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Welcome to Pinball Intrigue, where I indulge my fascination with the silver ball. Here you will find posts regarding my pinball experiences, pinball machine repairs and mods, a virtual pinball build, and links to other pinball sites.

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Monday, June 10, 2013

Why I love pinball: Xenon and White Water

In the past I've talked about what I like about pinball - what separated it from video games, and the features it possessed that I would grow to love. But perhaps no game was more influential on my love of pinball than the 1979 Bally classic, Xenon.


In 1980, sci-fi was beginning to emerge as a hot commodity, thanks to the wild popularity of Star Wars. We stood in a line that wrapped around the movie theater for The Empire Strikes Back, the first time to my knowledge in which this occurred. At home I was playing my new Intellivision system, and in the arcades Space Invaders, Asteroids, Battlezone, Missile Command, and Pac-Man were dominating. I was 13 years old, and for the first time my parents let me go to an arcade with my friends. While I was waiting for my turn on the video games, I walked around the arcade, paying little attention to the skee bowling and air hockey tables. But as I moved in front of the row of pinball machines, I stopped and stared. Though I had seen pinball machines before, I had never seen a pinball machine like this.

I kept staring at the sexy sci-fi girl on the backglass art, at the lights flashing on the playfield, at the cool-looking tube running across the upper playfield. All the while, a sexy voice ooh'd and aah'd and offered the enticement to play her.

My pulse was racing.

My mouth was open.

I may have drooled a bit.

I might have even caught a couple of flies.

I stepped up and put a quarter in the machine. Or perhaps it was $.50...the price was inconsequential. I tested the flippers a few times, and thought "OK, I've got this." I launched the ball. And proceeded to get spanked. I think the game was over in about 2 minutes. I stood there, stunned for a moment, unsure of what had just happened, as Xenon coo'd "play me again." So I put in more quarters, and got spanked again. But I pumped my fist when I hit a tube shot, while the voice of Suzanne Ciana continued to seduce me.

After awhile, I moved on to Gorgar. And got spanked again. Then it was on to Black Knight and Firepower. And suddenly I started killing it. One of my friends ran up and said it was my turn on Battlezone. I started to say "you can take my-" and then my ball drained and the game was over. "Okay, I'm coming." I ran off, but took a last look back. A passion had been born.

Over the years I've had the opportunity to play many machines. As an adult, I now find Xenon to be bit - I don't want to say boring or dull here, because it's not - perhaps the word I'm looking for is nostalgic. You know, when you rediscover something from your childhood that has been filtered through the lens of adulthood and doesn't quite recapture the magic. Subconsciously, when I see Xenon now, it takes me back to the day I first saw it as a 13 year old boy. I still find Xenon attractive and desirable, but as a player it just doesn't have enough bells and whistles to keep my interest. I'll play it if I stumble across it, but I don't really want to own it. I do, however, have a great reverence towards it, for being the game that hooked me on pinball.


Fast forward to 2004. I'm making a decent wage and have a little money saved up. My roommate Kelly was surfing eBay on our whopping 56K dialup modem. He had searched for bigfoot-related items and pulled up an auction page for a pinball machine. I recognized that machine. I stopped, stunned.

"You can buy pinball machines?" I asked. "For home use?" My heart begins to race. I thought only arcades could buy (much less afford) pinball machines. I had never looked into it, and I didn't yet know about Craigslist nor the rec.games.pinball group. I remembered that I had played White Water in a bar somewhere several years before, and I thought I had really liked it. The seller described the game as being "shopped", and shipping was free, so I took the plunge and bought it, sight unseen.

This began my love/hate relationship with my White Water machine. I can't imagine giving it up, but I've had so many nagging problems with it. It seemed like I would fix one thing and something else would go wrong. The game was a German re-import: built here in the U.S., sent to Germany, and then returned to the U.S. Here are the initial problems I found upon receiving the game:

  • Ball launch VUK malfunction. This was an easy fix, as the game had shipped with 4 balls. Removed 1 ball and it worked fine.
  • Topper lights not working. Replaced bulbs, and then control board. Still not working.
  • DMD signal died. Completely. Replaced DMD control board with new PinLED board.
  • Coin door buttons inop (and had DM as currency). Replaced with brand new coin door (with quarters as currency).
  • 3 boulders in the playfield were cracked, 2 have gaping holes. All are still there.
  • 15 lights in the playfield were burnt out or missing (all replaced).
  • Ball launch VUK malfunction (again) - would not eject ball. Found broken wire and fixed.
  • Holes drilled for lockdown bar. (Grrr...)
  • Chip in the playfield above the hazard value. Just a paint chip, but still there.
  • Left flipper weak and sticking. Rebuilt flipper, replaced coil.
  • Inside of cabinet dirty, reeking of smoke, and lots of broken glass. Cleaned with vinegar solution and vacuumed up glass.
  • Battery corrosion. Caught before damage to CPU board. Installed remote battery pack.
  • Bigfoot's fur detached from arm. Easy fix by re-gluing.
  • German language as default instead of English (fix will be documented in upcoming post).
  • Buggy L-2 Rom chip installed (fix will be documented in upcoming post).
  • The dreaded Williams reset issue (fix coming soon I hope).
  • Damage to backbox side art.
In my opinion it's the best game ever made, thanks to the sound, ramps, speed, flow, and bigfoot toy, which all perfectly fit the theme. It lead me to own my own "home pinball arcade", which I had never dreamed of, and in many ways has fulfilled the fun and desire promised by Xenon so many years ago. Though at times I have felt like the "Man Overboard" with my head underwater due to the maintenance required, learning as I go, I have since discovered that my issues are minor and there are games in much, much worse shape. I admire anyone who has the skills to work on (and save) dying machines...

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