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REVIEW: Pinitech’s UNO and TRADITIONAL LED Display Kits

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The games produced by Bally and Stern between the years of 1977 and 1984 were enormously popular with players when they first graced the arcades, and remain popular to this day. Given the sheer number of games originally produced during the 1977 to 1984 run by Bally and Stern, the survival rate is very high and there is a great demand for reproduction parts to keep these games running properly.  This is the second review in a continuing series where Credit Dot will examine some of the reproduction parts being manufactured, and how technological innovation is making Bally/Stern games look and play better than ever.

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Two weeks ago, I reviewed the Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit available from Pinitech that took your original, non-functioning Bally/Stern displays and converted them into fully functioning, LED equipped, low-voltage displays by removing old components and adding new new components to drive the 5 volt LED digits.  These kits, which require the end-user to provide donor boards and assemble the kits themselves, have been on the market for about a year and have taken countless out-gassed displays that were sitting on collectors’ shelves and put them back into operation at a fraction of the cost of a complete aftermarket plug-and-play display set.

I’m happy to share that Pinitech has again revolutionized the classic Bally/Stern display market by offering LED kits that do not require a donor set of displays to convert.  In addition to the revolutionary Retrofit kit, Pinitech has now launched two complete all-in-one display systems that can be sold to the end-user, in kit form, that look just as good, if not better, than any aftermarket display kit currently available: the TRADITIONAL 2-Board Full LED Display Kit and the UNO Single Board Full LED Display Kit.  Perhaps more importantly, like the Retrofit before them, their cost won’t break the bank.

THE PINITECH DISPLAY LINE-UP

I’ll begin by re-introducing the the Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit, but the full review can be found here.  Simply put, it requires a set of original donor boards.  If you have dead displays lying around and can handle removing components from the original board and adding new components that come with the kit, this is bar none the most economical, and perhaps best option for you.

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Now to introduce the new Pinitech releases.  The Traditional 2-Board Full LED Display Kit maintains the visual integrity of the original Bally/Stern display, giving the user a two board system—one onto which you will mount the electrical components, and one onto which you will mount the LED display digits.  The connection between the two boards is made by way of two male header pins on the display panel and two female header housings on the component board. This board uses the existing metal display bracket of your Bally/Stern game, and will slide in as an original display would.  Overall, it gives the same physical look as an original board, with all the benefits of a low voltage, high output display.

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The second new release is the Uno Single Board Full LED Display Kit. It takes all the components of the traditional two-board system, and arranges them onto a single upright board, display digits and all.  The display will then be affixed using the four mounting screws originally used to hold the metal display bracket to the backbox lamp board.  It will be “free floating” in the backboard cutout with the only points of contact being the aforementioned mounting screws.

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No matter what option you choose, assembly is required, unless you’ve pre-arranged with Pinitech to build it for you.  The two new kits open the level of entry to those with even a basic knowledge of soldering and board assembly.  The Retrofit required the user to de-solder components from original Bally/Stern boards.  Both the Traditional and UNO are a complete display system—no donor boards required, no components to remove, no chance of lifted traces.  With only simple soldering required, nearly anyone who can follow a set of written directions and has a temperature controlled soldering iron can obtain a great looking set of aftermarket LED displays using either Pinitech kit, and feel a sense of accomplishment when the task is complete.

PRICING AND OPTIONS

If the Retrofit kits were a steal at approximately $100USD per kit–the new Traditional and UNO kits are just as affordable considering it is an all-in-one solution.  The pricing matrix is as follows:

TRADITIONAL 2-BOARD KITS

  • 6-Digit Displays in AMBER – $129.95USD
  • 7-Digit Displays in AMBER – $134.95USD
  • 6-Digit Displays in BLUE – $134.95USD
  • 7-Digit Displays in BLUE – $139.95USD
  • 6-Digit Displays in WHITE – $139.95USD (Includes one colour filter choice)
  • 7-Digit Displays in WHITE – $144.95USD (Includes one colour filter choice)
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The contents of a single Traditional seven-digit amber display kit.

UNO SINGLE BOARD KITS

  • 6-Digit Displays in AMBER – $119.95USD
  • 7-Digit Displays in AMBER – $124.95USD
  • 6-Digit Displays in BLUE – $124.95USD
  • 7-Digit Displays in BLUE – $129.95USD
  • 6-Digit Displays in WHITE – $129.95USD (Includes one colour filter choice)
  • 7-Digit Displays in WHITE – $134.95USD (Includes one colour filter choice)
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The contents of a complete UNO six-digit white display kit with green filters.

Assuming you didn’t have a set of dead displays kicking around for a Retrofit conversion, you’d be looking at, at least, thirty or forty bucks to obtain a dead set to perform the Retrofit conversion upon.  If you have the dead displays on hand, and have the skill to de-solder parts and solder in new parts, the Retrofit may still be the way to go.  If you don’t have an outgassed set at the ready, the Traditional and UNO provide a great all-in-one kit that will cost less than any other option on the market today.  I discussed competitors’ pricing in the previous Retrofit article, but in a nutshell: Rottendog offers their amber plug-and-play display kits for $199USD, X-Pin offers their 6-digit amber display solution at $275USD, while Wolffpac Technologies offers an amber 6-digit DIY kit for $145USD.  It is interesting to note that Pinitech’s highest priced kit, the 7-digit TRADITIONAL in white with one colour filter option of your choice, is priced as much as the lowest-level kit from Wolffpac Technologies.

The amber kits are obviously the most economical of the Pinitech kits available, but to offer a white set with a free colour option at less than $150USD should be a real eye-opener.  With the Pinitech kits, your game can be customized with about a dozen different filter options, allowing you to colour match the displays to the overall scheme of your game, or go off of the prescribed colour chart and add a display that pops against the existing colour scheme of the game.  Gone are the days of picking between red, green or blue displays.  Pinitech offers magenta, yellow, purple and turquoise–which are just a few of the different options you can choose from to customize your game.

WHICH KIT WILL FIT YOUR NEEDS?

You can pretty much mix-and-match any of these display options and obtain a uniform look in your game, or collection of games as the case may be.  The obvious benefit to the Traditional and UNO display kits over the Retrofit was covered in the outset of the article: you don’t need donor boards and you don’t need to remove components. The kits contain everything you need to build yourself a complete display system for your game. This opens the door for more novice tinkerers to solder-and-go, without having to worry about lifted traces and the plethora of different board layouts that Bally and Stern used during the initial release of the games.

Time is also a factor here.  After building a few of the Traditional and UNO displays, I got my completion time down to about twenty minutes per individual display, versus the thirty-five it took to complete the Retrofit conversion.  Those extra fifteen minutes are accounted for in the Retrofit conversion by de-soldering components, and double-checking the placement of the new components, as the board layout on the original Bally/Stern PCBs is a bit confusing.  It seems those original boards went through more revisions than Carter had liver pills, so each original Bally/Stern display PCB will have components in different places.  The Traditional and UNO boards are designed with logic and elegance, similar components are arranged in a row, and there are far fewer points of solder in these builds than there are in a Retrofit conversion.

