CREDITS: 1 – PRESS START
Every so often, whether it was while visiting the Aladdin’s Castle arcade at Belden Village, or the Goodtime Pizza place next to Children’s Palace, or even among the two or three periodically-changed video games inthe youth lobby at the YMCA, I’d see something magical on an unattended screen.
A quick look around – just in case someone had put a quarter in and then taken a few steps away to grab their jacket or a Coke or something – and if nobody seemed to be Next In Line, well, then FREE GAME ON!
And it didn’t matter what the game was: If it was free, I gave it a shot, even if it was something I never played or that I sucked at. A free game was a quarter saved, and a few extra minutes of video gaming I couldn’t have bought for myself.
It was its own particular sort of thrill – different, somehow, from finding a quarter or a token, which gave you a free game of your choice, sure, but you still had to turn around and spend that coin.
Twice in the past two weeks, I’ve been reminded of that eye-widening moment of fun: Free game!
The first was at PAX East, in the American Classic Arcade Museum‘s room. I took a quick look into the place on day one, but didn’t get to go back and play until Saturday afternoon when Paul & Wendy and I went up there to spend some time. When we asked one of the staffers just inside the door “Quarters or tokens?” he grinned.
“None. They’re all on free play.”
I froze and looked around. Dragon’s Lair jumped out at me. Ms. Pac Man. Holy crud – a Flash pinball machine. We beelined for the first machine we saw open: a sit-down Buck Rogers: Planet of Doom.
I jumped in, and my blocky little fighter was screaming through space, and then over a dizzyingly-green-striped featureless landscape, where I had to swing back and forth between pylons that looked straight out of a 1950s sci-fi B picture. I don’t remember the game sucking this bad, I thought, but who freaking cares – FREE GAME!!
We hit Atari’s Food Fight next, and then Paul and I teamed up for a go at Joust 2. (Joust was a game I was never really good at but loved like hell to play.) We’re in there mashing buttons, swearing good-naturedly half under our breath – incidentally, my quip of choice when I’ve knocked off a video game enemy, flying bird or otherwise, comes from Die Hard: “Eat it, Harvey!” I find it underappreciated. – there’s eighties music playing, the room is bathed in that dim red-orange glow and the swirled reflected light of the screens.
Wendy took this shot of us playing, and while I could have adjusted the color levels and brightness, this really kind of captures a feel I like, of remembering hours spent in this kind of place, watching over someone’s shoulder, waiting my turn to play.
Then, last weekend, we went down to my mom’s house for an Easter dinner.
A couple years back, my mom inherited a house and a couple actual arcade games therein. The Baby Pac-Man machine has worked since day one, and while we’ve gotten a lot of use out of it, I was always much more hyped about the Black Knight pinball machine.
The first time I remember being really excited about a new pinball machine was when the YMCA in North Canton brought in a Williams’ Flash like the one I just saw at PAX. I remember two things about this game that made it supercool: One, it had all these really bizarre sound effects, not just the bells and buzzers and clatters of a typical pinball machine. (According to the Internet Pinball Machine Database, Flash “was the first game from any manufacturer to have a dynamic background sound during gameplay. It is also the first game from any manufacturer to use Flash Lamps, which provide a temporary burst of flashing light intended primarily for the sake of its visual effect…” So yeah – awesome.)
I also remember that it had a third flipper, way up on the right side of the playing field, which I’d never seen in a pinball game before, and that was cool, too. I remember racing from the locker room after swim lessons hoping to get in a game or two – or even just watch some older kid who was, you know, good – before mom or dad would come pick me up.
And then along came Black Knight. Honestly, I can’t remember where I saw it first – I think it may have been on a family vacation to Florida with my friend Jacob along, but I’m not sure.
This thing was so unlike any pinball game we’d ever seen. It had two levels, with a pair of flippers on each, and tunnels and ramps and these magnets beneath the playing field which I never quite figured out how to use and a thing called “multi-ball” where you could actually have three balls in play at the same time, and did I mention that IT TALKED?!? I mean, it really just blew my whole concept of “pinball machines” out of the water.
And it was gorgeous, all black and red and gold and kind of Dungeons-and-Dragons-esque, and lined up next to other more garish and bright machines, Black Knight just looked like a badass.
Of course, it also cost fifty cents, twice as much as a regular game. And you only got three balls instead of the usual five which I seem to think was the standard at the time. And it seemed really, really hard.
But man was it fun.
Pinball machines got more complex, of course, but I’ve never felt like anything made the quantum leap like this one did, and over the years, no matter where I found an arcade, if this machine was in it, at least two (or three) of my quarters were destined for the Black Knight’s coffers.
So mom’s had this thing in the basement for awhile now,and though I’ve tried to help her with finding a suitable repair technician and all, it’s spent the entire time dormant and silent.
Not anymore. Mom found a guy who did a check, popped in a fuse, and –
THE. BLACK. KNIGHT. WILL. SLAY. YOU. HAHAHAHA!!!
The synthesized speech and the sound effects poured into my ears, struck those chords of memory, and it was on.
Kelsey and my brother and I took turns, re-learned the mechanics of the game, how to get the multi-ball, what targets and lights to watch for, and even how to activate the Magna-Saves which had mystified me as a kid.
It was simply fantastic.
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