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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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NEWS: Coming up…PINFEST 2014, May 2-3, 2014

This year, I will be attending the Allentown Pinball Festival, affectionately known to Northeasterners as PINFEST, which will be held on May 2-3, 2014 at the Allentown Fairgrounds in, you guessed it, Allentown, PA.

 This will be my second year in a row attending. Last year it was part of a larger family road-trip with my wife and toddler, and I attended for the Saturday only. My wife dropped me off at the front doors when they opened, and I didn’t see her or the kid again until late afternoon when the doors closed and the unsold machines were being hauled out of the free play area. I think she went shoe shopping. Who cares. I was in glorious heaven for those few hours. A couple hundred games, tons of vendors, plenty of people with a common interest all packed into a musty display hall. I bypassed the latest offerings from Stern, the Wizard of Oz early production prototype and an Addams Family and went straight to the games that I went there to play. Glorious B-, C-, and D-list games that I had never played before! Skateball! Swords of Fury! Bone Busters! Fire! Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Ball! Three OTHER copies of Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Ball! (Seriously) Some I wanted to own! Others I never, ever wanted to play again! But I loved every minute of it. Pinball shows like this don’t exist where I’m from. Hell, location games don’t exist where I’m from, either. The pinhead friends I have only have high value titles and the newest releases that I’m “forced” to play when I visit their places. If nothing else, Pinfest gave me an appreciation for the games residing in the lower quarter of the Pinside rankings.

(As an aside, I realize that my unbridled enthusiasm for such games is based on the fact that I got to play them a handful of times before walking away from them…it would be a very different story if I were forced to buy a Bugs Bunny machine to put in my own collection…if that were the case, I would be less ecstatic than that previous paragraph would lead you to believe.)

This year, it all changes. I have exchanged the wife and child in favour of real life pinball enthusiasts! Sure, it was fun exploring the bustling metropolis of greater Allentown with my wife, but this will be a different kid of fun. Beer drinking (probably to excess), pinball playing in the hotel rooms, cigar smoking, cursing, and shooting the breeze about missed pinball opportunities and future plans.

I would love for the Allentown show to have speakers or notable attendees (pin designers, artists, etc.) like the Chicago Expo or the Texas Pinball Festival. The closest thing Pinfest gets is Todd Tuckey from TNT Amusements. But I have a feeling that “celebrity” guests would take away from the grassroots feel of the show. There is a definite focus on playing and exchanging pinball machines at this show. Its just a bunch of guys and girls getting together in a working class town to play some big time pinball. Pinfest’s charm is in the unpretentious “olde tyme” county fair feel it captures, complete with farmers market across the road and parking lot swap meet out back. (Speaking of the farmer’s market, I will be eating multiple buffalo chicken pretzel wraps served by genuine Amish girls at the market. Pinfest or not, if you happen to be in Allentown, and the fairgrounds market is open, you must stop and consume mass quantities of these pretzel wraps.)

I am not set on bringing a game home, or buying for the sake of buying. However, I feel the itch…there is going to be a Williams/Bally System 11 game with my name on it. I have front runners and hopes of what I’d like it to be, but I have nothing arranged or written in stone. I already have the majority of my grail games (ie. the EXPENSIVE ones, TAF, CFTBL, etc.) in my collection already…its time to add a title (or two) that is under appreciated and overlooked. What better place to do it than at the Allentown Pinfest…where working-class C-list games are king and four copies of Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Ball on the free play floor is the norm!

Further Reading:

Pinfest 2014 – Official Site
Pittsburgh Tendo Review – Allentown Fairgrounds Farmer’s Market

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FEATURED GAME: Bally SPECTRUM

If you ever wanted the excitement of the code-breaking board game Mastermind in a pinball cabinet, and who hasn’t, Spectrum is the game for you.

This classic Bally from August 1982 has striking art from Margaret Hudson, whose work I really don’t much care for overall, but she does a magnificent job here. Besides the art, it’s what the machine lacks that stands out the most–it doesn’t have a shooter lane or outlanes. The ball launches via the right flipper, a modification so confusing that the Squak & Talk voice in the game instructs you how to launch your ball (using valuable speech memory). Failing that, the game just gets tired of waiting and auto launches the ball after a set period of inactivity. Oh, and there are no slingshot kickers either. Designer Claude Fernandez really tried to break the mould with this one.

