaining Laser Quest gear; I will admit the technology is a bit old, but it’s not like Darklight or other players are that much newer.
I’m going to attach a fair number of surviving Laser Quest scorecards, mostly from around 2000 (“100”) or 2001 (“101”). While I did try to save a complete collection early on, I’m pretty sure almost everything from 1999 and earlier was a casualty of Tropical Storm Allison, or has been otherwise lost since. I will be coming back to this post and adding more as I find them and/or have time to can them in. (I had hoped to have everything scanned in before the end of the year but that just didn’t happen…)
Finally, for the first time in what felt like forever, I would finally make my triumphant return to competitive pinball at The Game Preserve (The Woodlands) this past Saturday. The good: the machine lineup, the location, and surprisingly, my confidence level. The bad (well, maybe): the format, a four strikes knockout. I only categorize it under potentially “bad” as historically I have not had good luck in strikeout tournaments for whatever odd reasons. The cast of characters (as entered in Matchplay, so a couple of last names are missing): Brandon, Holden, Leslie Germain, Justin Edwards, Cameron Reed, Hunter Reed, Chris Adams, Josh Edwards, Josh Merlet, Charles Blacknall, Danny Caswell, Michael Caswell, Chad Birmingham, Dillon Neal, Christopher Heskett, Eric Heskett, and of course, Lee Balusek and yours truly. The machines in play: Congo, Dr. Who, Elvira and the Party Monsters, Flying Carpet, Guardians of the Galaxy, Metallica, NBA Fastbreak, Party Zone, Star Wars, Tri Zone, Twilight Zone, and World Cup Soccer. (Party Zone would be taken out of the lineup due to technical issues; see later in the post).
This is going to be a long post as the tournament took 14 rounds to decide and there are a lot of details I need to fill in. That’s also why this post has taken a few days to put together.
The first round would begin on Party Zone with Brandon, Josh Merlet, and Dillon Neal (in playing order; I would be playing second). We found out early on that the Captain B. Zarr saucer was not registering shots. This made Request Time, relighting multiball, and completing Eat/Drink/B. Merry impossible. Also, the Way Out of Control shot wasn’t working either. Fortunately, I didn’t need them. I would enter ball 3 with a 3.13M+ behind Brandon’s 3.93M+. I would make a fair number of shots up the rocket ramp, scoring two extra balls (which in the interests of time, were not playable), as well as getting multiball started. I didn’t do well in multiball but I was able to run up quite a few points in the 2X scoring post-multiball. I would sign off with a solid 46.62M+ before plunging off my extra balls, 46.82M+ after. None of the other players would put up even a tenth of that. Not bad for my first game in a competitive event in a year and a half.
The next round would be on Dr. Who with Holden, Dillon Neal, and Christopher Heskett. Holden had a strong game early on, posting 81.4M+ on the first ball, and signing off with a 119.4M+ after the third. I would start ball 3 with 20.1M+, leaving me a bit vulnerable should I do poorly as Christopher still had yet to play. Fortunately I did well, ending with 112.1M+, not quite good enough to put Holden in danger of getting a strike but I was still quite happy with it. It would hold up as a second place score, so I would finish round 2 with no strikes.
On to round 3, World Cup Soccer with Lee, Hunter, and Brandon (I would play first). I did start multiball during my second ball and put up a relatively decent score of 496.1M+, behind Lee’s 706.9M+. This was good enough to avoid a strike, especially satisfying since this is one of the games I don’t really like a whole lot.
The fourth round would send me to Star Wars along with Lee, Hunter, and Chad (I would play fourth). Up to this point Chad, Lee, and I all had no strikes, with Hunter having just picked up his first strike the previous round. I had two really lousy balls to start the game, leaving me to try to pass Hunter’s 151.4M+ to avoid my first strike. I unfortunately fell short, signing off with a 120.3M+. Despite the strike, this is shaping up to be an uncharacteristically strong performance for me in a strikeout format tournament.
On to round 5 and Elvira and the Party Monsters with Lee, Brandon, and Charles (I would again play fourth). This is the first round mathematically possible to have fewer players, and we did indeed have one unfortunate player get eliminated after striking out in the first four rounds, leaving 17. Lee would start multiball scoring a 4M jackpot (maxed out). By the time I got to start multiball, it would be back at the minimum of 1M. (Ideally, in a tournament, the game code would be changed such that the jackpot is a fixed value). There are plenty of ways to put up points in this game, though, and I would manage to avoid a second strike with a score of 4.83M+ behind Lee’s 7.75M+ and way ahead of the other two players (technically, I was safe before even starting my third ball so I didn’t have to play it, but I had to at least try to beat Lee’s score for pride).
