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FEATURE: Smaller Muscles and Fewer Wrestlers, The History and Production of Data East’s WWF Royal Rumble

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Everyone has a pinball machine theme that feels like it was selected just for them. And it usually occurs where your passion for pinball intersects with another interest or collecting passion. Car buffs have Corvette and Mustang. Members of the Kiss Army have made the 1979 Bally game the ultimate Kiss Kollectable. Star Wars fanatics have a few different machines to choose from. Me, I have WWF Royal Rumble. I have long been a fan of wrestling, since the World Wrestling Federation turned the regional sideshow into a multi-national sports entertainment powerhouse in the mid-1980s. As a kid, I couldn’t get enough of the larger-than-life characters and their over-the-top gimmicks. It was all about the costumes, the pageantry, and the story lines. By 1994, like many others, I was tuning out of the wrestling scene to focus on more pressing matters (girls), but Data East’s April release from that year still works to turn my nostalgic crank.

Instead of doing a full-blown review of the game, I’ve decided to use this forum to focus on how the art package and layout of the game situates itself within the greater context of pinball history, and moreover, wrestling history. Be prepared for a heavy dose of discussion about the characters in the game, the history surrounding the release and the climate of the wrestling industry when WWF Royal Rumble would have appeared in arcades across the globe.

The Royal Rumble pinball machine is based upon on the yearly WWF Pay-Per-View event held every January where thirty of the best superstars are invited to participate in a high-stakes, chaotic, over the top rope battle royal. Unlike traditional battle royals, the Royal Rumble introduces one 00-wwfproto03superstar to the ring every two minutes (or ninety seconds, depending on the year) and are charged with eliminating other competitors, friend or foe, by throwing them over the top rope to the arena floor. Putting aside the predetermined nature of wrestling, stamina and luck of the draw are key in a Royal Rumble event. The last man standing in the ring after all thirty have entered, is declared the winner, and given number one contendership for the WWF championship at the following Wrestlemania, which is without a doubt the biggest wrestling event in North America.

WWF Royal Rumble was released by Data East and design of the game is credited to both Tim Seckel and Joe Kaminkow. Mr. Seckel was the designer of just four other production games at Data East: Hook (1992), Last Action Hero (1993), The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (1993) and Maverick (1994). Mr. Kaminkow was the larger-than-life co-founder of Data East (along with current Stern Pinball boss Gary Stern) and reports from various sources say he was a very “hands-on” type of leader (who was a full-fledged designer in his own right, having started his design career at Williams in the early-1980s). I had the opportunity to talk to designer Tim Seckel about Mr. Kaminkow’s role as a co-desinger on Royal Rumble, as Kaminkow was often credited as co-designer of games from this period:

“Joe was my boss, and really my mentor in pinball design.  He always had an active role in everything that happened there.  I don’t remember specific elements of the design or gameplay [he created for Royal Rumble], but he was always throwing out new ideas, suggestions, game modes, or tweaks to a shot that helped polish and enhance the game.”

Royal Rumble features a widebody design, giving the player more playfield space to play upon and the designer more room to pack in playfield features and shots. Whether or not a widebody design enhances the overall gameplay experience (versus a standard playfield size) is one of personal preference. Some like the extra space, others think that it messes with ball trajectory and slows down overall gameplay.  Data East’s decision to run Royal Rumble as a widebody game was probably a knee-jerk reaction to emulate the success Williams was having with their Superpin line of widebody games. In the months prior to Royal Rumble’s release, Williams had released Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure and Star Trek: the Next Generation, which resulted in game sales just shy of 25,000 units combined. It is public record that Royal Rumble was originally designed with a traditional sized layout, only to be reconfigured to a widebody sometime during the design period. Mark this as the first of many design and artwork changes Royal Rumble went through before hitting the production line. Mr. Seckel remembers the change from a standard to widebody format:

“The game was pretty far along as a narrow body.  I recall we had a full art package complete with working prototypes.  Going from memory, I believe the reason we changed direction was because of a recent shift from our competition to go to a wider game.  It was great because it provided more space inside the cabinet for features like the upper ring, and the shots could be spread out.  The biggest challenge was probably time to market.  As I mentioned, making the game wider allowed me to add features in the design, which is always a fun challenge.”

Data East programmer Orin Day also provided some details about the switch from narrow body to widebody in a quote found on the Internet Pinball Database:

“There was line art done for the narrow body playfield but there was never a screened playfield, just a whitewood, and I don’t think it was ever actually built up and playable.”

In an industry where the overall look of a game means just as much as the playability of a game, this appeared to be a change in cosmetics only. There may have been a perceived value in a larger, widebody game from casual players, perhaps attracting more attention because in the players’ minds, bigger equaled better–or bigger equaled more value for your quarters. The widebody trend in pinball failed to become an industry standard and petered out by the end of 1994. Williams only released a handful of other games in their Superpin line, and Data East called it quits on their supersized games after Guns n’ Roses, which followed Royal Rumble chronologically in their release schedule.

As a design footnote, it should be documented that Royal Rumble was set include three under-playfield magnets, the same style and positioning as those that appeared on Williams Addams Family. (Weird, right? Data East emulating Williams? Never!) The Internet Pinball Database shows a photo of the underside of a Royal Rumble playfield with three circular cutouts, the size of magnet cores, in the typical placement of underplayfield magnets in the area above the flippers. One can assume the magnets could have been activated during multiball or the “Pandemonium” mode to simulate the chaos and unpredictability of the Royal Rumble match. A few other Data East releases of the time included under-playfield magnets to disrupt ball travel, but perhaps it was decided that the shaker motor, that rumbles throughout the entire game with switch activation, provided enough sensory enhancement for the player.

If these design changes weren’t enough, WWF Royal Rumble was also saddled with some pretty unique artwork challenges that changed the overall feel and presence of the game, especially when viewed from the perspective of a die-hard wrestling fan. The artwork is credited to both Paul Faris and Markus Rothkranz. Mr. Rothkrantz, it is interesting to note as an aside, is now a self-proclaimed health expert and motivational speaker. He can also help you to achieve “epic love” (with the help of products available for purchase in his online store).

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Close-up of Dennis Nedry’s fingers, Jurassic Park playfield

The playfield features typical Data East playboard artwork of the period–whispy, shadowy, thin-linned art–of which I’m not really taken by. Such artwork style, in my opinion, appears sloppy, and detracts from the overall feel of the game. Other games that feature this style of artwork include Lethal Weapon 3 and Jurassic Park, the latter of which sums up my distaste for this sloppy style of playfield artwork in one image: Dennis Nedry’s fingers. The thin-lined, “realistic” style appeared to be an in-house preference of Data East, as it spans across different artists, and is a style that stands in direct contrast to the bold lines and cartoon-like feel of the artwork that Williams was applying to their playfields during the same period. Designer Tim Seckel was able to outline the roles of each artist in my discussions with him. Mr. Faris created the original prototype backglass artwork, playfield, plastics and cabinet, while Mr. Rothkrantz created the production backglass artwork only.

It is well known in the pinball community that Royal Rumble‘s production backglass differed greatly from the backglass first created for the game. The production translite looks almost anemic next to the prototype version, featuring fewer muscles and fewer wrestlers. The change to a more sparse backglass came at the behest of the WWF for two very distinct reasons.

