The Forensic Oceanographer’s Guide To Pinball #3: The Addams Family

Illustration by CMYK Punk

Mind the precipice, my precious cadet. Here the heaves of “HERESY!!!” leave us, straddling shadows. The mother of the modern will rise — the dilettantes will be deafened by the roar of chimes that achingly welcome her homecoming. This revival is not a revue, but a reckoning. No gods, no collectors; pinball will be returned to the people.

We bide time, set to serenades gladsome and pestilent, waiting, waiting for that tiny tear in their tapestry of decadence, when people stop treating any critique of Stern Pinball or private collectors like the order given to a firing squad that kills the puppy that would’ve cured cancer.

Would you hold no playlist to host a song that borrows the “Amen Break”? Would you tap your toes outside of downtown cinemas and castigate every moviegoer for paying to see a film that had a Wilhelm scream or stock footage? Then why it is so anathema to suggest that we harvest half-broken machines and offer them up to a new generation of designers to kickstart a new wave of creation? Why do we afford such esteem to those who delight in the deprivation of the hobby from the public?

You wanna throw the fight, I and the WWF Royal Rumble machine can get behind this — but you cannot say there is a battle to save pinball and then venerate the very people keeping our history and future locked away from the grasp of the public.

And I’ll pay a pound of introspection to lay bare my naysaying.

I think that much of the motivation and mentality behind the classic arcade community is indistinguishable from hoarding. If these were newspapers or Mars Bar wrappers or anything some element of society did not deem financially redeemable, some would find themselves the same “real TV” programs in which we (and they) gawk and guffaw at society’s wounded.

But you hold on thousands of dollars in history, trotting it out at a few trade shows each year, waxing and waning on the right number of digits in the price tag. You squint and grimace when we talk about sexism and racism in the community. You laugh at the idea of inviting children to your collection, to share the decades of wealth you’ve amassed with the very people we depend on to keep the passion and pursuit from total extinction. And this makes you a local celebrity. This encourages your dick to bulge a little more in its pants once or twice a year.

There’s a lot of people like this and a lot of Stern Pinball machines — there is a lot to punch up at. It’d be no leap to think that I’m punching up for the longevity of it — to take solace in an abundance of shit to complain about. I understand. Chagrin is the pomade of the critic’s every day look.

It would be easy for me to hate, from habit, everything larger than my sphere.

This is a lazy light year from the truth. Though it is the highest selling machine of all time, and embodies every affect of license-laden fetish that I hate in the uniformity of today’s Stern Pinball machines —

I believe The Addams Family is a radical celebration of the nature of play and an integral contribution from modern pinball to the survival of our game.

Though I yield myself to the sense behind the “solid state” nomenclature, I fear it inadvertantly confirms a misconception of a pinball machine as a static set of hurdles for the player to overcome.

A designer can painstakingly predict every possible trajectory of the ball, but neither the designer nor the contained system he builds controls the game. There is an exchange of collaboration and competition, as the player and machine interact with each other and the variables that know no allegiance — the ball itself, which is provided by a third party and can come in purposeful variations, wear and tear, wax distribution, etc.

A pinball cannot be defeated. You can get a high score, you can outdo another person or even your precious attempts, but the machine has no settings that trigger a surrender. Over a long enough timeline, everyone’s ball count reaches zero.

Is a player’s score reflective of their vain staving of oblivion or an electro-mechanical dental mold of the love bites gifted over a couple quarter’s worth of collaborative collision?

This question may not meet all machines on equal footing. It’s not fair to compare The Addams Family with Humpty Dumpty or even Four Roses. Addams Family has a definite home field advantage; it was in players’ homes, in their televisions and movie theaters, before it was a mainstay sensation of any self-respecting arcade.

Those same homes were the floor was lava, where a cardboard box became the galaxy’s last hope. Before the game, there was play. We knew not objectives, achievements or sidequests.

Before I had ever seen a pinball machine, I knew I wanted to grow up to be like Morticia Addams. An ethereal menace of maternal charm. When I met my first Addams Family machine, in Phoenix circa 2002, I wore my hair in long braided pigtails, purposely analagous toWednesday (though I admittedly looked more like Pugsley).

