One of the (very few) great cultural institutions we have here in the Tampa Bay area is the Replay Amusement Museum, a collection of vintage pinball and arcade machines in Tarpon Springs. Pinball is an incredibly fun, invigorating, challenging thing, and a pretty great mental exercise – imagine, there was a time when hitting a ball against spring-loaded bumpers could be an interactive metaphor for everything from piloting a spaceship to rafting a river to exploring a haunted house.
The tables are also often stunning capsules of the creative and cultural environment of their time. They’re collections of art, sound, and language, in their way not unlike a film. There are lots of tables that are weird in various ways, but one of the weirdest has to be the 1981 table Centaur, which has a direct line to the bizarre science fiction and horror that dominated the 1970s and 1980s – and, more generally, to the grim undertones of that era.
The “story” of the Centaur table – and yes, pinball tables tell stories, sometimes elaborate ones – has the player facing off against a strange creature that’s, apparently, half orc and half motorcycle. The illustrations on the backboard and play surface are all black and white, and the costuming of the characters seems inspired by a mix of Conan/Frank Frazetta and The Road Warrior (which came out the same year, but I’m not sure whether the table came after). The artist, Paul Faris, was then just at the start of an illustrious but undersung career in video game art, which included work on Double Dragon.
The table is lit by almost entirely red bumpers and lights, giving the whole thing a powerful heavy metal vibe.
But what really makes this a pinball game worthy of treatment in a blog dedicated to weird culture is the game’s intimidating, bleak audio. The narration comes from a robotic, granulated voice drenched in reverb (provided by a dedicated sound chip – this was 1981, when this stuff took real work). And the music today sounds like abstract noise, looping and grimy and guttural. On the table at Replay, at least, the bass was so powerful I could feel it through my hands as they rested on the cabinet.
I wish I could just embed a soundboard of all that sonic weirdness here, but we’ll settle for this video:
A game of Centaur in full swing sounds like what an epileptic seizure must feel like.
If this all seems like a remarkably fringe-ey aesthetic for something that took an awful lot of resources to put together back in 1981, take it as a reminder that this was a time when artists of all sorts had the ability to create much, much weirder shit than can happen today. And the public ate it up – the table was such a hit that a few years later, it got a “sequel” – but that sequel was just the same game with a very slightly different back panel.
One thing I can’t speak to with much authority is the actual gameplay. I’m only just starting to understand pinball a little better – the depth and complexity of these things is insane. And unfortunately, Replay’s Centaur has been broken recently. But it’s a simple enough game that it’s not as hard to grasp as games from the ’90s, and I’m looking forward to going back and playing a lot, lot more of this once it’s fixed.
God knows, “Destroy Centaur” is going to be echoing in my dreams for dark aeons to come.
Here are a couple more shots of this beautifully bizarre little artifact: