March isn't usually the most exciting time of the year. In Texas, it's when the weather can't make up its mind on whether it wants to be cold, hot or throwing tornadoes at us, and it's when we lose an hour of sleep to the meaningless beast we call Daylight Saving Time (hopefully not for much longer).
There was one moment around here that made March special, however: the annual Texas Pinball Festival in Frisco. Of course, we haven't been to it in a couple of years thanks to ... oh for Christ's sake, do we have to say why?
This year, the annual gathering of pinball creators, contributors and collectors more than made up for time lost by lugging along their best working models from the last 90 years. The machines come from personal collections and from companies such as Stern, Jersey Jack and Multimorphic bringing back almost-lost arcade staples.
It would be impossible to review every single machine on the show floor — and I know because I tried to do that once — so we had to take a look at the newest flipping creations.
Stern is probably the oldest pinball maker still in continuous operation that managed to survive the start of the arcade drought of the late 1990s and early 2000s that put away pinball game studios such as Midway and Gottlieb. Every year, Stern takes up a huge chunk of the floor space at the festival with several playable models of their newest titles. This year's was even bigger because of the time we all lost to ... you know.
Stern has been great at keeping the traditional pinball spinoffs of pop culture properties alive, especially when they were the last pinball game company in town. Back in the day, part of mainstream movies' marketing budget included creating arcade video and pinball game spinoffs usually so movie theaters could stick them in the library to remind them of the movie's release or (in the cases of movies The Shadow and Johnny Mnemonic) give them something fun to make up for releasing such a sucky film.
Stern hasn't stopped releasing tie-in pinball games with some of the most popular pop culture commodities. Thanks to their lone status in the industry, they were the first to secure licenses for Disney franchises like Marvel and Star Wars, and this year's festival saw the new pinball game based on the Disney+ series The Mandalorian. The game is a bit more complicated than your average pinball machine, which is a Stern standard, and it's a good one to have. There are a ton of modes and missions that do a great job of mimicking the show's story and sci-fi Western style. A Star Wars pinball game has to have awesome art and sound to make the thing pop, and it delivers with a great backdrop and floor design by comic artist Randy Martinez and original lines recorded by the actor Carl Weathers. And this probably wasn't an intentional design feature but it's satisfying realizing that Gina Carano is nowhere to be found in or on it.
Stern has also continued the tradition of giving rock bands their own tribute pinball games, which they've done with icons like Aerosmith, Metallica, AC/DC and KISS, the latter of which popularized the trend with its classic 1979 machine. This year, the Canadian rock gods Rush finally get their own pinball treatment. Playing it gave me the sense that Stern corrected something in music and the pinball medium that should've been taken care of long ago. Why did it take THIS long for someone to give Rush a pinball game? They are the H.G. Wells of fantasy prog rock, and even a game just based on ONE of their songs would've made sense. Instead, Stern went all out and worked 16 of the group's songs into the game's soundtracks and various modes. The main target is a huge time machine set to 1978, a year made awesome by the group's sixth album Hemispheres. The scoreboard shows not-so-subtle symbols of Rush's most famous songs along with footage from past and more current concerts, which we should appreciate as so many aging bands try to pretend they aren't as old as they look.
This newer pinball maker from Round Rock is perhaps the youngest company to make an appearance at last weekend's pinball fest. However, they had some of the longest lines at the machines surrounding its vendor booth for the entire weekend, and if you were patient enough to play one of them, you'd understand why.
Multimorphic has come up with a novel design for the classic pinball game and the game industry's rapidly evolving technology and capabilities. Some of the biggest challenges of collecting pinball games whether for an arcade or a private collection is the price and space they take up on the floor. If you want a classic machine, you can only get one game for thousands of dollars. If you want more, you either have to buy another one or get one of those video pinball machines that can house thousands of games, but they're all on a flat, two-dimension screen.
Multimorphic has an interesting way of addressing both problems with their design of the P3 Pinball Platform: It can play 15 pinball games on one machine. Five of the games have an upper playing field with moving pieces, ramps and bumpers that can be replaced by sliding it into place. The other 10 games simply require an open play field and respond to the movement of the ball with infrared lasers on the sides and a high-definition screen at the back of the cabinet that creates the targets.
This year, they unveiled their first licensed game based on the music of parody-meister "Weird Al" Yankovic called Weird Al's Museum of Natural Hilarity, and it was one of the most-played machines at the festival. You were lucky if you had to wait behind two people and one of them didn't try to sneak in a four-player game (I've never given someone the finger behind their back like that).
"It's like a NES but for physical pinball," says Gerry Stellenberg, the owner of Multimorphic Pinball, who was decked out in Hawaiian shirts with his staff in honor of its newest game's namesake.
The game is a moving monument to the comic-musician, from the noticeable targets to the miniature details in the screen art. Just like its name suggests, you send your silver ball hurdling around 10 modes based on songs from Al's discography — ranging from the popular "White & Nerdy" and "Amish Paradise" to deeper cuts such as "Weasel Stomping Day" and "Traffic Jam," which you're more likely to hear on his Ill-Advised Vanity Tour. Of course, Yankovic himself comments on the action with his hyped-up, wide-ranged voice, which famously helped hit the high note in the opening "ooohhhs" of the Brian Wilson-inspired "Pancreas."
"We reached out to [Yankovic] and got in touch with his agent," Stellenberg says. "It did not take much convincing. He was very excited."
This pinball maker from Wisconsin is becoming a classic contributor to the genre with its unique hook: producing horror themed games that aren't afraid to be a little bloody or more mature. This year, Spooky Pinball showed off two new games with identical floor designs, but the themes are wildly different and both are a lot of fun to play.
My favorite of the show is John Carpenter's Halloween pinball game, another movie franchise that should've gotten a pinball title long before Freddy Kruger's ever did. Even though it seems like there are more Halloween continuations and reboots than there are in Mickey Rourke's career, the designers made the smart choice by just sticking to the first and most perfect film in the franchise. The playing floor has three levels that mimic some of the most memorable settings from Haddonfield, Illinois. The entire left side is a ramp with three square hedges in which three tiny Michael Myers step out from behind to keep track of various accomplishments and shots.
"We're all really big horror fans," says Corwin "Bug" Emergy, one of the company's game designers. "So we knew this would be a really great thing."
The other game released most recently is Ultraman: Kaiju Rumble, based on the famed giant fighting monster movie series from Japan. The layout is the same as the Halloween game but the targets, figures and style are completely different and less, well, stabby looking. However, it's still a lot of fun as you battle giant rubber monsters like Baltan and Bemular along to footage from some of the original late '70s films in the Ultraman series.
"We're big fans of Ultraman and Halloween," says Spooky Pinball owner Charlie Emery. "We're called 'Spooky' for a reason. We go after licenses we like and those definitely fit the bill."