People are, in spite of themselves, very adamant in codifying their nuance and peculiarity to form patterns of “normalcy”. There are no normal children. Normality is trained. When I was a child, I was so afraid of Jesus coming into my room and giving me the Stigmata I didn’t sleep for three days. I used to huff mustard. It only occurs to me now, twenty-some winters later, after sustaining numerous environments where I would be disciplined, through sanction of derision, for not “behaving normally”, that I come to see that behavior as strange myself.

We’ve all felt like the lone creepy estate, languishing in solitidute on a street of pristine picket fence.

The arcade is a Grand Central of fantastic tangents. You can fight black knights or dodge fireballs thrown at you from Odin — but the fantasy of this machine is not adventure or adversity, but to be explicitly welcome into the home and lives of people who love fearlessly in the face of a world that doesn’t understand them.

Before it’d ever had my money, this machine had my heart, or at least an audition to it. Not that it needed my money. Williams sold over 20,000 of these machines. Medieval Madness, which is argued by many to be the greatest solid state machine created, has only sold a quarter of this. And it has Tina Fey in it. People with money love Tina Fey.

The heart, once cajoled, is softly careened through an understated mania; the electric chairs, trick bookcases, and winding stairways that surely lead to madness, meant to evoke a euphoric nostalgia. The player is relieved from heaping Nazis into still-spinning propellers (Indiana Jones) or sacking castles (Medieval Madness), and instead invited to tour a sprawling mansion, cavorting over corpses and communing with the other side.

Addams Family typifies Pat Lawlor’s “bells and whistles” style of game design, which prioritizes intricacy, trick shots, and moving parts over, say, the speed of Steve Ritchie, whose games employ frenetic fluid motion. They “medley of moving parts” was a la mode in the 90's, as solid state designers competed with full-color arcade and home console games for the attention of discerning consumers. Gottlieb’s Wipe Out, released the year after, and Capcom’s Airbone, in 1996, mark an industry’s attempt to make mayhem for the fledgling digital age.

Photo credit to Internet Pinball Database

To the topic of too much: every incorporated feature incurs a debt to disorder, and you must never bet against a player’s patience for stuck balls and restarted games. There could have definitely been more to Addams Family — exploding coffins and guillotines and Lurch trying to dance — but game’s efficacy and elegance lies in its initial invitation to the player: come be a pat of our family. Thus the lighting of windows in a mansion and the spelling out of vices on pop bumpers is sufficient in soothing the pocket change out of the player.

If this were a video game, Addams Family would be castigated as a casual game for casual players — and some hobbyists who harp on their “hardcore” credentials are known to dismiss it as such. Consider: what is the fantasy offered by the pinball machines we put on pedestals? What does Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons and Big Daddy and Playboy have to offer the player? And what sustains the legitimacy of their staying power and critical favor to “casual” pins like Addams Family or Dolly Parton? Why does Sexy Girl deserve a spot at every pinball show, when those shows are emphatically advertised as family events?

The market has made its point. Pinball is for everyone. The best selling and most ubiquitous machine of a game that prides itself on its outlaw history is a licensed adaptation of a loving family showing the player through the house that has become their sanctuary — mirroring, however inadvertent, the way the machine itself has become a sanctuary for enthusiasts desperate for a recess from the sexist and racist caricatures of the “classic” machines the collector community holds so dear.

A new run of Whoa Nellie! is shit-eating heel-digging that will only entrench the community as it repels a younger generation of designers, technicians, artists, and players. A more fitting machine for the modern “tongue-in-cheek” sensibilities of the Millenial Age has been sitting in countless arcades across the world for 22 years.

If we keep it in the Family, we can “save” pinball. Or we can elbow each other in the ribs on our way of the pinball show as the community collapses into irrelvance. Again.

Roar your terrible roars. Feel the rays of the sun and reckon: your ancestors lived on the flat center of the known universe — you live on a rock floating through space.

Orthodoxy yields to heresy over time.

The feminists, the queers, the people of color — we will get in.

Mother will awaken and send you straight to bed, mister.