Feel free to call Bruce Ng a pinhead.
Pinball is his passion, a rekindled pastime from the 37-year-old's childhood. But when he moved to South Tampa from Stuttgart, Germany, to work as a contractor at MacDill Air Force Base, he wanted to find a place to play here.
Thanks to some time meeting up with local pinheads he met on online forums — including Patrick Shatzer, the St. Pete-based webmaster of PinballHead.com — he found a few places to keep his paddle skills sharp. Since he just moved here last October, that made him a relative Tampa Bay pinball newbie, and certified him as the perfect guide to point out the best bars if you happen to tilt toward the games.
First off, while new games are still being manufactured today, it's pretty obvious most machines, like the hobby, hail from yesteryear. A stop at New World Brewery in Ybor City showed off a Simpsons pin that had seen better days. But it was part of an overall Duff theme at the bar, with signs and props touting the fictional cartoon beverage. That belies the copious craft beers on tap and homey decor.
Ng showed off his skills on the machine, pounding the cabinet and winning replays. "This is one of the most fun games ever made," he said. "It's so complex and there's so much to do, it's just a classic. That's why so many people like to play this one."
He did note that New World owned the machine, which likely leads to its less-than-reliable reputation — it had weak paddles that couldn't boot the ball as well as he liked, and the playfield was surprisingly dirty under the glass. Usually a bar rents machines from an operator, Ng said, splitting the quarters while the operator ensures the game is maintained.
To illustrate what he meant, he showed off the same game at Mugs 'N Jugs in Clearwater, in all its serviceable sports-bar glory. Tucked in next to Big Buck Hunter and Super Bikes 2 video game cabinets, this Simpsons machine was bright and cheery, fitting into a game room that was only one third of the strip mall destination. A sit-down eatery and a bar filled with TVs tuned to ESPN occupied the rest of the space.
"I actually come here the most," Ng said. "It's close to a friend of mine in Clearwater, and just feels like a good place. This is a better place to play, even if New World is the better bar."
He noted that if you're really into the pinball scene, you're liable to own several machines of your own, service them yourself and simply play in your friends' game rooms. It's a big investment, especially in an age where free pinball apps are available at the touch of a button.
But if it's public pinball in numbers you're looking for, downtown St. Pete is the place to be. A trip to Central Avenue led to Fubar, a wide-open space with a kitschy game room in back. The coolers and taps are filled with great beer selections, and the three pins are stacked alongside tables for drinks.
The hipster flavor of Fubar extended to the machines, too. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Judge Dredd and Police Force gave a history lesson in the evolution of cabinet design and play mechanics, but only if you could get them to work. At least $1 in quarters ended up being sacrificed to the pinball gods with nothing to show for it. Still, it would be a good place to meet up with others who want to play, too.
"You can chill back here and talk and play. When you're done, you can go get a pretty good beer," Ng said.
A trip across the street to Octave, however, had just the opposite environment. The bar had a few cheap domestics on tap and was mostly about the karaoke in the back. Right inside the door, though, was pinhead heaven.
Three refugees from the '90s stand guard behind the ID check podium, and they are doozies. Jurassic Park features a vibrating playfield and a Tyrannosaurus rex head that eats the ball. One of the objectives in Independence Day is to shoot at an alien exo-suit that opens wide and shrieks to lock the multiball. And Terminator 3 lets players fire the ball from a "rocket launcher" for a huge bonus. Plus, the machines are in immaculate condition.
That's a big deal for someone like Ng, who now owns nine of his own machines after getting back into the scene three years ago during a visit to a pinball arcade in Lyons, Colo. That's how he became engrossed in the underground pinball scene, which is enjoying a resurgence nationwide and features tournaments with hundreds of players in attendance.
"Mostly pinball players are a bunch of dudes, but I've been surprised at how many women and kids I see," Ng said. "That's the thing about pinball — the more you play, the better you do. Anyone can learn how."