CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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


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OPINION: Big League Chew

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…


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

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(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.

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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.

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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


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PEOPLE: Drop Target’s Jon Chad & Alec Longstreth

In late July I raved about Drop Target Zine, the homebrew pinball magazine, illustrated, written and self-piblished by Jon Chad and Alec Longstreth. To celebrate the release of DTZ #6 earlier this afternoon, available through this link for a mere $5USD plus shipping, I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Chad and Mr. Longstreth a series of questions about their publication, their interests, and the hobby in general. I must say that these guys are absolutely sincere and genuine in their appreciation for pinball–it shows in this interview, but also reaches out and grabs you on each and every fantastically illustrated page of Drop Target. Every pinball enthusiast owes it to themselves to read every issue of this part-comic/part-magazine hybrid. The duo took time out to participate in a Credit Dot interview while the ink was drying on Issue #6…hopefully it wasn’t too much of a distraction!

Credit Dot: Did your appreciation for pinball begin when you were younger, or is it more of a recent phenomenon?

Alec Longstreth (ABL): I would have told you it was a recent thing, but a few years ago we were at Funspot in New Hampshire and I was going down their line of games, playing them all, when I had this weird sensation. I was playing Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Gottlieb, 1978) and all of the sounds and the playfield art felt eerily familiar. Suddenly I remembered that my orthodontist’s office had this machine on free play in his waiting room and I spent many an hour as a kid playing that game while I was waiting for my older sisters to get their braces off.

Jon Chad (JON): I didn’t have much of a connection with pinball as a kid. I remember playing an Indiana Jones (Williams, 1993) machine in a hotel when I was young and a Elvis (Stern, 2004) machine in a college student center. Both times I had a blast, but my lack of skill made for short games. I just didn’t play long enough to catch the bug.

CD: How did you guys first meet? What were your first impressions of each other?

JON: We owe our friendship to The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. In 2007, Alec was a summer workshop faculty member and I was an intern. A year later we both moved to White River Junction to work at CCS. Alec was a friendly, high energy guy who was really generous with his time.

ABL: Ha ha, yeah. I get pumped about stuff, and I could tell right off the bat that Jon was the same way. I remember a few months into our stint both living in White River Junction, we had to make a trip to IKEA to buy some new tables for CCS and we both just had a blast. Jon had never been to an IKEA before and it really felt like we were going on an adventure. He got pumped, and I fed off of that energy. And that mutual excitement is what I feel makes Drop Target really special. We try to infuse every article and illustration and comic with our positive enthusiasm for pinball.

CD: That enthusiasm really shines through in DTZ. Under what circumstances did you decide to self-publish a zine about pinball?

ABL: Jon and I were both teaching a summer workshop at CCS in 2010. At the end of the workshop, we had a picnic planned at the park, but it ended up raining that day. Thank goodness it did! On the fly, we decided to go hang out at a new pool hall that had recently opened up and in the back corner they had a Star Wars: Episode One (Pinball 2000) machine. We started playing it together and instantly got hooked. Jon and I have both been creating our own minicomics and zines for years. When we both got into pinball it was a natural impulse to take that enthusiasm and excitement and share it with everyone else through a zine.

Unassembled pages of DTZ#6, courtesy of Alex Longstreth.

CD: With pinball being a physical alternative to console and mobile gaming, and the zine being a tangible alternative to online storytelling and communication, it seems that both subject and medium usurp popular technology to some degree. Was this a consideration in creating DTZ?

JON: I played a lot of video games growing up, but the thing that makes pinball unique to me is the physicality of it. It’s a whole world under that glass! There are things that you can do with pinball that can’t be replicated in any kind of video game experience. Alec and I both share a passion for books in their physical form. When you’re holding an issue of a self-published book you’re touching something that the authors created, and there’s a connection there. Each pinball machine was actually touched by the workers on the factory line. They assembled it. It’s not the same thing with a video game.

