Chicago Pinball Expo, 2015

On Friday, I took off of work and met Chris at the Chicago Pinball Expo – way up in Wheeling. Chris and already been there for some time (since 7AM), participating in a group tournament… but I didn’t arrive until around 1PM.

On meeting up, we immediately headed out for some food. There was a bit of debate, as to whether we should swing over to Pinball Life (which was having its own special event this weekend)… but the 45 minute trek (one way) dissuaded us. So we opted to stick aroudn, heading over to a nearby Superdawg for lunch.

Ordering (and eating) in the car.

Back at the Expo! Tickets were $25 for admission to the Game Hall and Vendor Hall.

The Vendor Hall was where people brought things to share/sell, and where companies brought in new games for people to try out. That was open from 6PM until midnight.

The Game Hall is essentially an old school arcade, filled with pinball machines. Each machine is set on “Free Play,” so no money is needed. The Game Hall was closed off for the morning’s tournament, but opened on Friday at 1PM. And get this: it remains open until Sunday morning. So if you felt like playing at 3AM… you could.

The $25 tickets were good for one day, and expired at 6AM.

A series of games, set up for an on-going tournament that lasted throughout the many days of the event.

Chris and I got to try out one of the new games at the Expo: a Game of Thrones machine.

This game would be showcased at the Vendor Hall (and playable for free). But that wouldn’t be open for a few more hours yet. Folks could play this particular machine for $1 per game ahead of time (and ahead of the lines). And the money would go to a charity called Project Pinball.

A view of the game.

Detailed view. You could actually play as one of many houses (although House Targaryen was in the game, it was not a selectable option).

A closeup of the dragon. We tried a few times to get this thing activated, to no avail. It was a dangerous shot to attempt, as there almost seemed to be a kickback that returned the ball to you super fast – and nearly always resulted in you losing the ball.

In the main Game Hall, a two player pinball version of Joust.

It was, unfortunately, broken when we walked up to it. Later on, I passed by and it was working again… but working too well. I played briefly, but the machine kept auto-firing balls non-stop.

Gold Wings. Which… was surprisingly fun. I’m not much of a fan for “older” games (unless they were ones I actually played as a kid). But this one actually kept my interest and attention.

Lots of flippers. And interestingly not that many ways to lose a ball. On the flip side – there weren’t a lot of places to send the ball either – so it made for an interesting game.

Lots of folks out on the floor, checking and repairing machines.

Lots of folks.

Judge Dredd machine.

The colors on this were so retro. I couldn’t tell if this was intentional, or simply due to time. The reds and blues reminded me of comic books circa 1980.

Ah, Whirlwind!

An old favorite. I used to play this game with many friends at the local Village Pantry (at 86th and Ditch, in Indianapolis). We spent a ridiculous amount of time eating terrible junk food and playing the few video games there.

A view of the board. Those three discs end up spinning during the game, and when the ball crosses over them… it alters the direction of travel.

This was hilarious. As I was playing, a girl who was next to her dad (watching a different game) came and stood right next to me. She was so close, she was almost leaning on my left hand.

When we switched and Chris came up to play, she had started to invade his personal space.

She started messing with the coin slot a bit.

And then basically turned into Chris’ co-pilot. We had a really great laugh about this afterwards.

Ah, Hercules. This massive game has stood sentry over the Halls for many years now. Seeing this guy is weirdly like seeing an old friend. I have some photos going back all the way to 2009 and 2010.

The Flintstones game, on the other hand… yeesh. Save yourself the time and skip this one. The ball was made to look like metal but was in fact lightweight. It was so bad… Chris walked away from the machine during the game (but then came back to finish, just on principle).

A view of the crowd.

More folks playing. Anyone else recognize that pinball machine?

While there were a lot of pinball machines in the room, it really felt empty. It’s been a few years for me, as my last expo was back in 2010. But I remember the rooms being totally full – machines up against every wall.

Today? It felt like half the number of machines I was used to seeing. It was still fun, but felt like markedly fewer machines than years prior.

Once more, I spotted a kid who brought his own step-stool to play. I got a nod from the mother, when I motioned to see if I could take a photo. I just loved seeing families here, and kids enjoying the games.

