Friday, November 1, 2013

Pinball Addiction: The Lord of the Rings

Posted by Benson

In writing this post I discovered that I have just sunk down another few inches into the quicksand of pinball addiction.  I found myself actually downloading and pondering over the shot map for the Lord of the Rings machine.  I suppose even lightweight pinball enthusiasts would probably consider studying a shot map to be par for the course, but I actually didn't know they existed!  This has been a major revelation. 

One of the things that is troublesome about pinball is that I do not get to play very often on an actual machine.  I do not (yet) own my own machine and I have a huge pile of other hobbies that occupy a great deal of my free time.  Consequently, I mostly play pinball when I am on the road.  The availability of machines can often be scanty, and I love to try out new machines, so I don't spend very much time playing the same machine, even if there are machines available that I have played before.  Pinball machines also tend to be in bars, so I usually only play for about an hour in a state of near total sobriety.
Something you don't always notice with all of the glitz is how nice the playfiled artwork can be

Pinball machines are glitzy, noisy, fast-paced, and confusing, which is a huge part of why they are fun, but I have discovered that playing well is a lot easier if you really understand how a machine works.  Dedicated pinball players can typically approach a machine and immediately recognize what "type" of machine it is, even if they haven't played it dozens of times already.  There are only so many ways to skin a cat, and a lot of pinball design (as I have discovered) builds on the successes of previous designs. 

When I read about a machine, I often read things like, "Players will immediately notice that it has a playfield very similar to Medieval Madness," or in the case of the Lord of the Rings machine, that the Balrog is mounted like the bank door in Monopoly.  Sadly, I do not have the experience to approach a machine and immediately ascertain how the playfield works, although I am getting better, and the shot map has really helped!

Yea, I don't look at that and think much more than, "I hope the Balrog's light still works!"

A shot map is a visual representation of the specific shots that you will need to make during gameplay.  In other words, it is a map of where you need to send the ball in order to accomplish various tasks.  Pinball games are built around building up a "flow" of different shots, activating different gameplay modes, accruing various bonus multipliers, and generally proceeding through various layers of gameplay.  Certainly, most casual players do not wind up utilizing even a third of what a game can do, and are often far more concerned with making sure they don't lose the ball than in hitting specific targets, let alone hitting them in a specific sequence for maximum numerical advantage. 

Compared to the shot map, this is confusing enough, add in a ball...
When you are staring at a brightly flashing machine in a smoky bar with music blaring in your ears and a metal ball zipping around like a chrome-colored meteor, it can be a challenge to focus on where the ball needs to go, much less how you can get it to go there.  Some machines are easier to read than others, and this is generally a big factor in terms of quality, but even the easiest machines can be difficult to read in the moment!  This is where the shot map comes in. 

 The shot map lets you see where the ball needs to go, and even better, once you've played a game, it gives you a very good idea about where the ball will end up once you hit the target you are aiming for.  Will the ball get pulled into a magnetized saucer and kicked up to a ramp that feeds the right inlane?  Will the ball zip around an orbit and come screaming down towards the left flipper?  What if you've lit the multiball?

Lord of the Rings, a very fun game designed by Stern, happens to be a pinball machine I have played a great deal more than others, and I got the chance to spend several hours with a Lord of the Rings machine in fantastic condition when I was in Salt Lake City recently.  The machine was in a seriously seedy bar called X Wifes Place (yea, that was the name) with an interior that seemed wholly out of place in the otherwise clean, manicured surroundings of downtown SLC.  I went down to the bar around 5 p.m. on a Monday, and the few patrons there did not seem to be at all interested in pinball, so I pretty much had the whole area to myself.  As an added bonus, the Saints game was on, so I got to play one of my favorite machines and watch the game in absolute peace (so long as I didn't look at the floor too much...).

One machine to rule them all, one machine to find them, one machine to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them!

I had a great time playing, but even though I had played this machine plenty of times before in various locations, I was still having trouble getting into a good groove (the tense Saints game and plenty of beer didn't help).  Don't get me wrong, the game is engaging, fun, and smooth even if you don't really know what you are doing, but at this point I don't just want to play games, I want to play them well.  I want to play them deliberately.  I want to set a goal and achieve it.  I want to put the ball where I want it to go to do something that is part of a deeper strategy than hitting targets during a game mode or keeping the ball from dropping.

I thought it smelled bad on the outside...

I had plenty of fun, but when I got home and started doing some research into the game, I came across the shot map on Stern's website.  Immediately, everything clicked!  I know the ramps, lanes, orbits, toys, and switches from playing the game, but the shot map has taken what is sometimes so hard to see while the game is in progress and brought it into perfect clarity.  I think I really understand this game now, and the next time I have an opportunity to play it, I think I can tackle it with deliberation.  And from now on, I am going to track down the shot map for any game I plan on going out to play!  As Obi-wan said, I believe I have taken my first step into a larger world, though maybe a Gandalf quote would have been more apropos...let's see...

It is in the Shot Map that we must place our, that's not it...

I looked everywhere for the creature Gollum, but the enemy found him first. I don't know how long they tortured him, but through the endless screams and inane babble, they discerned two words: SHOT MAP!, that's even worse...

Oh, it's quite simple.  You use the Shot Map, and the doors will open.  Close...but no cigar...

I think there's more to this game than meets the eye...  That's the one!

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