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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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FEATURE: Pinball in a Hall, the Strong Museum’s “Pinball Playfields”

00-strong00 When my wife suggested a trip to the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, with our two kids, I was game. I had the inside track. I knew they had pinball machines there and she didn’t. Thus, my wife, who has been the subject of scammed trips in the past to the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas and Clay Harrell’s VFW Showcase in Brighton, MI, had walked right into this one. She logged onto the Museum’s website and said, “Oh, looks like they have a big pinball display going on”. I ambled over to the computer, and sure enough, a banner on their main page touted “Pinball Playfields”. It promised more pinball machines than the normally feature in the permanent collection and insight into the creation of the wooden decks that the silver ball rolls upon. It was going to be tough to ditch my wife and kids on a family trip at the Museum of Play to play pinball, but I was up for the challenge.

The Strong Museum is a really odd place. It is one of those museums that cropped up in the seventies and eighties which takes popular (low) culture subject matter and turns it into high culture by putting it into a museum. Where else would you find a Tickle Me Elmo doll, new in box, preserved behind glass and tagged with its official manufacture date? That said, the museum prides itself on its “hands-on” activities: craft stations, dress-up areas, a small-sized play restaurant and supermarket, console gaming stations, and so forth. The problem I found, is that I had no time to enjoy the vintage toys behind glass or the interactive displays because I was too busy running after my two-and-a-half year old, making sure he was sharing and taking turns with the billion other kids that were visiting on the afternoon we were there. I could have let my child run wild–there was plenty of that going on, to be sure– but as a responsible parent I followed a few meters behind my son, keeping an eye on him, as he tore running and laughing from exhibit-to-exhibit for six hours.  Visiting isn’t about the parents enjoying themselves. My wife was nice enough, however, to take sole guardianship of the kids as I explored the pinball display. And that’s where the story finally begins.

Keep in mind the information posted on their website:

“Play your way through more than 80 years of pinball history in this all-new exhibit at The Strong museum. Trace the evolution of the playfield—the surface where the ball ricochets through a maze of lights and obstacles to rack up points—from countertop games of the 1930s to sophisticated, electronic versions that remain popular today.

  • View pioneering pinball machines from The Strong’s collections including Ballyhoo (1932), Humpty Dumpty (1947), and Triple Action (1948).
  • Rack up the high-score on machines such as Vagabond (1962), FunHouse (1990), Monster Bash (1998), and Lord of the Rings (2003).
  • Wrap your arms around Hercules (1979), the world’s largest commercial pinball machine.
  • View unique artifacts, including playfield prototypes and sketches by pinball machine designers.
  • Design your own playfield and see if you have what it takes to be a pinball machine designer.

Playable machines in Pinball Playfields require purchased tokens. Money collected from the sale of tokens helps maintain these original artifacts.”

The Strong has two arcades, one “Boardwalk arcade” on the main floor with redemption games and vintage arcade offerings, and another on the second floor which focusses on gaming through the ages. The “special exhibit” about pinball playfields was in a transient hallway between one part of the museum and another. It was a weird place for these machines to be set up, given they could have carved out a space within one of the two existing arcade spaces to set up the display. While playing the games, with a wide stance one foot in front of the other, I was definitely in the way of passers-by, as this hallway is a main artery that connects two main parts of the museum. To be honest, it really reminded me of the Pinball Hall of Fame Annex at the Rivera Hotel and Casino: a bunch of games thrown into a hallway, and labelled an attraction. They had a couple artifacts on the wall for viewing: a George Gomez photograph with a couple of quotes, some original pre-production drawings and photos from the Gomez-designed Johnny Mnemonic and Monster Bash, an original High Speed whitewood and flyer, and a few written tidbits about the evolution of the playfield. Add to this two vintage wood rails and a bagatelle style game displayed for viewing only and a few random pinball flyers, and that was about it for the display. As an “exhibit”, it left a lot to be desired. But then again, I didn’t see many people reading the walls, most, like me, were playing the machines.

The machines were not on free play, however, required only one token to play. And five tokens were only a buck. Replays seemed to be set very low, and I matched a handful of times while playing as well. I played a lot on just a couple of bucks. And had enough left over to give to my son to aimlessly flip around on a few games at the end of the day. I was impressed at this, at first, but then I remembered that, as an adult, I was required to pay $13.50USD for entrance into the museum in the first place. Anyone over the age of two was required to pay this amount, thus I was on the hook for forty bucks for the entire family. But parking was free, which really blew my mind, so it’s a wash in the end.

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The author tilting Hercules.

The lineup of games to play within the main floor exhibit were: Gottlieb Incredible Hulk, Atari Superman, Williams Scorpion, Atari Hercules, Black Knight, Banzai Run, Funhouse, Cirqus Voltaire, Monster Bash, Lord of the Rings, Wizard of Oz and Stern’s Star Trek Pro. All games appeared to be in decent condition, but all had a credit dot (free advertising for this blog!). The only major issues were that WoZ was scoring with each press of the flipper button, and Hercules had a lame left flipper spring that wouldn’t return the massive bat to its rest position. Luckily, it made drop catches easy to execute, given the sheer weight of the massive ball, returning the flipper to its rest position before a well timed flip sent the ball back up the playfield. It was my first time playing Hercules in any capacity, and it was a real blast. Like many have said before me, it’s a game that everyone needs to play once, but nobody needs to own. It was bigger than I thought it would be. However, I was still able to tilt the behemoth with a couple of ill-advised nudges. The Cirqus Voltaire was in tip-top shape, as was the Monster Bash. The vintage superhero games played well too, but seemed like they were an afterthought. It really felt like they were moved from the Marvel/DC superhero exhibit that was literally fifty meters away in an attempt to bulk up this rag-tag pinball exhibit and add age to its lineup.  The advertising write-up touts that you can play through the ages…as long as those ages are 1980 thru present day.  I guess Gottlieb wedgeheads aren’t a part of Strong’s truncated pinball history.

00-strong09Upstairs in the arcade exhibit is where you will find more machines, again requiring only one token per play. As you walk into the area, a bank of four games greets you: Gottlieb Haunted House, Williams Indiana Jones, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Stern Avengers. A display further in attempts to recreate the crowded feel of a 1980s arcade, and there you’ll find a Gottlieb Spiderman, High Speed, Tron LE, and Transformers. The High Speed was eating tokens, displaying 30 credits at the time I approached it, but refused to start a game. All other games were in great condition, especially the Haunted House. It was the nicest example I’ve ever played, granted, I’ve only played maybe four different copies of it in the past. I heard an Addams Family exists at the Strong, but I could not locate it. Out for service perhaps, or maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough?

Overall, I’m impressed at the condition of the games and their slight cost to play, if not a little disappointed that the pinball exhibit didn’t present more unique artifacts, a wider breadth of games, or give proper space for the games to be displayed. They certainly have a fantastic lineup of pingames in the collection from one of the greatest pinball eras spread out in two different areas, but gaps exist in their history. Perhaps putting all games in one dedicated exhibit area would make the display more powerful. However, you’d be shooting yourself in the foot: patrons, especially those with small children, could easily skip over it and move on to something more “kid-friendly” (a parent looks at a museum map: “Pinball? Who plays that anymore? Let’s go to the Berenstain Bears area.”) Having ten-plus machines on a major thoroughfare in the museum gets pinball seen by the greatest number of people possible and hopefully, parents and children alike choose to stop and drop a couple of tokens.

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The author’s two-and-a-half year old son putting some serious leg english on the Hulk.

Given that pinball is a slightly dead medium, you are likely to find credits on these games: racked up by unknowing players via replay or match, or through the sheer kindness of strangers walking away from them leaving behind accumulated credits. I left a few that I earned on Cirqus Voltaire and Funhouse for someone to take advantage of. My wife said she was surprised the games were not on free play, however, I’m sure it prevents exuberant toddlers from starting four games, launching one ball, and then walking away. As for my son’s experience, he was immediately drawn to Funhouse, as we own one and he has dubbed it his favourite, and the Incredible Hulk, as he has underwear with the Hulk’s green visage on them. One person playing next to us was surprised that my son had the patience and ability (albeit very limited ability) to keep the ball alive and play out an entire game. I explained that we had a basement full of games at home for him to practice on, to which the person became even more surprised. Even though we are in a “pinball resurgence”, we are still entrenched in a very, very niche hobby.

Kudos to the Strong for a valiant attempt at spotlighting pinball as one form of play with this current exhibit. Their scope is a bit misleading however: the “history” of the playfield is certainly skewed towards the 80s and 90s, and their “unique artifacts” amounted to little more than someone could easily acquire on eBay or through Pinside if they knew who to ask. I didn’t even spot the “design your own playfield” area, unless it was the row of tables with construction paper and markers twenty meters away in the atrium. They should have just labelled the exhibit “Look! Functioning Pinball Machines in this Hallway!”, as that is what it amounted to, and I’m sure people would have been equally impressed. The Strong does boast a fantastic selection of games, but the collection is only available for play if admission to the museum is paid. Honestly, you can only really enjoy the museum’s games without being impeded by your own children, and I’m not sure how comfortable a single grown adult would be paying admission to a museum geared towards children/families just to play pinball amongst hyperactive four-year-olds making crowns out of construction paper and pretending to shop at a kid-sized grocery store. If you visit with your kids, like I did, you are obligated to spend time doing things that they are interested in, and chances are, their interests won’t lie in the pinball exhibit for very long. The exhibit is a positive for pinball’s exposure to a younger audience, however seasoned pinheads will find a wider breadth of machines and a more extensive collection of artifacts in some of the better private collections across the US and Canada. I got to play pinball at a privately-funded museum on a family trip, so I can’t complain that much, but I still left wholly underwhelmed by unfilled potential.

