The Pinball Wizard

I wrote this for a city life website. Given the interest @jeff seem to had in Pinball Wizard Arcade, I thought I'd post it here. Enjoy!

Local pizza shops and roast beef take-out establishments used to provide a wonderful shelter for kids like me. It wasn’t for the food, though. It was the arcade games. Growing up on some fairly seedy streets in Lynn, I met most of my friends in these sorts of places. We’d gather around the newest Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter machine and take on whoever had the biggest winning streak. We did this for the pure escapism. None of us were worried about school or curfews or any of that nonsense you need to worry about in your early teens. Our parents knew where we all were. While it was a competitive environment, there was a sense of camaraderie. Nobody could instantly look up how to play the game; we had to learn through each other, bouncing off third-hand information and wasting dozens of quarters in the process. Sadly, our consoles at home started outperforming the once astounding arcade cabinets. Actual arcades like Goodtimes Emporium have been shut down, and every year places like Salem Willows and Hampton Beach seem to lose more and more machines. I often wax nostalgic about this with my friends, especially those who had similar experiences growing up.

A few weekends ago, I heard a radio ad for the Pinball Wizard Arcade in Pelham, New Hampshire. I wondered if this would provide the portal into my fairly misspent youth I’d been looking for. I brought it up to my friend one boring Saturday afternoon on a complete whim, and we decided to give it a try. After all, the only other major arcade anywhere near us is Funspot, which is a good hour drive, and even longer with traffic. Pinball Wizard is located just around forty minutes away, and was pretty easy to spot. It’s surrounded by a Suppa’s Pizza (as made famous on the campuses of UMass Lowell), Chunky’s Cinema Pub and a Dunkin Donuts. In short, the very sight of it makes you think of how easily you could waste away an entire night.

As I walked into the Pinball Wizard Arcade, an overwhelming arrangement of conflicting sounds hit my ears while lights flickered and flashed all around in a symphony of chaotic luminescence. This may sound terrifying to some, but to me, it felt like home. Pool tables and a few broken pinball machines put to the side for maintenance decorated the entrance, along with the customary token machines. A sign above the glass cases of prizes you can get from winning tickets advertised 100 tokens for 20 dollars — a fantastic deal considering the majority of classic machines there only cost one token to play. While the rest of the real estate was dark (as any arcade should be) it was also probably the cleanest arcade I’ve ever been in. It was refreshing to not see tons of dust or grease around rows and rows of machines.

True to its name, the borders of the arcade were tightly packed with pinball machines, all in perfect (and if not, at least almost perfect) condition. Classics among pinball enthusiasts such as F-14 Tomcat and Black Knight were present, along with more contemporary favorites like the recently released Family Guy and Tron machines. While I tried my hand at a few of these games, I saw a small group of kids in UMass college garb gather around a slightly older man achieving a particularly high score on the Pin Bot machine, excited to see a possible record being broken and being careful not to break the player’s concentration. It’s something you rarely see anymore in these days of online gaming. While I never get that kind of crowd around me, it was fun to play all the machines that I hadn’t seen since my childhood.

Those not into pinball needn’t worry, as the arcade also has an additional 166 non-pinball games. Everything you would expect to be there — such as Galaga, Asteroids and various versions of Pac-Man — stood alongside more obscure games like Mappy and Phoenix. I was particularly happy to play as much Tapper as possible. Two whole rows of fighting games give people like me flashbacks to the aforementioned pizza parlors. A close match in Capcom vs SNK 2 ended in a customary nod and “good game” uttered between me and another player around my age. Pinball Wizard doesn’t stray away from modern games, either. The new Namco game Pac-Man Battle Royale, a hyper, four-player day-glow variant of Pac-Man is prominently featured on flat screen TVs around the arcade floor. Everyone there seemed to be a bit new, but hopefully regulars will start appearing to keep the place thriving.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Pinball Wizard is just how well their machines run. The buttons still click, the joysticks never get stuck, and there were no glitchy or broken games to be seen. The level of care given to the games is downright heartwarming to someone like me, who thought they were all but extinct. The only thing missing from Pinball Wizard Arcade right now is more people. Take the trip, bring 20 bucks and transport yourself back to the simpler days of high scores, winning streaks and social gaming without any Internet needed.


(Really Late) PAX East Notes: JASON?!

 I used to write about video games.

Seriously. I was part of a website, I got laughable press releases, the whole thing. Somewhere along the way, though, I just stopped. Perhaps it was because I went off to college and my reviews or features didn't count as grades. Whatever it was, I just sort of lost my passion for it.

Then I went to PAX East.

I was reluctant at first. The local news had a few stories on it, with awkward people in cosplay being asked typical nerd questions as people looked on at them as if they were watching a National Geographic special. Not that I'm not a complete dork or anything, but I don't want to come off as being on the "Simpsons comic book guy" echelon of nerd. I think that's right above Trekkie.

Imagine my surprise when the crowd was not only friendly, but sociable. Developers of the smaller indie games were as excited to be there as the attendees, too. It really adds a lot to the experience when there's a shared level of enthusiasm among everyone there. Having a total stranger come up to you and ask what you thought of the Behemoth's new game, for example, is amazingly common. The absurd nature of the whole thing helps as well. Talking to the Protomen as Ken Levine walks past you and Wil Wheaton signs autographs feels weird at first, but soon becomes as commonplace as seeing a neckbeard at a LAN party. It doesn't take long to feel comfortable enough as everyone else to yell out "JASON!" right after someone else does (I can't count the number of times this happened during just the one day I was there).

You're probably more interested in the games I saw than anything else, though, so here's a list of everything I can remember.