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WWF Royal Rumble prototype translite

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WWF Royal Rumble production translite

First, the WWF was in the midst of a steroid scandal which began years before, set into public motion by an expose aired on the TV news magazine show Inside Edition. Apparently, WWF performers were being prescribed “vitamins” by one specific doctor, who was more than likely on the WWF’s unofficial payroll to keep their big names big in physical stature. By the time 1994 rolled around, current and former WWF employees, including Hulk Hogan himself, were summoned to take the stand in a very public federal investigation to answer to the widespread use of steroids and other foreign enhancement drugs within the company. (Hogan, under oath in 1994, stated that in his estimation, “75 to 80 percent, maybe more” of the WWF locker room were using some form of steroids.) With all of this bad press, the WWF made a distinct change in who they used as their main event talent. Gone were the chiseled, muscle-bound physiques of champions like the Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan. WWF owner Vince McMahon made a move to focus on the “little guys”–performers like Shawn Michaels and Bret “Hitman” Hart who didn’t have overtly muscular frames, but made up for it with in-ring ability and out-of-ring charisma. The 600-plus pound Yokozuna was also used as a WWF champion to throw the dogs off the steroid trail, because his frame was impressive for its girth, not its rippling, steroid-fueled muscle.

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Mr. Faris’ Lost World backglass

This shift can also be seen within the changes to the backglass. Gone are the inhuman bodies of Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior on the prototype translite, replaced by a more anemic Hogan, a small-framed Bret “Hitman” Hart and a fully-clothed Undertaker. The Royal Rumble logo is taken from the top of the glass on the prototype, enlarged, and placed in the centre of the production translite to draw even more attention away from the wrestlers. Mr. Faris’ original prototype art harkens back to some of his work for Bally in the 1980s, as many of his games, like Centaur, Paragon and Lost World, featured overly buff, fantastic male bodies that the perceived male audience would want to emulate. Hogan’s jacked torso makes him look as if he just stepped out of the Lost World backglass and onto the Royal Rumble‘s. Designer Tim Seckel remembers the artistic changes this way:

“[…] The biggest challenge was selecting the wrestlers to really focus on, and then figuring out how to translate their signature moves in to the play of the game.  Probably the biggest challenge with that is “time”. In other words, wrestlers popularity changes over time so, whoever was ‘king’ at the time we started the project probably wasn’t ‘king’ when the game went to market.  I recall The Ultimate Warrior was champ early on, but later fell out of grace with [the] WWF and he was taken out of the final version of the game.”

“Originally Paul Faris did the entire art package for the narrow body game.  When we changed the game to a wide body it meant he would have a lot of art to change on the playfield and plastics, and not a lot of time to make changes to the backglass–we had to remove The Ultimate Warrior, and probably a few others that I don’t remember.   It was also at that time that we decided to focus on a fewer number of wrestlers on the backglass.  So we hired Markus Rothkranz to paint a new backglass. For the most part, art follows the layout, so I wasn’t really restricted by any changes to the layout because of the art, but on the flipside, the art was definitely affected by the layout changes!

If the steroid scandal wasn’t enough of a challenge for the WWF, they were experiencing a major turnover in talent. Media mogul Ted Turner had purchased the other major national wrestling brand, World Championship Wrestling. Mr. Turner fancied himself as being king of the “rasslin’ business”, and what better way to succeed than by emulating the WWF? And what better way to emulate the WWF than by buying all its talent. Herein lies the second reason why the prototype translite wouldn’t fly with WWF brass: the majority of the featured wrestlers were jumping ship to the competition. By mid-1994, of those featured on the prototype translite, the British Bulldog, Sid Vicious/Justice, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Ric Flair, Earthquake, Typhoon, the Nasty Boys, and the Big Boss Man had all left the WWF to sign more lucrative contracts with the WCW. Keeping up with the WWF roster in 1994 was about as hard as keeping up with other major league sports teams during free agency period. The production translite streamlined all of this, featuring WWF performers who were, more or less, mainstays in the company.

Hulk Hogan is a special case here. He appears as one of the main focal points of both the prototype and production translite. By April of 1994 when the Royal Rumble game was released, Hogan was still technically a WWF property. He was sitting out the rest of his WWF contract after not having wrestled for the company since August of 1993, focusing instead on his acting career (we all know how that turned out). His image, to this day, is literally the face of wrestling–he’s arguably the most identifiable wrestler to ever walk the earth. Even though not active on WWF programming, his image appears centred on the backglass for that reason. Those familiar with wrestling history will know that Hogan’s foray into acting was short lived, and less than a year after he vowed never to wrestle again, in June of 1994, he signed a massive contact with the WCW. It is likely Royal Rumble machines were still rolling off of Data East assembly lines with the new face of the rival company plastered on the backglass.


WWF Royal Rumble BY THE NUMBERS:

  • Number of units sold: 3,500
  • Number of featured superstars on the Royal Rumble Production translite: 6
  • Number of featured superstars on the Royal Rumble Prototype translite (including the Beverly Brothers): 24
  • Number of superstars on the Prototype translite that were not with the company by 1994 year end: 18 (75%)
  • Number of superstars on the Prototype translite that would be on the WCW payroll by 1994 year end: 11 (46%)
  • Number of superstars on the Prototype translite that are now deceased: 8 (33%)
  • Number of superstars on the Production translite that are now deceased: 2 (33%)
  • Number of WWF superstars that appear on the playfield only, and not on either translite: 12
  • Of those twelve, number of deceased playfield only superstars: 3 (25%)

 

Thankfully, for collectors, if you yearn to have a fully fleshed out WWF roster on your backglass, the ingenuity and drive of the secondary collector market has made it an attainable goal. Pinside member RDReynolds had the wherewithal to print up a version of the translite based on the original prototype photos. I have one of these installed in my machine, and it totally fits with the overall feel of the game. The quality of the translite is second to none—no cheap printing methods in this project. One drawback is that the source image used for the printing was a bit muddy, which makes for some very soft lines and an overall quicksand-like feel to the image depending on how it is backlit. Such quality is to be expected, as I’m sure the RDReynolds was using blown up images from photographs of the prototype, and not the original Faris source art to complete the project. Lighting the new prototype art with incandescent bulbs helps to make the image less harsh and hides the muddyness, as opposed to back-lighting it with more modern LED bulbs. Those interested in buying one for their game, or for their gameroom wall, should contact RDReynolds directly, as a few more remain from his final run (as of writing in August 2016). If nothing else, the artwork stands as a constant reminder of what the game could have, and should have, looked like.

The playfield does a decent job of featuring the core of the WWF talent of the period and integrating them into the gameplay. In order to achieve the main multiball, you must “collect” nine wrestlers, from the two main ramp shots and far right orbit. Second tier wrestlers are featured here, such as Crush, Tatanka and Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Along with their images on the playfield, their theme songs are featured when they are collected. It is interesting to note that Hulk Hogan appears nowhere on the playfield. The tag team wrestlers on the far right–the Stiener Brothers, the Bushwhackers and the Smoking Gunns–have little bearing on gameplay, and only appear as images on the playfield. However, the Gunns do provide a special hook for the extra ball DMD animation (“shoot” again, get it?) Razor Ramon and Mr. Perfect appear at the playfield outlanes, as afterthoughts, not included in any other aspects of rules or gameplay. It is also interesting to note that Crush appears as “Kona Crush” on the playfield art–his fun-loving, good-guy persona–but as his villainous, painted face, heel persona in the DMD animations. Trying to capture an accurate representation of the ever-changing WWF is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle, I guess. (I’d also like to nit pick that Mr. Fuji, who appears at the upper scoop as a lit insert for the extra ball, is a representation of the bowler hat/tuxedo Fuji from the 1980s, and that Fuji had been sporting a shaved head and kimono ever since he started to manage Yokozuna in 1992. It is an anachronism that will bother only the most devout WWF fans.)

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Royal Rumble playfield, courtesy of Pinside user “Buzz”.