The Strong National Museum of play is located at One Manhattan Square in downtown Rochester, NY.  The museum is open Monday-Thursday 10am-5pm, Friday-Saturday 10am-8pm, and Sunday Noon-5pm.  The Pinball Playfields exhibit runs through September 7th, 2014.

Further Reading:

The Strong National Museum of Play – Pinball Playfields


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FEATURED GAME: Williams ROLLERGAMES

While researching where my games appeared within the Pinside Top 100/200/300 list, I was absolutely shocked to see that Rollergames was ranked #172 out of three hundred ranked games, which places it, solidly, in the bottom fifty percent, behind games such as Class of 1812, Grand Lizard, Bad Cats and Al’s Garage Band Goes on a World Tour. The Pinside Top 100 is not an exact science, but it does properly reflect the attitudes of players and collectors towards specific titles. Is anyone else surprised by this ranking? Am I blinded by the fact that I own the game and enjoy it thoroughly? Perhaps I’m doubly blinded because I was one of the twelve people that actually watched the Rollergames television show when it was first broadcast. But really, even the simple fact that the game was designed by Steve Ritchie should push it higher in the rankings than it currently resides, given the community’s wild devotion to anything Mr. Ritchie has a hand in. And how has the recent resurgence of the roller derby amongst the hipster crowd not helped push this game higher?  Its time to take a look, albeit a biased look, at Williams Rollergames.

Both Mr. Ritchie and Roger Sharpe have spoke of this game as a cautionary tale of licencing gone wrong. As the story goes, Mr. Sharpe had the option of picking up the licence for either American Gladiators or Rollergames when both shows premiered in 1989. Both seemed to take a cue from WWF wrestling, which was riding a wave of popularity with male audiences of all ages. Like WWF programming, American Gladiators and Rollergames were syndicated hour-long shows that filled the void on Saturday afternoons, between morning cartoons and dinnertime. The shows relied on muscle, speed, agility, intense competition and spandex costumes all set within an arena setting. Why Williams didn’t just licence the WWF for a game–the company that perfected this type of programming to begin with–is beyond me. Mr. Sharpe untimately went with Rollergames, and claims it was because he viewed the roller derby was a timeless American pseudo-sport due for a resurgence. He was right about it being an American institution–it has its roots as a competition sport all the way back to the 1920s and was an almost permanent fixture, alongside wrestling, on American television beginning in the 1950s. The derby’s popularity had waned as the 1980s rolled around, but Mr. Sharpe was betting that the resurgence of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation would pull the sport up by its skate-straps and back into the mainstream. It didn’t. Rollergames lasted only one season on American television, whereas the original incarnation of the American Gladiators enjoyed an eight year syndicated run and a host of merchandising opportunities that included action figures, lunch boxes and workout videos. Rollergames hangs its hazy legacy on a Konami arcade game and this Williams pinball machine.

The Rollergames figure eight track. Courtesy of rollerderby.be

The Rollergames television show hasn’t aged well, containing heaps of 90s style with very, very little substance to back it up. Each episode featured a roller derby match between two teams, taped in front of a live audience at the Super Roller Dome under the banner of WAR (World Alliance of Rollersports). The six teams were clearly divided between good and evil–the fan favourites being the LA Thunderbirds, the Rockers and the Hot Flash, and the heels consisting of the Violators, Bad Attitude and the Maniacs. Each team had both male and female membership, and each gender would compete against each other in a series of “jams”. Teams competed on a figure eight shaped track with one end being smaller and elevated. This style track is more common in the staged-for-teleivison derby, and differs from the oval flat-track more commonly used in the current derby resurgence. The raised end of the figure eight is known as “The Wall”, and two designated players, which Rollergames called “jetters”, hurl their bodies into the fourteen-foot ramp hoping for as much height as possible to score maximum points. A small ramp jump coming out of the Wall area scores more points and puts the jetters back into the round with the rest of the players. Passing players of the opposite team in the round scores even more points.

Gimmicks for the players were almost mandatory to keep up with McMahon’s WWF: skaters were assigned nicknames like “The California Kid” and “Ice Box” and given finishing moves just like their wrestling brethren. Each team came complete with a manager, that either followed the rules or completely ignored them,

A member of the T-Birds hits the pit.

depending on the moral alliance of their team. The most ubiquitous manager had to be Skull, whose bald head and bearded visage graces the middle of the Rollergames playfield. Other “stars” of the figure eight track included the T-Bird twins, Jennifer and Kristine Van Galder, and “Stars and Stripes” Matt Bickham, all of whom are featured on the backglass of the pinball machine. Returning to the rules of Rollergames, ties after regulation time were decided via Sudden Death, featuring, get this, four live alligators. The gators would be paraded out, placed into “The Pit”, and to win the overtime bout, one team would have to throw a member of the opposite team into said pit. This, mixed with sporadic musical appearances by Warrant and Lita Ford, made for a show that SHOULD have been a hit…but sadly, was not. The production folded before the pinball machine prototypes were even released to test markets.

The game was released by Williams in June of 1990, sandwiched between the release of Whirl Wind and Diner, and ran on the System 11C boardset. Steve Ritchie headed up the design and it is another one of those Ritchie themes that oozes physicality, toughness and speed. The integration of the Rollergames theme into the mechanics of the pinball machine is absolutely fantastic. The aforementioned “Wall” and “Pit” features of the show make an appearance in the machine: the Wall is the side ramp and the Pit is a saucer with vertical up-kicker (VUK). Both of these features rely heavily on the upper right flipper. This flipper is used to send the ball up the Wall ramp, while the Pit kicker will propel the ball to a magnet (via wireform), which will grab the ball and perfectly tee up a shot up the Wall ramp. Once up the Wall ramp, the ball will be returned to one of the flippers via wireforms (which flipper depends on the velocity of the ball), or locked in a physical lock over the shooter lane if lock is lit. Lighting lock is simple: shoot for the bank of drop targets that say “MULTI-BALL” on them. Knock the entire bank down three times, lock three balls, and you get three-ball multiball with the jackpot shot being up the wall ramp. Locked balls carry over from game to game, which also means locked ball stealing in multi-player games is in full effect.  A neat programming feature will fire locked balls around the wireform and back into the physical lock during gameplay, which can be really confusing for the uninitiated.  At random intervals, about once per game depending on game length, a call-out states “It’s Sudden Death, go for the Wall!”. Each wall shot bags you a million points. The Pit magnet is lit constantly during Sudden Death (sadly, with no alligator imagery) so you can tee up shots for the Wall ramp jackpot with ease…but only if you can consistently shoot the Pit. During regular play, the magnet is lit at the start of the game. Remember to listen to the game, it will instruct you: “Don’t Flip…” when the VUK is firing the ball over to the magnet, and “…..FLIP!” when the magnet has caught the ball and the shot is teed up. Game settings can be adjusted to re-light the magnet with each new ball in play. The Pit also awards “RollerMotion” when lit, which is a series of random awards. The orbits are lit at the in-lanes for five seconds. Each orbit shot, after being lit, awards a Rollergames team. Lighting all six teams lights an extra ball, collected at a tight shot up beside the pop bumpers.

This game is classic Steve Ritchie, and by “classic Steve Ritchie” I mean that its basically a kicked up copy of High Speed. A cross-playfield shot from the plunger, banks of targets that sit perpendicular to the player, a left side kickback, a right hand side upper flipper, a side ramp that feeds back to either flipper, a “hideout” physical ball lock, and fast flowing orbits–the similarities between Rollergames and High Speed should be pretty obvious to the trained eye. Their flow and speed are pretty similar, however Rollergames plays a bit easier given that the magnet tees up shots up the side ramp and requires absolutely no skill to complete (beyond listening for the game to tell you when to “FLIP!”). High Speed also sets up shots for the upper flipper using a saucer with a side kick out, but skill and timing on the part of the player is still required to put the ball where it needs to go.

