Anyone who plays pinball for any length of time will develop certain skills and techniques. Whether they come from personal experience or from watching how others play, we all hope to improve our abilities to get higher scores and longer games. From learning to use just one flipper at a time through slap saves and post passes, it all helps us get nearer that grand champion score and the elusive wizard mode.
Pinball 101 is a new DVD which tries to help us on our way by teaching a core set of skills any player can use to up their game.
The DVD has taken quite some time to come to market. There are probably more trailers for this (some of which are on YouTube ) than any other pinball production and it has been over 2 years in the making.
Has it been worth the wait?
Educational DVDs can be incredibly dry and unimaginative, so Pinball 101's creators, PinballVideo.com - Keith and Randy Elwin - have taken a more light-hearted approach by use of cartoons, parody and frequent interludes between the lessons.
At the heart of the DVD, though, is that basic skill set you need to learn. These are divided into basic, intermediate and advanced categories and consist of 13 techniques for getting the ball under control, preventing it draining and making sure it ends up on the correct flipper for your next shot. The names of some of these varies between players but in Pinball 101 terms they are called:
Introduced with a short chalkboard demonstration, each technique is both described and demonstrated, while any game-specific examples are also highlighted. The loop pass, for instance, is shown as a good way to easily accomplish the 5-way combo in Attack From Mars.
To find out how useful and entertaining Pinball 101 is, Pinball News took a pre-release copy to a pinball weekend - "Taffstock" in North Wales - and gauged the reaction from the specially-invited audience. They ranged from casual players to those who took their competitive play a little more seriously. In all cases though, they wanted to improve their game play and were hoping the information they'd pick up from Pinball 101 would help them with that.
First and foremost, everyone was impressed with the production values of the DVD presentation. The graphical look, the music tracks used and the editing style helped temper any trepidation viewers might have had about Pinball 101 being too specialised or technical.
The cartoon introduction - which presented the premise that you can improved your scores if you learn how to control the ball - was a little lengthy, so it took some time before the main content we'd come to watch actually began.
Our tutor for Pinball 101 is Professor Flipper.
Once it was under way, the structure of the DVD is designed not to overwhelm you with long sections of information. After a technique or two has been demonstrated, it's time for one of the disc's many interludes which break up the learning.
These are where the DVD's humour is brought to the fore. One of these sections is about pinball etiquette in the style of educational films from the middle of the last century, while another features an operatic soundtrack all about pinball.
The most frequent sequences are edits of material shot with a miniature camera mounted to the top of a miniature radio-controlled car.
The car races around various playfields and - due to its size - it can follow the paths around orbits, up ramps and along wireforms to give a ball's-eye view. Here we see a couple of views from its amazing trip around Whitewater.
While all the interludes were appreciated, several people commented how they'd also like to be able to turn them off and just watch the teaching sections in sequence, especially for repeat viewing. Our review copy didn't have that ability although the final production version may have.
The chapters dealing with the individual skills are very well shot and do a great job of showing what each method achieves and the principals behind making them happen, while super slo-mo helps reveal what the ball is doing when it moves too fast for regular viewing.
On a few occasions though, our audience wanted to see more about how a particular move was achieved. While they could see the effect and the reasoning behind it, they wanted a split-screen to show what the player's hands or were doing or how the machine was being manipulated, just like the way it is presented for the section on slapping the machine.
As an example, recovering a ball which is heading down an outlane clearly involves skilled shaking of the machine, but how much and how easy to achieve is it?
The interludes which were most enjoyed were those which described tips and tricks on specific machines such as The Addams Family, Dracula, Tommy, Aztec, Rollercoaster Tycoon, No Good Gofers and The Shadow.
While some of them could arguably be more suited to Pinball 102, they impressed the audience and gave an insight into the kinds of advanced skill possible when you know a machine inside out.
A couple of the sequences did appear a little over-long and would probably have benefited from some judicious trimming. The operatic and magnetism ones spring immediately to mind as examples where the finger was hovering over the "next chapter" button. Such instances are rare though in what is overall an excellent product.
The pre-release DVD came in at around 70 minutes duration, which our audience thought was a good length to watch in a single sitting. Any longer and you'd probably want to take a break to practice some of the techniques before absorbing the next block of information.
So who is going to appreciate the DVD the most? Everyone in the mixed group found new tricks and techniques they could take away and practice, so from that aspect it's has a relatively broad appeal.
Just about anyone who owns a machine would like to play it better and Pinball 101 does an excellent job of guiding you through the most important and the most applicable skills you need to master in order to move up to the next level.
Only the real expert players could fail to take something new from Pinball 101. For the rest of us, we've just lost our excuses.
Pinball 101 is available in NTSC format from PinballVideo.com and costs $20 plus shipping. In addition, a PAL version is available with a higher resolution for areas outside North America from Laurens Linssen for €17.50.