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REVIEW: Pop Bumper Showdown, Part 2: Comet Pinball

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(Part one of this series can be found by following this link…)

It is no secret that Comet Pinball is a friend of Credit Dot. The Comet Pinball logo adorns the front page of this site as a partner for crying out loud! I’ve been buying from Art Rubin at Comet since he started the company a few years back. When talking about doing this series of articles on pop bumper lighting, Mr. Rubin, being the stand up, honest and right-down-the-middle-type guy he is, made it clear he wanted an honest and fair review of his products. And that’s what he’ll get. The Comet Pinball approach to pop bumper lighting follows the philosophy of the company as a whole: lighting comes down to personal tastes, and Comet offers a plethora of solutions to try and please those tastes. In Mr. Rubin’s own words:

“Personal preferences start with the player. It is not hard to learn what brightness and lighting effects please an individual. The joy of doing this, and the unique result, is as personal as decorating a Christmas tree. I would like to think that most people would enjoy tweaking the look of their game immensely [with different lighting solutions] and having a completely unique result!”

Thus, instead of offering just one pop bumper lighting choice, Comet Pinball offers many. I was able to get my hands on a few of Comet’s solutions to lighting the pops, and put them through the motions in a hands-on test.

Background:

Mr. Rubin has been providing the pinball community with LED solutions since September 2013 and is a very active member of the pinball community as a whole (he can be found posting quite frequently on Pinside as “OLDPINGUY”). For a more complete look at Comet, you can read the interview Credit Dot conducted with Mr. Rubin in October of 2014. As you wade through the Comet Pinball catalog, you are bound to notice Comet’s newest pop bumper lighting option comes in the form of a disc, and adds to an already robust lineup of bumper lighting options. This review format will differ from that of the BriteCaps EVO review that appeared last week, for organization sake. Five different Comet products were procured for test.

Traditional 555 Options:

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Traditional 555 Options from Comet (L to R): the 4+1SMD Tower, the 2SMD Faceted bulb and the 6LED Crystal Fan.

Some folks may not be satisfied with the look that an SMD insert gives to their bumpers, so Comet offers a few options with a traditional 555 wedge base. For purposes of testing, I was able to play with three selections: the 6 LED Crystal Fan, 4+1 SMD Tower and the 2 SMD Faceted Lens Supreme Brightness No Ghosting bulb. Knowing that Pin*Bot would be the Guinea pig, I colour-matched all the options available to red. These options, while giving a more traditional centre-lit look to the bumpers, really do pack some power. If you are on a budget, or simply rally against non-traditional forms of pop bumper lighting, there are some options here for you. For less than five bucks you can bring brightness back to your pops. Of the three options I tested, I would absolutely recommend the 6LED Crystal Fan. It has a look that can’t be beat, while not being too harsh on the eyes. Despite being the only LED in the bunch, the LED “crystals” are arranged in such a way that it appears as the brightest option and disperses the light in both an even and far reaching manner. The 2SMD bulb really didn’t stand out in testing. The faceted lens worked to even out the brightness of the traditionally harsh SMD, but the light had to fight through that lens AND the pop bumper cap, thus appearing a bit tired as well negatively focussing the light source to a single area. The 4+1 tower, frankly, didn’t fit within the confines of the Pin*Bot pop bumper. Having restored the Pin*Bot, I had switched the socket with the flat wire leads out for the more reliable socket with insulated leads. The insulated lead socket doesn’t sit flush with the bottom of the bumper base, thus taking away a few millimeters, which the 4+1 Tower absolutely needs to sit properly within the base. The accompanying photo shows that the Tower had to sit at a 45 degree angle in order for the cap to fit. I tried the tower in a different game that had a socket with insulated leads, and the tower did fit, but the top SMD is so close to the clear bumper cap, that it prevents the light from throwing in a meaningful manner. The 6LED Fan is the clear winner here.

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The top pop bumper contains the crooked 4+1SMD Tower, the middle contains the 6LED Fan and the bottom contains the 2SMD lamp.

Price: 2SMD Faceted Non-Ghosting bulb, $0.89USD each; 6 LED Crystal Fan, $1.39USD each; 4+1SMD Tower, $1.39USD each (bulk discounts available)

Colour Palate: Blue, Red, Green, Yellow, Purple, Natural White, Warm White across all options. 2SMD Faceted and 6LED Fan adds Pink and Orange to the palate.

Comet Rings:

00-compops16Following in the footsteps of BriteMods BriteCaps, Comet Pinball began to offer their own pop bumper rings with the value you’ve come to expect from the Comet brand. While the BriteCap shipped with its own pop bumper cap, the Comet ring came bare, needing to be used in conjunction with your existing cap. The BriteCap and Comet Ring both carry 20 colour SMDs on the top of the ring to light the perimeter of the cap, one SMD in the centre at the base, and ten SMDs on the bottom of the ring to illuminate the playfield. The original BriteCap and Comet Ring vary in three ways: the inclusion of the bumper cap (as stated above), colour selection, and price. The colour selection allows the consumer to choose the colour of the ten bottom SMDs, either natural white or matched with the colour of the SMDs on the top. The Comet Ring comes in at $7.95USD per unit compared to $14.95USD per unit for a BriteCap that will produce a similar, if not identical, look. It is no surprise that BriteMods has moved away from the BriteCap design given Comet’s price point that comes in at half the cost (and have since focused on promotion and production of the BriteCaps EVO line).

The 555 base is attached to the ring with two insulated wire leads.  It is a traditional LED base with the dinky wires that need to be bent and shaped to make a decent connection.  The construction of the ring is slight, but for good reason–when installed it gives a clean, dare I say “sharp”, look.  I really like the results the Comet Ring brought in test. I had red colour-matched rings with natural white bottom lights for the Pin*Bot test, and a set of yellow colour-matched rings with natural white bottoms to test on Mousin’ Around. Given that the BriteCaps EVO, reviewed last week, adds 5 millimeters of height to the bumpers, I believe the rings are a suitable option for those games where clearance would be an issue. The ring nests neatly inside the pop bumper cap adding no height to the pop bumper whatsoever. The light design, while static and non-traditional, is an eye-catcher, especially for those who are used to the traditional, centre-lit incandescent look.  I can remember seeing these in person on a game for the very first time, a Williams Diner, and I was completely taken by the pattern created on the bumper’s perimeter as well as the brightness it brought to the playfield from the bottom lights. The brightness control, adjusted with a Phillips-head screwdriver, works well to dial down the harshness for those with sensitivity to SMD lighting.  I tested the rings at their brightest, with great results.

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A set of Comet Rings installed in Mousin’ Around.

One caveat, and perhaps a major drawback of the rings, is important to mention. Seeing as the Comet rings ship as a stand-alone unit, with no pop bumper cap, it is important that you follow the instructions that Comet sends along with each ring order for successful installation. The rings can be very easily shorted on the metal ring and rod assembly of the bumper. If the ring is shorted, in some cases it will still light, but only at a fraction of its original capabilities. The rings absolutely need to be affixed to the inside of the cap before installation. I’m sure this was a problem for BriteMods, and that is why they ship their BriteCap with a pop bumper cap already attached. I’ll admit, one ring did short during test on Pin*Bot. I had used two dabs of hot glue to keep the rings in place, however it proved to be not enough on one of the caps I installed. I upped the points of glue contact to four for future applications, and have not had a problem since. I used hot glue so that the ring could be removed and replaced with other lighting solutions for testing purposes. It worked well and was fairly innocuous when used sparingly to the underside of the cap, but those that know Comet rings will be their permanent lighting solution may want to use a more permanent adhesive, making sure the selected product will not cloud the clear bumper cap (Krazy Glue or Gorilla Glue will most likely create that unwanted clouding effect, so be careful). Each Comet ring appears to be tested before it leaves company headquarters to make sure all rings are functioning properly upon shipment. There isn’t much that can be done to solve the shorting problem (short of shipping it pre-glued in a bumper cap), but it is completely preventable if consumers carefully follow the installation instructions.

Price: $7.95USD each.

Colour Options: Blue, Amber, Cyan, Green, Red, Purple, Yellow, Warm White, Natural White. Bottom lights come in either natural white, or matched to the colour of the top lights.

Comet Discs:

00-compops17To be clear, the term “disc” is a term I ‘ve coined for the article. Comet offers the product by the name of “11 SMD Pop Bumper Light” but for clarity sake, I’ll call it the Comet Disc as a way to distinguish it from the other options. This is the newest pop bumper lighting option from Comet, and appears to be a cousin of CoinTaker LED’s AfterBurner line of pop bumper lights. The Comet disc is available in either a 555 wedge or a 44/47 bayonet base, making this option versatile for older machines that had 44 incandescent bulbs in the pops. The disc’s small diameter also makes it a viable option for Bally/Williams “Jumper Bumpers”, as found on games like Elvira and the Party Monsters. The disc has an outer diameter of 1 1/2 inches giving it enough surface area for the hardware mounted on it, but small enough to work with older or non-traditional style pop caps.

