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.)

Game Preserve Friday: “You can’t be the best at everything”

I’ll get on to the meat of this one in a few. First, I wanted to get through at least some of the highlights from Friday night:

  • 105,740 on Q*Bert’s Qubes
  • 44,930 on Hyper Sports
  • 287,200 on Blue Chip
  • 1,074,090 on Space Shuttle
  • 3,356 on Beat Time

I’ll elaborate on these in reverse order. I’ve put up scores well into the 4,000+ range on Beat Time before, with an all-time record of 6,859. For a nightly highlight, though, 3,356 is a score I’m happy with. It’s above the second of four replay levels (the settings are 2,600/3,300/4,000/4,600).

The Space Shuttle score is again far off of my best, but again quite respectable for a nightly highlight. I had trouble making the lock shots and at times the center drop target and center ramp. If I can consistently hit the lock shots and the ramp, and keep starting multiball after multiball, I’m damn near unstoppable on Space Shuttle. That’s how I ran up the 6,190,550 score back in early August; incidentally, that score is still on the board in second place as of Friday night when I left (someone managed to put up a 6.4M+ since, I have no idea who).

The scores on Blue Chip I put up were pretty good, but the bigger story on that game is that I am now getting to the point where I can consistently make all 8 targets, though getting special afterwards is another story. This is quite noteworthy given the left flipper doesn’t go quite full stroke on this particular table; it’s good enough to make most of the shots except the right saucer, but it is rather difficult to cradle a ball on the left flipper. The right spinner is also not working as of at least the tournament, probably sooner. (Not that it’s particularly easy to really rip the right spinner given the left flipper, so in part that’s just as well…)

The Hyper Sports score represents the first time I have made it all the way to the pole vault stage on an actual arcade machine. In case you have forgotten which game this was, it was the follow-up to Track & Field and featured swimming, skeet shooting, long horse, archery, triple jump, weight lifting, and pole vault. Unlike Track & Field where the hammer throw was usually the game-ending event due to its difficulty, the only truly difficult event is the pole vault. (It is much harder than Track & Field’s high jump, for example; the high jump allows one to change one’s trajectory in mid-jump while the pole vault does not.)

Finally, the Q*Bert’s Qubes score, the video game highlight of the night, is my best on an actual arcade machine. Historically, I have not considered Q*Bert’s Qubes a game I am particularly strong at. I only ever got to play it once or twice near the time of its release “back in the day” (scoring, I think, around 40,000 or so), but I have played it on MAME since then and grown quite a fond appreciation for it. Assuming those are marathon settings, that score would have been good for fourth on the Twin Galaxies board for Q*Bert’s Qubes, however first place on that board is a staggering 10.1M+ by Donald Hayes back in 2007. More on this later.

I did make a pretty solid run on Millipede, trying to better my previous high score. I succeeded in pushing another MAJ score or two off the list (this Millipede has a modified boardset that keeps all 8 high scores, not just the top 3 like original Atari boards). Since I didn’t set an actual new high score, I don’t have a picture.

I did play a couple of quick rounds on Junkyard, which was a recent addition to the lineup at The Game Preserve. Even though the score is rather unremarkable (at least by how I remember this game scoring back in the day) I did take a picture. Along with Junkyard, Congo (re-)joins the lineup in what I’m guessing is a temporary spot next to the tech room.

But the main highlight of the evening would have to be the last game of the night (I didn’t take pictures, for better or worse). I played a six-period game of Tournament Cyberball 2072 against Joe Reyna, one of the owners at The Game Preserve. It was a close game, with Joe’s Tokyo Flash defeating my Moscow Machine by a final score of 28-20. I was able to keep it a competitive game (within a touchdown) for most of the first five periods, though in the end an errant pass was intercepted by Joe’s team which wound up being the deciding factor in the game. The quote in the post title is from Joe, and I chose to make that the post title for a reason.

There is a fine line between being confident and cocky. I know Joe said what he did at least somewhat in jest, but there is an element of truth to it. My ego does tend to get a bit over-inflated from time to time. Yes, I do get rather proud of setting a high score or achieving other important milestones in whatever video game or pinball table I happen to be playing that day; maybe in a few cases, more proud than I should be.