Moving on to round 6, Tri Zone with Charles, Cameron, and Christopher (I would play first). I only needed the first ball, during which I posted a comparatively scorching 220,600, finishing with 265,050. Christopher would put up a respectable 127,490, easily enough to avoid a strike as well.
By this point everyone has at least one strike, and we are down to 16 players and thus four simultaneous games. Going into round 7, I would be one of three players remaining with only one strike (Lee and Chad would be the other two). I’m ecstatic about my performance so far, but at the same time I am reminding myself anything can happen.
The seventh round, the round with a traditionally lucky number, handed me what appeared on first blush to be a rather unlucky machine selection. I would be grouped with Josh, Lee, and Chad for a game on Congo (I would play second). I’m not really sure why I don’t like Congo, but it may be because I’ve never really had a chance to play one fully working. I did get a multiball mode going, and did have some luck with the cave sequence, picking up a good 60 million and a few diamonds (diamonds count towards bonus). I would finish with 263.2M+, Lee would tally a 306.4M+, and I would technically be vulnerable as Chad had 112.6M+ to start from going into his ball 3. Fortunately for me, Chad didn’t last long on the final ball of the game and signed off with a 129.2M+. I’ve decided I like Congo a bit more now. Funny how that works…
Moving on to crazy round number 8. At this point we are down to 12 players of the original 18. Matchplay’s RNG appears to like me again, placing me in a game on Metallica with Hunter, Danny, and Lee (I would play third). I would get to put up a 11.2M+ for the lead after ball 1, have a crummy ball 2, then we would have an irregularity where Hunter’s ball got stuck and was not able to be rescued such that he could continue to play it. So we began a new game, played one ball apiece, and added that to our scores from the first two balls of the original game. On this second game, I put up 4.8M+, Lee blew it up with 26.4M+, and the other two players put up relatively low scores. So, it didn’t take a calculator to figure out who should get the strikes and who shouldn’t. However, I have mocked up a graphic with the four scores and the playing order, for completeness (taking the place of the usual final score photo).
On to the ninth round. Eight players remain, so only two games would be played per round. This round would take me into the electromechanical pinball room of The Game Preserve, to a single player game called Flying Carpet, with Lee, Chad, and Eric (I would play third). The way this would work is we would each play the game in turn, record our scores, and then compare at the end. Lee went first and put up 1,306. Chad would go second and put up 696. I would go third, putting up a quite respectable 1,052, giving Chad a strike but remaining vulnerable should Eric beat my score. Eric had terrible luck, winding up with only 480 and taking the other strike. (I did not get photos of all four scores, so I am instead posting another mockup with the scores.)
Time to go back out onto the main floor for round 10. We are now down to five players: Lee, Chris, Danny, Chad, and myself. The game for the round would be Dr. Who, and the other two players were Lee and Chris (I would go first). I would play an absolute stinker of a first ball, scoring a paltry 792K even. Lee would put up an intimidating 71.7M+, Chris would follow up with a 10.2M+, which only looks like a lot because of my lousy first ball. Ball 2 would be no kinder to me, and I would start ball 3 with a mere 3.7M+ staring down Lee’s 73.3M+ and Danny’s 17.0M+. I would finish with 64.9M+, and after Lee plunges his third ball (in the interest of time, since there’s no way he’d get a strike), Chris would squeak out enough points to take second place and finish with 72.7M+. This is probably one of my more disappointing games in the tournament as I honestly had hopes that my score would hold up. This would be my second strike.
Round 11, and only four players remain: Lee, Chris, Danny, and myself. Guardians of the Galaxy would be our game, and the playing order would be Chris, me, Lee, and Danny. After a disastrous ball 1 (652,820), I would put together a relatively strong ball 2 (featuring what I honestly thought was a well played Groot Multiball), for a subtotal of 54.8M+ good for at least a momentary second place behind Lee’s 140.5M+. I would finish up with 57.0M+, and unfortunately would pick up a third strike after Danny’s ball 3 rocketed him to a finishing score of 89.5M+. Chris would also pick up a strike, but that would be his fourth. And then there were three…
Round 12 would send us over to Tri-Zone, with Lee, myself, and Danny, playing in that order. It was a close game through two balls with scores of 68,450 for Lee, 78,010 for yours truly, and then 71,960 for Danny before Lee plunged his third ball into play. Lee would sign off with a score of 97,150. I would blow it open and finish with a total score of 226,980 (way more than I needed to not get a strike). Danny would finish up with 211,940, easily enough to hand Lee his second strike.