Well… the kids that weren’t invading others’ personal space, that is.

A very odd (and oddly fun) game called “Ice Cold Beer.” The goal is to control the bar, and move the ball up to a specific hole (which gets lit up).

I took some video using Periscope, but didn’t make the extra step of saving the video to my device. Wish I could show you this game in action, because I got some great video of a woman who was really good at this game.

The controls, which just move the bar. Surprisingly tricky game.

Testing a board.

Spent some time on the South Park game.

This was a fun one. Multiball was easy to get, and reminded me of the types of games I used to play.

Dr. Who!

Another view that’s a little clearer, without the blue lights.

And of course, the Police Box.

The very definition of “old school.”

Note the Dalek at the top.

This is Erin and Ryan. Chris and I stopped in to the hotel bar a few times during the day, and we got to chatting with these in the early evening. We learned a little about how they met, and how they’re currently working on renovating a house (which they aim to finish in the next week or so).

I made a deal with them: if they would allow me to take their photo, I’d share their listing when the house was done. Good luck with the final touches, you two!

Chris, with Alexander Franzen: someone he had met during the morning’s tournament. The three of us played that Dr. Who game (above), and I was just in awe watching Alex play. He was good.

On walking in to the Vendor Hall – I was surprised to recognize the dog on the table. I think I first saw this dog, along with these vendors in this exact spot nearly six years ago!

I still don’t know the dog’s name.

Reminded me a little of Henson.

In addition to pinball machines, there were a few other arcade games as well.

Played a little Donkey Kong. Because how can you not, when it’s there?

A new Hobbit pinball game. Sadly, never did get around to playing this guy.

A few games that seemed like they were not mobbed with people – so I assume these were for sale, and not meant for public consumption.

I imagine Ben’s garage will look like this one day soon. I mean… he’s halfway there already.

More old school games. The kid playing the multi-game cabinet on the left was playing something that caught my eye.

Crystal Castles!

I remember playing this as a kid. Not teenager. Kid! At a Kroger grocery store (where I would eventually get my first job, as a food bagger).

I thought this game was so awesome at the time.

Which… is what made seeing this so damn depressing. The state of this game made me feel impossibly old. It’s like being excited to see a candle, because “Hey! Fire! This is how we used to see things when the sun disappeared!”

I did get a little further than I remembered. Which is some small recompense. And it also didn’t cost me $4.50 in quarters either, so I guess that’s a win.

Ugh. I feel so old just looking at these graphics and talking about this. Let’s move on.

Coin Taker booth. The sign is what caught my eye, but I think this is a fairly popular vendor given how often I saw their name in other places.

Lots of lights.

A place where you can get a head.

Electronic stuff that… is beyond me. As someone who’s more of a distant enthusiast, I’m sure Ben would have loved all the supplies and things available.

Stickers and decals for various games. Everyone still loves FunHouse!

The new Game of Thrones machines.

Tattoo Mystique. I believe that this game was a totally custom one – and was over by the Fast Pinball booth. This was a group of pinball folks who were in the process of making their own, custom machines – and doing a lot of custom programming, in addition to the ramps and things.

A few of the other games in progress.

I got into a nice conversation with Jack Bridges – who was really excited, and really enthusiastic about the community. He shared with me his game (The Muppet Show), and some of his plans.

I remarked that I really liked the display, and thought it was really well done. I learned that his wife created this (and she was a graphic designer). I knew it!

A nearby Peanuts themed game.

A guy with a P-ROC t-shirt.

A nearby table.

Mark Incitti, standing next to his “Nightmare Before Christmas” game. Chris had heard of this group and this guy’s game, and was excited to see it up close.

The game in progress. The ramps and things were all placeholder, but the game was playable and super fun.

A slightly closer shot of things.

View of the top. I didn’t quite capture the video/interstitials, but there was some really neat stuff.

Chris, talking to Mark about his machine.

KISS games. Not sure if these are new or not. Also didn’t get a chance to play these guys.

One vendor I spotted, selling nothing but fudge and candy. I thought this was a brilliant idea. I remembered a guy who used to sell quirky soda – and asked the candy vendor about it. Turns out, others were inquiring too. Guess that guy wasn’t here this year.