It should also be mentioned that the Traditional and UNO are true 5 volt driven displays by design, not a high voltage display converted for 5 volt operation like the Retrofit. There is no chance to send high voltage through the display at all as the male pin that supplies high voltage to the display has been designed out of these new display PCBs.  The Retrofit needed to have Pin 1 pulled to ensure high voltage was removed from the equation, and further, a rather unsightly jumper made from the high voltage line to the 5V line to bring power to the display.  If the conversion was done with care, it isn’t really a worry, but the threat is there until dealt with properly.  The Traditional and UNO have taken care of that threat through design.

There is an added benefit with the Traditional and UNO systems: brightness control. Pinitech proprietor Wayne Eggert factored a potentiometer into the design to subdue the display digits or blaze them bright, as the end user sees fit.  This is a valuable benefit, allowing the user to customize brightness to fit the overall look of the game, and becomes even more valuable when using the white digits to dial in the look of the digits through the filter choices.  Some of the darker colour filters like magenta or purple can require some added brightness to really make them pop.

One of the main benefits of the UNO system is that you can adjust the placement of the display left and right to center them in the backglass display window.  Before tightening down the screws when mounting the display, users can now play with the placement, adjusting as needed.

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An example of how the UNO will make use of the original bracket mounting holes

Many games from the Bally and Stern catalog suffered from misaligned displays, straight from the factory.  This was my experience with my Stern Catacomb.  The game came with aftermarket Rottendog displays installed, and the display shift was such that most of the last digit was completely obscured on the score displays, and the credit and ball count display difficult to read being blocked by the backglass art.  Using the UNO displays, I was able to make adjustments and slide the UNO over to the left so that all score numbers were visible.  This last number in the score was always a zero so it didn’t really matter much, but aesthetically, it was always bothersome.  The UNO corrected this completely.

Having the male connector pins on the same board as the display digits on the UNO is a difference traditionalists will need to get used to, but having physical displays shut inside of a backbox and behind a backglass should not turn too many stomachs as long as the displays perform as advertised (and they do).  As long as the male connector locking mechanism is positioned toward the bottom, away from the display digits, it will allow for a secure fit of the existing connector.  Having the locking tabs of the male connector facing upwards, as suggested in an early revision of the instructions make for a fit that is too snug for comfort, resulting in a bit of a struggle to get the connector to fit securely, and further, interferes with a few of the component through holes.  Having read a revision of the instructions released after my test build, I see that it has been changed to read that the locking tabs now be placed downwards to correct the issue.

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The UNO set installed in Catacomb, rear view.

Given the choice between the two new display options, I would give the advantage to the UNO.  The single board design results in a few less points of solder compared to the Traditional, without ever feeling as if the components are crammed onto the board or unmanageable when installing them.  The UNO is also the better value, saving you ten bucks across all options, no matter if your game is 6- or 7-digits, or which colour option you choose.  With functionality the same across both options, both looked and performed great in test, I’d go on the record as saying that the UNO is the clear choice.

The Traditional kit would be a great option for those that prefer to keep the original “90-degree” aesthetic of the original Bally/Stern board design.  It would also make sense to go the TRADITIONAL route if you were mixing and matching with Retrofit converted displays, as the physical look of the boards remains consistent across both options. Pinitech will sell individual display kits if you have a partial set of dead displays at your disposal, and want to fill in the blanks with Traiditional 2-board individual display kits.

AN INTERVIEW WITH PINITECH

As he did in my review of the Retrofit kit, Pinitech proprietor Wayne Eggert was nice enough to humour me with an interview about the creation and initial offering of the Traditional and UNO kits.  Over the past few years, I have corresponded with Mr. Eggert about many pinball related topics, and he’s always been well-reasoned and knowledgeable about many facets of this hobby, and moreover, has been very humble about the pinball inspired technology he creates.  It is plain to see from the following interview that he is proud to have brought the Traditional and UNO kits to market, providing collectors with a reasonably priced display solution that performs as well as advertised:

Credit Dot: When we last talked about the Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit, you shared that the research and development process of taking an old display and removing/adding components to give it LED functionality took about four to five months to complete.  What was the timeline for R&D of the Traditional UNO kits? Were you ahead of the curve having the knowledge of the Retrofit project in your back pocket?

Wayne Eggert: The majority of the final full kit design occurred in June/July 2017. Really though, these have been in-development since 2011 to some degree when I was first experimenting with LED display circuits.  I had wanted to create my own displays for Bally/Stern games, but at the time, prototyping was going to cost a small fortune and it was looking like even in modest volume, a DIY kit couldn’t come in much cheaper than the less-expensive plug-and-play aftermarket displays.  Instead, the project was scaled-down in size and turned into a diagnostic tool in 2013 that I called a “Bench LED Display”.  Still having this desire to create a full display, in 2016 I created the RETROFIT kits.  They were a monumental step forward, offering collectors a cheap way to create a full-scale display without the risk of a component board that might change several times during prototyping since the component board was already a “fixed design”.  The challenges and experience that the Retrofit project offered, and all of the prior years of projects and R&D, are ultimately what helped fast-track the development of these full displays you now see in 2017. 

CD: Is there a concern of market confusion having three separate LED kits available for purchase at Pinitech?

WE: There was. That’s why I gave them all separate and unique names. The conversion kits are the “Pinitech RETROFIT” kits.  For full kits, the 2-board design is the “Pinitech TRADITIONAL” and the single-board is the “Pinitech UNO”.  I think between the names and descriptions on the product pages it should help avoid confusion.

CD: Having personally built and used each of the different kits, I can attest that the functionality and look from behind the backglass is identical across all kits.  What are some of the situations in which a collector would prefer one kit over the other?

WE: Some people will prefer the classic looking 2-board design no matter what, but some games will also require it. I have a Stern Black Beauty Shuffle Alley that has a ton of lamp surrounds next to the display brackets and even with heavy modification I don’t see the UNO design working there. That’s going to be more of an extreme case of clearance issues though. For many machines the UNO is going to work just fine and be the way to go with its lower cost, quicker assembly and ability to shift the displays left or right.

CD: The UNO and TRADITIONAL display kits are a bit more “builder-friendly”–you need not remove components from a donor board as you would with the Retrofit. Was one of the design considerations of the new kits to make the process more streamlined for the average collector?

WE: Yes. All new parts are included with the full kits, so anyone with basic soldering skills and equipment can easily assemble the displays.

CD: The Traditional and UNO kits have only been offered for about a month at this point–what is some of the feedback you’ve received from the early adopters of the  kits?

WE: I’ve heard many great comments.  Easy assembly.  They look great.  They function well.  Instructions are well done.  It’s a joy to be hearing these things because it means all the time spent refining them was worth it.

CD: The UNO itself is a streamlined and compact piece of technology—you essentially placed all the components that were originally on a traditional Bally/Stern PCB onto the surface area that was occupied by the traditional display glass.  How were you able to arrange all the components onto one simple board?

WE: Pure willpower I think. I was back-and-forth on doing a single PCB design or a 2-board design.  I couldn’t decide.  I knew there would be cost advantages to a single board, but I absolutely hated all the design concepts I had drawn.  It was too clunky and didn’t look like it belonged.  But I had this idea to shift the displays left or right and really liked that thought.  The single biggest turning point was deciding that I wasn’t going to pick just one style.  I was going to do BOTH–and they would look awesome when completed.  I just focused on that very positive thought and made it happen.  I absolutely love the single board design, it’s so slick looking that I’m even wanting to put it in games.  If you asked me a few months ago if I thought that would happen, I’d have had some serious doubts!

