austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

I ain't seen nothing like him in any amusement hall

The Silverball Museum opened in Asbury Park just a couple months ago, and my father has asked about every other week whether I've visited. I hadn't yet, as Asbury Park is just far enough away and in the impassable east-west direction (rather than north-south, the natural grain of the state) that I only really get out there for haircuts. And when I have got haircuts I had felt I wouldn't have time to visit before they likely closed. It turns out they close around midnight. It's a pinball museum, admitting that for such a subject the line between ``museum'' and ``vintage arcade'' can be an uncertain thing.

The Silverball Museum, recently moved from its old location to one on the Boardwalk (not far from the Stone Pony, nor from a prepaid parking vending machine that was having some vaguely defined issue with my credit card), is full in multiple rows and columns with pinballs from the 1940s through 1990s, with a strong peak in 1960s designs. They're roughly arranged by decade and manufacturer, some with signs above explaining the historical context or advances of a particular game. The games are all on Free Play, with a charge of $10 for an hour or $20 for a day's pass; after some hesitation on our part at the start we were let in --- the attendant had to open up the velvet customer barriers blocking off the front --- on hour passes and wandered around, apparently the only people there.

It was a lousy day, chilly and rainy and with huge waves washing in to shore. Eventually some others would come in --- we could tell by the games they played --- but it was easy to see that we had a wonderful luxury of quiet and solitude today that we would not have on a similar Friday in, say, July.

We were also given a scoring card, suitable for tournament play, with blanks for 25 games and scores alongside it. And a pencil. I resolved to keep track of my games since I used to keep careful track of my high scores on various pinballs until I lost them, and why shouldn't I renew record-keeping with a whole new bunch of games I'd never played before? bunny_hugger found this charming and funny and what else could I hope for?

I got into pinball in the 90s, in college and grad school; this was an era with a lot of fantastic games from Bally/Williams, and a bunch of also-rans from Gottlieb, and the occasional wild card from a company trying to get into the business, like Data East or Sega. These outstanding games were also very solid-state based, involving multiple game modes and sometimes bewilderingly complicated rules. I didn't realize how complicated until I read the Wii Williams Pinball Hall Of Fame description of Funhouse, which I had thought one of the more instinctively straightforward games to play. The Silverball Arcade has a section of games from this era, the 1980s and 90s, including several I'd played in excess; but the overwhelming number were electromechanical games from before the mid-70s.

That's a different world. Generally the games are slower, and there's not nearly the bewildering array of modes and alternate scoring schemes. Consider that there weren't even ramps in those days. For that matter there wasn't even universally an automatic ball return. Multiple times I would watch the ball drain and stand there watching the plunger until I remembered I needed to press another lever to get a ball in position for launching. I also had to learn how strongly to press that lever, as several times I put two balls nito the plunger lane.

Scoring would grow bizarrely high in the 90s games --- several of them had billion-point payoffs or higher --- so we were both delighted to see games with four- or five-digit scoring tables. But there were inflated scores back then, too, including several that had sometimes very non-linear tables to rack up tens of millions of points. It takes time to read a score where the millions, the hundred-thousands, the ten-thousands and so on are marked by lights behind the backboard, rather than the rotating digit wheel, but it's possible.

And the novelty could be bewildering and amazing. They had, for example, not just Skylab with the targets given a motif of space hardware, but also Spacelab --- apparently the same game, with a different name. The difference? That's for the panel above to explain. Spacelab would give replays, while Skylab wouldn't, with the result that one game was suitable in states and municipalities that regarded pinballs which gave replays as a form of slot machine, while the other was fine for places which didn't treat pinballs with psychotic hatred. (Roger Sharp's 1976 performance gets a bit of explanation in the museum's information panels.)

Each of the machines features a High Score panel, listing the highest recorded score for each of several categories --- overall, women, male seniors, female seniors, male children, female children. It is quite possible that pinball players skew towards the male of the species, given that neither of us noticed the high score being the women's high score. bunny_hugger did extremely well with one of the games, coming within a respectable margin of the women's high score; unfortunately, her attempt to try again and do just a bit better met that second-game disaster that everyone who's done well their first game recognizes. There were a few machines on which I got to within range of one of the high scores, although overall I didn't really stand out. I'm clearly out of practice.

Among the mysteries of the Museum were the high score tables on Cyclone, a 1988 amusement park-themed game, and Twilight Zone, one of the all-time greats. They had among high scorers within the dot-matrix or LED displays (rather than the attached panels) someone billed S G. Back in college I was often able to admire the pinball skills of Sean Joseph Grant, who dominated the high score tables and occasionally allowed us mere mortals to sneak in when the machines had been reset and all the scoring tables were wiped clean. Could it be him again? Would he still be in central New Jersey fifteen years later? Well, I'm here, why wouldn't he be?