CD: How hard is it to work with each other, being on opposite coasts?

ABL: Well, it’s a lot easier than it probably used to be! We take advantage of all that current cloud-based technology has to offer. We have a Google Docs spreadsheet for Drop Target with all seven issues laid out. We can both view and edit that document at the same time while we are on the phone. We also create a Dropbox folder with all of the current issue’s assets. When Jon uploads a new spot illustration or text document with his latest write-up out in Massachusetts, I get a little notification that it has been uploaded and I can check it out on my computer in California. It’s pretty amazing!

JON: That being said, we need to be together, and at the Center for Cartoon Studies to make the zines. The CCS lab has all kinds of screen printing equipment, photocopiers and industrial paper cutters that we use to produce Drop Target. Without access to that equipment Drop Target would not be financially feasible. Luckily, CCS asks us to come out once a year to teach a summer workshop or two, so our production schedule revolves around that. I know the fans wish issues came out faster, like when we were both in White River Junction, but we’d rather have one issue a year and know that it’s the best it could be!

CD: The comic style art is a big part of the zine. Are there any challenges to telling a story about pinball using the comic medium?

ABL: That’s really important to us. Our goal is to never have a two-page spread in any issue of DTZ that does not have some image on it. Jon and I are both image makers so we try to load every issue with as many comics and illustrations as possible. As for challenges…it’s hard drawing pinball machines! Jon is much better at technical drawing than I am – he makes it look easy – but I’m pretty sure it’s challenging for him as well.

JON: Definitely. A lot of the stories about pinball are really about the people playing pinball. We draw comics with people all the time, so that’s no problem. Drawing pinball machines – that’s the real monkey wrench!

ABL: Yeah, I specifically keep my DTZ drawings a little looser than my regular comics work, so that I’m not held fully accountable to the accuracy of something. If you get too tight than a single button out of place looks bad, but if you keep it loose you can be a little more willy-nilly.

CD: So what is the hardest part in illustrating a pinball machine?

JON: The proportions. Something’s always off. The height of the cabinet. The angle that the backbox tilts out, or the angle of the legs. You wouldn’t think it, but there’s almost no right angles in a pinball machine!

ABL: The backbox tilts out??? Wow, I guess you’re right, that never occurred to me! Ha ha, there you can see the difference between my drawings of pinball machines and Jon’s!

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Mr. Chad screen-printing DTZ#6 covers while the PAPA finals stream in the background, courtesy of Alec Longstreth.

CD: You mentioned earlier that you use the comic medium to tell the stories of personal pinball experiences, and in doing so, you end up illustrating yourselves a lot. How accurate is the portrayal of the cartoon “Jon” and “Alec” to the real Jon and Alec?

JON: Well, you do edit a bit in autobiographical comics, but I think our portrayals of ourselves and each other are pretty accurate. We do really get this excited about pinball!

ABL: For me it’s weird because I had this massive beard when we drew the first few issues and now I have a more “normal” beard. Sometimes when I meet DTZ readers in real life they are surprised that my big beard is gone.

JON: I have the opposite problem! I only draw hair on one side of my arms, but actually it goes all the way around. I am 50% harrier than I depict myself in my comics!

CD: Who are some of your artistic influences outside of the pinball world?

ABL: I think all of our artistic influences come from outside the world of pinball, because we only got into pinball later in life, as adults. We are both cartoonists, so mostly we were influenced by the comics we read while growing up. For me it was cartoonists like Carl Barks (Donald Duck, Scrooge McDuck), Bill Waterson (Calvin & Hobbes), and Hergé (The Adventures of Tintin).

