I recently bought my first pinball machine (a Meteor, if anyone cares). I never really realized what I was getting myself into -- until it was too late. Here's a nice story about me, it, and everything else.

As a high-school kid, I loved the arcades. I never had much money, but I loved to play. My idea of heaven was a $20 roll of quarters and a big arcade. It wasn't long before I realized that I basically stunk at pinball. And when you're living on a limited income, you learn that you have to spend money where it counts. So I restricted my gameplay to the Pac-Man machines. I dreamed of eventually owning my own arcade. Who didn't?

I went to college and blew my student loan in the college arcade. I tried pinball again, and eventually learned how to get my money's worth from Pinbot. I found a nice girl and started growing up. Luckily, she liked the arcades too; but she found the pinball machines more interesting. As we got married, found me a job, and had kids, our arcade experiences trickled down to a few games whenever we visited Fuddrucker's, which was about four times a year.

That was enough for us. We had parent things to worry about. We lived in peaceful bliss until... my wife found a pinball machine at a garage sale for $25. I couldn't believe how excited she was. I wasn't particularly interested, so we didn't buy it. In a few weeks I came to regret my indifference.

Now my fuse was lit. If my wife was excited about a pinball machine, I could get an arcade machine into the house. My research indicated that for about $400 I could get a really great machine. When I found one I wanted, I went to my "personal financial advisor" to approve the purchase.

That would be my wife, of course. I make the money, she handles it.

She was not amused. We were in debt, she said. Never stopped us before, I countered. Where would we put it? she asked. We can clean up the piano room, I suggested. Then she popped the corker: "Why do you want one of those arcade machines, anyway?"

Clearly I was unprepared for this. Of course I wanted one! Everybody wants one! They're way cool! Our kids (once they got old enough) would really love it. We'd be the coolest parents on the block. It would be a rewarding experience, and we wouldn't even have to "Insert Coin."

My actual response was less than brilliant: "Why not?" Of course she had an answer ready. We owned three perfectly good computers, each capable of playing multiple games, even a clone of the one I had selected. There was no need to spend the money on a big, expensive box that could play only one game when we had an equivalent already available.

After much moaning, kicking, and generally setting a poor example for my kids, I conceded her point. But I managed to utilize her weakness and get a concession myself. Since pinball machines were not the same as computers, maybe I could get one. (Too bad I hadn't bought the one at the garage sale!)

I went to the newsgroups. Quickly I discovered the extent of my original folly. There was no way I could afford a modern pinball machine. Perhaps if I found an older machine, I could buy it for my wife's birthday. I set my limit at my original arcade price of $400. I enlisted my friends to help me find something suitable. Nothing appeared.

My wife appreciated the effort anyway. But with our friends and family all telling us how crazy we were, and with financial realities being what they were, I gave up. I really couldn't afford that kind of cash outlay. Even the pins in the classifieds were too expensive.

Of course I always looked when I drove by the garage sales, though.

Four months later, lightning struck. I opened the newspaper to the classified ads (an unusual act, for me) and saw an advertisement for an "Arcade Auction" to be held the next weekend at the Central Florida Fairgrounds. I live in Orlando, so I've attended events there before. With the minivan, I might even be able to get a machine home.

My wife was less enthusiastic than I. Nevertheless, I managed to get us to the Fairgrounds to have a look. We agreed on a budget. I spent more than three hours waiting for the auctioneer to get to the pinball machines. She spent most of the time at a nearby flea market. When the smoke cleared after two unsuccessful tries, I owned a pinball machine.

A Meteor. It was beautiful to behold. The playfield layout looked like the gameplay would be less than impressive, but I was happy. For $100 I had purchased a machine that lit up, but had no displays and didn't work. I was confident, though; I put together two of the computers in our house, as well as several others. My dad was a ham radio operator, so I've learned how to handle a soldering iron and voltmeter. This should be doable.

We came back for it a few hours later. A nice guy with a big truck helped us fit it in the van and gave me some helpful info. Not to mention his card. One of my friends carried the wife & kids home while I took the pin. We eventually got it into the house and powered on.

That's when I found the upper playfield flipper. This was even better than I had thought! My wife was so excited we did a dance. Then we went to sleep.

The next day we opened it up and vacuumed it out. That was when we discovered the hideous smell. After a good hard vacuum it still stank. We threw a cedar block in and closed it up again.

