Retro-gamers tap their inner pinball wizards

By Elinor Mills Staff Writer, CNET News.com -->
BERKELEY, Calif.--The single, purple neon bulb and the wooden unicorn cut-out propped against the garage are the only clues that distinguish this home from all the others in this middle-class neighborhood.
Once inside, however, you find a low-ceilinged labyrinth where every nook and cranny is filled with colorful lights, whimsical tchotchkes, posters, toys and the unmistakable sounds of rubber flippers and bells emanating from dozens of vintage pinball machines.
Welcome to a shrine to Americana, or, as one visitor calls it, "Secret Pinball."
Forget digital. This place is like an orgy--from before the solid-state era--of mechanical flippers, electromechanical bumpers, and old-fashioned lights and sounds. And all the machines, fit snugly side-by-side, are to be played for free.
Today's enthusiasts aren't necessarily luddites, but they are traditionalists, rejecting the high-tech gimmicks of video games and newer pinball tables in favor of the low-tech, handcrafted nature of decades-old machines.
"(Pinball machines) are mass produced now--cheap," complained Hal Erickson, a regular at the secret pinball "arcade." According to Erickson, today's pinball makers "buy licenses and time releases to the crest of a fad, like 'Pirates of the Caribbean' or 'Nascar.' They've gotten slicker, but the designs are not as creative and individual."
There's a huge difference in the way the game is played, too. "It's really grueling, higher speed and intense movement...You can burn yourself out on new games," said Erickson, who said he was ranked among the top pinball players in the world in the early 1990s. "Older games are more sane."
Emulating flippers and silver balls
There's nothing like the real thing, but there is computer pinball emulation software. Here is a sampling for people who can't get to the real arcade:
Beyond the eye-hand coordination challenge, the appeal of pinball for many players is one of aesthetics. Erickson describes the game as "an industrial pop-culture art form."
Vintage machines are a reminder of a more innocent time, said Pinball Mac, who owns the machines. "Pinball mixes in translucent art and American icons--babes in bathing suits and all the other classic '50s and '60s images," he said. "This is blue-collar art work.
Mac, who asked that his name and address remain confidential, has created a noncommercial arcade that houses about 50 working machines. He also has created what feels like an extension to his living room, providing comfy chairs, a stereo (playing a '60s rock compilation when I last visited), nachos and beer. Visitors show up nearly every Friday night, as much for the company as the games.
Near the entrance inside of Secret Pinball is a basketball game where you can use an old-fashioned joystick to maneuver wooden "player" figures in semicircles to gather balls in their hands. You can turn and flip the balls into a basket while evading the opposing "player," which mechanically moves back and forth trying to block the shot. The sound of metal ringing through hollow wood accompanies the shots.
There is also "Sky Raider," which, with scantily clad female "astronauts" in bubble helmets, offers astral target practice. My personal favorite is "Road Racer," a deconstruction of the addictive race car games of my youth. On this one, a drum with a painted-on roadway rotates slowly. Turning a steering wheel left and right moves a small toy car back and forth as the road winds and the drum turns. So simple, but surprisingly, not easy.
The majority of the games are traditional pinball machines with bright lights, metallic "pings," etched glass and painted backdrops. Themes range from "The Queen of Diamonds" with tiara-sporting women and men smoking cigars to "El Dorado," with gun-toting men on horseback amid desert cacti.

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