20 May 2016

Pinballz Lake Creek - A Review

  There are a few things in life that I am passionate about.   Fatherhood.  Tabletop RPGs.  Video games.  I have an absolute love of both console and arcade games from my childhood.  A lot of this has to do with my growing up in a family that was rather less technologically and academically inclined than I was.  I loved books, computers, and air conditioning.  My mom's side of the family with whom I spent the bulk of my childhood were hunters, fishermen, pitchers of horseshoes and and watchers of football.  For whatever reason, aside from being a Boy Scout, I never had much interest in most of these things.  I learned to shoot, but refused to hunt.  I enjoyed camping, but my favorite part was D&D around the campfire with my fellow scouts.  My favorite activities from a young age included the rush of excitement of getting that fourth ghost for 1600 points before the power pellet wore off, or potting the Worluck and getting a Double Score Dungeon on the next level.  After my parents divorced just after my seventh birthday, trips to see my Dad nearly always involved Atari and trips to Games People Play, an incredible arcade that used to exist in Houston.  I was in my element in an arcade, or in front of an Atari VCS, 5200 or 7800.

  When Pinballz opened their original Burnet/183 location in Austin in 2010, I had found "home."  A real, old-school video arcade with more than fighting games and DDR machines.  They had Atari Star Wars.  They had Gauntlet.  Pac-Man.  Q*Bert.  Moon Patrol.  SEAWOLF.  It was amazing.  The initial press for Pinballz talked up Mikki's Replay Cafe, which would serve all the wonderful snacks I remember from Games People Play plus fine adult beverages.  This promise was never quite fulfilled due to the difficulty the owners, Darren and Mikki Spohn, are rumored to have had with the city as far as permits, etc. went.  Ultimately, Pinballz original location became BYOB with snacks and sodas and a limited kitchen.  When they opened Pinballz Kingdom in Buda, that had the promise of being perfect- but it fell, in my opinion, a bit short.  The selection of classic arcade cabinets was smaller than I'd hoped and the mix of concepts didn't quite seem to gel with a heavy emphasis on redemption games but the full bar and restaurant concept with outdoor music venue and beer garden.  For whatever reason, it wasn't as attractive to us as the original Pinballz, despite being newer, larger, and having its liquor license.  Then came Lake Creek.

  This is it.  This is definitely it.  This is, nearly perfectly, the expression of what I would have done with an arcade venue had I unlimited funds and creative license.  The only things the iconic arcade in my head have that this one does not is waterslides and bumper boats- but that's only because of Games People Play having been an 80s venue during the big waterslide craze of the early 80s when people were putting up waterslides as standalone attractions in the Houston area.  So, let's talk about Pinballz Lake Creek and why it's worth the trip.

  First things first - Pinballz Lake Creek is not BYOB, so leave the booze.  There's plenty inside.  Trust me.  Vaping is not allowed inside according to signs on the window, so vapers, plan accordingly.  There are two types of currency used with the attractions at Pinballz.  At the kiosk immediately inside the doors you will purchase a card onto which you will load your game budget.  Many of the machines in the arcade use the card, while many of the classic arcades use tokens.  Tokens can be procured by waving the card at one of the token machines near the entrance.  This deducts $5 from the card balance and drops 20 tokens.  There are some machines that can use either payment method, and any machine requiring 6 or more tokens ($1.50 or more) tends to be card only.  The cards can be linked to an account with your name and contact info in the Pinballz system so that the card can be returned to you if lost.  I believe there may be a loyalty program function here, too, but I haven't had a chance to get further info.