As we were about halfway through --- and only an hour in --- the attendant who'd let us in came around and mentioned the time; since we were still having a lot of fun we upgraded to the full-day passes and he went back to get the plastic straps to put around our wrists in case we wanted to come back after leaving. He also pointed out where the bathrooms were, and that they had water, if we wanted water, we could get water. This felt like a weird attempt to start conversation to me, but bunny_hugger was thirsty and happily accepted the offer. She'd expected a paper cup of water; what she got was a frozen plastic water bottle. She needed to let the upper levels of ice crack open before she could drink it.

Meanwhile I was fascinated by a 1962 Olympics pinball, since it listed famous Olympic cities like London, Helsinki, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City. Yes, that was my reaction too.

The Museum didn't just have electromechanical pinball games; it also had a number of the earliest 1930s sort, with just plungers and tables that one shakes up to get the ball into a target hole, from the pre-flipper, even the pre-tilt days. We had no idea how to start them. There were also a remarkable set of games made against the basic assumptions of pinballs. One which gripped me, after Olympics, had the flippers about six inches forward of where they normally are, with a set of bumpers in the wide gap between flippers. Often they'd bounce the pinball back up into range of the flippers, but it did have the effect of making the game feel faster, as you had to get the ball when it was higher in its position. Another assumption-breaking game which frustrated bunny_hugger positioned the flippers backwards, with the axles on the inside and the flippers swinging on the outside, so balls would naturally be flung towards the edge of the field instead of towards the center. Another that baffled me had the flippers in the normal position and normal orientation, but would slide in or out depending on some part of the game I didn't quite get straight.

The museum doesn't just have pinballs. As a place with any kind of amusement game, naturally, a Ms Pac-Man has appeared in an otherwise empty space. They probably didn't even need to buy it; Ms Pac-Man machines spontaneously form wherever sufficient space for amusement games is provided. They also had Asteroid, Galaga, and Centipede, which enjoy similar ecological advantages.

And there were pinball-related games. One that I did surprisingly well on, after my first round of practice, was a sort of golfing game. I'd turn the golfer figure, and hit the button for a soft or hard hit, and try to get the ball into the appropriate hole for nine targets in sequence. The flags for holes eight and nine were missing, possibly for renovation, forcing a guess on which to aim for first, and also making them quite hard shots as the ball would tend to roll right over the hole and keep going without the flag to rebound against. But I persevered and made it in under the par 27 shots. Meanwhile bunny_hugger worked at a racecar game that worked by a similar sort of hit-the-target-to-move-the-cars mechanism.

The baseball simulators, with my hitting for both a fast or curve pitch, and timing my swing by another button, were also fascinating and really very neat considering the simplicity of the mechanism. Hitting different targets gave a single, double, triple, et cetera, with the players on base represented by red figures rotating in a circle and ducking down when they hit home, either from advancing around the bases or from the third out being made. Simple but compelling. There also was a nifty bowling game featuring a model bowler who appeared to be Mark Trail on his day off. (Mark Trail doesn't have days off.) And bunny_hugger got pretty skilled at a variant pinball --- this was the one with the directionally-reversed flippers --- tied to horse-racing, where hitting the correct targets would bring your horse to the finish line first, and she got the hang of that in time.

Still, and fun as this all was, and marvellous as the discoveries could be --- ranging from a splendily-themed Beatles-inspired game which carefully avoided using the actual names of any band or performers while trying to get that British Invasion chic going, to Nip-It, the pinball famously and ananchronistically featured at Arnold's restaurant in Happy Days, to those love-meter type machines or timeclocks still stamed with the pre-IBM names of time recording companies --- we did eventually come to agree we'd played enough for a while.

As bunny_hugger unaccountably didn't keep track of her high scores I don't know how many she played. For me, I had 25 pinballs, not counting the golf or baseball or bowling games, which is easy to track because of the scoring sheet and because I didn't replay games. This means that, actually, pro-rated, I was paying more than 50 cents per game, which probably answers the question of how a flat-rate unlimited-payment scheme would work for arcade games. As with most all-you-can-eat plans, you can't actually eat all that much.

So with our both feeling quite satisfied we looked seriously and thoughtfully at the candy, which looked like the sort of quirky homemade candies you might see in an older amusement arcade, but decided that might just spoil our dinner instead. We had a fun time, though, and I'm very glad I made it there, and now that I know how late they're open I won't miss them next time I'm in the area for a haircut.

Trivia: Lloyds Bank, opened in Oldbury in the United Kingdom 1865 by Herbert Lloyd, was begun in part because the Oldbury firm of Albright & Wilson, phosphorous makers, suffered too-high losses of payroll to highwaymen. (Albright and Lloyd were both Quakers, which may have encouraged the firm's establishment.) Source: The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale Of Murder, Fire, And Phosphorous, John Emsley.

Currently Reading: Malaria: The Biography Of A Killer, Leon J Warshaw, MD. It's a library book sale book and pretty near the last of November's library book sale books on my reading reserve. It also dates to 1949 so it's interestingly different to how the same book would be written today, mostly in that it feels like an easier read somehow. Maybe it was aimed at a more general audience than the equivalent book would be today.

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