Talking Pinball with the Designer of Total Nuclear Annihilation

"I Wanted to Make a Game That's Sort of Evil."

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Talking Pinball with the Designer of Total Nuclear Annihilation

Back in December I named Total Nuclear Annihilation the best new pinball machine of 2017. Since then I’ve been able to log several more hours with it and that estimation stands. It’s a fantastic piece of work that strongly references the ‘80s, both aesthetically and in its game design, and yet feels more contemporary and vital than almost any other pinball machine released this decade. With its vibrant colors and cabinet-shaking score, it almost creates a pinball version of synesthesia, with the music, lights and physical impact of the machine all uniting into a single sensory experience.

“Elegant” isn’t usually a word I associate with pinball, which is usually preoccupied with overkill—with how many ramps, toys and gimmicks it can pack into a single game. (That’s not a criticism—part of the appeal of pinball is how overwhelming it can be.) And Total Nuclear Annihilation’s backglass art, with its garish color scheme and Netrunner-esque hacker character, doesn’t immediately look like something I’d call elegant. When I first started to play it, though, and realized how simple yet difficult the rules are, I couldn’t think of a better word to describe it. Total Nuclear Annihilation is elegant in its beautiful simplicity, and a smart homage to the pinball machines of the late 1970s, before they all became increasingly complex.

That was the goal of Scott Danesi, the man who designed Total Nuclear Annihilation and also recorded its soundtrack. Danesi, who’s an engineer at the parts supply company Pinball Life, built Total Nuclear Annihilation on his own time. As his whitewood mock-up became a hit at pinball conventions across America, Wisconsin’s Spooky Pinball struck a deal with Danesi to produce a run of the machine. That early promise of the whitewood wasn’t just met by the finished product, but easily exceeded, resulting in the most exciting new pin in years.

As the product of a new class of home designers who got into pinball through the thriving collector’s scene, Danesi is building a road map for how to turn pinball from a hobby into both a profession and an artistic endeavor. Paste recently spoke to him about Total Nuclear Annihilation, from its design to its music, and also about the current state of pinball.

Paste: So this is your first actual pinball design, right?

Danesi: Yeah, from the ground-up, it is.

Paste: What drove you to make your own pinball machine?

Danesi: What drove me to make it was actually the P-ROC guys—the open source pinball development community. I’ve got a lot of friends and we chat on there and they just kept harassing me to build a game. I was like “I guess I can do that.” I think it was eventually going to happen anyway, but I’ve actually gone through and before this I reprogrammed Earthshaker and I put a P-ROC system in it and redid all the software from scratch, just 100%, and kind of made it more fun, to me, just because I wasn’t really happy with that software. From there I got burned out on that and that’s when people started harassing me—”just build a custom game from scratch ‘cuz we’re all doing it.” I’m like okay I’l give it a shot let’s do it now. Started building that and got a little out of control, as you can see.

Paste: How did the deal with Spooky come about?

Danesi: I built the game. I’ve been friends with Charlie [Emery, head of Spooky Pinball] for years. He knew what I was doing, been watching and stuff. I brought the whitewood to Expo of 2016 and that was the first time the public had seen it. It was very well-received by people. Everybody really seemed to like it a lot, and I think that’s when something sparked with Charlie and he was like “well let’s see if we can make this happen.” At first I was like, nah, I don’t wanna do it, I just want to make the one and just be happy with it. But he eventually sat down with me and we figured out that it was possible to do. So we did it.

Paste: When it comes to the design of the game, that it’s pretty stripped down, what made you want to make a game like that?

Danesi: When I was putting together, before the game was actually built, I put together a list of things I thought were fun. For me, I’m a pretty social person, I really like playing pinball with other people, so I just wanted to make a game that’s just really fun and pretty simple to understand, where we could just compete on it. And everyone’s on kind of a level playing field. I just started building and it happened to not have ramps in it. I didn’t make a conscious decision to not put them in, I just started building something that I thought was fun and that met all my criteria, and it just so happened to not have ramps. I’m not against ramps at all by any means—they’re fun. But a pinball machine doesn’t need ramps to be fun if you’re smart about it. Or if you think about what you’re doing a little bit.

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Paste: Were there specific machines that influenced your design of TNA?

Danesi: What’s interesting about that is I really like, I was looking back at some of those old ‘80s Bally games. I’ve actually never owned any of those besides a Dolly Parton.