CD: Now that you’ve eliminated the need for a donor board, do you offer assembly services for the TRADITIONAL and UNO kits, for those who don’t have the time or skill to build them on their own?

WE: Yes, I’m offering fully assembled plug-and-play options on both of these displays.

CD: Having been a customer for over a year, I can attest that the packaging of your items has grown leaps and bounds, with the UNO and TRADITIONAL sets being shipped in an extremely neat, organized and professional manner. There is obviously “value added” in this sort of packaging?

WE: It makes it easier for the customers, as well as myself, to bag and box display sets individually.  I often imagine myself as the customer, opening up the box or reading through the instructions.  I put myself in my customer’s viewpoint and do what makes the most sense and avoids confusion.

CD: The digits you are using for these new kits are the same as the ones used in the Retrofit kits. Are you finding that collectors are appreciating the option of customizing their game using the white digits with the vast range of colour filters you have available?

WE: People like being able to customize their games, that’s been proven over and over.  Color displays in these Classic Bally/Stern games completely change the look of the games.  It updates them to something fresh & new.  Some people still have reservations on deviating from the standard plasma color, but once you convert one game to a different color and see how great it looks, it becomes addicting to try different colors in more games.  In short, the white digits have been a huge hit!

CD: You seem to have covered all the bases in the Bally/Stern display world, offering kits to convert original displays, and now, offering all-in-one kits. Is there anything left for you to tinker with in the Bally/Stern display realm?

WE: There’s a few things related to, but not directly involving, the display boards that I might work on at some point.  As for the displays themselves, I can’t be happier.  TWO display designs that each offer something uniquely different and live up to my own expectations of what a quality display should look and function like.  Now the fun part – shipping out the DIY kits or assembled displays and hearing feedback and excitement from people as they see, in person, how great the new displays make their games look. Customer feedback is truly one of the most rewarding parts of creating new products!

 

THE TRADITIONAL AND UNO BOTTOM LINE

To this point, I’ve built two Retrofit kits, one TRADITIONAL kit and about ten UNO kits, for myself and for others in my local community.  I can almost build these things in my sleep now.  Your mileage may vary depending on your skill set, but the learning curve isn’t steep.  Once you’re comfortable with Pinitech’s in-depth instructions and the board layout, assembly is a breeze.  The UNO seems pretty popular in my local community of classic Bally and Stern collectors, and it stands to be seen if my local community is a true representation of the pinball community as a whole.  I’ll gladly put my stamp of approval on the UNO kits.  The TRADITIONAL kits will work for people who prefer a more traditional look to their boards, or for games that can’t accommodate the mounting space the UNO requires (I believe this will be a problem that rarely occurs, however).  I can see these two new all-in-one kits muscling out their kin, the Retrofit, as the price difference between the two is negligible when paired off against the extra time, and skill, needed for the Retrofit conversion.  I’ve had experience with both Xpin and Rottendog displays in the past—the Pinitech displays look more native to the game, and their price just can’t be beat. I’m left to hope that Pinitech continues to innovate in the arena of aftermarket technology for classic Bally and Stern games, as well as beyond into other eras and manufacturers of classic solid state pinball machines.

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A completed set of the UNO display system

 

FURTHER READING

Pinitech – Pinitech Traditional Classic Bally/Stern LED Displays

Pinitech – Pinitech UNO (Single-PCB) Classic Bally/Stern LED Displays

Pinside – *NEW* DIY Kits or Assembled LED Displays for Classic Bally/Stern (Single PCB)

Credit Dot Pinball – REVIEW: Pinitech’s Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit

Techdose – LED Pinball Display For Early Bally/Stern Games

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FEATURE: The Worst Kept Location Games in North America

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Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to honour five of our own, who have given their earthborn lives to the service of others.  They have spent their days providing fun and merriment for the masses, at fifty cents a game, asking nothing in return.  The journey from their birth in the heart of Chicago, Illinois, to their final resting place in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, appeared to be long and arduous one.  Their bodies showed signs of extreme abuse and neglect that should not have befallen any one of their kind.  Their demise on the grounds of the Family Kingdom Amusement Park Arcade was an unfitting end for these five wounded warriors, who continued to soldier on, long after time has passed them by.  Please bow your heads in a moment of silence for these once great amusement devices that shall be permanently laid to rest.  For ever and ever. 

Amen.

Joking aside, I believe the five pinball machines being operated at the Family Kingdom Amusement Park Arcade at 300 S. Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, are in the running for the worst kept machines in operation in North America.  Pinside and social media are filled with images of unkempt location machines with filthy playfields, maladjusted switches and overall poor pinball hygiene.  But games of that nature usually stand alone, or in a group of two, all neglected because they are the lone “token pin” in the arcade, which nobody can be bothered, or has the ability, to fix.  In this instance, we have a collection of five games at a location (a pretty good number by today’s standards), all leftovers from the golden age of pinball and all at least twenty years old.  They have been cared for just enough to be kept in daily operation–that is, to accept two quarters for a three ball game.  However, as you will see, their condition leaves a lot to be desired.

The games are as follows: Dr. Dude and His Excellent Ray (Bally, 1990), Funhouse (Williams, 1990), Earthshaker (Williams, 1989), The Simpsons (Data East, 1990) and Jokerz! (Williams, 1988).  A decent lineup by anyone’s standards to be sure, and I think any enthusiast would be excited to find these games being operated in the wild.  You’ll find them being operated here, alright–but you won’t enjoy playing them…

I first encountered these games about four years ago when I first started to take a few weeks during the summer to vacation in Myrtle Beach.  Myrtle Beach isn’t my first choice for vacation destinations, but you can’t argue with free accommodation when your mother-in-law isn’t using her vacation home in a secluded area of the city.  Being away from my collection, and being a good pinball enthusiast, I compiled a list of places to play on location in Myrtle Beach upon my first arrival. Even with the large number of beachfront arcades in the city, the pinball scene was quite anemic.  I first encountered the above mentioned games when they were located at the Sea Mist Oceanfront Arcade, a rather sad resort indicative of those located to the east of the main boardwalk.  I went in knowing the games would be in poor condition, thanks to the reviews left for the location on Pinside, and sure enough I was met with games that were shells of their former selves.  The Earthshaker and Funhouse were virtually unplayable, while actual progress could be made on the Dr. Dude and Jokerz.  The Simpsons was in the best condition of the five at the time, but it was turned off–likely, the reason it was in such decent condition.

Being eager to know about how these games were still being operated given their sorry states, I asked the sixty-year-old attendant sitting in front of the yellowed and aging stuffed animal redemption gifts at the prize counter, and his curt response told me all I needed to know.  I’m sure the games still attracted curious quarters from the patrons, so these golden geese were still being featured prominently near the entrance of the arcade to try to gobble up profits.  As any pinball enthusiast knows, having games like this on location is a black eye on the reputation of pinball, and may do more harm than good. Customers would probably walk away in disgust having spent their hard earned money on a game that hardly worked or provided any real tactile feedback like pinball games normally would, and the chances of them dropping quarters into location games, if they were to find them in the future, would be slim given this disappointing experience.

