Texas Pinball Festival 2023

This past weekend I attended the annual Texas Pinball Festival. I haven't been to a convention since Texas Furry Fiesta in very very early March 2020, and I was pretty nervous about getting back out there amongst all those people, but I'm so glad I went.

If you've never been to a pinball or arcade convention, allow me to paint you a word picture: imagine a hotel's grand ballroom or convention center, absolutely filled to the brim with pinball and arcade machines. Oldsters and youngsters wander through the labyrinth of game machines looking for their favorites to play. There are goths in fishnets, there are younger kids in cosplay, there are aging metalheads who can still kinda fit into their battlejackets and Dio shirts. There are vendors on the periphery selling spare machine parts and art for the assumed game room you have, where you keep your own pinball machines. And above all, there is noise.

a bunch of pinball machines lined up in a row. Many of the machines are based on popular entertainment franchises, such as Austin Powers, Star Trek, and Transformers.

This is not the convention to go to if you have sensory issues or don't like loud noises. Each one of these machines is screaming at you at the top of its lungs, because that's how they got quarters into slots back in the day. The machines don't know you paid an admission fee to get in and every game is set to free play, they just know they have to be flashier and louder than their neighbors so they'll get your money. Add thousands of humans on the convention floor trying to talk over the machines, and the occasional overhead speaker playing Foreigner or Boston or some other arena-rock band to complete the boomer wet dream, and you've got one noisy convention. It's telling that the merch booth at the front door also sells those little orange foam earplugs.

Hopefully I'm not painting TPF in a bad light. I love this convention. The plan I made months ago was to get a room for Friday so I could play pinball Friday night, wake up the next morning, play more pinball, and get out of there sometime Saturday afternoon. Little did I know that I was going to have family in town on Friday, and visiting with them ate into a big chunk of my convention time Friday. I actually wound up booking a second room at one of the other (cheaper) hotels on the same street for Saturday night, which meant now I could hang out and play games all Saturday as well. This wound up working out really well, because I now had some downtime to visit the National Videogame Museum a few minutes away in Frisco proper.

Mini-Review of the National Videogame Museum: The NVM is a weird and cool little thing. It's got rotating exhibits (the first time we went there was an exhibit about the evolution of music in video games, it has since been replaced with an exhibit celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Super Mario Bros. Movie), it's got a hell of a lot of interactivity, and it's got plenty of little placards to read. But it kind of reminds me of the Toy and Action Figure Museum in Paul's Valley, Oklahoma... by which I mean: It all just feels like someone said "I own a lot of shit, I bet I could charge people to come look at it". That's being really reductive and unfair to the NVM, and it's a lot better organized/kept than the TaAFM, but it still gives me that vibe.

The National Videogame Museum's display on the 30th anniversary of the Super Mario Bros movie. A TI-99/4A Computer on display in the National Videogame Museum. On the screen is a rudimentary maze game similar to Pac-Man

I think it might just be because a lot of the objects in the National Videogame Museum have come out in my lifetime, so it doesn't seem particularly special to have behind glass. Oh, you have a Virtual Boy. I do too. Ah yes, you have the Animal Crossing e-Reader cards. I remember when Target was deep discounting those for like $1 a pack. This theory might hold water, seeing as how the parts of the museum I find to be most impressive are the wall of early 80s computers and the room stocked with working arcade machines at the end of the museum, both of which are things a little before my time. Part of the reason I also find these things most impressive is although they're on display in the museum, the museum encourages visitors to step up and play with them. I was able to play E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial to completion on the Atari 2600 they had in the back, in the middle of their "Crash of '83" display. These machines are old and yet are still running in very good condition. No sticky keys, no broken buttons, no flickering monitors.

Should you go to the National Videogame Museum? Yes, especially if you live in the area. It's neat! But don't let that be the sole reason you come to Dallas-Fort Worth. At least hit up a Buc-ee's while you're here.

PS: 'Videogame' drives me absolutely batty. Video. Game. Two words. It's two words!

All in all, I had a great weekend playing a games. Like I was saying in the NVM review, it's so impressive to me to see these games running perfectly. I think it's cool as hell when a pinball machine starts acting up on the show floor and the owner is there to lift up the playfield and start tinkering with the mechanisms inside. I think it's extra cool as hell that in 2023 I can casually stroll up to a game built in the 1930s and play it with no issue. It's one thing to love these games, it's another thing entirely to love them enough to haul them across the country and keep them well-maintained. I'm really thankful to all the arcade and pinball collectors at the Texas Pinball Festival (and the folks at the National Videogame Museum) who keep these machines running decades after they were released. Here's to several more decades.

An old pinball machine. It has no flippers, as flippers were not added to pinball until much later. The focus of the image is a vintage sign on the pinball machine advertising 7 balls for only one cent.

My Personal Texas Pinball Festival awards:

Best Pinball Machine: Line Drive (Williams, 1972). I LOVE pitch and bat machines! They're simple enough that even a pinball novice like me can enjoy them, and watching the little mechanical guys run around the bases in the backbox is just so neat. I had a hell of a time playing Line Drive with my partner. Also I won in a complete blowout in our first game, so I'm probably biased.

Best Arcade Machine: Kangaroo (Sun Electronics, 1982). Before TPF I was vaguely familar with this game. I knew it was kind of like Donkey Kong, but not. Well friends, I can now safely say: it's kind of like Donkey Kong, but not! The jumping controls can be kind of iffy (I wish there was a dedicated jump button, rather than pressing up on the joystick) but overall a neat take on the "climb your way up to the top of the screen" type of game.

Best Custom Machine: Rob's Stepmania/Karaoke Machine (Rob, ????). TPF is no stranger to MAME cabinets, custom pinball tables, etc. This year someone brought their homemade Stepmania machine, which also apparently doubled as a karaoke machine. It's a Windows 10 PC running Stepmania with a DDR Supernova 2 skin on it, complete with two L-Tek dancepads with bars. Nice setup, and it reignited my yearly "what if I just made my own DDR cabinet???" dreams. I would probably forego the karaoke part.

Best Song on Rob's Stepmania Machine: Sana Mollete Ne Ente (Togo Project feat. Sana, 2000). Rob. Rob, Rob, Rob. Robert. It's a custom machine! Your only limits are your hard drive space! Why are there so many DDR Extreme songs missing on your custom cab, man? No Bag, no A, no Kakumei, no 321 Stars!? You had an absolutely daunting amount of custom songs, which is cool, but still!

Best Arcade Machine at the National Videogame (augh) Museum: Gyruss (Konami, 1983). Gyruss is my favorite arcade game, so the answer will always be Gyruss.
Very good runners up: BattleZone, Berzerk.

One final note: I brought a Polaroid camera with me and took some great shots! They'll be uploaded to the Polaroid section shortly.

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