Yet another change to the Royal Rumble art package came in the form of the cabinet art. The Pingame Journal unearthed a picture of a prototype cabinet that featured red, white and blue shooting stars and the images of Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and Randy Savage. This approach, much like the backglass, must have been scrapped due to superstar turnover and decreased focus on the muscle-bound bodies. The production cabinet is much more muted: a giant WWF Royal Rumble logo on a plain black background. Just like the translite change, the focus became the branding of the logo, rather than the performers themselves. The blue background of the translite is the only leftover from the overall blue feel of the prototype package.

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Pingame Journal’s photograph of the Royal Rumble prototype cabinet art as it appears on IPDB.org

I stated at the outset that WWF Royal Rumble is a snapshot of the WWF at a time when I wasn’t really interested in wrestling. What I wouldn’t give for this game to be made five years earlier, during WWF’s silver age in the late-1980s. Granted, it would have been a very different game and lacked a DMD display and immersive sound package, which are two of 00-wwfproto01the greatest features of the game as it was manufactured, as they had not been perfected in the earlier era. As it stands, I wasn’t really a fan of WWF’s sickeningly-sweet, family-friendly programming of 1994. The colourful personas of the 1980s were replaced with dull personas in colourful costumes in the early-1990s. One needn’t look further than Doink the Clown and Tatanka, two wrestlers predominantly featured in the Royal Rumble pinball machine. As the 1990s began, it was the dawn of a new era for wrestling fans: the curtain had been pulled back, and everyone could clearly see Vince McMahon in all his Oz-like glory, pulling the strings behind the scenes. The steroid scandal had a lot to do with that. As a result, Mr. McMahon wanted to be seen as the head of a wholesome, all-American entertainment company akin to Disney…or the American Gladiators. It wouldn’t be until much later in the 1990s that McMahon threw this approach out the window, and decided The Jerry Springer Show was the prototype to emulate—packing in all the sex, gore and violence that a smarter, more-self-aware audience could handle. It should come as no surprise that this is when I tuned back into wrestling–during the WWF’s, now WWE’s, “Attitude Era”.

But what is pinball if not good clean, American entertainment and a chance to use your imagination?  In 1994, it was a match made in heaven. It featured all the sights and sounds of the World Wrestling Federation, with very little actual wrestling. Very few DMD animations focus on hand-to-hand combat, save for a pathetic grappling video mode, cartoonish punching associated with pop-bumper hits and an interactive chair bashing mode. The majority of the “wrestling” is implied, and is drawn from the kinetics of the ball and a knowledge of the sport. In the art package, there isn’t one instance of two wrestlers engaged in a wrestling contest making physical contact—the images of the Big Boss Man and Bret Hart performing wrestling moves on opponents were erased from the final version of the translite (along with the muscles and three-quarters of the 1993 WWF roster). The player is presented the “idea” of wrestling, and is asked to fill in the blanks on their own. Despite all their downfalls, the roster was given a chance to let their personas be the centre of the action.

Considering the artistic strife the game suffered during development, the overall art package represents this disappointing time in the WWF quite admirably. One complaint I do have about overall gameplay is the lack of incorporating the wrestlers’ signature moves. We get a reference to Yokozuna’s banzai drop, but Bret Hart’s sharpshooter, Undertaker’s tombstone piledriver, Razor Ramon’s razor’s edge and Hawksaw Jim Duggan’s two-by-four are nowhere to be to be found. These could have easily been incorporated into modes, animations or artistic splashes around the playfield just as the banzai had. The chaotic nature of the Royal Rumble match comes off beautifully within the game—a countdown by the fans results in adding a ball into play during multiball (in effect adding another wrestler into the match just as the Rumble is known for), and locking a ball on the upper playfield during Pandemonum does the same in the featured special scoring mode. The upper ring may appear to be an under-utilized design choice to layman players, but if used properly to increase jackpots and multipliers, it can be a valuable little area of the playfield. Lets face it, a wrestling game without an actual “ring” isn’t much of a wrestling pinball game.

00-wwfproto07Stern’s 2015 release of Wrestlemania, and limited edition version Legends of Wrestlemania, shared the same sentiment of the need for a ring, however, their use of the upper ring feature detracts from overall gameplay, whereas Royal Rumble‘s works to compliment it. And while we are on the topic, and without diving too deep into contrasting the two games (that will make for a fully fleshed out article of its own), the Legends of Wrestlemania game could have done so much more to appease collectors and players who are avid wrestling fans by fully incorporating 80s and 90s legends into the art package and gameplay, but totally missed the mark by playing it safe, instead representing the bygone era on the cabinet art alone.

I’m not sure I’m fully sold on Data East games from this era, as they seemed to be trying too hard to emulate their Bally/Midway/Williams trailblazing brethren. It’s a cross that 1990s Data East games had to bear during the era in which they were released, and now to a greater extent in the discerning collectors market of today. However, as the prices rise on the coveted Williams titles, these Data East games become more desirable as “value games”. WWF Royal Rumble seems to be one of those games, providing a whole lot of game that incorporates the theme wholeheartedly at a fraction of the price of some of the top tier Williams/Bally/Midway DMD titles. It is a shame the Data East library only includes two widebody titles, as that is one thing the company seemed to do very well. For my money, Royal Rumble and Guns n’ Roses are the two best playing, and best looking, games of their DMD era. I only own one Data East title, and that’s WWF Royal Rumble...and I’m glad that both theme and gameplay gelled with me in order to make it a keeper in my collection.

Further Reading:

Internet Pinball Database – WWF Royal Rumble

Hulk Hogan’s Testimony from the WWF’s 1994 Steroid Trial

Vice.com – The Forgotten Steroid Trial That Almost Brought Down Vince McMahon

Pinside – Back in Stock: WWF Royal Rumble Prototype Trans

Pinside – WWF Royal Rumble Club

Markus Rothkranz – MarkusRothkranz.com


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FEATURED GAME(S): Gottlieb’s Target Alpha & Solar City

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Travel with me, if you will, to a far off place in time (and space) where ninety-degree angles do not exist. To a place where jaunty headgear (with optional eye protection) is all the rage. To a place where flying machines pull strings of targets to be shot at. With lasers. For sport. To a place where only men do the shooting, and women do the…um, pointing at the things being shot. If this idyllic future is too much for your senses, how about a trip to the future past? There’ll be castles. And bow n’ arrows. And loin cloths. There is target shooting here too, but this time, women ARE invited to participate.

Welcome, friends, to the wonderful world of Gottlieb’s Target Alpha and Solar City, two of the most popular, and most beautiful, multi-player games the company produced in the 1970s. If the layout looks familiar, it should. It was a popular one–filled with an impressive fifteen drop targets. So popular with pinball players, the layout was recycled many times under different names. I’ve narrowed this article to discuss Target Alpha and Solar City, the 4-player and 2-player version of the layout, however, no discussion would be complete without referencing their counterpart games with similar shot maps. Target Alpha and Solar City saw release just as the electromechanical era was petering out and giving way to solid state games, but the relative success of the two games may have influenced Gottlieb not to give up the goat, as it were, on electromechanical technology.