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The Comet Disc fitting perfectly in a non-traditional bumper cap: the Bally Jumper Bumper.

The traditional base is affixed to the disc via insulated wires, much like the ring. The top of the disc features a large central SMD surrounded by six smaller SMDs available in a wide variety of colours, while the bottom has four natural white SMDs to light the pop bumper body. The discs do a good job of throwing light, looking akin to a disco ball when installed. I used colour-matched red discs in Pin*Bot for testing purposes. I’m not quite sold on the fact that the bottom SMDs “light up” the opaque pop bumper base with any real benefit. It is kind of a waste to have them on the bottom, expecially if your pop bumpers are tucked away in a back corner. I much prefer the bottom lighting on the Comet Rings that light up the playfield rather than the four bottom SMDs which end up being internal. The bottom SMDs may be a feature more beneficial for older games with stand-alone pop bumpers placed in plain view rather than nested under ramps or behind a maze of wireforms. Again, Comet has included a brightness dimmer with this product to reign in the harshness of the SMDs. I found the colour to be more rich when dimmed a bit, rather than leaving it at full brightness. The disc wins in terms of value, lighting your pop bumpers with an SMD flare for less than $15USD for a set of three. However, for an extra five bucks you can get yourself into a set of Comet rings that will really catch your eye.

Price: $4.95USD each.

Colour Options: Blue, Red, Green, Orange, Yellow, Purple, Cyan, Warm White, Natural White. Bottom colour is natural white across all colours, except natural white which comes with a natural white bottom colour.

Bottom Line:

Out of all of the options, I liked the look of the 6LED Fan lights in Pin*Bot the best, and will probably stick with them going forward after I’ve tested all the products in this series (bolster them with the Pinball Life-supplied “Nordman’s Sparkly Pop Bumper Enhancement Thingy” and it will really make them pop). The rings and the discs both took too much away from the plexi Bride playfield that sits atop the pops.  For me, a more traditional look (while taking advantage of modern technology) was necessary. Those looking to light their pops on a budget, I’d highly suggest the fan option from Comet.

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A 2SMD in the top pop bumper, a Comet Ring in the middle, and a Comet Disc in the bottom.

When it comes to a showdown of Ring against Disc, I’d have to choose the Comet Ring on looks alone. I’ve shown the photo of the rings installed on my Mousin’ Around to a few people in my local pinball community and they’ve given nothing but positive feedback. It’s a completely different look than traditional lighting options, and gives a splash of light onto the playfield from the ten bottom SMDs that you don’t get with the disc. If you can look past the fact that you’ll have to install the rings with the utmost of care, it is an option that offers a lot of value as compared to other upscale pop bumper lighting options on the market. The ring is a bit of a non-traditional choice, as it lights the perimeter of the pop bumper and leaves the middle somewhat bare (save for a single SMD at the base). The disc is the opposite, lighting the middle and leaving the perimeter unlit.  In the end, while costing less in the long run, I don’t think the look of the discs are for me.  The Comet Ring offers a “cleaner” overall look. I’d welcome a Comet Pinball product that takes the perimeter lighting of the Ring and the centre lighting of the Disc and fuses them into one lighting solution, much like BriteMods has done with their BriteCaps EVO line. If nothing else, Comet Pinball’s dedication to choice and value really shines through, offering a multitude of pop bumper lighting options to satisfy any pinball enthusiast’s desires at a price that won’t hurt your wallet.

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Credit Dot Pinball/Comet Pinball Contest!

Two Comet Pinball prize packages are up for grabs. The prizes were generously donated by Art from Comet Pinball. Two randomly selected winners will receive some of the products that were tested above, along with some other exclusive Comet Pinball wares. To enter, simply send an e-mail to creditdotpinball@gmail.com with the word “COMET” in the subject line. One entry for the Comet contest per email address please. If you entered the first BriteCaps EVO contest, please enter this contest, too! Two winners will be picked at random (using random.org). Contest closes June 30, 2015 and winners will be announced shortly thereafter. Open to residents of the US and Canada only…I’d love to open it up, I can’t afford to ship stuff overseas!


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REVIEW: Pop Bumper Showdown, Part 1: BriteMods BriteCaps EVO

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Ah, the pop bumper. The ultimate ball randomizer. It was once the centerpiece of nearly every pinball table, but as technology changed and playfield layouts became more complex, the pop bumpers became somewhat of an intrusion, leftovers from a bygone era, and were tucked away in dark corners and hidden under elaborate ramps. Take Williams Demolition Man, for example. Not only was one pop bumper assembly completely removed from the layout, you’d be actually hard pressed to notice they exist at all, blocked from view by a series of ramps, wire forms and plastics. This is a far cry from the days when bumpers all but dominated the woodrail era games. Ask any pinball aficionado, though, and they’ll tell you that it ain’t a pinball machine unless there are pop bumpers on it! As the bumpers themselves moved to the periphery, it became obvious that the single light contained within the assembly itself wasn’t enough to draw attention to the unit. Faceted caps were employed in some instances, as in many modern Stern games, or covered up completely with molded plastics, as they were in Data East’s Simpsons and Williams’ White Water. However, for the most part, pinball companies old and new have resisted perfecting new lighting techniques for the pop bumper, and have stuck with the same old single bulb in a single socket.

The recent surge in enthusiasm for LED lighting has allowed aftermarket companies to offer up solutions for the tired looking, and somewhat forgotten, pop bumpers. Love them or hate them, LEDs are common place in today’s pinball landscape. So much, that every game that leaves Stern Pinball’s factory now comes with a full compliment of LEDs.  To move your old game into the 21st century, you could just remove the carbonized 555 incandescent that currently sits inside your pop bumper and replace it with one of countless LED designs on the market.  However, the minds at aftermarket lighting companies in the pinball landscape have dreamt up other designs that take lighting the pop bumper cap to the next level. In the next week or so, I’m going to try and wade through the sometimes confusing world of pop bumper lighting options, and weigh the pros and drawbacks of each solution. I’ve rounded up pop bumper lighting solutions from three of the biggest names in the hobby—Comet Pinball, CoinTaker and BriteMods—in an attempt to explore the different options out there. If you are a staunch supporter of incandescent bulbs, this series may not be for you. If you constantly strive to make your machine look its best, brightest and most colourful, I’ll try my best to help you make your pop bumpers really…um, pop.

Part 1: BriteMods BriteCaps EVO Series

When in doubt, start with the most expensive option, right? All kidding aside, BriteMods’ BriteCaps EVO pop bumper light has to be considered a front runner in the race to light your pops. It isn’t just a lightbulb, it’s an entire lighting solution. Available exclusively from go-to parts supplier Pinball Life, the BriteCaps EVO (which stands for Enhanced Visual Output) provides a visually pleasing experience while giving customers bang for their buck in extra features not available from the other aftermarket lighting companies. The BriteCaps EVO was born from BriteMods’ first foray into pop bumper lighting: the original BriteCap. The original design, which is still available from Pinball Life, was a unit consisting of 31-Surface Mounted Diode (SMD) lights mounted to both the top and bottom sides of a ring set inside a pop bumper cap. Since the unit came “pre-capped”, the end-user removed their old pop bumper cap and simply installed the new one with the BriteCap pre-installed in it. The BriteCap EVO takes the cap out of the equation and ups the LED count to an astounding 40 points of light: 24 SMDs on the topside available in a wide array of colours, 10 white SMDs on the bottom to illuminate the playfield, and 6 center SMDs that can be adjusted (via a switch) to always be on, or to react to the vibrations of the pop bumper. Your original pop bumper cap is used in the EVO application.

Background:

I had the opportunity to speak to Dan Rosen of BriteMods recently, and he was nice enough to fill us in on the company’s history and involvement in pop bumper modding:

“BiteMods has been around since 2013. I started designing and selling mods to folks on Pinside, but soon became overwhelmed by the response and needed a retail partner. Pinball Life was my immediate choice as partner, as they have a great reputation for quality products at fair prices, as well as exceptional service. I now sell exclusively through their web store. [Lighting pop bumpers] began with the original BriteCaps design and was simply an automotive accessory adapted for pinball. I wanted to design the ultimate pop bumper lighting from the ground up, and that’s what BriteCaps EVO represents.”