Paste: That’s one of the ones we own.

Danesi: Is it? That’s a great game. Super fun. So I had that for a while and it was about time to retire it. It was completely worn out. But that one, I wouldn’t say I used it for inspiration, but I think most of my games are System 11 games. I have an entire row of games just all System 11. I like that era, that ‘80s era, where the rules were very simple, it was easy to understand but it could be very brutal. Brutal but fair. So I guess I got some of the ideas from just multiple things. There are different aspects to the play field, like if you look at the inline drop targets, that’s been used forever, right? I didn’t have access to an inline drop mechanism, because I was building this thing completely with off-the-shelf parts from work. We had things like individual single drop target mechanisms. So what I did is I put them in there and those mechanisms are kind of big so they require a little more space than a normal inline drop would have, and from there that’s when I actually figured out I could actually lock balls between them. I kind of accidentally figured that out, just because there was so much space between them. Stuff like that. Dracula, for instance—Bram Stroker’s Dracula has that three banked standup targets right in the middle in the front, and they’re just so brutal, I love that. The pop bumper I put there—I wanted to see a pop bumper in just a random place again because no modern games have that anymore. Like Black Hole, for instance. It’s freakin’ awesome. And it’s got random slingshots and pop bumpers all over. It’s just weird. And Panthera is another game, I think, that has random slingshots and random stuff everywhere down in the bottom part of the playfield. I think Gottlieb did a lot of that. It just hasn’t been used anymore and people are kind of losing… modern games, pop bumpers are kind of tucked away in the corner beneath a lot of ramps and you can’t really see them and they don’t really do anything.

Paste: The more I’ve gotten into pinball the more I’ve realized that the ‘60s and ‘70s and early ‘80s were a way weirder time for pinball than I ever thought it was. One of our machines is Spanish Eyes from 1972, which has a pop bumper beneath the flippers, so the ball can pop back onto the flippers, or just bounce around and then pop straight down into the hole. There are all these old things, especially on EMs, that machines don’t really do today.

Danesi: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s what I wanted to explore a little bit.

Paste: You mentioned how the inline drop targets in Total Nuclear Annihilation act as gates with the ball. I’ve never really seen that in a pin before. Are there other games you can think of that have done that before?

Danesi: Stern’s Star Trek actually has a drop target that will catch a ball behind it briefly and then drop it, but that’s it. It’s never been staged like this.

Paste: Why that theme? The nuclear power plant hacking, cyberpunk theme?

Danesi: I kinda like apocalyptic stuff. I wanted to make a game that’s sort of evil. That wasn’t so happy and everything is great. So I started going down that path and realized a lot of the stuff I was designing and the rules and everything was ‘80s focused. And there’s this whole steampunk thing from the ‘80s now, it’s called Outrun. It’s music, it’s art, it’s all sorts of different stuff, but it’s basically steampunk from the ‘80s perspective, retrofuturism. I just wanted to see it brought to something a little more popular so people could see it and get into it. It’s basically all neon and crazy. Not what the ‘80s actually were, but like fake ‘80s.

Paste: Like that Blade Runner aesthetic.

Danesi: Yeah, except it’s just more extreme.

Paste: And the music is a major component of that with Total Nuclear Annihilation. What’s your musical background?

Danesi: I’ve dabbled in writing electronic music since about 1996. It’s been a long time. I’ve done that on and off just as a hobby for a little while. I couldn’t find good music that I wanted to put in a game that I could afford to license, so I decided I’d just make it. I started down the path of doing it that way. This whole thing was just an accident. “Well I guess I can’t afford that so I’ll just do it myself.”

Paste: Have you ever released any records or anything?

Danesi In 2005 I released a vinyl [record] with some tracks on it. Really hard techno things for DJ purposes. And then a few singles after that. I released in 2008 an actual CD, which is now streamable with iTunes and Spotify and everything. It was a full-length album. It’s under my name. And recently I released two more singles, one of them is actually a song from Total Annihilation. This is really neat, but I’m working on the album, which is going to be a full encompassing album with all the music from the game on it. But it’s taking a while. I don’t know your gaming background, but music for games is different than making music for CDs and albums because it’s basically just looping material for games. It doesn’t have intros and outros and fully mastered everything. I’m not scratching from start, but I pretty much blank out the entire score of it and I start rearranging from scratch. It’s a pain in the butt!

Paste: What software do you use to make your music?