JON: I agree. While I wouldn’t say that pinball art has influenced my drawings, I will say that the experience of playing pinball itself has definitely influenced some of our design decisions in putting together an issue of Drop Target. If you look at the cover images for Issues #1-6, they slowly take you through a game of pinball. Issue #1 has a plunger, issue #2 is the lanes at the top, issue #3 is the bumper pit, and so forth. I won’t tell you what’s going to be on the cover of our last issue, but let’s just say when you put all seven issues together, a full game of pinball will be represented. Also, each issue has an illustration on the back that is based on the “match” screen from whatever game is in our “Replay Review” article. Instead of the standard “20” score, we invert the numbers so that for issue #2 the match number is “02.” This is the last thing you see of the issue, the same way the match screen is the last thing you see when you play a game of pinball. KNOCK!

CD: In reading DTZ, you seem to capture the wonder, purity and idyllic nature of pinball: the thrill of chasing high scores, a night of playing with friends, the camaraderie of moving machines. How much does the medium you are using play into capturing this spirit of pinball?

ABL: Cartoonists have a term called “emenata” which are those sweat marks that fly off a character’s head when they are excited or stressed out or surprised. More generally, you can use aspects of drawing that don’t exist in the real world to help enhance a moment. So if I play a great game of pinball, in comics there will be little swirly lines coming out of my head. Or if Jon has to solder his first molex connector the background may fill up with a million wires to indicate how stressful that experience felt. Obviously, we feel like comics is the best storytelling medium out there, because we are both cartoonists. I think one of the big challenges of Drop Target for us has been to bring the same level of excitement and clarity to our writing. We both probably write about 10,000 words for each issue (that is a total guess, I don’t know the real number – it’s probably more!). Before we print an issue we have these long proofreading meetings where we argue about punctuation, capitalization and grammar. I think when we look back on DTZ as a project, that might be the area where we both grew the most, as writers.

CD: How good are you at playing the game itself? Who is the better player?

JON: Alec is the better player. 100% When I get to a game, I’m too taken with the spectacle to stop and read the rules. Going through and hitting shots and starting modes is just so exciting. Alec actually studies the rules on the card like a smart player before starting a game.

ABL: Okay, that might be the case, but I think if Jon is on fire, you can’t touch him. There is that zone and when Jon enters it, he’s going to be better than I am. He put up a 239 million score on that Star Wars: Episode One game that I could never touch (also, he was the Ramp Champ!) In DTZ we talk about Jon mastering his rage. He used to get really worked up, but now he has that totally under control and he can keep it cool during a game in a way that I can not. If I start doing well in a game, I get so nervous, I start shaking. I recently played in my first tournament in Oakland. It was double elimination (I think that’s what it was called?) you could only lose twice and then you were out of the tournament. I was a stressed out ball of nerves and I lost my first two games: one, two. I was out of there in fifteen minutes! But then at home, when I am on my lunch break I can play my Medieval Madness for an hour on one credit and get up into the hundreds of millions. That’s something I’ll have to work on if I want to continue to compete (which I don’t think I do!)

CD: Do you have a personal collection of machines? If so, what do you have?

JON: Alec has his Medieval Madness and I used to have a Jurassic Park (Data East, 1993) and a Arena (Premier, 1987). Both machines treated me well, but I had to downsize when I moved from White River Junction to Northhampton, MA. I loved Jurassic Park and I took good care of it, so it was an easy sell. The Arena was well loved, but I hadn’t put as much work into it. I secretly want one of those pinball cocktail tables. I figure it would be a good compromise between me having a pinball machine and my roommates not going ballistic.

CD: I’m no zine expert: how crowded is the pinball zine scene?

ABL: One of the most exciting things, when we started getting into pinball was finding out that there had been a pinball zine during the ’90s zine boom, called Multiball. It was a really successful zine; the print runs were up in the tens of thousands in its heyday. We were able to contact the original authors and interview them for our first issue, which felt like passing the “pinball zine torch” from them to us.

JON: Later, we found out that there are still a couple other pinball zines, like Skillshot in Seattle, which has more than twenty issues! Even more exciting, we sometimes get some new pinball zines that people send us, which they were inspired to create because they read Drop Target. That feels really good.