What You Get:

Each BriteCaps EVO unit comes individually boxed. Inside the box, you get the BriteCaps EVO itself, a set of installation instructions and two pop bumper screws that are longer than the traditional ones to account for the extra height the BriteCaps EVO adds to the bumper. The BriteCaps EVO is a single unit—it’s built like a tank—and has no wires or other external hangings. The unit has a brightness adjustment dial, that can be manipulated with a Phillips screwdriver to set the brightness to your liking. Pinball Life gives you the option of adding on pop bumper caps to your BriteCaps EVO order, but from what I can see, they are just standard Williams/Bally caps that are offered.

Price:

The BriteCaps EVO experience isn’t a cheap one. Each EVO unit will set you back $12.95USD. That puts a set of three at $38.85USD. It still comes in cheaper than its predecessor the original BriteCap, which retails for $14.95USD each for a standard cap, and $16.95USD for a jeweled cap.

Palate:

The BriteCaps EVO brand comes in red, blue, green, purple, orange, yellow, warm white and cool white. Note that this colour choice is for the 30 lights on the top of the EVO only, the bottom ten lights are white across all colour choices.

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Application & Installation:

The EVO will work in any Williams/Bally, Stern, Sega or Data East game that uses a standard pop bumper body. Standard, unfaceted, unjewelled caps seem to be suggested (and encouraged) by BriteMods and Pinball Life, as they are offered as an add-on to your EVO order. The unit itself is pretty much plug and play. With the machine off, remove the bumper cap and 555 bulb, choose your Flash React™ setting via the switch on the bottom of the unit, carefully insert the EVO into the bumper socket, and reattach the cap with the two screws provided.

Review:

I really like the construction of the EVO unit. The base that plugs into the socket has incredible substance. The most frustrating part of LEDing a game is dealing with those little wire connections on the plastic stem of the bulb assembly. They need to be wiggled, adjusted and bent in a very particular way so that a solid connection is made with the socket. Hoping that connection is sustained, and doesn’t mis-align during normal game play, is a worry as well. The EVO design completely eliminates all this fiddling around. The connection point plugs into the pop bumper socket with ease and gives a robust connection on the first attempt.

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Base connection points of the EVO versus the standard 555 LED/SMD bulb.

The side-fire positioning of the top SMDs make for a visually pleasing experience. The theory behind the side-fire mounting is that the light is directed outwards, rather than directly up toward the player. This achieves maximum light throw without burning the retinas of the player. I was able to colour match red EVOs to the red pop bumpers in both Williams Pin*Bot and Rollergames. I prefer the look of matching the colour of the EVO to the bumper cap, rather than letting the colour of the bumper cap do all the work with a white light beneath it. The latter gives a washed out feeling, while colour matching gives a much more full and rich result (as it does when colour matching an LED with a playfield insert).  The picture below of the EVOs installed in Pin*Bot may not illustrate this completely, but the middle bumper with red EVO emits a far truer red than the bottom bumper does with its warm white EVO. The BriteMods website suggests that the user may also consider replacing coloured bumper caps with clear ones, giving the chosen colour of EVO a clean palate to work with. I swapped in a clear cap momentarily for the test in Pin*Bot, but it was not a look I was fond of. The light was much too harsh on the eyes and less visually pleasing than colour matching with a red cap. Admittedly, my eyes have a hard time processing LED/SMD lighting, and when I wear my glasses to play, it just gets worse. I installed the red BriteCaps EVO with a red pop bumper cap on full brightness on both Pin*Bot and Rollergames, and never had an issue with the light being harsh or distracting (we can thank colour matching the cap with the SMD and the side-firing for that, I believe).

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Pin*Bot Application: Top bumper contains a standard 555 incandescent, middle bumper contains a red EVO with Flash React enabled, bottom bumper contains a warm white EVO with Flash React disabled.

The 10 bottom white SMDs do a great job of completely lighting up the pop bumper area. The results were stellar in Rollergames, a pinball machine notorious for leaving the rear half of the playfield ill-lit and hidden under black plastic coverings. The light cast by the bottom SMDs work to illuminate the once gloomy area and in doing so bring to life the art around it. It also worked to brighten up the playfield area beneath the mini-playfield on Pin*Bot, nicely catching the sheen of the freshly clear-coated playfield I had installed.

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Rollergames application: A set of red EVOs are installed. The photo captures how well the EVOs light up the surroundings, compared to the dim incandescent bulbs near the rollovers.

The six center SMD lights, armed with Flash React™ technology, are a neat little bonus you get with the BriteCaps EVO brand. Some may use this interactivity to help justify the expensive sticker price of the unit itself. On the bottom side of the EVO, there is a small toggle button. If left in its original position, it disables the trademarked feature and the six lights stay on with the other 24 top lights. If depressed, the lights will remain off until vibrations from the game (moreover, the pop bumpers) are detected, which will light the six center lights briefly. It makes for a neat light show when the ball gets bouncing around in the pop bumper nest. I would have liked to have seen more than just six of the thirty lights react to pop bumper hits, but I’m sure it walks a fine line—too many would have created unwanted strobe. I can’t help but think that there seems to be missed potential with the technology as it is employed here. However, Flash React™ is not a necessary feature that needed to be included, but makes for a nice interactive, customizable bonus and is a feature that may work to set EVO apart from its competitors.

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Flash React in action

One unavoidable downfall with the EVO is that it adds 5mm in height to your pop bumpers. The circumference of the EVO is just as big as the pop bumper cap itself, meaning the EVO will not nest inside the cap like an original BrightCap ring would have. It’s an unavoidable issue: the inner plastic lip of the pop bumper cap traditionally envelops the outer edge of the pop bumper body, however the EVO sits flush on top of the body, thus, the pop bumper cap may only rest flush on top of the EVO. A word of warning: be ready for frustrating clearance issues and making an endless amount of adjustments for any game with pop bumpers that have ramps, wireforms or mini playfields that rest on top of or near them. On test, Rollergames was able to handle the extra height of the EVO, however, Pin*Bot’s mini-playfield posed fit problems after EVO installation. I already had the thicker Classic Playfield Reproductions mini-playfield installed, and those extra 5mm really threw everything out of whack, even creating a ball hang-up on the mini-playfield where there was not one before. As stated above, each EVO is shipped with a set of longer pop bumper screws that take into account the extra height added, which is fantastic forethought, but short of grinding out that inner pop bumper lip with a Dremel, there is a high probability of fit issues in many modern games. BriteMods also warns of using the EVO in games where partially cut bumper caps are necessary (think Addams Family’s single sawed-off cap next to the side ramp).

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A warm white EVO installed in Pin*Bot

Bottom Line:

If you can justify spending the money, BriteMods’ BriteCaps EVO provides an excellent lighting solution and a quality product that will make the pop bumpers, and their surroundings, stand out. The build quality of the unit is truly exceptional. The first product reviewed in the series looks to be a front-runner for top of the class. That said, the extra interactivity provided by the Flash React™ is a fun and unique attribute to have, but the result of six small lights reacting in time with the firing of pop bumpers may not be enough for some to consider the feature “value added”.  The extra height is a major downfall in an otherwise fantastic product. Fit issues will prevent me from keeping the EVO in my Pin*Bot, but the extra splash of light and colour they add to Rollergames makes for a welcome change to the dull 555 lighting.

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Check back for Part Two in the series, where CoinTaker’s AfterBurner pop bumper lighting solution is tested and reviewed.

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Credit Dot Pinball/BriteMods Contest!

Two BriteMods prize packages are up for grabs! The prizes were generously donated by Dan Rosen at BriteMods. The first randomly selected winner will receive a set of three BriteCaps EVO and a set of BriteMods BriteButtons flipper buttons. The second randomly selected winner will receive a set of BriteMods BriteButtons. To enter, simply send an e-mail to creditdotpinball@gmail.com with the word “EVO” in the subject line. One entry per person please. Two winners will be picked at random (using random.org). Contest closes July 1st, 2015 and winners will be announced shortly thereafter. Open to residents of the US and Canada only…I’d love to open it up, I can’t afford to ship stuff overseas!


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OPINION: The Complications of Letting Go

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I’m very good at buying games. I’m getting better at restoring games. But I’m absolutely dreadful at selling or trading games. My gameroom is something akin to a black hole or Jame Gumb’s basement: the things that enter seldom leave.

This was all well and good when disposable income and space were both plentiful. Recently, however, the household (ie. my wife) has tightened the purse strings on frivolous expenses and the basement is reaching absolute critical mass. I’m at the point where furniture would need to be removed to add more games. The once-promised sitting room, housing just “a few” games, where guests could be comfortably entertained, is bordering on a full-fledged arcade with little room for socialization. The eleven games in my current collection eclipses the maximum of eight that my wife once asked me to observe. I am at the point now where one game must to go if another is to come in. And that poses a problem for me.

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My son, at ten months, “playing” Solar Fire in 2012.

