Did you ever get the feeling that you’re not…cool? That you may in fact be a dork? A wimp? It could be that all you’re missing is the gift of the gab, a magnetic personality…and a heart of rock ‘n roll. Lemme tell ya a story…
It’s late 1994, and I’m bored. I’m bored because for the last few hours I’ve been staring out the car window at nothing but dry plains and fields. I yawn and stretch out to go to sleep on the back seat of the car as the radio blurts out an ad for KFC’s ‘Chicken Loopies’ for the millionth time so far. ‘KFC Chicken Loopies!’ repeats Dad, as if neither he, my brother or I had heard the ad six times this hour. We’ve passed about three KFCs on the way, and I’ve long since given up hope that I’d get to taste the loopies, but Dad’s continual quoting of the ad reassures me that the reason we’re not stopping isn’t because it’s annoying him. The road to Lake Burrinjuck was long and tedious, but that fact, and many others, hadn’t seemed to occur to Dad. He was happiest when he was behind the wheel in the country, tearing down the highway on cruise control while listening to AM radio. Of course, in this situation, and many others like it, he was in the minority.
It had been his idea to go away for a few days to Burrinjuck Dam, on the NSW south coast. Apparently there was a campground there, and he was keen to get some fishing in. We’d spent the day before at Bankstown Square, running around to the various shops that would provide us with the equipment we didn’t have when this idea seemed to good to him – a tent, sleeping bags, an esky. The incidentals. Unfortunately, going to the shopping centre with Dad was like going with Allie Fox; endless complaints that escalated from ‘I hate shopping centres,’ to ‘Let’s burn civilisation and laugh’ in the space of about half an hour, unreasonable haggling over plastic cutlery sets, and vitriolic haranguing of salespeople guilty of trying to upsell to the world’s worst shopper. “I’m going to take this to Gerry Harvey,” he’d scream at the Harvey Norman staff member who’d tried to give him a free mousepad. The open road offered no such annoyances, and the deep blue waters of the Murrumbidgee seemingly even fewer.
We reach the turnoff for Lake Burrinjuck, at which point the road goes from paved to something more akin to lunar surface. Perhaps Dad’s decision not to stop at the Colonel was wiser than we could have known, because to say the road was bumpy would be like saying KFC is greasy, with the car’s suspension analogous to the serviette turned clear with grease. The track stretches on forever, and being only one lane, any oncoming traffic forces both cars into an impromptu game of chicken. ‘You go’, ‘No! YOU go!’ goes the exchange each and every time, like young lovers trying to end a midnight phonecall. Given there was so much nothing surrounding us, I almost forget there’s a lake at the end of this rainbow.
That is, until we make it over the crest.
The Lake Burrinjuck Leisure Resort sits on the edge of the water. It’s mostly small cabins and cottages, and larger lots of land containing powered and unpowered sites for real camping. Despite the threat of the tent, we end up in the resort’s reception room haggling for a cabin. To my brother’s horror, we’re informed the cabin has no TV, but the words have no effect on me as something far more compelling catches my eye. Just there, off to the left…
The games room.
The rest of the trip – the surreal boat trip spent watching huge, unwanted carp flop around on the beaches, the mild case of conjunctivitis, the trip to the hospital – feels like a necessary evil, a chore to suffer through before it’s finally time to hit the GAMES ROOM. Even the name sounds fun. Say it now, GAMES ROOM. Doesn’t it make you want to go and find a…games room? But you’re sitting there thinking ‘But Michael, what games were in this room? What made it any more special than a corner shop with Street Fighter II?’
It was true that I was used to playing Street Fighter II or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at the local supermarket or milk bar (remember those?), but this games room offered an experience I’d not yet had at the tender age of 9 – pinball. On one of the hot afternoons we spent sweltering in the cabin, Dad gave me five dollars to waste in the games room. I knew what to do – my first stop is the guy at the front desk so that he may turn my galah into five gold coins, just like the tokens at a real arcade. Cashed up, I look around the room. There are several fat bikies playing pool on a banged up table that could have inspired The Accused. There’s a dead, ancient sit-down driving game. There’s Ninja Turt–wait. That’s not Ninja Turtles.
From Hardcore Gaming 101:
“Vendetta can be played by up to four players. Each of the game’s four characters – Blood, Hawk, Boomer, and Sledge – are assigned to a specific controller, so you can’t change characters without inserting a credit into a different slot. Sledge has Mr T.’s hair stylings (facial hair included), and Hawk is pretty much Hulk Hogan in sprite art form. I’ve seen Boomer compared to Jean Claude Van Damme, but that’s only fair in that he’s a blond martial artist who kicks a lot. Blood is probably based on Mike Tyson. These four guys make up a gang called the Cobras, but they hardly look intimidating. The Final Fight knock-off plot is that their rivals, the Dead End Gang, have kidnapped Hawk’s sister. These guys obviously never saw Suburban Commando. As would be expected, Hawkamania ran wild on the Dead End Gang, and brought his Hawkamaniacs (ie. the other three guys) with him”
"Former professional wrestler."