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I’ve discussed (at length) Gottlieb’s graceless belly flop into the solid state era in the article Stumbling Into Solid State and the feature on their first foray into computer-driven machines, Cleopatra. Gottlieb was clinging onto electromechanical technology for just over two years after it was completely abandoned in flipper games by competitors Williams and Bally. It may have been a selling hook for Gottlieb, though. Perhaps there were still a few operators who resisted the change from relays to PCB-mounted transistors–these may have been the operators Gottlieb wanted to cater to. However, such dedication to the almighty score reel may have put them behind the 8-Ball, literally. Bally’s success with Eight Ball (20,230 units), Evel Knievel (14,000 units) and Bobby Orr’s Power Play (13,750 units) in late-1977 proved that solid state technology in pinball machines wasn’t just a fad, it was a massive draw for players and was the inevitable future of pinball. It is no surprise that Gottlieb’s electromechanical production slowed to a crawl as these Bally games hit the market. However, take a look at how good things were just one year before the EM wall tumbled down. In 1976 and early-1977, Gottlieb did great business with their two- and four-player EM games–like Spirit of 76/Pioneer (13,925 units combined), Royal Flush/Card Whiz (15,500 units combined), Bronco/Mustang (11,385 units combined) and our focus here, Target Alpha/Solar City (9,810 units combined). The single-player wedgehead games were still being produced in this era, but not in the numbers they once were. Gottlieb’s highest production wedgeheads of 1976, Sure Shot and Buccaneer, were a drop in the hat compared to the giant numbers listed above. While not as popular with collectors today, it is pretty evident that the multi-player games were Gottlieb’s bread and butter in the late-EM era.

Making the historical link between wedgeheads and multi-player games comes full circle when discussing Target Alpha and Solar City, as Gottlieb presents the player with the same layout as a wedgehead game die-hards arcade goers would have been familiar with: El Dorado. The basic layout of the game remains the same: the iconic ten drop target bank across the top of the playfield, two off-set pop bumpers and the lower five bank of drop targets. Key differences arise in the rule-set, though. Missing from Target Alpha and Solar City is the “Moving Spot” on El Dorado. El Dorado offered a lit spot that moved from drop target to drop target with each hit of the lower stand-up target or middle rollover. The spot is important to El Dorado’s gameplay as it increases the value of each target from 500 points to 5000 points. Also, once all targets are completed on El Dorado, the targets reset, another important feature missing from the multi-player games with the same design.

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Gottlieb’s single player El Dorado (Image borrowed from J. Weiss at https://users.cs.fiu.edu)

The layout specific layout was reincarnated a whopping seven times. El Dorado, the single-player replay game led the way; followed by the add-a-ball Gold Strike and add-a-ball export version Lucky Strike later in 1975. Target Alpha and Solar City, the multi-players, rolled out in late 1976. Concurrent with the 1976 production, Gottlieb used the design again with new art to create Canada Dry, a four-player clone of Target Alpha, which was exported to promote Canada Dry soft drinks in Europe. The final incarnation was released in the solid state era as El Dorado: City of Gold in 1984 with a few new rule hooks and a slick sound package, but with an identical shot map.

I think Target Alpha and Solar City are the most interesting of the bunch, even if they are not the most sought after. I, like most EM enthusiasts, prefer the added strategy that El Dorado provides. However, the two multi-player games attempt to convey a sense of futurism and mysticism in the art package that simply isn’t there in the inner workings of the game—an attempt to cover up the fact that Gottlieb wasn’t actively pursuing solid state avenues for their machines. Instead of going toe-to-toe with Bally’s first solid state offerings in 1977, they recycled an earlier popular design and masked it with colourful futurist artwork and two ultramodern names to project the feeling that they had an eye on the future of pinball gaming. (Aside: another example of this which is infinitely more pitiful is the seven-segment numbers used on the score reels of Hit the Deck/Neptune, released in 1978). The hint of irony should not be lost: Gottlieb chose an old layout based on olde tyme gold rush cowboys to “modernize” with catchy new futuristic graphics, while still relying on olde tyme pinball technology. The flyers for the games are not shy about the art being one of the few “new” selling features of the game, and turn it into its major selling point to operators. Both the Target Alpha and Solar City flyers trumpet, in italicized capitals: “NEWER THAN TOMORROW PLAYBOARD AND ARTWORK THEME WILL CATCH EVERY EYE!” This feature is placed in larger font above all of the other actual gameplay features. With a historical eye, it looks to be smoke and mirrors, as if to say, “Yeah, it’s the same old game we sold you three years ago, AND no, it doesn’t have any of those fancy new computers inside it, but the game looks like it came from the future, doesn’t it?” The next two multi-player games, Jet Spin and Super Spin, subscribe to this same “blind them with science” mentality in the artwork (at least they went ahead and designed a completely new layout those games). No amount of flying machines or helmeted men shooting lasers can cover up the fact that Gottlieb was playing catch-up to Bally and Williams in the race to the future of pinball.

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Gottlieb Solar City flyer.  Check out that eye-catching “artwork theme”!

As the Target Alphas and Solar Citys were rolling out of the factory in early-1977, Bally was churning out their first solid state best-seller, the big-rig themed Night Rider, which meant that they had already perfected their solid state operating system for general release. It wasn’t until much later in the year that Gottlieb presented Cleopatra, their first solid state machine. There is some indication that Gottlieb was only beginning to test their solid state operating system in early-1977, as information points to a prototype Solar City that was created with solid state mechanics. Not much information exists about this test machine, or if its solid state internals would come to be Gottlieb’s (n)ever-popular System 1 operating system.

Moving onto the layout and rules of the two games, I’ve mentioned that the truncated features and rules work to hobble the game in comparison to its El Dorado cousin, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a blast to play. I mean, who doesn’t love drop targets? It’s a sharpshooter’s dream. It gets a bronze medal for total number of drop targets with fifteen, behind only Gottlieb’s 2001/Dimension with twenty and Gottlieb’s High Hand/Capt. Card with sixteen. The five target bank that sit above the right flipper allow you to work the angles off of the left flipper, while the seemingly never-ending bank of ten targets that work their way across the top of the playfield challenge the player to long-range accuracy from both flippers. Barring long-range accuracy, the game provides two mini-flippers at the top of the playfield for the player to bash away at the targets. I own a Solar City, and I have my game at such a steep pitch, that I find myself using the bottom flippers to lob balls up to the top flippers for a better chance at knocking down targets. The top flippers encourage blindly flailing at any ball that comes near them as you cannot cradle the ball for an aimed shot. However, a timed drop-catch or quick flip can deaden an arcing ball for an aimed flip at a needed target. The last target in that upper bank row actually holds a record: it is the longest shot in all of pinball. Since the layout has no top arch, it allows the targets to run into the normally unused space occupied by the top metal arch. The distance from the left flipper to the target is an amazing 32.5 inches! The upper flippers are not very useful in collecting this target, thus the game encourages a timed shot from the lower left flipper (and it feels fantastic when you make it).

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Solar City’s ten-target bank.

One of Target Alpha and Solar City’s main features, as advertised on the flyer, is that the gameplay is “convertible” to add-a-ball play. This is just a fancy way of saying that the player can get an extra ball during play rather than a replay/special. With true add-a-ball games, you can keep collecting up to ten extra balls during gameplay, whereas these multi-player games give the player the chance to earn just one extra ball for every ball in play. Knocking down either bank of targets will light the extra ball: if the entire top bank is dropped, extra ball is lit at the right rollover, while dropping the right five-bank will light extra ball at the left rollover. This is a key feature for collectors looking to put the game in their home collection. Specials mean little when every game is free, and provides little to play for other than a satisfying knock. A good sharpshooter can play for hours earning extra ball after extra ball.

Sadly, a good sharpshooter may get bored with the game: once all fifteen drop targets are collected and the bonus is maxed out, there really isn’t that much more to shoot for to build up your point total. The real strategy of the game is to knock down all the available targets, collect the extra ball, let the current ball drain thus resetting the targets, and then starting the process all over again.

