Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball
April 17, 2008
Anyone who grew up in the 1960s and especially the 1970s has probably played a game of pinball at least once in their lives. At its core is a simple game of hitting a little ball with a couple of paddles controlled by two buttons but it also requires a certain amount of skill and hand-eye coordination to keep the ball in play and rack up as large a score as possible with three balls. Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball (2006) documents the demise of Chicago-based Williams’ pinball division which, at one point, controlled 80% of the market.
Director Greg Maletic takes us back to the origins of Williams and the pinball boom of the ‘70s thanks to invention of the computer chip. Their existence in the 1980s was threatened by the rise of electronic video game but thanks to innovations of designers like Larry DeMar and Steve Ritchie, with games like Black Knight, pinball survived. They also introduced another novel concept: pinball games that told a story and were complicated to play. Pinball enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s, peaking at 1993, and for a time the company let the game designers do what they wanted because they were so successful. However, the market became saturated by Williams machines in the mid to late ‘90s.
On the eve of the new Millennium, Williams threatened to stop making machines unless its designers could come up with a game that would revitalize interest in pinball. The designers came up with a very impressive one called Pinball 2000 that featured a TV monitor in the back screen of a machine. This had been done before and proved to be distracting because gamers were playing two games instead of one. This caused internal strife within the company as designers disagreed over this new approach. The game was a hit and yet its own company stopped making pinball games. Why?
Tilt traces the development of a pinball machine that would take the medium into the 21st century and how it succeeded and failed with legends from the industry and from within Williams telling the story. It also takes us step-by-step through how a game is designed, from initial concept to the finished product. Ultimately, bad timing and licensing the wrong franchise (Star Wars: Episode 1) killed off this new kind of pinball game before it had a chance to grow. Maletic tells a fascinating if not tragic story about the end of an era that is accessible to the casual fan as well as the diehard gamer.
The first disc features an audio commentary by the film’s director Greg Maletic. He says that he wanted to make this film accessible to non-pinball fans. He decided to tell people how the story ended at the start and hook them with the fascinating journey of how it all happened. He talks about various aspects like the opening credits and the music (inspired by Les Baxter). Maletic cites the Robert Evans documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002) as the primary influence on his own. Like that film, his has a definite bias. Maletic makes some good observations on this decent track.
The second disc features a staggering six hours of deleted scenes organized in the follow fashion:
“Highlights” allows you to view the best bits of the documentary without having to watch the whole thing in the form of easily digestible soundbites.
“Inside Pinball” features two segments that explain the evolution of pinball and how a machine is designed and assembled in more detail.
“Inside Pinball 2000” features a more detailed look at its origins, how it was made, marketed, and how it failed.
“Inside Williams” features more stories about this company including the demise of its pinball division and a tour of the factory in 1999 as they were assembling the Star Wars: Episode I machine.
“Inside the Industry” takes a more in-depth look at the pinball industry including the boom and bust of the 1990s. There are longer interviews with legends Steve Kordek (who designed nearly 100 machines) and Larry DeMar (who designed the video game Defender and the pinball game Black Knight).
“Lost Machines” takes a fascinating look at obscurities like Bally’s Pinball Circus, Wizard Blocks and Playboy, machines that for whatever reason were unreleased with only one or two in existence. There is footage of these machines in action.
“Tributes” features pinball designers giving shout-outs to their contemporaries and mentors as they talk about who they admire in the business.
“Expo Speech” features footage of game designer George Gomez speaking at Pinball Expo in October 1999 about Pinball 2000 with a Q&A session afterwards. This speech was made three days before Williams shutdown their pinball division and Gomez was aware of this going up to speak.
“Cast Discussion” features audio of various designers talking about a wide variety of topics like Sega Pinball, the shutdown of Williams’ pinball division, industry repercussions, and so on.
Also included are “Graphs and Statistics” of pinball machines sold, sales, etc.
Finally, “About Tilt” includes a featurette about the special effects used in the film and a trailer.