I would check Pinside, from time to time, to see the status of games in the Myrtle Beach area, and before one visit last year, I found that the games had been completely removed from the Sea Mist Arcade.  “Finally”, I thought to myself, “They’ve been taken out of service!”  But further research of Pinside’s Pinball Map led me to find that this wasn’t the case at all. The five games were part and parcel hauled one mile down Ocean Boulevard to the Family Kingdom Amusement Park where they are still operated today.  Sadly, their condition has only worsened over time.  But there they sit, at the centre of their new arcade home, still hungry for quarters at fifty cents per play.

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A screen capture of Pinside’s location page for the Family Kingdom Amusement Park Arcade.

The Family Kingdom Amusement Park uses the term “amusement park” loosely.  They’ve got rides, concessions, games of skill and an arcade, but it’s more of a second-rate carnival than an amusement park proper.  There is no admission charge to enter, with all rides ticketed on a pay-to-ride basis.  It appears to be the kind of place that spends more money on billboard and radio advertisements than it does upkeep of their actual property.  The grounds are clean, but you find yourself checking your back pocket every so often to make sure your wallet is still there.  I grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the Canadian capital of price-gouging family entertainment, so I feel I am justified passing judgment on Family Kingdom here.

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I had been to Family Kingdom earlier in the year, in March, to visit the games at their new location, out of curiosity more than anything.  I wandered onto the grounds at about two o’clock, unaware that the park officially opened at four.  There were a few employees milling about, but otherwise, it was a ghost town.  It was also mid-week in March, so I thought nothing of it.  I located the arcade at the centre of the park, to find the sliding garage-style doors open, the overhead lights on, and all the games powered up and ready to play. I found the five soldiers of misfortune in their new home, assessed their condition (still very poor) and photographed their serial numbers for documentary purposes at the Internet Pinball Serial Number Database.  I made the decision to play, but vowed to not pump too many quarters into the games, thus continuing the vicious cycle of making the machines profitable in such a deplorable state.  Over about twenty minutes, I had played a game on each, ending my run on Jokerz.  During my first ball, I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I cradled up, and looked over my shoulder to find a disheveled (and probably underpaid) security guard of about sixty standing behind me. “Park opens at four. Leave.”, he stated curtly.  “Can I finish my game first?”, I asked. I really had nothing to lose by asking.  He grumbled, shook his head, and waved his hand begrudgingly allowing me to finish up, standing uncomfortably close to me until my last ball drained.  I thanked him–why, I don’t know–and headed for the exit.  He followed me for about fifty feet to make sure I actually did leave and didn’t make a U-turn and sneak back in to play the poorly cared for pinball machines he was paid to keep a close eye on.

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The front entrance of the arcade pavilion.

I returned to the Family Kingdom Amusement Park yesterday, during the prescribed operating hours this time (4pm to Midnight), to check in on Dr. Dude, Rudy and the rest of the gang.  I knew no miracles had occurred, but I wanted to accurately document these location games once and for all before vowing never to return.  I entered the park through the front gates, walked past the ticket booths and the sewer pumping station which greeted my arrival.  The station was emitting a rather pungent smell of raw sewage on this particularly humid Myrtle Beach evening, and provided just the right atmosphere for the visit.  The park contained many patrons on this evening, but many of the rides sat motionless and carnival games empty, in spite of the unenthused barkers dryly urging people to step up and fork over money.

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Ah, exactly what I want to see and smell when I enter a family friendly amusement park.

In the arcade, the games sat where I had found them months earlier.  And I didn’t have to spend much money on this visit.  I found three games with credits on them, with Funhouse having three credits on it alone.  Either the games are set fairly liberal with their free games (unlikely), or people are getting fed up with the condition of the games and walking away after one game (more likely).  The Simpsons and Earthshaker sat side by side in the middle of the arcade, while the Jokerz, Dr. Dude and Funhouse were lined up at the rear entrance of the arcade, positioned where the sun’s rays and intense heat beat down upon them.  While playing these games, the afternoon sun beat down upon my back, and was almost unbearable—I can just imagine what’s going on underneath the glass and inside the cabinet.

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In my following description of the games I will only highlight the extremes–I won’t be mentioning the excessive playfield wear, the caked-on playfield dirt, the salt-corroded metal apparatuses, burnt out lightbulbs, missing display segments, misadjusted and weak flippers, mismatched flipper bats, broken plastics, badly warped playfields, or sun-faded artwork.  Because every game displayed these symptoms.  Have you seen how the playfield rubber looks when you first open up a game that has been sitting in someone’s garage for thirty years?  The kind that’s cracked, has no bounce and has permanently taken the shape it has been stretched into?  Yeah, these games had that kind of rubber. On the Jokerz, the rubbers had completely rotted away, leaving behind only crusty remnants in the groove of the plastic post.  And they didn’t bother to replace the rubber after it had rotted away.

The Dr. Dude was completely out of commission, in a constant “TILT TILT” state, and its coin entrance housing was taped off with blue masking tape.  It was mercifully out of order.  When I played the Dude on my previous encounters, the Mixmaster was operational, and multi-ball was actually achievable.  I even registered a high score on it a few years back thanks to a “Super Dude” jackpot that had been built up for me to collect.  I’m sure the high score is long gone because I doubt the MPU has seen batteries for a decade to be able to save high scores.  The lower stand-up targets for the Heart of Rock n’ Roll and Big Shot were now mashed and bent so far back into their under-plastic spaces, it looked as if they wouldn’t be able to register hits anymore. The Big Shot himself was merely legs and a pelvis, missing everything above the waist.

The Earthshaker was a special treat, as it had drywall screws driven into the playfield, in front of the right up-kicker lock.  Who needs to replace a bad coil, switch or driving transistor when two drywall screws will do the job just as well.  And plenty cheaper, too.  There were a few other black screws strewn about the playfield, apparently in places where ball hang-ups were causing problems for the operator.

The Jokerz! played passibly on previous visits (as decent as the game can play, I find it to be one of the worst, if not worst, games of the System 11 era) but the four years since I first played it had taken its toll.  I think it’s a given that the backbox animation didn’t work, and I didn’t expect it to.  I didn’t expect the centre ramp to lift, but it did and awarded multi-ball when two balls were locked.  Deformed flasher caps, from locked-on flashers melting them from below, stood at the centre of the playfield as a telltale sign of neglect.

The Data East Simpsons had suffered from locked on flashers, as well, from the telltale burn marks on the playfield.  The game also displayed an instance of creatively blocking off a malfunctioning up-kicker: the Princess Kashmir kicker in the back right corner of the playfield.  They must have been short on drywall screws that day, because they instead used blue painter’s tape–the same kind they used to tape off Dr. Dude’s coin slots. This mod kind of gets a pass: the blue hue of the tape matches the overall colour scheme of the game.

Finally, we have poor Funhouse.  The good news was, Rudy partially worked. His jaw was fully operational.  Yet his eyes just stared off into the distance, over the player’s right shoulder, as if to wryly contemplate how he deserved such a horrible lot in life.  The cabinet was decorated with stickers of Rudy’s past home at the Sea Mist Resort and the backbox frame displayed the City of Myrtle Beach permit stickers from years past (including the current 2017 license). It almost reminded me of one of those worn old-tyme suitcases with the stickers from major cities stuck all over them.  The shooter rod had been broken, leaving some sharp edges for a child to run into–exactly the kind of liability you want in an arcade.  My favorite modification of the whole lineup was to be found here: a Sea Mist branded length of plastic they used to replace the trap door.  It was affixed with, you guessed it, blue painter’s tape. The sparkly green plastic looked to be a piece of a ruler, back scratcher, shoe horn or other cheap trinket given away at the redemption counter of the aging resort.  It was a nice throwback to the game’s prior home.  It has stood the test of time though–it’s been there since I first played the machine on the grounds of the Sea Mist arcade.  Unfortunately, the trap door doesn’t work. It would have been great if it did.

