CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


Leave a comment

PEOPLE: Greg Freres on his Early Bally Backglass Prints

00-frer00

Greg Freres’ career in pinball has spanned many companies and job titles, and has seen many ebbs and flows in the popularity of the game.  Yet throughout, he has been able to solidify his place within the very top echelon of pinball’s artistic operatives by adopting a widely varying artistic style while at the same time providing underlying base elements that tie the package together within Mr. Freres’ wider oeuvre of work. Mr. Freres currently works on the artistic team at Stern Pinball and is co-founder of Whizbang Pinball (with his perpetual collaborator, pinball designer Dennis Nordman), with the company’s first title, Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons, recently being tapped by Stern for production and worldwide distribution. On top of these commitments, Mr. Freres has recently released a line of 12′x12′ high quality art prints through retailer Pinball Life, which highlight his early work on four non-licenced Bally pinball backglasses. Each piece sells for $79.95USD, comes pre-framed, is signed by the artist and arrives with a note from Mr. Freres himself about the subject matter.  There is definitely a lack of high-quality pinball-related wall accoutrement to display in your gameroom these days, and I think Mr. Freres’ prints fill this void nicely. I was fortunate enough to have Mr. Freres agree to an interview, and I limited my questions, for the most part, to the line of art prints and the games they feature. (A wider account of Mr. Freres’ oeuvre can be found in Pinball Magazine #2′s feature length interview with Mr. Nordman and Mr. Freres.)

Credit Dot: To begin, why did you choose to commemorate these four particular titles in your series of collectable prints?

Greg Freres: I chose Hotdoggin’, Fathom, Strange Science, and Black Pyramid because all of these pieces are unlicensed titles. I have an agreement with WMS that allows me to reproduce art prints from the unlicensed art from my past. I also chose them because they represent a group of games from earlier in my career at Bally. I now realize that the games from the early eighties are very collectable.

00-frer13

Greg Freres and his wife Andi. Courtesy of Whizbang Pinball, whizbangpinball.blogspot.com

CD: Are the prints limited in number?

GF: No, these prints are not limited.

CD: Is the art depicted in the prints culled from the original backglass paintings?  Do you own the originals?

GF: Yes – the art is scanned at a high resolution from my original paintings.

CD: How did the partnership with Pinball Life come about?

GF: I met Terry [DeZwarte, proprietor of Pinball Life] while Dennis Nordman and I were working on Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons. Terry came out to Dennis’ shop to see what we were working on. He started selling ancillary products for Whizbang Pinball including WNBJM t-shirts, backglasses, and other branded merchandise. Once I started the art prints, it seemed a natural fit to work with Terry again.

CD: How have sales been so far?

GF: Sales are good. I know the album cover size prints are small but I thought that was a great idea for places where a pinball enthusiast might want to see some backglass art without taking up to much wall space. I’ve talked to buyers who end up taking them to work to hang in their office.

CD: The prints are a product of a high quality “giclee” reproduction of the original work.  Can you speak a bit about the term for those not familiar with the giclee process?

GF: Giclee art prints have become the standard for many fine artists. All fine art is scanned at high resolution from the originals and then printed on acid-free museum grade paper (various paper weights and finishes are available from the vendor.) It’s basically a digital process that creates the closest color reproduction to the original art. It’s a great process for the artist because you don’t need to commit to a “run” of lithographic produced pieces. You can run small numbers and not be affected by the pricing constraints of a run in the hundreds.

CD: Now that many of the best places to play pinball are in private gamerooms across the country, there seems to be an insatiable desire for pinball-related gameroom décor.  Was the decision to release these prints a response to that particular “need”?

GF: My wife has been planting this seed for a number of years after she witnessed the response from enthusiasts at various pinball collector shows around the world to my work. I always felt that most pinball people want to spend their money on pinball parts, after-market bling, and anything that will help keep their “investment” running and looking great. A piece of art to hang on the wall seemed like an expense that most collectors would not be interested in. I hope that the more I can get the word out, and actually get my website built and monetized, that I’ll be able to reach more people with the art that has been mostly seen in bars, arcades, bowling alleys, and basements.

00-frer02

Hotdoggin’ (1980), photo courtesy of Pinball Life.

CD: The four prints serve as a good cross section of your work at Bally, and portray how you were called upon to create an art package in varying styles: from the morose, horror-like mood created by Fathom to the more lighthearted and flashy flair of Hotdoggin’.  How are you able to reconcile these wild shifts in style from game to game?

00-frer10

Ed “Big Daddy” Roth model kit, circa 1963.

GF: My best and most honest answer to that is – I guess I’m still searching for my “style”. When I started working at Bally as a full-time illustrator for their art team, I was a kid: 23 years old with only 2 years of experience as an apprentice designer at a point-of-purchase advertising company. I have always been influenced by a wide variety of artists and illustrators. I guess I can be a chameleon when it comes to the subject matter I work on. I love the satire that Mad Magazine brought to my youth, I watched every monster movie that they showed on Creature Features, I built every Big Daddy Roth “Weirdo” model kit, and I played drums. So my interests have always been all over the map – I guess that helps tackle the variety of subjects.

CD: Speaking of Fathom, suggested titles for the game were Barracuda and Deep Threat, the latter being your suggestion (rejected by Bally I’m assuming because of connotations to the Linda Lovelace film Deep Throat?).  How integrated in the creation process were you in the early days at Bally?  Could an artist influence game design or other important elements such as game title?

GF: We always had a lot of creative freedom in the pinball business early on–actually for many years of my career. Game design was so much simpler when I started. Norm Clark would have a line-up of whitewoods in the test room and at some point he would tell marketing and sales which one was ready for production. Once it went to the art department the artists sometimes could make suggestions for themes, even adding lights to the playfield to spell a specific word. Bally was just bringing licenses to the table back then but for non-licensed games the art department could get really involved in theme selection and direction.

CD: How did you come about creating the female characters for Fathom? They seem to carry elements of fish, snake, mermaid and human.

GF: I’ve never been asked that – I guess they are mermaids with incredibly long tails. How else could they take down their prey? Paul Faris art directed me on this project in a big way – he kept pushing me to do better and better with a theme that was not easy to envision. I hope to someday do a prequel graphic novel that leads up to the moment on the backglass and playfield.

00-frer01

Fathom (1981), photo courtesy of Pinball Life.

CD: There is a strong sense of helplessness in the Fathom backglass art, and I think that comes from the detail that the drowning man doesn’t look particularly panicked–as if he’s resigned himself to the fact that he’s going to die at the hands of the two sirens.  I often feel helpless myself when playing Fathom, because the game is deadly hard. Is this just a coincidence?

GF: It must be coincidence because we didn’t play it much before starting the theme and art. Fathom has garnered the most interest of any project I’ve been associated with and I believe it is because of the intensity required to do well. It’s a great playfield and can be pretty mean. The guy’s knife is floating downward; maybe the clue you caught in his resignation.

CD: The notion of the helpless male figure depicted in that Fathom backglass is a bit of a departure from the hyper-masculinized male figures normally depicted in pinball from this era.  Even examining your prior work for Bally, we see the larger-than-life shirtless image of Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones and the uber-masculine bearded outdoorsman of Frontier (who is the furthest thing from helpless–he battles a bear with his bare hands).  Was this a consideration to add to the overall mood of the game?

