Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Class of 1812 and a pinball state of mind.

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It’s unfortunate I never came across this machine in physical form – this is exactly the kind of table twelve-year-old Primus-obsessed me would have surreptitiously visited 'The Whizzard’s Den' to play. For that matter, this is the kind of machine I was endlessly drawing on graph paper at that age: comedy-horror theme, grossout playfield toys, inexplicable farm animals (apart from the traditional cow), a relatively standard two-ramp upper playfield with the pop bumpers stuck largely out of the way…add a video mode about exploding clowns and at least one of those toys performing a mechanically impossible gameplay function and I’d start to suspect I was being watched*.
Class of 1812
is one of those surprisingly charming Gottlieb machines from around the turn of the 80s (1991 in this case), and it oozes with that inexplicably appealing “baffling and annoying” design aesthetic they seemed to be going for. It’s also very reminiscent of Bally’s 1989 table Elvira and the Party Monsters. Most noticeably, although the ball routing is different, Elvira’s lane-ramp-lane (to saucer)-drops-ramp upper playfield setup is eerily (hurr hurr) similar to 1812s lane-ramp-lane-saucer-ramp design. Of course, a lot of this was simply the style at the time.
is a fluid game with an open playfield, but where it really stands out is the placement and play function of the drop targets (with stationary targets behind them – neat). With the ability to replay several (emulated, but it’s something) tables of different vintage at once, it becomes easier to recognize tightly plotted target-based play as a Gottlieb signature going well back. The targets in 1812 are set in such a way hitting them always feels like skill rather than chance, and the hurry-up jackpots on precision shots are genuinely intense without relying on “hammer the ball and hope for a flukey bounce” placement. Every target can be hit, consistently and reproducibly, with a well-timed shot from the only pair of flippers – and the game’s major payoffs tend to come from target shots. 1812 has a sparser game progression than most of its contemporaries; the game isn't advanced through starting or completing the play modes - which mainly consist of two-ball multiballs with a spot target lit for a big value. Instead ramp shots and general scoring progress through the five "Stiffs Dug Up" (think Deadheads, not Monsters of Rock) and fill out the lightshow, which builds to a bonus and multiplier that - in true old-school fashion - can exceed the ball score. It's an interesting, in some ways conflicted, experience. It looks and sounds like an early 90s machine, and has some very 90s gimmicks (thankfully outside the actual field), but it feels much more like early 80s game. Whether this makes the modes feel tacked on or the basic rules seem too simple, 1812 struggles finding a balance. The following year's Cue Ball Wizard would find a much more comfortable equilibrium between modern presentation with "level"-based play and classic sensibilities.
Unfortunately, Class of 1812 also shows off another Gottlieb signature of the era – irritating audio. The sound effects are at least more robust than Tee’d Off’s budget-cartoon ponks and woops or Cue Ball Wizard's heavily medicated cowboy – but the dialogue is painful. There’s a decent amount of it for a 1991 machine, but none it's variable (like, say, Fun House), and it grows timesome fast. There are only so many times you can hear a chicken cluck the "1812 Overture". (Some of this complaint may be a personal issue, though – I can just picture one of my friends “improving” my painstakingly drafted pinball sketches with “hilarious” speech balloons reading “My name is Belly, my breath is smelly!", and it is infuriating). Keep in mind, this is still a year removed from the dawn of really chatty machines like The Addams Family – one talking this much would have still been impressive…until the second play. I do have to award bonus points, though, for every spin of the spinner being accompanied by a proper vampiric “Blah!”.
One of the uselessly subjective standards I judge any pinball game by is the ability to provoke “zone” moments – that uniquely pinball state of intense focus. Distinct from the “video game trance” (or “kill frenzy”, to use the appropriate psychological term), this is closer to the “holy shit I actually made two successful shots almost in succession!” elation-cringe experienced by terrible pool players. Class of 1812s frequent Taxi­-style two-ball modes, combined with the aforementioned hurry-ups, initiated this state early and often. Despite the obvious flaws, even emulated, this table has feel. It also quickly became clear this is definitely a “too much coffee” game, rather than a “too much beer” one.

* Some day, if I can face it the memory again, I’ll share the story of how I came up with Boat Cola (and the slogan, “It Tastes Like Ship!”), but never did anything with it – only to see it as a background gag on Mission Hill (without the tagline, no less) a decade later. Another million-dollar (somehow) idea I let slip away.

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