These games obviously serve a purpose at the Family Kingdom Amusement Park arcade just as they did at the Sea Mist before it.  They are there to maintain the illusion of an “arcade”, as there really isn’t much else in the place to entertain.  They are games that take money, serve up three balls, and then display “GAME OVER” once the last ball has drained.  For all intents and purposes, these games do “work”, however poorly.  If something breaks or malfunctions, put some tape on it and keep it in circulation.  If you can’t tape it up, drill some screws in it.  Keep taking those quarters from unsuspecting patrons by any means necessary, and empty the coin box at the end of the day.  I should mention, however, that during my half-dozen visits to the five games, not once did I see anyone else drop money into them, so maybe my assessment here isn’t entirely correct.

In my opinion, no pinball machine is beyond saving through extensive restoration, but these games are probably pretty close to parts machines, if not dumpster fodder. Ridden hard and put away wet, as the saying goes.  I hasten to use the term “Redneck Ingenuity” to describe the upkeep of these games, but perhaps “Ingenuity Without the Aid of Proper Tools, Funding or Compassion” would be a better phrase to describe what’s going on here.  Even though these games are listed on the Pinside Pinball Map, concerned Pinsiders have voiced their warnings about their condition, urging people to stay away. Hopefully the advice is heeded by enthusiasts visiting the area.  My frequent visits have been out of morbid curiosity, kind of like slowing down on the freeway to take a look at a messy car crash. That said, there isn’t much in the way of pinball alternatives.  The arcade at Black Pearl Mini Golf  in North Myrtle Beach is the home to five “pre-Stern” games in good overall condition, and there’s a rumored Myrtle Beach Pinball Museum moving forward in the fall of 2017, but beyond a few games sparsely peppered here and there at restaurants and bars, it’s pretty barren.  Perhaps it is time to ask my Mother-in-law to set up a few games at her place to scratch my pinball itch.  In any event, this will be my very last visit to the five forlorn games that have died on the grounds of the Family Kingdom Amusement Park.  May they forever rest in peace.

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REVIEW: Pinitech’s Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit

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The games produced by Bally and Stern between the years of 1977 and 1984 were enormously popular with players when they first graced the arcades, and remain popular to this day. Given the sheer number of games originally produced during the 1977 to 1984 run by Bally and Stern, the survival rate is very high and there is a great demand for reproduction parts to keep these games running properly.  This is the second review in a continuing series where Credit Dot will examine some of the reproduction parts being manufactured, and how technological innovation is making Bally/Stern games look and play better than ever.

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If you are a collector of Bally /Stern games from the 80s, chances are you’ve encountered some displays with “bad glass”, wherein the digits or segments of the digits inside the glass tube no longer function properly. Perhaps a portion of the digit won’t fully light up. Perhaps it won’t light at all. Such issues could be attributed to bad components on the display’s circuit board, but if you are suffering from bad glass/out-gassing, you’ll know it. Short of finding replacement glass, it renders the entire display, including its accompanying circuit board, useless. More often than not, you’d need to track down a single working display, or just give in and replace the whole set with an LED aftermarket solution costing upwards of $200USD.

Collect enough Bally/Stern games and you’re bound to end up with a handful of non-functioning displays with burnt out glass. Now, thanks to Pinitech’s Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit, you can use these out-gassed displays to manufacture a set of fully functioning, lower-voltage LED displays. The Retrofit kit contains a new display circuit board and LED digits to replace the glass tube, and a variety of electrical components that need to be substituted for components on the original Bally/Stern circuit board. This kit is a DIY solution, and does require some skill at soldering and de-soldering circuit board components.

If you haven’t already figured it out, this isn’t a solution for everyone. First, you need to have a set of out-gassed donor displays on hand.  A novice collector probably won’t have an entire set kicking around, so there would be the extra expense (and bother) of finding and buying a set of dead displays to use in conjunction with the Retrofit kit. And second, you’re going to need the time, skill and proper tools to perform the conversion. Those looking for a plug and play solution need to look elsewhere. There are plenty of aftermarket plug and play options available (both Rottendog and XPin have 6- and 7-digit display sets available). For those looking to recycle their electronic waste and don’t mind getting their hands dirty performing the conversion, the Retrofit results in a great looking display at a price that can’t be beat.

The Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit was originally introduced about a year ago by Pinitech, LLC. The project was rolled out for beta testing in late-July 2016, followed by a general release a month or so later. Wayne Eggert is the proprietor of Pinitech, and the rise of his company as an aftermarket pinball solution brand is best described in his own words:

“Pinitech has been around since 2014. I started selling NVram using generic boards back in 2012, but began doing custom boards in 2013 for a more professional look. After learning the ropes some with PCB design, I moved on to creating some diagnostic tools I wanted for my own personal use. I funded the projects by selling extra boards that I had created. Through 2016, I’ve mostly just offered diagnostic tools and NVram, but I’m now branching out into other products like the Bally/Stern Retrofit Conversion Kits.”

Not only does Pinitech help the pinball community by offering products designed to keep our games running efficiently, Mr. Eggert is also a Pinside mainstay, posting as “acebathound”, and can frequently be found patrolling the tech help threads, offering solutions and suggestions to collectors with malfunctioning machines.

RETROFIT PRICING & OPTIONS

Pinitech offers three base display colours in both 6- and 7-digit Retrofit kits—blue, white and amber. The latter closely resembles the original colour of the Bally/Stern displays, while the white can be used in conjunction with about a dozen colour filter options to customize the display to your tastes. The pricing for one kit, for a standard game with four score displays and one credit display, as of July 2017, is as follows:

  • 6-Digit Displays in BLUE – $89.95USD/set
  • 7-Digit Displays in BLUE – $94.95USD/set
  • 6-Digit Displays in AMBER – $84.95USD/set
  • 7-Digit Displays in AMBER – $89.95USD/set
  • 6-Digit Displays in WHITE (includes 1 colour filter) – $94.95USD/set
  • 7-Digit Displays in WHITE (includes 1 colour filter) – $99.95USD/set
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The contents of a 7-Digit Retrofit LED Display Kit

For those games with an odd-number of displays, like Six Million Dollar Man with six score displays or Elektra with an extra bonus units display, Pinitech will sell individual display kits to supplement the above complete packages. As you can see from the pricing structure, using the existing display PCB from an out-gassed display, and building the kit on your own results in quite the savings compared to other options on the market.

Other display options check in at about twice the price. Rottendog offers 6- and 7-digit amber display sets, which come fully assembled and are plug and play, and are $199USD, while XPin’s sells their amber displays individually, also plug and play, and are $54.95USD each (that’s $274.75USD for an entire set). Wolffpac Technologies offers a similar DIY display kit, requiring no donor display, and will set you back $144.95USD for a 6-digit amber set that you will have to assemble yourself.