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All of the points in the game lie in the drop targets. Target values vary depending on whether the game is set on three-ball or five-ball operation, and a selectable score adjustment for the bottom bank of targets. For example, my Solar City is set on three-ball, thus the top bank of targets have the inflated value of 2,000 points each, while each bottom bank target scores 500 points each (this value can be adjusted to 1,000 points each each via a Jones plug under the playfield if the owner wishes). Five-ball play would decrease the top bank value to 1,000 points for each target. Replacing El Dorado’s “Moving Spot” bonus, is the multi-players’ end-of-ball bonus. The player is awarded an extra 1,000 points for each downed target. It’s pretty satisfying to feel the bonus stepper chunking away under the playfield and the 1,000 point chime ringing out when all fifteen targets are downed. To add an extra dimension to the bonus countdown, Target Alpha and Solar City will award double bonus on the last ball (be it ball three or five, depending on operator settings), giving you 2,000 points for each target at the end-of-ball. Obtaining an extra ball during on your last ball is lucrative, as it gives you another chance at the double bonus scoring. During the last ball, I like to work on the lower bank of five targets first in an attempt to light and collect the extra ball quickly before working on the upper targets.

If Target Alpha and Solar City bring up the rear to El Dorado in the gameplay race, they surge ahead in terms of the art package. Like nearly every other game of the 1970s, Gordon Morison took care of artistic duties. Target Alpha’s backglass makes great use of its space, especially with the male target shooter in the foreground shooting “behind” the first player’s score reels to hit his target in the top corner of the game. Like many of Mr. Morison’s backglasses, perceived depth is executed wonderfully. He presents us with a futuristic game of target shooting, complete with spectator areas, layered on top of a purple and pink background. The same colour scheme is used on the playfield, and works to tie the whole package together. The chaotic flow of the playfield art fills up the empty space nicely. Where Target Alpha has a sci-fi lean, Solar City takes the fantasy route. The word “Solar” certainly conveys a futuristic feel—it has also been used in Gottlieb’s Solar 00-alpcity12Ride and Williams’ Solar Fire to lend sci-fi flavour to the mechanized themes. Target Alpha’s lasers have been replaced here with the bow and arrow, the flying machines with winged humanoids, and the futuristic jumpsuits with an interesting selection of tribal wear. The pink and purple hues that dominate Target Alpha are abandoned in favour of reds and blues. I’m particularly troubled by the bearded, sleepy old man in the bottom corner of the backglass. Why is he there? Why is he so weary? It just seems out of place. A tribal figure is doubled on the playfield, which more or less reproduces the designs laid out on the Target Alpha package.

Mr. Morison created two very different visions in the art for these games. However, in a curious move, Gottlieb decided to only run one package of artwork for the plastics. The Target Alpha plastics, featuring characters that look to belong to the Target Alpha world, are used on Solar City as well–the only difference is that the Solar City plastics adopt a blue hue, instead of purple, in an attempt to make them blend in with the game’s overall colour scheme. Without seeing the games side-by-side, I guess it does not pose that big of a problem, but it is a bit of a gripe for Solar City owners may feel a bit cheated. It is an issue that doesn’t arise in any of the other two- and four-player sister games because the art packages tend to be identical save for the number of score reel windows on the backglass. Using the same art on both sets of plastics was probably a cost-cutting measure, but in the grand scheme of things, they really could have cut costs by adopting a single vision and colour scheme for both games, just as they had in the past.

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Target Alpha plastics with purple accents, bottom, reproduced for Solar City with blue accents, top.  Character art remains unchanged.

As an aside, I guess it could be asked why Gottlieb made two-player versions and four-player versions of the same game in the first place. In every case, the four-player game outsold the two-player game (and nearly always, outsold it by a large margin). In every case except Target Alpha and Solar City, the same playfield and backglass artwork was used to keep production costs low. The real difference came in the internal hardware: the four-player game had twice the number of score reels, extra switch stacks and extra relays that the two-player version wouldn’t need to operate. I asked pinball maven Clay Harrell why he thought two- and four-player versions were made:

“It was cost savings and maybe regional preference, but it was mostly about money. It costs less to make a two-player. Not a ton less, but from a manufacturing point of view, two-players used eight less score reels, no coin stepper unit and a number of other relays were not needed. It’s actually pretty dramatic how much more ‘stuff’ is needed to make a 4-player versus a 2-player. This was reflected in the cost of the game. The extent of the differences can be seen in the backbox sizes. Four-player backboxes are about four inches taller to accommodate all the additional stuff.”

If Mr. Harrell’s well-reasoned analysis is to be believed, Gottlieb produced the less popular two-player games to appease cost-conscious operators–those who wanted to operate games, but wanted to be penny-wise with their initial investment. In a time when all other companies were producing nothing but four-player games, Gottlieb had again cornered the market on skinflint operators that wanted to save a few bucks or knew exactly what their clients wanted. (As a curious aside, Stern Electronics’ early solid state games, Stingray and Stars, offered operators the chance to buy two-player versions of their games, as well. They were shipped with a special backglass with only two score windows, included two less digital score displays and were switched to two-player operation via MPU dip switches. There was obviously a niche market, or regional markets, for two player games in the late-70s.)

Despite El Dorado being the more coveted game, Target Alpha and Solar City still have fans in the collector market. It is a game that has a proven layout and some unique artwork. The games’ price on the secondary market also has something to do with it, I’d imagine. Currently, you can pick up a Target Alpha or Solar City for about half the price of an El Dorado. Restoring the game has been made possible as many unique materials are available to make the games look pretty. Classic Playfield Reproductions, whose products normally skew to solid state projects, reproduced both backglasses for collectors some years back with the art expertly reproduced by CPR team artists Matt Farmer (Solar City) and Ray Lockhart (Target Alpha). Both glasses remain in stock at time of writing. There is a promise from Pinball Rescue Australia that reproduction plastics for Solar City will be available in late-2016, while the Target Alpha plastics are readily available from Steve Young at Pinball Resource (part number GTB-C15565B: because you know Steve Young is going to want it when you place your order). Jeff Miller, of Pinball Pimp Stencil Kits, is currently working on a licencing agreement for Gottlieb cabinet stencil production, and it’s almost a given that Target Alpha will be one of the first in the series to be produced.

The main complaint with the games, as discussed above, is that once all targets are down, there is nothing left to shoot for. The same problem exists in another popular drop target

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French collector kangourou’s Royal Flush bottom board with an added relay for drop target reset.

multi-player game, the four-player Royal Flush and the two-player Card Whiz. One resourceful collector from France, who goes by the Pinside handle kangourou, took it upon himself to wire a work-around so that once all targets had been knocked down in his Royal Flush, they would reset again, opening up a whole new dimension to gameplay and scoring. The process involves adding a relay of switches to the bottom board, an extra switch to the target bank and a whole mess of new wires.  The walk-thru, in French, can be found here, and a discussion about the modification, in English, can be found on Pinside, here. Those resourceful enough to attempt such a modification to their game would need to translate the French instructions to English, and the Royal Flush schematic references to Target Alpha or Solar City. The process does look complex, however I’m surprised more people have not pursued this modification to add a new dimension to their game.

 

Before wrapping up, I’d like to share a tech tip unique to Target Alpha and Solar City that was added to the Pinball Ninja repair database by Clay Harrell, and involves the correct adjustment of the scan unit to properly count end-of-ball bonus scoring. My Solar City was incorrectly adjusted when it arrived for restoration, so I’m assuming it is a very common problem. (The video below is taken from the Pinball Ninja Webzine, which is a pay-per-view site and is used with permission. To get access to the entire catalogue of over 800 Pinball Ninja repair tips, please email cfh@provide.net)

I think the Solar City in my collection has a permanent home. The game needed lots of love. The playfield was touched up and cleared, as it had areas of paint worn right to the wood, and the ever-popular oversized screws that a previous owner had popped through the top of the playfield from beneath. I ended up cutting my own stencils and repainting the cabinet as there were large areas exposed wood. I invested in a reproduction backglass from Classic Playfield Reproductions, too, which was probably overkill, but it completed the package. It is, currently, the most played game in my modest electromechanical lineup. I much prefer the art on Target Alpha, but you take what you can get, and Solar City was available. Having less moving internal parts to troubleshoot and clean was a blessing in the long run, compared to the extra internals included on the four-player Target Alpha.