The Pat McMahon art package is absolutely stunning, and as I mentioned before, very true to the iconography of the television show. Many write the art off as “cheesy”, but it’s a product of its time, and it captures the nuances of the period nicely. The red girders that were omni-present in the Roller Dome are everywhere from the speaker panel to the physical ball lock to the playfield itself. The incorporation of the “characters” from the show in the package is great as well, and having Skull, with his trademark aviator shades and bullwhip, pointing to the magnet on the playfield is a nice touch. The television show was heavy on in-program advertising and it is a trend that continues in the pinball machine, with the logos of Pepsi, Mug Root Beer, Slice, ShareData, Thermos and GamePro Magazine appearing on the speaker panel and on the playfield. It’s a double edged sword: their appearance, while fascinating to see such commercial integration on a machine from this era, guarantees that Classic Playfield Reproductions, or any other source, will not be able to make reproduction playfields, as they would need to pay licencing fees to each of the entities that have logos present (with three of them belonging to PepsiCo). In true 1990s fashion there is plenty of neon, arrows, spandex and Saved By the Bell-esque confetti. The wireform ramps came coated in red, yellow and blue, but it seems some games were shipped with bare steel wireforms or a combination of coated and bare. The coated versions really add some pop to the game and add to the overall colourful flavour of the art package.

The sound package is where the game really wins over its devotees, or drives its detractors to the point of insanity. The main Rollergames theme (with the repeating lyrics “Rock, rock, rock n’ Rollergames…”) plays constantly throughout normal gameplay, and, admittedly, can wear pretty thin after playing for long periods. However, there are different music cues for Sudden Death, multiball lead-up, multiball, Jackpot and W-I-L-L-I-A-M-S bonus modes, which really works to add variety to the soundtrack. My favourite musical piece is the “Kick Butt” Jackpot remix, and needs to be heard to be appreciated (it’s a nice reward for achieving multiple jackpots). The call-outs are absolutely fantastic. There is both a female voice and a male voice that can be heard in the game, and I seriously doubt that the actual characters from the television show were used. However, if the male voice is not that of Skull himself, the voice actor definitely does a good job channelling the heel manager. Visitors always get a kick out of his call-outs when playing the game, from naming the teams when hitting an orbit (“BAD Attitude”) to his amazement when a jackpot has been collected (“UN-BE-LIEVABLE”). Even the incidental sounds when hitting a spinner, a target or a ramp totally fit with the overarching Rollergames vibe.

I touched on the problem with reproducing the playfield, however Rollergames owners can look forward to the possibility of Classic Playfield Reproductions reproducing the plastics for Rollergames in the near future.  A thread on Pinside confirmed they have a New Old Stock set in their possession to work with. As another side note, it seems that back when the game was released the steel diverter link that ran along the top of the Wall ramp was easily broken, thus hindering the movement of the diverter. This was such a problem that Williams released a service bulletin to operators making them aware of the issue. Early in 2014, Pinside user “jasonpaulbauer” went ahead and reproduced the troublesome link, using its original specifications, for owners strapped with the broken hardware. Pingenuity saves the day once again.

Rollergames does have a loyal following. It is constantly mentioned as a “value game” for those starting out in the hobby and its soundtrack gets mentioned in just about every discussion about “best pinball music”. Nate Shivers of Coast 2 Coast Pinball specifically mentioned that both its reputation and price were on the rise in a Going Up/Going Down segment this past winter, and a copy of Rollergames recently won Best In Show (Pinball) at the inaugural Southern Fried Gameroom Expo this past June. It is also one of those games, like Volley, that appears in unusual numbers here in Canada. Many prototype versions are floating around in the Canadian collector community, and can be identified by their Diamond Plate playfields and extra flashers. It seems that the Quebec distributor Laniel Automatic was at it again, importing large quantities of this game, perhaps at a special price seeing as the licence had completely tanked by the time the games were ready to go. The game in my collection came through the Laniel channel as it bears all the tell-tale markings. I can say without hesitation, that Rollergames is the machine non-pinball visitors gravitate towards when visiting my gameroom. The theme seems to draw them in and the simple rules keep objectives within reach. There is a glimmer of recognition in these visitors’ eyes, but most of them seem to recall Roller Jam, the roller derby reboot on TNN that ran on Friday nights the mid-nineties, rather than the actual Rollergames show. It doesn’t hinder their enjoyment of the game though, as they can still immerse themselves within the excessive neon hues of the 1990s while flipping around the playfield.

All this said, I’m still amazed at Rolelrgames’ lowly rank on Pinside. Sure, it’s a System 11 game, and isn’t afforded untouchable royalty status like the WPC era games that followed it just a year-and-a-half later, but for me, it is the complete package of entertaining gameplay and a well integrated theme. Perhaps what hurts the game is that it is strapped with both a theme that isn’t ingrained into the collective imagination of our generation and a fairly shallow System 11 ruleset (according to more seasoned players). Not to mention its near complete mimicking of the High Speed design. High Speed is one of those watershed games that is rightly labelled as “important” by the community. If someone wanted a kicked up version of High Speed, they’d probably rather buy a High Speed 2: The Getaway, and not a Rollergames. I’m not arguing for the game to be listed in the top fifty or anything, but I think it does deserve to fall within the #120 thru #150 range. I guess there are very few people, like me, who want their rock, rock, rock…’n’ Rollergames.

Further Reading:

Pinside – Top 100, Page 2 
Internet Pinball Database – Rollergames
Pinside – CPR Needs Rollergames Plastic Set NOS in Order to Remake Them
Pinside – Roller Games Divertor [sic] Drive Link Reproduction
YouTube – Rollergames Alligator Sudden Death Overtime
YouTube – Rockers vs. Violators (full game)


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FEATURE: Drop Target Zine

I seem to have missed the boat on zines. I was a bit too young to catch its last culturally relevant kick at the can during the Riot Grrrl movement and, moreover, I wasn’t anywhere geographically close to the west coast cities that were known for zine production in the early 1990s. The closest I got was putting together a photocopied, hand-written newspaper with my buddies in grade four called the “You Can’t Do That On Television Times”, which discussed hard-hitting and edifying stories about the television show the paper was named after. It lasted two issues before the “editor”, our teacher, pulled the plug. Now, nearly everyone with an inflated ego and an internet connection can run their own blog (Hey, wait a minute!), thus, a need for hard copy zines was quelled for the most part.  The Internet served to spread information quicker and easier (and reached a larger audience) than a zine ever could. However, the spirit of the self-published, low production publication still lives on–the same way LPs are holding their own against digital music and pinball against console and mobile gaming. Happily, the paths of the zine and pinball cross in a fantastic publication called Drop Target Zine, which exists as part comic book and part magazine, and remains fully dedicated to a deep appreciation of the modern flipper game.

Drop Target Zine springs from the minds of Alec Longstreth and John Chad. It is a bi-costal collaboration of epic proportions: these men are no strangers to both the self-publishing world and the pinball community. In terms of pinball, Mr. Longstreth’s artistic work can be found frequently on Stern Pinball’s blog and Mr. Chad will be known to the community due to his fantastic (and altogether whimsical) sci-fi designs for the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association. Together they have accounted for five issues of “DTZ”, and have promised a sixth by the end of the summer.

Jon Chad, left, and Alec Longstreth, right, in self-portrait, teasing the theme of DTZ#6. Courtesy of Drop Target Zine #5.

For those uninitiated, a zine is basically a DIY magazine with limited publication and distribution, and very few frills. Traditionally, the content is photocopied and assembled by hand. Historically, the zine voice is that of the marginalised, ignored or unheard. Images are stolen and appropriated and the articles are typically unpolished manifestos “unfit” for publication in the mainstream media. That being said, the Drop Target Zine isn’t a radical proclamation calling for liberation through riot or pinball players to rise against society and take to the streets–those days of the zine are long past.  It is simply a quirky publication filled with great art, interviews and a healthy dose of imagination. It takes the original spirit of the zine and blends it with the polish and organization of a handmade comic book. The California-based Mr. Longstreth publishes his own line of comics entitled Phase 7 and also works as a freelance illustrator, while Mr. Chad lives and works in Vermont, teaching at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and is the creator of the Leo Geo series of comics. This must be a passion project as both have an appreciation for the silver ball and its place within popular culture. Two games that receive particular attention in the zine and in their online activity are Data East’s Jurassic Park and Williams’ Star Wars Episode I.  Many of the accounts in the zine, both written and illustrated, are very personal, highlighting shared experiences and their relationship to the world of pinball.  Mr. Chad and Mr. Longstreth illustrate themselves constantly throughout the zine, so the heavy hands of the authors/artists are always on display acting as cartoon Sherpas to guide the reader through the pages of the zine.

Each 5.5″x8.5″-sized issue of DTZ is focussed in its scope, choosing a topic to explore within its pages. The two issues I’ve chosen to review here are DTZ#4, “The Moves Issue”, and DTZ#5, “The Community Issue”. As such, Issue 4 features interviews with top players Keith Elwin and Bowen Kerins and an illustrated guide to ball control using the flippers.  Issue #5 has a feature on PAPA director Mark Stienman and two longer comics about competition and the shared pinball experience. Each issue also has recurring features: Pinhalls spotlights great places to play pinball across America and the Replay Review puts the focus on one particular machine and its rules (in Issues #4 and #5, the featured games are Jurassic Park and the Addams Family respectively). You may be underwhelmed by such features by reading about them here, as there are countless trip reports and an endless number of text and video reviews of popular machines like the Addams Family available if you know where to look. However, Pinhalls is usually accompanied by comic interpretations of the author’s visit to the featured location and the reviewed machine is met with the artist’s individual artistic interpretation, which spices up what would normally be a mundane text rundown of rules.  The artist’s touch puts a fresh spin on the sometimes stale information. The Addams Family review is fantastically illustrated by Mr. Longstreth, and includes his own interpretation of the entire TAF playfield, while the body of text is showered with individual illustrations of TAF’s unique playfield toys.

