Going Full Tilt
Growing up a latchkey kid of divorced parents in the ’80s, I lived for the games. My thumbs have been feeling rusty lately, though, and I realize I haven’t revisited those old friends nearly enough.
I’ve also noticed that pinball playing is on the rise (despite there being only one manufacturer producing tables anymore). There are teams in the South and East Bay, and the Bay Area Pinball Association (BAPA) hosts events, tournaments, and meet ups for novice nerds and skilled pros alike. Hitting a little closer to home, my partner in Workshop, DK,
also happens to be one of the champs from last year’s Pabst pinball tournament here in SF. The more I think about his victory, the more my extremely competitive side wants to earn my stripes.
I don't expect to be a wizard overnight, but I will team up with some local Jedis for an education in the art of slapping balls.
One of my coaches of choice is Bryan Whalen, the face of Pabst Blue Ribbon in San Francisco and a long-standing pinball junkie. Last year he cohosted the first ever PBR & Rebel8 Ball Busters Pinball
Tourney (where DK took home the trophy), which will return in late summer. I look to Bryan for tips on where and how to play – as well as what machines to play on – as he brings me back to 1986, when I earned the top score on Captain Fantastic at Pac Man Pizza in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. Along the way, he and a couple other Tommys help bring San Francisco’s die-hard pinball scene to light.
I hang out with quite a few pinball nerds who regularly play at neighborhood dives like Route 101 and Elbo Room. To widen my scope, though, I follow the lead of two of BAPA’s San Francisco champions, Andrei Massenkoff and Neil Shatz. I’d heard they play regularly over at the Musee Mecanique, so I decide to scope out this first spot alone to get a little warm up going.
Many of the machines at Musee Mecanique go back a hundred years, and were originally housed at Playland, Sutro Baths, and the Cliff House. I feel a bit nostalgic here, knowing my uncle used to go on dates at Playland in the ’70s, possibly hitting these same games. I’m already dreaming of mustached pinball wizards in fitted Levi’s …oops, back on track.
The first game I saddle up to is Sing-a-Long, a campy 1967 number that conjures thoughts of Julie Andrews. After scoring pretty meh on that one, I step into my favorite game of all time, Indiana Jones (and wonder why I never reached my 11-year-old goal of marrying Harrison Ford).
I am actually scoring on this one, and after about 15 minutes of playing, I feel eyes burning through me. Insert Bill – a 50-something man who looks like he time-warped here from 1972 – who’s admiring my skills.
Bill has been coming here to play pinball since Musee Mecanique moved from its Cliff House location to Fisherman’s Wharf in 2002, sneaking over almost every day on his lunch break. Pretty rad.
I challenge Bill to a game, and he suggests putting up a Coke for the win. As we play, he teaches me the Indiana Jones rules. Yes, there are rules. This game actually has 12 modes, which all rotate around pivotal scenes from the first three Indiana Jones movies. I can’t even begin to understand the strategy here, or to get through all the levels, but I follow Bill’s advice of shooting my ass off, going for anything that lights up, and using multiballs to ramp up my score.
In the end, Bill slaughters me, but I get through five modes – not bad for someone with a 25-year vacation from pinball.
I also now understand why BAPA members make the trek through the tourists to play here. There are only five games at Musee Mecanique, but they’re flawlessly cleaned and maintained and there’s no beer distraction. I will be back, and I hope to catch Bill on his lunch break again – if for no other reason than to win back a Coke.
Now that I’m warmed up, I meet up with Bryan in the Castro. He says gay bars house the city’s best-functioning pinball games. We hit Pilsner Inn first.
I love the Pilsner. It’s laid-back and has cheap drinks, an outdoor patio, and some sweet gay cruising while also being totally welcoming to straight boys. The bar also has three perfectly maintained machines: Revenge from Mars, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Twilight Zone.