As I try to sum up my feelings about Target Alpha and Solar City, I keep thinking of that old man that appears in the bottom right corner of the Solar City backglass. The more I think about it, the more that man comes to represent D. Gottlieb & Co., the company itself. The old man was obviously a once dominant warrior, given his headdress that resembles those of his younger counterparts in the background. Time has now passed him by, and he stands, idle, as the younger, more virile warriors out-perform him on the same hallowed grounds where he once reigned supreme. He is part of a bygone generation: old, weary, tired, worn-out, out-dated and obsolete. He is an electromechanical warrior battling on a solid state battlefield.


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PEOPLE: Jeff Miller, the Pinball Pimp

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Jeff Miller appears to be living the pinball enthusiast’s dream. The Tampa-based graphic designer-by-day took a life-long passion for pinball and turned it into his own burgeoning restoration business. The self-proclaimed “Pinball Pimp” began turning tricks in 2005, by restoring his own Bally Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and hasn’t looked back—situating himself as one of the go-to pinball restoration artists in the south-east United States. Further, Mr. Miller has recently expanded his Pimping business (as it were): he now supplies the pinball community with high end cabinet stencils for hobbyists to complete their own restoration work in the comfort of their own workshops. The Pinball Pimp stencil store currently offers twenty complete sets of stencils across two different pinball manufacturers, with the promise of many more to come. Judging by the reception from the community, these stencils are of the highest quality, the easiest to use and the most complete versions available on the market. I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Mr. Miller concerning the manufacture of his line of stencils, the restoration business and what the future holds for the Pinball Pimp brand.

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Credit Dot: How long have you been a pinball enthusiast?

00-pimp06Jeff Miller: I have been playing pinball since I was 8 years old, dating back to 1974. I used to play the machines in front of the Danners 5 & 10 Store on Saturday mornings as a kid. I started all this as a hobby back in 2005 when I restored my first pin which was a Bally Captain Fantastic.

CD: What lead to you offering decal sets for other enthusiasts to use in their restoration projects?

JM: I have been designing vector art for over 25 years and stencils for the past 10 years. I knew for a fact that the other pinball stencils available to the public just did not have the quality of artwork and the exacting standards that I designed for my own use. I then decided to start designing my own stencils each time I restored a game and ended up with a nice collection over 10 years. After hearing the constant frustration people were having with the other stencil vendors and all the rave comments I received on my restored machines, I decided to start offering my own stencils to collectors and fellow restorers.

CD: What are some of the deciding factors when selecting a game to make stencils for? Do you take requests?

JM: I usually only put my design time into game titles that are considered more “A” list, or classic, titles people want to restore. It also depends on whether or not CPR or someone else has made a reproduction playfield for the game. I do take request and do custom stencils/work for people as long as they pay me for the design time.

CD: Can you walk us through the process of creating a new stencil set?

JM: The first step is to start with a cabinet which has nice artwork that you can get a good scan from. Taking off the stainless steel side rails and removing the entire coin door and shooter are even better so you can get scans all the way to the edges of the wood. The next step is to scan the actual cabinet, using a flatbed scanner. I scan the cabinet in sections, with some overlap on each scan, so I can weld it all back together in Photoshop as one full-size image. Once in Photoshop I may spend several hours just cleaning up edges of the artwork so I can get it good enough to make separation. The artwork is then converted from raster JPEG image to VECTOR line art which a plotter can cut. Once it’s converted to vector art, the fun begins! This is when I go into my vector program and spend between 8 to 20 hours cleaning up all the artwork based on the full-size JPEG image of the original art… smoothing curves, straightening lines, etc. Once I’m satisfied with the art and have made every tweak, I consider it a master stencil ready for cutting.

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The cleaned up colour separation of Bally Playboy side cabinet art on the left, the final pained product using the Pinball Pimp stencil on the right.

CD: How is a stencil set “cut”?

JM: Stencils are cut on an industry standard, low-tack vinyl paint mask using Roland plotters. The master line art file is sent from a computer to the plotter which then cuts the paint mask with a carbide tipped blade. Artwork is then “weeded” or peeled along with a pre-mask material applied on top so all art stays perfectly intact when applying to the cabinet.

CD: How do the Pinball Pimp stencils differ from those of the competitors?

JM: My stencils are designed from actual scans of the actual cabinet with zero distortion, rather than using photographs which can cause perspective issues, lost detail and sizing to be skewed or wrong. My artwork goes through an entire cleanup process to make the artwork for every single title nearly perfect. I also use a unique registration system which guarantees your 2 color stencils lineup perfectly every time.

CD: Your stencils are all approved under license. What is the approval process like?

JM: You have to have a quality product to begin with, otherwise it will have a tough time getting licensed. I had to go through Planetary Pinball to get my stencils licensed by them. To comply with the conditions of the license, I have to purchase holographic decals and each set has its own unique serial number. The serial number and holographic decal are affixed to a Certificate of Authenticity and sent out with every set of stencils I sell. The serial numbers are also recorded and archived.

CD: For those who have never used a stencil kit before, how difficult is the re-stenciling process? Any helpful hints?

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Detail of the side cabinet art of a Bally 6 Million Dollar Man, restored using a Pinball Pimp stencil set.

JM: The stenciling process is actually not that hard at all. I tried to make it as user-friendly as possible for anyone to use. It’s basically just like applying a large decal. With the instructions and the squeegee provided it should be a fairly simple task. It’s sort of like using lettering stencils and spray paint.

[Ed. Note: Each set contains multiple stencil sheets, representing the different colours used on the side cabinet, coin door area and the head. The backside of each stencil holds a mild adhesive, making the stencil sheets good for one-time use only. If for some reason, an enthusiast encounters a problem when using the stencils due to their own “user error”, Mr. Miller is able to cut a partial stencil set and sell only the necessary pieces of the kit rather than forcing the stencilor re-purchase the entire set. This just another perk of buying from the Pinball Pimp, and should bring comfort to novice pinball restorers and old hands alike. Everyone encounters an “oops” sometimes…!]

CD: What type of paint do you recommend using?

JM: The best EASY paint to use would be Rustoleum or Krylon out of the spray cans. You could also use a water-based paint but I would suggest putting a clear coat on after that for durability. I do not suggest using lacquer paint as it tends to soften the adhesive on the paint mask and may leave residue.

CD: What are some of your pro tips for a smooth cabinet in preparation for re-stenciling?

JM: The best way to get a beautifully smooth cabinet is to strip the entire cabinet down. The more you can take off the cabinet, the easier it will be once you get started sanding and filling. I either sand or chemically remove all we old paint from the cabinet down to the bare wood. I usually fill all of my nicks and scratches with Bondo and then sand smooth. I may repeat this process 2 to 3 times in order to get a cabinet baby smooth. Once this is done, I spray the base coat color on the cabinet, which may require 2 to 3 coats, which should result in a very smooth paint job. The smoother the surface the better the stencils will work.

[The following gallery is a selection of cabinet art restored using Pinball Pimp stencils.  An extensive gallery can be viewed by following this link.]

