Video-game fads come and go like so many fashion trends.
At a time when 1980s retro video games such as Ms. Pac Man are enjoying an ironic renaissance, Skee-Ball both celebrates its 100th birthday and careens into its second century in the most up-to-the-minute way: with an iPhone app version of the game. The handheld Skee-Ball - priced right at 99 cents, the cost of a few turns in the arcade - features enough game detail to tide over aficionados until they can make it back to their favorite boardwalk arcades next summer.
Invented in Philadelphia by J.D. Estes in 1909, the real-life version of the game is manufactured by the Skee-Ball Gaming Co., a family-owned enterprise in Chalfont. It's the classic arcade skill game - one that makes even pinball machines, invented in the 1930s, look like a Johnny-come-lately - and is beloved by generations of amusement-seekers.
And so it was on the real last day of the 2009 summer season - the Sunday of Columbus Day weekend for you shoobies - that Jack Morey came to Mariner's Arcade in Wildwood with a bucket of quarters and a full repertoire of Skee-Ball techniques. To Morey, 48, one of the two brothers who own and operate amusement piers along the Wildwoods oceanfront, Skee-Ball is part of what makes the boardwalk the boardwalk.
"It's like something from the penny arcade days; it's a nice change from all the electronic games," he said, nodding toward the long rows of blinking video games that take up the bulk of the arcade. Morey settled into a well-practiced crouch akin to a bocce stance, then rolled a so-so 270 while bragging about a personal-best score of 560. Morey said he scored that one during a Skee-Ball tournament in 2008 that was part of a meeting of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, which Morey's Piers hosted in Wildwood.
This year's IAAPA convention, in Las Vegas next month, will celebrate Skee-Ball's 100th birthday with its new throwback version based on the oldest Skee-Ball alley in the company's possession, a solid-oak design from the 1930s, said Eilleen Graham, the company's director of marketing. Graham's father, chief executive officer Joseph W. Sladek, bought the company in 1985, meaning that Graham literally grew up on Skee-Ball, joining her two brothers as they all worked their way through various roles in the company.
The game, too, has grown and changed in its lifetime. The first Skee-Ball alleys were 36 feet long, but the length had been trimmed to 14 feet by the time the first known Skee-Ball tournament was held in an Atlantic City boardwalk arcade in 1932. In 1981, the lanes had been pared down to the now-standard 10 feet. The original hand-crank ball returns were gone by the time the electronic version debuted in 1974, and over the years the old-timey wooden balls - exactly 31/8 inches in diameter and made of compressed sawdust from cutting the wood for the lanes - have been replaced with plastic, Graham said.
"The plastic balls are OK, but they really don't make the same sound," Graham said. "Unfortunately, [the wooden balls] are really hard to come by these days - the company we used to use to make the balls shut down."
Still, Skee-Ball forges ahead, employing about 35 people who make, market, and service a catalog of arcade and amusement games. And while it seems to go hand-in-hand with summer weekends at the Jersey Shore, about 100,000 Skee-Ball lanes are currently operating in arcades, bars, and amusement centers worldwide, Graham said.
The iPhone version of the game, developed by Brooklyn-based Freeverse Inc., was released Sept. 22 and has since been near the top of the list of most popular paid downloads. It was important that the digital version somehow capture the spirit of the actual game in order for Skee-Ball Gaming Co. to license its brand, Graham said.
"It's really an odd mix because you have so many people who are interested in the retro feel of the Skee-Ball game, but then on the other hand you have all this technology going on, and it's just amazing that it's transcended the generations," she said.
Reviewers and gamer blogs have raved about the handheld game's rich, authentic sound - the clacking noise the balls make as they roll down into the chute is spot-on - and the ability to direct the ball toward the higher-point targets by tilting the iPhone. The game also scores with detailed graphic touches like the familiar prize tickets and appropriately cheesy items for which to redeem them, such as plastic vampire teeth and a paper finger trap.
Four-year-old Mike Brodecki scored one of those finger traps, a green one, playing Skee-Ball earlier this summer. By Columbus Day weekend, his game was sharp enough that the preschooler rolled a 310, qualifying for the last Skee-Ball tournament of the season. Mike had traveled from Burlington County with his family for one last day on the boardwalk.
That ability to bring players of all ages and skill levels - pop-pops and granddaughters, cousins and coworkers - together for a few minutes of fun is why game lovers always return. It's a scene that Mitch Szymanski, 91, has watched play out for decades from his perch in a booth overlooking the swirling crowds that fill the arcade. The retired Pennsylvania Railroad employee, originally from West Philadelphia, has been announcing the Skee-Ball special here (an extra 300 points if you roll a 280 or more) for so long, he's now just known as "Mr. Skee-Ball."
"It's the oldest game on the boardwalk; it's the only game on the boardwalk!" he calls into a microphone, beckoning players to the arcade's wall of 17 Skee-Ball alleys.
Off-mike, Szymanski confesses: "I'm no good at playing it, though. But my grandson is."
Perhaps he might try the iPhone version? In the meantime, Mike Brodecki, a child of the 21st century, was thoroughly uninterested in the digital game and ran off to find his mom-mom, his Skee-Ball mentor. Morey gave it a try, though, flicking his finger across the screen and racking up several tickets. He shook his head.
"Nah, it's just not the same," he said.