By BEN R. WILLIAMS
As regular readers of this space know, I have an obsession with pinball that some would argue borders on psychosis. Lately I’ve begun attending some pinball tournaments.
I don’t attend these tournaments hoping to win. While I’d love to win, I’m a realist and I know my limits. I know that ten percent of the time, I’m an unstoppable player, a force of nature that cannot be reckoned with. Unfortunately, 20 percent of the time, I’m the worst player that ever lived. The remaining 70 percent of the time is pretty much all over the map between those two points. Since tournaments don’t consist of you just playing the same game over and over again for a couple of hours until you actually play a good game, I realize my chances of winning a tournament are slim to none.
Instead, I attend tournaments with two goals. The first goal is to have fun. I enjoy meeting like-minded weirdos such as myself. I enjoy being able to turn to a person and say, “Man, I just can’t get dialed in on that upper rollover to light the pop bumpers on Spanish Eyes,” and have them know exactly what I’m talking about.
My second goal is to not embarrass myself. This goal is harder to attain, but I’m proud to say that I have yet to come in dead last in a tournament.
In fact, I’ve had a few pretty good moments.
The best moment I’ve ever had at a tournament came just a few months ago. The tournament rules were that groups of four players would be randomly assigned to different machines; you’d play eight different machines over the course of the night against three other randomly selected players.
One of the machines I was assigned to was PinBot, one of my all-time favorite machines. Dating from 1986, PinBot is considered one of the most iconic machines ever made. The theme of the machine is that you’re playing against some sort of giant pinball-themed robot in outer space. At the top of the playfield is PinBot’s robotic facial visor, and when you hit enough targets, the visor opens, allowing you to shoot two pinballs into his eye sockets. Once you’ve done that, PinBot speaks to you, kicks out both balls, and you get to play two-ball multiball and your scores are doubled as long as you keep both balls in play.
When I’m in a tournament, I always like to introduce myself to the other players, and I’m always sure to congratulate them on a good game even if they just metaphorically kicked my teeth in. If I’m getting beaten really badly and my turn comes up, I also like to say stuff like, “Well folks, I reckon it’s time I show ya’ll how this game is played.” People enjoy that; it shows them that I don’t take myself too seriously and also that I’m aware of how badly I’m sucking.
I had three opponents on PinBot that fateful evening. My first opponent, whom we’ll call Bertha, was a brassy older lady who, like me, was just there to have fun (although I later found out she was a solid player, and she smoked me on a couple of games).
The next player we’ll call The Master. I knew the moment I saw him that he was a serious contender. He was a small fellow wearing Bermuda shorts and a 25-year-old South Park T-shirt; I recognized that shirt because I’d bought that same one at Spencer Gifts in 1997. He was a really friendly guy, and he had the air of a man who doesn’t take the tournament too seriously because he knows he has nothing to prove. His first place showing later that evening was proof that he was the real deal.
The third player was a young lady in a leather biker jacket, punked out with piercings and tattoos and whatnot.
“Hi,” I said, sticking out my hand to her. “I’m Ben.”
“Hi,” she said with a smile. “I’m Pinky, and I’m looking forward to destroying you tonight.”
I don’t begrudge anyone a little trash talk, and I certainly wasn’t offended by Pinky’s confident remark. However, I’m a big fan of the concept of “underpromise and overdeliver,” and I resolved then and there that I was going to do my level best to utterly obliterate Pinky at pinball as quietly and humbly as possible. I already knew I couldn’t beat The Master, but I figured a strong second place showing would be good enough.
Modern pinball machines are set to three-ball play, which means you get three balls to set your high score with the score on each ball being cumulative. Some people insist on setting their machines to five-ball play, but these are disturbed individuals that I try not to associate with. On a multiplayer game, each player alternates between balls; this means that the game isn’t over until the last ball is played, and the very last player can sometimes pull off an amazing upset.
We set to playing PinBot, and as I had expected, The Master quickly established a formidable lead. Bertha, meanwhile, was playing a solid game, but Pinky and I were struggling. PinBot can be a cruel and unforgiving game, and while pinball is a game of skill and not chance, one bad bounce can quickly bury you, and PinBot has a lot of opportunities for bad bounces.
By the time my turn came up on ball three, Bertha and The Master’s games had ended. Bertha had about 300,000 points, while The Master had a little over 600,000 points. I had about 200,000, and Pinky had about 100,000. I was leading her, but not by enough; it was still anyone’s game.
I launched my ball and nailed both of the skill shots, which are timed shots that happen at the very beginning of the game. The second skill shot caused PinBot’s visor to open, revealing his robot eye sockets.
I fired one ball into a socket, then a second one into the other socket.
In his robotic voice, the height of 1986 technology, PinBot said the words that sealed Pinky’s fate:
“NOW. I. SEE. YOU.”
The two balls kicked out and I played a long multiball, my scores doubled. Suddenly, I noticed someone was excitedly cheering me on; it was The Master himself, congratulating me even as I demolished his own score!
I ended up winning the entire game with a score of 755,580 points; Pinky, meanwhile, wrapped things up with 132,030 points. The Master congratulated me again, and then I shook Pinky’s hand.
“Good game,” I said.
“Eh, I’m too drunk to play anyway,” she said. But she didn’t seem drunk at all to me.
Like I said, The Master ended up winning the whole tournament, and he certainly deserved to. But during that one game of PinBot, I got to briefly wear his crown.