Flipping out over pinball

John Greatwich, owner of Great Pinball Ltd. Photo: Rachael Shrum

Dylan Harris-McDonald leans over the Lord of the Rings pinball machine, firing the ball repeatedly up to the “Path of the Dead.” Each time he does it, he collects more “souls” and even more points. He’s got more than four million already and this is just his first ball.
Lord of the Rings is a flashy affair, with plenty of ramps, an upper level, and images from the films. Harris-McDonald, who is wearing a t-shirt with Space Invaders-style graphics, is the owner of Maritime Mobile Arcade Rental, a company that sells and rents out pinball machines and old-school arcade games.
“There’s a lot of thought that goes into designing pinball machines,” he says, while cradling a ball in one of the flippers. He fires it back up the playfield, but then it rolls back down between the flippers and is gone.
Harris-McDonald is one of 28 players participating a tournament run by the Halifax Pinball League, which is sanctioned by the International Flipper Pinball Association. “They’re kind of like the FIFA of pinball,” founder Daniel Baldwin says.
This past August, the league had its largest turnout yet, with 37 players vying for the top spot. The competition can be intense, there’s been more than one machine tilted in frustration, but the atmosphere is friendly, and newcomers are welcome too. Although the crowd is overwhelmingly male, Siloën Daley, one of the two women playing, says she feels “totally” welcome.
Tonight’s affair is at the home of Mike Purcell: Boeing 777 pilot, muscle car enthusiast, and pinball collector. He also has a sideline manufacturing reproduction parts for old games. The tournament itself is in a two-room full-blown home arcade with a dozen pinball machines, a Wurlitzer jukebox, and vintage video games.
The first round of the night comes to an end. Baldwin reads out the scores noted on his tablet, then announces, “Star Trek has a malfunction with the right flipper, so we’ve switched it with Cirqus.”
Baldwin got into the pinball business when his wife insisted he get rid of an old replica WWE championship belt. He put it on Kijiji and traded it for an arcade game. He traded that machine for two more, then was contacted by the owner of the Daily Sweets convenience store on Oxford Street to find out if he’d be willing to put some games in the back room. Eventually, Baldwin bought the shop.
“I started with two machines, a Twitter handle, and one customer,” he says. “Once we got money from the first two machines we bought more and eventually we decided to rent them out.”
Last February, Baldwin sold his pinball business to the newly formed Silverball Games company. Silverball co-owner Allison Amirault says the pinball league is being spun off into a non-profit organization.
The pinball league is the latest sign of a modest but growing local revival that has spurred new business opportunities and helped foster cooperation among local operators. They’re people who grew up loving arcade games, and have a passion for making sure they don’t die out.
One of them is John Greatwich, owner of Great Pinball Ltd. (his day job is maintaining pools for the city). In his basement, surrounded by backglasses, circuit boards and dozens of machines in various states of repair, he tells me he has bought and sold 300 to 400 tables over the last 17 years.
“Video games are kind of fake,” he says. “How many times can you be reborn? You die off in a video game and you’ve got endless life. You can play for hours or days to try and get through the thing. Whereas pinball: it’s three to five minutes, maybe longer if you’re good.”
Seated in front of an old Eight Ball Deluxe machine that was once in an arcade (“AC/DC” is carved into its side with a penknife), Greatwich says, “The early poker and swinging bell games killed off the amusement business, because locations would rather have a VLT that pays thousands of dollars a day… So greed kicked in and everybody switched over to the gambling devices.”
Greatwich has hosted several tournaments at his home, where the big draw is his Wizard of Oz game. It’s only a couple of years old, features sparkly ruby red flippers and both sound and video clips from the film. It cost him $9,000. He used to travel to play, but sticks closer to home now.
“Now that I’m a dealer and manufacture some pinball parts, I really don’t play in tournaments that much,” he says. “The better players are the ones who go online, learn the rulesets, know what the objectives are and exactly what they should be doing with each ball. For me that’s not very fun. I’d rather just get up and try and have a good game.”
Flashing lights, flippers, music, targets, and a whole mess of wires: pinball machines can be complex and finicky. When the Rolling Stones machine fails at a tournament, Greatwich turns it off, replaces a fuse, and then pulls out a soldering gun. It’s back in operation a few minutes later.
Between rounds at Mike Purcell’s, I chat with Angus McKinnon. At 32, he is younger than many of the other players. But he gets downright philosophical about using flippers to bat around a steel ball.
“You really have to approach pinball much like you approach life. There are things that are outside your realm of control. You just have to chill out, relax and go to the next ball. Otherwise, you dwell in the past and you’ll screw it up.”
After finishing his game of Spider-Man in the tournament’s last round, computer programmer Russ Billard steps away from the table and approaches me to talk about what draws him to pinball: “Getting control of that ball, and then you actually feel like you are the ball, and you set the ball’s path, and away you go. You get in the zone and you don’t even realize you’re playing anymore.”
The tournament ends with Billard finishing second, but he thinks he threw his back out in the process. We go out onto the quiet deck overlooking Kearney Lake, and he takes a drag from his cigarette.
“I grew up in Spryfield and hung around a pool hall out there,” he says. “That’s where I went to play.” Like many players, he has a favourite game: the 1981 Bally classic Centaur. But unlike most, he has part of the backglass artwork—a a man who is part motorcycle riding with a woman in a bustier and fur throw—tattooed on his back.
“The tattoo was something I’d always wanted. My love for the game. It just fit all my elements for a tattoo: the beautiful woman sitting on a motorcycle, and the Centaur… I always say, ‘this is her this is me.’ That’s the way we go.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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