We move on to round 13 on NBA Fastbreak. The play order would be Danny, then Lee, then me. I would put up 37 after two balls. Danny would finish up with 32. Lee would manage 34, good enough to give Danny his fourth strike and a third place finish. I’d plunge off ball 3 as there was no need to run it up any more and it was starting to get late.
And so it came down to this. Round 14 of what’s shaping up to be an epic tournament, with the only two players left being Lee and yours truly. At this point Lee has two strikes and I have three, so in order to win the tournament I would need to win two games in a row against Lee, heads-up. The first of the possible two games would be on Twilight Zone.
I had a really lousy first ball, and for better or worse I am missing the picture with my score. I do have the picture going into ball 3, showing 11.5M+ for me and 52.7M+ for Lee. This is Twilight Zone, one of the pinballs I played frequently in the mid- to late 1990s, a game I would normally feel confident playing. So much so, that after seeing Lee start a multiball by locking one ball then shooting the ramp, I gave him advice that you can get a much larger potential jackpot (starting at 40M) locking two balls first, than by locking one and shooting the ramp (which starts jackpot at 15M).
In what is perhaps a cruel twist of fate, I manage to save the ball up the ramp after locking only one, starting a multiball with the pathetic 15M jackpot value. Okay, I don’t need that many points to establish a lead, so I’m not sweating it a whole lot. Any other time I play Twilight Zone, I manage to either make the player piano shot for jackpot directly, or bounce a ball off of one of the ramp posts into the player piano shot. This time, I manage to do neither. I completely whiff the multiball restart as well. Shortly after that disaster, the ball makes the left outlane from the bumpers. Final score: 35.3M+. Game over, tournament over. Second place for me, and Lee wins the tournament he organized. My quest for a true first place finish continues…
Just to have had the opportunity to compete was an experience, especially given the craziness that has happened in 2020, and the unfortunate timing of my break from competitive pinball intended to last less than a year, starting in 2019 June, but prolonged because of the pandemic. To last this long in a strikeout tournament is a new page in the history of my involvement with pinball competition. I am definitely not giving up now.
I hung around The Game Preserve and played a few more games of pinball. The highlight of those post-tournament games would be putting up 1,084,770 on Charlie’s Angels–difficult to document due to the fact this is a six-digit score counter machine, so I have the score after my first ball, followed by a picture of the score counter just after rolling it over, followed by the end of game score. For these early Gottlieb SS games, the first 100K points after the rollover, the leading zeros of the score counter will be lit, the only telltale sign of going “over the top”. It only figures that I put together this commanding of a performance after the tournament is over.
We still haven’t received word on when the IFPA will resume endorsing matches. All WPPR points from 2020 are effectively “dead money” as there will be no championships based on points for 2020. The decay continues though, much to the annoyance of some players who had higher point totals built up. The order stays the same, though, since nothing has been ranked for months; the totals will continue to decrease as events pass the one-, two-, and three-year marks.
As I was checking emails post-tournament, I did observe that the Texas Pinball Festival has canceled the 2021 event (they were going to wait until January but decided to cease delaying the apparently inevitable) and is rolling over registration again to 2022. Hopefully, the 2022 event will actually happen. I am still technically on the waitlist for the Wizards tournament, though I consider it at best unlikely I will make it to the top, based on it being even more unlikely players will be relinquishing their spots. It’s still possible, but if I do not, it will make it much more difficult to make any type of legitimate run at the IFPA state, North American, or world championships (outside of “The Open”, which I believe has also been canned for 2021 since INDISC has been canceled). I’ll talk more about this later. I wish everyone a happy holiday season, as I ponder just how oddly apropos it is to have received a silver dumpster fire trophy.
Another trip back to Speedy’s on Monday 12/14 (yes, I’m running way behind on posting these). Most of the Speedy’s trip was pretty unremarkable, save for the 20-way combo on The Munsters, the 172M+ on Jurassic Park, and one of my better times on Quick & Crash of 6.220 seconds.
