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.

Space City Pinball League, Season 2 Week 1: Oh, this rooster sure can lay an egg

So tonight was the first week of the second season of the Space City Pinball League. I didn’t play in the first season, for a variety of reasons, but I plan to play as many weeks of this season as possible.

The venue is Eighteen Twenty Lounge, next door to Joystix (the corner of the building closest to the intersection of Hamilton and Franklin). It’s a relatively nice bar (I didn’t take that many pictures of the bar itself, if anyone wants me to just say the word and I’ll take a few next week). The games in the lineup are: Game of Thrones LE, Batman: The Dark Knight, Spiderman, The Walking Dead, KISS, and Star Trek. All are fairly recent games from Stern, and all are well maintained, clean, and play as fast as jackrabbit sex.

So, it started off being a decent night. I had the lead through the first two balls of Game of Thrones LE, and I’m thinking it might turn out to be not so bad. I have some 14 million points and change, which looks like it might actually hold up for first place. (I know it’s probably a fairly low score, and as the weeks go on I’m hoping I’ll be able to look back at it and laugh.) And then Justin Niles plays his final ball. And it becomes obvious I’m settling for second place that game in rather short order.

The next game is KISS. For whatever reason, I never really got it going. I would sign off with an embarrassingly low 4.7M+, good enough for dead last. Not surprisingly, Justin would win this one too with a 25.8M+. I’m starting to doubt myself right about here.

After this, we played on Star Trek. I got a little bit going on the third ball, enough to eek out a 14.8M+ good enough for second. Justin, of course, dominates with a 38.7M+. At this point I officially readjust my goals to just try to put up a decent showing for the rest of the night.

Next came Spiderman. This might be a fun game to play, but the ridiculously conservative tilt setting made it more of a chore. I would barely eek out a 15.8M+ good enough for third. Justin, of course, smokes us with a 58.9M+ and mathematically eliminates the rest of us from any hope of winning the group that night.

We would wrap up on Batman: The Dark Knight. As if getting used to finishing out of first place was not bad enough: my final score this game was 6,532,970. Ruben, one of the other players in the group, would take second place with 6,538,030. A difference of a mere 5,060 points, which on this game is probably around what a single bumper hit scores, separating my third place from Ruben’s second place score. As you might have guessed by now, Justin walked away with this one with an 18.8M+ and becomes the only player in the entire league to win all five games for 25 ranking points. The other three of us (Ruben, Chris, and myself) tied at 10 ranking points for the night, in a four-way tie for 19th out of 26 players (one player from a different group also finished the night with 10 ranking points).

Given I’ve never played at least two of these titles before (Spiderman and Batman: The Dark Knight), my previous experience with Game of Thrones was on the Pro version (the LE adds an upper mini-playfield), and my experience with the other two titles was very limited at best, maybe I didn’t perform that badly after taking everything into account. But I still feel like I “laid an egg” tonight (thus the title). I really should have been able to put together at least one performance good enough for first place, and it just didn’t happen.

I did have a good time, all things considered. I got to see some familiar faces again, and meet some new people as well. I am uploading the pics below, and for those of you who want to follow along (and don’t mind the occasional spoilers between league night and when I write my post about it), the results will also be available at http://scpl.league.papa.org.

Game Preserve Friday: Life starts getting back to normal

After a considerable amount of time away, I was able to make it back in front of a few pinball games on Friday night 1/15. This post has been sitting on my server in various stages of completeness since then, with most of it having been completed on Monday 1/18 and just awaiting a few final touches. Suffice it to say, life has been hectic but is slowly getting back to normal.

Highlights from the night, with photos posted below:

  • 1,459,320 on Space Shuttle (first player of a four-player game someone else had abandoned early on, I forget the player 1 score when I started but the majority of the points scored are mine over balls 2 and 3)
  • 104,955 on Q*Bert’s Qubes
  • 19-12 against the AI in Tournament Cyberball (my Flash vs. AI’s Lightning)
  • 345,100 on Firepower (5 ball game)
  • 13,059,280 on Ripley’s Believe It or Not
  • 158,320 on Evel Knievel (5 ball game)
  • 449,220 on Blue Chip (5 ball game)
  • 515,660 on Rock Encore
  • 223,250 on Roller Disco (5 ball game)
  • 3,801 on Beat Time (5 ball game)

The Q*Bert’s Qubes game came towards the end of the night and I came quite close to my previous personal high score (I didn’t realize how close until I compared my previous photo). I still have relatively low confidence I could ever make a decent world record attempt on it, though I may post a score just for “been there, done that” purposes. Assuming the constraint of starting at L1R1 (level 1, round 1), I would like to think 100K+ is a respectable score. Then again, Q*Bert’s Qubes is such an obscure title that even a lot of hardcore gamers are unlikely to pay it much mind…

I did get in a game of (one-player) Tournament Cyberball before the night was over; I’ve done better, but knowing I can win games that come down to the wire like this one is a great confidence booster. I don’t know how much I’m going to practice this one to try to get back to where I once was (I used to be at least decent, if not good, at this particular title). It is a fun one to play between rounds of pinball, I’ll give it that. I have, in the past, stuck to the Flash as my team of choice. Back in the day I would play a lot of games as either the Crush or the Flash, though i have given thought to switching up to a passing team as my team of choice (either Lightning or Invasion).

