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Earlier in the year, in promotion for Stratford's production of Tommy, 100 pinball machines were assembled in First Canadian Place. Sure, that's 100 including repeated Avengers cabinets and other recent machines, but that much clanging, dinging and blinking LED lights within a confined space is a very welcome overstimulation. Especially so now that pinball machines are harder to come by in earnest.
As I was playing the new Metallica machine, a man slid from behind the cabinet handing out slips of paper to passers-by and players, marked with what I first assumed was a WiFi password: TOPL CPC2013. As he would explain, the scrawl wouldn't help me save any data on my phone, but it would let me find another room with wall-to-wall silver ball.
ToPL stands for the Toronto Pinball League, a GTA camaraderie of pinball wizards, meeting weekly in one or another collector's basement. The league has proven so popular amongst local pinball fans they'll soon be forced to institute a waiting list to vet new members.
CPC stands for the Canadian Pinball Championships, a two-day test of Tommy-tude that's been run by ToPL almost every year since 2008. It's held in any venue that can accommodate a pack of boxy game cabinets. This year, CPC was held in the cafeteria of a church near Lawrence and Don Mills. Sometimes it's held in Mississauga's Playdium, which itself houses six machines.
About 40 attendees hang around the blue chairs scattering the church cafeteria, watching friends and loved ones challenge the high scores. There were 17 machines in total, five of them ‘classic' (dating back to the 80s and well before), two of them with Tim Curry's face on the lit-up backglass. "We try to make sure we have something every year in Canada," says Les Kowal, ToPL member and CPC competitor, "because apart from the Vancouver market there's a lot not happening in the eastern part of the country."
While ToPL does the best they can to hold the event in the GTA, it seems many players would come from just about anywhere. Surveying the room, I discover some convoys came from as far abroad as Montreal and Philadelphia. Looking at the shirts around the room, it was clear that Toronto was only one stop on a roving North American pinball tour.
For pinball - the precious, expensive, addictive, clunky things, oft-licensed, nostalgia drenched game of pinball - fans will travel.
"It's getting sort of a renaissance, sort of a comeback," says Kowal. "People are, I guess, slowly revisiting the hobby. It's a little expensive to keep, even though some older machines can go to 500 to 1,000 bucks apiece."
Pinball wizards don't have it easy. The arcade staple has had a sordid past in Toronto, once regaled to gambling and ruffian behavior. Some relics of that past returned, making for one of the more inexplicable lead-ups to the Pinball Cafe's unceremonious closing. Add on top the vanishing of Union Station's damp game nook, silver ball addicts will have to take whatever scraps they can get, sniffing out single machines in bars and bowling alleys.
Stern, one manufacturer, still releases a few new machines every year, based on bands like AC/DC or loud blockbusters like Transformers. There's even a newcomer, Jersey Jack, slated to release machines based on The Wizard of Oz and The Hobbit.
While these machines don't have as many noisy homes as they used to, their fans will certain rally. At CPC, players rack up the points for hours. It isn't rare for strings of tearaways to push into the witching hour, though it's courtesy to kill your own ball after besting an opponent's final score.
"It's somewhat old fashioned," says Kowal. "It's not video games. It's not playing someone online. It's something onto itself. It's still got kinetic energy. The ball never reacts the same way twice. I think that helps the allure of drawing people to pinball."
When the finals begin, one more machine, TX-Sector, was opened, carefully cleaned, inspected and brought to life. A third of the room gather around to study the layout, some dancing in step to its odd chip groove.
At a nearby table, children sit around, ripping open bags of candy they won in their junior league. Most of the kids belong to other, adult players, and they share just as much enthusiasm. A first for CPC, proceeds were raised to buy Sick Kids their own pinball machine, likely to give another score of children their chance to be wizards.
Pinball as a whole may be tilted, but the ball isn't dead.
Sore Thumbs runs every other Wednesday.