ABL: Yeah, Drop Target ends with issue seven, so we’re excited to see if some other pinball zines will pop up in our place. It’s cool to think we can pass that torch to someone else.

CD: How many copies are in a first pressing run of Drop Target?

JON: We’re shooting for 400, but because there is screen printing involved, we have to account for spoilage. I actually screen print 500 covers, but usually about 50 don’t make it, because they are off-center or they just don’t print right. So even though the official print run number is 400, it’s more like 450.

CD: Does DTZ have an international following? What are some of the places your zine has shipped?

ABL: All over the place! Australia! France! Germany! Lots of people in Canada! A few in South America. There are pinball fans all over the world. One of the great things about our collaboration, is that Jon is a master screen printer, and I hate screen printing. So Jon does all of that stuff – it’s important to him. To make an equal division of labor, I take on all of the shipping. I usually have a few issues of my minicomic Phase 7 in print at any given time, so I’m always making trips to the post office, and I have the necessary shipping materials on hand at all times (packing tape, envelopes, a Stamps.com account, etc.).

CD: Once a first pressing sell out, a second run is released without the colour gatefold or screen-printed cover. Are these limited in number as well?

ABL: No. I just get those made with a local printer in California in small batches of about fifty copies. When we run out, I print more.

CD: Who assembles the magazine? How many man hours go into the assembly process?

JON: It’s funny you should ask! We’ve been doing that all week! It probably takes about 40 hours of production work to lay out the zine, proofread it, screen-print the covers, print up all the assets, fold the color center spreads, collate all of the assets and then fold and staple 400+ copies of the zines. That number does not include all the time it takes for us to write and draw all of the articles.

00-dtint04CD: This month brings Issue #6 of DTZ…can we get a sneak peek at the contents and features?

ABL: Each issue has a theme, and this time around it’s the Design issue. Jon got to actually go to the Stern factory and interview some of the very talented designers who work there. Our buddy Ryan Claytor also contributed another great interview with a well-known pinball artist. Then we’ve got our usual bevy of articles reviewing various books and movies about pinball, and locations to play pinball. The dream machines for this issue are: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which I designed, a Giant-Robo machine that Jon made and our center spread artist this issue is by a cartoonist pal of ours named Gabby Schulz (AKA Ken Dahl). His is Big Mushroom Hunter and it looks amazing in full color.

CD: With Issue #6 available now, how many issues do you foresee in the entire DTZ run? You teased earlier that 7 issues would make the run complete.

ABL: Right from the beginning we envisioned that Drop Target would run for seven issues. It’s great that so many people are into our zine, but for us this is a side project. We see comics as our real work. As the number of issues of DTZ stacks up, it takes more and more of our time (reprinting old issues, sending out orders, etc.) so I think we are both looking forward to wrapping it up.

JON: Yeah, we’ve started talking about the eventual Drop Target Omnibus edition. We won’t be able to have all of the bells and whistles that we can with a handmade zine in the final collection, but we’re going to make sure it’ll be a special book. It’s going to be over 500 pages, and we’ll load it up with a bunch of extra pinball art and comics from various other projects we have worked on over the years, so that hopefully it’ll be its own thing.

CD: What is your favorite issue of Drop Target? To make the question a bit more heavy, if one issue had to go into a time capsule and represent the entire run, which issue would it be?

ABL: I feel like the Moves issue is our strongest issue. The theme really holds together with all the content and that Aaron Renier center spread of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is so killer. It’s our most popular issue, because I think it gives a lot of new players an entry point to learn how to play pinball better.

CD: My favorite feature of DTZ is “Dream Machines”. Can you outline the creative process as to how you come up with these fictional tables and their rules?

JON: For me, it starts with picking a property or a piece of media from my childhood that I really love. Then I superimpose that over a current pinball machine that I really like. By the time it goes from my brain to the paper it’s its own beast. I try to work in lots of details and then flesh out the ruleset. When I was a kid, I was super passionate about action figures and as a result, my playfields tend to have a lot of toys.