I spend the next hour feeding coin after coin in to the 20c-a-go Vendetta. Hawk’s sister is as thankful the third time she’s saved as she was the first, but after awhile the appeal wears off, and I start to look around. And my eyes lock onto the wondrous machine over there in the back corner. How did I not see that immediately? Why didn’t you tell me?
I have never played a pinball machine seriously before this day. They always seemed a lot less interactive, less fun. Too reliant on the licences they displayed (I had played the Batman and TMNT pinball machines at the bowling alley in the past. Sue me, it was the early 1990s.) It was a game of luck, not a game of skill, something that really matters to a 9yo kid. But this one looks different. The bright, ultra-1990 Bally artwork looks so inviting. The sad tale of Dr. Dude himself seems so…relatable to a boy excited by a GAMES ROOM.
The rats tail - the haircut 1990 allowed.
As you can see, the premise is simple: you’re a dork, and you need to get cool. To do this, you need to achieve certain goals. Wait, whoa. Pinball machines have goals?? It’s not just flip the ball when it gets close to going down the hole so that it DOESN’T go down the hole and you have to put more tokens in? Tokens you could be spending on Vendetta? “No,” Dad explained. “Pinball is a game of skill.” Dad had come to join me after whatever it was he was doing before enraged him enough to leave it behind. Now he’s observing my pinball skills with mild amusement. “Catch the ball on the flipper, see?” He holds the flipper button down, and the flipper stays up, with the ball cradled in the crook of its arm. The flipper stays up! This alone has blown my mind. I thought you just tapped the flippers…the concept of cradling the ball was insane to me. He was holding the ball still. The game had come to a total standstill by his will. He really was in control of the game!
Timing and aiming shots turn out to be a not so precise a science. We spend the rest of the afternoon in the games room, sheltered from the late thunderstorm, trying our best to earn Dr. Dude the status of ‘Superdude’ in a father-son bonding experience only one half remembered a week later. To earn big points in Dr. Dude, you have to collect the “excellent ingredients of ultimate hipness” – a heart of rock’n roll, a magnetic personality and the gift-o-gab. Once you collect these, by making various shots, you launch the ball into the Mixmaster, whereby your elements of radness are blended. The whole time, a gruff voice insults you, “You’re a wimp! You’re a dork!” the results of what must have been the most satisfying voice recording session ever. If you can manage all that, simply get hit with a blast of the Excellent Ray to receive your new cool persona. Even though it’s 1994 and the game has been out for four years, it’s still a revelation. Pinball is…cool! And original IPs are…radical! For so long I had been biased toward any properties I recognised without giving generic names like The Getaway, Funhouse and Taxi a chance. Looking back now, most of the best pinball tables are original IPs. Eventually, we run out of coins and head back to the cabin. I never see Dr. Dude again, and clearly, I certainly didn’t get cool.
It’s been a long time since my Dad taught me how to play pinball properly, but I’m still learning. Sadly, the industry isn’t what it once was, with only one manufacturer, Stern, still making tables. Sydney’s pubs have a half-decent selection of classic tables from the 1980s and 1990s, but it’s not as easy as it used to be to get a fix of the beautiful game. Lake Burrinjuck isn’t what it once was either – a 2009 trip back, my first since 1994, resulted in heartbreak. The Doctor was out, and so was Vendetta. The games room was long since gone, and annoyingly, appeared to be the only difference in the entire facility. It didn’t stop me from buying a drink from the John Laws lookalike at the counter where I had once gotten the change. I asked him about the games room, and if he still had the machines. “Machines?” he repeated, confused. “This is the only machine we got round ‘ere,” he spluttered, gesturing to the soft drink fridge from which he had just pulled my can. I took a sip of the warm, flat drink and took him at his word. And then I was on my way, off back down that bumpy road, thankful I had opened my can of drink before I got back in the car.
Epilogue: last year, I went on a trip to the USA with a friend. While in New Hampshire, we heard we were close to the ‘World’s Biggest Arcade’, which allegedly had an extensive pinball section. Could it be possible? I volunteered to drive, because it was my odyssey. It took all morning, but the World’s Biggest Arcade turned out to be the World’s Oldest Arcade as well. None of the machines were newer than 1979. We went to leave when I noticed a brochure on one of the tables…’Pinball Wizard, the World’s Second Biggest Arcade’. And only an hour away! Internally, I mixmastered my heart of rock’n roll, my magnetic personality and my gift-o-gab and shot off towards my destination like an Excellent Ray. Was I in luck? After 17 years, was a dork about to get cool?