I went to Play Expo in Manchester.
My brother‘s quite a wiz there, and he was able to get me in for free!
Now. What’s Play Expo. It’s a gaming expo. No matter what does it for you when it comes to gaming, they’ve got you covered. My brother’s the lord of the retro realm. He spends his days dual-wielding remote controls, reactivating analogue TVs when they go into standby mode.
But that’s just his day job. The stuff that goes on behind the scenes – all the setting up, wiring, calibrating, tuning etc. – well, it makes me knackered just thinking about it. He’s the quartermaster, and he chooses exactly what retro games and consoles get featured.
He’s gracious enough to give people the sort of stuff they expect to see – such as Mario games, which I know he’s not too keen on himself. But he also adds a few personal touches. Like Stimpy’s Invention, a Megadrive Ren & Stimpy platformer that’s just as odd as you’d expect.
But that’s not all! Gaming is a broad church, and everyone’s welcome. You like board games? They’ve got board games. You like card games? They have those. Arcade cabinets? Yep. And pinball.
Let’s look at the pinball!
Dozens of pinball tables. I was able to confirm something I’ve long since suspected: That pinball tables are things of beauty. It feels like they’re my new “thing”.
The lighting, the painting, the noise, the wiring, the sheer mechanical clunkiness – things of beauty. And the most impressive thing of all? They’re still being made!
Among the charming “I can’t believe that was ever a cultural touchstone” tables (Johnny Mnemonic!) were a number of tables dedicated to more recent phenomena. The Hobbit table was just like the film, in that it was so technically spectacular that it felt soulless. But though I didn’t get a chance to play it, I’m reliably informed that the Game of Thrones table is worth a shot.
This isn’t a thorough “review” of the pinball tables I played, and this isn’t an attempt to chart the trends in pinball table design, and to ponder how they reflect where we are as a society, or something. This is a short collection of some of my favourite tables – some of the most strikingly brilliant designs and constructions I encountered.
And yep, I’m sure there’s a pinball wiki out there where I’d be able to find out everything about these tables, but that’s a wormhole for another day.
As you’ve probably sussed by now, I’m no expert when it comes to pinball tables. But at a guess, I’d say that this table’s from the 80s – it’s a lot more advanced than some earlier models I encountered, but it’s not nearly so garish or elaborate as the tables based on 90s properties.
Just look at that design! Monochrome Heavy Metal Mad Max Cyberpunk Supreme! Unfortunately, this one wasn’t a lot of fun to play. Maybe they blew their entire budget on the design – the image dominates the play field, leaving room for little else. Still. I could look at it all day.
Hmm. Late 70s? Early 80s? You can imagine spotting this one in the background of some 80s slasher, in any case. And the style of “rock” they’re celebrating looks like a mutant Motley Crue/Judas Priest hairball. This one’s lots of fun, but it would have been a lot more fun if naff hair metal was blasting from a nearby speaker, in a dingy neon-lit dive where they sell naff beer by the bottle.
I couldn’t get near enough to get a close-up of this one, but my GOD is it gorgeous. Lurid, swampy, cartoony, with 3D snakes, coffins, and electric chairs. It gives off more of a schlocky Cramps vibe! Given how dour their music is, and given how seriously they take themselves, it’s quite a surprise to see something so fun with the Metallica branding. Put it this way – if their music “sounded” like this table looks, I’d listen to a lot more Metallica.
You can see some better photos on the table’s official site. But even these don’t quite do it justice. They’re too well lit! This one looks best when it’s glowing.
The analogue scoring system surely suggests that this is a much earlier model. It’s simplicity itself – there’s little in the way of ramps or features, and the theme isn’t developed too much. For pinball aficionados, tables like this must be the equivalent of real ale or wooden roller coasters. Sure, they’re not quite as flashy or advanced as some of the other things out there, but they have a sort of earthy charm about them that somehow feels more authentic.
Plus, it’s rare to see a table that’s not tied to any sort of intellectual property. There’s a real timelessness to that. Dig the Circus table to the right, too!
If I ever invest in a table of my own, it’ll be one of these – a table that tells its own story, rather than grafting the traits from an existing story onto the bumpers, ramps and flippers.
Specifically, I’d like this table:
The right flipper was broken, so I didn’t get a chance to actually play this one. But there is nothing not to love about the design. Just look at those mushroom structures on the bumpers!
Yep, this isn’t a very good photo. But as I think the “official” photos of the Metallica table above prove, pinball tables look better when they’re viewed as an indistinct blur of colours and lights like this.
When you’re playing pinball, you have to enter this weird frame of mind. You have to focus, yes, but instinct also plays a huge part. And through doing all you can to alter the course of physics, you must temporarily abandon all logic as you disrupt the natural order of the universe – and all the while your synapses are pushed to breaking point by the onslaught of flashing lights, garish colours, and sonic maximalism.
Your brain goes to a weird place when you play pinball. Hazy yet hyper-focused. I think this image goes some way to capturing your brain on pinball.