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An Elegant Abstraction

Wizard a pinball machine by Bally at the Underdog, and elsewhere

By James Gleick

WHAT STRAVINSKY'S Rite of Spring did for music, what Gutenberg did for journalism, what the internal combustion engine did for auto racing, Bally's Wizard has now done for pinball. Every so often an entire field of human endeavor is picked up, turned over, and shaken like a dusty carpet--and when the air clears we can say for certain that a part of our lives will never again be the same. And that is what is being said by the small, but ever increasing stream of visitors to the Underdog on Bow Street: visitors who, as often as not came to order a Kosher frank, and stayed to play Wizard.

Igor Stravinsky would have understood that. He would have seen what has escaped some astigmatic commentators, who believe that the miracle of this machine ends with the nipples newly added to the traditional, full-breasted women painted on the backboard. One might as well claim that all the seminal force of Le Sacre lies in Stravinsky's instructions to the ten French horns, playing triple-forte at the piece's climax, to aim their bells up in the air. That was a magnificent gesture, but--and the same is true of the bold, star-spangled nipples on Wizard--it was only a refinement. There is no revolution to be found here, only a bit of new polish on a dull surface.

The makers of Wizard, the Bally Company, have carried pinball over the threshold of a new age. In pinball's infancy, the game's mechanisms were exceedingly simple, even one dimensional. For most machines the surface was the only reality. A given bumper, a given roll-over had a certain, fixed value, and one's score was no more or less than the sum of those values. It was not long, however, before a second dimension was introduced, utterly transforming a phenomenon that had been purely linear: certain targets or combinations of targets were designed to change the schedule of reward. Thus a bumper might at first be worth 10; but an entirely different bumper--or a set of bumpers, or a hole, or an alley--could increase its value to 100. The pinball machine, at first no more than a collection of independent lights and bumpers, had become a complex map of interwoven, interrelated features.

AND THAT WAS how matters stood for many years. Oh, there was an embellishment here, an adornment there, and not all of these were without significance. There was the addition of gates to the increasingly abstract network of features: various targets or spinners might alter the topography of a machine by opening or closing a gate. There was a short-lived trend toward multiball games, with certain holes shooting a second or third ball into play while the first was still active. But these were no better than tail fins on a design moving steadily toward obsolescence. Until Bally created Wizard, the essentially two-dimensional character of pinball remained.

Like nearly all of its predecessors, Wizard has a set of features, switched by a series of roll-overs, that mean the difference between assured victory and inevitable defeat: Thumper Bumper, Center Target, Double Bonus and Spinner. But to send a ball rolling over the roll-overs, at the upper right of the machine, is not enough to trigger the features--first, a set of flags associated with the roll-overs must themselves be triggered, by a set of targets spread across the surface of the machine.

The twin figures of Love and Evil, gyrating in painted ecstacy on Wizard's backboard, could not preside over a scene of more nearly apocalyptic import. It will never again be possible to construct a pinball machine with the relatively simple patterns we are familiar with--one bumper, regardless of sequence, predictably changing the value of another. In Wizard, only after the Thumper Bumper target is hit, or the Center Target target, are the appropriate flags flipped and roll-overs activated. And only then can the roll-overs activate their respective functions. The relationships of the many elements of the pinball surface have taken on an immeasurable new dimension here--the thumper bumper, the spinner on Wizard are features that are not once, but twice removed from the targets that give them value.

THE INFLUENCE OF Wizard on generations of pinball machines to come can only be guessed at; suffice it to say, it will be vast. For now, all one can do is hail, as Samuel Beckett hailed with unfathomed prescience more than twenty-five years ago, the "system, of singular beauty and simplicity, which consists in saying Bally."

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