If you have a set of dead displays lying around, the Retrofit solution is a no-brainer. Not only is it the most affordable option on the market, you can customize the colour of the displays to suit your game without breaking the bank. A colour upgrade isn’t available for the Rottendog set.  You’ll pay $20USD more per display (or, $100 more per set) to get the XPin colour option, which ships with red, green and blue gels to add colour to the base white display.

BUILDING THE RETROFIT DISPLAY

The displays come with a set of detailed instructions–and it is my opinion, that even the most novice of PCB tinkerers won’t have a problem making the conversion. The first thing I did when setting into the conversion process is to remove pin #1 on the header pins of each individual displays. This step is so important, it is mentioned about a dozen times throughout the written instructions. Pin #1 sends high voltage to the display, which is no longer needed with the low voltage LED conversion. I didn’t chance cutting the pin off, I de-soldered the pin and pulled it out completely on the entire set of displays before I even began.

You have a couple of ways of replacing some of the PCB components for the conversion: removing them completely and installing the new component, or installing them in parallel, which will basically piggyback the new component onto the old component on the solder side of the board.  I would recommend the former of the two options, as it gives the project a much cleaner look overall and allows less margin for error.  I used a Hakko 808 desoldering tool (now being sold as the Hakko FR-300 Desoldering Tool) to completely remove old components from the board, and then soldered in the new with a temperature controlled soldering iron.  The de-soldering tool isn’t a must, but it nearly guarantees a clean pull of all the old solder, freeing up the old components and preventing the chance of pulling or breaking traces.  You’ll be removing more than sixty points of solder for just one display, so having a de-soldering tool in your toolbox is a sound $200USD investment if you don’t have one already.  In total, for each board, you are replacing 7 or 8 transistors, and four sets of 6, 7 or 8 resistors, depending on if the display is six- or seven-digits.  I was methodical in my approach, and removed one set of resistors from my board, and installed the new components before moving onto another set.  Otherwise, I thought it would get pretty confusing keeping track of a bunch of empty resistor holes and following the Pinitech cheat sheet of what goes where.  The placement of the resistors on the board is somewhat logical, but in some cases, like in any PCB board design, the component is placed where it fits to minimize space, and not where it should logically be placed.

To make things even more interesting, Bally and Stern had many revisions of the display board throughout the ten year run of their classic games, so depending on which version of display you have, the parts that need to be replaced will be in different positions on the board.  The community has accounted for this, and the Pinside thread dedicated to the Retrofit displays has identified the majority of the different board revisions, giving the DIY-er a visual cheat sheet to identify which components need to be replaced.

The points of contact for the old glass need to be removed from the component board completely, or need to be cut close to the old glass so the old metal tab connectors can be affixed to the new upright display board. To the new upright display board that will replace the glass, you’ll need to attach the LED digits, which have eight contact points per digit that need to be soldered.

Once the two boards are affixed together using the provided brackets, you can solder the metal tab connectors to the display board or use the new angle connectors provided if your original tabs were manged or missing.  The angle connectors provide a cleaner look overall, but it requires a bit more effort to install. To finish up, you’ll need to choose a way to jumper the 5V line to the high voltage line. Again there are a number of ways to do this, but each involves a jumper wire from one point of contact to another on the solder side of the display PCB. This step is the only time in the whole process that the conversion would appear to be “hackish”.  None of the points of contact are near each other, so the user will just have to pick one that they think looks the least invasive.

The instructions outline how to test the display on the bench using a 5V power supply, or, if you are feeling brave, and have triple checked your work, you can install it into your machine and watch the cool lights of the LED display its segmented numbers.  If for some reason segments don’t light, the guide will help you troubleshoot the problem.  I had two digits that refused to light on one display, which ended up being a couple of bad digit drivers.  Luckily, Pinitech has accounted for these bad components (they are ones that are not replaced in the conversion) and includes a small number of extra 2N5401 transistors as backup.

AN INTERVIEW WITH PINITECH

I was one of the beta testers for the Retrofit kit when it was first introduced, and since that time, I’ve known Mr. Eggert from Pinitech to be helpful and very personable when it came to his products and the hobby in general.  I thought I would give him a forum here to explain the nuances of the project in his own words.  The questions I posed to him appear in bold below:

Credit Dot: When did you first discover that the Retrofit kit would be something that could be successful in the market?

Wayne Eggert: “I created a Pinside thread to judge interest on the idea and decided that I’d use the thread to seal the fate of the project.  There was a reasonable amount of interest right off the bat, especially considering it was such a niche project.  The excitement in that thread was indication that at least a dozen or two of the conversion kits would sell.”

CD: How long did the research and development portion of the Retrofit project take?

WE: “R&D was most of the first quarter of 2016 and then another couple of months later in the year.  A couple of weeks alone were dedicated to figuring out how to do load testing and to get a baseline for what to expect for current usage with and without LED displays on Classic Bally/Stern machines.  A prototype was cooked up and the next major step was figuring out if there was a way to create an efficient conversion design. If that couldn’t happen, there was no reason to pursue the project further.”

CD: The circuit boards attached to the display glass on the original Bally/Stern displays came to market with many different designs over the years.  Was there difficulty accounting for all of the different configurations of boards out there?

WE: “Definitely.  Working within the parameters of the old boards made it a huge challenge–and part of that was due to quite a few different display revisions over the years.  Whatever I came up with had to work with all the revisions.  Not only that, but it had to allow people to mix-and-match displays of various revisions without any noticeable differences in brightness or functionality.  Many hours were spent gathering schematics and actual display boards for each revision, and many more looking at everything as a whole and creating a conversion circuit that would work for all of them.”

CD: What unique elements of the original Bally/Stern design allowed the conversion to be possible?

WE: “Since the old display driver circuits used many resistors and transistors, it made it easy to swap those components out for different values.  For instance, if I couldn’t swap transistors for mosfets, the 4543 would have been over-driven on its outputs.  Had the drivers been dedicated ICs unique to plasma displays, the conversion may not have been possible at all.

There were quite a few things along the way that could have derailed the project completely.  I could easily list over a dozen snags I hit in the design, but somehow for every one of those snags I was able to find a solution.  Even just the screw hole locations for the plasma glass display bracket on the component board couldn’t have worked out any better.  The new LED display panel had to sit at pretty much an exact location and I lucked out and found a right angle 90 degree threaded bracket that worked.  Too far forward and it would have caused the digits to hit the backglass, too far back and there would have been clearance issues with the digit drivers on 7-digit Bally displays.  It amazed me that the entire project went this way.  There was lots of nail-biting and thoughts of canceling the project, but in the end, a solution for everything materialized.  Maybe that happens when you REALLY want a solution, and you find a way get there!”

CD: The converted displays tap into the 5V power supply, bypassing the high voltage needed to power the original displays.  Do the converted Retrofit displays tax the 5V line in any manner significant enough to impede the machine’s performance?

WE: “I definitely didn’t want to create something that would cause a lot of extra load to be added to the 5v regulator.  If I couldn’t get the conversion displays to match the efficiency of a normal aftermarket LED display set, there was no sense in doing them.  I’m proud to say the conversion displays match or beat efficiency of most of the other LED displays on the market.  Not bad for old-school technology!”

CD: What advantages does the Retrofit kit offer over the other aftermarket display systems available on the market?