GF: Not a conscious decision – we were experimenting with so many ideas and directions with the non-licensed themes. Heavy Metal Magazine was a major influence on all of us at that time and we followed that vibe of each story (and in our case each game) having a completely different visual direction and thematic choice.

00-frer05

Doug Johnson’s “tubular” pop-art style on full display on the cover of Judas Priest’s 1984 album Defenders of the Faith.

CD: Is there a name for the particular bubble/balloon style of art used on Hotdoggin’?

GF: I had just seen the Art of Playboy exhibition in Chicago that year and some of my favorite illustrators of the day were in that show. Plus one of my favorite board games as a kid was Candyland. When I saw Doug Johnson’s work at that show I felt his bright color schemes and tubular architecture felt right for this ski theme.

CD: There seems to be a lot of actual hot dog imagery in the Hotdoggin’ art in both shape and colour.  Am I just seeing things?

GF: Well, I guess Chicago is known for its Hot Dogs! Influence can come in many forms.

00-frer07

Greg Hildebrandt’s “Little Mermaid”

CD: Black Pyramid is some of the first pinball art you created under the Bally-Midway banner.  Was there any change in direction for the company after the merge, or was it business as usual?

GF: Pinball had waned a great deal at this point since video games took the front seat at Midway. I was doing more managerial work at this point so it was good to be back on the board. I wanted to attempt a color scheme more like the Hildebrandt brothers- cool shadows playing against ultra-warm and bright highlight areas. I like to joke that the state of the business for pinball was in such dire straits that the skeletal warriors represent the cost-cutting and blood-letting that was happening via layoffs and cost reduced games.

CD: While not as blatant as some of the Gottlieb games from the same era (Hollywood Heat and Deadly Weapon for example), Black Pyramid appears to harness the success of the Indiana Jones films without having an Indiana Jones licence.  Is it an art form in itself trying to hit all the genre elements without infringing on official copyrights?

GF: I’m not sure it’s an art form but it was definitely fun to try and touch the essence of the theme without infringing.

00-frer03

Black Pyramid (1984), photo courtesy of Pinball Life.

CD: By the time Strange Science hit arcades, the displays had moved to the bottom of the backglass.  Did this make life easier for the artist, not having to design around score displays within the art piece itself?

GF: Absolutely! No doubt! Those 5 displays broke any continuity in an otherwise great layout because when you walked in a gameroom all you saw was a portion of the art because we used an opaque layer to make sure heavy shadows from the displays wouldn’t cut off any cool visual.

00-frer04

Strange Science (1986), photo courtesy of Pinball Life.

CD: Strange Science has an overt comic book style with the backglass being the cover of the “comic” and the playfield being the inner pages, complete with boxed text.  We saw a comic influence before in the Fathom flyer, and we’d see it again, in spades, with Dr. Dude and his Excellent Ray.  How did your fascination with the comic style begin?

GF: This was me trying to be the Mad Magazine guy in pinball. I always loved their parodies on current movies and TV shows so I wanted to try and capture that spirit in my work.

00-frer09

MAD Magazine art circa 1968. Mort Drucker was the artist on this MAD send-up of 2001: A Space Odyssey entitled “201 Mins. Of A Space Idiocy.

CD: The Strange Science era games were released in generic “Bally/Midway” cabinets devoid of game specific art.  Was this a cost-cutting measure?  Did this help or hinder the overall artistic presentation of the game?

00-frer11

Strange Science in the generic Bally/Midway cabinet. Photo courtesy of Clay Harrell, http://www.pinrepair.com

GF: Cost cutting all the way. Pinball was hanging on for dear life at that point so the product suffered accordingly. To stay competitive someone thought the cabinet art should be the first to go since most games get lined up in rows. It did, however, allow the artist more time to focus on the backglass and playfield.

CD: With some lesser enjoyed games like Strange Science and Black Pyramid, is it satisfying to hear players and collectors attest that your art packages were often times much more memorable than the gameplay of the games they graced?

GF: Yes – quite a bit of my art has been on games that didn’t sell as well as the bigger games. Of course I would have liked to have been on the more successful games (in terms of sales and game play) but I’m fine with being the underdog of the group. Maybe as I got closer to game design in my career I was still influenced by that underground mindset.

CD: The four prints represent some of your earliest work in pinball, and you are coming up on forty years in the industry.  Besides the actual process of creating the art, how has the job changed for the artist from your time with Bally to your work today with Stern?

GF: The easiest difference to point out is the computer. When I started in the business it was all hand-drawn – a term that collectors have been clamoring for the return to since computer graphics have made everything so much more efficient, and somewhat generic. We did both line art and spot colors for playfields; inked line art and the colors all hand-cut from rubylith (a unique graphic arts film that could be cut into and peeled away to create a masking effect, then contact exposed onto litho film to create the film positives needed for silk-screen printing.) Our backglasses were paintings that got reproduced on glass via silk-screen, and then later we switched to translite technology (plastic instead of glass) for better resolution and consistency, and to save money as well.

00-frer12

More of Mr. Freres’ beautiful “hand drawn” art on the Fathom playfield.

Even though we were traditional artists we needed to make the transition to digital art to continue to work. Once Stern started with a heavy percentage of licensed themes, it made sense to provide a more photo-composed package for easier approvals and efficiency in the production side of the art. Now that Stern is offering a tiered product structure with the Pro, Premium and Limited versions of each game, it’s tough for one artist to complete an entire games worth of art. Since starting at Stern two years we’ve been tag-teaming the design of the art packages while trying to keep a consistent look throughout all three tiers.

My goal as AD at Stern is to eventually return to some degree of a hand-drawn look to the games we produce. Pinball has a rich history of great art and I want to make sure we can recapture that spirit in future games.

CD: Citing a few specific examples from the series of four prints, can you give us some insight as to your artistic process when designing a backglass?

GF: With any illustration, the process begins with research, especially for games that are non-licensed. Before even thinking about the structure of the layout you have to familiarize yourself with the subject. So for Fathom, I borrowed a stack of scuba magazines from a college friend. With Hotdoggin’, ski magazines showed up from another friend upon request. Keep in mind this was way before computers and Google. So most research was done at book stores, libraries, comic book shops, and of course, my own photography once the rough layout was established and I started to refine character poses.

All of this research leads to idea generation. Certain pictures or other art can act as a spark for further ideas of your own, and then like any other design, build upon those ideas and see what might work, and learn what definitely doesn’t work. Small thumbnail sketches are key to getting ideas down quickly without wasting too much time.

Those thumbnails often, at least for me, are so doodley, that only I can see or understand what I’ve drawn. Sometimes, I leave written notes on sketches because the scrawling can be so frenetic and scribbley, that later when I go back to the sketch only the words can explain what is there.

Once I have a feel for what could be a good composition, I can then begin to spend some real time on getting the pieces in place, including character poses background and foreground elements, and other details to help complete the story or add to the theme.

00-frer08

Legendary pinball artist and long-time Bally artistic director Paul Faris signs an Evel Knievel playfield at the Texas Pinball Festival.