However, there are games I am not good at, that I will probably never be good at because I either find them less interesting, or other reasons. There are also games that I once was somewhat good at that I will probably never take up again. Dance Dance Revolution, Pump It Up, and similar games would likely qualify as games for which my time to have played them has come and gone. However, the only DDR tournament I entered, I think I wound up busting out in the first round. I enjoyed the hell out of DDR when it was “the game” to be playing in the arcade, particularly when I could hop on the machine and play 8-panel (“doubles”). I did get to the point where I could pass some 6-foot songs playing doubles (this was when I was in my late 20s). Now, if you were to ask me to try even a 3-foot doubles song on DDR today, I’d probably laugh and go back to whatever pinball game I was playing.

I am primarily a pinball player now, though I play enough of certain videogames to be able to show I’m not just a “one-trick pony” and also because, as odd as it seems, a lot of people are more impressed by videogame performances than pinball.

Going back to my previous post, if I hadn’t played enough Millipede on MAME over the years to know what it’s like to play the higher levels of difficulty, I probably would have just looked the other way when I saw MAJ all over the high score list. At most, trying to get the top spot would have been an afterthought. Until I got all the way to where I start at 300,000 points and have to deal with eight spiders at the start of a new game, I had some doubts that I had what it took to beat MAJ’s scores. Even after playing a few times with a 300,000-point start and not cracking the high score list at all, I kept up with it.

To be at the top of the high score list, you don’t have to be the best every time you play, you just have to put up a score higher than what’s on there once.

This is one reason playing in pinball tournaments has been tricky for me at first. There is a huge difference between being able to run up a massive score once or twice over hundreds of attempts, and being able to have a great game right there on the spot in a tournament setting. A lot of tournament games have all four players end the game with what would be otherwise embarrassing scores. There are also situations where the player in fourth place of a four player game (i.e. last place) finishes with a score that ordinarily would be rather impressive. Say, 3.5M+ on Space Shuttle, 150M+ on The Addams Family, 750M+ on Twilight Zone, 500K+ on Mata Hari, 300K+ on Trident, 100K+ on Wizard of Oz, etc. But yet, the other three players managed to top even this. The famous saying of Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over ’till it’s over,” may well have originated with pinball tournaments.

Anyway, back to videogame records before I close this out. Obviously, Q*Bert’s Qubes is not the game I would prefer to try for a world record on. I could put up a decent score, maybe as high as 300K+ given enough practice. But this would only be good for second or third place on the Twin Galaxies list. So what else does that leave?

I have been eyeing the Klax record and the Centipede 3-minute record. Klax was a good choice if I had jumped on it a couple of years ago, but now the record of 2,833,216 by Paul Hornitzky is quite formidable. I wouldn’t go as far as to say insurmountable, but it took a great deal of effort to top 1 million when I last tried this title in MAME. Part of the reason I consider the Klax record to be as formidable as it is, is the fact that the Twin Galaxies settings include difficulty ramping, a feature intended to shorten game times dramatically (otherwise wizards could sit there and play all day on one credit, something arcade operators really do not like).

The Centipede 3-minute record is a more tempting goal. I am pretty sure the ROM dump of the timed variant ROMs will play on a standard Centipede board. The only catch is that two-player games become unavailable in the process, and Twin Galaxies has not published the settings for this particular record. Donald Hayes, again, holds this record for now with a score of 59,106, and for better or worse it was verified by referee and no video appears to exist, so I’m going to be “in the dark” as to exactly how he did it. I’ve been able to crank out 36K+ scores with regularity playing with a mouse in MAME, though that would only be good for 11th to 13th on the current list I am looking at.

I may consider others, particularly more obscure titles. I probably won’t be in a position to ramp up to a fully publicized videogame record attempt until the latter half of 2016, so pinball is likely to stay my main focus for a while.

Houston Arcade Expo 2015 (Including Pinball Tournament)

Finally, I am to the point where I can write about the goings-on at Houston Arcade Expo a couple of weeks ago. Remember, even though I’m writing about it now, this actually happened a couple of weeks ago (weekend of November 12-13). My primary reason for attending was, of course, the pinball tournament. This was my first big pinball tournament, and I am certainly hoping it will not be my last.