Mr. Longstreth’s interpretation of the TAF playfield. Courtesy of DTZ#5.

The standout feature of the zine is Dream Machines, where Mr. Longstreth, Mr. Chad and a few special guests create original pin tables that spring from their own imaginations. Each table is drawn to scale with a complete art package and, unbelievably, includes a complete and detailed ruleset. The magazine is printed in black and white, but each month, one dream table is given the colour treatment and is featured in the centre gatefold. Mr. Longstreth has provided a Harry Potter themed table for every issue thus far, and in an interesting spin, they are all based on the original J.K. Rowling books, not the Warner Brothers blockbuster movies. Other dream tables of note include Groo the Wanderer, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Conan the Barbarian and Inspector Gadget. Art and rulesets remain completely true to the licence and in most cases the technology remains true to the era in which the machine would have been produced given its year of release.

Mr. Chad’s fictional Conan the Barbarian design. Courtesy of DTZ#4.

With the lack of printed pinball “journalism” available to the community, save for Pinball Magazine which arrives only once per year and the recent appearance of a few special blogs (*wink*), the zine format is perfectly suited for a niche hobby like pinball. The $5USD cover price is a steal when you realize the work that goes into putting together each issue. My only gripe is that DTZ’s frequency mirrors that of Pinball Magazine–each issue is released on a yearly basis (approximately). However, its infrequency only adds to the charm of the publication and makes its arrival even sweeter. Reading the zine, you get the feel that it was hand-made specifically for YOU: it is an extremely personal experience in both production and reader reception. In a hobby where the multiplicity of online voices can be frustrating and condescending (and sometimes downright annoying), it is refreshing to sit down to with an issue of this zine and bask in the skilfully drawn comic panes and printed words.

Due to the limited run of the zine and its cult popularity, the first run printings of each issue, save for DTZ#3, are completely sold out. A second run, which lacks the screen-printed cover and colour Dream Machine centerfold (both reproduced in black and white), are available for $4USD plus shipping directly from the DTZ blog. If you are so inclined, a five-pack of mini-buttons with original DTZ art is also available for $3USD plus shipping.

First print issues of Drop Target Zine #4 and #5. The covers are beautifully screen-printed. Nice touch!

I highly recommend Drop Target Zine to anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the honest and simple roots of playing and experiencing the game of pinball. Every time I pick up an issue of the zine, I’m reminded of my childhood, where weekend trips to the arcade and reading comic books were my only concerns. It is a nice throwback to memories of those times, now that I have a career and family, leaving little time for such childhood thrills. It also reminds me how much fun PLAYING these machines can be, seeing as much of my free time, and probably yours as well, is spent modding, fixing and maintaining them. Mr. Longstreth and Mr. Chad have expertly blended the art of the zine with a passion for pinball. The result is something that can be embraced by the community at large.

Further Reading:
Drop Target Zine – Official Blog
Alec-Longstreth.com – Official Website
The Fizzmont Institute of Rad Science – Jon Chad’s Official Website
Stern Pinball – “Community” Blog
PAPA.org – PAPA Store


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NEWS: CPR Catches Fire!

Hot off the press, from Classic Playfield Reproductions, comes a definitive reproduction playfield for the Williams 1987 release, Fire! I have raved about the art package on this game in the past, and the playfield is, without a doubt, the centrepiece, and perhaps one of the most beautiful of the entire System 11 era. Early photos released of these repro playfields show that the integrity of the original Mark Sprenger art remains in tact, as is nearly always the case with any release by the folks at CPR.

CPR’s repro on the left, a NOS original on the right. Courtesy of classicplayfields.com/photo156.html.

The Fire in Mr. Wright’s game room, as it appeared in the Pinside thread “Williams Fire! Club”

This may have been a particularly interesting project for CPR artist Stu Wright, as his current collection includes a Fire! that has a restored cabinet and colour-matched power coated trim. Mr. Wright contacted me after the article was posted, and commented:

“I spent about 1,200 Hours on the Fire! Playfield artwork. Call me crazy for doing it, but as an artist myself I just love this artwork and I appreciate the original artist’s painting — I hope my repro artwork does justice [to] this beautiful game.”

Please take a look at the absolutely detailed production notes for this reproduction process, as Mr. Wright the CPR team had to make some difficult decisions. Since Williams used various manufacturers to produce their playfields, there were always slight variations in colour, artwork, masking, registration, dimpling, cuts and registration. This makes the process difficult for the folks at Classic Playfields, as a “definitive” version has to be decided upon for reproduction. And we all know how picky us pinball folk can be. Classic Playfield’s FAQ describes the process of selecting a breadth of new-old-stock original material to use as master pieces and account for variations when preparing re-mastered artwork. Fire! looks to be a special case, with some weird variances in playfield art and design that made it into production games: cut-outs for the skill-shot switches came in a variety of variations, the centerpiece “burning buildings” art had differences in colour, and, probably the most notable, the main playfield colour was released in brown, dark brown and black versions. I’m sure some will cry foul that the skill shot switch lane has five cuts instead of two, or that the playfield is brown instead of the “original black”, but to get your hands on a Fire! playfield that isn’t completely blown out to put into your machine…you’ll have to deal with it.

Skill shot switch cut-outs, as collected by Pinside user “Lonzo”.

Light bleed on the original playfield. Courtesy of classicplayfields.com/photo156.html

In addition to this, CPR has addressed two nagging issues in the playfield design and took it upon themselves to correct them: the light-blocking layer of paint in the CPR version is darker which makes for a less washed out light show in the building inserts, and a complete re-imagining of the shape of the large insert behind the Fire! logo dead centre of the playfield to eliminate some ugly light bleed. Thus, CPR makes every attempt to be true to the original Williams design and art, and they also leave room for innovation and change where time has proven that the original design wasn’t executed in the most effective fashion.

CPR’s custom window. Courtesy of classicplayfields.com/photo156.html

It seems that Fire! payfields, in particular, take quite the beating, and I’ve never seen an original in a working game that isn’t completely blown out or suffering from noticeable damage. Fire!, in particular, is prone to some serious mylar bubbling, lifting the art right off of the playfield inserts. And with inserts as large as the ones on Fire!, this is a serious problem. Lots of these playfields suffer from serious planking issues as well, in the un-mylared areas. [Ed. note: Is it just me, or did Williams use less-than-quality materials all around on Fire! production? The cabinets have more knots than my two year old’s hair after a bath, and the playfields have aged about as well as Keith Richards.] Further, the art on the playfield between the top set of slings–around the ladder/inner horseshoe–-seem to suffer from heavy wear on nearly every game with an original playfield. That poor “Rescue Shot!” insert is nearly always ruined by lifting mylar, and no replacement decal exists. These top slings are so close together that the ball just hammers the playfield when it gets going back and forth, not to mention that it also severely wears the lip of the playfield where the ladder rises, catching a bit of air in the process if not adjusted properly. The mylar sheet comes to an end in this area as well, so you are left with quite the mess at the top of the playfield.

Courtesy of classicplayfields.com/photo156.html

With so many of these playfields beat to hell, it is great to see Mark Sprenger’s original artwork get a new lease on life. The beautifully rendered gold leaf seamlessly flows with the yellow and orange hues of the flames engulfing the buildings. These warm shades stand out against the dark background and surround the moonlit huddled masses of Chicago seeking protection from the raging, city-wide fire. The shadowy crowd was addressed using black and blue shades of the night, with orange and yellow highlights depicting just how powerful the raging fire is against the darkness of night. Sprenger perfectly captures the chaos and panic in downtown Chicago in one single mass of humanity–men, women and children headed in every direction. Also, it is nice to see the majority of the men wearing fancy hats, as was the style at the time, proving that even in times of high chaos, the 19th Century man still had an eye for fashion. Billowy smoke gives way to an intricate cobblestone design that dominates the upper symmetrical orbits, the majority of which is hidden by the playfield plastics and ramps. The vacuum-formed houses are obviously one of the most striking physical features of the completed game, however seeing the playfield without any hardware or plastic decor on it really highlights how much detail Sprenger put into his creation.

The author’s planking playfield.

The Fire! playfield in my game is better than some I’ve seen, but still displays much of the wear I’ve described above. I’m on the CPR list but my spot is near the bottom: as bad luck would have it, I got my Fire! one day after they closed their pre-order list. This playfield has been on the pre-order page for quite some time, and was there to properly gauge interest from collectors via e-mail. It appears that, like many of the CPR offerings such as their High Speed repro playfield from last year, that quantities will be limited to the approximate interest from collectors. It makes little financial sense for CPR to press thousands of these, with an unknown market. As of writing, the pre-order page states that interested parties are now being notified via e-mail, in “batches of twenty”, first come first served, that the playfields are ready to ship and that payment is due.

The author’s abused upper playfield. The mylar stops just below the ladder cut-out.

