Monday, 20 May 2013

Pinball Daze - Teenage years in a seaside town

We called it the 'Con-Job' because the tables were always steeper than the other arcades and there was a widespread rumour that the management fixed the replays to the lowest setting. It's real name was the Connaught Arcade and it was opposite Worthing pier. There's a Connaught Leisure there now, but it's not the same. I made the mistake, just the once. About five or six years back I went in and had a look, but it was all gone. It was awful – row after row of fruit machines and nothing else. There wasn't a single pinball in the place, so I left by the side exit – it was the same, never to return.
I can't remember the guy's name, but the manager of the place was a kind bloke who was always over with his bunch of keys tied to his jeans to open the cash box and give us back the 10p's when the machines nicked them, which wasn't uncommon back then. He'd always give the secret button a couple of pushes too – we thought he was brilliant and had the best job in the World. Probably he did. 
Above: Old favourites, with screenshots below. Battlezone was a top game, with it's periscope styling and wireframe tank battle action.
 Below: One of my heroes had his own game

We had lived in Sussex when I was a little kid, moving back after a few years in Surrey to a place along the coast from the place that was my first home. Worthing was everything Shoreham by Sea – and, later, Witley hadn't been. To a kid like me the sleepy seaside town seemed like Las Vegas must to a traveller wandering in from the desert. The epicentre, make that the neon epicentre of town was the Connaught. I made few friends, chief amongst them Chris S, Mark H and Simon H (The 'H's are unrelated). Mark lived in Lancing, where we went to school so it was usually Chris or Si who would call (At the time that meant either coming round or phoning my Mum's phone in the hall) with the exciting words 'Coming down the Con-job?'. Wheedling and pleading came naturally to me; handing over a pound (An ancient form of money made from ye olde paper and involving a LOT of dog walking, car washing and paper delivery)came naturally to my Mum. It was many years before it dawned on me that a quid to offload a gawky pimply twat for several hours must have been a bargain worth phoning her friends for. If I'd have been her I'd have slapped down a fiver into my-his sweaty palm and made sure of an evening free of arguments about watching The Dukes of Hazzard followed by thumping-up-stairs and loud music... 
Above: The Connaught today
Below: The film Tommy cashed in on the pop culture aspect of pinball
Apart from the girls who hung around the place – and that was more than enough for the over-hormonal fourteen year old me by itself – there was the excitement and thrill of walking onto that dark blue carpet and looking around. Push-bikes parked up round the corner – possibly even padlocked if someone had brought one (D-locks were in the future) Was there a new machine?, was that hard kid I was avoiding at the time in there with his mates?, no? - we'd decide where to start; the Pac-Man for Chris, me watching – you always watched your mates before deciding whether to drift off to the pinballs along the back wall and the cubby-hole bit at the back. It was there that Tron was waiting. Tron was the new machine, they had just got it when I saw the film at the cinema – the Dome or the Odeon, I can't be sure which it was, but the machine was all the rage. There was usually someone on the popular games, with someone else waiting. It was fun just watching other players doing their best, trying desperately to out-run the light cycles or beat the MCP. Tron was one of the first with different games in one, it was the best game since Galaxian, an old favourite that I was unbeatable at, largely thanks to all the 25 pesetas I'd thrown into the game at Freddy and Pepe's bar in Tenerife a few years back. I loved Tron, although it was rare for me to beat the MCP. 

Looking back, I suppose I was average on most games, good to excellent on a few – but it was on Pac-Man that I truly excelled. I was DIABOLICAL – seriously, it was unusual for me to be on the second screen. I'd panic and race off to the next corner for the pill that made the Ghosts run... not like Chris. Chris was the Master of the game; he could stay on there for ages. I knew his secret; he had a book listing the 'correct' route to take to beat the Ghosts. (There was an odd thing with Pac-Man – if the Ghosts weren't close on your heels and you went to a certain corner, you could stay there forever – taking a sip of Coke and chatting to your mates while the girls looked on in awe of your magic ability. It was just a glitch in the programming of course, but back then, anything to do with computers was seen as cool and amazing...)
Back to 1982 – we haven't got to the best bit yet, walk past the one-armed bandits and the video games and there, at the back is, well paradise. The Holy Grail if you were me. A row of pinballs, all flashing, chiming, chirping, pinging and some even speaking to you. Black Knight, Flash Gordon, Elektra, Eight-Ball Deluxe... names, what names!. All these machines were incredible – the long playfields sloping upwards – the slopes steeper than most, as I've mentioned – with their array of dazzling challenges; hoops, ramps, bumpers, kickers, spinners, targets, slingshots, rollovers and all manner of gimmicks to hold you in the spell and keep a line of ten p's along the top – the signal to others that this table was taken – at least until those coins were spent. Then, there was the backglass – the tombstone of my youth, bright, cartoonish and trashy artwork that now commands big prices from the collectors. Four slots showed the score – but mostly we played doubles. 

Above: Trade advertising for the Flash Gordon & Elektra pinballs, both favourites of mine at the time.
Lets start with Black Knight – it spoke to you in a corny robot voice with “The-Black-Knight-will-play-you” and you were off. The game was the first to feature a double layer playfield – a second level, at the back. You put your money in, pressed the button to start and pulled the plunger back. Usually you'd vary the pull, but at the Con-Job you needed to pull hard and let go with a bit of timing to ensure the ball made it all the way up. With pinball, seconds counted, keeping the ball in play was important, second only to making sure you looked cool doing it. Black Knight was easy – you were fairly sure of getting the multiball at least once every two games. The multiball!, the multiball; one steel ball bearing blasting around a load of electronic gadgets and knocking down targets is fun; try it with three, four of them. Multiball was great for two reasons; my favourite was the sheer joy of juggling these with the flippers, desperately trying to keep track of all of them – knock one up the top and you had a precious second of relief – you could relax slightly, watch the other balls. Batting away blindly was for mugs, you needed skill and timing. Reason number swei: you got the score up dramatically, getting ever closer to that hardest to reach of goals – the replay. The replay – some places you seemed to find it easier to reach, such as the arcade on Worthing pier, but at the Connaught it was a trick that had your mates nodding appreciatively. Getting a replay was the sign of a quality player; walking off, giving the free go to the next kid waiting was a cool move, guaranteed to get you extra kudos – and you knew they had no chance of that other chance event – the free replay, sometimes, rarely awarded at the end of a pinball game, when the counter spooled up to tot up the final score. Announced with a loud smacking noise, the free replay told the whole place that miracles happen, to keep the pocket money coming.

Above: Galaxian was the first colour video game, while Star Wars was available in  a sit-down cabinet that really gave you the feeling of flying an X-Wing.

My favourite pinball? - Eight-Ball Deluxe. A savagely difficult game, at times downright unfair (It had a propensity for dropping the ball straight down the gap between the flippers) and, as I recall only three balls to a game, EBD was not for the wimps. If you were down to your last twenty pence, maybe this wasn't for you. With it's pool hall theme and snappy sound effects (Get the eight Ball – Corner Pocket. Get the...Deluxe!) this was the machine for the connoisseur. Sure, Flash Gordon was good, granted that later on a machine called Haunted House would come along with some unbelievably fun hidden level features and playability, but nothing touched the old Deluxe. Did someone mention playability? - that's a word that comes to mind when discussing the old arcade games. Nothing made it onto that carpet that wasn't playable for at least half an hour. Nothing. Some of today's 3d total immersion environment designers could learn a lesson from these simple 8 bit machines. But it's all gone now. Those were the daze... 
Above: Flyers for Eight-Ball Deluxe and Haunted House, with the backglass for HH. Below: It seems everyone loves pinball!

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