CD: For a typical cabinet, how long will cabinet re-stenciling take, giving curing time for the separate colors?

JM: Once your base coat is dry and you are ready to use your stencils it only takes a few minutes to apply the stencil. It actually takes longer to tape the cabinet up to avoid any over-spray. Depending on which paint you use, and dry times, I usually let the first color dry for a day or 2 before spraying the second color.

CD: Is the sky the limit for Pinball Pimp stencils? Do you foresee an exhaustive line of stencils across all pinball manufacturers?

JM: As long as there are guys out there who want to restore these old classic machines, I will keep trying to design as many classic titles as possible. I’m in the process now of getting the license from Gottlieb to start selling stencils for all of their classic titles as well. I would love to be the curator of all pinball stencils.

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An example of a serial number stamped directly onto the left side of a Bally cabinet. This one from a Nitro Ground Shaker, which resides at the Vintage Flipper World in Brighton, MI.

CD: An ethical question, of sorts. Late-1970s and early-1980s Bally games have the serial numbers stamped directly into the side of the wooden cabinet. Should a restorer fill and sand these numbers when preparing the cabinet for a re-stencil, effectively erasing the unique identification numbers, or should one leave the indentations as they came from the factory?

JM: I think this depends on the individual. When I do high-end restorations, nearly half of the parts are new reproductions anyway, so I usually fill in the stamped numbers. When the final machine is done, everything is beautifully smooth. I also add a pinball pimp certificate inside the machine with a serial number of 00001, since I basically rebuilt the entire machine from scratch. The way I look at it, it is basically born again.

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A Pinball Pimp “Restoration Certificate”, included on the inside of the cabinet of each game that is made whole again by Mr. Miller.

CD: Stencils are just one part of your “Pimp” business. What kind of restoration work do you undertake?

JM: I restore machines from the mid-70s all the way up to complete decal jobs of the newer WPC games. This all includes playfield swaps, playfield touch-ups, powder coating, chrome and nickel plating parts–the COMPLETE start to finish restore process!

CD: What are some of the most memorable, or most difficult, restorations you have ever tackled?

JM: The most memorable was the full restoration of my 1976 Bally Capt. Fantastic machine. This being an EM machine, I disassembled every hardware mechanism in the lower cabinet, rust dipped and polished, and installed all onto new wood which was painted to match the cabinet color. A very daunting task if you know how many parts are in a 4-player Bally EM. Mind boggling!

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Detail of a stunning Gottlieb Target Alpha, after receiving a full Pinball Pimp makeover.

CD: Do you rely on restoration projects brought to you by customers, or are you surfing Craigslist for broken-down restoration candidates to fix and flip?

JM: Back when I first started in 2005 used Craigslist to find all of my pinball machines to restore. Since the pinball “resurgence” has taken over, it becomes harder and harder to find decent machines and deals on Craigslist. At this point I have enough customers across the country to where most people just send me their machines to be restored.

CD: For solid state games, do you perform your own board work as well?

JM: I do some of my own solid-state work if it’s simple, but more difficult tasks I leave to a friend who is an electronics master. Some clients have me replace they are restored machine with all new boards if they are available.

CD: You also maintain a close relationship with Classic Playfield Reproductions. What work have you done for them over the years?

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Detail from Mr. Miller’s work on CPR’s Fireball backglass repro, available now.

JM: I’m not currently working on any projects for CPR at the moment since I have my hands full with my own businesses. I have designed four artwork packages for CPR in the past: the plastic sets for Williams Comet and Bally Bobby Orr’s Power Play, the speaker panel for Bally Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Bally Fireball backglass which is one of CPR’s latest releases.

CD: Is this a full time job for you, or just a part-time hobby? Moreover, do you describe yourself as a businessman or an enthusiast?

JM: What started out as a hobby 10 years ago has basically turned into a full time, second business. I’m still a top level, graphic designer/artist and do freelance work for Samsung and other large companies, but still love the pinball business end of it most.

CD: You are based in Florida—how would you describe the present pinball collector scene in the Sunshine State?

JM: I am based in Tampa, Florida and have been here for 25 years. I’m originally from Columbus, Indiana. I think the collector scene in Florida is probably as good as it is in any other state. Although, I don’t think as many older classic games migrated to Florida—most are still up in the Midwest, in the Pennsylvania and Chicago areas. The migration of games to the California market hasn’t been replicated on this coast, for the most part.

CD: How did you come about the moniker “The Pinball Pimp”?

JM: Around the time I started restoring pinball machines, I remember watching the TV show “Pimp My Ride”. Being in design and marketing my entire life, I thought it was a catchy and easy name to remember. Since my restorations always involved being a little over-the-top with custom accents and exacting detail, I considered my restored machines as being “PIMPED”–hence the name: Pinball Pimp.

CD: What games are currently in the Pinball Pimp collection?

JM: My collection has changed a little over the last 10 years, working towards my ultimate lineup of games—including some buying and selling along the way, obviously. My modern collection contains a Williams Funhouse, Williams Fish Tales, Williams White Water, Bally Creature from the Black Lagoon, Williams No Fear, Williams Tales of the Arabian Nights and Stern AC/DC Luci. My classic collection includes a Bally Capt. Fantastic, Bally Eight Ball, Bally 6 Million Dollar Man, Bally Playboy, Bally Eight Ball Deluxe, Bally KISS and Bally Fathom.

CD: Any closing comments to enthusiasts who may not have the nerve to tackle a re-stenciling project?

JM: Re-stenciling a pinball cabinet is not that hard when using my stencils if the instructions are followed properly. It’s not a weekend warrior project that you’re going to get done in a few hours. The more time you put into the project the better the result. More importantly, it’s about having a passion wanting to restore your cabinet back to its full glory! I guarantee if you take your time and do it right your end result will be a beautiful cabinet that you will be proud of.

Further Reading:

Pinball Pimp Restoration, Sales & Service – Homepage
Pinball Pimp Cabinet Stencils – Homepage
Pinball Pimp – Pinblog
Classic Playfield Reproductions – Creature from the Black Lagoon Backbox Speaker Panel
Pinside – PINBALL PIMP – Bally STRIKES and SPARES – Museum Restoration
Pinside – For sale: PINBALL PIMP CABINET STENCILS – AVAILABLE NOW!
Pinside – Twisted Pins Stencils are Garbage
Tampa Bay Times – In Tampa, Two Pinball Wizards Work to Restore their Hobby, January 7, 2010


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REVIEW: Pop Bumper Showdown, Part 3: The Wrap-Up

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Part One, featuring BriteMods, can be found here.  Part Two, featuring Comet Pinball, can be found here.

I don’t think there is a clear cut, flat out winner in the Pop Bumper Showdown. Like Art from Comet Pinball is known to say: it all comes down to personal preference. Different games call for different lighting solutions. Pin*Bot will be keeping a set of Comet’s 6LED Crystal Fans installed, paired with a set of Dennis Nordman’s sparkly pop bumper “thingies” (see below). The Comet fan offers a more traditional feel–the upper bagatelle playfield that lies atop the Pin*Bot pop bumper nest calls for a less harsh lighting option than the SMD rings and discs provide. As far as non-traditional pop bumper options go, I would recommend either Comet’s Pop Bumper Rings or BriteMods’ BriteCaps EVO. Both look fantastic installed, and both light the playfield beneath the pop bumpers (by way of bottom mounted SMD lights) which is a major selling point for both of these lighting options. The interactive flashing of the centre SMDs on the EVO is a nice touch, but in itself does not make the EVO a clear cut winner. The Comet rings just look darn cool and really pop, so much so that pinheads and non-pinheads alike have been marveling at the rings installed in my Mousin’ Around (its yellow pops are smack dab in the centre of the playfield and are now bright and bold thanks to the Comet touch). The Comet rings, however, may have a few points deducted because of installation issues (I had one short out on me, thanks to user error in test). The BriteCaps EVO lose points for the possibility of fit issues in areas with tight clearance, an issue I ran into on Pin*Bot during test. When all is said, the price really sets these options apart. If you want a great looking non-traditional lighting option at a great value, choose the Comet rings; if you want a total light experience with build quality akin to a Sherman tank and money is not a factor, go with the EVO. A clear cut winner is difficult to choose, given that, in the end, one man’s eye candy is another man’s eyesore.