Danesi: I use something called FL Studio. I’ve been using it pretty much since I started making music. It used to be called Fruity Loops. It’s evolved and advanced, a really great production digital audio workstation. I have a 303 synth that I use that’s actually analogue but I did not actually use it much on this album. It’s kind of a pain because it’s hardware and I’m getting spoiled by the software. I have to reset all the knobs every time I go from one track to another.

Paste: Is that soundtrack coming out through a label?

Danesi: I have a small record label called TechnoMF Records, which is what I usually release my stuff under. I’m going to release it digitally and also get a bunch of cassettes made with the music on it. It’s basically kind of like a little challenge for people—they like the whole ‘80s thing going on here, and if I put cassettes out and actually sell them to people, it’s like a challenge. They buy this cassette and now they have to figure out how to play it.

Paste: It’s also way cheaper production costs than making a record.

Danesi: It’s so cheap! I’m used to like getting a record made and it’s just ridiculous. It’s crazy expensive. Tapes are super cheap, man.

Paste: What’s the reaction to Total Nuclear Annihilation been within the pinball community? Have you looked to see what people are saying about your work or do you try to avoid that?

Danesi: I’m not really a person that strives for attention. I’m kind of a shy person when it comes to that stuff. All these people are coming up to me telling me the game’s stuff and I’m just like “uh thanks.” I didn’t expect this many people to actually like it as much as they have. But it turns out enough people liked it to get Charlie [at Spooky Pinball] interested and get this game made. We finished it off. Charlie helped me get everything else done and people are now buying it and reviewing it online. Which is really interesting. I do look at that stuff though. I’ve got a pretty thick skin when it comes to people criticizing things. I’ve been doing music and all kinds of other crap before this. It doesn’t really hurt my feelings, or anything, but mostly it’s been pretty positive.

Paste: What’s your take on the current state of new pinball machines?

Danesi: I think they’re too complicated. They’re still pinball machines, they’re still fun, they’re still cool. They do have a lot of stuff in them, and sometimes the rules are just too much to understand right away, and I kind of lose focus with that. With this game here, it’s really neat and I’m looking forward to seeing how it does even further along, but I pushed the envelope a little bit by taking this game and putting something out with no ramps on it and thoroughly simple software. The software is still pretty complicated but it’s not complicated to the point where it’s hard to understand.

Paste: Talking about complicated games, and also the apocalyptic atmosphere you said you wanted to create for TNA, it makes me think about Jersey Jack’s Dialed In. It’s so complicated, there’s so much going on at all times, you have the multiple different screens going, it’s hard to focus on any one thing. It’s great—I love it—but with Annihilation it’s just so simple. Again, I like that simplicity

Danesi: You’re able to focus on, hey, “I need to get this reactor going but before I destroy it I want to try and get multiball but I don’t want to lose my balls because the guy who’s up after me is going to take them…” There’s still a lot to do in the game, it’s just more manageable for somebody with the same attention span as myself.

Paste: And it’s so fast. If it was too complicated it wouldn’t work. That speed combined with the simplicity is what makes it so fun.

Danesi: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the critical reviews are the people complaining about how it’s not a deep ruleset and it’s too linear and all this other stuff, and it is programmed sort of like a videogame, as well. It’s not your typical pinball machine. Something crazy actually happens at the end, which nobody’s actually been talking about yet. I’m surprised no one’s taking the glass off and beat the whole thing yet. But we’ll leave it at that, it’s more like a videogame than a pinball machine. [Since this interview was conducted, video of the “crazy” thing Danesi refers to has been posted on YouTube. Search for it at your own peril.]

Paste: How so?

Danesi: You’re progressing through a storyline in a linear fashion. Some pinball machines have that. I don’t want to give away too much of what actually happened. Maybe I’ve told you too much as it is. But the whole storyline is very linear and I did that purposefully. I didn’t want it to be random all over the place. I wanted people to work through the same thing over and over again, kind of like Super Mario Bros. You work through the first level and you can get good at it. The more you play the faster you can get through the storyline and get deeper into it.

Paste: So how long would a Total Nuclear Annihilation speed run take then?

Danesi: Oh man, that would be crazy. That would be cool to see because that’s a completely different way of approaching the rules. You would just say, hey, forget the multiball, forget everything else, forget the mystery, because that’s just going to slow me down, and just complete the grid, start the reactor, kill the reactor, and start over. Just do that nine times. Ha.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.