Posted November 27, 2005 | Stern
Pinball's still in play
Players who like a little body English with their games keep pastime alive
By Chris McNamara
Special to the Tribune
Published November 27, 2005
The normally staid lobby of the Wyndham O'Hare Hotel in Rosemont was accessorized last weekend with the oversized pinball machine Hercules, containing footlong flippers and a fist-sized metallic ball.
And surrounding Hercules was a crowd of oversized boys. Well, men actually: attendees of the 2005 Pinball Expo.
Now in its 21st year, the expo lures pinball purists from as far away as Japan to compete in tournaments, collect autographs from game designers, tour a local manufacturing plant and attend seminars with titles like "30s Pinball Restoration."
As if it needs to be stated, the vast majority of attendees are men, tilting nearer to 50 than 20 years old. And those that aren't wearing pinball-related clothing (T-shirt, jacket, hat) are out of style.
So why aren't there more females on the flippers?
"Women typically aren't as nerdy as men," explains Lorraine Mahru, 30 of Los Angeles, as she keeps her eyes glued on her ball bouncing around the Lord of the Rings game.
In one area of the expo 10 identical, brand-new NASCAR games are buzzing--and players line up for their turn to tally the highest score in this tournament. They thrust their hips with every shot and kick their legs to "help" a ball roll up a ramp. Some remove their shoes, while others, like Roger Sharpe, wear wrist braces like pro athletes.
The 57-year-old Arlington Heights resident has been around the machines for 30 years, designing games, winning tournaments, even, literally, writing the book on the pastime--1977's "Pinball."
"It's a tactile thing, it works all your senses," he says between games. "Video games are all programmed. With pinball you can be spontaneous. There is no correct approach to play. The ball is wild, and when you can become one with it, it's like the flippers are extensions of your fingers. That's a great feeling."
The main exhibit hall serves as a marketplace for all things pinball.
There are wooden games from the 1930s that cost one cent to play, and modern games in various states of repair--their screens opened to reveal circuit boards and busted light bulbs, with wires strung out of them like robotic guts.
A quick tour of the room uncovers some of the oddities of this gaming world:
- Someone felt it necessary to manufacture "Aaron Spelling--The Game." It's not a pinball game based on "Beverly Hills, 90210" or even "The Love Boat," rather it celebrates the man who created such television fodder.
- "Playboy" and other titillating titles feature images of nude women staring lustily from the illuminated screen, which is ironic, as pinball acumen has never been a lure for women, no matter how high the score.
- Movies need not have been box-office hits to be immortalized in the pinball world. Such forgotten films as "Johnny Mnemonic" and "The Shadow" continue grossing revenue well after they have been forgotten, one quarter at a time.
- Many games feature the high life, or more aptly the image of the high life circa 1983. They are set in Monte Carlo or Atlantic City and feature men with bushy mustaches and blow-dried hair and women with shoulder pads and--pinball rule here--massive endowments.
"Chicago was the hub of pinball-manufacturing companies," says Bridget Berk, an organizer of the show along with husband Robert, when asked why Rosemont plays host.
On Thursday expo attendees toured the Stern Pinball manufacturing plant in Melrose Park, which claims to be the only coin-operated pinball manufacturer left on the planet.
Chas Siddiqi, a Stern technician, cites that his company manufactures about three new titles--a total of 8,000 units--per year.
Nowhere is the slowing of the industry more evident than on the faces of the used-part vendors, who sit behind tables covered in clear-plastic ramps and amputated flippers, buttons bearing the word SCORE and little plastic doodads that fell out of some game, in some bar, somewhere down the line.
"People are playing home systems now," explains Scott Cameron, amid his dusty pinball junkyard. "Pinball machines went the way of the pay phone."
That definitely seems to be the case in the wider world, but inside this hotel--on this weekend--the bells and buzzes generated from a thousand balls hitting bumpers is a sweet sound. And the sight of 3-year-old Nicholas Weyna standing on a milk crate, his little hands operating the flippers for "Star Trek" as his mom, Barbara, of Des Plaines plays "Star Wars" a few inches away, is worth a million quarters.
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