All of the games that I used on test had pop bumpers with static lighting. Pin*Bot, Rollergames, Mousin’ Around and World Cup Soccer ’94 have pop lighting that is either on or off without the aid of computer controls. I attempted to test all of the available options in Funhouse, which has computer controlled lighting, and it was an utter failure. All of the options suffered from ghosting and leakage. The small amount of voltage present in the line which is burnt off by the incandescent without lighting the bulb is actually enough to fully light the lower voltage LED/SMDs. The newer technology doesn’t contain enough resistance to eat up that lingering voltage. In Funhouse, the SMD rings and discs were lit when they were not supposed to be, and even when one pop bumper was trying to behave normally, it still flickered and ghosted something awful. An LED OCD board would do the trick here, however, a two hundred dollar solution to a ten dollar problem isn’t something I’m willing to consider.  I’ll stick with incandescent bulbs in the Funhouse pops for the time being. This should serve as a word of warning to those wanting to mod games with computer-lit bumpers (it’s mostly Lawlor games, lets be honest).

Those Sparkly Thingies

00-pbwrap04The name itself is ridiculous: “Nordman’s Sparkly Pop Bumper Enhancement Thingy”, but it really does wonders in a pop bumper. I used them to bolster the look of Comet’s traditional LED choices in Part 2 of the review with fantastic results. It’ll come as no surprise from the name, that the little plastic disc was designed by famed pinball designer Dennis Nordman. The beauty of the design is in its simplicity. The plastic nests into the pop bumper body, and its sparkly design does a good job catching and reflecting light. Furthermore, it covers up the ugly guts of the pop bumper giving it a more clean look overall. The discs work great with a traditional 555 incandescent bulbs but really stand out when using a Comet bulb that directs light, such as the 6SMD Crystal Fan. It is a winning combination. The design is simple, and to be honest, can be easily replicated in your home workshop with a piece of Lexan and a roll of foil gift wrap. For those less inclined, the discs are available through Pinball Life for $2.95USD per “thingy” and are well worth the money…even though spending nearly ten bucks for a set of three pieces of plastic sounds kind of ridiculous!

Where’s CoinTaker?

Conspicuous by their absence in the Showdown were products from CoinTaker, but I’d like to give them some attention here in the wrap up. Their pop bumper-specific product is called the Afterburner, a disc-like lighting option akin to Comet’s disc. I was not able to do a full scale review of the Afterburner, as the products I bought for test, to be frank, blew up. I installed a red Afterburner in Pin*Bot as I did with the other lighting options, and when I gave the machine power, a loud pop was heard followed by smoke and that concerning smell of burnt plastic components. I feared the worst, obviously. Taking out the Afterburner, I noticed one of the components on the Afterburner was completely obliterated. I replaced the Afterburner with a Comet LED and (thankfully) there appeared to be no permanent damage to the game itself, however, the Afterburner was toast. I thought user error might have played a part, or even faulty wiring in my game, so I tried to install the remaining two Afterburners in both Rollergames and Elvira and the Party Monsters. However, the same meltdown results occurred to the Afterburner, which points to an error in the CoinTaker design, or a bad batch of components. I have emailed CoinTaker about the issue, but as of writing, I have received no response, explanation or replacement. I was informed that the red Afterburners used in the Pin*Bot test were a newer version of the product which boasted non-ghosting technology. I tested out an older version of the Afterburner in white, apparently without the non-ghosting technology, in my World Cup Soccer ’94, and it lit up just fine. I’m awaiting CoinTaker’s final word on why a set of their Afterburners went up in smoke in three different games of mine. The look of the Afterburner, once I got it lit in the WCS94, is very similar to that of Comet’s 11-SMD disc. Both products carry the same lighting pattern and come in a similar color palate, but the main difference is that Comet’s disc can have its brightness adjusted via an adjustment screw, whereas the CoinTaker Afterburner cannot. The price really sets the products apart: the Afterburner is $4.99USD for white but if you want colour you’ll have to pay $1.00 more (!) while the Comet disc is $4.95USD each across the board. The brightness adjustment feature and value give Comet the upper hand over the Afterburner.

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CoinTaker’s 4/1LED bulbs.

CoinTaker also carries a pop bumper light that I was not able to test, which contains four side SMDs and one on top. I was able to test the forerunner to that 4/1SMD, which is essentially the same lighting layout, except using LED technology. I tried to locate this product on the CoinTaker’s new website, but could not.  I did, however, find the product here on the old CoinTaker website. The 4 perimeter LEDs actually did a good job lighting up the pop bumpers without being too harsh on the eyes, allowing the bulb to be a viable alternative to anything sold by Comet.  Check the picture below where the two right pops contain the CoinTaker4/1LED in green and bathe the area in a nice green hue.  I cannot speak to the SMD version of the bulb, but both the SMD and the LED versions have a price comparable to that of Comet’s “Crystal Fan” option.

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Left pop bumper contains a warm white CoinTaker Afterburner, the right two contain a CoinTaker 4/1 LED.

As you can see, my attempt at reviewing CoinTaker products kind of fell flat and was an overall disappointing showing from a traditionally cutting-edge leader in the hobby. I don’t base that statement solely on the faulty products I received from the company, either. For a long time, CoinTaker was the only lighting game in town, their name synonymous with pinball lighting alternatives. CoinTaker LED kits used to be the gold standard in modding and was major selling feature for games that had them installed. However, with the emergence of Comet LED, BriteMods and other pinball lighting companies, it appears to me that CoinTaker has not stepped up their game to match or exceed the ingenuity, value and choice being offered in a cutthroat lighting market.

WINNERS!

To end on a positive note, the random winners of the BriteMods contest are Katie C. and Stephen L. Katie C will receive a set of BriteMods BriteCaps EVO and a set of BriteMods BriteButtons. Stephen L will get a set of BriteMods BriteButtons. The winners of the Comet Pinball contest are Josiah C. and Tony L. Both winners will receive a prize pack including some of Comet’s pop bumper lighting solutions as well as other Comet goodies. Thanks to the great people over at BriteMods and Comet Pinball for their generous donation of prizes! Thanks to all who emailed in—the response was overwhelming. I guess everyone loves free stuff!


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REVIEW: Pop Bumper Showdown, Part 2: Comet Pinball

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

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

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

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

Background:

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

Traditional 555 Options:

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

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

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

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

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

Comet Rings:

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

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

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A set of Comet Rings installed in Mousin’ Around.

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

Price: $7.95USD each.

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

Comet Discs:

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

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

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

Price: $4.95USD each.

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

Bottom Line:

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

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

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

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Credit Dot Pinball/Comet Pinball Contest!

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


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

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

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

Part 1: BriteMods BriteCaps EVO Series

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

Background:

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

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

What You Get:

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

Price:

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

Palate:

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

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Application & Installation:

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

Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Flash React in action

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

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A warm white EVO installed in Pin*Bot

Bottom Line:

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

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

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Credit Dot Pinball/BriteMods Contest!

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

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