Table Setups and Youtube Videos

Posted: February 27th, 2008 by BounceBack

Pinball is fluourishing in Portland, which is a good thing. It seems like every time I go out, tables that were usually idle except at peak times are being played more and more often, by people of various skill levels– but most importantly, even the beginners and casual players seem to be taking their games more seriously. I often see people concentrating, checking out rule sheets, and playing multiple games trying to improve their scores.

That seems like good news for the pinball industry in general, the scene in PDX, and for competition levels. It’s good to be pushed by other local players, and to have scores up around town to gun for. Unfortunately it seems like there’s something of a glass ceiling for players that for whatever reason find themselves becoming serious enough to want to take their skills to the next level– namely, inconsistency of playing conditions that makes it much more difficult to practice particular skills and improve on particular games.

Some amount of inconsistency is the nature of the beast with pinball– there’s a huge number of moving parts in every game. There’s constant friction from a fairly heavy metal ball bearing flying at decent velocities along a sheet of waxed plywood. Many players probably notice the conditions of the same table change over the course of a single session, as heat from lights and coils builds up and changes the temperature and humidity inside the game, just slightly enough to make the game behave differently from ball to ball. Maybe that sounds like mumbo-jumbo, but I see it all the time on guitars– you can have it in tune backstage, and as soon as it’s under the heat of stage lights, see it go out of tune again– and that’s a much smaller chunk of wood and metal with a lot less going on than a pinball machine!

Most players just come to accept that the same table can be playing differently from day to day, that there’s going to be wear-and-tear, that even two identical games can feel radically differently on different sites, and etc; but is it too much to expect that the games we play seriously be kept tuned up at least as well as possible for what that particular game is capable of? I for one am a long way from being a competitive tournament player. But I still feel serious enough about my game that I would like to get there, sooner rather than later. It takes years of practice to become an A player– but if you’ve ever done anything seriously, from sports to music to cooking to art, you know that the tools you use and the environment you practice in makes all the difference in how and how quickly you develop.

Portland has no shortage of pinball tables, it’s true– but when it comes to tables that are set up to tournament standards, playing fast, true, and challenging, there’s only a handful, and usually not to be found in the same place. It’s obvious that the most heavily played tables are dialed to the highest difficulty settings around. Most of the tables at Billy Ray’s, Clinton St., and the Goodfoot have the outlanes set as wide as possible, with extremely short ballsavers, high replays, and difficult mode settings (few shots spotted at the start of the game, more shots required to achieve objectives, etc.) All of that makes for a challenging playing experience that should help players develop, it’s true. And I love playing on games that are set strictly, *IF* they are playing in top shape to justify all those challenging factors. Sadly, few tables offer this, and that throws a big wrench in that goal of mastering a given game.

Take the game I’ve been playing the most lately, the Monster Bash at Billy Ray’s. The outlanes are huge and merciless, your ball will only be saved if you somehow manage to drain without hitting a single switch after launch, and the table is fast and jumpy. Sounds great, right? Well, the autolaunch only manages to get the ball up to the rollovers about once out of 10 launches, unless you can figure out how to slap or shake the ball up to the bumpers, so there goes a good chunk of bonus multiplier to start with. The slingshots sometimes fire at random, so if you hit a soft ramp shot and see the ball headed back to the flippers, there’s a decent chance that a slingshot will decide to kick a ball that hasn’t actually touched it into the outlanes. Bummer. And if you do manage to get a game going, the switches on Frank and Drac both fail to register hits about 1/3rd of the time, so figure on making a LOT of dead-on, HARD shots to them if you want to collect their instruments. Sure, that’s the idea in the first place– but it’s kind of a drag if you’re two shots from lighting Monsters of Rock multiball but 7 of your hits haven’t registered, and then you drain your last ball… enough of a drag to keep me from pouring as many quarters into the game as I would otherwise.

Or take the Family Guy that just went back in at the Shanghai Tunnel. Here’s a newer game that seems to be in great working condition. Huge outlanes, higher difficulty settings– but the monkey jackpot loop is set up to be a dead-on center drain shot! In fact any shot to the Lois orbit that doesn’t make it all the way around is headed into the drain too– the metal on the orbit is aimed SDTM. You’d think this would be an easy save by slapping the side of the cabinet even with the orbit and giving a nudge to send the ball to the left flipper, but there’s another problem– the death pop-up between the flips doesn’t sit flush with the playfield. It has a big edge sticking up to the front and left, so exactly at the place the ball falls when you nudge it to save from that stupid orbit, the ball kicks up in the air, and skips OVER the left flipper as you try to save. I played it last night and quickly decided to save my money instead of spending it on the long session I’d been planning.