I’m not sure how many are affected the same way: I have completely fabricated a personal attachment to each of the games in my gameroom and I have a very hard time letting go. Of the games that I purchased with my own hard-earned money, I’ve only ever been able to bring myself to sell or trade one of them. And trading that one game was tough. Heart-breaking, even. Much more so because it was my very first game that I purchased back in 1995, a Williams Solar Fire which I have written about here. I traded it to a good friend who appreciates early Solid State games from the dawn of the 80s more than I ever will. In return, I got a Pin*Bot which came with an uninstalled Classic Playfield Reproductions playfield. I seized the opportunity to flesh out my collection with a game I enjoy one hundred times more than Solar Fire, but still, packing up that Solar Fire for delivery made me sick to my stomach. I had grown with it. It was the game that started the adventure of building a pinball collection.

I understand that these things are inanimate objects–heaps of steel, plastic and wood–and any feeling or attachment I have for them is a construct of my own subconscious, but it doesn’t help ease the distress. I’ve got a whole laundry list of “important landmarks” I can attach to each of my games: the first game I got when my son was born, the first game I completely restored from the ground up, a copy of the game I played endlessly with my father at an arcade when I was growing up. I’ve manufactured reasons to horde these commercial oddities in an unhealthy fashion. I suppose others are affected to a greater extent: whereas I’m reluctant to let go of any one of my eleven fully working games, others have trouble letting go storage units full of games that aren’t even on legs! We’re listening to the same radio station, just consumed at different volumes, I guess.

There is also the fact that I covet the value of the bird-in-hand, as opposed to the two that may be in the bush. If I let go of my Addams Family, when will I ever be in a position to get another if the market continues to trend upward as it has over the past few years? To replace a game with another copy in the same (or better) condition at the price point I have originally acquired it would prove to be difficult. I’m more of a “stand pat” kind of guy rather than throwing caution to the wind, and that complicates things.

Collectors say it all the time: “You can’t keep’em all!”. And it’s true. Gameroom turnover keeps things fresh, and rejuvenates one’s interest in the hobby. But, I’ve come to love the little intricacies of my games, tinkering with them, making them “my own”, bringing them back to life. I probably enjoy twiddling about in the backbox or under the playfield just as much as I do playing the games. Don’t get me wrong, I probably average about twenty minutes a day in the gameroom actively flipping, however, working on games and playing them with any high level of expertise are two unique skill sets. For many like me, there is little overlap. I’m firmly in the “collector camp”, as my playing skills leave much to be desired. This is probably another reason for my unwillingness to let go: I’ve become heavily involved in making them perform at their absolute zenith rather than just playing the snot out of them with reckless abandon. I’m like a mad scientist who forbids the angry mob from harming the monster he created.

I promise, I’m not a freak.  I’m not sleeping under the machines or gently stroking them while whispering sweet nothings of how they’ll be waxed later in the week. My wife isn’t being supplanted with Pin*Bot. I just need to learn to let go. I need to suppress these manufactured emotional connections I have. They can’t all be keepers. All still water will get stagnant eventually.

White Water, reluctantly packed up and ready to leave.

White Water, reluctantly packed up and ready to leave.

So, two weeks ago, I overcame the manufactured odds and traded my second game. I had to let another escape, if only for my own sanity. I traded my White Water for a World Cup Soccer ‘94 and some cash. The White Water wasn’t collector quality–the cabinet was beat, however everything under the glass was really nice and it was solid as a rock for the three years I had owned it. I liked the game. One of Nordman’s best, for sure. Diverse gameplay, unique layout, fantastic art and perhaps the best music ever created for a pinball machine. But it wasn’t getting much play by anyone other than me. When guests would visit, White Water wasn’t given a second look. Even my three-year-old son, who indiscriminately, yet passionately, flips away on all the machines, gave the game the cold shoulder. On the other hand, I really wanted a World Cup Soccer. My collection was devoid of a John Popadiuk-designed game, and World Cup is the only one of his that can be had without breaking the bank. More importantly, my three-year-old son has played soccer since he could walk and has really taken to the sport–I thought he’d get a real kick out of the game (pun intended). A really, really nice one became available, and my potential trade partner wanted my White Water in return. I came close to pulling the plug at a few points during negotiations, but I finally cut the cord, folded up White Water with little fanfare and brought home a World Cup Soccer ‘94. (Not having moved a game OUT of the basement gameroom proved to be a blessing in disguise for all these years–turns out they are much more heavy and awkward to remove than they are to put in). A friend of mine says that with each game exiled, it only gets easier to see them leave. I hope he’s right.

Any regrets I had about the trade quickly eroded when I lifted the backbox on World Cup and my son, standing on his overturned milk-crate softly cooed: “Soccer ball pin ball…my favourite!” His eyes were like saucers and he was grinning from ear to ear as he took in everything from the cartoon dog Striker on the backglass to the rotating soccer ball on the playfield. During his first game he raised his hands in victory when he scored his first goal, only to have the ball immediately drain while he was celebrating as it was kicked back to the right flipper. On separate occasions, he excitedly tried to explain to a lady at the library and his long-time soccer coach about our new gameroom acquisition. Neither could understand him, as excitement turned him into a complete marble-mouth. I had to explain on his behalf. I then had to explain further that, yes, we did have a full-sized pinball machine in our basement, and, yes, we did have more than one.

The boy playing his new favourite game.  Made the trade worthwhile.

The boy playing his new favourite game. Made the trade worthwhile.

Only today am I struck by the irony: World Cup Soccer is the game my son now runs to first when we visit the gameroom, and he has even started to refer to it as “his” game. Thus, the kid is a chip off the old block when it comes to forming emotional attachments to pinball machines. Looks like we got another keeper on our hands and a potential problem when it comes time to get rid of World Cup Soccer. However, my emotional attachment here isn’t with the machine…clearly, it’s with my son. And that’s something that can’t be fabricated.


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PEOPLE: Brett Davis from XPin

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For nearly five years, XPin has been the collector community’s choice for re-engineered replacement displays.  With a strict adherence to quality control and an eye for innovative design, Brett Davis has engineered a bevy of replacement parts for our beloved games.  With his newest innovation, 7Volution, he has also changed the way we play our games as well.  Credit Dot Pinball is pleased to present an interview Mr. Davis about his beginnings, innovations, business philosophies and new products.

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Credit Dot: How long has Xpin been in the pinball business?

Brett Davis: The XPin brand has been in existence since September of 2011, which is when the first distributors started to receive their product.  The actual http://www.xpinpinball.com website when live in January 2012.

CD: What were some of the first Xpin displays offered for sale?

BD: That’s a tough one.  Because of the product line, it only makes sense to offer all similar products at once, so it would be all of my Williams and Bally displays.  They were all released about the same time.  The Dot Matrix displays were released a little bit later.

CD: Is there a history between Xpin and Pinscore? There is some overlap in the products offered.

BD: There is some is some history between XPin and Pinscore.  I am the original designer of the Pinscore products.  When I chose to separate myself from Pinscore, the original Pinscore designs became the property of Marco Specialties because they owned the name Pinscore.  This forced me to re-engineer what I had done to make XPin.

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XPin’s XP-WMS10877 display kit, in blue, installed in the author’s Pin*Bot.

CD: What makes the XPin product a better choice for aftermarket displays as opposed to those of your competitors?

BD: There are a couple of reasons that XPin is a better choice for aftermarket replacements.  First, each product is a true re-engineering, or re-design of the original product.  I did a lot of research into the failings that occurred with the original designs.  I guess you can say it was a little forensic engineering.  I chose to avoid copying the original design because in doing so you just duplicate the problems that caused them to fail in the first place.  Second, technology today is so much more capable than it was 20-30 years ago.  The majority of failures that occur due to the circuit design can be eliminated with newer technology and different circuits.  Third, using modern manufacturing methods, reliability and cost can be controlled to make a quality product.  Obviously with exceptions to components and the circuit boards, all XPin products are manufactured here in the US.

CD: Can you share some of your best selling display kits at the moment?

BD: The XPin bestsellers are the Williams System 11 displays and the XP-DMD4096 (dot matrix) displays.

00-xpinint08CD: Can you tell me a little about your groundbreaking 7Volution display kit?

BD: Modern technology is what makes 7Volution possible.  Over the years people have hacked the game code, modified the MPU boards, added wires to the harness, all to make 7-digit scoring possible.  The problem is that once you choose to go down that mod path, it’s hard to go back.  Also, if you are not an experienced tech, making the mod is fairly daunting.  7Volution’s prime goal was to be a plug and play solution: no mods, no cut traces, no rom changes needed.  The heart of 7volution plugs into the MPU and watches the display data.  When it sees that the score boundary has been crossed, it jumps in and takes control and displays the new score…and then keeps track of it.  If it wasn’t for the processing power of new technology, 7Volution wouldn’t be possible.