  So let's talk attractions.  The flyer states that the venue has over 200 cabinets.  The ones that have my attention 100% is the classic game corner.  There are larger attractions as well, like the Highway 66 Mini-Bowling, Laser Tag, Bazooka Ball, and their Lazer Maze.  There's a healthy selection of redemption games and a nice ticket redemption counter with everything from tiny Gundam army men all the way up to amazing prizes it will take many, many trips to earn.  There are party rooms, the main dining area, and a section of more adult-oriented games like the more violent shooters and Beer Pong.  Unlike the original Pinballz location, there is plenty of room to move and walk, it seems extremely roomy. 
  Here's the basic layout:  If one turns left from the welcome desk after purchasing a card, you see that the middle of the venue is an incredible selection of pinball machines in four long rows (two back-to-back) up the center, leading to Mikki's Tavern.  Immediately to the left as you walk in is the Highway 66 Mini-Bowling apparatus.  This attraction has a number of lanes down which one lobs half-sized bowling balls.  The pins are backlit with LED lights, and scoring is done electronically with a scoreboard above each lane.  Each lane supports multiple players, and the cost to play is $4.00 per game.  This was a hit with myself, and with Zane and Kaylee.  We loved it.  It was just right size-wise for the kids, and big enough for me to enjoy while not aggrivating my carpal like full-sized bowling does.  Definitely recommended.
   The pinball selection is just what you've come to expect from Pinballz.  Lots of classics here.  Star Trek: TNG (Kaylee's favorite), Dungeons & Dragons (Zane's favorite), and The Machine: Bride of Pin*Bot (One of my favorites.)  They even have one of the massive Hercules tables that uses what looks like a Cueball for a pinball.  There's really too many wonderful tables to list them all, but I've included some photos of one of the rows.  That's my son Zane, who is learning that pinball is tons of fun while being extremely challenging and frustrating to learn.

  Most of the pinball tables are $0.50 or $0.75, with some of the newer or more novel tables being more expensive- like Hercules at $1.50 per play.  Now, just so I can get this out of the way, inflation calculated since I started dropping quarters in the 80s means $0.25 in 1985 translates to $0.56 today.  So the standard $0.50 per play at Pinballz is actually a tiny bit less expensive than outright inflation adjustment would dictate.  Kudos for keeping the plays affordable on the lion's share of the machines.

  Proceeding to the back of the venue around the left of the bank of pinball machines one sees a cluster of video games including Cyberball.  Now, allow me to squee for a moment.  We used to play Cyberball a lot at Mazzio's Pizza in Round Rock.  The ability for two two-player teams to compete in robotic football (with an atomic ball!) and improve their players appealed a lot to me.  While regular football was never that big of a draw for me, the RPG element of players that could be improved as play progressed and the sci-fi elements made this a very memorable game.  I was told by Mikki Spohn herself that an interested player is talking about forming a Cyberball league.  This could be pretty damn awesome.

  Now, to the left as you continue to the back is the Lazer Tag and Bazooka Ball area.  I am not going to be able to review this as such since there weren't enough patrons there either time I visited to get a game going, so I'm not sure what the costs are.  Taking a gander at the playfield, it's going to be good for primary school-aged children.  For adults the course would be a real knife-fight, as it's not excessively large and much of the cover is about waist- or chest-high.  Not saying it wouldn't be fun, especially after a couple of drinks, but there we go.

   Continuing further back, one sees Mikki's Tavern to the right, and the classic game corner to the left.  I knew I was parenting right when Zane's first reaction to seeing the classics corner was to point and yell "POLE POSITION!" and run over to the cockpit Pole Position cabinet.  There they were, a bank of many of the classic games I grew up with.  Both Tron and Discs of Tron (the environmental cabinet, even!) along with Missile Command, Breakout, Centipede, Phoenix, Wizard of Wor, Satan's Hollow, Dragon's Lair and others.  Sinistar!  Commando!  A row of cocktail tables separated the classic arcades from the Mikki's Tavern area, and I nearly shed a tear to see Warlords and Q*Bert among them.  This is where I'll be spending the bulk of my time when at Pinballz Lake Creek.  This feels like home to me, and I may even grab some food from Mikki's and make it a point to eat at a cocktail table like we did back in the 80s. 

  The games are all in a good state of repair, and as always the staff are happy to hear if something isn't working right, and they'll get it fixed.  Our only issue in two trips was the knob on the Breakout cabinet being  in need of a bit of cleaning, it was a bit jittery.  But how amazing was it to play an actual Breakout cabinet!  It made me want to mail Steve Wozniak $5.
   So much nostalgia.  Playing Warlords at that table with Zane was amazing.  I haven't laid eyes on a Warlords machine anywhere but Pinballz in three decades.  It's one of my favorite Atari VCS titles.  Phoenix and Wizard of Wor are both favorites of mine, and helped while away a summer at Padre Island during the parts of the afternoon where we'd have just come in from the beach.  The Suntide III condos had a video arcade, as pretty much every place did in the very early 80s, and my uncle and I would drop quarters into these machines while still dripping wet from the pool or the ocean.  I remember the Donkey Kong machine in that arcade would actually deliver a bit of a shock if you were wet and not wearing shoes.  Walking through Pinballz triggers all these memories, as video games are so part and parcel of my growing up that nearly every machine evokes a memory of where I was or what I was doing the very first time I played that particular title.  The first quarter I ever dropped was into a Tempest machine in a Kroger's in Humble, TX in 1981.  Guess where I can play Tempest? Pinballz.

