How a Broken Target Helped my Daughter Fall in Love with Pinball

I purchased a “Flintstones” pinball machine when Zoe (my daughter) was 4 years old. It wasn’t a pinball machine that had been on my radar for very long. I went to Wonderland Brewery in Broomfield, CO for the Deadpool release party/tournament. It was my first time at a release party and not knowing what to expect, I practiced playing Deadpool exclusively the week before at my local barcade Pinball Jones. I didn’t realize that the tournament would be played on ALL of the machines at that location and only the finals would be played on Deadpool… it didn’t go well.

But what DID go well, was that I had a great time and met a number of new pin heads that I still chat with today. And I got to play a game on The Flintstones pinball machine. I lost the match and placed close to last overall in the tournament, but walked away with a newfound fascination with Flintstones.

It was definitely a “world-under-glass” in terms of theme integration and stuff packed into it. It also had this crazy “ball rolls behind the flippers” mechanic that freaked me out the first time it happened. Seriously, I let the ball drain because I didn’t understand what was happening. And this particular Flintstones had been retrofitted with cartoon artwork on the backglass and a sticker applied to the table so the playfield had cartoon artwork as well. I didn’t realize at the time that this wasn’t the norm. Usually the pin has artwork that was consistent with the awful Flintstones movie from the 90s.

I remember thinking to myself as I watched my name move down the tournament list to the very bottom “Maybe this would be a good pin for the home arcade”? Maybe this would be exactly what I needed to get Zoe interested in playing pinball? Hmm.

I ended up buying that pin from Wonderland and brought it home. But I had the great idea to not just drop my daughter into the game. Instead I purchased the first season of the Flintstones on Amazon and we sat down to eat a pizza and watch an episode on our family movie night.

Flintstones has not aged well.

In the first episode, Fred both gets frustrated easily and deals with it by hitting people. This was tough to watch but we struggled forward with a few remarks to Zoe about how that wasn’t a very good way to deal with anger. We assumed we would probably come up against this in Loony Tunes as well and setting a precedent on how to deal with it constructively seemed doable until Fred, while trying to hide his own stupidity at how he handled a situation yells at his wife to stay in the kitchen and I quote, “where she belongs”.

We shut down the Flintstones before the end of the episode and switched over to How to Train Your Dragon (which is what she wanted to watch in the first place) and I’m fairly certain Zoe completely forgot about the cartoon. At least I hope.

My great idea on getting Zoe interested in the Flintstones enough to get into the pinball machine flopped. Eh, I was familiar enough with my great ideas flopping so instead I targeted the dinosaur and let Zoe know that I got a new pinball machine with a dinosaur in it. Having watched The Land Before Time many times at this point, we ran downstairs and I pulled up a chair next to Flintstones and she watched me play a game all the while touching the glass leaving fingerprints all over the place. I’m fine with that. Really, I was fine…

An old stream of the Flintstones from 2019

And then she asked if she could play. I pulled her chair around and helped her get setup on the flipper buttons. We hit the launch button and she played, like actually played pinball albeit with me helping her press the flipper buttons at appropriate times! I was ecstatic… for about 4.5 minutes. Her games were short lived and the dinosaur (the long neck) wasn’t enough to keep her interest. She asked if she could go play in her playroom and I begrudgingly told her she could.

Jessica (my wife) watched and saw my shoulders slump. She reminded me that it was difficult to keep any 4 year old’s interest and Zoe would probably start to appreciate pinball when she was older.

Fast Forward 2 Years

At this point Zoe recently turned 6 but acts like she’s 22 and is still not a BIG fan of pinball. But she’s played Total Nuclear Annihilation a bunch and has even achieved the multiball several times. The music is a big draw I think and having a girl on the backglass helps too. My wife and I are both really happy she’s not in a bathing suit or something else revealing.

Note: I think the main character from TNA is trying to destroy the world and all of humanity, but at least she’s not a sexual symbol.

Additional Note: Yes, I understand that there is something beyond Alanis Morissette’s level of irony there in both idolizing an anarchist over a sexual symbol and probably a deeper more accurate level of irony in that Total Nuclear Annihilation is often referred to as TNA… but I digress.

And then in steps Stern with a game completely about dinosaurs, Jurassic Park! This game hit notes of nostalgia for me and hopefully had aspects that would attract Zoe into playing more often?

Yet Another Note: I reviewed Jurassic Park recently over here REVIEW: Jurassic Park

Did it work? Was my daughter so excited by the Velociraptors, Tyranosaurus Rex, Ankylosaur, and various other dinosaurs? Or perhaps the depth of gameplay, shot layout, or theme integration? Uhh… kind of. The dinosaurs were nice and she hit T-Rex multiball a few times and on each of those occurences, she was excited by the T-Rex animations on the LCD, but a lot of what us pinball fanatics hold dearly and close to our hearts as attributes of a good pinball machine… don’t really matter to a 6 year old.

