June 10th, 2013

krazy koati

Here we are now, entertain us

Sometimes you run across a piece of art that's not just great, but makes you realize that you'd been settling for mediocre stuff and hadn't realized it. That shocking wakening of senses is a feeling everyone should be lucky enough to have sometimes. People often describe that feeling as being like the first time --- well, for my generational cohort, the first time they heard Nirvana, but the first time they read Mad will often do, or the first time they heard the Beatles. Maybe soon we'll see people for whom it's the first time they watched Arrested Development. It doesn't matter. You know the kind of shocking, ``wait, why didn't I even imagine this existed before?'' moment of recognition.

That's what I felt when I saw, and played, the new Jersey Jack Pinball The Wizard of Oz (based, as you probably guessed, on the MGM movie). I may cool to it when I see it again --- after all, the machine is bright and shiny and shockingly new --- but for now at least I'm quite infatuated with the game and want to describe some of why it's so amazing.

And I can't point to any one really stunning change. It's more the cumulative effect of a lot of little thought-out bits of development. The most striking and obvious new thing is that instead of the dot-matrix displays that have been pinball's standard for the past 15-20 years, it's got a flat video screen instead. This opens up real estate for a lot of information to be given the player --- possibly too much; the game's normal mode divides the screen into quadrants, with one for the score and one for the status of things like locked balls and two for information about what modes you could open up --- as well as to switch over to videos and graphics custom to whatever mode the game is in. (In modern pinball, the game is oriented toward starting different modes --- basically, different sets of targets to hit before some deadline passes --- often building towards a ``wizard'' mode.) This alone makes the game look even newer and more visually exciting than it might otherwise.

But the thinking about how to make pinball runs deeper. For example, there's of course lights all over the playfield; these now have been made color-changing LEDs so that the game not just can direct you to particular things but can change the appearance of the whole board. It's a simple but eye-opening thing.

Here's a deeper bit of thought put into the game: most pinballs these days have (at least by default) a guaranteed minimum playtime; that is, if your ball drains right away, you get it back. The Wizard of Oz gives you the ball back, but, it turns the restored ball into a challenge: you're given a fixed amount of time to make some target shots. That is, you have to earn your restored ball. Nothing but the required targets score anything, and if you don't make it in the time allotted the flippers stop working and you lose the ball again. I'm not sure that I like how complicated the targets are, but, the idea of proving your instant-drain was a fluke and you deserve better --- well, I'm interested. I like the idea.

The game looks expensive --- the Internet Pinball Database gives its list price at $7,000 --- but it also looks worth it. All the parts look well-crafted and soundly built. There are a lot of props, including a castle door atop a mini-playfield (to free Dorothy from, you see), and a spinning farmhouse, and most delightfully a flying monkey which (magnetically) grabs the ball and carries it up to being captured. This is great to see, particularly in the brand-new and essentially un-worn game, but I do worry what maintenance will be like.

The game also brings back something I haven't seen since the days of electromagnetic games. I don't know why they should have vanished when solid states came in, but, there's rollover targets --- essentially, buttons in the playfield which score when the ball passes over them --- for a ``Toto'' mode, and I'm glad to see them back. I don't know any reason they should have gone away; they just went out of fashion, and I'm glad to see someone using them again.

I have to admit that the game's voice acting is surprisingly off of the movie's cast. This might be an effect of just it being so hard to capture Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion when you're anybody but Bert Lahr, and his having such an overwhelming presence, and that not everyone can hit their target as well as the Rod Serling impersonator gotten for The Twilight Zone game back twenty years ago. And the otherwise excellent use of music didn't keep me from noticing that they weren't able to license Judy Garland actually singing ``Over The Rainbow'', though they get as close as they can.

There's an interesting little point to the game: it's been standard for games to increment by units of ten (or higher) on pinballs for a long, long while. Not so here: the last digit is not fixed to be zero. I suppose theoretically you could get a single point on a ball. Scores up into the neighborhood of a million certainly can be done, and I built it up past 100,000 myself, so you can't really call the game ``low-scoring'', but the break with custom in having, in principle, single-point scoring is surprising and refreshing and the sort of thing I'm pointing to when I say the Jersey Jack people sat down and thought about why pinball does things the way it does and whether they can change that any.

I am thrilled by this game. I think I'd have been satisfied with my visit to the Silverball Museum if I had just watched people playing, never mind playing myself.

Trivia: In June 1956 the Naval Research Labs and IBM entered a contract for Project Vanguard, under which IBM would supply the project with six weeks' full-time operation of its 704 computer for $900,000. Included for free past this were several services including free orbit computations for the first three successful Vanguard satellites for their lives (or the life of the Minitrack tracking network, whichever was shorter). Source: Project Vanguard: The NASA History, Constance McLaughlin Green, Milton Lomask. NASA SP-4202.

Currently Reading: Sovereignty and an Empty Purse: Banks And Politics In The Civil War, Bray Hammond. I always knew intellectually that until about 1943 the federal government was run with about as much organization-mindedness as a couple kids running a top secret fort in their treehouse, but I didn't realize how loopily ramshackle things were. Like, I knew the federal government was anti-bank following President Jackson and the depression of the 1830s, but I had assumed that at the time of Fort Sumpter they could still, you know, use checks.