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Pinside user bcrage88’s Paragon with 7Volution display kit installed. Vinyl filters were used to achieve the three colour effect.

CD: Where did the idea for integrating a seventh digit originate?

BD: 7Volution is an idea that came to me in 2008 or 2009 at the Northest Pinball show.  I took a Bally Six Million Dollar Man to the show with my (then) Pinscore display system in it.  A gentleman played the game and it was amazing the way he was playing.  While I was sitting there at my booth I saw this man roll the game 3 times!  Afterwards we talked about how all of these great classic Bally and Sterns would never keep the high scores if rolled.  This started me down the path…

CD: I find it really cool that Xpin customers can customize the look of their game by choosing the colour of their displays. Generally speaking, does one colour outsell the others?

BD: Surprisingly Orange is still the preferred color, at a rate of about two to one!

CD: I noticed a slight price difference between some of the colour choices, with blue being more expensive than the red and stock orange. Why is this?

BD: It is all about chemistry.  To manufacture blue or white, a different set of elements are required to get to those colors.  Elements for red, orange, and green are more readily available.  The elements used to create Blue and White generally cost two to three times more than the other colors, so they end up costing a few more dollars.

CD: Are all of your display products plug and play?

BD: Yes, everything is plug and play…with a caveat.  WPC games with dot matrix displays have an exception when it comes to the colors Blue and White.  There is an original design flaw in the dot matrix controllers.  Blue and White draw more current because the blue and white LED requires more current (it is that chemistry and element thing mentioned previously).  Realizing this I developed plug-in modules, my X-Bridge XP-WPC-HV and XP-WPC95-HV.  These boards compensate for the original board shortcomings.

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XPin’s versatile XP-WMS8345, that will replace the power supply in a staggering 51 different pinball games!

CD: Xpin is known for their replacement displays, but you carry a lot of other replacement boards as well. What is your best selling product in that area?

BD: The power supply arena is a big one.  My universal Williams power supply, XP-WMS8345, is my most popular.  It can be installed in every Williams Sys 3-11b that used either the Williams part number C-7999 or D-8345.  It also will work in all of the Data East games that used alpha numeric displays.  That is 51 different titles serviced by one board!

CD: What do you do to ensure your customers are receiving the best possible replacement parts for their games?

BD: Component selection is always a key in any redesign effort, along with an understanding as to what is expected by the end-user.  This of course is a major part of the product development, but the manufacturing of the product is just as important to maintain quality control.  Every product has a test fixture that is used–the fixture will test as much of the product as possible.
For example, the XPin dot matrix display has over 300 components on it.  Look at each individual trace on the board– if you laid them end to end, you would have about 300 feet of copper trace.  Over 2,000 holes are drilled into that board.  When you have that much happening, you do not skimp on testing.  Most boards go through at least 2 minutes of functional testing before they are released from production for packaging.  Every few months I do a random sample and put them on a test fixture for a couple of days.  There are a lot of great engineers capable of doing what I have done from the design side, but managing the production side is a whole different ball game, and if you have that down, you will end up with a great product.

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Pinside moderator gweempose’s Tron with a blue XPin DMD display installed. Absolutely stunning!

CD: When developing new products, be it a board or a display, what are some of the factors that are considered?

BD: Considerations for any product development come from my customers.  I give all suggestions consideration.  Some are actually quite doable, but then it comes down to how much will it cost to execute.  In turn, you also have to consider reasonable expectations for a retail price.  Also, when considering a new project, I look at how many games will it go into.  Take for example Williams’ Banzai Run.  That game’s display is completely unique.  It was never used in another game, but I still made it.  Why?  BR is a very collectable game.  I currently use the driver board in my XP-WMS10877 system.  I just needed the big board and connection mechanism.  I look at all of the designs this way.

CD: Are there any memorable design challenges that Xpin has overcome in updating PCB technology over the years?

BD: Each design has its own challenges.  I have three general requirements for each design:
1. Make it consume less power than the original design.  This is a very important requirement because these products oftentimes are going into old, tired machines where the electronics may not be up to original specs.
2. Make it plug ’n’ play.  Most of my customers tend not to be do-it-yourself hobbyists or knowledgeable about electronics.  They usually can disconnect a few cables, take out screws and then replace them all with a new board.  If they have to do much more than that then they will, more than likely, need to call a tech for help.
3. Make it as bullet-proof as I can.  More times than not, someone is replacing an original board with an XPin product because something caused the original board to fail.  If the time wasn’t taken to find the original failure, then the likelihood of continued failure is high, even after a board change.

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Pinside user Stretch7’s Alien Poker with Xpin’s XP-WMS8363 kit installed.

CD: What are some of the improvements that Xpin has made over the original designs by the big names in pinball?

BD: In the displays you see some of the best improvements.  Brightness control for display brightness, test buttons to illuminate all segments/dots.  Along with this is the low power aspect.  Lower power means less heat released by the older power supplies.

CD: How active is Xpin in the pinball community?

BD: I like to think I am very active.  I frequent Pinside quite often.  I sponsor tournaments when I can, such as the Retro Tournament at the Texas Pinball Festival.  They will actually have two classic Bally games that will be running my 7Volution Systems this year.  I am also scheduled to sit on the Pinball Developers Panel that will be at the Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show later this year.  All of it very exciting!

CD: In talking with customers, have you found that they are primarily buying new displays to replace inoperable ones or buying to just give their pinball a fresh look?

BD: Most of my customers make the choice because of a failure or an obvious pending failure.  Very few seem to be replacing the existing functional boards with my products just because it’s new.

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Pinside user PappyBoyington’s Stargazer looking phenomenal with XPin on board!

CD: Can you give the readers a preview as to some of the products Xpin will be releasing in the near future?

BD: Let’s see…I have begun work on the Williams Sys3-6 7volution system.  There is a lot of excitement there.  I am also working on Gottlieb and Zacaria display sets.  I have a few more items coming out but I waiting to announce those at Texas Pinball Festival.

CD: What are some thoughts about this new pinball “resurgence” we are all a part of? Do Xpin sales reflect the increased interest in the hobby?

BD: I think this is AWESOME!  I love talking to these innovators.  XPin is standing behind them 100%.  Spooky Pinball currently uses a green XPin for its America’s Most Haunted and I will be there for their next title, too.  I have also done preliminary work with other boutique pinball groups and I can only wish them well.  I have a lot to offer to them with my ability and manufacturing contacts so in the long run I hope to become a partner in their success.

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An XPin DMD display in green, appearing in an America’s Most Haunted near you!

CD: What games are currently in Xpin’s pinball lineup? What are some of your all-time favourite games?

BD: At the moment I only have 3 games: Mars God of War, Cyclone, and Silverball Mania.  I under some space constraints at the moment, but I have my own list of wants.  I just have to convince my wife of the “business need” to purchase them.

CD: Do you have any closing comments for readers in the pinball community?

BD: You will not find a greater bunch than this group.  I see this on the forums and when I meet them at the shows.  I am very privileged to be part of such a great hobby and be able to provide something back to this hobby.  Let’s keep on flipping!

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Mr. Davis can be reached at tech@xpinpinball.com, or you can visit XPin on the web.  Products can be ordered directly from the XPin website, or through one of XPin’s fine partners, such as K’s Arcade or Bay Area Amusements.  Look for Mr. Davis and XPin at this year’s Texas Pinball Festival March 27-29, 2015 and at the Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show June 5-7, 2015.


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FEATURE: Code-Breaker, the Rise of #WHERESTHECODE

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The story of Stern Pinball Inc. shipping their games with incomplete code has become a generally accepted practice in our hobby. Nobody is surprised when a new Stern game hits the streets with an incomplete set of modes, not much to shoot for, and “random” awards giving out the same point value over and over and over again. The practice is so accepted, it has become a tolerable joke: for example, “I’ll sell you my restored Fathom when Stern releases a game with complete code!”  A recent movement on Pinside asked collectors to take a pledge: resist buying New-In-Box Stern games until code is complete, in hopes of sending a message to the company by hurting their bottom line. It worked to a certain extent. In a totally non-scientific study, just from reading Pinside, there has been a lot more “I like the theme but I’m not buying ‘til I see code” talk than there was in years prior. Pinside user “Flashinstinct” of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada took it a step further, planting the hashtag “#wheresthecode” into the pinball collectors’ lexicon, hoping to promote change and accountability.