WE: “The single largest draw is price-point.  But I think the idea of using existing boards is also a major advantage.  Lots of people had old boards sitting around “for parts” that were collecting dust.  This is a way to turn them into something useful again, gain space, save money and create some great looking LED displays!  At the time, these conversion kits were also the only budget way of getting WHITE LED displays that could be used with color filters for unlimited color choices–at about one-third the cost of the other option on the market.

There are other advantages that people see once they assemble a set.  The displays look professional.  Everything lines up nicely and everything from the instructions, to the PCB design, to the circuits themselves, were looked at in detail and has professional polish.  I’ve been told by several people that the aesthetics are better than anything else on the market.  It’s cool hearing that, considering people are comparing these conversion kits to plug-and-play aftermarket displays.”

Many of the products on your site are available in DIY form, where the end user assembles the product themselves. Have you seen an increase in hobbyists wanting DIY kits?  As the hobby grows, are you seeing the skill set of the common hobbyist mature?

“I think the interest is growing in DIY kits.  It’ll never be on-par with plug-and-play, but having kits available like this with clear instructions that allow someone to assemble without frustration the first time helps grow the demand for DIY options.  When things are frustrating or unclear it becomes a major deterrent. These conversion kits are definitely on the more difficult end of DIY, but even so, I tried to make them as user-friendly as possible.

Pinball these days is an expensive hobby and DIY is a way to save a few bucks.  Pair that with the accomplishment you feel successfully building something.  It’s built into us, especially guys, I think–we like to build.  But the advantages are far greater: the skills learned in a Pinitech DIY project are transferable to other aspects of the hobby.  Improved soldering techniques, desoldering techniques, troubleshooting–it all helps create confidence and knowledge that could come in handy down the road.”

Your main pinball interest seems to lie in the early solid-state games of Bally and Stern.  The majority of your products at Pinitech cater to that era.  Does your interest in pinball span all eras of machines?  What are some of your favorite Bally/Stern titles?

“Funny you say that.  I often think about how anyone that is checking out products I sell, at least up until this point, is definitely going to think I’m only into Classic Bally/Stern machines.  I actually enjoy most games from the early 80’s to present day releases.  Anything with better sound and more complicated rule sets, than the very early solid state games, I enjoy.  I’m definitely a big fan of Data East, Williams System 11 & WPC.  I’ve done more with diagnostic tools for Bally/Stern because I started out with those machines early-on in the hobby.  They’ve always been more affordable, and there’s a lot of neat titles and artwork in that era of games.  They’re very approachable from an electronics standpoint, too.

Two of my current favorites for Bally titles are Xenon and Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man.  I think it’s mostly nostalgia that does it for me on Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man, but it helps it’s also a later Bally with more going on and better sound.  I’m itching to get LED displays installed in that machine.  It’s been sitting folded up for five years and I think it’ll look really cool with blue, red or yellow displays.  Or maybe a mix of all three colors!”

THE RETROFIT BOTTOM LINE

I’ve performed the conversion on two sets of displays with dead glass–a six-digit conversion for a Stern Stars and a seven-digit conversion for a Stern Star Gazer. If focused, and I kept to the task, I could have one display converted in about thirty minutes.  Overall, I am very happy with how the displays look in the games.  The numbers are nice and robust, and are crisp and bright without being blinding and looking out of place.  I went with blue displays for both Stars and Star Gazer–they were the most affordable, and fit the overall colour scheme of both titles.  The Stars came with four dead displays out of the five, while the Star Gazer came with no displays at all, but I was able to find someone to sell me a set of dead 7-digit displays for $20.  Would I convert a set of displays for the sake of converting to low-voltage LED if the displays worked properly?  Absolutely not, but it is a nice option to have when a set of displays with bad glass presents itself. The final product is robust and professional looking, especially considering it is a DIY project that uses original parts from the 1980s. This project is extremely affordable, compared to the other options on the market, and further, it feels good to take something that would otherwise be junk and put it back into service.

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FURTHER READING

Pinitech – Classic Bally/Stern Conversion LED Display Kit
Pinitech – Retrofit Photo Gallery
Pinside – RETROFIT Classic Bally/Stern DIY Plasma-to-LED Conversion Display Kits


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REVIEW: Pinball Electronics’ Bally/Stern LED Lamp Driver Board

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The games produced by Bally and Stern between the years of 1977 and 1984 were enormously popular with players when they first graced the arcades, and remain popular to this day.  Soaring prices of New-In-Box games and classic 90’s era Williams titles have driven collectors, who may not have enjoyed these games when they were first on route in arcades, to discover and enjoy them in their own game rooms.  Perhaps collectors are finding that the Value:Fun ratio is more balanced in a Bally/Stern game than it is in more contemporary offerings.  The continued popularity of the Bally/Stern subset of games also points towards the acceptance of a more “no frills”-type of pinball: no deep rule sets, no complicated mechanisms or toys, no ramps or multi-level playfields.  The games offer the player a wild dash to the finish, rather than the long exhausting marathon sometimes offered by the more modern pinball machine.  Given the sheer number of games originally produced during the 1977 to 1984 run, the survival rate is very high and there is a great demand for reproduction parts to keep these games running properly.  This is a first review in a continuing series where Credit Dot will examine some of the reproduction parts being manufactured and how technological innovation is making Bally/Stern games look and play better than ever.

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I’ll state at the outset that I’m not a huge fan of LEDs in games made prior to 1986.  It’s an arbitrary date I’ve set for myself that coincides with Williams offering its first game powered by the System 11 operating system (High Speed in January of 1986).  For all Electromechanical and early Solid State games, I’m a firm believer that the warm glow of incandescent bulbs is the only way to go.  There’s no accounting for taste, however, and modifying a game in your collection to your personal tastes is half the fun of ownership.  As you may or may not know, Bally and Stern games between 1977 and 1984 cannot properly accommodate LED bulbs: the controlled inserts will offer a seizure inducing flicker if LEDs are added to a game without first making suitable modifications.  The LED bulbs draw so little current that the controlled lamps (any lamp that is turned on and off by the MPU) fail to “latch on”, resulting in the game attempting to turn on the lamp every fraction of a second until the signal is turned off.  Resistance must be added to the game in order for the LEDs to function properly, and allow the lamps to latch on.  There’s a few ways to go about doing this.

The first option is to solder a resistor to each MPU-controlled bulb socket.  It’s the cheapest way to go about the process, as a single resistor will only cost you $0.05, however, there’s a lot of soldering involved and it’s a pretty invasive process–having to permanently solder a 470 ohm resistor to each socket.  Another option is to buy an adapter kit from Siegecraft Electronics to add to your game.  The kit retails for $45.00USD, and can be found at the Siegecraft webstore or Pinball Life (both sites are out of stock at time of writing).  Essentially, the kit gives you three small circuit boards with resistors mounted on them that plug into your original lamp driver board in the backbox.  Instead of the resistors being mounted to the sockets themselves (as in our first example), multiple resistors are mounted onto the three daughter boards.

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The contents of a Siegecraft LED Adapter Kit.

The final option is to obtain an entirely new lamp driver board with the resistors incorporated in the design of the board itself.  Alltek Systems, makers of fine reproduction circuit board solutions for Bally/Stern games, have incorporated an “LED Flicker Free” feature into their lamp boards that will eliminate the LED flicker completely.  The Alltek board will set you back around $119.00USD.