Sure it’s true that there are dozens of great players in Portland that have done just fine developing their skills despite all of this. Sure these are nitpicky problems with games that are otherwise more or less working. But for anyone who really wants to get their game to that next level, whether it means finally getting a score up, finally beating the wizard mode on your favorite table, or finally being able to take home some prize money against other great players at a tournament, there’s no point in pouring quarters into a game that isn’t set up to give you a fair chance to actually do your best.

And sure, some great scores have been put up on fucked up tables all over the city. There’s a certain satisfaction in throwing up your initials on a game you had to fight every step of the way, or where you had to totally modify your strategy because you couldn’t even think about making the shots you usually go for. But if those are the conditions under which you have to play all the time, you’re going to adapt to them, and then be totally fucked when you actually go head to head on a well-maintained table with a player who’s USED to playing games that work properly.

Everyone has good and bad games. But in my mind, that means a fluctuation that reflects your general skill level, with the occasional total slaughter of a high score, and the occasional utter fuck-up where you don’t break a million. All too often at many of my favorite places to play it feels like there’s way more chance involved than there should be considering all the practice I’ve put in, and it has everything to do with the tables themselves. This is a big part of the reason that novices think pinball is just a game of luck. A good table should be fast and level, giving you the opportunity to use the flipper skills you’ve developed. The Johnny Mnemonic at Billy Ray’s seems like a good example of a pretty well set game– fast, not super forgiving, but not stupid bouncy, uneven, broken, or random. On the other hand, the last time I played at the Shanghai Tunnel and BOG, all the tables were drifty and slow, in addition to having other issues with various aspects. You’re not going to get better at trapping and passing the ball between flippers if the table is so shallow that every bounce sends the ball way up into the middle of the playfield, or if the game is so out of level that a flipper pass more often than not sends the ball drifting up to the opposite outlane instead of to the opposite flipper. Or take the tables at the Vern, many of which have mismatched flippers that create way more bounciness than you would see on the same table most of the time. As a sign of how seriously maintenance is taken on those tables, two days ago Monster Bash was down because a slingshot rubber had broken and trapped all four balls of someone’s multiball in the right inlane. the rubber was completely filthy and worn through, and should have been changed long before this ever happened. Flipper rubbers with nicks, divots, and grooves are common to find around town, as are worn rubbers that have just been rotated, which is like continuing to play ping-pong with a ball that has a nice dent in it– nothing bounces true.

Maybe it’s too much to ask to be able to play some of the high-maintenance games that are tournament favorites; they don’t seem to hold up on site, so unless you’ve got a personal friend with some nice tables, good luck becoming a top player on PAPA games like twilight zone, cactus canyon, circus voltaire, indy 500, funhouse, Tommy, etc. etc. (I’m sure everyone has a personal list of games they’d like to see on location in town, but probably never will…) But I for one will go out of my way to play games that are really set the way they should be. You KNOW when you play a good table that it’s all about you– any mistakes are going to be your own, and luck isn’t going to be a major issue. You can feel the ball *wanting* to come back to rest on your flippers– you can *see* the spin. You can make the ramps without fighting the machine, adding an extra slap or shove just to hope that you make it all the way up, even if your aim was true. You get your danger warnings when you deserve them, but you can still work with the game, even if the tilt settings are strict (i.e. you’re not going to tilt when your ball’s in the pop bumpers and you’re not even touching the machine.) The game is fast but feels solid and real– the ball doesn’t drift like a balloon in the middle of the table as you try to trap it. Where are all these games in PDX? It would be great if the upcoming google pinball map could have GREAT machines in one color, average games in another, and games to avoid also clearly marked.


In other news– Jay alerted me to some new youtube pinball videos of varying interest. Apparently Keith Elwin and others are about to release a “Pinball 101″ instructional video. This could be stupid, but the trailer shows some pretty interesting POV shots that look good, giving you an unusual look at games like MM, LOTR, Elvira, AFM, and plenty of others. Search pinball 101 for trailers, and some cool demonstrations of death saves and bang backs, including an inset shot showing the plumb-bob inside the machine; it’s not the strictest, but you can see that technique makes the difference in avoiding the tilt. Also note the death save performed with the patented DDT kick trick, instead of a hip thrust! Hopefully the existence of this video is a good sign that the pinball resurgence we’re seeing in portland isn’t an isolated phenomenon.

