Pinball Beginnings

By KickahaOta

April 30, 2020


36 days ago

This story ends with a surreal scene: me standing at the sales counter of my local Stern dealer, signing the paperwork for a Black Knight Sword of Rage Premium (because the Pro has only one playfield, and a Black Knight without an upper playfield is just too wrong to discuss), and reflexively smiling at the very nice salesperson. Then remembering -- for the eighth time during this visit -- that the gesture is pointless, because we're the only people in the locked store, and both of us are wearing face masks and latex gloves. The act of buying one's first pinball machine is inherently strange; doing it in the middle of a global pandemic makes it seem almost alien, dreamlike.

Which is oddly appropriate, because the story begins with a bug in Addams Family and a job offer from Chicago that made me feel that same dreamlike way.

I was in my senior year of college. It was 1992. I had only one course that quarter, so I had a lot of time to kill. And a local restaurant that I walked by twice a day on the way to campus had a row of six pinball machines. Mostly from the mid-1980s or before, but one new arrival: an Addams Family. I had barely heard of the show, but I was hooked by the end of the third game I played. I was a computer science major, and I was enthralled by the complexity. At the time, virtually no machine would let you start more than one mode at once. But here, if you were quick with your shots, you could often have three modes running at once. And that led to dozens of combinations to explore, some with wonderful little edge cases where the rules of one mode were subtly tweaked to account for the needs of another mode running at the same time. I could almost see the lines of a flowchart forming in my head as I played, figuring out what interacted with what, which modes synergized well -- Mamushka into Cousin Itt into Quick Multiball -- and which ones were a problem -- Seance into, well, pretty much everything.

And then I noticed the bug.

Fester's Tunnel Hunt offered a hefty 30 million points if you could hit three shots -- the Chair, the Swamp, and the Vault. But every once in a while, the rotating bookcase that guarded the entrance to the Vault simply didn't open, making completing the mode almost impossible. It didn't happen very often, but it was just often enough to register as a question mark in that mental flowchart. Was it a problem with the hardware? No; the Vault worked perfectly in other situations -- it was just this one mode that was the problem. Was it simply random, the sort of glitch that might happen one time in twenty for no reason at all? No; there was a pattern. I could feel it. And I set out to find it.

It only seemed to happen in multiplayer games. It seemed to happen more often when two players in a multiplayer game were both doing well. It happened later in the game more often than earlier. In fact, it never seemed to happen the first time someone played Fester's Tunnel Hunt during a game.

I poked at it for hours, and finally, something clicked in my head. I had a theory. And I tested it -- something I could have done in a few minutes with the glass off, but that took almost another two hours of play to do it the hard way. And the theory held up.

If you made the Vault shot during Fester's Tunnel Hunt, that bookcase would close (unless another mode was running that needed it open -- more wonderful edge cases). And for whoever played Tunnel Hunt first, all of this would work fine. And for whoever played it second, everything was still fine -- unless that earlier player had made the Vault shot during their hunt. In that case, the Vault would stay closed for the second player. And the third Tunnel Hunt would be fine unless the second player had made the Vault shot, and so on -- every successful Vault shot leading to one, and only one, broken Tunnel Hunt later in the game.

It was an almost totally pointless piece of information. How many people even played multiplayer? How many were good enough to make the problem happen? And it wasn't as if I could fix the thing. But I was a computer science major, and I felt like I had cured cancer. And I had to share it.

This was 1992, so the Internet and the Web were in their infancy. But colleges had the Internet, and most of them had Usenet -- a simple text-based version of modern forum software. The rec.games.pinball board on Usenet was the Pinside of its day. And I posted there about the Addams Family bug.

And shortly afterward, I received an email from Larry DeMar, one of the programmers for Addams Family. And for Black Knight and High Speed and FunHouse. For a computer science major with a pinball habit, it was like a letter from God. He confirmed my findings and actually shared a bit of source code from the game -- the start of the routine that handled Tunnel Hunt, with the subtly-misplaced lines of code that caused the Vault to misbehave. And he fixed it. And he actually mailed me a new ROM with the L-3 Addams Family code, release notes "Fixed some logic problems with tunnel hunt". It was glorious.

And a few years went by, but we still traded emails from time to time. And then one day he invited me to come to Chicago, to go to the PAPA pinball convention, and talk to some folks on the Williams pinball team. And that was glorious too.