I happened across the Pinbox 300 booth – featuring a really neat cardboard pinball game that you can assemble yourself. They were a successful Kickstarter campaign, and look to have gotten a lot of great press/awards.

The fun part is how much you can customize the game. Pretty neat stuff!

This was a new thing to me: a game called Lexi Lightspeed: Escape From Earth.

The interesting thing is that normally, you look up to see things like scores and notifications. But the display was actually happening on the field of play. It looked to be one giant screen, which made for some really cool graphics and interstitials.

Full Trottle, by Heighway Pinball. I think that this company, according to Chris, creates some machines/games that are modular in nature – allowing for components to be swapped out easily/quickly.

Note that both machines are the same game, but with different backboards (the one on the right has a fully digital screen).

This was a really fun game – very smooth, very slick.

A crowd favorite: the new Big Lebowski game!

In the center there’s a small bowling alley (that actually works, and is a functioning part of the game). Also, two other details to point out: there’s a White Russian along the right rail. And this particular machine is sitting on a carpet.

Here’s Chris, having a rather exceptional run:

I ended up walking out the door at 10PM. The hours literally flew by today. It was a ton of fun hanging out and playing games with Chris. The time just went by so fast.

Every year I go to the Pinball Expo, I think “Why didn’t I come here last year?” And also: “I really should just get a room here, so I can play all night.” The hour drive back home helped me out the door early, but I could see catching a second (and third) wind – especially if all I had to do was take an elevator up a few floors.

Until next year…

Pinball Expo 2010
Pinball Expo 2009
Pinball Expo 2007: Free Play Heaven
Visiting Ben and Allison for Lunch (and Pinball)
Helping Chris Move Two Newly Acquired Pinball Machines
Growing Up in Arcades
Saturday At The Galloping Ghost Arcade
Visiting Nickel City Arcade, Family Entertainment Center

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Totally jealous now, but your photo documentation and descriptions are excellent as usual. Would have liked to talk to the fast pinball and proc guys, buy parts (without paying shipping), and play the older EM machines. NEXT YEAR!

    Ben Reply

    • Yeah, sad to have missed hanging out with you and Allison. And you would have really enjoyed those custom pinball guys – a very interesting group. The custom stuff seems like the next step (particular for folks with design/coding backgrounds). A lot of neat stuff seems very possible there.

      avoision Reply

  2. Joust wasn’t broken, the ball was hanging up in the trough (common thing with Joust) and people didn’t shake it to get the ball out. Usually when I would walk into the room I would wiggle the game so the ball would sit right in the trough and it was fine. Chances are the mode that you walked up in the middle of is the egg wave…it is 30 seconds at the end of the game for both players to have unlimited balls to score more points. people tend to walk away before this mode starts, and that is most likely what you walked up on.

    Butterflygirl Reply

    • Ah, that must have been what it was! The balls kept on coming, and I thought the game was stuck in some kind of test mode. Now I’m wishing I would have hung around and actually played the game. If only I realized it was working again!

      Something to keep an eye out for, next year. Thanks for the tip!

      avoision Reply

  3. Just listened to this podcast segment and thought of your post. Had to come back and check your location – far away from Vegas but I’ll share anyway (at the relevant segment) The Modern Mann: 3/7 – Let’s Go Brown-Signing

    The subsequent segment is NSFW so you possibly want to make sure to wear headphones if you carry on listening!

    Angela T Reply

    • Thanks for the link – an interesting listen! It reminded me of a great book: “Joystick Nation, by J.C. Herz. It’s incredibly well written, and tracks the history of video games from its early days in arcades (and even earlier, in speakeasies).

      I forget where I heard it, but I think pinball had its origins based on game that literally had pins on a wooden board – and were found in bars, way back when. The notion of arcades being these dark places for juvenile delinquents was very much present when I grew up as a kid.

      Herz does a masterful job tracing how arcades became sanitized – shifting to a brighter, more kid-friendly place that offered skill-based games and prize redemption. You can read a bit of her book via this PDF chapter.

      There is very much an aspect of nostalgia that draws me back to the Expo each year. I suspect a similar bit of nostalgia is what fuels the passion that my friends Ben and Chris have, in their acquiring and restoring of pinball machines as well.

      avoision Reply

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