And the rest of the scores are the usual pinball suspects. Roller Disco finally appears to be working a lot better than it was, it no longer scores points just by flipping the flippers or nudging the machine. I consider the score I posted on this night to be a bit more “legitimate” as a result; my unofficial goal is 400K by either the end of this year or whenever this game makes its exit from The Game Preserve. The high game to date on it is in the 550K range so 400K shouldn’t be all that hard if I get the right rhythm going.

It’s the same for my eventual goal of 10K+ (score counter roll) on Beat Time, one of the few games I’ve seen at The Game Preserve since the very beginning. I have posted a 6K+ score on this game so I’m pretty sure 10K+ is doable. It would just be a question of either winning enough extra balls to keep the game going, or having at least, say, three balls in a game scoring 2,500+ each, one extra ball, and the other three balls being at least decent (900 points each). The problem is that actually getting the extra ball on this game involves a lot more luck than usual; either getting the bumpers to knock the ball through the top 3-6-9-12 lanes, or hitting the rotating target which is placed such that a hard shot makes an “insta-drain” quite the possibility.

As a parallel, I eventually rolled the score counter on Liberty Bell when we had that one available. Realistically, I didn’t expect to ever do that, having once posted a few scores in the 700K-899K range and then finally a 900K+ score. The stategy on Liberty Bell was not that dissimilar; rip lit spinners enough times (which is, by the way, much easier to do than on a game like Blue Chip), try to keep making drop targets, and make sure to have at least a couple of doubled 100K bonuses to help out. Beat Time has no spinners, but having the bumpers and bumper area targets lit increases the scoring from 1 and 10 respectively, to 10 and 100 respectively, and is usually key to getting a good score. Yes, the 3-6-9-12 lanes are key to both this and the extra ball, but in at least one game on this night, I was not able to convert a lit extra ball. That was quite painful, too…

The only other particularly noteworthy score is the Blue Chip score. As a single player game, the strategy is a lot different than it would be on a multi-player game. (In the electromechanical (EM) era, only single player games carried forward game features such as lit targets, made drop targets, etc. from ball to ball. The move to solid state (SS) or “computer” technology made this difference irrelevant; only one single-player SS game was made to my knowledge, before what could be done with the technology was fully realized by manufacturers.) Anyway, the main goal of Blue Chip is to light the numbered targets 1 through 8 to light special on the right eject hole and outlanes (though it can be set such that only 1 through 6 are required to light an outlane special). Other numbers light other features, such as 2 lighting the left spinner, 5 lighting the right spinner, etc. “Rip the lit spinner” will get you quite a few points on this game, though it’s far from the only good strategy; I would prefer to build up bonus and then make a lit “double bonus” lane.

I would be content with a personal high score of 600K on Blue Chip, though a 1M+ (score counter rollover) should be possible with enough luck, even assuming a game not set to award extra balls.

Pinball Arcade and stuff

During the past month or so, I’ve been playing a few games on Pinball Arcade on my Android tablet, mainly the free pinball table that the app comes with, Tales of the Arabian Nights. I usually don’t bother with pinball simulations, but seeing as at least one of the tables on this app is one I would almost certainly never get to play in real life (that being Goin’ Nuts, a Gottlieb table from 1983, of which only 10 engineering samples exist as the new management felt widebody tables were too expensive to mass produce), this may well become one of the few apps I wind up paying for at some point.

Interestingly, until I played it in Pinball Arcade, I had completely forgotten just how good of a table Tales of the Arabian Nights was. The settings they give you for TOTAN are: 3 balls per game, extra ball lit after 4 jewels (I’m not sure if this is operator adjustable on a real machine), extra ball for scoring 8M points. So that’s at least two extra balls one can earn on a 3 ball game.

I also put up some decent scores on the free table for December, Victory (Gottlieb, 1987). I used to own this table in real life, though I never once put up a completely legitimate high score on it due to one of the spinners continuously malfunctioning.

Then came the night I purely by chance tuned into the Buffalo Pinball stream on Twitch when they were giving away Pinball Arcade passes. As it happens, I got drawn for the Season Four pass. The games from that season are: The Addams Family, Cyclone, Earthshaker, Jack*Bot, Party Zone, The Phantom of the Opera, Red & Ted’s Road Show, Safe Cracker, Starship Troopers, and Xenon. I’ve put up some rather high scores on a few of these as well; see pictures at the end of the post.

Finally, this month (January) the free table of the month is High Speed (Williams, 1986). I remember this one from my middle school years hanging out at the bowling alley after school. It was the rightmost of three machines in a row in the corner of the arcade, the other two being Road Kings (Williams, 1986) in the center and Secret Service (Data East, 1987) on the left. I spent more time on Secret Service, since the replay score was stuck at 400,000 (pathetically low). Even back then, I noticed the unmistakeable similarities between the playfield designs of Secret Service and High Speed, and as it turns out I was not the only one. (To be fair, the rules are different enough that the games play completely differently despite this.)