All Articles by Shawn K. Quinn

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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.

Status of record score attempts, 2018 February

So recently I came back to the original reason for starting this blog: record score attempts, primarily on classic video games. For a while, I kind of pushed that to the side when the competitive pinball scene began blossoming again here in Houston.

And then I heard about two big controversies regarding record scores and times. First was the Todd Rogers/Atari 2600 Dragster record controversy (since thrown out, and Mr. Rogers is now banned from the Twin Galaxies site), and second was the more recent controversy over Billy Mitchell’s Donkey Kong record attempts. (I will probably write about both of these on my other blog, Rant Roulette within the coming weeks, as they are a better fit for that blog than this one.)

Between the two of those, I found myself on the Twin Galaxies website more often in a week than I had been in the previous year or so. And I started looking at the scores in a few games in particular. Those games are Klax, Centipede, Millipede, and Galaga.

The eventual goal of almost everyone in competitive gaming is to be the best. In this case, that’s a world record or a number 1 ranked score. Or, at least something which was a number 1 ranked score at some point in time. I’ll be honest here, I’m aware that I am starting to get up there in years. Centipede, Millipede, and Galaga were brand new when I was in elementary school. Klax was still relatively new when I started high school, a product of the infamous late 1980s/early 1990s puzzle game craze, right before Street Fighter II exploded onto the scene (and we all know the rest of that story). To say the least, there’s only so much time left for me to find a working game I want to be competitive on and learn it. That could be only 10 years from now. If I manage to still be competitive after that, I’ll be amazed at myself.

Right now Twin Galaxies is down, so I’m working from memory on what exactly the scores were. The Klax record is probably the one I have the best chance to beat, at 2.6M+ 2.83M+ (Paul Hornitsky, 2012). That’s medium difficulty, with difficulty ramping on. Just to get my confidence back, I’ve been practicing with difficulty ramping off. The difference is stark: with ramping on, tiles start coming much more frequently, and thus the strategy with ramping on is to score a lot of points quickly early on. My original goal is not to take down the record, but just to get over 1 million to submit to Twin Galaxies, which should stay within at least the top 5 for quite some time (particularly if I get to 1.5M+). Eventually, I might get good enough to make a legitimate attempt at the world record, but then again I might not.

Centipede and Millipede (tournament settings) have many scores well into seven digits (the millions). Realistically, my goal in playing these is to just have my name on a relatively good score (100K or greater for Centipede, TBD for Millipede). As time goes on, I may aim for higher scores, but the reality is anything over e.g. 1M on Centipede is going to take physical stamina I may no longer have.

Galaga (tournament settings) is going to be much the same situation, with a lot of scores I can tell are going to be out of my reach.

I’m not ruling out other titles, but right now these are the three four titles I feel most confident in.

Which brings me to another issue. Right now my living situation is such that I don’t have room for an arcade cabinet. I hope to change this by the end of the year, meaning my first actual record attempt might not be until early 2019. If I can get one together sooner, great. If not, I’m not going to push it. This is something that I plan to make happen; it is just a question of timing.

[Edit: The record for Klax was actually 200K+ higher than I remembered, as I found when the TG site came back up a short time ago. Added Galaga, since it’s another title I feel reasonably confident in and I had added it to my TG profile.]

Einstein’s Drainiacs 2018 February: Grand champion of the galaxy?

Right after last month’s tournament, I spent a little time to really think about how 2017 ended and how 2018 had begun, not just as a competitive pinball player but as someone looking to improve his situation in life. I’m not going to go into too many details, but suffice it to say after quite a few bad to mediocre years in a row, 2017 was one of the better years I’ve experienced.

I have always found it difficult, in whatever types of competitions I have been in, to rebound from a disastrous performance like the one in January. The good news is I could truthfully tell myself that it could not possibly get any worse, it was only a question of how much better it would be. Such was the mindset I kept in place as I entered Einstein’s Pub and made my way towards the pinball area in the back (towards the north end of the bar, with the main entrance being on the south end of the east wall).

The game lineup has remained mostly the same, with AC/DC Vault Edition being added since last month and no games being removed. I settled in quickly and managed to get in three games of Attack from Mars, leaving one credit for the lucky souls who would draw it their first game. Yes, the scores I put up during warmups left a bit to be desired (I won one replay out of three paid credits).

The afternoon’s tournament would begin ambitiously enough on The Champion Pub. I was grouped with Phil Grimaldi, Joe Cuellar, and Cory Westfahl. I never really got much going in this game. I was facing scores of 8.1M+ (Phil) and 14.0M+ (Joe) as the third player on ball 1. I would put up a whopping 611,180 despite making the +5X bonus on the skill shot. The bonus multiplier award is potentially more lucrative than the million or smart punch that other players often aim for, though you actually have to run up a decent bonus to make full use of it. Cory would post a score of 11.6M+. Phil and Joe would have a relatively low-scoring ball 2, but it still wasn’t enough to help me as I was only able to get to around 4.8M+. By the time it was my turn again, I was looking at needing to beat Phil’s score of 16.2M+ to have any realistic hope of not getting a strike (and ideally, much more than that), as Joe had run up his score to north of 50.1M. I did do well on the video mode and bring my score up to 13.5M+, but that was not enough. The bad news was I got a strike this round. The relatively good news was, so did Phil (which is surprisingly uncharacteristic of him).