The game is difficult. Really difficult. Not only do you have to accustom yourself with the drastic changes in the machine, you’re aim has to be dead on–game progression and scoring is determined by hitting saucers followed by knocking down complete banks of targets and completely avoiding the other banks. Kind of like a more confusing Volley EM. The rules are so confusing, in fact, let’s just let Todd Tuckey of TNT Amusements describe them…

I’m really drawn to the way that locking a ball immediately kicks a different ball out of a saucer to the flipper. As Tuckey explains, the inside of the game is packed with boards and extra relays to control nearly 80 playfield insert lamps (!) as well as flashing GI and backbox lamps.

Estimates have less than 1,000 of these games made, and nearly half of them when straight to the junkyard. I think a game like this was too radically different to catch on with casual players. Imagine a cowboy in a shitkicker bar who honed his skills playing the more straight forward and understandably themed Eight Ball Deluxe trying to figure out how to play a Spectrum. I see it as one of those early-80s pinball games that tried too hard to harness the complexity of a video game, which were dominating at the arcades at the time. It would be a great game to have in a large collection…as it would be difficult to master, and it would definitely stand out as a unique oddity. On top of that, it would be pretty to look at. But with a very small number surviving, you’ll need a little luck and great timing to find one.

Further Reading:

Spectrum Rulesheet – Pinball.org
Bally Spectrum – IPDB
Mastermind (board game) – Wikipedia

 


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PEOPLE: The Cult of Clay Harrell

I’ll start with a bold statement. Nobody has done more for the online pinball community than Clay Harrell. He, along with Lloyd the Goose, are probably the two biggest “Internet Celebrities” this community has produced (granted, both took very different routes to achieve such “status”).

An I.T. guy turned pinball repairman from Michigan, Harrell’s “fame” for many was solidified two ways: through his pin repair DVDs and online repair guides. Harrell recorded the DVD series, entitled “This Old Pinball”, under the pseudonym of “Shaggy”, a takeoff of Pinball Hall of Fame operator Tim Arnold’s appearance and mannerisms. Shot with your everyday handheld camera in the mid-2000s, the production is a cross between a how-to video and a cable access comedy show. Harrell is normally the foil to his wisecracking behind-the-camera sidekick Norm (another pin “celebrity” working under the cover of a pseudonym) and together they tackle the repair of such platforms as WPC, System 11 and a two-part volume dedicated to the ever troublesome Gottlieb System80. The price of the DVDs is nominal and they are all still available, with proceeds going to the not-for-profit Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. The repair guides, on the other hand, are a bit more elusive. At one point in the mid-to-late-2000s, these guides were available from Harrell’s website at no charge and collectively became the holy bible to the religion of fix-it-yourself pinball ownership. Have a problem with WPC general illumination lighting? Scroll down to the “When Things Don’t Work” section of the WPC guide and let the troubleshooting begin. The user-friendly guides have since been removed, some say due to a squabble about authorship, but if you dig hard enough on the ‘net or ask the right people, you’ll be able to find a copy. And you should have a copy. (Taking nothing away from PinWiki, they have devised an equally wonderful and helpful repair guide tool to keep your machine in working order.)

One cannot overlook Clay’s This Old Pinball podcast either, as it was a watershed online radio show that paved the way for all of the pinball podcasts that exist today. Clay was able to interview every influential pinball designer, artist and programmer on his show (with the notable exception of Popadiuk and Youssi). The recording of the show is 100% DIY (just like the TopCast videos) and unfortunately Harrell’s questions are fairly pedestrian and roll out as a mundane rundown of all the games to which the interviewee has been credited. The beauty of the interviews, however, occur when the questions are unscripted and the interviewee leads Harrell off the garden path to reveal tidbits and insider stories about working in pinball during their given era. Python Anghelo famously led Harrell off the aforementioned garden path, through a swamp, into a forest and off the edge of a cliff in his 90-minute interview/rant that trumped anything else Harrell had recorded or would record in the entire TopCast series. As the recordings came to a close in 2010, Harrell and his skeleton crew had hit their stride on the production end, and his three-part interview with Pat Lawlor stands as the most polished and organized of the bunch.

