After you finish reading this sentence, close your eyes for a moment and try to remember what airports were like fifteen years ago. Didn’t flying seem less stressful back before everyone was watching television on their telephones? I’m not saying the Internet has ruined airports … but I remember them as bubbles of civility, and most of all, I remember airport arcades. Sometimes, the arcades had pinball. I remember two-hour layovers spent in pinball’s sweet embrace. I remember the St. Louis airport had a room—a narrow hallway, really—with seven or eight pinball machines. If I told you that the arcade in St. Louis has since been replaced with a tiny luggage shop and a Starbucks, you’d probably think I was exaggerating for effect, so I won’t even mention it.
All of this explains why I’m always happy to fly through Manchester, New Hampshire. The airport in Manchester has a game room with two pinball machines, and when I visited recently, the two games were Theatre of Magic and Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Ball.
I had never played Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Ball before, and playing a new pinball game is always exciting. Bugs has turned fifty, and he’s invited the cartoon gang over to celebrate and eat cake and do whatever it is that cartoon characters do at birthday parties.
Now, I am pro-cartoon, and I have extensive experience with pinball machines, and I must tell you, the whole middle-aged rabbit birthday party motif is one of the strangest themes for a pinball game I’ve ever encountered.
The game gave off a whiff of something slapped together the night before it was due, like maybe the pinball engineers had this 100% rad Road Runner idea, but couldn’t get the physics to work, so one of them looked at the calendar, did some quick arithmetic, and said, “Hey, Bugs turns fifty this year, screw this Road Runner stuff. Let’s design a birthday party pinball game! Quit trying to figure out the Latinate for pinball, George! Tommy, ditch the plastic desert! Toss the Acme rockets in the trashcan! Start another pot of coffee, Stu! Wipe the slate clean, fellas! We’re pinball engineers!”
In the interests of research, I played the game anyway. There are some nice touches. The flippers are orange, and sort of shaped like carrots, but flippers are always shaped like carrots, and why on Earth am I supposed to care that Bugs is fifty? Do we really need an excuse like middle age to manufacture a cartoon-themed pinball machine? I couldn’t detect any fun on the playfield besides the drop targets. (Drop targets are rectangular wedges of plastic on the playfield, usually arranged in a bank of three or four, along the sides of the machine. If you hit all of them down, you score big points.)
Oh, I guess I should mention the prizehole. If you get the ball into the hole, the game “awards” you “candles” that you get to “blow out” for Bugs. I guess Bugs Bunny is so preoccupied with acting like a swell guy at his own birthday party that he can’t blow out his own candles.
Q: What kind of jerk invites you to his birthday party and then asks you to blow out his candles?
A: An egotistical rabbit from Brooklyn.
I fell into a pattern: hit the Yosemite Sam drop targets, then tap the ball into the magical prizehole, which awarded me between two and fifty birthday candles.
Wow. Birthday candles.
The game couldn’t possibly be this one dimensional, I thought.
When the first drop targets appeared in 1957 (on the Williams game Vagabond), I’m sure they were all the rage. I respect my pinball forefathers, and while I believe that drop targets have their place in modern pinball, it’s 2009, and in 2009, if I’m playing a fairly new game and the only way for me to get my pinball jollies on it is to slap down some drop targets and goof off with a hole, we got ourselves a problem.
During my second game, a light flashed in the middle of the playfield. If I shot the ball into the birthday prizehole within five seconds, the machine would award me fifty million points. I abhor this kind of score inflation. For a game with a replay of three-and-a-half-million points, fifty million points in one shot is way too much pressure. Fifty million points in one shot is irrational exuberance. Fifty million points is the subprime mortgage loan of pinball shots.
I aimed for the birthday prizehole anyway (Ha! I missed!), and then I shot the ball up a plastic Tasmanian Devil ramp. The ball dropped onto a circular plastic ziggurat thingy that seemed as though it should give me some points, maybe a bonus or something? If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my seventeen years of pinball playing, it’s that shooting a pinball up a plastic ramp onto a curved ziggurat thingy equals points.
I didn’t get any points for this achievement, but some hilarious Tasmanian devil sounds grunted and gurgled out of the machine. That was somewhat satisfying, and I mean, the ball did spin around the previously mentioned ziggurat. That was exciting to watch, as far as watching shiny silver balls giving you zero points goes.
I had a vague feeling that something was broken, but I couldn’t detect what it was. I suspected the Tasmanian Devil ramp, but I wasn’t sure. Unless you’ve had a lot of experience with a machine, it can be difficult to tell if something is broken or if that’s just the way the game is.
