What Decades of Pinball Machines In One Room Taught Me About Video Games

Steve Anderson : End Game
Steve Anderson
The Video Store Guy
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What Decades of Pinball Machines In One Room Taught Me About Video Games

Some may have noticed that I wasn't in my customary seat for the early part of this week, and if that's the case, I'm glad to hear the absence was noticed. I was on a little vacation this weekend, and one of the features of said vacation was a trip to a pinball exhibition in Kalamazoo, Michigan known as “Pinball at the Zoo,” and while there, I had something of a learning experience that needed to be passed on.

Perhaps the whole point of Pinball at the Zoo is to bring together a whole raftload of pinball machines from the various years of pinball—and we're talking about everything from “Pirates of the Caribbean” pinball to some stuff with half a dozen targets and a mechanically-powered scoreboard—and put said devices on display, locking same in free-play mode to let people wander about a fairly large room and literally pinball themselves into a shallow coma. Indeed, in that time, I played games that I hadn't seen in years and played some games that I had never seen before. In the midst of all that flipper action and all those steel spheres rumbling back and forth across various play fields, a critical point emerged about the nature of gaming as a whole.


See, one thing became very clear the farther forward in pinball history I went. Pinball started out comparatively simple, with flat fields, minimal graphics, and a handful of targets. In some cases, scoring 10,000 points on some of those machines would have taken unfathomable skill. In others, you can score 10,000 points without touching the flipper buttons. It would require a gopher at the controls to score less than one million points on some devices. But that's the point. As pinball went on, the machines became more complex, more stylized. There was more art, more artistry, more action. More targets to hit and more things to try to do.


Perhaps the high point of this was the Twilight Zone pinball machine I found in which I spent my first game so abjectly confused I asked on no less than three separate occasions: “What am I even shooting at?”. I watched my ball disappear under two separate layers of structures, only to return semi-randomly to roll down the main panel and rejoin the action. My attempts to “fight the Power” ended poorly--I think; to this second I remain rather unsure because it laughed at me despite several hits—yet I scored a couple hundred thousand points off it as I recall, though these days, points in pinball games are almost like money was in Zimbabwe back in 2008.


Anyway, the farther I went in time, the more complex the machines got. And this is an excellent descriptor of gaming thus far. We're seeing progressively more complex games emerging for most every platform, taking advantage of superior hardware. But by like token, we're also discovering that some of the biggest games are also the simplest. Consider the frenzy over “Flappy Bird.” Follow that up with “Bejeweled,” “Angry Birds,” and even “Plants Vs. Zombies” and an idea starts to make itself quite clear: simple games have a popularity all their own. Maybe it's a measure of resistance to the idea of complex games most everywhere. Maybe it's a desire to return to the “old days” of gaming, where circumstances required simpler gaming. But either way, one thing is clear: “Zombieland” Rule 32 still applies, both as a description of the landscape and as a description of gamer sentiment at times--”Enjoy the little things.” Whether it's pinball, mobile gaming, console gaming or otherwise, remember that there's a certain value in a basic and simple base. Refine it as you will, of course, but as is the case with many things, there's room in the pool for minimalism, and this is a lesson that gaming could stand. It's not always all about the features, or about the body count. There's room for games that are just knocking over towers or matching jewels, and room to make these games all they really can be with the added power of today's systems.

A room full of pinball machines made it rather clear to me: while there is room for the simplest of games to succeed even in a landscape where complexity is steadily gaining, simplicity by itself can even be refined. Much like "The Outer Limits" famously suggested, we can deluge you with a thousand channels, or expand one single image to crystal clarity...and beyond.

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