Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Tilting Point

Carnival Game - Cheap Trick (mp3)
Trying to Put Your Heart Back Together - Slow Runner (mp3)

When I was five, my older step-brothers got a used pinball machine for Christmas. It was a pure 1978 super-simple arcade-style machine. Nothing fancy. Bumpers. Two sets of drop targets. The classic set of a spinner and three rollover lanes at the top. No slingshots, ramps or sinkholes. Just old-timey classic stuff.

Due to a healthy dose of voyeuristic tendencies from birth, I could sit on a stool next to the backbox for hours watching my stoned step-brothers and their friends play. They’d play albums like Frampton Comes Alive and News of the World on the stereo as the beautiful cacophony of bells and bumps flowed from that pinball machine. In the rare times my brothers weren’t hogging the machine, I would sneak in and play.

Because I was more a child of the 80s than the 70s, my arcade fetishes evolved over time. I moved on to the more popular confines of Pac-Man and Tron and on up the ranks of Dragon’s Lair, etc. And once my friends and I all owned various home gaming systems, my pinball days faded into the attic.

As a freshman at UNC, I rediscovered my original love. The student union on campus had one called CYCLONE, with wicked cool ramps. Because I was too socially clueless to actually talk to girls in the dining hall and too procrastinatory to study during daylight hours, I would disappear into the corner of the union and play CYCLONE, where a single quarter could provide 10-15 solid minutes of entertainment.

CYCLONE was replaced by Terminator 2 in the summer of 1991. On many occasions, I made the foolish declaration that no pinball machine could ever surpass Terminator 2 for entertainment quality or the demands it placed on pinball skills.

Then, in 1992, The Addams Family machine arrived. This, my friends, was the greatest pinball machine of the modern era. And don’t just take my word for it. Take the Internet Pinball Database’s word when they claim that was “the Best-Selling Flipper Game of All Time.” It’s the Muhammed Ali of pinball. All other flipper games, when they go to church on Sundays, bow down and worship The Addams Family as the second-coming of HUMPTY DUMPTY, the first-ever machine with mechanized flippers.

The Addams Family was so mind-boggling, so full of holes and ramps and passages, so tricked-out with flippers and magnets, that one had to play a good dozen times to truly grasp even a fraction of the possibilities. And, unlike most machines, the more you played The Addams Family, the more addictive it was. I can’t recall ever tiring of that machine. Ever.

As any legitimate pinball aficionado will tell you, the true art of pinball wizardry is figuring out the Tilting Point of a machine. Because, much like the way Maverick flies fighter planes, mastering a pinball machine requires living on the edge of tilt. If you tilt the machine, you lose everything, but without the nudges, bumps, and hip checks, timed perfectly with the rolling of that perfect metal orb, you simply cannot control a pinball machine like it was born to be controlled.

Again, in the TILT realm, The Addams Family went above and beyond mere quality and into perfection. Everytime you crept near the TILT line, you’d hear Raul Julia’s Gomez say, “Caareful... Caaaaareful...” with that smooth silky voice. If you didn’t hear that voice at least two or three times on each ball you played, you probably weren’t a very good pinball player.

So for me, even as I type this, I can hear that voice in my head. After particularly stressful times in my life, when I’m reflecting on being in a tight spot, I can hear that voice in my head. “Caareful... Caaaaareful...”

When I watch what’s happening in Wisconsin and in state after state, where teachers and teachers’ unions are becoming the primary scapegoats for fiscal irresponsibility while at the same time having greater levels of accountability placed on them, I hear Gomez’s cautionary words.

When I see the riots in the Middle East and North Africa, where something akin to “democracy” is taking hold of one country after another yet might create more problems for the U.S. down the road than we could possibly fathom, I hear Gomez.

When I see high school students barreling down a road at speeds that would make Road Runner wet himself, or when I hear them talking about drinking parties, I worry that they haven't yet learned the Tilting Point.

Interacting with other people isn’t all that different than relating to a pinball machine. It involves careful touch, a keen eye, an appreciation for the complexity of how that machine works, the well-timed and careful use of one’s physical presence. And, perhaps most importantly, an appreciation that if one pushes too hard or too intensely, the entire machine can shut down and end your game.

Even a deaf dumb and blind kid knows that.


Anonymous said...

This story gits kinda serious at the end, but I sure do luv pinball. That ol' Eight Ball Deluxe was my favorite.

BeckEye said...

I always enjoyed pinball, even if I wasn't very good at it. I love the Twilight Zone one, which I think is newer. The one I always remember from my youth is Gorgon.

troutking said...

Really great post, Billy. I like the period details and the connections you make, even though I never got into pinball. I was a Q*Bert guy myself with a little thing for Ms Pac-man as well.

Hank said...

I have played both T2 and Adams Family and can testify to their greatness. I am pretty sure that we used to have T2 here on campus.