It's a perfectly nice day outside, one of the first in a long while. People are passing by on bikes. They're drinking on patios and wearing bright colors and stylish sunglasses.
So it doesn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense that I'm in the back of a dark bar swearing at a pinball machine. I've invested a couple dollars into this device, which happens to be promoting the popular television program, CSI (which I've never seen), and I feel a few more bucks worth of quarters burning a hole in my pocket. This is my fifth pinball stop of the day and even as my wrists become a bit sore and my pint glass again empty, I can't find a good stopping point. I think - as I've thought at other places during my week of intense pinball immersion - that I've got this thing figured out. But I don't. Not at all. And once again, I see the ball rolling down the middle of the table, splitting the difference between the two flippers and creating an all-too-familiar clunk as it lands in the mechanical mystery zone that is the inside of a pinball machine. Nevertheless, I drop another three quarters in because obsession is a real son of a bitch.
I don't play video games. At least I haven't for the past decade or so, but I'm a sucker for pinball - when the opportunity arises. And I'm not the only one. Pinball has become increasingly popular, especially here in the Northwest. For example, last weekend a pinball convention brought some 350 different machines, and a few thousand people eager to play them, to the Seattle Center. In Portland, there's a place called Ground Kontrol that boasts the largest collection of pinball machines in the Northwest. It's not just a nerd-centric audience flocking to pinball at the Ground Kontrol, as their management tells me. In fact, they say the place is seeing a steady increase in patronage, complete with (as of this printing) 26 machines, all well maintained and all functioning properly. There are a couple of pinball museums in the country, the most significant being down at the Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame where 400 or so machines blink inside a massive showroom.
In Bend, pinball machines are more common than you'd think. Out at Lava Lanes, there's an excellent Elvis machine placed oddly (but conveniently) away from the rest of the howling arcade games. The M&J Tavern has two side-by-side machines, one of which is a super cool (and super difficult) Batman game that features a haunting image of the late Heath Ledger staring back at you. There's also a machine at Cascade West and two more across the street at Players. The Westside Tavern has pinball, and if you head up to COCC, there's a Mars Attacks machine that plays excellently. Pinball machines are exclusive to bars, as evidenced by the machine at Pappy's Pizzeria. That's just a sampling - there are plenty more out there, like that CSI game at the D&D - and these are not merely pieces of nostalgia. People are playing these regularly. The bartender at the M&J tells me, before I switched over the Addams Family machine, that these two hefty contraptions are hardly eye candy - they rarely sit empty on a busy night.
Robert Gregory of Central Oregon Amusement leases most of these machines and says that he's not necessarily sure why he's seen the demand for pinball increase, but that he definitely has.
"The popularity has increased. There are more requests for pinball machines in the last few years and even from a trade perspective, there's more value now for a pinball machine than an arcade game," says Gregory.
Pinball might not have the sort of steady traffic that our state's video poker machines enjoy, but people are devout. And this might seem a bit odd, considering that pretty much any video game is just a mouse click away and 2011 space-age technology has given us home-gaming systems that don't even require a controller. Also, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of different pinball video games, many of which can be played for free online. But actual pinball, on the other hand, is, aside from the scoring display, almost entirely mechanical - producing the familiar sounds and vibrations heard inside bars and arcades to this day.
"They've tried to simulate it digitally but it's still not the same thing as bumping the machine and feeling it shake and having the volume blasted," says Jody Dankberg of Stern Pinball, Inc.
This Chicago-area company isn't merely the biggest manufacturer of pinball machines in the world - it's currently the only manufacturer of pinball machines in the world. While Stern turns out plenty of machines for bars, arcades and movie theater lobbies across the country, the company only produces three to four different models each year.
At the turn of the millennium, electronic gaming caused pinball to fall far from its pre-World War II heyday when there were more than 100 different companies building machines in the United States alone. And in the 1960s and '70s, pinball enjoyed another spot in the sun, leading some enthusiastic folks to buy machines for their homes, thus expanding the market and making pinball a regular fixture in the wood-paneled basements of upper-middle-class suburban homes. How much of this popularity is related to the popularity of Tommy (both the album and the film) remains unknown. There's evidence that the trend persists; there are currently three pinball machines (ranging from late '70s models to a mid-'80s machine) for sale online in Central Oregon.
A little more history for you - pinball has actually been around for a few hundred years. Back in the late 1700s, France's King Louis XIV played a game called bagatelle, which was essentially a precursor to pinball but (obviously) without all the flashing lights. The game as we currently know it began to take shape in 1869 when the spring-loaded plunger was added and by the 1930s, the game was taking off and had become a parlor staple.
Perhaps it's a fascination with a more tangible platform, suggests Dankberg, in addition to the chaotic and unpredictable nature of the game.
"It's organic. No pinball game will ever have the same exact outcome," he says.
But I suppose, on this Saturday afternoon, it doesn't necessarily matter much to me why people are playing these games. Gregory at Central Oregon Amusement figures there's an appeal in the different sort of hand-eye coordination challenge it presents when compared to other forms of entertainment. All I know is that I've been sucked into a vortex that's taken me back at least 15 years to time when I'd leave my friends at the Street Fighter game in favor of the pinball machines tucked away in the back corner of the arcade. I watch my third ball get ricocheted into that slot on the far right of the machine and my game is over. But wait, there's still the match... and I could win a free game. The numbers come up. Come on 40. Come on 40... Damn it. It's OK, I've got three more quarters.