And it showed. She had about the same if not less interest in Jurassic Park than TNA. I chalked it up to her age and told myself she would come around later on hopefully. Or she wouldn’t and she’d think I was the dorky old Dad type who wears plaid button downs, funny looking hats, drinks weird coffee, and plays odd sports like pinball.

And in a truly self-deprecating/self-reflective manner, I would agree with all of those above statements. My daughter, even in my imagination makes fun of me. And I’m okay with that.

But then Jurassic Park had a stand-up target get jammed right here under the Velociraptor cage behind a post.

And that changed everything.

Now in my review of Jurassic Park, I noted this failure and how it occurred on-stream. I tried several times to “bend” the stand-up away from the post and the thin rubber around the post, but over time it seemed the stand-up target would either move back towards the post or I hit the target so hard and often that it forced it back into a position where it would get stuck behind the post.

This got to the point where it was happening almost every time someone played on Jurassic Park. Enter Zoe on a dark and dreary week day where I was stuck working and she had the day off of school. She had the attitude and bearing of a bored teenager, “Daaaaad… Can you come upstairs and play Uno with me and Mom?”

And I replied “No” for two reasons; First, I was working. And second, I hate Uno. But that is another story of how I dislike board and card games where the goal is to keep the game running as long as possible.

Well, as 6-year-olds and teenagers do, she threw a fit. There was a foot stomp or two, some fake tears, and finally a “Fine! I’ll just stay down here and play pinball!” And then similar to Will Smith in Men in Black, she dragged a metal chair from the other side of my unfinished basement with concrete floors to the pinball area so she could play Jurassic Park.

Now there was nothing wrong with the game initially and it went as I expected with some play, a bit of yelling, a frustrated sigh after a drain, and then the Start button slapped with authority.

Then I heard a multi-ball initiate. I was actually working at the time so I couldn’t make my way over to see it, but she was yelling out for me to come over and that she was in multiball and their were Dinosaurs all over the screen.

I distinctly remember smiling because it was apparent she was having fun which was the goal to begin with and her fit was long forgotten. The multiball ended and she drained a little later. She plunged her second ball and after a few moments… was back in multiball again! She went crazy and this time, she kept it up for quite some time. Enough in fact to pull me out of my programming. I walked over to her and found that she was in Velociraptor multiball!

After a moment of confusion, I realized what was happening… the stand-up target was jammed up behind the post again except this time instead of making it IMPOSSIBLE to trigger the stand-up target, it kept it locked down like it was being hit all-the-time!

Zoe drained and started up her 3rd and final ball. And sure enough, every time she hit the flippers, a hit on the raptor cage registered. Within about 30 seconds, she was back in Velociraptor multiball again and… was having more fun playing pinball than ever before.

I remember thinking for a second that I should fix the broken target but then I remembered that she wasn’t streaming in front of an audience who would be critical of her or playing to practice for a tournament. She was just trying to have fun and enjoy herself. So I kept the problem to myself and let her keep playing in near perpetual multiball with amazing roars, animations, and light-shows on the playfield. By the time my wife yelled down that dinner was ready, Zoe felt like a king of the arcade. She was putting up big scores and had spent more time in multiball than I ever have.

It was a big day for her.

Now when I ask if her if she wants to play pinball, I get a “Yes” in response consistent in tone and fervor as when her mother asks her if she wants Ice Cream.

I have since removed the rubber on that post next to the stand-up target that was making the stand-up stick and haven’t seen a repeat of the issue since then, but Jurassic Park hasn’t needed it to keep my daughter coming back again and again to play it. She had that moment, that one game (or for her, 20 games) that did what it was supposed to. Where she got to feel the same excitement I felt the first time I got into Storage Facility multiball in Ghostbusters, or Hand of the King in Game of Thrones, or Mechsuit Multiball in Deadpool. Zoe got to feel what it was like to play good pinball for a brief time.

This experience led me to an epiphany of sorts:

  • Theme gets people in the door to attempt playing a game. I tried that early on with The Flintstones but that alone failed.
  • Animations and sounds will do a lot to keep your attention focused like in Total Nuclear Annihilation which is why that’s still a go-to.
  • But how a game all comes together, and the feeling it rewards you with when you’re doing it right is what makes a game special.

That moment is what got me to buy a Ghostbusters almost 3 years ago and has since kept me playing pinball.

Who knew all it would take was a broken stand-up target to help my daughter experience that same special feeling years before she has the coordination, concentration, and skills to make it happen naturally?

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