Escape to the Theater of Magic

The rule was that I wasn’t allowed to play pinball games or videogames until I was tall enough to reach the buttons. No sitting on barstools or standing on booster chairs. From the moment that law was made known, I am pretty sure that my 5-year-old body subconsciously rerouted all nutrients towards the task of growing longer arms, legs and torso. I assume that’s why vital muscle strength, coordination and general fitness fell by the wayside. The builders had their orders and they followed them. I grew like a weed. My abuelo used to joke that he’d have to put a brick on my head to keep me from getting so big. There were plenty of bricks around, so I’m not sure why he never followed through with that plan. By the time I was seven, I was big enough to play any coin-op game I set my eyes on. My mother and father begrudgingly conceded and so began a lifetime of wasted quarters.

Balls vanish and are captured, building towards a multiball frenzy. A trap door pops open. “The basement is full of wonders,” a venerable-sounding wizard intones.

The less sway my parents had over my life, the more I binged on what they had forbidden. Sugared cereals were a no-no for years so I gorged on Monster Cereals and Trix all through college. Rock shows were verboten until I turned 13 (mom learned her lesson on the height requirement) but once I celebrated that birthday, I went on a ticket-buying spree that is still in full swing. And videogames, of course, have been a constant distraction, diversion and obsession since the day my little fingers could reach the buttons. This, though, is the unlikely story about a time when one of those old-fashioned pinball machines put me under its spell.

I was supposed to be writing. That’s why I was at USC – to become a professional writer. To be honest, the workload wasn’t that crazy. My only responsibility was to bring stuff into classes for workshopping and read what my classmates had written. I had a thesis due, but that felt like it was way over the horizon. My modus operandi was to get shit done last-minute or fake it. I’d pull an all-nighter and bang out 10 or 12 pages of fiction and I’d be good to go. Or I’d critique their writing on the fly, scrawling my notes on the back of their printed story just before handing it back to them. My daytime habit was to go to the basement of one of the student union buildings and blow quarters in the arcade.

They had Area 51 in there, which I was pretty damn good at. When I felt cocky I’d fill the machine with quarters and hit start for player one and two. Going nuts with two guns blazing was the best way to get to all the secrets. I’d manage the aliens with the gun in my right hand and shoot the windows, lights and other random scenery that unlocked the bonus waves with my left. Eventually the rhythm of Area 51 got old. The bad guys were predictable. You were supposed to feel like they were ambushing you, but after dozens upon dozens of plays you could anticipate their lurching attacks and start pulling the trigger before they made their move. The game felt like a too-familiar fun house with no surprises, no scares.

MagicOne wall of the subterranean arcade and poolroom was dedicated to pinball machines. Whoever stocked those things had taste. There was a World Cup Soccer table, the ubiquitous and excellent Addams Family machine and Theater of Magic. I can’t say why I was drawn to the table. Maybe it was the mysterious woman on the playfield, her hair blowing wildly, fingers spread before her with five pinballs levitating between her digits. When you put your coins in and hit start she told you, in a breathless voice, “Welcome back to the Theater of Magic,” like your time at the table was some kind of homecoming.

It has been 12 years since I touched that table. But when I downloaded and started up the virtual version of the game in Pinball Arcade, I felt immediately transported back to that time. I could practically taste the ramen. The whirling organ music, a soundalike of “Toccata and Fugue,” swept me up. The magic of the table – those slippery-fast loops, the twirling magical trunk at the center of the playing field and that odd tiger holding a saw between its paws – seduced me. The machine felt like an ornate puzzle box full of interlocking, interwoven devices all designed to entrap me. When my first ball drained, I was struck with a familiar nervous twitch then remembered that repeated jamming on the flipper button would speed up the bonus scoring display, cutting each little musical flourish and animation short. In my lizard brain, that stuttering series of truncated cues between the end of one ball and the beginning of another  is synonymous with impatience. It is the sound of the procrastination shakes.

I have always doubted that simulated pinball tables could feel right. There’s that tactile feel of the buttons and the way you can almost feel the inertia of the pinballs through their plastic. And there’s something wrong but right about the way that a pinball table is positioned right at your crotch. Left-field theories aside, I am sad to say that Theater of Magic doesn’t lose its soul when virtualized. Again, I find myself lost in its labyrinthine challenges. I love the feeling of battering the mysterious chest with the pinball until it spins and reveals an opening. I shoot the ball inside. The trunk whirls again and the show begins. The game picks targets – the bumpers in the upper right, the captive balls under the Tiger Saw or the many loops and staircases. If I hit those targets, the trick is a success and I escape my chains or cause my beautiful assistant to levitate. All the while, other bonuses are building. The clock ticks closer to midnight. Balls vanish and are captured, building towards a multiball frenzy. A trap door pops open. “The basement is full of wonders,” a venerable-sounding wizard intones.

Three o’clock rolls around before I snap out of it. I’ve been playing for hours, just like those afternoons in the Trojan Arcade. I’m older and playing on a PS Vita. Everything is different now. I’m not young or thin anymore. And I’m not standing there, hunching over that machine while my life waits for me to get on with living it. But there’s one more thing that feels off. It’s the Pinball Arcade camera. By default it doesn’t give me that bird’s-eye view of the playing field that is afforded by being six-foot-five. No, to keep things visible on the tiny PlayStation Vita screen the camera hovers just over the bottom edge of the glass. I feel like I’m peering over the edge of the machine, my arms outstretched like I’m hugging the table. It is like I’m seven again, just grown enough to do what I will with my quarter.

———

Pretension +1 is a weekly column about life, games, culture and all the stuff that ties them together. Follow Gus Mastrapa on Twitter @Triphibian.

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  • Bobby

    Pretty nice way to tie the beginning of your article to the end, there. I've been playing the Android version of this, but my obsession is the Ripley's table. It's also the only one I've played in real life.

  • http://twitter.com/Kursse @Kursse

    I am a huge pinball fan myself. I've played every table in Pinball Arcade back in the day and I have to say it's one of the best virtual pinball emulators since Virtual Pinball and Vpin Mame on the PC. Theater of Magic is just like it was, but recently they released Medieval Madness which I have been playing nonstop. Now if they can get Attack from Mars, my life would be complete.

  • Don Becker

    Pinball Arcade includes The Machine: Bride of Pinbot. You just cost me $3.

    Thank you, Gus.