The eight pinball machines at Lyman’s Tavern are in constant use all night, which means that ringing bells, clacking flippers and sound effects from The Simpsons Pinball Party and The Walking Dead fight with the jukebox to be heard over the usual din of this neighborhood bar on 14th Street NW. But that’s totally natural: A place like Lyman’s, with retro kitsch on the walls, PBR on tap and popcorn popping away behind the bar, is supposed to have pinball. It’s almost a requirement.
Of course, it hasn’t always been that way: Coin-operated games became popular in bars during the Great Depression, but big cities, including New York and Chicago, banned pinball from the 1940s to the 1970s because it was considered illegal gambling. Pinball came roaring back in the 1980s and early ’90s before practically falling off the face of the Earth again.
Just a few years ago, it was rare to find a bar in Washington with more than one or two machines: Would-be pinball wizards had to head out to John’s Place in Fairfax, Mighty Mike’s in Sterling or Town Hall in College Park for a real challenge. But Lyman’s, which opened in June 2014 with four pinball machines, has sparked a mini pinball revival in the District.
Lyman’s has since doubled its pinball tables, with games rotating in and out of the building every few months. The Black Cat, which has offered pinball in its Red Room Lounge for years, opened the Lucky Cat game room in November 2014 and now has seven machines under one roof, from vintage 1990s games to the state-of-the-art, limited-edition Wizard of Oz.
Last year, Meridian Pint replaced the shuffleboard tables in its basement bar with three machines, while the reopened Duffy’s Irish Pub offers two and has announced that it wants to acquire at least two more — a minimum of four machines is needed to host DMV Pinball League tournaments and weekly sessions.
Most pinball machines don’t come with instruction manuals, which can be both frustrating and rewarding for new players, so we asked the fanatics behind the city’s three top pinball rooms to talk us through their favorite games.
Kevin Perone, Lyman’s Tavern
3720 14th St. NW. 202-723-0502. lymanstavern.com.
Number of machines: Eight.
League Night: Thursday, plus Monday afternoon.
If you don’t see Lyman’s Tavern co-owner Kevin Perone behind the bar, there’s a decent chance he’s at one of the eight pinball machines. Perone is a participant in the DMV Pinball League, which competes at Lyman’s twice a week. He’s a fan of older machines — he won Genie, the 1979 “widebody” game in the back of the room, at a pinball raffle — but he’ll also share tips about the best ways to complete the “missions” on Star Trek (2013).
When Perone is playing for fun, Medieval Madness is one of his go-to games. “It’s pretty damn entertaining,” he says. The wizards-and-dragons-themed game contains a bunch of entertaining challenges: aiming balls at trolls who pop up from trap doors, or launching multiple balls at the drawbridge on the plastic castle in the back of the machine. “Destroy” it, and the towers and buildings will flop around. There are enough stacked jackpots and multiball modes to keep the game entertaining for experts, Perone says, but beginners will find it a good machine to practice on. “It’s just easy to get into a rhythm. You can hit the loops over and over again,” knocking the ball up a ramp to an elevated track to the flipper. Medieval Madness also wins points for its goofy sound effects — listen closely and you might be able to identify Tina Fey, who recorded lines for two of the princesses back in her Second City days.
The retro sci-fi theme and flow of play have made Attack From Mars one of the most popular pinball machines around, and there’s often a wait when Lyman’s is busy. It’s fun and B-movie corny, which the designers embrace: “They don’t take the game too seriously. [The machine] talks smack to you, but not too much smack,” Perone says.
Perone praises the “super-fluid game play: You hit the loops, you hit the ramps. Get in a rhythm and you can knock everything out.” Roger Corman-esque little green men and flying saucers are prominent targets on the wide-open playfield. On the other hand, Attack From Mars can be sweat-inducing for even the most technical players, with multiball modes putting four balls in play at once and some tricky shots: “When you’re attacking Mars [at the end of the game], and you have everything lit, you have to hit the center-shot right under the saucer,” he says. “It’s so, so stressful.”
Ben Brown, Meridian Pint
3400 11th St. NW. 202-588-1075. meridianpint.com.
Number of machines: Three.
League night: None.
