In the age of massive online multiplayer zombie hunts and motion-controlled bowling on home gaming systems, one old favorite has yet to be duplicated: pinball. It's an exciting game, based on skill, where a small silver ball is bounced across a table by player-controlled flippers on either side. Players earn points for hitting various targets.
It earned a reputation as a gambling device in its early days, but eventually pinball tables found a home in pubs and arcades the world over, inspiring the Who's rock opera Tommy, starring a deaf, dumb and blind "pinball wizard."
Touring Madison's pinball spots proved a daunting task, and sadly, didn't yield as many older machines as I'd hoped. Stern is the only company still manufacturing pinball machines, and though it employs many creative minds from the Bally, Williams and Midway table-makers of old, today's parade of movie- and TV-themed tables don't have the same charm.
2121 East Springs Dr., 608-244-7246
An impressive and modern Batman, released just this past summer from Stern Pinball, sports art and characters from the hugely successful movie The Dark Knight. A single game costs 75 cents, with music and a Heath Ledger soundalike taunting me as I juggle the silver ball across the table. My ball gets stuck not once but twice behind a bumper, proving this machine might need to be broken in a little. To dislodge it, I shake the table, unintentionally clearing it from its corner location behind an intrusive vending machine.
430 Clarmar Dr., Sun Prairie, 608 837-2586
Another modern Stern table, Simpson's Pinball Party, uses toys as obstacles on the table. The game features the real voices of various Simpsons actors, but proximity to the alleys means they're hard to hear, and the sound of bowling is sometimes too distracting for the intense concentration pinball demands. 50 cents gets you three balls.
Ten Pin Alley
6285 Nesbitt Rd., Fitchburg, 608-845-1010
A Lord of the Rings table, again from Stern, is notable for having the highest score-multiplier available in pinball (allowing you to multiply your points by a factor of 84 by meeting certain conditions). Achieving that might be as hard as turning around and bowling a 300 game, though, so I opt to try to hit the Balrog as many times as I can for my own amusement. 50 cents well spent.
4586 Baxter Rd., Cottage Grove, 608-839-5101
Thirsty for a more traditional machine, I finally find one here - Black Knight 2000, produced by Williams in 1989. It has a dynamic multilevel design, with a third flipper to keep the ball on the top level. Hitting the ball into the unseen area beneath the table's raised field usually renders its return course unpredictable, so this table's design makes it one of the more challenging in the area. I glance at the title card after finishing my game and recognize the names Ed Boon and Dan Forden, who went on to work on one of the most infamous video games of the 1990s, Mortal Kombat. Only 50 cents, but the most out-of-the-way table I'll visit.
5202 High Crossing Blvd., 608-242-2117
The theater's game room (which they graciously let me enter without a movie ticket) is well lit, which is no friend to its Spider-Man pinball machine. The glare on the glass from the fluorescent light above makes tracking the ball across the busy playfield difficult. Theatre of Magic, an older machine from Williams, is in the darker corner and a bit more enjoyable, though it lacks the obvious attraction of the Marvel movie hero. Several traps with magnets are employed, causing a ball to defy trajectory or be held in place. It's probably one of the best games made in the '90s, with a diverse and unique playfield. Spider-Man is 75 cents; or you can save a quarter and play Theatre of Magic for 50 cents.
Marcus Cinema-Point Ultrascreen
7825 Big Sky Dr., 608-833-3980
The west side's Marcus has a modern Stern table based on The Sopranos and another machine from the 1990s, Terminator 2. Sopranos allows you to work your way up the organized crime ladder, and while it uses the voices of several of the show's stars, their colorful language is absent. A talking fish mocks me as I try to set fire to Artie Bucco's restaurant. Playing these machines back-to-back, it becomes evident that it's easier to keep a ball in play and achieve ridiculously high scores on the newer tables. The Terminator machine has no qualms about putting a quick end to my credits, living up to its namesake. 50 cents for either game.
319 N Henry St., 608-255-6592
Thankfully, a Monopoly machine in the Plaza Tavern more than makes up for my previous disappointments when I hit a jackpot and juggle three balls on the table at once. At this point, I stop being bugged that every machine I visit seems to be based on another game or movie and just enjoy myself. Access to other games and, of course, the Plazaburger make this a place worth more than just stopping in for pinball. 75 cents a play.
The Crystal Corner
1302 Williamson St., 608-256-2953
The Wheel of Fortune machine here is more fun than most, possibly because I have a soft spot for Pat Sajak. The goal of solving a puzzle in the show is well known, and though my skill is usually limited to simply keeping the ball in play rather than completing specific tasks, I go to the trio of bobblehead contestants in the center of the table, calling out letters to solve the puzzle. It's early afternoon when I stop by, and kinda quiet, so I feel a little awkward breaking the silence with the combined sounds of hammering flippers and buying vowels. 75 cents a play, and don't go during the day.
5957 McKee Rd., Fitchburg, 608-442-9800
My trek ends here. While far from a classic arcade, the restaurant's game room does have Ms. Pac-Man, multiple ticket-earning games such as skee ball and another Monopoly machine. I don't get close to the high score I achieved at the Plaza. The burgers aren't as good either, but I'll give Good Times credit for trying to reignite the lost flame of the arcade. Monopoly, 75 cents, is flanked by chance games. I can't help but think the room might look better with two or three more pinball tables in their place.
Missing in action and other tales of woe
Madison's sole dedicated video arcade, Tilt, in East Towne Mall, has no pinball machines. The Ideal Bar advertises pinball on its marquee, but doesn't actually have a machine. At Up North on Wilson Street, a Lord of the Rings machine sat unplugged. A Simpsons Pinball Party at Paradise Lounge on Main Street ate my 50 cents. The Vintage on University Avenue has another Spider-Man machine in a setting with lighting more conducive to advanced play, but its close proximity to the dartboard might test your tolerance for pain in addition to your reflexes. At Wilson's Bar on Atwood Avenue, the Family Guy machine is placed too close to the door, and I would not recommend it due to the arctic blast each time patrons enter or exit.
While these machines will tide pinballers over, Madison fans are advised to trek to the Midwest Gaming Classic in Oconomowoc the weekend of March 21. It brings pinball collectors from around the nation to share machines, and players to compete in the Midwest Pinball Championship.