For Fathom, there was a lot of time spent on creating the “dance” of the three characters. My art director Paul Faris was instrumental in helping achieve this composition and keeping the illuminated art focused in the center without having bad shadows from the display panel areas negatively affecting the overall visual quality.

On Strange Science my goal was to get away from the overtly detailed backglass style that I had learned from my mentors, and I wanted to try something different that had a more “in your face” attitude that could be viewed from a distance (across the arcade or bar) to help grab the first quarter, then the rest of the story could be told on the playfield.

On Hotdoggin’, it was more about the design feel and less about the characters. That was a mistake that I realized after I had invested too much time in all of the hotdoggy architecture, when I should have been focused on making the female lead character a better focal point. I still like the final outcome for the pure colorful and playful vibe that it evokes.

Once the preliminary skeleton is built, a tight pencil is created, then transferred to illustration board. I usually do a color sketch, either very rough, or very tight, depending on my confidence going into the final painting. I prefer to work out all of the color issues in the color sketch phase so once I start committing to paint, I have less to figure out since painting can be stressful as printing deadlines approach. The painting phase may be the only time I can enjoy listening to music since most all the problems are figured out and it’s all about doing the best I can with a brush or an airbrush.

The final detail phase is critical to pushing the piece to the best it can be. This is where I review the entire piece and sweat the small stuff. Small highlights on edges can create the illusion of reality and correct lighting. And adding glows or reflective edge or fill lighting can help create the drama needed to pop characters off the background.

Many things have changed since then but just like any kind of structure, be it a building, or a vehicle, or a sculpture, it’s all about the internal structure, or the skeleton. In illustration, the accuracy of the final drawing before adding the “flesh” (or paint) onto that skeletal structure is key: no amount of color or flair can help a bad layout.

CD: In recent years, a dichotomy has appeared: pitting pinball as low culture amusement against pinball as high culture pop art.  Does having your commercial art being reproduced as a museum quality print also serve to bring your commercial art into a new artistic light?

GF: I have always hoped that pinball art, in all of its lowbrow glory, could someday get recognized by a larger community of art collectors or aficionados. Our small fraternity of artists that have had the pleasure of making a living from the silverball have not only enjoyed the creative freedom and storytelling that pinball has allowed, but it has become our passion to create a unique artform that can provide entertainment as well.

CD: Are there any other titles you worked on that will be available in this art print series in the future?

GF: At some point in the near future I hope to introduce Frontier, Dr. Dude, Party Zone and a few others. CD: The prints appear to be a Pinball Life exclusive.

CD: Do you have any final thoughts or comments for fans of your work?

GF: I appreciate the legions of pinball fans worldwide and am humbled to know that my name has become synonymous with pinball art. Thanks to all who have ever played, purchased, or refurbished a pinball machine in the hopes that they could be mildly entertained by this unique piece of American history. Pinball has always had a certain “cool factor” and I hope that I can continue to help support a small part of that “cool”.

Further Reading:

Pinball Life – Greg Freres Classic Bally Framed Artwork
Wizbang Pinball – Official Blog
Whizbang Pinball – Official Facebook Page
Stern Pinball - Greg Freres Joins Stern Pinball
Internet Pinball Database – List of games on which Greg Freres was a contributor


1 Comment

MODS: Lighting up Demo Man

00-demog00

As a follow-up to yesterday’s interview with Art from Comet Pinball LED, I’d like to share a modification I made to my Demolition Man using Comet’s products.

There are two plastic girders that run along the top of the backboard of the game that sit dark 95% of the time despite having transparent blue plastic worked into their design. This is an area begging to be lit up. There are three flashers back there…but their use is limited, leaving the plastics dark most of the time.

00-demog02

The area in question: the two girders that run along the back of the game.

In a recent Demolition Man refurb video by TNT Amusements, they drilled out an extra four or five holes in the backboard and install individual sockets so that superbright LEDs could be placed in there. This option makes for a very centralized and spotty lighting effect as you can see in the picture below.

00-demog01

TNT Amusements attempt at lighting the same area with single super-bright LEDs.

I picked up a few SMD light strips from Comet LED (a steal at $2.95USD per strip, available in both 3- and 7-SMD versions in a variety of colours available here). I hoped this would give the light more wash, rather than the centralized throw found in TNT’s modification of the game.

00-demog03As you can see from the image at right, each SMD strip comes complete with three different female ends, depending on how you want to hook up the lights. This also makes for less of a destructive footprint when drilling out the backboard: you need only drill a hole large enough to feed the male lead of the wire through, rather than having to feed an entire socket through. I went with Comet’s blue SMD strips…but I suppose white would have worked as well, as the transparent plastic already had a blue hue. I wired up the lights for each plastic girder to one common lead as seen in the photo below. The smaller left girder was lit using two 3-SMD strips, and the larger right one (pictured below) was lit using two 7-SMDs and one 3-SMD.  The strips can also be trimmed to any length needed.  No permanent modification to the original plastic pieces themselves needed to be done…the SMD stips come with adhesive backing.  Just make sure the area is clean before affixing the strips.  I attached them to the inside top of the grey plastic allowing the SMD glow to shine downward rather than directly at the player.

 

00-demog04

With a common lead for each, I needed only drill two holes in the backbox to feed the female lead through. Once fed through, I attached the male 47-bulb style end. To keep things tidy, I wired in two extra sockets off of the general illumination string that lights up the rear portion of the playfied (which are also mounted to the backside of the backboard). Leads plugged into the sockets and voila…a nice subtle blue glow to the upper rear of the playfield.

00-demog05

The final product with a beautiful blue hue.

I find it matches the overall “blue-ness” of the game, and makes for a great contrast against the red lights of the ACMAG and Cryo-Claw. Even with the area being constantly lit, the flashers still have a descernable effect when they are activated.  The strip lighting is extremely versatile and the price point cannot be beat.  These subtle lighting mods are a great way to make old games looking fresh.  Check back for more lighting modifications using Comet Pinball LED products in the future.


1 Comment

PEOPLE: Art from Comet Pinball

00-comet00

If you are going to change your incandescent bulbs to the brighter, more versatile, and more efficient light emitting diode bulbs (LEDs), you’ve got lots of options out there–in both LED style and the vendors who offer them.  The choice can be absolutely overwhelming.  And there is pressure to get it done right the first time…to completely LED a pingame with a pre-made kit through most LED vendors, it is going to cost you upwards of $200USD.  In most cases, it is worth it, providing a fresh facelift to an otherwise tired-looking game.  I subscribe to the LED philosophy “LESS IS MORE”, choosing to dot my general illumination, controlled inserts and backbox sparingly with LED bulbs, holding back on the use of excessive colour and blinding brightness.  To date, all my LED needs have been filled by Arthur Haber at Comet Pinball.  I placed my first order with Mr. Haber shortly after he opened for business, and I immediately got that warm and fuzzy feeling that I had ordered from the right place.  Mr. Haber called (yes, on a telephone landline) to personally thank me for my order, which completely blew my mind…to think that kind of personal service still existed.  Days later the LEDs were at my door complete with a few free extras, which included a small sampler pack of Comet products to try out in different areas of my games.  Comet Pinball, in my opinion, is the leader in online LED sales, offering a quality product, a wide range of options to fit your modding needs and absolutely unbeatable pricing.  Comet Pinball does not offer $200 cookie-cutter kits.  Rather, the site promotes experimentation and lighting the game to your own personal tastes, and in doing so will hit a price point that is much less than the cost of a pre-made kit.  Mr. Haber is no stranger to me, we e-mail often, so it was only natural I ask him a few questions about his business and the state of the pinball LED union.