Besides the stink, the machine was in pretty bad shape. It didn't work, of course. The backglass had some flaking. The playfield had some wear. The playfield glass was badly scratched. The coin door had no key, and the quarter acceptors were missing (although the dollar coin acceptor was still there). There were no manuals or schematics, and most of the paper notices inside had been chewed up by roaches. Worst of all, the box had some flaking and a small insect infestation (which I had gleefully vacuumed out of existence).

Clearly we had a lot of work to do. We focused on functionality, rather than appearance. We decided to run the built-in self test.

Unfortunately, we couldn't find the self-test switch. It wasn't inside the coin door, where the paper posts said it would be. All the other switches we found were easily accounted for. We needed the manuals.

A quick Web search turned out that we would need to pay for them, in the range of $15 - $20. I was incensed that there was no repository of manuals and schematics on the Web. Maybe I'll start one someday (if I can get the copyrights for these things). I posted to the newsgroups, hoping someone else with a Meteor could send me something.

I got a lot of info on where to buy manuals, but no offers. I also got some technical suggestions. Resolving to buy the manuals, I checked the suggestions. It was important to make progress, and soon, too: I know my wife. She loves the machine, but if it didn't do SOMETHING within a month, she would start to regret it. Then I'd never be allowed to buy anything of the sort ever again.

Despite the reassurances of the rec.games.pinball community, info on the Stern MPU-200 motherboard (which, of course, is the guts of the Meteor) was more difficult to find than I had hoped. After three days, I had my references together (I had to assume that the Bally -35 was almost exactly the same). I knew that my unflashing LED signified something wrong with the main components of the board.

I went to Radio Shack and got a logic probe. I started searching for a friend with an EPROM burner. I inhaled deeply, held my breath, and opened the machine.

My first problem was that I was unable to find any jumpers. After an hour or so (and several more deep breaths of clean air), I realized they were talking about the soldered wires (as opposed to the computer jumpers I was accustomed to). They were all correct. A few days later, I had replaced the 6800 and 6821 with parts from the local surplus store. I had given the connector pins a good cleaning. I put the whole thing back together and turned it on.

Nothing. No LED flicker or flashing; just one always-on LED and a bunch of lights. By now a week had gone by. None of my friends had EPROM burners, and I didn't have the cash to buy one. One of my friends offered to help build one, but we decided to leave it for later considering our previous experience with Internet schematics.

Obviously, it was time for me to learn how to use my new logic probe.

Three days and three hours of work later, I was completely confused. I was getting the right voltages and logic signals, but I couldn't figure out that damn pulse thing. Obviously the clock pins need to pulse, but is that high tone supposed to signify pulsing? Why doesn't the pulse LED ever come on? Do I have this thing connected correctly?

And is that missing ground pin on the plug important?

This was where the rec.games.pinball community really came through for me. They helped me figure out the logic probe, exhorted me to get a new plug with a ground pin, and even provided a resource for EPROM burning: Corey Stup, who agreed to burn them free if I would provide them and pay the shipping.

A month after getting the machine, and two weeks before Christmas, I've got good EPROMs installed. My wife comes into the piano room and we flip the switch together.


Sigh. We finally agreed to send the board out for repair. The Repair Connection had flat pricing, $79, which would bring our total expenditures for the machine up to $250 or so. A long-time collector on RGP had mentioned that working pinball machines are hard to get for under $300, so we decided it was worth it.

And, for a miracle, the Repair Connection had the board back to me in under a week. On Christmas Eve, I installed it in the machine. My wife and I flipped the switch together.

The LED blinked.

The feature lights flashed!

The machine was working!!

Of course, there was a lot more to do. We couldn't get a credit on the machine, since the only switch was a tiny wire inside the coin acceptor slots, which we couldn't reach. We couldn't get the dollar coin acceptor to accept a coin, until we figured out that it was a mislabeled quarter acceptor. And a few targets and such were having trouble, at least until the game loosened up a bit -- one solenoid actually fixed itself.

Not to mention the burned out bulbs.

We invited our three-year-old, Tatiana, to come and play. She had been fantasizing about this for over a month, and her fantasies were more than fufilled by the reality.

After the first ball, she was hooked for life. She hates to leave the machine after she gets started. We only need to mention pinball to find her out on her stool.

What, you thought I was the junkie? I just have to keep it working.