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April 8, 2008Glenn Turner

I have pinball guilt. I'd occasionally dabble with the machines in a rollerskate hall when I was young, or give a go at an Addams Family machine every once in a while (there's still one in our local bowling alley) but, I've never fully embraced them the way I have video games. That's not to say I don't appreciate them – I find the machines quite beautiful with their rattling, dazzling cacophony – but I've never personally clicked with the machines. And that's a shame, since they are the great stalwarts of the arcade industry, not to mention inseparable from Chicago, the windy city I call home. Consequently, whenever the topic of pinball comes up, I experience a bit of a twinge of guilt, a sadness that I'm not more knowledgeable about this seminal section of mechanical play.

Enter Greg Maletic's impassioned pinball documentary TILT: The Battle To Save Pinball. While it certainly didn't alleviate my guilt, it did give me an informative crash course on the history of pinball before delving into the sordid history of Pinball 2000, the pinball platform that aimed to rescue pinball from its economic doldrums before being thrown to the curb by its manufacturer, Williams.

While Pinball 2000's trials and tribulations are the meat of the hour-long documentary, Maletic does an exquisitely beautiful job of prefacing the tale via gorgeously rendered animations that bring the still snapshots of pinball's history to life. Of particular note is the mesmerizing 1933 World's Fair Jigsaw pinball which features a startling puzzle-based lower playing field. And, thanks to the magnificent talent Williams used to house, Maletic has some of the best pinball designers and engineers explaining and expounding on the pivotal moments in pinball history. The way master pinball designers like George Gomez and Larry DeMar detail the games belies such passion that you can't help but get swept up in it. Better yet, they explain the games and the process of designing a pinball playfield with such clarity that's only aided by Maletic's fantastic visual breakdowns (including a fantastically realized AutoCAD-based – yes, AutoCAD – demonstration). Learning that High Speed is the pinball equivalent of Donkey Kong with its introduction of a simple narrative turned my perspective of the field upside down.

And then they hit the Pinball 2000 era. Pinball is in the gutters, new machines aren't selling and Williams is the only major manufacturer left. The Williams pencil-pushers tell the designers that, if they don't want their department shut down, they'll have come up with something that'll push all prior machines into obsolescence and wow people back to the pinball fold. What they create is a significant visual leap forward: video is overlaid and integrated with the playfield, resulting in a video game/pinball hybrid that would combine the best of both worlds. The production, and downfall, of Pinball 2000 is then dissected in melancholic detail by those involved in the project. From the early prototype that sold Williams on the concept to rare footage of canceled Pinball 2000 games, TILT thoroughly conveys the extensive engineering and developmental history of the platform.

And while TILT does so in an accessible, jaunty and informative manner, I couldn't help but feel that something was missing. While we received plenty of on-screen time devoted to the great Williams workers, an outside perspective was notable absent. While the engineers discuss how great Pinball 2000 was (if not the games, then the potential of the platform), there's not much from players or operators, nothing from those who remember playing Revenge From Mars (the initial Pinball 2000 game), and nothing about the benefits of owning the machines themselves. While, on paper and from the creators' mouths, it sounded great but it's hard to tell whether anyone on the outside viewed it as a platform with amazing potential, or whether it was just perceived as an expensive curiosity.

Nonetheless, the interviews are priceless and contain a wealth of great design discussions. Especially of interest is their dissection of the 'kinetics' of pinball, what makes a shot 'feel' good and how the board design and elements contribute to the game's tactile feedback. It's a concept that should sound familiar to any gamer, and the designers do a magnificent job of explaining how the best games take advantage of it. On top of this, TILT comes with a second disc that contains three hours of additional interviews that delve even deeper into the guts of pinball design, all just as enlightening and stimulating as the footage that made the final cut. Couple that with loads of amusing promotional Pinball 2000 material, as well as archival video footage, and you have a bonus disc that's just as engrossing as the feature.

TILT brands itself as the pinball equivalent of Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine and, while it definitely captures the drive and development Pinball 2000, it doesn't quite capture the culture of the Williams pinball workers from the late 90s like Kidder captured the Data General/engineer lifestyle of the 80s. And that's okay as TILT succeeds on its own merits. The rise and fall of Pinball 2000's development is a great structural device to prop up a lot of great pinball information from some great pinball designers. Within an hour-long runtime, it opened my eyes to an entire section of gaming that I had previously ignored. TILT has instilled in me a new sense of appreciation for the existing pinball machines around me, and to the livelihood of Stern Pinball, now the sole pinball manufacturer in the world. It's an invaluable documentary, one that's a visible labor of love but also immensely informative and engaging. It may not have relieved me of my pinball guilt, but it has allowed me to confront it head-on, ready to make amends.

TILT: The Battle To Save Pinball is available to order on DVD directly from the TILT website at: tilt-movie.com.

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2 comments for ‘TILT’

#1 JoeX111 Apr 8, 2008 06:56pm

Nice article, it makes me want to see the movie. I have to admit, I've neglected pinball quite a bit in my time. I even wrote a blog piece about missing the arcade experience and didn't even THINK to put something about pinball machines in there. Weird.

Also, the link to Revenge from Mars actually takes you to Attack from Mars!

#2 Glenn Turner Apr 8, 2008 08:17pm

Oops - thanks for pointing that out!