Credit Dot: How long has Comet LED been in operation?

Arthur Haber: The official website launch was September 2013, so we just celebrated our official “one year” anniversary.

CD: How did you get into the LED business?

AH: I had started experimenting with LEDs and Pinballs as far back as 1976.  I started tinkering with LEDs and adding lights to pachinko and pinball machines.  I was 16; they kept me entertained.  Much later, maybe six years ago, I became more involved with lighting up machines, but mostly for my own needs. I felt there was a need for certain bulbs and lighting that were not available in the market.

CD: Do you have a background in electronics?

AH: None whatsoever, but I am learning fast. My background is in manufacturing, product development, and inventory management.

CD: Putting lighting aside for a minute, how did you become interested in the pinball hobby?

AH: I spent my childhood by the Rockaway Boardwalk. There were pictures of me playing Bingo Pinball, at about the age of three.  I must have been eight years old, back in 1968, when I dropped my first nickel in a pinball machine.  I’ve been pretty much hooked for 46 years now.

CD: Does the “Comet” name derive from the colourful 80s Williams machine of the same name?

AH: In part, yes…but I also collect meteorites so a lot of the meaning derives from that.

CD: Where are your LEDs manufactured?

AH: The majority of the product line is assembled in China; many components are from Singapore, Taiwan, and a few pieces from Malaysia.

CD: What is communication like with a factory on the other side of the world?

AH: Communication can be difficult sometimes–it reminds me when I ordered “red” and received “orange”, they thought they nailed it, but it was an unacceptable error to pass it on to my customers…many emails ensued.  Mostly, it’s the time difference that is problematic…it means I am working until 4 AM.  However, it is rewarding to learn about other cultures.

CD: What factors do you take into consideration when developing new products?

AH: I suppose it starts with looking at specific games, and finding that a different lighting solution is needed than is currently offered in the marketplace.  In most cases, those solutions boil down to brightness and direction of throw.  Many ideas for new products spring from the minds of fellow pinheads, and I’m grateful for all their help and suggestions.

CD: So customer opinion and feedback greatly influence the development of new products?

AH: Quite significantly. It has taken me a while to realize that any product will ride the full bell curve of opinion, but finding compromise is what I shoot for in many circumstances.

CD: What is the development process like for you? Do you just dream it up and have the factory build it, or is there more to it on your end?

AH: There really isn’t any set way.  Sometimes, it starts with a sketch and then countless emails with the manufacturer to prototype the idea.  Other times it’s an adaption of an existing product. I have sampled anything and everything unique in the world of LEDs I could find to see if they would have a viable use in pinball.  From LEDs in sneakers, to military surplus–LEDs are now everywhere.  I have toyed with everything from bicycle motion LEDs to Chinese military flashlight bulbs.

CD: Competition is stiff in the LED world with lots of companies offering lighting solutions. What sets Comet apart?

00-comet03

A Comet Pinball exclusive: the extremely versatile SMD light strips, available in both 3SMD and 7SMD versions in a variety of colours.

AH: First, I hope people see our website uses a more efficient way of ordering.  In entering a 3 page bulb order, there will be a massive amount of time saving compared to our competitors ordering systems.  Our choice of product also sets us apart.  Most vendors have offered three brightness levels, whereas we boast a dozen levels of brightness.  We have a vast selection of exclusive products found nowhere else: our Op-Max double patented bulb throwing over 300 degrees of light, our 6.3V Colored LED Strips, and our Superflux line just to name a few.  We also simply strive to have the lowest price we can and offer low shipping of $3.95, and free shipping with orders over $99.  Finally, we have a different approach to lighting.  The standard method has been the same size bulb everywhere in a game. By working with light brightness and throw, our philosophy is to control the lighting to one’s taste and work with different bulbs and brightness to create depth of field.

CD: How can you achieve true depth of field with LEDs?

AH: Put brighter bulbs in the back of a game, it is amazing what 2-4 Op-Max can do in the back of a playfield in newer games with plastic layers.

CD: You have a fierce commitment to keeping prices low.  How do you keep your prices so competitive?

AH: To toot my own horn a bit, it starts with being a good buyer. I already have factory production in four countries in the East; sourcing was done with the help of workers living in production centers. Business references were already tenured. Having a detailed Inventory Control system here keeps us efficient and prices low.

CD: A few hours after placing my first order, my telephone rang, and it was you, calling to say thank you for my order…and we then proceeded to shoot the breeze about pinball games for a half-an-hour!  Can you describe your unique approach to customer service?

AH: That is likely best described as “getting old”!  In my business and personal life, the Golden Rule (“Treat others how you’d like to be treated”) was what I was taught by my father, and taught to him by his father. I love pinball, and while this is a business, I still wish to keep it a hobby and a joy.  In that regard, I see every order that comes through, and will e-mail, or call, based on something I see.  We check each order to ensure customers received all possible discounts, and follow up if we see any anomalies.  Also, I’m hoping this to be a “retirement business”.  When I retire, I’ll be able to travel the country in an RV, and visit all my new pinhead friends I’ve gained through the business!

CD: You are an active member on Pinside.  Does this play a big part in promoting the business? Are there any challenges to being the owner of the company AND being a member of a public forum in such a small, tight-knit community?

AH: Pinside is a great community of pinheads!  Sharing my products with others like me makes me feel great, and indeed, is invaluable to the business side of things.  While I was advised not to do it this way, I had to go with my gut, which was to approach it honestly. With many other great vendors out there, only through mutual success can we best serve the hobby.  I describe my Pinside persona as “open”: my ears and eyes are open to the community to hear and observe their needs and respond to their feedback.  Certainly there are business bumps such as differences of opinion. 

CD: You said to me once that LED use (and degree of LED use) is a very personal preference and a highly customizable experience. Is this the reason why you do not offer stock kits of LEDs for popular games?

AH: That is one very good reason. Personal preferences start with the player…their age, their eyes, and their tastes are all factors.  Next, you have to consider ambient lighting: are you playing with the lights on or off?   A kit addresses only one view and that is fine in many cases.  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 and having a completely unique result!  However, it is also about cost.  While you can save money purchasing a kit, if you purchase in bulk, you can save so much more–sometimes up to 50% less.

CD: Since you do not offer kits, what advice can you give or sampler packages can you recommend to potential customers who want to explore the LEDs you have to offer?

AH: We are working on some additional information for the site, which we hope will serve as a good guide.  Basically, it starts all with experimentation, and ends with having a few different types of each bulb handy to see what works best.

CD: The LED detractors’ biggest complaint about LED use is “ghosting”. I’m under the understanding that this is a general term that is used to describe multiple phenomena–ghost, strobe, flicker. Can you briefly describe the difference between them, and what products you have available to combat these annoyances.

