Man vs. Pinball Fest: I Tried to Play 400 Machines in Three Days

Danny Gallagher testing out the new Alien machine from Heighway Pinball. It was one of the Texas Pinball Festival's biggest attractions.
Danny Gallagher testing out the new Alien machine from Heighway Pinball. It was one of the Texas Pinball Festival's biggest attractions.
Danny Gallagher
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The Texas Pinball Festival, held last weekend in Frisco, is one of the largest of its kind in the country. It's only 16 years old, but in that time it's moved from a small arcade in Arlington to the 45,000-square-foot Frisco convention center. The most recent three-day festival delivered more than 400 pinball machines. My goal was to play all of them.

I show up to the convention center about an hour after the doors first open on Friday night. The room is filled with the murmur of hundreds of conversations, punctuated by all the beeps, bells and buzzers that melt into the background for regular arcade visitors.

I've got a list of all the machines on the floor strapped to a clipboard. The list is 16 pages long. Pinball has made quite a comeback thanks to a plucky group of indie developers such as Jersey Jack Pinball and Spooky Pinball, who have helped the game catch up to the digital age.

When I look at the room full of people I realize I'm going to have to adjust my goal if I'm going to have any chance of completing it.

Some of the games on the convention's list are repeats, so my first compromise is to eliminate these duplicates. I'll play one of every type of machine, bringing the total down to 350 machines in three days.

Unfortunately, many you can't just walk up and play. Sought after new games garner big lines, like Jersey Jack Pinball's Dialed In!, which incorporates cameras and Bluetooth connectivity; and American Pinball's Houdini, which made its premiere at the festival. The line to play Heighway Pinball's new Alien machine is so long that they've got Disneyland-esque guardrails to organize it.

I promise myself I won't "flop," or purposely lose, any games to get through them faster. Even though I frequently play virtual pinball on my phone, I'm not great at the game, so this isn't too much of a sacrifice.

I start with the older, low-tech games that don't typically attract long lines. Three hours of play later and I've only checked off 30 machines, but all the blood has drained into my feet and my palms ache from leaning on and gripping the sides of the machines.

But I look at it this way: I'm a writer; Drew Brees is a NFL quarterback. Both of us put our bodies on the line for our passions. He risks broken bones and concussions to set the league record for most completions in a season; I risk carpal tunnel syndrome and low metabolism to play games for the amusement of readers.

By the time a voice rings out over the PA system to announce that it's 1 a.m. and time to go home, I've managed to play 66 machines. Not bad for one evening.

I scramble to get back to the festival Saturday, and again decide to move my goal a little closer by scratching off my list any machines that are not in working order when I get to them.

I also come up with my first bit of strategy. I decide that I'll get in line for the more popular machines and if one opens up around them that I haven't played, I can quickly hop out of line, knock it off, and get back in. But when I leave the Doom machine line to play Star Trek: TNG, I find the Doom line has doubled by the time I'm able to get back to it.

Next, when I try to play the sole Wizard of Oz machine that doesn't have a huge line in front of it, I find someone has just purchased it and it's about to be taken off the floor. Luckily the new owner takes pity on me and offers to share a game.

At the end of day two, I've only made it to 96. This means I've got more than 250 pinball machines to play during the remaining six hours the convention is open on Sunday.

On the way out, Rob Ervin, host of the sports and entertainment Clubhouse Podcast, suggests that I take advantage of the shorter lines during meal breaks. I resolve to return earlier tomorrow, when people are eating breakfast or sleeping off their hangovers.

The plan works to an extent, as early Sunday I'm able to knock out the coveted Houdini, Alien and Dialed In!, and even sneak in a couple of quick games on other machines such as Stern's new Aerosmith table and the very fun Batman '66.

Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for the crowds to return and I'm still well below my mark. It becomes clear that my only shot at completing the challenge would have been to sneak in after hours, turn the power on and get out just before the police showed up.

To this point the fun of the game has been totally drowned out by the challenge, so I decide to give up on the remaining 227 machines and just enjoy the last couple of hours at a comfortable pace.

The Texas Pinball Festival defeated me. But I didn't sacrifice all of my pride. I did manage to kick a 10-year-old kid's ass at NFL Blitz.

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