Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Flashback - Arcade Auction

It happened in an instant, the morning arrived and somehow I was there to greet it. Like most childhood memories it’s hard to remember exactly “how”, but the “why” was clear: I was totally into video games. Which was what led to that morning in the pre-adolescent hours before dawn in the abandoned Minnesota State Fairgrounds on that precious weekend. The cold-chill wind and desolation was everywhere, except for inside the warehouse-sized arcade, whose garage doors stood open to the fall colors licked by the sun outside.

I knew what to expect, I had been through this before a few years earlier. There would be a few hours of frantic scrabbling through a maze of dormant obelisks; frantically plugging, switching, cajoling, and wiggling the selection of arcade cabinets, jukeboxes, and pinball machines assembled for auction. When luck was on your side, the flip of a power switch would cause an eruption of light and sound and break the early morning silence, signaling an opportunity to test-out one of the fine machines soon to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

It wasn’t that long ago when my dad had rolled-up to our first arcade auction three years ago; That day feels as random in my memory as any. Lured by the potential for free video games, my young, eager mind was baited hook, line and sinker with the promise of unbridled play-time while serious spenders entertained potential amusements for their own home. Fuzzy memories of games like Battlezone, Tapper, Mr. Do, and a million more crowd this first experience as I slowly learned the tricks to making machines sing the song of free-play. Find the power switch, look for the coin-box key, jiggle the wire where quarters flow and cross your fingers that it would all work out.

We somehow left that first auction with a Kiss Pinball machine. It felt like a fluke, definitely not in my expectation to leave that day with a personal plaything (likely more a result of my dad’s love of music coupled with my love of video games). From there on it was rock and roll all night and pinball everyday! Friends and neighbors piled into the basement on occasion to chase the silver ball and trade high-scores for the next few years until the table lost its local lustre and fell into disuse. The story of how it ended up sold at three times the purchase price one summer wasn’t mine, but here I was again lined up at the crack-of-dawn for another auction...this time with some liquid cash in the family and an agenda to replenish the home arcade.

The garage door lifted on the warehouse space, the florescent lights flickered to life, and the portable heaters began blowing, quickly heating up the space. The race was on to assess every machine and weight them in a prioritized, if not overly nostalgic, list of potential. There was Donkey Kong Jr. a favorite and quarter-hog if ever there was one, my dad was focused on Pinbot and lucky for him there was more than one that day, a three-screen Darius held an obscene fascination for me, and it was there too.

Every machine that could be played was assessed on its merits and prioritized in expectation of the auction itself, which was a whole different ball game when you’ve got a stake in the game. Imagine a young tweener scrambling between machines and executing the aforementioned steps towards free-play, going from one-to-the-next in-hopes that a.) it would power on b.) the coin-box would open c.) credits could be racked up and the “assessment” could begin. This process, an exercise in the attempt/ reward loop that so underlies video games, I was living in a real-life simulation hurtling towards the potential of acquiring my own personal amusement device.

I remember the auction moving perilously fast. The Pinbots went for more than we could bid, first-tier arcade machines went fast and pricey, the reality of acquiring any machine was swiftly slipping away. There were some dark-horses in the running, my dad bid and won the purchase of a pinball machine called Paragon. All swords and sworcery, this table came straight from the 70’s and was the perfect fit for a bearded-bard like my dad. With graphics that looked like they should be airbrushed on the side of a van with a heart-shaped window and wall-to-wall shag carpeting, the table felt slow and languorous to my 1980’s addled mind. The rest of the auction passed by in a flash of heat and bidding that resulting in the acquisition of two machines that were underdogs on our list.

The Adventures of Major Havok from Atari. I knew Tempest, boy...did I know that machine. The brilliant red, green, and yellow of it’s vector-graphics display still stands out in any arcade ensemble. Not to mention the spinning wheel mechanism of play. However, Major Havok was another thing entirely. Where Tempest see’s you expunging scourge and hurtling ever forward in difficulty and speed, this Major Havok had some diversity. An introductory screen where you can play breakout and use warp codes to jump ahead? A 3D Space Invaders-like shoot ‘em up? Lunar Lander-like section? Maze shooter? Then top it off with a space base infiltration and explosion? An incredibly deep playing experience that has withstood the test of time and continued to be a challenge even all these years later. Owen Rubin was the chief designer of Major Havoc (see comments, thanks Jason!) and tuning and some level design by soon to become visionary in the video game industry, Mark Cerny.

Then there was Orbitor1 by Stern. If you’ve ever played this table, you would know. It’s playfield; concave plastic stretched over a molded moonscape, backlit with flickering lights. It’s bumpers, spinning and magnetic centrifugal forces that attract and propel the shiny pinball to greater reaches and wilder trajectories. With a synthesized robot voice that implores you to “Shoot Pinball Again” or announces that “You Got Double” when multi-ball is unlocked, the sound of Orbitor1 can be called a formative experience to my game audio career. If you’ve ever happened across this one, you remember! There is nothing quite like the feeling of having the ball flung behind the flippers and coming out the other side with your game still in-progress. Orbitor1 is a one-of-kind experience that demands to be played.

How we ended up at the end of that auction with three machines, two of which stand as strange anomalies in their genre, at the end of that fateful day still escapes my understanding of history. Here I stand, 30-ish years later at their parting and it’s impossible to tell you just how deep their influence on me has been. Even through their years of dormancy and disuse, their bond and legacy in me has been a continuum that runs through my story. The year Orbitor1 spent in a loft overlooking downtown St. Paul. When the kids were young, in the garage entertaining on sunny days. The thread of video games runs through my history to this day as a Technical Sound Designer in the gaming industry. These formative experiences shaped my view of the future from those early days and is somehow responsible for my place in time.

It is with a hope for the future space explorer, pinball wizard, or arcade archaeologist that these machines will find a new home with the Seattle Pinball Museum and their legacy and story will be long told.

Wow wow wow wow very nice try again,
Damian Kastbauer