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Alltek’s Ultimate LED/Lamp Driver Board

However, buying the entire board would be overkill for most people.   The original Bally/Stern lamp board is perhaps the easiest board in all of pinball to troubleshoot and repair.  The layout is straightforward and easy to follow from input signal to output signal, and there aren’t many wild card components to confuse those new to pinball repair.  Most times, it’s going to be a bad transistor component or connector issue that prevents a lamp from working properly.

I had a situation where I had acquired a classic Stern game that was completely missing the lamp board, so I was in the market for a board, whether or not I was going to put LEDs into it.  There are plenty of refurbished boards available for sale on Pinside, for around $50USD, from reputable sellers.  I was going to go this route, however, I found that Pinball Electronics (also known as NVram.weebly.com), a webstore maintained by Pinside user “barakandl”, had made available for purchase his own design of a Bally/Stern lamp driver board.  His board retails for $90USD (including shipping) and includes all the LED capabilities of the Alltek board for $30USD less than the more established brand.  Further to this, Pinball Electronics will sell the bare printed circuit board, with no components soldered to it, for a mere $15USD, and allow you to do the soldering work yourself.

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Pinball Electronics’ $90USD fully assembled LED Lamp Driver Board

I had the opportunity to speak to Andrew from Pinball Electronics about the newly offered lamp board and the reasons behind offering it as a DIY kit.  Andrew’s love of pinball is deeply rooted in Bally and Stern pinball games.  He explains:

“I learned electronics by fixing early Bally and Sterns. I think they are perfect game for a new person looking for their first pinball restoration project. There are lots of reproduction parts available and plenty of online documentation to reference.” 

If you are a Bally/Stern owner experiencing a problem with your game, and ask the pinball community for help on Pinside, there’s a good chance that Andrew’s online alter ego, “barakandl”, will be one of the first to respond, offering troubleshooting techniques or possible solutions.  When asked about the reasons for offering a DIY board as well as a completely assembled board, Andrew responded:

“I think the average skillset of pinball collectors is decreasing with more and more people getting into the hobby. Kits like these help people get their feet wet doing PCB repair. Collectors also love modding their games. Kits like these can be considered a ‘mod’, a project someone can assemble and install themselves, and feel good when the job is done.” 

With an influx of collectors and players entering the pinball hobby, perhaps there are a greater number of people diving into PCB repair feet first, without knowing the basics (or having a practical understanding of what they are doing).  Being able to assemble a relatively simple PCB from scratch not only helps beginners learn the basics of soldering, but it will help build confidence and comfort in working with PCBs when the next repair is needed.  For those with a more advanced skill set, it appears that building the board from scratch, and doing the tedious soldering yourself, will offer a lamp board solution that will be very friendly to your pocketbook.

The board design itself isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it does offer a couple of improvements over the original Bally and Stern designs.  Andrew explains:

“I placed the resistor footprints in a way that the end user has component options. Isolated resistors are in banks of eight, so you can use a DIP-16 resistor array, a Bourns 4116R, or standard discrete resistors. Also, resistors with a common bussed pin can employ a 9-pin bussed resistor network or, again, use discrete resistors.” 

Further, the footprints for the four 4514 chips have been designed to accommodate both the original DIP-24 4514 chips (marked as obsolete but still available), or the more readily available, and cheaper, SO-24 (small outline) 4514 chips.

I ordered the bare lamp board with a few other items from Pinball Electronics, so shipping ended up being free.  The rest of the materials I sourced from Great Plains Electronics.  I could have shopped around at Mouser or Digikey, but I find their sites a bit overwhelming, and further, GPE is a great friend to the pinball hobby so I throw my business their way whenever I can.  The following is my bill of materials for the lamp board:

GRAND TOTAL: $59.44

ALTERNATE COMPONENTS

The SO-24 4514 chips can replace the DIP-24 4514 chips and are available from Digikey for $1.16ea. https://www.digikey.com/products/en?keywords=1727-6338-1-ND%20

The 4116R resistor array can replace the 2K resistors and are available from GPE for $0.35ea. https://www.greatplainselectronics.com/proddetail.asp?prod=4116R-2-222

As you can tell from my bottom line total above, there is value in building the board yourself.  It checks in at nearly half the price of an Alltek lamp board, and is just a few dollars more than the kit offered by Siegecraft, while offering the same functionality and LED support as both options.  If you are willing to shop around for the alternate parts, you may be able to shave a few dollars more from my total above.  I opted to use discrete, individual resistors in my build, rather than using the resistor array packages. No difference in function in the end, just a few more points to solder.

Assembling the board is as straightforward as can be.  Pinball Electronics offers a bare bones data sheet as to where each component needs to be soldered. For those who are not adept at DIY board population, a temperature controlled solder station, like the Hakko FX888, with a fine tip isn’t completely necessary to complete the job here, but it will ensure a clean looking and fully functioning end product.  I had my board fully assembled and installed in my machine in about an hour and fifteen minutes.  The board worked “right out of the box”, as it were, as I had re-pinned all of my connectors as a preventative measure while restoring the game (I implore beginners, please take the time to learn how to use a Molex crimping tool and re-pin your connectors before trying to locate bad components on your boards–I don’t know how many times I’ve read “It ended up being a connector issue” in Bally/Stern repair threads).

To finish the installation, the board needs to be attached to the switched illumination bus (found at one of the controlled lamps sockets on the swing-out wooden back board).  All of the aftermarket replacement solutions discussed above need this modification for proper operation.  The Siegecraft kit needs each of the mini-boards to be connected to the bus, resulting in a three wire menagerie running to the backboard.  The Alltek and the Pinball Electronics boards have built-in terminals ready for the user to tap into.  In the case of the Pinball Electronics board I built, a four-terminal Molex plug can be used to attach the wire to the board, as four 0.1 male pins, in parallel, have been integrated into the design of the board.  This provides an overall cleaner look using parts correct to the period, and appearing less “hack”-like.

Some collectors like the having original boards in their machines for the purposes of keeping it “all original”.  I’m not one of those people.  With the number of reproduction parts available for the Bally/Stern games these days, keeping your game looking flawless AND “all original” is nearly impossible.  If the reproduction works, I’ll use it.  In eighteen short months, Pinball Electronics has offered a handful of reproduction boards such as a universal Bally/Stern MPU, the (n)ever-popular Bally/Stern rectifier board and, of course, this lamp driver.  It seems that Andrew is just getting started, as I asked what new projects were on the horizon:

“Ongoing current projects include the Bally -50 sound board and a Stern High Voltage DMD Power Supply.  And I have just begun working on a reproduction Stern SB-300 sound board. I plan on tackling anything that will make sense to assemble, and has a demand for aftermarket replacements in the community.”

The Pinball Electronics lamp board is a quality product at a fantastic price point given the other options available on the market.  If you want to add LEDs to your Bally/Stern game, the board offers a sleek look with the LED option built right in at a price point that can’t be beat.  If you don’t mind a little manual soldering labour and assemble it yourself, it offers a value that can’t be matched.

FURTHER READING:

Pinball Electronics
http://nvram.weebly.com/

Pinside – New Repro Bally/Stern Lamp Driver Board with LED Support
https://pinside.com/pinball/forum/topic/new-repro-bally-stern-lamp-driver-board-with-led-support

Vid’s Review – Classic Bally/Stern LED Adapter Kit
https://pinside.com/pinball/forum/topic/classic-ballystern-led-adapter-kit-review


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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.