Harrell is also the Pinball Ninja. A pay-to-read site, Harrell charges $15USD for access to his WordPress “webzine” that chronicles his pin repair house calls across Michigan. Pinball Ninja takes the best of what Harrell has been successful with in the past and creates something new with plenty of substance. Whereas the pin repair guides were general outlines for fixing specific machine platforms (Sys11, WPC, etc.), the site takes a more This Old Pinball approach, looking at a specific machine and using it as a repair test case. Some of these repair candidates are projects located in Harrell’s shop, but most often they are in a client’s home or out on location. Each entry looks at one specific machine and what ails it. As of writing, Harrell has topped 800 fixes, and are a part of nearly 900 overall total entries. All are written with Harrell’s signature panache (often tongue-in-cheek and with a hefty dose of sarcasm) and are accompanied by plenty of photos and a summary video of the actual troubleshooting/repair. In the earlier days of the webzine, Harrell tried to keep his position as creator of the site under wraps as entries were written by an “anonymous pinball ninja”–it was the worst kept secret in pinball. He now uses the moniker in title only, rather than a clandestine pseudonym. I’m a paying customer, and it’s downright fascinating watching him whisper his way through a fix in someone’s Michigan basement. (Make sure to keep your eyes peeled on Pinside, as Harrell regularly surfaces to announce a flash sale for Ninja membership, normally around major holidays, where he drops the price from $15USD to $10USD.)

For all the good he has done for the community, Harrell does have his detractors. His online presence comes off as very brash and sarcastic, and its easy to see that he could rub some the wrong way. A bit of muck raking appeared on rec.games.pinball in February of 2010, chronicling the messy fallout between Harrell and Jim Schelburg of the Pingame Journal (amongst other unsavoury tidbits). There was a rumoured falling out between Harrell and Arnold along the way as well . Not much more to say here other than there are bound to be personality clashes within such a tight-knit niche hobby such as this.


Harrell’s latest venture is the (partly) Kickstarter funded Ann Arbor Pinball Museum. Harrell closed his club in nearby Novi and moved the pins to an old VFW hall giving them a permanent home while maintaining a “club-like” environment. The Kickstarter campaign’s goal was $5000USD. It was easily achieved and ended up raising over $10,000USD for roofing and other facility costs. Again, the project had its nay-sayers, as Clay had been unable to keep the now-defunct Tilt Town afloat, and if I’m not mistaken he was a part of another failed pinball venue in Michigan as well. With the Ann Arbor project funded, Clay now prepares for the official opening show at the VFW Pinball/Vintage Flipper World site on May 16-18, 2014. The venue is not open year round, but rather follows a PAPA model where the public is welcome about four times a year–tickets must be purchased in advance and are limited in quantity. With his years of experience behind him, it sounds like Clay has it all figured out.

Love him or loathe him, Clay Harrell has certainly given his all to an online community that seems to be growing daily. To many he’s just a name from a forgotten time when a Twilight Zone could be bought for $2000, but when examining the scope of what he has offered to this relatively small hobbyist community, his contributions are almost immeasurable.

 

Further Reading/Listening:

Former home of the repair guides, current home of the TOP DVDs – http://www.pinrepair.com
TOPcast – This Old Pinball’s Online Podcast – http://www.pinrepair.com/topcast/past.php
Pinside – Building a Better Pinball Show(Ann Arbor, MI model)
rec.games.pinball – The REAL Clay Harrell (Beware: Long and obscene)
Vintage Flipper World – The Ann Arbor Pinball Museum
Concentrate – He Sure Displays a Mean Pinball
Email Clay at cfh@provide.net to arrange paid access to http://www.pinballninja.com

 


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MODS: “Fireproofing” