When was the last time you played pinball?
If you’re a normal person — i.e. you don’t make pilgrimages to arcade “museums”, like I do — I’d guess a decade or more. Where would you even find one to play? The only place I know of in D.C. that has pinball is the Black Cat (Attack From Mars and Spider-Man, I believe).
I thought about pinball’s physical disappearance as I watched Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball the other night. The 2006 documentary charts the inexorable decline of Williams’ pinball division, as the pre-eminent pinball maker of the ’80s and ’90s tried to “reinvent” pinball at the turn of the millennium.
While Tilt studiously avoids positing a direct cause for Williams’ demise, its subtext is pinball’s cultural disappearance. After all, Williams wouldn’t have needed to make pinball relevant again if it were still part of the culture. But it’s hard for something to stay culturally relevant when people rarely encounter it.
Pinball didn’t reach the brink of extinction — Stern is the only manufacturer left — because people lost interest, but because people forgot pinball even existed. And for this we can’t blame Williams’ doomed-from-the-start Pinball 2000 initiative, Jar-Jar Binks (who played a role in said doomed initiative), or simple disinterest and flipper fatigue. Rather, pinball disappeared from the American cultural map because the one place where most people encountered pinball — the arcade — disappeared, rendered irrelevant by the home-video-game boom heralded by the first Playstation.
Tilt charts Williams’ slow downfall from mega-success in the early ’90s — including the best and best-selling pinball game of all time, The Addam’s Family — to a mere sideshow to the company’s slot machine business. Rather than accept the smaller profits of an ultra-niche business to complement the slot racket, the company’s leaders decided to make one last push to make pinball relevant again. The result was the predictably awful Pinball 2000 project of 1999.
Pinball 2000 machines took everything unique about classic and latter-day pinball — the tactile Rube Goldberg aesthetics; the kitschy pre-bobblehead “artifacts”; the ingenious mechanical engineering; the personality inherent to physical craftsmanship — and replaced it with the dull crappiness of digitized, pre-polygon video game graphics. As far as I can tell, instead of intricate ramps, tunnels, and bumpers, the back of the playfield featured a screen (the reflection of a screen, actually) that displayed video and graphics. Instead of trying to shoot a ball up a corkscrew ramp, you had to shoot the ball toward aliens on the screen. Whee. (To be fair, the film is much more charitable toward the first Pinball 2000 game, Revenge From Mars, which I’ve never played.)
Revenge From Mars did okay, selling 7,000 units. The follow-up was supposed to be a blockbuster — Star Wars: Episode 1 — but sold only 5,000 units; Williams closed the pinball division soon after. (See, Jar-Jar ruined pinball as well as Star Wars.)
Pinball 2000 was clearly a misguided idea, and you have to feel for the Williams designers — the best pinball crew there ever was — who gave it their best shot in spite of their misgivings. But there was probably no way for the company to match its early ’90s profits. Pinball’s success was directly tied to that of arcades, and by that point arcades were pretty much history.
Williams should have been able to figure this out. Indeed, the big profits the company remembered so fondly weren’t just a result of a stellar run of machines — including Funhouse, Terminator 2, Twilight Zone, White Water, Fish Tales, and Theatre of Magic, in addition to Addam’s Family — but of an arcade boom strong enough to support the pinball auteurs’ creations. (Even in the best of times, pinball was a niche business: Addam’s Family set a record with some 20,000 machines sold.)
Arcades enjoyed a brief renaissance in the early to mid ’90s, capitalizing on video games’ growing prominence in American culture — thanks to Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and Sega Genesis — and a new generation of arcade games that seemed far more advanced than the home systems.
Three overlapping waves of games powered this renaissance. First came beat-em-up games that featured what seemed at the time like cartoon-quality graphics, and allowed four to six players to go at it at the same time. The first of these mega-hits was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1990, followed by The Simpsons in ’91 and X-Men in ’92. Then came a wave of 1-on-1 fighting games, led by Street Fighter II in ’91 and Mortal Kombat in ’92. Completing the trinity of cross-genre blockbusters was NBA Jam in 1993.
Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, and NBA Jam to a lesser extent, became genuine cultural phenomena, and this wave of games was enough to sustain arcades through the middle of the decade. TMNT begat TMNT: Turtles in Time. SFII begat SFII: Champion Edition and SFII: Hyper Fighting. Mortal Kombat begat Mortal Kombat II and Mortal Kombat 3. NBA Jam begat NBA Jam: Tournament Edition.
By the second half of the decade, a glut of increasingly complex arcade games (better than a glut of crappy arcade games, I guess) and the arrival of the Playstation proved to be bad news for arcades. Anyone could mash buttons in TMNT, turn on the big-head cheat code in NBA Jam, or even learn to throw a Ryu fireball in Street Fighter II. But the Street Fighter sequels/spinoffs/knockoffs (Super Street Fighter II, X-Men: Children of the Atom, Marvel Super Heroes, X-Men Vs. Street Fighter, Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom, Marvel vs. Capcom 2; the Samurai Showdown, Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, King of Fighters, and Darkstalkers series), and next-generation fighting games like Tekken and Virtua Fighter increasingly catered to hardcore fighting fans willing to put in the time to learn hundreds of complicated moves.
Meanwhile, the Playstation’s U.S. launch in 1995 represented a technical leap that brought home video games much closer to arcade quality than any before. The Playstation version of, say, Street Fighter Alpha was basically identical to the arcade version. And games like Final Fantasy XII, Resident Evil, and the entire sports lineup offered much deeper experiences, if not always better graphics, than arcade games. The Playstation 2 (2000) and Xbox (2001) delivered even richer gaming experiences, with polygon-based graphics that could rival the most powerful arcade games.
The only way arcades could even hope to compete was with elaborate-seeming multiplayer sit-down racing games, increasingly ridiculous peripheral-based games (hello Brave Firefighters), and combinations of the two (say hey to Jambo Safari). The only arcades that could afford more than one or two of these games were the mall-based likes of Dave & Buster’s, Jillian’s, and GameWorks. And while these chains — plus a bowling alley and bar here, a rest stop and airport lounge there — represent a pinball market, it’s one far smaller than what Williams envisioned when it pinned its future on Pinball 2000. (I’m not sure how long even these chains can hang on, given how much more advanced Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 games are than current arcade games.)
Most game-makers weren’t terribly hurt by arcades’ near-death; Capcom, Konami, Sega, and other arcade manufacturers simply continued to focus on the growing home-game market. But Williams’ pinball division didn’t have a home-game equivalent to fall back on.
That makes the loss of Williams’ legacy even harder to take for pinball fans. Video games from the ’80s and ’90s continue to influence today’s games; today’s games will influence new generations of games, and so on for decades to come.
Not so for pinball. The best part of Tilt is seeing and hearing from the people responsible for the best pinball machines ever made. The hardest part is knowing there won’t be another pinball generation to improve on their greatness.