ABL: Yeah, sometimes I feel bad because I base all of my designs on other machines. I’ve used Scared Stiff, Fire!, The Tommy’s Who, and this issue I’m using the Williams Indiana Jones. I’m assuming that pinball people pick up on this immediately. I hope people see that mini-playfield in the upper left hand corner and go, “Oh cool – he based it off Indiana Jones!” I don’t mean any disrespect to the designers that created those machines, although I’ve also never specifically noted which game I’m referencing. I’m just not as good at drawing this stuff as Jon. He can pull all that perspective and stuff out of thin air – I have to base my drawing on something else, or I’ll never get anywhere.

CD: Of all the dream machines that have appeared in DTZ, which is the one table which you’d like to see produced by a pinball company?

JON: I feel like Ryan Claytor’s Groo the Wanderer dream machine was the real deal. The theme is tied to every toy and feature, the board is interesting, and the ruleset is great! The playfulness in that machine is so well matched to pinball. Also, I just love Groo!

CD: With Harry Potter making a recurring appearance in the Dream Machine feature each issue, are you as surprised as I am that the theme was never perused for a pinball machine?

ABL: I actually saw a George Gomez panel at the Pacific Pinball Expo and he said that they tried to get the rights for a Harry Potter machine, but J.K. Rowling wouldn’t have it. I guess she didn’t like the idea that she would have no control over where her characters would be seen, like a pinball machine in a bar. I’m kind of glad they never did it. It would have been photoshopped together with the actors from the movies, and the movies are a candle compared to brilliant sunlight of the books. It also means that I get to have a bunch of fun drawing a new one for every issue! I’m going to do Deathly Hallows as a pinball 2000 machine in issue seven. It’s going to be so much fun.

CD: For those not familiar with self-publishing, and drawing on your experiences with DTZ and other projects, what are some of the challenges that exist for the self-publisher?

JON: Distribution. Traditional publishing is tapped into a big system of promotion and and a network of shipping companies, where as we are just two dudes living in our respective apartments!

ABL: Yeah, that’s a huge topic. I think it’s okay though. Part of the fun of DTZ is that it’s a personal connection. It’s something made by two dudes, not some promoted piece of media being handed down by some huge corporation. You make a deeper personal connection with
your readers.

CD: What other non-pinball related projects do you have on the go?

JON: Alec and I have a plethora of comics projects on the burners. Right now, I started working on this really eclectic book that combines a lot of different pieces of media together to tell a single story. There’s newspaper, audio, magazine, and online components. I’m also working on a sci fi graphic novel that is essentially a love letter to anime and saturday morning cartoons. The story is told in a really amorphous, episodic way.

ABL: I just recently self-published my first graphic novel, Basewood. It’s a 216-page fantasy adventure story. Then, my buddy Andy Hentz and I made a rock opera reinterpretation of the story, called Songs From the Basewood. I’m also always working on the next issue of Phase 7. Right now I’m finishing up a three-issue arc all about my favorite band Weezer.

CD: The two of you have done work for the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association and for Stern Pinball. How did these affiliations come about?

ABL: Well, before Jon and I started blogging for Stern Pinball, we were sending them comp copies of every issue. We love what they do, and what they bring to pinball. They got in touch with us, and offered us a place on their website to post images/comics/etc. It was a lot of fun for, but between that, DTZ, teaching, and our other comics, we were burning the candle at ten ends.

JON: Ha ha, the PAPA thing is a funny story. I caught this bug that was going around the school a couple years ago, and was totally out of commission. That night, I was in fever dream mode; totally sick and out of my mind. In the middle of the night, I rolled over and composed this really enthusiastic email to Bowen Kerins telling him how much I love his tutorial videos, and that I would love to help out or participate with PAPA, if I could. The next morning I got up, seen that I had sent the email and freaked! I assumed that Bowen would think I was a huge nerd. Not the case! He got back to me later that day with an enthusiastic reply, and put me in touch with Mark Steinman. The art I’ve gotten to do with them has been some of my favorite.