Even though it is a game that is not in particular demand, Fire! is the perfect candidate for a CPR repro: existing playfields are nearly always gassed, and it’s a high production game with a unique theme and gameplay that makes for a very small but dedicated fan base. Some will argue that dropping in a new playfield would be like polishing a turd-–sure, your Fire! will look fantastic, but it is STILL a Fire! Personally, if I do end up getting the invoice for a CPR playfield, $699USD+$59USD shipping, I’d be into my game within the range of about $1800-$2000CDN, which is by all accounts, even in today’s topsy-turvy pinball market, an amount I would never be able to get out of the machine if I decided to sell it sometime down the road. Given the steep ticket price of the reproduction playfields, any pre-1992 production game getting the CPR playfield treatment had better be a keeper (or done simply for the welfare of the game), as you’d be hard pressed to recoup your output when it comes time to move along (unless you can find someone who absolutely must have the given title in plug-and-play condition or, in the case of Fire!, a fire chief with deep pockets). Unless space really gets tight, I don’t see myself having a fire sale for the Fire! (see what I did there?), so I think the game is going to be a CPR candidate if I get the call.

With their work on Fire!, Classic Playfield Reproductions continues their tradition of quality and dedication to this hobby of ours that is constantly striving for polish and shine in aging, mass-produced, commercial amusement machines. I’m particularly proud that these guys are Canadian, if only for the fact that, as a Canadian, I pay ten dollars less for playfield shipping than those south of the border. For many, $699USD is far too much to pay to refurbish any game, let alone a lowly System 11/Oursler designed Fire!–bubbling mylar, worn playfield art down to the wood and broken plastics will suit them just fine. But for those looking to bring elegance and shine back to the topside of their fatigued Fires!, it is again CPR to the rescue. (I couldn’t have included more fire and rescue innuendo in this article if I tried…find them all!)

Further Reading:
Classic Playfield Reproductions – Fire! Reproduction Playfields
Pinside – Williams Fire Restoration (Thread started by user “Lonzo”, referenced in the switch cut-out photo)
Pinside – |\/\/\/\/| Williams Fire! Club – Save My Baby!
Marco Specialties – CPR’s Fire! (Williams) Plastic Set


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MODS: Creech Speaker Panel Follow-Up and Installation!

In one of the very first essay-style articles on Credit Dot, I talked up the impending arrival of the Creature from the Black Lagoon speaker panel mod like it was the second coming of Christ himself. The brainchild of Jeff Thompson, the speaker panel added lights to the “Starlight Drive- In” sign, the moon, the UFO and the tail lights of all the classic cars lined up watching the DMD. Supposedly, it was something that was to be included in production games, but the project went over-budget and it was axed from the final version. Mr. Thompson has now begun asking for payment, and the first few batches of the mod are being installed in Creeches across the globe. Unfortunately, as of writing, it has been indicated by Mr. Thompson that all of the mods have been spoken for. However, perhaps if you e-mail him directly or message him on Pinside (username: thompso9, and be patient for a response), you can be put on a stand-by list, as there are bound to be people who will back out.

The mod as it arrived on my doorstep.

The panel arrived at my door this past week, and it took everything I had to not clear my schedule and install the mod upon arrival. However, things like this are best done when interruptions are minimized, and I waited until Saturday afternoon for installation, when I knew I’d have a chunk of spare time to dedicate. The mod was packaged extremely well. Contents of the box, as it arrived, included: the wooden panel backer with embedded PCB light boards, four new screws to mount the DMD, detailed instructions and the optional vinyl mask for the standard speaker plastic. Not being an owner of the Deluxe “chromed” panel from Classic Playfield Reproductions–and it wasn’t without a couple of failed attempts at trying to track one down in the past few months–I paid the extra ten bucks for the vinyl light mask that would have to be affixed to the back of my current speaker panel overlay. My total cost, shipping and optional vinyl mask included, was $180.00USD.

The sticky black mask peeled back to reveal the red taillights.

If you have the CPR speaker overlay, this step that is not needed, as it will already has the proper masking cut-outs for the lights. If you are using the original that is on your machine, like me, you’ll have to prep the overlay for installation of the $10 vinyl mask. Removing the speaker plastic from the wood panel was the first step and it was extremely easy. Twenty years of age had dried out the adhesive that held the plastic to the original wood. The wood side adhesive may have dried out, but the other side, that affixed the original blackout mask to the plastic was still holding strong. This was by far the most difficult and time consuming step of the entire installation. The blackout mask came off in large sticky strips, leaving behind a stickier film on the printed side of the plastic. In some places, the paper would pull off but leave behind a thin layer of black paper fibre. Despite the difficulty, it was cool to see the red tail lights first appear from under the blackout; they were originally left uncovered by the white paint mask which all but proves for certain that John Trudeau and the art department had visions of lighting them at one point.

The final Goo Gone clean-up.

The most frustrating part of this process is that you cannot use any sort of scraper to aid in removal of the blackout mask, as there is a chance you will damage the back-printed artwork. Thank god for my caveman-like, unkempt fingernails, as they were the perfect tool to lift and scrape the adhesive without damaging the plastic. Goo-Gone was also a godsend, batting cleanup, and removing any left behind adhesive and black paper fibre. A final rinse with soap and water and the panel backside was ready for the vinyl mask.

Installing the vinyl light mask on the original speaker panel. No fancy CPR panel for this guy, unfortunately.

The reason the vinyl mask needs to be applied is that it contains cut-outs that will focus the light from the PCB onto one single area, rather than being diffused and muddy. Thus, getting the cut-outs lined up with the taillights, Starlight sign, moon and UFO is extremely important. The instructions tell of both the wet and dry method of getting the vinyl mask onto the panel. The dry method is pretty much peel the vinyl mask so the sticky side is exposed, stick it onto the panel, remove the second backing and pray that you got it right. Some Pinside users who have purchased the mod have shared that cutting the large mask into smaller, more manageable sections has helped make placement more precise. I, however, left it as one piece and went with the wet method. I soaked the backside of the panel with Windex, peeled the backing so the sticky side was exposed, and placed it sticky side down on the panel. The Windex allowed me to shift and move the mask exactly where I wanted it without the adhesive taking permanent hold. Once properly lined up with the art, I squeegeed out the Windex allowing the adhesive to bond, and then peeled off the second paper backing. It took just one attempt, and it turned out pretty well.

Speaker and hardware configuration of the original wood panel.

The replacement wood panel is made of quality materials and is precision cut. All counter-sunk T-nuts are placed accurately with respect to the original. There is a plastic cut-out used to help focus the cascade effect of the Starlight sign, and on my unit, it had come loose and was floating around in the box. Thankfully, it wasn’t trashed with the packaging materials, and two dabs of glue put the plastic back in place. The rest of the installation was a breeze, as it was just a matter of moving over the speakers, DMD, plastic H-Channel and hardware from the old wood panel to the new one. The only hardware items that do not get recycled are four mounting screws that hold the DMD-–they are replaced by the four long screws included in order to accommodate, I assume, a ColorDMD. Two holes need to be drilled to hold the capacitor and wire clip that are in line with the smaller speaker. I found that they needed to be placed a little higher than their original locations, as to not damage the embedded PCB on the front of the panel. The completed masked plastic overlay from above was affixed to the front of the wood panel with the included 3M double-sided tape, and that finished the changeover.

Old (bottom) vs. New (Top)

Speakers and hardware installed on the new panel. Note the placement of the speaker capacitor and wire clip. Small starter holes for these two screws needed to be drilled with care as to not damage the embedded PCB on the other side.

The panel has a jumper located on the back that will allow the taillights to stay on, or perform dynamically, which makes them turn on an off at random intervals. It is a neat touch. It ships dynamic and I left it that way, but simply moving the jumper over one pin will make the taillights static. I plugged the mod’s four pin connector into J116 as indicated in the instructions. The red, yellow and black cable that runs from the panel has both a female connector plug and male pins on it. The mod’s female connector plugs directly onto the board at J116 (or J117, J118 can also be used), and the female connector originally plugged into the board is connected to the male pins on the panel’s wire. I fired the game up and the panel lit with no issues. It looks as if the panel lights need time to warm up: upon start-up, the DMD will be fully into its attract sequence before dynamic light movement of the Starlight sign and taillights begin.

Wiring hookup via J116.

Start to finish, the installation took less than two hours. I like that this mod is shipped with all the hard stuff done for you. Many DIY modders may feel differently, relishing a challenge. I was very happy that this mod wasn’t shipped as a handful of PCBs to affix onto (and embed into) the original wooden panel. Shipping a plug-and-play wooden panel, complete with reproduction speaker grilles, was the way to go. The embedded lights on the PCBs are nice and bright–the blue of the Starlight sign really pops–and the mask does a good job on focussing the light source. However, as I was installing this, I thought to myself: “Did I just spend $180.00USD for a few small lights on a panel I hardly ever look up at?” I also realized that these funds were about half-way to the price of a ColorDMD, which is the ultimate speaker panel upgrade. I’m kind of torn here. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely $180.00USD worth of craftsmanship in the mod, and the end product is fantastic, but I’m left to wonder what these lights really add to the game, especially in a game that has so many other mods and upgrades to consider. Look at it this way: if you invested in the CPR Deluxe speaker plastic, this mod AND a ColorDMD, you would be the proud owner of a $700.00USD+ speaker panel. That’s about the price I paid for my Williams Fire! at Allentown this year, for crying out loud.

