Letter from the Editor: Coin-operated boy

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Brock plays arcade games with Vivian Kane and Alejandro. 

Welcome, dear readers, to the September issue of The Pitch. This month, we’re digging into the story of an extremely online Missouri politician, a hyper-specific tale of a new local mill, and deep dive into what the hell is going on with the lack of state funding for filmmakers in the Show Me State. But our cover story—as you can see from Cassondra’s hella cool illustration—is an extended feature by Jordan Baranowski on the KC Pinball scene. 

While pinball may be the type of childhood amusement that you’ve since relegated to the dustbin of nostalgic memories, I can assure you that not only has the player-base never fully faded, but more so we are living in a period of vibrant resurgence.

Communities around the tables, featuring competitive leagues that form new bonds between strangers, are increasingly becoming an excellent draw for a night out on the town. I’d say that it’s one of the only activities that gets me away from the screens I depend on for Netflix and doomscrolling, but honestly, all my favorite tables have gnarly digital elements, so maybe I’ve not fully detached from the distraction of technology.

That said, the tactile sensation of absolutely pummeling some targets and feeling a gigantic gamebox vibrate with kinect chaos is difficult to replicate elsewhere in my increasingly heremitic lifestyle.

As a kid, I was shipped off to Lawrence every summer to spend multiple weeks at Roy Williams’ KU basketball camp. Within the now-demolished McCollum Hall, I spent a poorly proportioned amount of time focusing on basketball, and instead, absolutely running game on the dorm’s main floor arcade.

There was a Mortal Kombat cabinet—a game whose violence was off-limits at home for a third grade small town Kansas boy—where I quickly mastered the art of spamming Sub-Zero’s freeze abilities to embarrass the college students who assumed I’d be easy pickings. 

Less so than my newfound enjoyment of exploding people with superpowers, or from light gun games where I helped clean up Area 51 and houses full of zombies, I fell head over heels for pinball.

What would become some of my lifetime favorite machines were all there in a row, and I sunk weeks into learning their tiny nuances, the subtle curves, the unexpected traps, and how much effort I would need to put in before a table finally admitted that it was mine. 

Was pinball my first relationship? Hm. Taking that one with me to therapy. Moving on.

I’ve rarely encountered a machine that I don’t find a new joy in, or a rededication to understanding its methods both inside and out. There’s that first Addams Family table in Lawrence, where I’ll never forget the first time my ball locked and an animatronic hand reached out of a box to steal me away.

There’s that stupid Aerosmith table in the Dallas airport that was left on free play, and during a long layover it provided me with at least three-dozen loops of “Dude Looks Like A Lady.” There is the small army of machines built as a tie-in to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Dracula that inexplicably occupy every arcade, gas station, and pizza place in Portland, Oregon.

No, I have no idea how to explain that one either, but it does contain audio samples of an exceedingly 1992 Keanu Reeves showing off just how bad he could rip an English accent. 

Just before pandemic, my wife and I took our little brother through the Big Brothers & Big Sisters program to his first arcade. Alejandro was in middle school and loved video games, but had never set foot in one of those darkened spaces where quarters and noise and Mountain Dew came to party. 

One of Alejandro’s first realizations was that arcade games… require a lot of work. Those joysticks and the mashing of buttons can work you into a sweat if you’re not used to it. That and the sheer intensity of blasting your way, as a team, through the entirety of the X-Men or Simpsons beat-em-ups. 

But this was also my first opportunity to introduce someone new to the art of pinball. Alejandro grasped the challenge, frustration, and hilarious unpredictability of this antagonistic experience almost immediately.

Even on some of the more mediocre old-school machines, it remains one of my favorite gaming moments, watching him light up brighter than the table itself when he first activated a multiball bonus, and Jurassic Park went absolutely nutzo. 

As much as I love a good round of Xbox multiplayer and shooting racist teenagers from around the world in Call of Duty, nothing will ever be able to touch the sound of silver and the burst of pure unhinged dopamine that comes from the rock ’n’ roll sensation of setting a high score while friends and strangers cheer you on.

Here’s to hoping that this month’s story gets you to travel to one of our favorite local haunts and sink an hour into rediscovering the joy of whiffing the ball on your very first pull, and then rallying—plowing forward towards a mega-score victory.

Pitch in and we’ll make it through, 

Brock Signature

Categories: Culture