Special When Lit (2009) – A Review


A review of the 2009 documentary Special When Lit, about the history of pinball games and impact they once had on culture

Pinball. The bright game with its lights and sounds calls you over with it’s beautifully designed sign. You plunk your quarter in and for a period of time you will be the controller of this game world.

You launch the silver ball into the maze of play and fight off gravity as it wants to roll down to the bottom. With a pair of flippers controlling (and some strategic bumping of the machine), you attempt to keep the ball in play hit bumpers and try to rack up as many points as possible, before inevitably that ball slips in between those flippers and ends the game.

Special When Lit recounts the phenomena and attention pinball once held in the US, how the allure and the joy of playing it made it one of the most popular pastime entertainment for generations. The history of pinball, how it became targeted as ‘evil’ and banned across the county. When it hit its peak of popularity, when you could find rows and rows of pinball machines filling arcades, amusement places, bars and people from all walks of life would gather around, plunk their quarters down to enjoy playing a game.

Vintage-Pinball-game-art-designAnd then ultimately, pinball games would be rolled out to make room for more modern video games and the once mighty and great silver ball that had gripped people from its earliest beginnings in the 1930s would soon fade way and become a nostalgic gaming piece.

It’s a very well put together, entertaining love letter to pinball. It’s comprehensive that covers many different aspects of its history to the cultural impact it had.

When the documentary explores the history of the pinball game it becomes a really fascinating tale. The first rough incarnations of the games and the ‘pins’ that would be introduced which would make the ball bounce around through – thus giving it its name. Then and how evolved with more and more innovations. It’s very interesting to learn and the graphics and editing help it be clear and compelling. 

Talking with those who design and made the games, learning how much creative and engineering talents that go in to creating a pinball machine you begin to have much more appreciation of what kind of efforts for the game. It’s incredibly intricate from the design, to the testing to the actual manufacturing the game. It’s very impressive and probably not something most would think about when they put in their quarter. Plus, pinball was booming, sweeping the country and manufacturers weren’t able to keep up with the demand for it. 

Then there are the hardcore ‘fans’, collectors and passionate players of pinball games. It’s their enthusiasm for the game, the keepers of the pinball flame who are trying to keep it alive – hearing their excitement describing their love of pinball is endearing. Some fans have built their lives around pinball, so at times they can come off rather obsessive and odd, but you can’t help appreciate the joy the game gives them.

Most of fans interviewed are middle-aged males (something that the doc actually points out). There aren’t many female obsessed pinball game fans. It makes sense since pinball really became popular in the 1970s. They were marketed towards younger males with their tantalizing images of women, cars and monsters. Those young men playing them at the time grew up and their fascination and love of the game has never wavered. 

Sexy-vintage-pinball-games-art-designIt’s hard not chuckle at the lengths of what fans have done for the game. Not only collecting machines that fill up their homes, but also keeping filing cabinets of records of what blowing alleys and bars individual games once stood. Yes, there’s some extreme pinball fanatics out there.

For its final act, Special When Lit visits a pinball tournament and talks with those who have spent their lives playing and mastering the games. It’s quite amusing to see the contrast between their focused excitement of trying to win the trophy, while ordinary folks are puzzled that a ‘Pinball Competition’ is taking place. It’s similar to the documentary Word Wars about the fandom of Scrabble players, who practice and try to win the annual competition.  

It all adds up to an eye-opening and amusing look at not just pinball, but of the hardcore fans it still has in its grasp. Where once the mighty pinball game was a popular recreational pastime that drew people together, it’s become a relic, an oddity of entertainment from the past. By the end, you’ll wish that pinball still held a prominent spot in our culture because you’d be so ready to pay your quarter and play a game! 


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