Flashinstinct (that’s how he wants to be identified in this article) was tired of the disorganization and rhetoric associated with Stern code discussions. He took to Pinside and called for a day of action, January 31, 2015, for pinball enthusiasts to bombard Stern’s social media and other contact outlets demanding that games like Star Trek, Avengers, and The Walking Dead receive a code update they sorely needed in order to make the games whole. Here’s what Flashinstinct had to say in the first post of the “@wheresthecode” Pinside thread (which has been heavily edited since its first appearance a month ago):

“Ok folks….. I’ve had enough of the where’s the code, when is Stern going to release new code…..can we do something about this code….Can we fix this code…. all these threads achieve nothing but getting a lot of people on pinside annoyed, others get mad, other bash each other and in the long run nothing gets done. So as of today…..Mark your calendars and do something productive….on January 31st I vow to post on Sterns facebook page and twitter feeds with something about finishing the code. And I encourage everyone to do the same. Mine will read something to the effect of:

“You keep releasing games but not finishing the code? What gives?? If you can create a new platform and 3 new games a year why can’t you polish the code?”

I don’t hold a particular hatred for Stern as I wait until the code is polished before buying there games but I’ll jump on board with everyone to make Stern a bit more accountable. If everyone that is pissed off is willing to get banned from Stern’s facebook page for a while I encourage you to do this and get it over with. This will keep the folks at Stern busy for a while and it will get the message across.  In turn, this will reduce the amount of bitching, whining and hatred on this forum and will clear space for more productive posts.

SO MARK YOUR CALENDARS AND POST ON JAN 31!!!”

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An early meme from the campaign.

 

Facebook was the main target to get the code complaints out to the public. It was known from the start that Stern’s social media team would simply delete posts and ban users that raised questions and concerns that ran contrary to the image they wanted to portray on their page. Heck, if you haven’t been banned from Stern’s Facebook page at least once for sarcastic or questioning posts, you can’t call yourself a real pinball collector (I got the ban hammer for the first time shortly before Credit Dot existed).

January 31st fell on a Saturday, which may have been either poor or genius planning on Flashinstinct’s part. Leading up the kickoff, there were a multitude of attitudes toward the project. Some thought it wasn’t worth their time because it wouldn’t change a damn thing. Others thought Flashinstinct should get off Stern’s back because the company is, singlehandedly, keeping pinball alive by releasing new games, regardless of how incomplete the code is. Others still, were just as fed up as Flashinstinct and wanted to do as much as they could to support the project hoping to inspire change. Below are some reactions to the project itself:

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I talked to Flashinstinct about a couple of issues in the past week, and the divided reception was one topic we covered:

“You’ll always have people on both sides of the fence and that’s fine. Some people will fight tooth and nail for something they believe in, one way or the other. Some people think I am doing this for fame, some to stir up the pot, others are totally for it and some people just flat out hate me. All I can say is that I wanted to create something for the little guy, the consumer and pinball enthusiasts that are tired of not being heard. I’m not against Stern, I do believe that they make good pinball machines. I just wanted them to be more accountable to the home market and try to make code a priority. It almost feels like they have put code files on the shelves and revisit them when they feel like it.”

Things ended up kicking off before the weekend of January 31st. Flashinstinct called for help to identify existing Stern code idiosyncrasies and bugs. Catchy, well-designed, “meme-like” images were created to support the cause. Re-reading the thread, it is plain to see that none of this was created with a mean spirit or sneaky ulterior motives–it was simply a grassroots campaign to try and push a company toward code responsibility. Since Stern’s Facebook page was going to be on lockdown, a “Where’s The Code” Facebook page was created so that pinball fans could have a voice. A minor “win” came early: it seemed that Stern’s social media team blacklisted the “#wheresourcode” hashtag on Facebook, proving that they were aware of the campaign and had preemptively battened down the hatches for a bumpy weekend ride. An insightful supporter tweaked his hashtag so that it wouldn’t be auto-blocked on Facebook and became one of the first to officially kick off the campaign:

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This post was, of course, removed within minutes of being submitted. Stern also completely removed the comment feature from their page to prepare for the barrage of code-related concerns raised by owners and enthusiasts. The night before January 31st, it was business as usual for Stern, sharing a picture of their new Wrestlemania Pro being filmed for a promotional video.  To try and keep the campaign as clean and fair as possible, Flashinstinct took the high road and also added praise for Stern games that were completely coded:

“I added the positive memes because I didn’t want to make it solely about code problems, but also Stern’s code successes. Obviously Stern as made phenomenal games…Tron, Lord of the Rings, Iron Man, to name a few. You have to look at both sides of the coin.

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00-codes11The January 31st date came and went, and obviously, no code was released. There was a promise that Star Trek code was on its way from designer Steve Ritchie himself, but really, that’s been rumoured to be in the works for quite some time. I guess Stern got the message, but this isn’t an issue where indicators of change can be immediately be pinpointed. However, in all honesty, I don’t think much is going to change. Stern will keep selling games, operators and collectors will keep buying, and the cogs in the machine will keep turning. If Gary Stern thought lack of code was hindering sales, I think it would be addressed immediately.  However, it is hard for the company to draw cause and effect between code dissatisfaction and poor performance on the balance sheet. It is much easier to blame a bland theme or a poorly designed game for lagging sales. Most of these code complaints are coming from the collector market–the very same market that Gary Stern has said, time and time again, is not the company’s bread and butter. He has made the assertion that operators are Stern’s most important source of revenue. Up until quite recently, I’ve found Mr. Stern’s attitude towards the home enthusiast very dismissive, which has always been troublesome for me to reconcile. I don’t think an operator cares if the “Zombie Horde” mode is not functional or not on the Walking Dead Pro he’s running at the local arcade, so in essence, why should Gary Stern? For the most part, Flashinstinct agreed with this in our brief correspondence:

“You can’t expect the home market to wait forever for these updates. People feel deceived and tricked when code never gets revised and the machine is not working as intended.  Stern sends out statements that they are “working on code”. You can’t have a more open ended statement than that. I would counter and ask: where is the proof? If they have time to release three games in one year, setup an assembly line for the Medieval Madness Remake, accommodate time to create a new operating platform, and plan the logistics of moving their facilities to a new location, then they should have made time to address code issues and fixes. I don’t really think Stern takes the home market seriously.”

Anyhow, the campaign chugged along with regular updates. More smartly designed memes followed, but with no apparent movement or acknowledgement from Stern on the issue.  It made for little to talk about. Flashinstinct again highlighted the soft-handed approach of the campaign, tagging each picture with the phrase “Make a smart pinball purchase…wait until code is finished before buying”, echoing the sentiments of the previous Pinside pledge campaign.  The campaign, from my perspective had slowed to a crawl. For those that like forshadowing, Flashinstinct posted this message on page 12 of his thread:

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The “Offending” logo.

A t-shirt campaign with the “Where’s the Code, Stern?” logo on it (based on Stern’s current logo) was made available via a tiltsourcing-style model. All of the profits were to go to charity. Regular followers of the thread will know where this is headed; those with any knowledge of trademark law will as well. It now seemed Stern wasn’t standing pat on the whole issue–they were instead drawing up a cease and desist order to send to Pinside, requesting the offending image be removed and as well as all links to the sale of the shirts with the logo on it. It seems the parody image of their logo was too close to the real thing for their liking. Flashinstinct removed what he thought necessary, but then tried to respond with a different logo that, again, was too similar to the Stern logo. In the end, moderators banned him from posting in his very own thread. The Pinside moderators did respond forthwith, as did Pinside founder Robin himself, stating that the ban didn’t have anything to do with expressing free speech or opinion, but due to Flashinstinct’s refusal to abide by Pinside’s copyright rules after doling out a warning about the order they had received. Here is moderator Xerico’s explanation of the action taken:

“We told the [original poster] that Stern had raised a copyright infringement notification to Pinside.  In accordance with Pinside rules, once the copyright infringement was properly submitted, Robin considered the request and then decided to remove the links to the t-shirts and logo.  The [original poster] was notified about the reason, which was the logo. He then continued to create different logos that were not much different.  He was then directly told by the Mod Team to stop.  He did not listen, and continued anyway. So he was ejected from his own thread.  He was not ejected for free speech issues. He was ejected because he ignored a directive from the mod staff.  We have been discussing the issue with him, and he will be returning to his own thread.  But when the Mod Staff makes a request regarding a post, please follow it. If you disagree, please feel free to start a moderator feedback thread and we’ll be happy to discuss our decision.  We work as a Moderator Staff. There are no lone wolves. We discuss these issues and then we reach an agreement and then act as a team.  I hope this clears the air a bit.”

And an excerpt from Pinside boss Robin’s response:

“We have made a very clear decision here, which is to follow the legal requests to take down (links to) copyright infringing stuff that was being offered for sale.  Note that we have not closed this thread because protest and fee speech is pretty important for a discussion forum. But this is also a privately owned website and I simply cannot allow people breaking the law and putting the site (and me personally) at risk.  Please try and be respectful to Pinside staff and try to understand that Pinside is not pirate country.”

