HolidayBuyer's Guide

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."

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

Scapino's VPins.com 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.

"Do you know how all this came about?" asked Graham Hale. Twenty years ago, Hale explained, he, Mac, and other antinuclear activist friends played pinball when they were not blocking test sites or getting arrested.

"We would get some beer, play pinball and (gripe) about the government," Hale said. "It was pinball therapy."

"Some people come down here to talk politics, art, theater. And others to play pinball," said Tim Volz, a "pinhead," as afficionados call themselves. "It's a one-of-a-kind place."

Mac's oldest machines date from the late 1930s and early 1940s, before the golden age of pinball in the '50s and '60s. The older machines, called "shakers," don't have flippers, meaning they require more of a subtle bodily force to "shake" the machine, as opposed to quick fingers and electromagnetic velocity to propel the ball around.

"There's this ancient art we call 'the nudge' and it's pretty spooky stuff. If you nudge the right way, a certain energy will go into the ball," said Mac, who often sports a floppy velvet court-jester hat on his head and a duck caller around his neck. "You have to nudge very subtly. Slap the side of the machine at the very instance (the ball) hits the bumper, and it ricochets off it," he said. Nudging too hard triggers a "tilt" or "slam switch" mechanism that turns the game off.

Speaking of spooky, in the minds of these players, there seems to be a mystical undercurrent to pinball. Volz spoke about "electrical chi moving through the game," and Erickson described a "zen awareness and in-the-moment quality of reacting to spontaneous situations."

And then there's Lucky Ju Ju Pinball, a commercial arcade inspired by Pinball Mac's. "Ju ju" is defined as "an object used as a fetish, charm, amulet" and "the supernatural power ascribed to it," on the arcade's Web site.

Lucky Ju Ju isn't secret, but it's practically hidden, tucked away in a strip mall behind a diner called "Tillies" and next to a church in Alameda, Calif., a small town across the bay from San Francisco. Where Mac's attracts an older crowd for whom vintage pinball machines are a nostalgic childhood odyssey, Lucky Ju Ju's customers are younger, a mix of goth and "rockabilly" hipsters to whom anything retro is in style.

Like a museum curator, Lucky Ju Ju Pinball owner Michael Schiess can discuss in historical and political detail the art that graces the backs of the more than two dozen pinball machines in his arcade. Adults can play at Lucky Ju Ju for as long as they want for $10 on Friday and Saturday nights.

For example, the "Space Odyssey" pinball game from 1976 acknowledges the Soviet-American endeavor to dock together two vehicles in space. There is also the subversive art of Bally's classic "Captain Fantastic" machine from the same year, featuring a disco-era Elton John performing for a crowd that is, among other things, groping, flipping and Nazi saluting.

"Every one of (those machines) is a little slice of history," said Schiess, wearing a white cowboy hat with a feather in the band. "Every one of them has a story and is a reflection of history at that time."

Schiess creates "interactive kinetic art" out of old pinball parts and has taught classes on electricity and pinball engineering. He opened up a machine to show me what he was working on, lifting the face to reveal the guts--a mechanical board with a neat tangle of wires running between a 110-volt transformer, a score motor, and switches and relays that trigger the lights and sounds.

Part of the proceeds from Lucky Ju Ju Pinball are going toward opening up the Neptune Beach Amusement Park, a pinball museum and educational center that will commemorate an early 20th-century amusement park in Alameda.

Schiess takes his pinball evangelizing on the road, too. He has installed six machines in a solar-powered Spartan Manor trailer and plans to pull it behind his 1959 El Camino or another car to the Pin-A-Go-Go Pinball Show, a gathering of "pinheads" in Dixon, Calif., scheduled for May 19 to 21.

"Pinball seems tame compared to video games. A lot of people still like to come back to pinball because it's real," Schiess said.

"There is only so much you can do with a computer before you realize you're doing the same thing over and over," he added. "Sure, the graphics are neat. But you are basically playing against someone's program. Pinball is you against gravity."

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