High Score at 20,000 Feet
Twilight Zone was a pin that had always gotten the best of me. Despite being a Lawlor fanatic, the basic flow and geometry of the machine was beyond me. It had defeated me, before that day.
From the moment when it appeared new in the small arcade in the student center of the University where I worked, I was bewitched by the clever theming and gimmicks. In an era before there was streaming video and DVD releases of complete series, classic TV shows were half-remembered in snippets. So part of the joy of playing TZ was finding odd little fragments and references - in the artwork, and most especially in the modes - from the original show that triggered memories of episodes.
It wasn’t just the episodes that I remembered - it was also the ones I couldn’t. What episode was the giant gum ball machine from? Why isn’t it that I can’t remember the battle against The Power, or maybe that was just some kind of deep reference to an episode I was misremembering? It was that sense of combined familiarity and alienation that echoed the sensibility of the show itself that really made repeated play enjoyable.
And beyond that, there were episodes I remembered quite distinctly, classic ones, that didn’t seem to be in the TZ ROMs. The one where Billy Mumy was a psychotic six year old tyrant with telekinetic powers. That would be a good mode! The one where the woman who was horribly disfigured turned out to look like Marilyn Monroe, only everybody on her planet looked like pig people so she was considered to be hideously ugly. The one where everybody tried to rush into the bomb shelter, that would be a good frenzy mode. Or that one with Captain Kirk as the sufferer of a nervous breakdown who thinks he sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane, a modern boy who cried wolf combined with the fear of airplane crashes. I kept hoping, if I played deep enough, surely I’d find those unrepresented episodes.
Did I say enjoyable? Frustrating. Addictive. Like a guy who puts one more silver dollar into the slot machine or a hitchhiker you keep impossibly passing by, the mysteries did not reveal themselves to me. I couldn’t get the flow of the two ramp shots. Timing “The Camera” just so seemed impossible. Every triumph of the skill shot seemed to be followed promptly by a drain down the left outlane after the ball was kicked around the bumpers in a limbo over which I had no control. I’d shoot for the clock standup and hit the ramp; I’d shoot for the piano and drain STDM. I was a hair off, a tad late, my saves shot up the inlane and over the outlane. I was perennially, perpetually off on this machine.
Oh, I’d get multiball, Town Square Madness, the occasional triumph over the Power field - but it never came together in that big game we all strive for, especially on machines with wizard modes. I swore to myself, sometimes, I’d sell my soul to finish off that machine and get the high score. I think I even said it aloud, that night.
It was a Friday. A Friday the 13th, if you must revel in a completely random coincidence and put meaning into it. I don’t. I’d been working late, very late, on a project and when I emerged from my office the campus seemed strangely deserted. It must be break, I figured, and the students have all left campus. I went over to the student union to grab a drink and a snack and maybe a few games of pinball before I headed home.
I walked into the building, and everything seemed closed. The pub, closed up. The bookstore, shuttered. The commons area was empty, not even the perennial foosball and ping pong players at their craft. Figuring I was right and had forgotten about a break, my hopes of getting a game of pinball in were low. I pulled on the closed door of the mini arcade room with low expectations, but to my surprise it swung open. There, in the small bank of four pinball machines, only Twilight Zone was turned on.
I checked my pockets - no quarters. In my wallet was only a $20 bill, too much for the coin changer. Taking all this as a sign, I turned to go, but I heard a distinctive “tink-tink-tink-THUNK”, and looked over at the Twilight Zone. For some reason I went over and checked the coin return slot; there, on one side, was a single quarter. Great, I thought, at least I have a quarter for the next time I’m here. Time to get home and get on with my weekend. I turned to go again.
Tink-tink-tink-THUNK. I turned back to the machine. I checked the left coin return slot, where I’d found the first quarter. Nothing. I checked the right - and there was another quarter.
Great! I thought. Money for one game, maybe I’ll hit a replay and get two if I’m lucky and good tonight, and that will get me home in a reasonable time span. I put the quarters in. The “START GAME” button glowed a yellow I had never quite seen before. Some kind of weird effect from the dim after hours lighting in the room? Now that I noticed it, the ambient room lighting did seem a bit off. I pressed it. PLAYER ONE. The ball spit out onto the plunger lane. “Not an ordinary day!” Rod Serling said. It seemed for some reason like the audio was right behind my ear.
OK, I thought, I only have the one game to play, I better play it smart. I plunged the ball carefully for the yellow skill shot. BAM, I got it. Then I nudged hard, just where I thought the tilt warning might miss, to avoid getting shot into the bumpers by the Rocket kicker. It worked! The ball rolled neatly over to the Slot Machine, and the first Door mode started.