  So, let's talk about Mikki's Tavern.  First of all, it's a tavern.  This location has their liquor license and makes great use of it.  There are over twenty beers on tap.  Their hard liquor is kept in amazing arcade-cabinet styled shelves.  The bartenders on duty when Kaylee and I visited were Adrian and Michelle "Mishi" and they took very, very good care of us.  Both of them had the talents every manager wants in bar staff - they were knowledgeable, friendly, and engaged the customer.  They learned our names and made sure we had everything we needed.  When I had a special order - I'm a low-carb eater, which makes pub food a little complicated - it was taken without an eye batted and a compliment on my weight loss efforts.  These two really, really made our visit pleasant.  I saw other patrons enjoying the banter and booze, so I know it wasn't just that I had a ridiculously cute daughter with me.
  There are lots of tables compared to the small seating area at the original Pinballz.  Around the corner toward the back there are booths as well.  In a conversation with Mikki Spohn the day I took my son she said she had seen some folks come in and play cards in the tavern area, and that she would welcome gamers who wanted to come in, have a beer, and play whatever games they wanted to bring.  I immediately thought of my own gaming club, and although the staff found another venue for this Saturday's games, I am making it a  point to have a get-together here as soon as I can.  I can't imagine a better way to spend a day than surrounded by video games, pinball, friends, and a few tabletop or card games.  Having a play venue with a bar is something Emerald Tavern near the original Pinballz started, but Mikki's Tavern actually has more table space.  If it does not become too crowded, I can see this being a great place to game as long as the owners remain gamer-friendly.  For those of us who don't or can't drink alcohol the fountain drinks are refillable, so a D&D session at Pinballz offers perqs for both the drinkers and the non-drinkers.

  Let's talk food.  Kaylee and I sampled the cuisine at Mikki's and had a wonderful Daddy Daughter Date Night.  Kaylee could not be dissuaded from ordering a pepperoni pizza ($10 for the 8-inch), since that's her all time favorite food.  I opted for the buffalo burger sans bun ($10), with a side salad tacked on instead of the normal fries ($1.50)

  My burger was great.  Bleu cheese, crisp bacon and  buffalo sauce.  The salad had fresh greens, carrot, onion, tomato and cucumber with a nice smattering of chunky croutons that I reluctantly handed off to Kaylee to preserve my low-carb status.  The balsamic vinaigrette dressing was pretty tasty.  My only issue with the burger was the common issue we low-carbers have- without the bread I was still hungry.  This isn't an issue with Mikki's Tavern, it's an issue with low-carbing.  That said, the $10 price tag is pretty standard for restaurant and bar food, but makes Dr. Atkins approach to weight loss a spendy proposition.  That said, as of this writing I'm 45lbs down, so...

   Kaylee's pizza was fired in the brick oven they have behind the bar, visible behind a window into the kitchen.  Having worked six years in restaurants, I can tell you that any operation that makes the kitchen visible to patrons is an operation confident in their kitchen practices.  I'm a fan of this approach.  Steak & Shake's old motto "In sight it must be right" applies here.  The pizza came out with a nice browning on the crust and cheese, and pre-sliced and ready for her to put her patented Parmesan blizzard into play.  Kaylee devoured the first two slices with the kind of gusto one expects from a recently-turned-5 pizza fan.  Now, I couldn't write a review of the pizza unless I tried it, so when it became apparent that last slice wasn't going down Kaylee's gullet I removed the toppings from the crust and consumed them.  The pizza had what most folks would consider the right amount of sauce - me, I'm a Chicago deep-dish fan and love extra sauce - but this was spot-on for the way the saner members of my family eat it.  The sauce was tangy, with a good flavor.  The pepperoni was nice and crispy, just the way I like it when I'm eating thin pizza.  To me, thin and Chicago are two different animals, and held to two different standards.  On thin pizza, like this, crispy pepperoni is the goal for my palate.  This was spot-on.  My only suggestion for the pizza was from the part I didn't eat - the edges of the pizza were nice a dark, crispy brown.  The center was done, but less crisp than the rest of the slice.  I chalk this up to our going in during the first week of operation, and am confident that more experience with the brick oven will alleviate this concern.  Would it stop me from snagging pizza here again?  Absolutely not.  It passed the Kaylee test, and it passed the "daddy stealing pizza toppings" test.