While I played, I fantasized about my imaginary Road Runner pinball game. It’s a bad sign if I start fantasizing about other pinball games while playing, but it’s really bad if I start fantasizing about imaginary pinball games.
BBBB doesn’t use the cartoon characters to full potential, either. The only time Porky Pig showed up was when I won an extra ball. He says, I tawt I taw an extwah ball! (I thought this was cool, but then I noticed that the instruction card on the game declared Porky Pig the “designated driver” of the party who “makes sure you get home safe.” I saw no evidence of this on the game. And I don’t know about you, but if I make it to the end of a drunken cartoon rabbit birthday party, and a teetotaling pig offers me a ride home, I’m calling a taxi.)
I kept winning replays without trying very hard. The game was well maintained and in good shape, but after six or seven games, I didn’t want to play it anymore. Also, the room was incredibly hot, and I was sweating. The pinball conditions in the Manchester airport are difficult. It’s a tiny, enclosed room with lots of windows, and in the four years I’ve been playing pinball in the arcade there, the air conditioning has never been on.
I did leave a credit on the machine for good karma, though.
I took a break before I moved on to Theatre of Magic, popping my head into the smoker’s lounge to confirm that, yes, even those guys had air conditioning.
The goal of Theatre of Magic is to become a master magician. You become a master magician by performing various tricks. You perform various tricks by riding ramps and hitting various targets to complete illusions. The illusions include: saving a woman from being crushed by spikes, saving a levitating woman from levitation, and saving a woman from being sliced in half by a tiger holding a table saw. (Miraculously, this tiger has obtained a table saw blade, and then, without opposable thumbs, managed to pick up the blade and hold it between its paws in order to threaten a woman with it—all presumably without the help of magic. Or maybe the tiger is part of the illusion? It’s unclear.)
The ramps are fun and the whole game has a smooth, fast feel. There’s a rotating magic trunk that you get to smack with the ball. If you hit the trunk three times, it rotates and reveals a magnet on one side of the trunk that sucks the ball up when you shoot the ball close by, and holds the ball for multiball.
One thing missing from Theatre of Magic is an overall sense of accomplishment. The end goal is boring. After you complete all of the tricks, The Grand Illusion begins. Presumably, this is some sort of big magic show/point scoring extravaganza, most likely involving women and tigers and handkerchiefs and rabbits and swordplay. I’ve only heard rumors about it—in all my years of playing pinball, I’ve never seen anyone get to the Grand Illusion.
Now, Attack From Mars, a game made the same year as Theatre of Magic, is a good example of a game with a worthwhile end goal. Martians have invaded the Earth, and they’re destroying various world capitals. So you get to blast flying saucers out of the sky. There are odd twists of humor, too, something I always appreciate. The aliens have an enlarging ray, and they enlarge a chicken, so you have to deal with this insane steroidal chicken. If you win Attack From Mars, you get to say: “Hey, I defended the world from aliens. Plus, you know, a gigantic chicken.”
If you win Funhouse: “Hey, I saved the carnival from that weird puppet.”
If you win Theatre of Magic: “Hey, I’m an awesome magician. Check out my satin pants.”
For airport pinball, though, Theatre of Magic is excellent. I mean, things could be so much worse. I could be stuck watching a bear jumping on a trampoline on an iPhone.
During my third game of Theatre of Magic, a young teenager began to play BBBB. My pinball antenna detected disappointment. I caught him looking over at Theatre of Magic with envy, and after his game ended, he stood next to me, shaking quarters in his hand.
Rattling quarters while another player is immersed in a game is aggressive and unsportsmanlike, an incredibly rude gesture, the pinball equivalent of Lou Pinella arguing with an umpire about a called third strike and then suddenly Lou picks up first base and chucks in into the outfield. Except it’s not funny.
This is usually when I start grumbling under my breath about rude people. And then I had a thought: shouldn’t I be able to play through distraction? Some distractions, such as small children, are inevitable. My friends and I have discussed the pros and cons of keeping hard candy or gum in our pockets while we’re playing pinball, to bribe kids who come up and bug us while we’re playing. Shouldn’t we be able to handle nine-year olds? We should be advancing our skills. Challenging ourselves. Attempting to become better pinball players. Aren’t kids, with their sticky hands and inquisitive natures, and teenagers, with their brazen attitudes and handfuls of jingling quarters, merely another obstacle to overcome on the path to pinball enlightenment?
The kid was talented at distraction. He pulled out a candy bar and crinkled the packaging loudly, but I focused on being an excellent magician, and racked up a couple of more replays, and played them all by myself.