Voila! The final product.

The interest in the mod is definitely there, and the early reviews have people raving about it. Pinside user nudgefree stated, “To me it ranks right up there with the Tron Arcade mod as ‘Best mod ever,’” while user schlockdoc says “It looks awesome with the Color DMD and deluxe panel. Worth the wait.” I don’t regret my decision of buying in at all: I’m spending more time looking up at the Creech DMD now than I ever did! The game is a keeper for me, so I felt compelled. I have a new set of ramps, plastics and hardware to put onto the game in the near future to make it an above average example, so this mod is the icing on the cake. Given the five year ordeal of getting these panels made, it looked to be now or never for this mod. You’ll probably never see a run of these again, and if they are re-ran by another individual or company, they probably won’t be made with such precision or to such a high standard of quality. This is a package that wouldn’t be easily replicated in a basement or garage by a hobbyist modder, either. I’m thankful that Mr.Thompson has accepted the call and released these speaker panels to a community hungry for this particular mod, and I can’t wait to hear of his future projects (rumoured: Twilight Zone lit speaker panels). All that is left now, I guess, is to start saving my pennies for a ColorDMD to REALLY make this Creech speaker panel complete…

Further Reading:
Pinside – Interest / Advice on CFTBL Speaker Panel LED Mod Re-Run
Credit Dot Pinball (that’s me!) – MODS: Startling! Shocking! Creature From the Unlit Speaker Panel!


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FEATURE: “Only Give A Defect On Display, Any Stupidity”

I have a secret to reveal: I arranged to adopt a family from overseas. I offered to let them live with me. My wife wasn’t too happy when I told her. We’d have a lot less room in the house. She was even more upset when I told her how much it cost me to bring them here. I thought it was a good deal, actually. To have them at my service, year round? It was a no brainer. I brokered the deal through a man one province over, in Quebec, who had brought in multiple families in the past. He said the family would be arriving by boat, and would travel in a shipping container. I found this mode of transportation odd, but didn’t question the man’s motives–he claimed the deal was completely legal. I trusted him. I got word of the family’s safe arrival in the Montreal harbour, and arranged pickup through a good friend in the Ontario pinball community. Forty-eight hours later, the family arrived at my home for the first time. The Addams Family now lives in my basement, and I don’t ever want them to leave.

The above paragraph outlines my acquisition of an Addams Family pinball machine through the re-import process: it arrived by boat from Bari, Italy on the Adriatic Sea, across the Atlantic Ocean, down the historic St. Lawrence Seaway into the port of Montreal and finally by land down Highway 401 to my home in the Greater Toronto Area. I rolled the dice on this machine, buying sight unseen through pictures only, and, in my opinion, won. The game arrived as described and has worked 100% since its arrival. Others have not been so lucky with these so-called “re-imports” (also known as “container pins” in these parts) sent over in massive shipping containers from across the ocean. They arrive mainly from Europe, Northern Africa and, in some rare instances, South America. It is an approach to collecting machines that made sense at one time for North American collectors, however due to the recent climate of the pinball market in the U.S. and Canada, it has been less attractive, both financially and logistically.

A line of Stern games in an Italian warehouse, waiting for buyers.

Besides the incredible hassle of brokering a multi-national deal for the purposes of obtaining an amusement machine, there seems to be, in Canada anyhow, an incredible stigma associated with games that are re-imported to North America from overseas. The games are almost always treated as second class units. Many of the For Sale threads on our local forums will state explicitly “North American machine, not a re-import”, to add credibility. If it is not mentioned, given the number of re-imports on Canadian soil, Canuck collectors have been trained to ask the provenance of the machine or at very least perform a visual inspection of the machine to look for any sign of the letter “I” in the serial number, coin slot configuration, 220V stickers or country names that would explicitly mark it as a re-import. Collectors paint all foreign pinball operators as untrained hacks that “fix” machines with improper tools and parts. There is also the line of thinking that says the overseas machines are subjected to much more abuse than their North American counterparts. With many of the European machines being operated in bars and coffee shops throughout their life, there is the thought that they would be subjected to longer time spent on route, massive amounts of play upon them, little maintenance upkeep and a greater risk of beverages being spilt upon them. European operators have the reputation of trying to squeeze every cent they can out of their investment, riding the machines hard, and, given the beverages spilt upon them, putting them away wet. Some developing countries have been known to operate their machines out-of-doors, so there is a fear of finding those turn up in a container as well.

In reality though, a routed game is a routed game, no matter if it comes off of a route in Buffalo, New York or Hamburg, Germany. North America has its fair share of hack operators that substitute a wad of tinfoil for a 4 amp fuse, too, not just the ones working overseas. For some reason, collectors are under the impression that just because a game has been brought back through a European wholesaler, it is automatically a basket case that has been played within an inch of its life, complete with hidden issues and unfathomable hacks. Granted, many do arrive on North American soil in pretty awful shape, however, I would argue games in similar condition existed in North America at one time as well, but due to the incredible demand for pinball machines here it has driven these basket cases to be completely restored by capable collectors or pieced out as donor machines. In my opinion, a game should be evaluated on the way it plays and its overall appearance rather than the addition of a letter or two in its serial number, or 110 extra volts.

I actively follow the restorations performed by Chris Hutchins of High End Pins on his website. He provides clients and enthusiasts alike with before, during and after photographs of the games he works on, showing the meticulous care he takes in bringing the shine back to a machine. For nearly every game he brings back to showroom quality, Mr. Hutchins reprints the serial number decals as part of the restoration process. On one Addams Family restoration in particular, which I was able to peg from the outset as re-import game, Mr. Hutchins, at what I would assume was his client’s request, erased all markings of the game being a re-import. The coin door was changed to the North American two-slot standard, the European stickers that reference 220V were removed, and, when reprinting the serial number stickers, the “I”, which would have categorically marked the Addams as an original overseas export, was completely eliminated from all of the reproduction stickers. Thus, the stigma of the “re-import” ran so deep that this particular collector wanted the machine to look as if it never left the confines of North America. Did that “I” act as a scarlet letter for the collector? Did he not want his high end Addams Family restoration to bear the markings of a re-import game? This isn’t a common practice for Mr. Hutchins: the majority of the games he restores will transcribe the official serial number onto new stickers–digit-for-digit and letter-for-letter. This was obviously a special case. In the end, who cares, really? It’s the collector’s game. He’s paying for the high end restore; he can do as he wishes with it…even if it involves monkeying with a historical document such as a serial number. I think this just proves that the community devalues games that have spent time on foreign soil.

A FEW WAYS TO SPOT A RE-IMPORT…

So why import these machines in the first place if people approach them with so much trepidation? It boils down to a ravenous desire for a particular title (sometimes any title at all) at the right price. I only considered buying my Addams Family from overseas after about a year of not being able to find one in reasonable condition at a reasonable price here in Canada. [Ed. Note: Seriously…12,000 production games, and I couldn’t find a single damn one for sale here!] The lure of a deal will bring any collector to his/her knees. To be completely transparent with the bottom line on my container game, after all was said and done, I have $3900CAD into my Addams Family. The desire to get my hands on one drove me to this avenue, and it could have turned out much, much worse than it did. However, that is the risk you run buying a machine you have not played before purchasing and viewed only through a handful of pictures halfway across the world. In looking at the price lists available from the Italian wholesaler we worked with, “deals” on re-imports are few and far between, and if they are there, they will only be available on “A-List” titles that have rocketed in value on this side of the continent: Twilight Zone, Cirqus Voltare, The Addams Family, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and so forth. One must also think about landing a container in North America and the charges associated, which will also wreak havoc on your bottom line. After the numbers have been crunched and you find you can save a thousand or so dollars on a desirable machine, you still have to get past the idea of taking on a considerable amount of risk.

An Italian Monster Bash, with a pretty bashed cabinet.

A lot of the risk comes from the possibility that the game is misrepresented in pictures or the description. And the possibility that the machine was in fact operated just as horribly as the community assumes they were operated. It is almost impossible to capture the essence of a machine by looking at five general pictures of it, and that is really all you’ll get from many overseas wholesalers. We collectors can be faulted a bit too, expecting perfection from a machine that had a bargain basement price tag. Descriptions of the games are often vague and include lingo that is completely lost in translation. One popular term the Italians liked to use in the lists we received was “invisible wear on playfield”. What does this even mean? Do they mean “visible” wear? Do they mean wear that can hardly be seen? Games have been known to show up utterly filthy, reeking of stale smoke, water damaged, corroded, or missing parts/boards. There is a fabled story in the Canadian pinball community, which I cannot confirm or deny, that a certain Canadian retailer is known to import pinball machines from Algeria, a North African country on the Mediterranean, which are sold to collectors who end up finding that the machines are still filled with sand from the country’s vast desert landscape. Finding a reliable overseas contact is key when setting up a container deal. Just as we have saints and scumbags who sell machines here in North America, so it goes with wholesalers overseas.

