The Quest for the Silver Ball

arcadeinterior.jpg "Ever since I was a young boy,
I've played the silver ball.
From Soho down to Brighton
I must have played 'em all.
But I ain't seen nothing like him
In any amusement hall ..."

It is a time that lives only in memory ... a time when we roamed far and near, following the lure of the silver ball. The territory was well-known and repeatedly surveyed. There, tucked back in the corner of that laundromat. There, glimpsed in the darkness in the back of that pizza joint. And always there, in that bowling alley. Each location was memorized, and rechecked often. Always there was the promise of the unexpected ... the word would spread instantaneously if a new machine (!) appeared at one of these locations. We could hit them all in one day on an epic journey known as "The Grand Tour." And always beyond our reach, rumored to be in a distant city, perhaps only existing in legend like some elusive mirage forever beyond our reach, existed the ultimate arcade where the machines were "lining the walls." For boys with pockets full of quarters, paradise.

popbumpers.jpg "He stands like a statue,
Becomes part of the machine.
Feeling all the bumpers
Always playing clean.
He plays by intuition,
The digit counters fall ..."

The makers' names were spoken in hushed and reverent tones: Bally ... Williams ... Gottlieb. Each playfield was a perfect self-contained world of action beneath plate glass. The backglass paintings, with their garish colors and comic-strip technique, promised excitement far beyond mundane everyday life; each pull of the plunger launched us into distant locales filled with exotic people. Life was a poker game, a hot-rod race, a downhill slalom! The names alone told a story of adventure: Buckaroo ... Time Tunnel ... Fireball!   With each "kaching," the digits added to our worth -- hundreds, thousands, millions!   Millions of what? Who cared? For a winner, the possibilities (it was implied) were endless.

targets.jpg "Ain't got no distractions
Can't hear no buzzers and bells,
Don't see no lights a flashin'
Plays by sense of smell.
Always gets a replay,
'n' never tilts at all ..."

As if there was any doubt that we were on a mission of challenge and self-improvement, each machine carried the caveat A GAME OF SKILL. This was not a mere game, this was an application of physics and a near-mystical coordination of hand and eye! Every angle of rebound was instantly calculated -- the future must be anticipated if disaster was to be avoided and targets hit. A nudge of just the right amount at just the right time was critical, but too much would bring the suddenly silent death of the TILT. The flippers were an extension of our muscles, of our very will -- man and machine had become one! A millisecond's hesitation could make the difference between continuing play -- life rescued from the inevitable jaws of gravity -- and going "down the drain" (followed by the dreaded words GAME OVER). All achieved at breakneck speed and within a cacophony of light and sound.

trizone.jpg "I thought I was
The Bally table king.
But I just handed
My pinball crown to him ..."

Tri Zone (Williams, 1979)

Those worthy enough were rewarded with the Holy Grail: the replay. The loud "pop" that announced this feat could be heard above the din of the arcade, letting all know that a master was present, a foe had been conquered. As the winner groped his way back into the cruel light of the outside world, his comrades would bestow upon him the ultimate honor -- the title of WIZARD. Tales of these legendary feats were spoken far and wide, and repeated for years.

singalong.jpg "Even on my favorite table
He can beat my best
His disciples lead him in
And he just does the rest
He's got crazy flipper fingers
Never seen him fall ..."

Sing Along (Gottlieb, 1967)

But it could not last. Youth must inevitably come of age and, as they say, put childish things aside. And each generation raises a new rallying cry. The generation that followed ours embraced the video game -- an unsatisfactory replacement to those who remembered. The old machines, now rendered obsolete, were relegated to the collector's game room, the antique store, and heartbreakingly all too often, the dump. The Grand Tour was no more.

driveway.jpg "That deaf dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball !"

Even now, all these years later, occasionally I will catch a faint whiff of stale air, faintly reminiscent of dirty ashtrays and worn carpet. And it will snap me back to that time ... back to those pool halls and arcades where my youth was spent, huddled with my friends and brothers in the darkness around the comforting glow. And on some future evening, if you happen to be passing by my house, upon the evening air you may hear a faint but unmistakable "chunka-kaching."   You will pause and say to yourself "I wonder ... ?"   In the failing light of twilight you will see flashing colored lights coming from within. Then you will know ...


Click on each thumbnail to see a larger image.

Grand Slam
(Gottlieb, 1972)
Hi Deal
(Bally, 1975)
World Series
(Williams, 1962)

Hayburners II
(Williams, 1968)
Jet Spin
(Gottlieb, 1977)
Jungle Queen
(Gottlieb, 1977)

Abra Ca Dabra
(Gottlieb, 1975)
4 Square
(Gottlieb, 1971)
Bow and Arrow
(Bally, 1975)

(Bally, 1989)
Out of Sight
(Gottlieb, 1974)
(Williams, 1974)

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Revised: November 4, 2009
Copyright © 2002 Joe Orman (except "Pinball Wizard" lyrics by Pete Townshend). The copyrights on these photos are not intended to impinge upon any existing copyrights held by the manufacturers.
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