AH: The technical difference for all these issues is pretty robust.  But ghosting specifically is low residual current, still in the “line” that causes a few insert lights to faintly light when using LEDs.  Bulbs deemed “non-ghosting” exist with several different methods of restricting this leftover voltage, keeping the bulb and insert truly “OFF” when they are supposed to be.  Games, on average, can have from 2-8 bulbs that ghost.  We carry two types of non-ghosting bulbs: Optix Super Flux, which is a no-ghost/no-flicker/reduced strobing bulb specifically for inserts, and a high quality non-ghosting product in three, and soon four, different types and brightness.

CD: What is your best-selling bulb?

00-comet01

LED (light emitting diode) bulbs on the left which have the light source encapsulated in a plastic lens versus the SMD (surface mounted diode) on the right which have their light source mounted directly on the face.

AH: In single LEDs, it is the dome or bullet shape.  Despite this, my personal favorite is still the flat-top bulb.  In SMD, a standard 5050 frosted sells the best–it is the same bulb used in most “kits”.  However, this is quickly being replaced by the twin 2835 SMD, the bulb used in Star Trek and the Walking Dead which is much, much brighter than standard bulbs!  This allows inserts in yellow and orange to finally use yellow and orange bulbs and achieve a richer color rather than using 5050 Warm whites.  Our Sunlight color, an exclusive, is the Kelvin between warm and natural white has been flying off the shelves as it is the perfect color for every game–just soft enough to reduce harshness, but still provides plenty of pop.

CD: Can you offer any general tips or rules of thumb when experimenting with LEDs?

AH: Set your baseline brightness for your general illumination first.  Some pinball themes lend themselves to be bright, others to be naturally dark.  Do you wish to play in the dark?  Are your eyes sensitive to LEDs?  These answers will allow you to choose the best brightness for general illumination.  The inserts, as a general rule of thumb, should always be color matched, and we recommend brighter bulbs for larger inserts: a two SMD Faceted or 4 SMD to fill the whole insert with light.  Backboxes are fun. For some backglass art you can use just one brightness, others have certain graphics that you’ll want to create a 3-D depth of field lighting by mixing several brightness levels to control light and shadow.   LED and SMD lighting can really make the backbox art POP!

CD: Can you give us a sneak peak at what is on the horizon for Comet?

AH: We are always playing with new stuff. We have launched some twenty new products in one month!  We are currently trying to solve an issue with our 6.3V RGB strips.  We are also testing LEDs designed specifically for older Stern and Bally games that require a board addition.  And a few secret things I can’t tell you about, too.  As for promotions, stay tuned for a wild a crazy Black Friday Sale…

CD: Any closing words of advice for the pinball community?

AH: I think  following my personal motto goes a long way: “It’s Pinball! Have fun! Don’t take the hobby so seriously!”

Please visit Comet Pinball at http://www.cometpinball.com.  Mr. Haber can be reached at admin@cometpinball.com or can be found posting on Pinside under the handle “OLDPINGUY”.

00-twd06


2 Comments

NEWS: Stern Walks with the Dead, Pictures of the Walking Dead

00-twd00

Well, they did it! They listened! Stern didn’t clutter up the playfield of their next release, the Walking Dead (correction AMC’s Walking Dead), with photoshopped pictures of the cast! The community spoke, and Stern listened. The Gameroom Junkies got the jump on everyone, including Stern themselves, and served up photos of the game’s final form for the hungry pinball masses earlier today. The photos showed a standard “Pro” version, and a fancier, thus more expensive, version. Fans hoping for art from the Walking Dead comic won’t be getting what they want, but they’ll get the next best thing: a playfield that doesn’t feature the floating heads of the Walking Dead cast.

00-twd03

The top of the playfield takes on that grainy, unwashed burlap colour, reminiscent of an aged photograph or a chamomile tea stain on a white tablecloth. Of course, there is the requisite blood spattering here and there to “brighten up” the design. As your eyes make their way to the bottom of the playfield, you are met with a horde of zombies, shadowed in blue, “crowding” the player around the flippers. Placed on top of this art, white and red inserts with bold lettering really pop against the earthy tones. A series of weapons are on inserts between the flippers (items to collect, possibly), while provisions and numbers that look to represent allies are on others.

00-twd02

 

00-twd04

Lifting ramp with zombie head on the money edition.

The pictures present what looks to be another modified fan layout, crammed tight with shots. The “busy” nature of the machine reminds me of many of designer John Borg’s other designs: think X-Men and Tron. Each orbit and ramp shot represents an important location in the Walking Dead series: the Center for Disease Control, the Tunnel, the Arena and the Barn. A fifth, of the same insert design, reads “Riot” beside the barn toy. An insert with the text “Welcome to Woodbury” also lies near the right kicker. It looks as if the game is going to remain very true to the show. Ramp shots head through the backboard, a la Party Zone and Black Rose, which widens the space the ball can travel, not limiting it to the constraints of the playfield.  We also get ROLLOVERS, they appear beside the barn!  Toys are present: a barn with doors that open to reveal a zombie head inside and a water-bloated zombie from the bottom of the well mid-playfield (reminiscent of an undead Wolverine) that leans back to reveal some sort of scoop. The more expensive model of the game looks to feature a firing crossbow that emerges from the apron, a lifting ramp with a zombie head underneath and even more Zombie heads in a Governor-style fish tank on the back board.

00-twd05

Characters are relegated to the side art on the Pro edition. I performed my own little fist pump when I saw that Carl, the annoying-cum-brooding son on main character Rick, was not featured prominently anywhere. The bigger dollar version has a boarded-up crate-look, an approach similar to the Metallica pinball’s road case design. Neither version features main characters on the backglass, instead, they feature zombies. Kudos to someone at Stern or AMC for putting the zombies front and centre. One of the first comments after the photos hit Pinside inquired about the harshness of the AMC logo on the backglass and cabinet art. AMC, being a cable David versus the network Goliaths, have always marketed themselves with a heavy hand. It isn’t just Mad Men or the Walking Dead, its AMC’s Mad Men and AMC’s the Walking Dead. Getting name recognition for a cable station that only six years ago moved away from showing a steady diet of classic films pulled out of moth balls is pretty important to them. They have certainly done it on this piece of merchandise.

I’m not sure if I’m the first to notice this, but the game is a bit of a throwback to some of the features found on Williams’ Fire! Both feature earthy browns and yellows in the artwork, a lifting ramp, miniature buildings, and, the one that struck me first, “huddled masses” artwork shadowed in blue that lie between the flippers. I’m not arguing plagiarism, but as a Fire! owner, those were the similarities that popped out at me.  Besides, it wouldn’t be a Credit Dot post without a Fire! reference.

00-twd07

Blue shadowed masses of Fire!, much like the zombie crowd on Sterns TWD.

In commentary that should shock no one, it is my opinion that this playfield, looking at the playfield art alone, looks head and shoulders above the art on Jersey Jack Pinball’s Hobbit. Those looking to put their money on style over substance, the definition of a pinball pre-order, would be hard pressed to choose the Hobbit over the Walking Dead. I like that Stern’s art team went the minimalist route again, much like they did on Star Trek, letting the inserts, and thus the light show, become the “art”.