A shipping container’s worth of Italian pinball machines destined for Canada, packed and ready to load.

I asked a fellow collector from the Toronto pinball community, Adriano Jorge (also known as Drano on Pinside), to offer his thoughts on the idea of buying container games. He’s one of the more seasoned experts, having bought a handful of games from our Italian source.

“From the moment I started collecting pinball machines, “container” or re-imported games were always something to be wary of. As I got more comfortable repairing and restoring machines, they started becoming a tempting source of inexpensive projects, especially in our relatively small Canadian market. But, who among us had tens of thousands of dollars to speculate on a container full of machines?

When a local collector started organizing group funded shipments, I had to look again. And, when that same source started offering titles such as Cactus Canyon, I was hooked. Cactus Canyon was/is my holy grail of restoration projects. So, I sold my restored Twilight Zone and ran, cash in hand, to try my luck. With shipping costs and taxes covered in the price of the machine, all I had to do was get it transported to my door.

I was expecting pure horror. My expectations were fairly low after hearing some experience a others had with their “gaucho games”. In the end, I was lucky. The Cactus Canyon arrived filthy with a terrible cabinet…but otherwise working with minimal playfield damage. It was a perfect restoration candidate.

Each month a new list was available… some with rarely seen titles like a Zaccaria Farfalla… which ended up being my next container purchase. After building a small rapport with this Canadian importer, I started getting an early peek at incoming games. Many were wrecks, but a few real gems were mixed in. I finally decided to try a bulk buy and committed to three more games (Fish Tales, Tales of the Arabian Nights, High Speed), while also coordinating transport for other local buyers and their games [Ed. note: I was one of these local buyers, and the TAF came over in this shipment].

It was here that I got to see the diversity of container pin buyers. Some were like me, capable of cleaning up a game or performing simple repairs, ready to deal with issues. Others, were wide-eyed new enthusiasts trying to get into this increasingly expensive hobby and praying for the best.

Eventually the economics got in the way…and maybe a little greed, too. As the Canadian dollar sank and the Euro rose, container deals just stopped making sense for us. The last frontier of the used pinball market was quickly disappearing into the sunset. Maybe it was for the best. With so many new manufacturers and reproduction WPC machines vying for our dollars, the decision to gamble on a container game doesn’t have the same appeal as it once did. I’m just happy I was able to stash away a few reasonable projects for the future.”

Container buys as I know them in Canada, and as Mr. Jorge has outlined above, are done on a group basis. A member of the pinball community in Quebec receives a list of games available from his contact in Italy which he distributes to anyone interested through our Canadian forums. He acts as organizer and middle-man. Pictures of the games are normally included, and can either be a detailed set including close-ups, or simply a shot of the machine lying on the floor with no legs. Our organizer crunches the numbers and attaches a bottom line price, in Canadian dollars, for each game which includes freight, import taxes and probably a cut for himself. The organizer has certain requirements he has to fill-—he can’t just load up a container full of Addams Families and Twilight Zones. He has to buy some of the lower echelon titles as well. Percentages, I assume, are set by the Italian seller. I’m sure they don’t want to be stuck with a warehouse full of Diamond Ladys and Cactus Jacks; they want to spread their A-Listers out to help move the undesirable trash. If the quotas are met, full payment is sent to our organizer and the wait begins for the boat to arrive on Canadian soil and clear customs. A link is sent out to the participants so the freighter can be tracked via satellite as it travels across the ocean. Once the game arrives, transport from the organizer’s facility outside of Montreal is the responsibility of the buyer.

There have been disappointments for individual collectors within our community from these group buys. One instance saw a collector lift the playfield of his re-import Doctor Who to find each and every mechanism, bracket and stand-off rusted beyond repair, which would indicate that the game was on location, or in storage, at or near a seaside town where the salt water would accelerate the oxidization process. Thankfully, this collector was able to exchange the “Doctor Rust” machine for a different title on a future shipment. Another collector saw a Cirqus Voltare arrive incomplete, with unique playfield parts and mechanisms completely missing from the game. It was sold at a loss by this collector, as he didn’t have the time or patience for such a project and, further, was completely crest-fallen with his failed “re-import” score and wished to wash his hands of it. These two cases I have mentioned are extreme, and are probably a result from lack of information and proper photos by the wholesaler. They are tales that should give buyers pause, and depict just how risky buying from overseas can be. For every gem, there are an equal number of turds.

Whovian Rust, Part 1

Whovian Rust, Part 2

I’d like to talk a little about my personal experience that I touched on at the outset of the article. Our Italian wholesaler had five-plus Addams Family machines on their list. Nearly all had burns in the magnet area, a couple were missing the topper, and some had completely trashed cabinets. The price difference between all of the machines varied by only $1000CDN. Not willing to take a chance on a bucket of bolts, I figured the most expensive one was probably the one in the best condition. Another positive indicator was that this highest priced machine had over twenty pictures available for viewing: both sides of the cabinet, areas with slight wear, under the playfield, behind the backglass, in the Thing Box and everywhere in between. Also, the machine was turned on in the pictures, and the DMD looked nice and bright with no missing dots or segments. It did, however, have a credit dot. Further, the machine had legs on it, and looked to be in a different part of the warehouse than the rest of the games. Most of the pins available from the Italian source had only one or two general pictures of the game’s condition, and most had their legs removed and were sitting on the ground in a veritable rouges gallery of pinballs. This Addams seemed like a special case: perhaps a game that was fully setup in the warehouse for potential customers or employees to play as a “showcase” piece. From these twenty pictures of the TAF, I saw a pretty decent cabinet, a bright DMD, an acceptable playfield with minor issues and very little magnet burn of any sort. I sent payment, and waited a month for its arrival.

One of the twenty original sales photos provided by our Italian wholesaler for this particular Addams Family.

I was nothing short of amazed at the condition the game was in when it finally arrived. It was plug and play (after jumping the game to 110V) has been solid ever since. The credit dot I saw in the pictures was due to a couple of switches that had not been activated for a long period of time. One good play blew the cobwebs out and it was good to go. I came to find that the playfield was waxed at some point recently; however the underside of the game and playfield nooks and crannies had their fair share of black carbon and grime. No rust to speak of on any of the mechanical parts. I did have to rebuild the flippers to add some extra snap and a new set of rubbers were thrown on to replace the ancient ones it arrived with. Another surprise was that a remote battery pack was already installed. My greatest surprise, though, was that there was no funky “container pin smell” of cigarettes and urine in the cab, as many of these games are known to have. If this machine wasn’t in a private collection overseas, it was well maintained by a god-sent operator in some location other than a smoky bar or coffee house. Language was default German, but coined for Italian Lire. My coin door still has three slots, and the serial number sticker still proudly sports its letter “I”. As stated above, I paid $3900CAD for the machine, shipped to my doorstep, which to me, was a good price. I was a successful experience. But would I do it again? Probably not. The chance of disappointment is too great for me to shoulder.

This sort of disappointment would probably be lessened if a single buyer (or company) was importing an entire shipping container on their own and could spread out the financing needed to fix up one or two basket cases over the entire load which may contain a few gems. Kind of like a shell game: a hundred dollars of parts on one is covered by a few hundred dollars of profit on another. But the days of retailers being able to bring these machines over in any sort of quantity is behind us, for the most part. The profit just isn’t there anymore. Our European connections can simply check the most times inflated prices of eBay and Boston Pinball and adjust their prices accordingly. The days of getting a Popeye Saves the Earth in a container for $250USD are long, long gone. I have a feeling the European sellers have now tried to target the collectors directly rather than selling to North American distributors. A distributor wouldn’t pay what amounts to $1500USD for a Roadshow with major issues–there just isn’t enough profit to be made after fixing it up. However, a private collector who wants to take on a restoration project might. Finding this collector, or group of collectors, that want a bulk load of thirty-five to seventy machines, with 25% of those being C and D list titles, is tough. Below is a list of prices for Bally/Williams games from an overseas seller, received in April 2014, just to give you an idea of how much a European wholesaler wants for their games now. The ever-hilarious “invisible wear” description makes a few appearances, as does the title of this article in reference to a Star Trek: The Next Generation, the absolutely eloquent: “Only give a defect on display, any stupidity”.

000-cont01

Anyone tempted by the €6000 sight-unseen Medieval Madness with a repainted playfield? Yeah, the one where the paint job is described as “not very professional work”? I didn’t think so. The series of Twilight Zone machines seem reasonable, and look to have enough meat left on the bone to account for near catastrophic damage or a few missing parts. However, the €700 Millionaire and €600 Fire! that is missing a flipper and won’t start definitely shows that Italians have no idea the value of D-list System 11 machines. And really, who does anymore?