- BattleBlock Theater was the first thing I saw, and I think it caused more confusion than anything else. It should really be called "Wait What Was That I...DAMMIT: The Game." It's way more competition focused than anything else the Behemoth has tackled, and the only real comparison I can draw is perhaps the original Atari Mario game. You pick an avatar and weapon at the start of the game, and after a few seconds you're off in either a co-op game against the AI or a versus game against each other (I believe AI partners are optional). The game changes itself up after a certain time period, so while you may be trying to cover as much ground as possible in the first game like some sort of reverse Lode Runner, you'll be trying to hit dudes and collect their ghosts in the second game, lest you be hit and all your dude-ghosts go flying away for the grabbing. I think the game needs more time to be completely understood, but it should be an interesting take on the typical party game genre.

- Shoot 1Up is an Xbox Indie title that tries to combine a lot of typical shoot-em-up conventions and pack them into one game. You actually control more than one ship at once, but you wouldn't notice until you hid the "spread formation" button and realize just how many things you had shooting at the same time. Another neat thing it does that I think more games of this genre should do is change the levels up from vertical to horizontal. It adds a lot of variety in a genre that is usually critiqued for being very repetitive. It's a dollar right now on XBLM, so give it a try. It's not super polished, but I think this team could put out some insane Treasure-style games if given a bigger budget.

- Joe Danger is going to be huge. You've probably heard that a lot if you've been keeping up with the IGF hype, but it's true. While it looks like an Excitebike clone, there's a lot more to it. The best way to think of it is if Excitebike and Trials HD had a kid, but it's not as simple as its plain mother nor as evil as its abusive father. While you fathom that weird analogy, throw in a Tony Hawk-like combo system; you can basically make it through a track with a single combo if you know what you're doing. There's a lot to that game including races, stunt runs, and God knows what else. Day one purchase for me.

- Split/Second is basically everything you've heard. Burnout on crack, Blur with environmental-based power-ups, etc. It's looking really good and plays well. I didn't see the framerate dip too much except when a giant space needle was exploding in the background thus changing the entire geometry of the track. Seeing as that's been the only real complaint among people who have played it so far, it should end up being great depending on how much it has to offer in terms of the game modes it includes.

- Crackdown 2 plays a lot like (wait for it...) Crackdown. We only got to play a "capture the orb" multiplayer game limited to rocket launchers, but it was good to see Crackdown back and looking nice. The announcer still sounds like an ass, which is a plus.

-My friend got to play Shank. I didn't. Fuck him.

The rest of my time was taken up by wandering the halls, playing old-ass arcade machines, trying out different games in the console free play room, and watching someone on the last level of Mega Man 2 in the classic console room (kill screen coming up). Sincere thanks to the Penny Arcade guys for putting this together, and special thanks to Jeff Gerstmann, The Protomen, and the people from Mega64 and for signing things, talking to us, and generally making the experience more fun than it already was.

I leave you with the one cosplayer you would never want to eff with. Thanks for reading.

My Arcade: No Longer A Threat

The last arcade in my area has officially closed, and at the worst time possible. I don' t think many people understand how much I was looking forward to going back to my old stomping grounds just to play Street Fighter IV. Seriously, I know I'm in my twenties and I'm talking about this as if I were twelve, but dammit, arcades were like my Christmas; they made me feel like a kid again.
Albeit now a slightly scruffier, drunker kid.
Quite a bit of my childhood was spent in arcades, putting quarters up on the machine and waiting to get my ass kicked kids in their teens when I was in my...sevens. It was all part of the experience. You know how I finally learned how to do Sub-Zero's fatality? The kid next to me told me. What about the time I figured out that Akira was actually the strongest character in Virtua Fighter, and I just sucked with him? The expansion of my vocabulary is also due in part to arcade patrons; button mashing, turtling (get your mind out of the gutter), and buffering all entered my zeitgeist.
I was also introduced to glitches, infinite combos, and chain throws. Those were pretty painful. Not to mention finally finding a King Of Fighters machine and coming to the horrible realization that getting good at those games were going to take a lot more time, effort, and tokens. Good old tokens.
What makes the closing of this arcade even sadder (it's Good Times in Somerville, MA, if anyone in the area is interested) is that it wasn't even considered a "true" (for lack of a better term) arcade. It was basically a bar that held some local concerts, wrestling, and showed PPV events for a cover charge. It just happened to have a very large arcade where parents could drop their kids off while they got to drinking and eating horrible pizza while yelling at the Patriots. It was sleazy, unsafe, and in the worst area it could have possibly been located.
I'm going to miss it.


On Blogging and Bombing

So, one could say I've about video games for awhile now. I first started when I was really young, sending things I wrote on pen and paper to Gamepro and EGM. Of course they never got it, but hey, at least I tried. When I hit high school, I started reviewing for the school newspaper. This of course led to nothing but ridicule, but I dealt with it the best I could. Now, in college, I've been an Arts and Entertainment editor for every year I've been here, and have won some awards for basically doing nothing but writing about games and editing everyone else's crap about three year old movies and the like.

But blogging has always been something different for me. My usual blog consists of stories of my horrible love life and ridiculous college life. The minute I start writing about games, I notice 99 percent of my friends just stop reading the damn thing, which is a shame, since they used to read it to figure out what the hell they did that past weekend. Ever since this startling conclusion, I've been waiting for a site that will let me have my own game blog where people may actually read it, or at the very least, appreciate it for what it is. I can't be happier with the way the site is laid out and presented; I think it's absolutely perfect and exactly what I was looking for. I found a lot of other sites either way too contrived or, to blunt, way too pretentious. I'm happy to finally have a place where my excitement for a new story arc in the King of Fighters will be appreciated. A place where I can review games nobody cares about anymore. A place I can call home.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the burger forum.