Til Death,


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4 Responses to 'Table Setups and Youtube Videos'

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  1. BounceBack   27 Feb 08 at 9:51 pm

    update: the bash launcher at billy rays is fixed, finally, and drac and frank seem to be registering hits more easily. that’s good. on the downside, the left flipper is weaker now, making it almost impossible to bounce-pass to the right flipper to set up creature and mosh pit shots, one of my favorite setups.

    midieval is playing great overall, with strong flippers, just a little floaty in the middle, but a lot more fun than it had been. we’ll see how long it lasts. elvira actually tilts so i haven’t seen any new scores from WOF. CFTBL still a waste of money, sadly.

  2. rgratzer   28 Feb 08 at 12:23 pm

    When I played the Family Guy at Shanghai last night the first thing I noticed with the Lois shot was that there seemed to an object of some sort within the tunnel–or it could have been a weird wearing of the pathway–which resulted in nice clean shots not always making it all the way through. Many shots up it were sticking some where in there and then coming back down. But it wasn’t until my second ball that I noticed the high chance of it shooting SDTM. It all depended on the velocity. I’d say 1/4 shots were destined for the drain. Due to that, I only played one game on it. I know where other, better, FG’s are (Alleyway and Florida Room, for instance), so I don’t need to waste my time on Shanghai’s.

    Another totally obvious flaw in both Shanghai machines is the left-lean. I’m thinking the floor of that entire basement is uneven. I’m not sure why the machines haven’t been adjusted to be level. I blew my first game on Spiderman last night because I kept miscalculating the curve of the ball’s path as it dropped “straight” down from a Sandman shot. So to connect with what you’re saying, it’s can be too bad that we have to so often make radical adjustments to our gameplay just because we are at a different location. I was thinking the same thing the other day when I tilted on my third flip while playing the Spiderman at MFP. But that certainly wasn’t anything major – a super-sensitive tilt is fine, especially compared to more serious issues. Still, I was so used to playing at BOG, where the tilt is reasonable, that I didn’t think to proceed with caution and consider the potential differences. On that note, I kind of think Spiderman is designed to be a floaty game. The loops are slow-paced, and more slope on the table won’t really change that. Plus the board is so open – more slope won’t make it tight and fast; it will always be open and wandering. Sometimes I think it’s almost too easy to trap and drop-stop on that game.

    My friend Scott (friend who was with me at Billy Ray’s last Sat.) has some stellar database skills, and so we’re going to work together on the map. He thinks it can be done pretty easily and quickly. Us three should have a brainstorming session, and come up with the fields and features. Maybe over a My Lai 7″ and Demo Man? :) Anyway, yeah, there will be fields for comments on condition. Portland has much more demand than most places for keeping the machines maintained. I’m sure you’ve noticed that when you step outside the city and happen upon a machine, the chances of it being wonky are pretty high. A good, and highly-trafficked, database could really encourage the local distributors to meet the growing demands.

  3. Orbit   2 Mar 08 at 12:11 am

    There’s such a fine line between a game that is quirky and one that is completely fucking useless. I find it so hard to play a table that has even one broken shot, jet bumper or slingshot. It just drives me crazy. But I like games that have their own identifying quirks, like a ramp that registers but the ball falls out before the end or a lock that only sticks 1 out of 3 times.

    Every machine has it’s own fingerprint. That’s why a player can never be judged by their scores. I played two medievals last week and one had a GC of 86 mil and the other was 177. It was all the same initials on the backglass but in a different order.

    A great player can learn any machine on the fly and adjust their style to conform to the machine at their fingertips. A lot of people are good at a few games, and a very small amount of people are good at Pinball.

    We are lucky to live here. This is Pinball heaven. Play every machine you see. And goddamnit, whomever operates the Gilligan’s Island machine at Hawthorne Hideaway please fix the fucking Kona shot before I kick the skipper’s teeth in!!!

  4. BounceBack   2 Mar 08 at 6:55 pm

    i hear you about the gilligan’s island– that game worked ok but was weak when i ran into it randomly a year and a half ago. it got progressively worse and i stopped playing. sounds like it’s down from there.

    i also agree with you about great players being able to adapt to different games. i’m not so into a game where the locks don’t stick… or let me rephrase. i’m not into machines that obviously haven’t been cleaned or had the scores reset in two years, even though the game is so fucked a score like the GC would be one in a mil. i do agree that we’re lucky to live in portland, pinball-wise. no doubt.

    it would be great if we could get operators to appreciate their own machines and the support of the real pinball community growing in portland as much as we do. CFF is a big part of keeping pinball a viable source of income for a guy with a route, or even just a couple of tables in the right places. but pinball is different than just another income generator like a pop machine. it’s a pastime with a pretty cool history and a part of our culture, and it just feels like the everyday things should be done with a little respect for that. keep the games clean and working so that they can keep making people happy for generations.


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