The trio of pinball machines in Meridian Pint’s basement, tucked next to Big Buck Hunter and Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, are not the hottest games on the market, which is fine with manager Ben Brown. “It’s nostalgia,” he explains. “I remember seeing [the] Elvira [pinball machine] growing up. Same with Lethal Weapon 3.” Brown and his brother grew up playing ice hockey in Prince George’s County and, he notes, “there’s usually a machine or two in the warming room.”
The standout is Lethal Weapon 3, recognizable for the gun-shaped plunger and the colorful art of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the middle of the playfield. “It’s not the hardest game out there, but any game that starts singing C&C Music Factory any time I put in a quarter is good enough for me,” Brown jokes. (At start-up, players hear either “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” or ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.”)
“For me, when I’m looking for a pinball machine, I’m looking for something faster, something that keeps me on my toes,” Brown says. “A different way to interact with the machine, like a video screen.” The Lethal Weapon machine has a video screen that comes into play when a player hits the “Lethal Weapon 2” hole: The action switches to the video screen and the player uses the trigger on the plunger to shoot at dot-matrix criminals. The looping ramps and sound clips from the movie only add to the fun.
Next to Lethal Weapon is Elvis, a machine that seems a little, well, old-fashioned in a city where popular games are based on old WWF events, “Doctor Who” or “The Walking Dead.” That’s why Elvis is here, Brown says: “Elvis is something you haven’t seen around the city yet. I wanted to keep the selection diverse” for people who make regular pinball crawls between Meridian Pint and Lyman’s. (The bars are about a 10-minute walk apart.)
Elvis itself isn’t the most complicated game, but it incorporates Presley’s songs into the gameplay: “Hound Dog” and “All Shook Up” are among the modes to be completed, with audio clips accompanied by “a little plastic Elvis shaking his hips to attract the girls” in the playfield, Brown says. “It’s really kitschy, but in a fun way.”
Brown is hoping to get The Addams Family as a fourth machine, though that’s up to the bar’s supplier, which swaps in machines from bars in Ocean City. Expect the lineup to change “every three months or so.”
Pierce McLain, Black Cat
1811 14th St. NW. 202-667-4490. blackcatdc.com.
Number of machines: Seven.
League Night: Sunday.
Pierce McLain is a serious pinball player and collector — the kind who doesn’t think twice about getting a friend with a truck to drive him to upstate Pennsylvania to purchase a WWF Royal Rumble machine for $1,400 cash. (After several years in his home, the wrestling-themed 1994 game is now in the Black Cat’s Red Room, where its great gameplay, cool graphics and sound effects make it a popular draw.)
Right now, McLain’s favorite game, when he’s looking for a challenge, is the Wizard of Oz, released in 2013 by a start-up called Jersey Jack. He admits it’s an odd choice, as he’s not a fan of the movie — “I don’t have that connection,” he says. “When I first played it, I thought it was too complicated. I didn’t know what to do. Then, after about 10 hours, I started picking up some of the nuances of it. Some people don’t like it because of the steep learning curve, but this is our expert’s game. It’s so beautiful, and has this flashing screen, but you’re going to fail, a lot.”
The Wizard of Oz has a 26-inch LCD screen that shows scenes from the movie, as well as scores. The playfield has a haunted forest and a Wizard’s throne room, a spinning house and Munchkin land, and players have to hit certain targets to rescue Dorothy from the Wicked Witch, or win challenges on mini-playfields within the larger game. Of course, it’s not easy, especially when a certain green-faced character is mocking you from the LCD screen. “I love having the witch talk s--- to me,” McLain says. “It’s really satisfying from a pinball perspective.” It goes beyond words: In certain modes, he explains, the witch will weaken the strength of flippers, swap them so that the right button works the left flipper or vice versa, or turn all the lights on the board off or on so you don’t know what you have. “It’s really devious.”
And that, McLain says, is where the challenge lies. “Everybody can play Who Dunnit,” he says, gesturing to the nearby noir-themed 1995 pinball game, a favorite of Black Cat owner Dante Ferrando. “I love that game because I wasn’t very good when I started. It was the first game I ever had a game last more than 40 minutes. I can make 50 cents last for 47 minutes? That’s so cool. But the Wizard of Oz is different.”