Many were quick to assume that Pinside bowed to the request in an attempt to not rock the boat with Stern, or not biting the hand that feeds. Stern is a big player and Pinside maintains a pretty close relationship with the company (I believe Mr. Stern visited Pinside’s official arcade, the Koog, the last time he was in the Netherlands). From my point of view, it doesn’t look like Pinside is carrying a political agenda here, its just another instance of a pinball company protecting their trademark (and rightly so, I guess) and a third party trying to protect their interest from violations. Robin goes on:

“Look, I’ve talked to a lot of the people at Stern and trust me, I’ve been pretty critical in those talks about a lot of things. I’ve told them how I hate the LE model and that I am worried about the unfinished code situation. I’ve told them I disliked the new power button location. Etc. Etc. They were very interested in my criticism and we had great discussions.  In response to the takedown request for the infringing t-shirt design I have had a back and forth with some folks at Stern and I’ve pressed them that freedom of speech (and the right to protest) is very important, especially in a forum.  Me personally, I think this protest has gotten to a point where it might start to be doing more harm than good. The message has come across, maybe we need to give it some time now. However, if you feel differently, then please know that I have no intent whatsoever to close this thread down IF -and only if- it is kept respectful and not looking to find the boundaries of the law or putting Pinside in a position where it simply does not want to be in.”

00-codes12I’m not sure I would agree with this project doing more harm than good. It is being rolled out in a far more respectful manner than much of the other static about code on Pinside. Any Stern customer, which, for the record I am not, has the right to kick up a fuss if they are dissatisfied, just as they should sing praise when they are satisfied.  We have been assured that Stern has heard the masses loud and clear.  But how do we know that?  There has been little to no acknowledgement from the Stern camp to verify that change is coming.  The “wait and see” approach doesn’t work: just ask an Avengers or Star Trek owner.  Regardless, the #wheresthecode logo has been changed to one that carries a generic, off-the-shelf font, and looks as if it is going to continue unfettered, if not a little gun shy.

I don’t think the last chapter has been written here. The C&D order has only called attention to the #wheresthecode movement. It probably would have kept moving in a quiet corner of Pinside, continuing to release funny memes for the collector’s enjoyment with little fanfare (to the delight of those that doomed the project from the start). Now it has kind of grown into a bigger animal, and one that is much more difficult to control as it spins out of control, wrongly citing issues of censorship as a way to squash code talk. Maybe Stern should stick to selling to operators, as they really don’t know how to interact with the collector market. As I stated at the outset, there was an already shifting tide in amongst the community about buying games with unfinished code prior to this campaign’s appearance. I think the next year and a half will be very telling for Stern Pinball: to see if the message was received, and to see if home buyers refraining from buying machines with incomplete code can hurt the company’s bottom line. I’ll leave you with a final quote from Flashinstinct that I obtained earlier today:

“My original intention remains the same: not to give Stern Pinball Inc. a bad name, but to make them more accountable to their existing clients that are waiting on promised features and code updates, in some instances for more than two years. Potential clients have a right to know what they are getting into.”

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The “Redesigned” Logo.

 


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Featured Game: Gottlieb’s CHARLIE’S ANGELS

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It can be said that nearly all of the early Gottlieb solid state machines were an exercise in form over function. We’ve spoken a lot about the perils of Gottlieb’s System 1 boardset here on Credit Dot–I dedicated an entire article to Gottlieb’s fall from atop the pinball mountain once solid state technology became the industry norm. I don’t know why, but I have a soft spot for these rudimentary, simplistic, one-dimensional games that Gottlieb put out between 1977 and 1980. Where the gameplay is lacking, the art package more than makes up for it. Charlie’s Angels is a curious case: the art package is up there with the best of the period and it tried to do adopt some pretty elaborate rules (bucking the simplistic limitations of the hardware), but is generally regarded as a ho-hum forgettable Gottlieb offering.

00-charl04By 1977, Columbia Pictures had taken over Gottlieb lock, stock and barrel. The studio giant wanted to diversify its global brand into other forms of entertainment–they already had their hands in music and television, so the arcade was the next logical place to claim dominance. On paper it was a slam dunk: they absorbed a company that was at the very top of its game, nearly unrivalled for pinball supremacy in the early-1970s. Who knew that Gottlieb’s industry supremacy would grind to a halt once the solid state era was ushered in. You can play the blame game here all you want–Columbia mismanagement, uninspired game design, unreliable parts–but I think it was a perfect storm of many factors at Gottlieb paired with the performance of their pinball contemporaries.

One of the early game-changers actually pre-dates the solid state era. Wizard! and Capt. Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy by Bally, in 1975 and 1976 respectively, introduced the idea of the licenced theme to pinball. No longer would a company have to rely on a card game or billiards to sell a machine to an audience, they used celebrities and well known film and television series.  Comfort for the pinball player now came from familiar faces, not familiar rules of popular past-times. Bally was quick to strike over the next few years as solid state technology hit its stride, licencing the images of the Six Million Dollar Man, Bobby Orr, Kiss, Dolly Parton, the Rolling Stones, Evel Knievel, Star Trek, and Hugh Hefner just to name a few. During this same period, Gottlieb licenced just five of their System 1 titles, despite being intimately connected to the film, music and television industry through their parent Columbia Pictures. For better or worse, I don’t know how Gottlieb resisted slapping an image of a Columbia property on each and every one of their games to make up for design and ruleset deficiencies.  [Ed. Note- Those five licenced System 1 games were: Sinbad, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Charlie’s Angels, Buck Rogers and the Incredible Hulk]

Charlie’s Angels did have an image slapped on it, almost literally.  The show had a connection to Columbia’s television arm, and was probably an easy acquisition on the licencing front.  I know the licences during this era seem pretty arbitrary to gameplay–one licence could be interchanged with the next with little to no alteration of the game itself. This was a time when fancy toys, like, say, Dr. Who’s Time Expander or Demolition Man’s Cryo-Claw, were not designed specifically for the licence. The Charlie’s Angels licence seems especially disconnected from the gameplay, and there may be a reason for that. In an interview with PA Pinball, game designer Allen Edwall had this to say about Charlie’s Angels:

“[Charlie’s Angels] evolved from a test design that helped verify the solid-state electronics, then to trying out all kinds of features, like dumping final scores to a teletype machine, allowing players in a multi-player game to tilt out or subtract score from other players, as well as many other innovations, most of which did not make it to the final commercial games because of the fact that customers paid to play. Tilting out another player probably would not have worked for the paying public.”

Reading between the lines, we see the reason for the disconnect on Charlie’s Angels: it was a test design for System 1 games to see how the solid state operating system would perform. Charlie’s Angels was released in November of 1978, a month before Gottlieb released both Dragon and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If I had to guess, I’d say that the licence for Charlie’s Angels crossed someone’s desk, and it was quickly paired up with Edwall’s test design to get it out onto the street as soon as possible. If, say, the art package for Dragon was paired with the test design, perhaps it may not have fared as well. However, pair it with the images of everyone’s favourite female crime fighting trio and the cumbersome layout stood a fighting chance at holding the customer’s attention.

They made an absolute ton of these games, nearly 8,000 units, which sounds impressive, but puts it at the middle of the pack numbers-wise of all System 1 games.  Despite the high production run, Charlie’s Angels isn’t a game that is seen all that often in private collections or retro arcades: one can guess that many of these games found their way to the junkyard after their arcade runs, due to their operating system unreliability (one can draw the same conclusion for the low survival rate of many of the Gottlieb System 1 titles).  An electromechanical version of the game was also release in far fewer numbers, 350 units, to appease operators weary of changing over to solid state technology (many of these skeptical ops were European buyers).

Good morning, Angels...

Good morning, Angels…

The game would have first hit arcades during the Angels’ third season. The backglass features Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd, who were the Angels du jour at the time of production. The most iconic angel, Farrah Fawcett, had left the show after the first season to pursue other ventures (resulting in a messy contract dispute), which explains her absence.  Any casual consumer of popular culture would surely name Ms. Fawcett if asked to name an actress on the show, despite her appearance in only about one-fifth of the total Angels episodes produced.  Fawcett did return to the show during this third season for guest spots in a handful of episodes which bolstered ratings slightly, but overall, it was the season that marked the end of the show’s cultural relevance. Time slots changes and a revolving door of actresses in “Angel” lead roles didn’t help matters. The property was red hot in its first season with Fawcett on the payroll, and perhaps Fawcett’s absence from the pinball machine’s art package is why this machine isn’t more sought after in the collecting community.

