Have I told you the one about Hurricane? This is May 1996. The band I played drums for had a show in Memphis, and three friends and I drove down, looking for pinball along the way. Storefront, restaurant, tavern, truck stop: these were all places to house a machine. I peered around corners, ducked my head into backrooms. I snooped and searched, hoping for a new set of tricks to stimulate my pinball mind.
If you recall my last column, I spoke of the great roller coaster themed game known as Cyclone. At the time, we’d heard rumors of a game called Hurricane. All we knew about Hurricane was a) it was a sequel to Cyclone, the greatest pinball machine of all time, and b) it had two Ferris wheels.
We met up with my band mates in Memphis and after sound check, my friends and I walked around the neighborhood. We spotted a Hurricane in a laundromat right across the street from the club. As if we had conjured it out of the steamy air. The laundromat was closed for the evening and reopened the next morning at 6. We tried to get a look at the playfield, but all we could see through the window was the side of the machine, decorated with a picture of a swooping, anthropomorphic roller coaster. With fangs.
Our disappointment vanished when we rolled into the donut shop next door. Not only did the donut shop have an old wooden pinball machine, but also a tattooed woman with black hair worked behind the counter. We all fell in love. (With the woman.) We tried to seduce her with elaborate donut orders. We attempted to impress her with our pinball skills. Did she play pinball when the shop got slow? We didn’t ask. We secretly made plans to move to Memphis, make the donut shop waitress fall in love with us. Play Hurricane every day while washing her fantastically complicated underwear. I don’t think we invited her to the show across the street, which strikes me now as tragic and stupid.
Like I said, we were focused.
I played the show. Our equipment broke, my drums fell over, but it was a good time. When you’re in a band, you learn to appreciate the shitty shows as well as the triumphs. The last thing you want is something middle of the road: polite applause, gentle cheers. A downhill show can be fun. You make the songs screech to a halt. Aim for less applause. Turn every song into a punch, directed toward the audience.
We watched the other bands play, my friends and I loaded my drums out, and we drove around Memphis, waiting for time to pass. That was the extent of our plan. We took pulls from a two-liter of Mountain Dew to keep ourselves awake, and despite the caffeine, I fell into a restless, sweaty sleep in the back seat of the truck.
Don’t ask me why we didn’t think to stay at someone’s house and sack out on a couch or a bed. The rest of my band rented a hotel room or drove back, I don’t recall, but they didn’t have the relentless sense of purpose my friends and I shared.
The pictures I took of us gathered around Hurricane at 6 am are not pretty. We look wrecked, like defeated clowns. Our faces are pasty and grim, our clothes and faces rumpled.
The game was a delight, filled with secret joys. It did strange things to our brains, probably because of the sleep deprivation. We all suffered from periodic moments of hypersensitive grumpiness. I myself felt fuzzy and slaphappy, couldn’t believe I was playing the thing. We didn’t know any of the rules and we didn’t care. It was a dream we collaborated on, half-awake in an open-way-too-early-laundromat. My bones ached for real sleep. I wanted to play the game under normal pinball circumstances.
Al’s Pizza in Purcellville, Virginia is the kind of pizza parlor where the coach takes the team after the big game. Al’s sells Cheerwine, subs, and, of course, pizza pies. Lots of booths, a decent jukebox. As far as I can tell, the two pinball machines, Road Show and Hurricane, are ignored by the patrons.
Aside from the Memphis trip of lore, I’ve hardly played Hurricane. Turns out the thing that warped my brain years ago was the Hurricane skill shot. After you fire the ball with the plunger, the ball zips down a plastic track, travels around the entire circumference of the game, then loops back and drops in front of the left hand flipper. After all that, you’re supposed to shoot the ball up a roller coaster ramp, The Hurricane, to collect your points.
As for the double Ferris wheel, it’s a double Ferris wheel. You know? It takes twice as long for the ball to go around as it does this single wheel on Cyclone.
Hurricane has a shot called “The Juggler.” You hit it to lock a ball for multiball, to grab a bonus, to win extra balls and free games. It’s an easy shot, straight up the middle, and when I hit the ball toward the Juggler, it ricocheted right back at my flippers. The ball should have rested in the hole for a moment; goodies should have rained down from pinball heaven. I didn’t think much of this until the second or third time it happened. The ball kept hitting a piece of debris. I looked up at the top of the game to see if anything was blocking the hole: nothing.
The entire game operates around the Juggler shot, and since it was broken, I wouldn’t be able to start multiball. When a crucial part of a pinball machine is broken, there’s nothing to do, really. You can play the game but it’s like reading a book with the last chapter ripped out. I knew my afternoon was screwed, but I kept playing: I was going to spend my afternoon reading a book. To hell with the ending. I killed the game in every other fashion I could think of. I rode the Hurricane ramp over and over. Replay was set low, so if I hit the ramps four or five times, I won a game. I’m a ramp man. I’m pretty good with ramps. I slapped and pushed. I obtained prizes, points, replays, but my victories felt shallow. Sometimes the ball tumbled into the Juggler hole by accident when the ball moved slow enough.
Across the room, a tyke pawed Road Show, his nose rubbing against the top of the machine. His mom gave him two quarters but they couldn’t find the start button. They gave up after a minute, grabbed their sodas and walked toward the exit. The kid paused next to me, stared up at the colorful game, ear cocked to the noise. He whispered to his Mom. She whispered something back. I heard the telltale clink of two quarters rubbing together.
“Excuse me, Mister, can I play the game?”
Swear to God, those were his exact words. You should have heard his voice. I suppose I could have said, “I drove an hour to get here, kid. And sometimes pinball is all I have in life.” But really, how could I say no to that sweet voice? I had three credits racked up, and I bestowed them upon the imp.
Road Show is a pinball game hosted by two disembodied heads: Ted and Red. Each head controls a bulldozer and the heads travel across the U.S.A. together to work on various construction projects. Zzzzzzzzzz. I mean… really? Heads without bodies, driving bulldozers? So typical. Could this game be any more obvious? If you’ve seen one game like this, you’ve seen them all.
Hey, I’m kidding. I’m not aware of any other pinball games out there in the universe that have disembodied heads controlling bulldozers. Road Show has one of the most complicated playfields I’ve seen. There are about twelve flippers of various lengths and many holes, gadgets and ramps. It’s a dense, claustrophobic affair; I don’t click with Road Show on any level. It’s like someone trying to impress me and overdoing it. If the broken Hurricane was a book with the last chapter ripped out, Road Show is a novel with eight different plots. (And after the book ends, the plots converge at some unknown point in the future; a fine idea for a novel, but you better make damn sure every plot point is interesting.)
When I looked over at the Hurricane, the kid and his Mom had left, so I abandoned Road Show in the middle of a game. Hurricane, I noticed the parking lot began to fill up with cars. Doors slammed, young guys barked at one another. They were a team of some sort, you could tell by the way they walked in together. Like a gang. Their huge bodies and fluctuating voices filled the restaurant. A couple of the kids had blood on their faces, but it was way too early in the year for football. Then I spotted some parents with rugby windbreakers. The rugby players sounded hungry. I tried to focus on my game, but soon, there were thirty-five people between myself and the door. It became so crowded, there was hardly enough room to move. I was pushed up against the machine, and I decided it was time to split. I left a couple of credits in case the rugby guys wanted to throw the game around the restaurant.