  Once your hunger is sated, one can hit the other side of the venue, to the right of the tavern if you're looking into Pinballz Lake Creek from the door.  On the right one will find the adult games in the back near the tavern.  These include games like House of The Dead, Time Crisis, Beer Pong and others.  Transitioning as one gets closer to the front are Mario Kart Arcade and Star Wars Battle Pods.  Closer to the front gets into the redemption games - two different types of Ski-Ball, crane games, the gamut is run.  Against the wall is the redemption counter, with at least one ticket station to count your tickets and spit out little receipts to replace the miles of individual red tickets.  Near the ticket counter is one of the more interesting new attractions - the Lazer Maze.  Remember the scene from Entrapment with Catherine Zeta Jones attempting to avoid the security lasers?  It's like that.  Zane gave this a try, it was a $3.00 play and rather than avoiding the lasers he chose the game where the goal was to break as many of the lasers as possible.  He came out grinning.

  So, that's pretty much a circuit of Pinballz Lake Creek.  There really is something here for pretty much everyone.  Classic games, newer games, mini-bowling, food and drinks...  So far my daughter has asked me for the last two days when we're going back.  This is her new favorite place, I think, and that really makes me smile.  As I said above, the video arcade was the location of so much of my good childhood memories it's amazing to share those memories with my kids.  I'm so happy Darren and Mikki Spohn decided to embark on the Pinballz project half a decade ago.  This gives me the perfect place to relive my own childhood and make that of my kids just as memorable.  I grew up in arcades, and thanks to Pinballz, so will Zane and Kaylee. 

  I'm going to close with a couple of things I think would make a great location even better.  Who knows?  Maybe one of the Pinballz team will read this and think it over.

ICED TEA - For those of us who are low carbing, diabetic or otherwise limited to non-alcoholic and sugar free, the sole option at Pinballz Lake Creek is Diet Coke.  Adding tea to the menu would be an inexpensive option that would help out those of us in my position or one like it - and there's nothing more staple to a Texas restaurant beverage menu than iced tea.

THE BACK ROOM - As of my conversation with the staff on my first visit, the big back room had not been given a definite purpose.  I know some ideas had been floated, but I'd like to add my own.  First, more classic arcades could not go amiss.  While the location has lots of cabinets, there are four decades of arcade games to choose from, and having more 70s and 80s cabinets fill the room would be a big draw to gamers of a certain age.  Frogger, Pac-Man, Joust, there are a lot of iconics that could fill this room.
  Alternately, table space for walk-in gaming.  Hear me out.  Places like Dragon's Lair and Emerald Tavern have libraries of games for people to walk in and play.  The table space is offered up and the gamers inevitably spend money on either the games (DLair) or the booze (Emerald Tavern) to make the table space pay off.  It's not as power intensive as arcade cabinets, doesn't require additional staffing, and if played right organizations in Austin like the Savage Worlds and Pathfinder clubs, my own Royal Dragoon Guards, or LARP groups could make use of the space.  When I presented the idea of gaming at Pinballz to my group, some of the staff were concerned that it would be too loud in the Tavern area for one of our large wargames with 8-10 players.  If the back room was game space, it would be separate from the rest of the venue, with easy access to the bar and restaurant.  I've always wanted to have a D&D game or something at the original Pinballz, but the cost of the birthday rooms is prohibitive for a game club.  Give folks table space in that back room, and I predict the food and drink orders would flow.  Seriously.  Plus, with some chairs and tables, I know a certain blogger who would love to teach classes on arcade game history.  Where better to do something like that than inside an arcade?

  So there it is.  Pinballz Lake Creek.  Go.  Check it out.  Drop some tokens.  It's a lot of fun, and quite family-friendly.

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