00-twd0800-twd09

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those that were on “Stern Strike” until games were released with more complete code, or those that pledged not to buy another Stern game until they played it first, will find themselves frantically calling their distributor on photographs alone for this one. Already, many local collectors in my area have been freeing up money by selling games, in anticipation, after laying eyes on this series of visuals. Having John Borg designing and Lyman Sheats coding should also give potential buyers some faith.

00-twd06

More money = more dismembered zombie heads.

The macabre theme really speaks to arcade and pinball aficionados for some reason. The Walking Dead stands to be a game that plays horror seriously, for probably the first time since Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Other machines of the macabre have went the campy route and added humour to soften the terror: Scared Stiff and Tales from the Crypt come to mind. Will the theme be too much of a gore-fest to appear in a family gameroom? If Funhouse’s Rudy had the power to scare children, perhaps dismembered zombie heads will, too. Stern has really buttered their bread on the adult side with this one, which is a bit of a departure for them as of late. Is it just me, or does anyone else remember Gary Stern pledging that there would be “no zombies” from Stern, as it was counter to the company’s overall stance that they make pinball machines for everyone?

Anyhow, Mr. Borg HAS been quoted on record as saying this is his best design ever, and it will only be a few short months before these games hit private collections and basements across North America so we can judge for ourselves.

 

Further Reading:

Pinside – The Walking Dead Photos


2 Comments

OPINION: Big League Chew

00-base00

Perhaps I’ve just been spending too much time within the friendly confines of minor league ballparks this summer, but I think it’s time for the pinball industry to revisit sports themes: baseball in particular. In the current climate, it is going to need a licence attached to it: the participation of Major League Baseball and its players association. I think Stern is up to the task. Games with sports themes have not fared well in the recent past, however I think now is the time to give the theme another trip to the plate, so to speak, despite the built-in trouble areas that exist in getting sports-themed machines off the ground.

00-base02

Gottlieb’s 1970 Add-A-Ball Batter Up. Courtesy of pinrepair.com

Sports have a rich history in pinball, with an inordinate amount of woodrails and electromechanical machines carrying sports imagery. Gottlieb’s wedgehead lineup of sports games reads like an ESPN2 weekly broadcast schedule.  However, sport themes released in the DMD era have not fared so well. Take note, I’m talking about competitive sports proper, not recreational activities. As much as White Water and Fish Tales could be a fly in the ointment in my argument, I have considered them more recreational themes, and not sports themes. Taking a brief look at DMD era games and their Pinside Top 100/200/300 rankings (as of September 2, 2014) it reads like one of the worst gameroom lineups in the history of pinball:

Tee’d Off (Gottlieb 1993): Ranked 239
World Cup Soccer (Williams 1994): Ranked 53
Shaq Attaq (Gottlieb 1995): Ranked 278
No Fear: Dangerous Sports (Williams 1995): Ranked 95
Frank Thomas’ Big Hurt (Gottlieb 1995): Ranked 172
Indianapolis 500 (Williams 1995): Ranked 42
Mario Andretti (Gottlieb 1995): Ranked 283
Flipper Football (Capcom, 1996): Ranked 272
Space Jam (Sega, 1997): Ranked 287
No Good Gofers (Williams 1997): Ranked 32
NBA Fastbreak (Bally 1997): Ranked 108
Striker Extreme/NFL (Stern 2000): Ranked 296
NASCAR/Grand Prix (Stern 2005): Ranked 181
NBA (Stern 2009): Ranked 241

(Williams SlugFest, a DMD game that dispensed baseball cards, was extremely successful, but was not included in the above list, because, after all, it is not really a pinball machine in the strictest sense…it was a weird cross between a pitch ‘n’ bat and a redemption game)

There are notable exceptions in that list, and they all seem to be Bally/Williams titles. No Good Gofers is a fantastic comedic take on golf and is the highest ranked game on the above list, and Indy 500 well deserves its top fifty rank as it is a solid game with some unique Nordman-esque features. World Cup Soccer ‘94 is on everyone’s list of fun and affordable DMD games for both fledgling beginners and collectors with extensive lineups. (Plus, it is the cheapest John Popadiuk title available, so that boosts its in-demand status.) Baseball only appears once with Big Hurt, which was licenced through the Frank Thomas and Reebok camp only, and not endorsed whatsoever by Major League Baseball. Past that, it gets really dicey. Exactly half the games on the list fall into the bottom twenty percent of all games rated on Pinside, which is an extremely amazing, albeit pathetic, feat. Perhaps pinball players are not all that keen to have sports mixed in with their pingames, or maybe designers are so handcuffed by trying to stay true to the rules of the featured sport that it ends up skewing the overall flow and play of the game.

00-base03

Williams’ NBA Fastbreak.

Stern already had a kick at the can with two sports licences, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League. As I was compiling the above list, I was surprised to see that it was only five years ago that Stern released their NBA title. To me, the game seems much more dated than it actually is, probably due to its licence association with the older Williams NBA Fastbreak release. Why Stern released their own version of an NBA-themed game after Fastbreak appears to be unfathomable, but it was the result of downsizing. The game was originally slated for overseas export only, but once downsizing occurred, a decision was made to produce the completely developed NBA game rather than spend money developing something else. This must be the reason why the design and execution of the game feels wholly incomplete. A few years earlier, Stern’s NFL football-themed machine was an uninspired repackage of Striker Xtreme, their soccer-themed game, whose translite featured a different NFL team, depending on the hometown team of where the game was shipped (or the buyer’s personal preference). Both the NFL and NBA games were met with indifference by the pinball community and exist as lazy attempts at letting the theme make up for lack of unique design elements. Because of this laziness, both games now reside at the bottom of the Pinside Top 100/200/300.

00-base05

Stern’s Striker Xtreme: “NFL LE”, with a Pittsburgh Steelers translite.

With Gary Stern’s frequent assertion that his company is “Made in the USA” and with baseball-mad Chicago being his home base, it is curious as to why Stern has not optioned Major League Baseball to partner with. The appeal of baseball is certainly on-par with that of basketball on an international level, with international sales traditionally being a key factor in theme selection. However, there is a fantastic market for such a game here in North America alone. While football relies on tailgating in parking lots, I would argue that much of baseball’s pre-game drinking takes place at sports bars, with Wrigleyville in Chicago being the penultimate example: a row of drinking establishments all vying for pre-game patronage. What better place to put one of these machines than in a sports bar catering to the pre-game crowd?  Especially given the recent resurgence of the bar as a bastion for pinball. I’m sure Major League Baseball could get a few of these machines into the stadiums themselves, as well.

00-base07

Jaleco didn’t pay the league, now Ryne Sandberg has to play ball in a generic, cheap lookin’ Cubs uniform.

A Major League Baseball pinball machine would run into the same problem as the NBA machines before it: it would remain “current” only for a season or two before: a) free agency takes over, moving players to the highest bidder, and b) uniform sales falter, forcing teams to consider a change in colour or logo. Whereas themes like AC/DC and X-Men seem to remain timeless, team logos, colours, home cities and player rosters change so quickly in the business of sports today, that it automatically puts a timestamp on a product such as this. One could argue that the DMD player and team appearances could be tweaked, at least somewhat, in code updates…but we all know Stern’s recent track record with that. To erase the team names or star players from the machine, in effect short circuiting the need for a licence, isn’t an option.  A generic baseball theme just wouldn’t cut it. It will always feel cheap and incomplete, like when you see a top athlete in a deodorant commercial playing his sport of choice wearing a generic white uniform and not the uniform of the team he plays for. The deodorant company obviously didn’t have the dough to licence the team logo through the league, and their commercial ends up looking like a top player playing sandlot ball.