I’m far from a Tommy, but I am learning there is more to the art of pinball than just flicking my thumbs. Bryan shows me his pinball bible, which is a logbook of all the city’s machines and the rules, tips, and pointers for each game. Since this is his private journal, I’m not privy to all the pages. However, out of master-Jedi duties, Bryan lets me in on some of his secrets.
To start off, Bryan throws me a few major pointers:
To find a good machine that’s worth playing, look for well-functioning flippers and bumpers.
For new players, make sure the bumpers work well and stick with simple games with basic story lines that don’t have too many bells and whistles. There’s usually a scorecard above the left flipper that will give you more info about a game’s specific rules.
NEVER hit both flippers at once. Novice move.
During multi-ball action, try to concentrate on the flippers; if you focus on the other areas, you can easily lose balls during this round.
NEVER kick, slam, or get agro on a machine. You’ll look like a jerk.
Now that I’ve got the basics, we start with Revenge from Mars, a popular game that can be found at a few bars in the city. The goal here, besides the obvious one of attacking Mars and racking up the most points, is to light up all nine saucers, get all three bonus balls, and get the mothership multiball. After that, you can slaughter the Martians and win street cred.
After about $8 in quarters and two hours of play, I don’t slay the machine. Not even a top score. I am immediately shut down by Bryan,
my other friend Dave, and two pinball fans who are hanging in the bar and join us.
We then move to Bryan’s favorite game, Twilight Zone. It’s one of the best-selling machines to date and has a crazy ceramic multiball called the gumball. I just watch the master and learn, realizing that I really need to change my habit of using two flippers at once.
After leaving Pilsner, I wander over to Moby Dick where I am meeting yet another Jedi, Michael, who was DK’s winning partner in the Pabst competition. Though Michael is a typical straight, nerdy pinball guy, he too frequents the Castro for the kick-ass machines and stiff drinks. (God, I love SF.) I’m lugging more quarters than I do on laundry day to play Bram Stoker's Dracula, Theatre of Magic, and (sigh) more Indiana Jones.
It turns out Theatre of Magic has a complicated set of tricks and rules. Our goal, besides finishing our four frozen fruity drinks (two-for-one night!) is to get through several multiballs as well as some hidden illusions. I’m lost from the start. There are a lot more rules, secret points, and general pointers to remember than I expected with pinball.
After a long run of attempted wizardry, I wake up a couple mornings later weary that I haven’t earned any real pinball cred yet. I decide to get one more solo run in at BrainWash Cafe. There are three games here in all: Attack from Mars, Terminator, and World Cup. I decide to try all of them, but I focus on Attack from Mars, one of Bryan’s favorite games.
I consult my notes about the machine, remembering that the goal here is to rule the universe. I certainly won’t be reigning right away, but at least players get reminders of their progress above the bumpers.
By the end of the afternoon I’m not quite the kick-ass pinballer that I’d like to be, but I do feel like I’ve had an education in the game.
I also realize it takes more than strong thumbs and my best Motorhead denim vest to be a real player. I need to do my research and get better at each machine one by one.
Since Attack from Mars is a fairly easy and common game, I think I’ll play this one until I’m good, even if that takes weeks – or months. I’m now officially training for the next Pabst tournament, where I want to hold my own, and maybe even crush my business partner, DK, this time.
Watch out boys, there’s a lady pinballer in town, and she’s studying up.
For maximum game play minus any bar scene, hit up one of the five games at Musee Mecanique. To hit up Revenge from Mars, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Twilight Zone while you indulge in some cheap beers, friendly folks, and a killer soundtrack, try Pilsner Inn. When you need two-for-one drinks and friendly catcalls to accompany your game, hit up Moby Dick, where you can play Bram Stoker's Dracula, Theatre of Magic, and Indiana Jones. Fully caffeinated pinball play on Attack from Mars, Terminator, and World Cup can be had at BrainWash Cafe.
Check out BAPA for a list of upcoming events in the city.