Retro-gamers tap their inner pinball wizards

Vintage pinball "arcades" pay homage to gaming culture before it went digital. And the music's cool, too.

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."

Photos: Pinball meccas

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:

• Brian's emulation page offers links to essential files and software that emulate the physics and graphics of a pinball machine. "If you are sick of video game emulation, like I am, then give this a try. And if you don't see your favorite pinball machine, just create it in VisualPinball, or make a new one up," the site says.

• Pinball Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator offers screenshots, downloads of mechanical sounds, and sounds for specific games, such as Stern "Flight 2000."

• Virtual Pinball Forums is a place where enthusiasts can trade tips and information, such as dates for new releases, like 1988's "Taxi." It also includes a glossary. Who knew that a "drain," is where "lost balls go" and also is "the act of losing a ball?"

• Retrogames offers downloads and message boards.

• Digital Arcade provides a step-by-step installation and set-up guide for pinball emulation software.

• Pinball offers software package downloads, including "Tales from The Crypt," "Star Wars: TNG" and "Addams Family."

• Scapino's offers visual pinball tables, including Bally's Eight Ball and Twilight Zone, and high-res shots of the table images.

Sure, the video game industry may be bigger than Hollywood these days. But a growing and undeniably hip group of retro-minded people are playing and collecting pinball machines in what experts say is an homage to the games of their youth. One sign of a pinball renaissance: The Pinball Hall of Fame, billed as the world's only museum created solely to document the history of pinball, opened in Las Vegas in February. Also, for the first time ever, the 2007 Guinness Book of World Records will include pinball scores. The scores were recorded at the Pinball Hall of Fame last month.

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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