Themes of this nature are a hard sell right out of the gate.  What is the crossover of people who REALLY enjoy baseball and REALLY enjoy pinball?  When Stern released Mustang, there was an overwhelming number of people who took the stance: “I’m not a car guy, I’m not buying this machine.” Contrast this with the announcement of AC/DC, Metallica or Star Trek: while pinball collectors/players may not be a fan of that particular genre of music/film, it seemed that they still reserved judgement and played the game before making a final call. You hear far more stories of people stating, “I don’t like ACDC/Metallica music but I bought the game because it plays great”. I think you would have to be prepared for people to dismiss the game right out of the gate with the MLB theme attached.

00-base01With all the problem areas stacking up, it appears that the MLB theme wouldn’t be all that good of an option for Stern. However, I am intrigued by the fact that John Trudeau is now working for Stern, and has a semi-rich history with the theme of baseball. Trudeau designed the Chicago-area favourite Chicago Cubs Triple Play for Premier, a veritable staple in the basements of Cubs fans and in the corners of Wrigleyville bars alike. He also did the stripped-down, “street level” game Silver Slugger, also for Premier. Further, he was commissioned, by Fox Sports, to design a table for the 2005 MLB All-Star game. It looks as if a physical game was never actually built, but instead the design served as a blueprint for a CGI animation backdrop that appeared in both commercials and lead-ins for the annual meeting of baseball’s greatest stars. Even though the table looks to be a mix of old and new pinball elements (heck, it has both numeric 4-player scoring AND a DMD!), it looks as if the table’s physics are correct in its design. Mr. Trudeau recently stated in an interview that he’d like to take another stab at a baseball pintable, which is a good sign. Besides being one of the true workhorses in the industry with a flair for innovation, Mr. Trudeau’s designs tend to be synonymous with Americana–from the drive-in meta-theme of the Creature from the Black Lagoon to the All-American muscle car theme of Mustang–making him the perfect candidate to take a stab at America’s pastime.

00-base06With Trudeau at the helm, here’s my two cents, for free, on how to successfully theme the game. Just as Creature from the Black Lagoon is not actually about the Creature from the Black Lagoon as it is about the overall drive-in experience, I would NOT theme the game around the traditional rules of baseball, instead, I would suggest basing the game around going to the stadium to WATCH a baseball game. Just as you have to complete drive-in features in Creech (such as necking in the back seat of your car of visiting the snack bar), you could do the very same with the stadium experience: buying your ticket, finding your seat, visiting the concessions, catching a foul ball, watching the hotdog or pirogi race in the fifth inning, participating in the seventh inning stretch and so forth. Only in multi-ball, after loading the bases with three locked balls, would you participate in the more traditional rules of a baseball machine by hitting homers and scoring runs. Further, different modes could send you to different stadiums across the major leagues, like Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park or Wrigley Field…kind of like a cross-country baseball tour, exploring the elements that make each stadium unique. With this approach, you could almost get away without the participation of the players association, as specific athletes wouldn’t play as large a role as they would if the rules revolved around the pitching, hitting and fielding aspects of the game.

It seems like a risky move for Stern to return to the killing fields where they were met with underwhelming results in the past, but if anyone can pull it off, they can in the current climate. If there is one thing Stern likes to do, it’s fishing in the same pond: rock ‘n’ roll, comic books, etc. Needless to say, the MLB title would attract more than just pinheads: anyone with a Yankees or Red Sox themed mancave would jump at the chance to add a pinball machine decked out with the logo of their favourite team. Maybe there is something in place that prevents the MLB licence from being acquired? Perhaps the league wants too much control over the final product or maybe it is just too expensive to make the project financially feasible.  More than likely, music, comic book and film licences are easier to execute. However, it seems like an absolute natural fit for both parties, given that baseball and amusement machines have such a rich history together. With all the fanfare of Opening Day, it would be the perfect time to release the machine. So get cracking, Stern…only eight months remain until the first pitch of the 2015 baseball season…


Leave a comment

FEATURE: GRC’s Elvira and the Party Monsters Re-Theme and Issues of Pinball Objectivity

00-elvb000

(The following article contains one video where multiple pairs of cartoon breasts can be seen. Maybe this is not the best article to read at the family dinner table or at the office, however, you can be the judge on its appropriateness given the previous warning. Enjoy.)

I get it…the whole philosophy of pinball was based on capitalism: getting the maximum amount of quarters out of the pockets of impressionable young boys and into the coin box. The easiest way to do this, short of making a fantastic machine whose layout and gameplay scream for repeat plays, is by filling the backglass and playfield with barely clad women to attract the target teenage demographic. Roy Parker was the grandfather of the sexy pinball lady, illustrating babes in bikinis beginning in the 1950s for Gottlieb, followed closely a decade-and-a-half later by Dave Christensen, who perfected the art of the well endowed woman well into the 80s. Grown-up pinball enthusiasts far and wide, who are probably complete gentlemen outside of the hobby, have kept up the tradition of talking like horny, sex-starved teenage boys when it comes to the subject of women in pinball art. Now that we children of the 80s are “all growed up”, we are seeing objectification rear its ugly head in some very extreme forms. Far be it for me to bellyache about passive objectification of women in pinball art, but one particular instance has been weighing on my mind for quite some time. I’m not the one to carry the feminist rally flag into the pinball arena–others are doing it much better than I ever could–however, the appearance of an Elvira and the Party Monsters re-theme courtesy of Downington, PA-based retailer Gameroom Collectibles really rubbed me the wrong way…so to speak.

00-elvb06

Parker’s 4-Belles (Gottlieb, 1954) and Christensen’s Strikes and Spares (Bally, 1977)

00-elvb02I was introduced to the game via a YouTube video released by the Gameroom Collectibles guys that appeared about seven months ago. The video chronicled the modifications and restoration work done by the GRC team to a 1989 Bally Elvira and the Party Monsters pinball machine. The seductively-dressed Elvira had what little modesty she possessed completely removed: the game features a bare-breasted Mistress of the Dark on the backglass and throughout the playfield. One change on a playfield insert goes as far as to add a tuft of pubic hair to the kneeling illustrated Elvira. Further, the jelly-plastic Boogie Men that danced near the Party Monsters pop bumpers were replaced with a giant set of moulded plastic boobs that shake and dance just as Boogie Men did. This whole re-theme has been dubbed “Elvira and the Boobie Monsters” or “Elvira and the Party Boobs”. Elvira’s breasts on the backglass and near the flippers are cartoonishly large and ill-proportioned, but the effect is clear. Jim from Gameroom Collectibles, your host of the video, is quick to point out that the playfield art was not created in-house, but rather acquired from Robert Winter, a macabre enthusiast and all-around good guy in the pinball hobby. In a Pinside thread, it is revealed that Burlington, WI user “CaptainNeo” was the artist who fleshed out the breasts and applied the clearcoat. They also state that Party Monsters designer Dennis Nordman gave his “thumb of approval” (a mixed metaphor of thumbs up and seal of approval, I’m assuming?) by way of a Facebook post. No word on how original Party Monsters artist Greg Freres feels about the changes to his original artwork.

