Grant that you are at a pinball machine. If you do not know what to do, follow the advice of our Lansing league friend MG: shoot the most distant target on the playing field, and every ramp three times. This is surprisingly good advice for any game in the modern era, ones in which the score is displayed on a dot-matrix display (a DMD-era game, in pinball jargon). If there are no ramps and no obviously distant target, you are playing an electromechanical or a solid-state-era game. Then the strategy changes: you'll want to shoot every drop target. If there are rollovers or standing targets, shoot them too.
Put that way, the playing of either era's games might sound very similar; you either shoot a ramp or a drop target, a toy or a rollover. But DMD-era games tend to be much longer things than electromechanical (EM) or solid-state (SS) games. DMD-era games have essentially modern computers. They can adjust the point values of different targets to reward players. They have ball saves, so that an unlucky bounce doesn't necessarily end a turn. They can give awards that can upend the fortunes of a player. They make it easy for a skilled player to keep playing, on and on. So the grim joke that solid state or electromechanical games are great coin flips has this behind it: the weaker player has a better chance of getting an upset on an older table. At least, the weaker players think that's so. The stronger players think so too.
So this was my feeling throughout the night. If I was picked to play a stronger player --- and I often was --- I felt a deep relief if we were assigned a solid state game. I could win those If we were assigned a DMD game, I could hope to make at least a valiant stand before my inevitable defeat.
I had never won more than two games in a four-strikes tournament. I figured if I managed two wins I would have upheld my honor, and any more than that would be gravy. I would get a surprising amount of gravy.
Not all gravy. I would lose a surprisingly low-scoring game of FunHouse, bunny_hugger's favorite. But I would get some amazing lucky breaks. For example, picked to go against CST on Monster Bash --- one of the last DMD games of the 90s, and one that we both know well --- I stumbled out of the gate. The game's themed to the Universal Movie Monsters. I started the Frankenstein's Monster multiball right away, which sounds good --- but it's better strategically to start one of the other monster modes and then start the multiball. I did the best I could from that. CST, amazingly, tilted his first ball. I managed to complete a couple monster modes without benefit of multiball. He had a house ball for his second. I managed to get another multiball going, and then almost to start the Monster Bash wizard mode. CST referred to this as ``twisting the knife, eh?'' But once I got there I couldn't shoot the target that starts it, one that's in the middle of the field and easy to hit even by accident. CST could easily have come in and topped me from there, even given the lead I had; but he didn't. I couldn't believe it either.
There were other lucky strokes. I got paired with GRV --- a top player, but one who can be completely thrown by a bit of bad luck --- to play The Shadow. That's another DMD-era game, based on the forgotten movie adaptation. It's got a neat gimmick in its ramps, each of which can be set to go to alternate directions. It's got an upper playfield that you do something or other with. I've never understood what to do with it, while GRV knows every rule about every pinball machine, ever. But he's generous with his knowledge, almost to a fault --- he'll start offering advice if you seem to be struggling, even if it's on a game you know well. He did give me tips, although it was for what I had worked out (the way to start the main multiball). He took an enormous lead on the last ball, and yet, somehow, I managed to beat him on that. He was gracious --- even cheery --- in defeat; he was having a good day. GRV would go on to third place --- and the highest-placed Michigan player --- in the Ball Drop Tournament.
But I would get lucky surprisingly often. I got picked to play solid-state games more than a few times. I've played Tri-Zone a good number of times lately, bettering my skills on the machine. I play them in simulation, on Pinball Arcade, often. When I have a chance on older machines I gravitate toward them; nearly all my practice time this session was spent getting a feel for the solid state machines. And I got lucky again on Earthshaker, a game that has a ramp but not a dot-matrix display. It comes from the transitional era of the late 80s and early 90s, when the grammar of pinball games was in flux. For games of that era, good luck figuring out what to do. Nobody knows. Try the ramp some and there's probably some standing targets that are worth something.
I would have my best performance ever in a four-strikes tournament, with six --- six! --- matches won. I'd end up tied for sixth place. GRV would go on to surpass me in the state rankings, dropping me from 12th to 13th, but what would I have to complain about either position?
But then there was my hardest match. That was on Fast Draw, a solid state machine. My opponent was bunny_hugger.
Trivia: The NASA Director of Safety, Reliability, and Quality Assurance's monthly report on the space shuttle program, in late 1985/early 1986, would typically have about twenty open problems listed regarding the Solid Rocket Motor, compared to about three hundred on the Space Shuttle Main Engine. Source: The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA, Diane Vaughan.
Currently Reading: Copts In Michigan, Eliot Dickinson.
PS: Silver-Leafed Numbers, following up on stuff from a couple days ago. Reciprocal fun!