To not only get a strike but also finish dead last in the first game, was a huge disappointment. I needed redemption, and I needed it in the worst way. Round 2 went up, and I would be going first in front of Rebecca Cook, Jeff Cook, and Raleigh Palis. Most players don’t like going first; I usually don’t mind it, but coming off the disaster on The Champion Pub, I would have felt better about playing later in the order.

I play my first ball and post a paltry 3.5M+, good enough for second place for the moment after Rebecca puts up a 16.1M+ and Jeff and Raleigh both fall well short of the 2M mark. I step up to play ball 2, managing to get Groot Multiball started. I make every jackpot there is, including a 32M super jackpot (no idea how I managed to do that). I know I’ve got a pretty high score, though I’m not looking at the scoreboard, just trying to keep it going. I manage to keep the ball in play long enough to start a second Groot Multiball and pile on even more points. I would end ball 2 with a white-hot score of 158.9M+. I would tack on a few more points with Orb Multiball in ball 3 before signing off with 167.7M+, good enough not only for first place in this game but for grand champion on this machine. In the strictest sense, I didn’t need such a decisive high score, but in a broader sense, I needed something to restore my confidence as the last round in this tournament series where I did not get a strike was round 9 of the 2017 December tournament on Star Trek.

The real shocker here, though, is Rebecca’s 29.3M+ which would put her in second place, leaving the strikes for Jeff and Raleigh. This appears to be Rebecca’s first tournament (she would be eliminated after round 6, good for thirteenth place). Looking at Jeff’s tournament history, on the other hand, I would have expected him to be taking second place in this game (he is a regular at the XXX Tuesdays tournament at The Game Preserve, having won twice and finishing near the top several other times, and also came in fourth at the Houston Arcade Expo tournament last year).

Anyway, on to round 3. I would be grouped with David Pollock, Marc Gammons, and Rob Layne on AC/DC, and this time I would be playing fourth. I was a bit worried from the beginning as David put up 20.6M+ on the first ball, a lot of points for this game. Marc and Rob put up much lower scores, though, and I only need second place to avoid a strike. I would put up 3.3M+ on ball 1, enough for a temporary second place. By the time it got back around to me, Marc had only advanced his score to just north of 4.0M, so there wasn’t as much pressure as there could have been. I’d post a 7.7M+ after ball 2, and technically I could have just plunged ball 3 and still been able to avoid a strike. Since it’s coin play, I did play out just to see how close I could come to David’s 51.8M+. I did wind up with a respectable 21.3M+.

My round 4 would be on Star Trek, and I would play second behind David Pollock and in front of Matt Quantz and Cory Westfahl. I had a real dud of a first ball, finding myself in a precarious spot by the time I stepped up to ball 2. I had 3.5M+, trailing David’s 9.6M+ and Cory’s 29.9M+. I did get to 17.8M+, which David was unable to surpass. Matt leapfrogged to 45.9M+ by the time I stepped up for ball 3, meaning I needed to beat Cory’s 33.3M+ at a bare minimum to stay alive. Amazingly, I was able to put together another clutch performance (I think it was a particularly strong Vengeance Multiball that sealed the deal). I would sign off with 59.3M+ good for first place, leaving Cory as the recipient of the other strike. I felt good enough to take a selfie, though it didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped.

Moving on to round 5, which for me would be on Attack from Mars, playing first ahead of Dora Li, Benjamin Horstman, and Matt Quantz. Ball 1 was relatively lousy for everyone, I had a nominal second place with 498M+ behind only Dora’s 759M+. My ball 2 was a dud, and I would start ball 3 looking at Ben’s 1.71B+ and Dora’s 1.12B+ ahead of my 589M+. I really laid an egg, signing off with 662M+, and giving me strike number two. Despite the fact this game went really sideways really fast, I was still feeling pretty good about how I had done so far.

The coming of round 6 would bring a unique opportunity to play Theatre of Magic. I drew a three-player group, playing behind Cory Westfahl and Joe Cuellar. It was a relatively ho-hum game until Cory blew it open on ball 2 with a very well-played multiball, scoring some 711M+. I was able to earn an extra ball early in ball 2. I started multiball once but completely bombed it. I had the Vanish lock so I actually had a four-ball multiball; however, I immediately lost two of the four balls and couldn’t keep multiball alive long enough to get even one jackpot. I would redeem myself by getting at least one jackpot when I started multiball again. I would finish ball 2 with 887M+, which would be good enough to clinch first place (I would play out and finish the game with 949M+).

Round 7 came around. I drew Game of Thrones, playing second behind Joe Cuellar and ahead of Dora Li and David Pollock. I’m not sure what went wrong, but all around this game was just a disaster. I was able to manage all of 4.7M+ which would not even come close to Joe’s third-place score of 33.0M+ let alone the scores Dora and David were able to post. Thus I get stuck with a third strike.

Round 8 would find me playing Star Trek in a three-player game, as the second player between Marc Gammons and Benjamin Horstman. It came down to needing to beat Ben’s 32.0M+. I had 9.5M+ before starting ball 3 and was only able to muster a 14.6M+ by the time it was over. So, that was the end of the line for me. I’d play Guardians of the Galaxy a few more times before a group drew it for tournament play (putting up three scores I’d consider relatively good out of five games), and then I’d head back home.

(Incidentally, Ben would go on to win the tournament over Phil in round 13.)

Ninth place out of a field of 16 is not that great, but considering what I was rebounding from in the prior month’s tournament, it’s pretty good. I’m looking forward to March, but don’t be surprised if I go out and play some more Guardians of the Galaxy on location somewhere in the meantime…