And from there, I couldn’t miss. Ramp-ramp. Lock. Multiball early, with multiple jackpots. I don’t even remember how I drained the other multi balls, but was left with one in play and over 100 million, it seemed in an instant. Powerball started, gum ball loaded. Power battled, and defeated, over and over. Clock chaos, clock madness - completed! I better not tilt now! Somehow, although I knew I must’ve passed the replay threshold, I didn’t remember seeing the replay screen. But there were cows - cows everywhere, it seemed, when I scored jackpots. Then Moos from the audio! How had I missed those? I must’ve unlocked some special easter egg mode.
And so it went. I had no idea what time it was; I hadn’t lost a ball yet; I didn’t want to break my concentration after a catch to check my watch, which for some reason always seemed to be on the same wrist as the side I was catching the ball. Wait, had my watch switched sides? It couldn’t be. I played on.
I hit Powerball Mania. The Powerball came out, with two more balls. Was that two? It seemed like three regular balls, maybe four. I was flipping, flipping, like mad. I daren’t look at the DMD to see where my scoring was. Maybe if I fed the balls up to the power field briefly, I could sneak a peek. I heard a sound effect I hadn’t heard before - a kind of roar, a guttural groan that sounded half-machine, half-beast. The lights in the room, already seeming to have dimmed, flickered. I was in a zone, I ignored it. The balls flicked down in succession to my left flipper. I made dead drop catches perfectly and zipped them in sequence to the gum ball - one, two, three - four?
To my surprise, the balls were launched up to the play field. How could this be? The Powerball’s ceramic. The Power Playfield is supposed to be disabled. Ball one. Well, I’ll keep it going. It flicked left and right. Ball two. Tricky. Ball three. I had three metal balls in the Power field at once! And then…the Powerball itself was launched up! I batted it back and forth with the steel pinballs, using them as cues. The four balls miraculously stayed in play. How could I keep this up? Could I get them out of the top of that mysterious eyeball pyramid?
It dawned on me: I HAD UNLOCKED THE SECRET WIZARD MODE OF TWILIGHT ZONE. This was it. This was the ultimate quest. I had made it.
Then the roar from the audio: a strange animated beast was on the back glass, tearing a cartoon wing off a plane. “SAVE THE PLANE” the DMD flashed. “SHOOT POWERBALL IN TOP HOLE FOR SUPER SECRET JACKPOT”. The animation was mesmerizing; somehow I was able to watch it while madly flipping to keep the power field balls in play.
I hit one ball. It hit another, which hit the third ball, which hit the Power ball. Which rolled, seemingly in slow motion, out the top.
Then: the balls seemed to lift off the play field, to levitate, and started to rotate in a circle. Every light on the machine exploded with color; a strange tune, indescribable, like a mix of every track on the Voyager spacecraft record combined with the ability to hear at frequencies only animals could perceive, played. It got louder, louder, and louder, and reached a crescendo. The whole back glass came alive; every little object and reference circled around. The DMD and the artwork and reality had merged.
I must’ve drained all the balls. I didn’t notice. I was entranced.
The machine suddenly went black. Dead as night. Not a sound, not a light, not even the start game light was on. I swore, aloud, loudly. Had I triggered some bug or fault? Had all that light and sound show blown a fuse? Maybe somebody in the building had thrown a circuit breaker.
I looked at my watch. It was midnight.
I glanced back at the game, in frustration and heartbreak. But there, on the screen, was that same ogre, the gremlin who’d torn up the plane. The animation gave him a questioning appearance. Below the gremlin with its outstretched paw - claw? - was a question:
Score all bonus points Mystery Special
now for high score Play on
<— Left Flipper C H O O S E Right Flipper—->
I looked at the screen, trying to fathom what the choices implied.
I chose a flipper. I pressed the button.
The machine went black again for a few moments. Then came back on again, game over. No credits. I watched for the high scores to scroll by…the first four scores were as they had been when I started the game. And there, with the champion score, were my initials. I had no memory of entering them, but I must’ve, because there they were. Next to the all-time high score.
It was 00,000,000,000.
Did I turn the machine over? What had happened?
I don’t remember leaving, but I must’ve left then. The next thing I remember was waking up the following morning, my wrists and arms sore, my eyes red and scratchy.
Monday morning, as I arrived for work, the campus was full. At lunch, I ventured out of the office and over to the student union, and into the little arcade. It was packed with students, killing time and brain cells on video games. I turned to the Twilight Zone, eager to see if I hadn’t imagined the malfunction and my incredible high score might still be on the machine.
It wasn’t there.
Twilight Zone was gone.
In its place was Popeye Saves the World.
The assistant manager of the student union, the guy responsible for refunds, getting stuck balls out, phoning in repairs and thus somebody well known to us local pinheads, happened to be replenishing the change machine at the time. I asked him: where’s Twilight Zone?
“Twilight Zone?” he said. “They took that machine out weeks ago.”
I left then, pondering whether I had chosen wisely on that final screen.