And he offered me a job, working on an OS project -- he couldn't say what -- with an entirely reasonable entry-level salary, and a pinball machine as a signing bonus.

And although it involved moving halfway across the country and leaving behind another very satisfying job with a slightly higher salary, I said yes in a heartbeat, because when God offers you a job, you say yes. And I quit my job and packed.

But sometimes a door just doesn't open when it should. This turned out to be one of those times. The job offer came just as the pinball market went into freefall. Before I could even move to Chicago, a sad phone call came. There had been layoffs. The offer was rescinded. Completely reasonable. Completely crushing.

So I cancelled the move, and got my old job back, and I went on with a long career in more boring forms of computer software. And things were pretty good, all things considering. And there were other things to do, and I played pinball less and less.

But that passion never went away. It just changed. Eventually it became a copy of Pinball Arcade with all the DLC, and hundreds of hours spent digitally reliving those old classic pins. And eventually the longing for the real thing reemerged, and I started making pilgrimages to bars and bowling alleys again. And eventually I realized that wanting to have a pinball machine at home wasn't a completely unreasonable thing at all anymore. And then there I was, signing an invoice with gloved hands and smiling under a face mask.

And that's the end, or maybe another beginning. 

Story photos

2020-05-08 Black Knight SOR Premium (resized).jpg
Williams Job Offer Letter Redacted (resized).png
vault (resized).jpg


Comments

35 days ago
Excellent story. As a fellow CS nerd, I know that feeling of tracking down a nasty bug all too well. But to do it on a pin...awesome.
35 days ago
Very satisfying story. Not nearly as satisfying as tracking down the cause of that bug, I imagine.
35 days ago
well written.
35 days ago
Great story!
34 days ago
I'm always amazed that some people have the gift of story telling.
Thank you for putting this up.
33 days ago
Great story thanks for posting!
33 days ago
exactly. Well done mister.
33 days ago
Thanks for all the kind comments! I was housecleaning and found that job offer, so I added a picture of that -- it still brings me a smile.
33 days ago
I really enjoyed that story. Thanks!
32 days ago
Very cool story. Was neat to read that offer letter.
32 days ago
Great story. Now I want to play TAF ASAP
32 days ago
Ha, nice journey, welcome back to the fold!
32 days ago
Awesome story! Thanks for sharing.
31 days ago
Awesome story.
31 days ago
I normally don’t read stories but this one was pretty good! Thanks for sharing about the Addams Family bug that was pretty cool. I owned the machine for many years in my collection and never knew this
30 days ago
Great stuff !! Keep the ball rolling...enjoy the bksor!!
30 days ago
Great stuff !! Keep the ball rolling...enjoy the bksor!!
30 days ago
Great stuff !! Keep the ball rolling...enjoy the bksor!!
30 days ago
Great stuff !! Keep the ball rolling...enjoy the bksor!!
30 days ago
Great stuff !! Keep the ball rolling...enjoy the bksor!!
29 days ago
Wow! $50k in 1995 was no small offer!! Funny how I looked at the pic first and then read the story, I thought, “man, I hope he didn’t take that job. That would be a short-lived career.”
29 days ago
$50k in today’s market = $85k
29 days ago
Great & well-written story, fellow Seattlite! (OK, I'm 3 blocks outside the city.)
29 days ago
Thanks for a great story.
28 days ago
Too bad he didn't send you pin he was going to give you as a signing bonus!
28 days ago
And lo and behold, the Knight arrives for battle!
27 days ago
Great story, well written, thank you
25 days ago
Very cool story!
24 days ago
Thanks for sharing, great story. I wonder what would have happened if pinball never died and you took that job..
21 days ago
Great story. Life can be all about timing sometimes. BK will whip your butt, but if you don’t miss you will do just fine! Enjoy!
20 days ago
Awesome story!
16 days ago
Great story and OH MAN... that stinks that the job never happened. What a dream to work on something like that. My 2nd line manager from a few years back was a software engineer for Bally/Williams in the mid late 90's and as you can imagine, it didn't last too long w/ the decline of pinball. Still it would have been a dream job. I wonder what projects you would have worked on?

Add a comment

Wanna make a comment? Click here to sign in or register.