After reading the rules, I knew I would have to spend at least $40 on entries in order to have any realistic chance. That’s pretty much exactly what I did. I’m not going to go into detail on each machine, but I am going to mention a few highlights.

The first highlight was that the first time I ever got to play Wizard of Oz (full LCD game from Jersey Jack Pinball) was in the tournament qualifier. I worked my way up to it after posting some decent and some rather embarrassing scores on some other games. I knew up front that in all likelihood I would either be playing each game only once and maybe trying again on a couple of machines if I had fairly decent scores across the board, or aborting after spending my first $10, $20, or so if I just didn’t have it. I had maybe $5 to spend on retries. My game on Wizard of Oz was either the seventh or eighth game that I posted a qualifying score on, and I would like to think it was a decent score given it was the very first time I played it at all. As shown in the gallery, my score was 65,371. At the time I posted it, it was near the top (I want to say fourth or fifth). By the time the dust settled, it was a somewhat disappointing 20th of 37.

The second highlight would have to be my score of 70,537,370 on The Addams Family. I hit a double jackpot during multiball and rang up a good number of points on other features, so again, I felt like this was a decent score at the time, but it would be pushed all the way down to 25th of 37 by the time qualifying ended. Not long after I played it, I noticed it resetting in mid-game on another player.

The third highlight, which is perhaps the biggest, was my score on an EM Gottlieb called Captain Card. I posted 56,120, good for 6th out of 35. This ranked higher than the scores posted by Phil Grimaldi (41,470), Carey Fishman (43,190), and Jon Drew (54,210).

It became obvious well before I even left to head back over to the hotel, that my scores would not be good enough to qualify. On one hand it was disappointing, on the other it freed me to enjoy the rest of the expo. More on that later.

Most of the games in the tournament area (14 out of 16) were in good condition with no noticeable issues, or perhaps minor issues I didn’t notice. The two notable exceptions were Wild Wheels and Earthshaker. Wild Wheels would not complete the startup sequence without power-cycling the machine, and in fact had a power switch installed on the power cord to make this easier. Once started, the game played fine. Except that I wound up starting a two player game without realizing it (I must have hit the start button again after the initial reset thinking something didn’t register). Fortunately, the tournament director was cool about it and even gave me the benefit of the doubt (higher score of the two players).

On the other hand, Earthshaker had at least three obvious problems. To be honest, the case could be made that it should not have been in the tournament lineup at all. The specific problems I found were the plunger not being strong enough to make the 100K skill shot (the best I could manage was 50K), the fault line diverter was not opening, and I was unable to get a proper three-ball multiball (multiball started with one ball locked and another plunged into play). The second of these is perhaps the most frustrating problem, as the ramp is difficult to make, so making it when lit for lock only to not actually lock the ball is a huge downer. I’m not saying this excuses my rather embarrassing score of 1.26M+ (31st of 36, when I needed around 4.4M to place in the top half) though it should be kept in mind.

Yes, I realize this is a 25+ year old game we are talking about, but four older games (two electromechanical-era pinballs and at least two older solid state games) played fine with no issues. So it’s not just the age of the machine. I do appreciate the effort that goes into setting machines up for a tournament (or for free play in a hotel ballroom in general), but I can’t imagine the owner not knowing about at least the plunger and multiball issues (unless the thing had been sitting in storage just prior to the event, in which case the safer assumption after any substantial length of time a game has been in storage is that the game is not tournament ready until otherwise verified).

Oddly enough, there was a Gilligan’s Island in the tournament room, apparently intended for a side tournament that either never happened or is somehow missing from the results (partner play, I think?); it may have been played later in cash games. I got to play it a bit and I noticed no major issues. I’m not sure what the full story is, but even though I’m much less familiar with Gilligan’s Island than I am with Earthshaker, I would rather have played the former than the latter.

Anyway, the sum total of this is that my tournament experience wound up being just a rather expensive pinball lesson. So, what did I learn for my $40? For that matter, what can you learn that cost me $40 to find out?