The oranges, purples and yellows on this machine just pop and will make it stand out in any lineup of games. It is kind of disappointing that artist Gordon Morison wasn’t given more leeway with the licence—the actresses that portray the Angels appear only once on the mirrored backglass, and then just once more on the playfield, depicting the very same pose that appears on the glass. There were some disconnected choices for the playfield art: a dancing red-headed girl, a cartoon policeman and a blonde in a purple leotard flinging a man by his arm into the upper pop bumper. None of these people bear any striking resemblance to characters in the show, unless that cop is supposed to be an undercover Bosley. The playfield is busy with colour (that’s a good thing) with pinks, oranges and blues on a yellow background. Arrows point in nearly every direction indicating rule and scoring changes, but Mr. Morison  does his best to organize it in such a way that it doesn’t seem cluttered. I am a fan of the curl of smoke that arcs under the Angels as a 70s muscle car peels away behind the five-bank of drop targets. Gordon Morison is at the top of his game here, using flash, dazzle and colour to draw attention away from the fact that there is little to tie the licence to the game other than a heavy reliance on the iconic Angel outline.

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And then there’s gameplay. The game has a quirky set of rules that may have been deep for the time, but overall, end up bogging the game down. Whereas System 1 cousins Cleopatra and Totem have a clear objective to achieve (lighting all five coloured pairs in the former, and lighting the drop targets via the rollovers in the latter), Charlie’s Angels really doesn’t have a readily apparent objective past bashing drop targets. Like many other games in the System 1 family, points boil down to the bonus and its multipliers. If there is a chase in the ruleset, it comes from tracking down the multipliers, and it takes a pretty good memory to do so. The multiplier will advance by completing the 5-target bank or completing the C-H-I-C rollovers (the C’s are connected, roll one C and you get both). Further, if 2X is lit, you can collect a multiplier at the stand-up bulls-eye on the lower right. If 3X is lit, you can collect a multiplier at the first target in the 5-target bank. If 4X is lit, you can collect a multiplier at the first target in the 3-target bank on the right. Got all that? Good.  See if you can follow me on how the rollovers work. Further to advancing bonus, the letters H and I will reset the 3-target bank and increase their value to 5,000 points each. If you can roll over H when your bonus ladder is full, it’ll light the 3-target bank for an extra ball (yeah, you gotta knock them all down to collect).  As you can see, this right bank of targets is pretty important. Star rollover buttons down the side of the game are connected to the downed targets in the 5-target bank, lighting each for 1,000, which is a decent payday for a rollover button. I said above, artist Morison organizes the writing on the playfield in a way that it doesn’t seem visually cluttered, however, the sheer amount of ruleset verbiage on the playfield is confusing. What isn’t written on the playfield spills over onto the apron card with more “If-Then” rules.

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The dead space alleyway between the upper rail and the 5-target bank. Balls funnel out from rollovers, but cannot be shot back up thru them.

The game has a kicker arm on the bottom right by the dancing ginger bikini girl, and another up top just to the left of the Angels. This upper left kicker is a spot of trouble with indirect hits and dribbling balls, as it likes to send the ball careening toward the right outlane. The slow dribbler happens often in this area as there is a channel between the 5-target bank and the upper rail which is fed by the C and H rollovers. This channel has always concerned me, as seems out of place as a dead zone. I was troubled that I could never get the ball up into the area with enough force and accuracy to get it up and into the rollovers from the bottom right flipper. In all honesty, I thought I had re-assembled my game wrong after tearing it down. I have come to the realization that it is more of a one way ball exit from the rollovers, and it takes a lucky shot to get it up through a rollover lane from the bottom: I’ve only done it once. It is a bit of a wasted space, but at least it randomizes the ball movement after exits the CHIC lanes: pop bumpers normally do that, but Charlie’s Angels has just one pop under the lanes. The other pop resides lower down on the playfield, dangerously close to the flippers. This pop, like the upper kicker, likes to send the ball over to that troublesome right outlane.

If nothing else, the game can be commended for its asymmetrical layout, which is a nice contrast to the symmetrical layouts of other Gottlieb games of the era like Cleopatra and Pinball Pool.  Angels game designer Allen Edwall is an odd figure in pinball history.  He designed Centigrade 37, which, for many, represents the high water mark of late electromechanical game design, but if you look at his resume, he was mostly in charge of Gottlieb’s solid state hardware design and software development.  That explains his less than prolific run as a designer: he had plenty of other duties in his job description.  Centigrade 37 was his first game, and I think we can agree, looking at the other games he designed, he wouldn’t have a hand in designing another game that matched the timeless popularity of his first.  Charlie’s Angels downfall may be that a “computer guy” was in charge of the design.  The game suffers, in spite of trying for a cumbersome and esoteric set of “If-Then” rules that tested the bounds of the early solid state system. In this day and age, folks call a cumbersome set of rules on a game “deep”. However, on early games like this one, that have to rely on the written word to explain what’s going on, it just gets really confusing. Compare the amount of playfield text on Charlie’s Angels to that of Joker Poker. Joker Poker has far less explaining to do, due to a more straightforward set of rules. Joker Poker is seen as the superior game because it uses its layout to keep the player engrossed, not a jumbled set of “If-Then” rules. Perhaps Charlie’s Angels was supposed to be a showcase of what the System 1 hardware and software was capable of through an intricate set of “When Lit” inserts, but I think it kind of backfired, making for a game that devolved into ignoring all the rules and simply hammering on the drop targets.

As I mentioned, I have one of these games in my collection (for the moment). It arrived at my home in quite a frightful state, having been neglected in a barn or other type of out-building for many years. The boards were dead on arrival: corrosion and burnt transistors had taken their toll. With some tender loving care, a playfield touch-up and clear coat, backglass preservation, connector re-pinning, replacement parts from the Pinball Resource and a PI1x4 board from Pascal Janin, the game now looks and plays great (well, it looks better than it plays, given the discussion above). The Pascal PI1X4 board, which replaces all three System 1 backbox PCBs and the rudimentary cabinet sound board, is a superbly-designed compact board.  In retrospect, it was a pricy addition to a game that doesn’t command that much money on the pinball market, but it certainly brought new life to a game that needed it and I picked up the game for quite a steal. The Pascal board adds extra rules to some of games in the System 1 family, but the additions to Charlie’s Angels are negligible: a roll-over skill shot and an extra ball re-light. Given the often questionable constancy of the System 1 boards, it is nice to have the extra assurance of stability that the PI1x4 provides. A refresh of the side cabinet art was also needed on the game, as the purple Angels had faded to a pathetic grey. I cut my own stencil, accounted for the trademark “Gottlieb overspray”, found a suitable colour match in a rattle can and brought the art back to life. I also went ahead and bypassed the PI1x4 sound components, which accurately mimic the early System 1 “bloops” and “bleeps”, opting to install a set of authentic Gottlieb chimes. The process was extremely simple, and the sound of those chimes really works to make the gameplay more appealing.

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From the FLIPPP! website: the amazing PI1x4 board that replaces all three backbox boards and the cabinet sound board. Less interconnect wires mean better stability. Better stability means less headaches!

I’m unsure whether Charlie’s Angels will have legs in my collection. I think sheer pride in the fact that I brought the game back to life is keeping it around for the time being. If I had unlimited funds and space, which at the current time I have neither, I’d like to obtain a Bally Six Million Dollar Man machine to install beside the Angels and create the ultimate pinball shrine to 1970s hour-long, action drama television (there’s a bit of history there too, missing pinball Angel Farrah Fawcett was once married to Lee Majors, the Bionic Man himself). You can’t expect the world from a System 1 game as, admittedly, it was a transition period in the business.  The cumbersome rules gave a bit more, but perhaps a bit more simplicity would have been in order.  In essence, I’m asking for more and less all at the same time.  Certainly the rules betrayed the game, and the layout did nothing to make up for its confusing faults. If Joker Poker represents the high water mark of System 1 games, Charlie’s Angels may very well bring up the rear.

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Many thanks to my beautiful wife for talking pictures of the Angels machine. You would have got some dumpy cell phone pictures otherwise. Also, I highly recommend reading PA Pinball’s interview with Charlie’s Angels designer Allen Edwall (I quoted from this interview in the article).  It provides a lot of insight as to what was going on at Gottlieb during the System 1 days from Edwall’s perspective.  It is a designer’s perspective that hasn’t been canonized in pinball history, and therefore, a valuable one.

Further Reading:

PA Pinball – An Interview with Allen Edwall
FLIPPP! Pinball (Pascal Janin) – PI1x4 All In One Board for Gottlieb System 1 Pinballs
IPDB.org – Charlie’s Angels
Pinside – Charlie’s Angels
Pinrepair.com – Gottlieb System 1 Pinball Repair

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