My first trip out to The Game Preserve (Woodlands) in ages, on Friday 12/18, was a bit more eventful. Highlights include:
5.44M+ on The Simpsons (pinball)
72.3M+ on Star Trek (Stern pinball)
18,495 on Q*Bert
579M+ on Game of Thrones (pro version, no upper playfield)
3,209 on Flying Carpet
148,700 on Paragon
The score on Butterfly is actually 2,223,700 (score counter rolled over twice) but this is with significant player benefit malfunctions (double bonus and extra ball stuck on among others).
Of particular note, even though my score is not what I’d really call highlight material, I got to play the Spy Hunter pinball as well as get in a quick game of Klax on an actual arcade machine, both for the first time in decades. The last game of Spy Hunter pinball I remember was at the Sharpstown Mall Time-Out downstairs next to JCPenney. The mall is now called PlazAmericas, both the arcade (which became a de facto Namco Cyberstation before its demise) and JCPenney have long since left the building. The last game of Klax I played on a real arcade machine was at Memorial City Mall, either Jungle Jim’s or Kids’ Kingdom, not sure which but definitely before the Exhilarama takeover. That space was eventually redeveloped into Sultan Pepper, Chipotle, and Berryhill in the food court, with most of the space Exhilarama used for rides, laser tag, the nickel game pit, etc going to what at the time was Lord & Taylor and later (oddly enough) a JCPenney.
Anyway, back to the present day. The main purpose behind this visit was to get an idea of what games would be in play for the tournament the following night (see next post), as well as pick up my T-shirt and activate my membership purchased online. I also needed the change of pace from what’s become the usual fare at Speedy’s more than I realized at the time.
So this past Tuesday (12/8), I finally got the time and spare change to swing by Speedy’s again for the first time in months. Greeting me was a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles machine, which I had heard about but had not had the chance to actually play. Until now, of course.
The very first game I play, barely knowing what the heck I was doing, I managed to put up a cool 23.67M exactly, good enough for high score #1, the spot right below grand champion (by a little less than a million at that), as well as Leonardo champion (a high score slot specifically for the players picking that turtle at the start of the game). I’m starting to like this game. I wouldn’t do as well for the rest of the games I played, and would in fact put up some downright lousy scores. I would move over to Star Wars, put up an 81.7M+, and call it an evening.
But I would be back the following day (Wednesday 12/9). I wouldn’t post too many remarkable scores until after I dropped in on the video game section and put up an even 21K on Q*Bert. After going back to pinball, highlights would consist of 130.8M+ on Batman, 189.5M+ on Iron Maiden, 15.06M+ on Turtles (good for the high score #3 slot and Donatello champion, replacing some schmuck who apparently forgot they were playing in a family arcade and entered their initials as ASS, which gave me even more personal satisfaction).
I would return the following evening (Thursday 12/10) and try out Jurassic Park again, a game I had trouble getting into the first few times I played it. My willingness would pay off as I’d post a 109.3M+ and a T-Rex Chase champion total of 58M. I’d follow that up with another good run on Iron Maiden, highlighted by a 152.8M+ and a 33M Hallowed Be Thy Name champion, then a 136.7M+ with a 39.33M Trooper Multiball champion. I’d try Quick & Crash again (which I had played on previous visits but did not take pictures of my times), posting a 6.621 second time, and wrap up with a surprisingly decent 77K+ on Millipede.
Friday (12/11) brought with it a work-related trip to Port Arthur, and on the way back I decided to take a detour to Beaumont and get in a couple more rounds of Ghostbusters. Someone left a credit on the machine (!) which I promptly turned into 173.6M+ good for high score #3 and a Terror Dog champion of 10.15M+. I would later post a 525.6M+ good for high score #1 and an absolutely scorching Storage Facility champion total of 205.95M. Not bad for someone who used to hate the stuffing out of this game. A rather limp score of 37 on Lane Master would end the evening. I cashed in 120 tickets from my balance for four small packages of M&Ms, all of which I ate before leaving Beaumont city limits.
All in all, a fairly good week. I’m looking forward to really mastering TMNT which so far looks like perhaps the most fun and challenging game Stern has put out in a long while, outdoing even Black Knight: Sword of Rage and Guardians of the Galaxy. With scores like this, I’m looking forward to ending 2020 on a high note and starting 2021 off with a bang, including getting back to tournament play.