Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Guelph Pinball Club Part III - TAXI

Part THREE of Guelph Pinball Club? Yeah, why not! I mentioned in Part Two of my Guelph Pinball Club reviews that I was going to do Twilight Zone or Star Trek: The Next Generation but the same Twilight Zone already made an appearance at Bumper City: A Pinball Exposition and I just don't feel like writing about ST:TNG just yet. So I got to thinking, Guelph Pinball Club has a pretty impressive roster of System-11 era tables, like the Natural Disasters, Earthshaker and Whirlwind, which we got to check out in Part 1 of the Guelph Pinball Club trip reports. Pin-Bot was also a part of the lineup as well as a classic System-11 from Mark Ritchie, that is ...
Taxi! Taxi! There is just something about System-11 era tables that makes them so much fun. They are like the NES-era of pinball; primitive and rudimentary yet groundbreaking and historical for their time which left such a great impression on the people that played them. Wherever I go, whether it's a barcade like House of TARG, pinball expos like Michigan Pinball Expo or Ottawa Pinball Expo, or private collections, there is at least one System-11 table. These tables were revolutionary. Never before did you have ramps, music, and sound effects like this! Sure, there were some tables that did have those features; Jungle Lord had a dual playfield with small ramps but not the kind that started appearing with the advent of System-11 tables. Loads of ramps with criss-crossing habitrails were par for the course on many System-11 tables, Taxi especially!
Not only that but the gameplay of pinball was evolving. No longer were you just hitting everything on the table for points but now you were actually trying to complete objectives for really big scores! In the case of Taxi, you were tasked with picking up several passengers, ranging from Dracula to Pin-Bot and Santa!

The playfield lay-out is so simple yet so much fun. The table isn't cluttered with a mess of targets and ramps but rather has a few well-placed shots that range in difficulty from super easy to nigh-impossible. The ramps are laid out in such a way that they are easy to aim for and hit successfully but are also constructed to loop back to the flippers. So, if you hit the right ramp, the ball will loop its way back to the right flipper after which you can take a shot for the left ramp.
Things get a little more difficult from there. Because of the speed the ball picks up along the way, you have to react a bit faster to hit the express lanes consecutively. If you hit the ramps back and forth several times, you get a big award for doing it! Mark Ritchie had a penchant for this style of ramps, having the criss-cross habitrails on his later tables, Diner and Fish Tales.
Elsewhere on the playfield, the two drop target banks are set up to be real tricky. The targets for Lola are placed right above the center drain. That is the classic money shot as in that shot will ruin your game and eat your money! The other target bank for Pin-Bot is located on the lower right side of the playfield, just below the ball lock. I find this shot nearly impossible to make from the flippers. The only hope I ever have of picking up Pin-Bot is by having the ball ricochet off the slingshots and into the targets.
There is one feature about System-11 era tables that I really enjoy and that is the existence of physical ball locks. Now, the difference between this era's physical ball locks and the DMD-era is that the ball remains locked throughout a multi-player game. So, if you lock a ball and then proceed to drain, your opponent may be able to score the second ball lock and activate multiball!
Fellow System-11 tables, Elvira and The Party Monsters and Pin-Bot also had this feature and I just love it. The fact that you can steal an opponent's multiball and rack up a big score is just icing on the cake.. or salt in the wound, if yer into that kinda thing. Because of advances in technology in later eras, this feature was phased out because the machines could "remember" how many balls you locked during your game. That's a dang shame because I would love more abilities to mess up your opponent in pinball instead of just getting a bigger score.

The Skill Shot on Taxi is one of the best around. You must plunge the ball with a certain amount of force in order to earn higher points on the skill shot. However, it is not just about the points. You could try and go for the 100 thousand points or you could try and aim for the middle-of-the-road 25,000 points AND pick up a passenger! Here is that risk-vs-reward characteristic that is so prevalent in pinball; would you rather make the easier plunge to get higher points right away or take a chance at picking up a passenger and working towards the big jackpot, only to miss and get a measly 5,000 points?

Python Anghelo was the artist for Taxi and his usual humour and attention to little details shines on Taxi. The playfield has a "top-down" look on highways with taxis driving to-and-fro, sort of like Anghelo's playfield artwork on Comet which showcased an amusement park with all sorts of guests walking about. Every single little taxi has some weird little trait like a giraffe hanging out the window of one taxi and another packed to the gills with people, limbs hanging out all sides.
Anghelo's attention to detail did not just stop at the playfield. Almost every bit of the table had some sort of visual joke. Even the taxi limo above the plunger lane has Dracula taking a bite out of Lola!
Speaking of Lola, she has the spitting image of a certain mid-20th century starlet. A neat fact about Taxi is that the table originally featured Marilyn Monroe! Unfortunately, it was soon realized that they would have to license out her likeness and so they died her hair red and renamed her Lola. Mark Ritchie explained in an interview that she was renamed to Lola based on the Kinks' song, as Marilyn's arms on Taxi's backglass were considered quite muscular.
If you see a Taxi, take a close look at Lola. Some tables were actually produced with Marilyn on them before they made the switch to Lola and if you're lucky, you may be playing one of the first edition Taxis with Marilyn!
Taxi is a pure classic pinball table. The whole table accurately sums up what pinball is all about. Easy but addictive gameplay, solid layout, challenging skill shot, meticulous art work, and amusing call-outs that help guide you towards the goals. I would go so far as to say that Taxi, along with Pin-Bot, is the definitive pinball table of the System-11 era. Sure, other System-11s boasted more features and technological breakthroughs, like High Speed's simultaneous sound and music or Earthshaker's shaker motor, but Taxi is such a solid package that it should be considered the quintessential pinball table of the 80's. Anybody that steps up to Taxi will be enamored with this table; It is simple enough for a novice to play and understand the rules but also has some formidable shots and goals that will challenge the more seasoned pinball player. Don't pass on Taxi just because of its age and simple look; it will have you coming back for more, even if it is in a line-up of technically superior tables!

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