First, I learned this format is somewhat biased towards those with deeper pockets. I say somewhat biased because you still need the pinball skills to qualify for and win the tournament. That is to say, of two equally skilled players, one with enough money to play each game twice and another with the bare minimum to play each one once, the first player will probably qualify in a higher spot. I’m not saying this is a bad format, just that it can get rather expensive, unless one is very lucky and strings together top quality performances on many games in a row.

I really needed to show up with $60 minimum, ideally closer to $100, to have a decent chance at qualifying. Given it’s $25 to get into the show, then add in plus food, and I’m looking at $100 to $140 for the entire weekend, not even counting a T-shirt (which I will want next year).

Second, I learned I probably still have quite a bit to go as far as pinball skills to be truly tournament ready at this level of play. I’ll just come out and say it here: I’m a lot older than I look, and years of not playing and having to spend months for what I had to finally come back to me probably didn’t help. The window I have to be known as a pinball tournament champion and/or videogame record holder may be as short as two years or even less. On the other hand I may have good enough health (physical and mental) to make competitive pinball tournament attempts and videogame record attempts for another decade or longer. Garth Brooks said in a song lyric, “I’m much too young to feel this damn old.” That’s exactly my sentiment.

Third, I learned (in the figurative sense) how to make lemonade out of the lemons I was handed. I still had a good time and posted a few pretty damn good pinball scores, which showed that I still “have it” even though I wound up coming up with bupkis in the tournament.

I posted the pictures I took in no particular order. Some are tournament scores, some are not. The higher score on Wizard of Oz is in the main arcade area (look closely, you can see the Mata Hari I played later in the background). One is from a console videogame (a homebrew Atari 2600 game I forgot the name of). I’ll go back and label these when I have more time.

Game Preserve Friday: A Surprise For MAJ

Before Saturday’s tournament, Game Preserve had a “member appreciation day” on the Friday after Thanksgiving a.k.a. “Black Friday” for those of us who prefer pushing buttons, moving joysticks, and pulling plungers over pushing shopping carts, moving around a crowded store, and pulling items off the shelves. It was, by the looks of it, quite the success, and something I hope becomes an annual tradition.

Most of the day I spent playing pinball, in preparation for possibly playing in the tournament the next day (see previous post for the details of that, in case you missed it). The gallery below shows mostly pinball high scores. (The additional picture of Beat Time shows the score after the first ball, before I played the awarded extra ball. Both are from the same game.)

The big story of the night, though, was that I suddenly found myself on a Millipede kick. I’ve run up pretty good scores on Millipede on MAME with a mouse, but never on an actual original Millipede arcade machine. Earlier in the day, someone who enters the initials “MAJ” had filled the high score list with a bunch of scores in excess of 350,000.

Now the settings on this particular Millipede machine are pretty liberal: 5 lives, extra lives every 12,000, and I think easy everything. Obviously, MAJ filled the board by starting at the highest possible score (sort of the equivalent of continuing a previous game on a new credit before that caught on). It’s easy to get up to the 300,000+ range that way, but this feature doesn’t let you start at a score higher than 300,000. MAJ put up a top score of 392,585, so if I wanted the top slot, I had some work to do to say the least.

Further complicating matters is what happens at starting scores of 100,000 or greater on Millipede. Instead of starting with only two spiders, the very first wave starts with as many as eight. I jokingly call this “Millipede: Arachnophobia Edition.” (I think it’s three at 100,000+ and then an additional spider for each 20,000 above that, so for 144,000 it would be five spiders.) So, by the time one is starting at 200,000 or higher, the first wave consists of fending off hordes of spiders, eight at a time. Remember, this game was originally made for operators to make money with; getting to the 300,000 point level took what would have been the equivalent of about $5 worth of play. (Thankfully, the games at Game Preserve are on free play.) Getting to the point evidenced by the first picture probably took the equivalent of $8 worth of play. It’s hard enough to do without having to fish for another quarter every three minutes…

In the end, I was finally able to post a score of 406,875. Surprise, MAJ.

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