CD: What pingames are currently holding your attention?

JON: There’s a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! in a bar a block or two from me, and I’ve been clocking a lot of games on that machine! But I’m really excited to see the new Hobbit game, because I love the Hobbit so gosh darn much.

ABL: I currently live about five blocks from the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, CA. My wife and I bought a couples subscription so I can go in there as much as I want for a year. I’ve been playing a bunch of El Dorado (the old one with all the drop targets) and in the lead up to DTZ #6 I was playing a lot of Indiana Jones, to learn that playfield. Also, Free Gold Watch in San Francisco just got a Star Wars: Episode One pinball machine, so I make it over there when I can. That’s still my favorite game.

The authors/artists admiring their work hot of the press, courtesy of Alec Longstreth.

CD: Being artists yourselves, what are some of the pinball art packages that impress you the most?

JON: One of the other machines that I found in Northampton, MA is a Monster Bash. I’m really impressed at how the different aesthetics and colors associated with each monster are melded together into one design. Also, who doesn’t love that back glass!?

ABL: I have stared at my Medieval Madness playfield for untold countless hours but I am still always finding new things on there. I love it! Really, I feel like every hand-drawn machine is a beautiful work of art. From the side cabinet art, to the backboxes to the playfield – there is so much there to enjoy.

CD: Of the great pinball artists that have worked in the field over the years, who are your favourites?

JON: I would say I know more John Youssi games than any other artist. I’m getting to the point where I can tell if a machine is by him, without looking it up.

ABL: I gotta plead ignorance here. I know there are important pinball artists, like Python Anghelo, but I couldn’t tell you what one of his playfields looked like. I guess I gotta start doing more research on who made all the art on these great games.

CD: In the last fifteen years or so, there was a trend that moved pinball playfield art away from artistic renderings by an artist to a reliance on “photoshopped” artwork. However, the art on both Stern’s Metallica and Skit-B’s Predator appear to be a throwback to the days of “original art”: is this a trend you hope will continue in future pinball releases, or is it a non-issue?

JON: We both absolutely, 100% hope that hand-drawn art will make a comeback! It’s not like the skills and techniques have been lost, and I think that the recent, very positive reception of Metallica proves that the community has an interest in hand-drawn art.

CD: Have you been surprised at the reception of Drop Target Zine in the pinball community?

ABL: I wouldn’t say surprised. Zines often cater to niche interests and Drop Target is no different. I will say that we are both very grateful that the pinball community has gotten behind the project and supported it. For us, the more interesting aspect is that we mostly exhibit at comics shows, so we have actually turned a lot of cartoonists and comics fans on to pinball. It’s fun to be outside the usual audience and to bring more diversity to the pinball community.

CD: I think you are totally correct in saying that the pinball community has wholly embraced Drop Target Zine. Do you have any closing thoughts or comments to your readers?

JON: Thank you so much for these outstanding questions! And thanks to the pinball community for sharing in our love and enthusiasm for pinball. Even though we’re coming up on the seventh and final Drop Target issue, pinball will continue to be a part of our lives for the rest of our lives!

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Issue #6 of Drop Target and all other back issues are available through the official DTZ blog.  Other projects by Mr. Chad and Mr. Longstreth can be found by visiting their respective websites below and by following them on twitter at @jon_chad and @AlecLongstreth.

Further Reading:
Alec-Longstreth.com – Official Website
The Fizzmont Institute of Rad Science – Jon Chad’s Official Website


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

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

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

Keep in mind the information posted on their website:

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

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

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

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

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

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The author tilting Hercules.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

The Strong National Museum of Play – Pinball Playfields


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FEATURED GAME: Williams ROLLERGAMES

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

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

The Rollergames figure eight track. Courtesy of rollerderby.be

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

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

A member of the T-Birds hits the pit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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

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