In order to examine just how much times have changed in the last fifteen years, I went right to the source, and contacted pinball repair guru and current operator of the Pinball Ninja webzine Clay Harrell to ask him if he’d care to chronicle his experience importing container loads of machines in a very different pinball climate. Mr. Harrell is a veteran of over one dozen private container imports onto American soil, so he is obviously one of the experts in this field. Anyone who has watched Mr. Harrell’s pin repair DVD series “This Old Pinball” will remember that he included footage of his container spoils in episodes TOP3 and TOP4. Mr. Harrell writes:

Mr. Harrell, as Shaggy, with an unopened container. This Old Pinball, Volume 3

“Back ten to twenty years ago, I visited the rec.games.pinball newsgroup a lot. It was a different time: the group was smaller, friendlier, and much more polite than, say, Pinside. I forget how it happened, but through RGP got hooked up with a guy from Belgium named Bart. He was just getting into selling container loads of pinballs to guys in the U.S.

Now remember, back around 2000 or so the market was completely different. In Europe, few people wanted games, mostly because space was an issue and they had more local pubs and coffee shops where operators placed games. There really wasn’t a need to have a home pinball and house sizes are generally much smaller in Europe too, so it’s less practical to have games there.

Bart was driving around Belgium buying games, and assembling them at a storage place. When he got 72 games (the number that fits–shoe horns really–into a container), he would email me the list and ask if I wanted them. The answer was always “YES!”. The price for a 72 game container was generally about $15,000 to $20,000USD. Shipping was about $3500 (with about $50 per game added for shipping).

At the time, I didn’t have a place to land a full container. That, and you were only given two hours to unload the container, or you got charged heavily. So a loading dock or a fork lift was needed to unload (plus several guys). For this reason my friend Marty was the one that actually bought the container. My “tip” for setting up the deals was that I got ONE FREE GAME and I got to pick the game first right off the container, any game I wanted.

Prices for games was cheap. System11 games were generally $100 to $200. WPC games were $200 to $500. The only exception was the Addams Family and Twilight Zone and some other WPC95 games: those were usually $600 to $800.

I must of brought in at least eight containers for Marty. And I got eight free games. Good stuff too, like Tales of the Arabian Nights, Champion Pub, Shadow, and other stuff like that. But after eight containers, Bart couldn’t find any more games in Belgium! He said we bought them all. It’s not a big country. Overall the quality of games from Belgium was outstanding. These games were NICE.

I then started buying containers from Phil of Pinball Heaven in the U.K. These were usually “half containers” of 36 games, but sometimes full containers, too. But, now I was the one buying them. I still landed the games at Marty’s shop, but then had friends come over to help unload. And they would each haul the games they wanted straight home. I would put the rest in my driveway and sell them quickly (and hope for no rain!) at $100USD over cost. I would keep the titles I wanted and essentially get them for free. The longest it ever took me to sell a container of games was eleven days.

The good thing about Phil at Pinball Heaven that was he spoke English and he was a blast to deal with. Also he was VERY picky about his games. If there were any cosmetic problems, he would sell them to me. He wanted low hanging fruit for HIS business, and I got the “junk.” For example, a bunch of Star Trek: The Next Generations for $240 each that had broken ramps. Now remember, Phil is in a different part of the world where parts are harder to find. Pinball Inc wasn’t in business at the time. So any “problem” games with hard to source parts he sold to me. For me, in the US, the STTNG ramps were not a problem source at the time.

I also got a Medieval Madness from Phil for $750USD. It had some minor flipper wear. And got a Safecracker for $400USD in the original box! (Not brand new, but very lightly used.) He
actually had a NIB Safecracker I could have had for $800USD, but I passed. Duh! I did probably
five or six containers with Phil, and then he ran out of games for me also. Overall the quality of games from the U.K. was not as nice as Belgium…

Then we switched to buying containers from South America. I only did a couple loads from Argentina because now the game quality was starting to get very poor. South America had no parts, so everything was hacked and modified. It was still worth it, but only marginally so. Also, now it was the mid-2000s, and prices were starting to rise. And this is before prices here in the U.S. were very high. I did a couple containers from South America and then stopped. Also, the South American guys weren’t easy to understand and were a lot less fun to deal with than Bart or Phil.

At this point, I think it was about 2006. I was done with containers. Games were crappy and too expensive. I see some people now doing it again with European guys. I just got a list of a half container of 36 games. The guy wanted 50,000 euros for it! Yikes!! That’s crazy. Unfortunately, the time has passed on containers…at least for me.”

The spoils of Mr. Harrell’s container, in his garage, This Old Pinball, Volume 4

Up until now, I’ve really only touched on the North American experience with container pinball machines. Looking to the other side of the globe, Australians, too, have a ravenous desire to build their collections, but the availability of games on the island is finite. Generally speaking, there is still a reliance upon container imports down under, and it probably has as much to do with game availability as it does finding a deal. I contacted the most famous Australian pinball enthusiast I knew, Rod Cuddihy who co-hosts the Pinheadz Pinball Podcast, to have him weigh in on container imports from an Aussie perspective:

“Australia is the biggest island on the planet, so unless it is produced locally it’s got to come into the country by air or sea. When it comes to pinball machines it’s pretty clear which option is the most economic alternative. However, after your freight costs, Customs agent fees, port handling charges, goods & services tax, trucking expenses and the potential of further fees from the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service you can add anywhere from $1000-$2000AUD to the cost of your game.

It is at this point that the appeal of importing an entire container begins to look a lot more attractive to the Aussie Pinhead. The per unit cost of bringing pins into the country decreases significantly, however, the initial capital required to import an entire container combined with significant logistic challenges means most of us ultimately put the idea into the “Too Hard” basket. So generally, dealers are the ones importing the majority of containers.

A restoration professional who imports a container into the country annually once told me that at any given time, there is always a container of pinball machines on the water coming to Australia. Nearly all those containers are coming from Europe and house games from both the Electromechanical and Solid State eras. Obviously, this doesn’t include the new Stern games that are coming in from the US.

While my collection has a number of “Australian Delivered” games, I also have games that were initially sent to Italy, France, Germany and New Zealand. The New Zealand game, a Fish Tales, is odd, as I’ve never heard of anyone importing a container from New Zealand, but it’s made it’s way over here somehow. The biggest bone of contention within the Australian pinball collecting community is “container pin condition”. In a nutshell, opinions are generally formed from personal experience–some say they’ll never buy “trashed beaters” brought in by the container load. But generally Aussie pinheadz know that pins can get equally trashed wherever you are in the world, so if it’s in nice condition – who cares where it comes from. In my experience, the condition of imported games is generally very good. I’ve bought a collector quality Family Guy and Sopranos virtually straight out of a container. But, maybe I’ve just been lucky. Don’t get me wrong I’ve witnessed some disasters where unwitting first time importers have been taken advantage of by an unscrupulous overseas wholesaler who’s dumped a load of “project pins” on them. But the stories of sharks are rare.

The overseas containers being brought into the country are the lifeblood of the pinball resurgence in Australia. In a number of cases we’re seeing games that were never released in Australia or initially brought out here in very low numbers.”

While the containers that came to North America in the last fifteen years contained mainly Bally-Williams and Data East DMD games as their prize bounties, the Australian’s receive a steady diet of pinball machines from all ages, including Electromechanical and early Solid State titles. That may be a sign of the interests of the Aussies, or perhaps that the collectors down under are hungry for whatever they can get their hands on. For a sampling of the types of machines imported into Australia, an idea of their general condition and their asking prices (in Australian dollars), please check out the blog maintained by Pinball Machines Australia, a retailer outside of Melbourne that regularly posts photos of their container imports. It appears that they clean and refurbish what they can to sell in their showroom and shuffle off the basket cases that require a significant amount of time and work as “AS IS” projects. More insight into what arrives into Australia via container can be gleaned from the Pinheadz Pinball Podcast Episode Three, wherein Mr. Cuddihy tags along with Pinball Memories, another Melbourne-area retailer based in Caroline Springs, as they open a newly-landed container and organize its contents.

A container arrives at Pinball Machine Australia, Melbourne.

With the worldwide resurgence of pinball, I’m sure overseas wholesalers are having a tough time prying loose merchandise from former operators and collectors to send across the ocean. As Mr. Harrell noted, some countries were completely tapped back in the mid-2000s, so there is bound to be little left. The significant price increase paired with the lower quality “dregs” still available to the wholesaler makes this market almost dead to North Americans. For the Aussies, it obviously remains a viable avenue. Does this have something to do with the Aussies being more adept at “making do”? Anyhow, I’m glad I participated when I did, and added a game to my collection that will probably never leave. I’m happy with it and in the end that’s all that really matters. My refugee re-import Addams Family stands as a container success story among tales of misrepresentation, foul smells, water damage, corrosion, missing parts and a few handfuls of sand.

I would like to thank Clay Harrell, Rod Cuddihy, and Adriano Jorge for their contribution to this article. Special thanks to Don Walton, Jr. Extra special thanks to the Credit Dot readership for their patience in what seemed to be a long break between posts.

Further Reading:

Pinball Revolution – Container Pinballs *list received*
High End Pins – Gallery
Pinball Revolution – Dr@no’s Fun-Filled (and often long winded) Restorations
Pinball Revolution – Converting Pinball Voltage From European to North American
PinRepair.com – This Old Pinball DVDs
Pinheadz Pinball Podcast – Homepage
Pinball Machines Australia - Container Day Pics
Facebook – Pinball Memories Australia

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