00-elvb05I’m a huge Elvira fan. A signed picture of her graces my wall of autographs (the wall happens to be in my bathroom, but that’s besides the point). I’ve been a fan of her over-the-top innuendo-laden comedy since I was very young, thanks to some very liberal parents who let me consume such media at a young age. The key to Cassandra Petersen’s classic character is that she was naughty and overtly sexual without actually being lewd or explicitly obscene. It was sex-based comedy for the whole family, relying on double entendre and knee-slapping one-liners to drive home, with a knowing wink, that the whole performance of the Elvira character was a self-reflexive farce. The character was the embodiment of excess without excessive sexuality. Much of her popularity stemmed from from horndog teens in the 80s dreaming of what Elvira looked like without her clothes on. The Elvira and the Party Monsters retheme completely removes this key mystique. Those familiar with Ms. Peterson’s oeuvre will know that nude pictures of her did surface in High Society magazine and on the cover of a Tom Waits album, but this was long before the Elvira character was ever created. The Elvira character proper, to my knowledge, has never bared it all, leaving everything to the imagination. The whole basis of her 1988 movie was to rally against the conservative extremists of small-town America who labelled her a bad influence and a cheap slut, and throughout the film she works to prove to them that her appearance and mannerisms were a sign of expression and freedom, and not a raunchy display of ill-morals. Stand-up comics would be booed off any stage in North America using the corny sexual innuendo Ms. Petersen employed in her act, but it worked in the context of the Elvira character given her extreme appearance. Both Elvira pin-games worked in the same manner: they walked the fine line between suggestive and lewd, never crossing into vulgar territory. Therein lied the charm. Heck, the games even added a failsafe of “clean” versions of audio and, in the case of Party Monsters, offered a “modesty sticker” operators could place over Elvira’s cleavage on the backglass to allow the games to be placed within more conservative environments. The Gameroom Collectibles machine destroys that delectate balance both machines strove for and pulls the game, kicking and screaming, into lewd territory. I don’t think anyone would argue that Elvira’s character embodied the term “classy”, but any class she tried to inject into the character is completely removed by the Gameroom Collectibles re-theme.

00-elvb07

Original Bally flyer for EATPM. The text relies heavily on double entendre and “the tease”.

 

00-elvb04I think the ultimate irony of the video appears when Jim from Gameroom Collectibles dramatically points out that there was a penis carved into the side of the cabinet when it first arrived as a restoration candidate. For some, the addition of a topless Elvira is just as disgraceful as the crudely carved penis. One is expertly crafted with an airbrush and sealed under a glossy clear-coat, and one is barbarically done with a jackknife. I ask: which degrades the game more?

Despite the addition of the nudity, the restoration looks absolutely stellar, as most Gameroom Collectibles restorations do. The machine is spotless, and obviously a lot of care was taken to restore it to its original lustre. Tracking down ramps for this machine back in late-2013 was quite a feat unto itself, as it predates Pinball Inc’s reproductions that appeared in April of this year. A new Classic Playfield Reproductions plastic set and a skull for the lock area round out the playfield work, while new cabinet decals erased the offensive penis. The latter half of the video highlights gameplay, and it looks to play fantastic atop the game’s glass-like clearcoat.

00-elvb01The host of the video tries to keep it as professional as possible…as professional as one can keep it when talking about a game whose main feature is “boobies”. However, there is an air of discomfort. He seems to be almost bashful when talking about the game, and averts his eyes when looking at the backglass–as if looking directly at the spherical masses of cartoon flesh will stimulate blindness. Nerves, perhaps, but the coyness appears genuine, as if there was a tinge of trepidation in the presentation of the overly erotic project. It sounds as if Jim from Gameroom Collectibles spearheaded the project to place in his own collection, yet has a difficult time talking about breasts in any sort of direct manner.

At the risk of alienating my (perceived) predominately male audience, I’d argue that this re-themed Elvira is just another instance of chauvinism within the male dominated world of pinball, and aligns itself with other sexist phenomena that have recently popped up to objectify the female form in cases where no objectivity was present: the nude (or nearly nude) backglasses for Monopoly and Wheel of Fortume (available on eBay) or the Luci/Helen “sexy devil” themes available for AC/DC come to mind. Collectors who grew up playing games with less overt forms of objectification are now employing modifications that take female objectification to the nth degree. There has been a steady increase in the number of women players in recent years and it is great to see that they have embraced the pastime, however these “mods”, as described above, work to toe the historical party line of sexism, to extreme ends, and further push the hobby deeper into the realm of the male collector/player.

00-elvb03Really, my opinion doesn’t matter in the grande scheme of things. Bare breasts wouldn’t work in my gameroom, but they may work in someone else’s. Jim from Gameroom Collectibles is adamant to let his audience know that the custom machine is “Girlfriend Approved”, meaning that his partner doesn’t mind the bare breasts appearing in his collection (a form of the quoted term was used on Pinside as well as in YouTube comments). In discussing this article with my wife, she chuckled when I described the dancing plastic boobies, shooting my theory of sexism straight to hell. She said that as a woman, she didn’t find it THAT offensive, and that my stance may be a little uptight. She then reasoned that my problem with this particular Elvira machine lies in two areas, neither of which mark me as a complete prude. The first being the total short circuiting of the Elvira character’s approach to comedy (discussed above), and the second being that of a pinball purist, seeing a machine being modded in such a way that adds little to the overall game and removing it from its place within pinball history. My wife went on to state: “You guys love to modify your games. From what I’ve seen, mods either make the game look prettier or play better. The boobs don’t make the game play better, but maybe that guy thinks boobs make his game prettier.” Maybe she’s right. When placing the game in the greater context of pinball history, it becomes problematic. However, when taking the machine at face value, secluded from the underlying sexism in pinball, it is just a game made by a guy who wants to have some fun by objectifying Elvira’s bare breasts while enjoying his machine. I’m not sure if the game CAN be divorced from the greater context in my mind, but for some, it absolutely can. To me, if I want to look at boobs, I have other options of seeing them. My wife has a matching set and the internet is full of them, too. I don’t need to go out of my way to add them to my pinball machines.

The response in the community has been somewhat mixed. Some YouTube comments applaud the “fucking awesome[ness]” of what Gameroom Collectibles has done with their machine, while others find it problematic for a variety of reasons, with early Pinside responders describing it as “tacky” and “embarrassingly bad”. Whichever camp you are in, the discussion is good for pinball: drawing attention to the machines themselves and the attitudes of those who play them. I personally can’t bring myself to look at the machine divorced from the greater context, and further, I view it as just another barrier to keep the opposite sex away from the hobby. I wonder how Cassandra Peterson feels about all this?

Further Reading:
Pinside – Elvira Boobie Monsters??? One of a kind restoration featured! Beware – Boobs!
YouTube – Comments for Elvira & The Party (BOOBS!) Monsters (Custom) Pinball Machine
Gameroom Collectibles – Homepage
Elvira, Mistress of the Dark – Official Webpage

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.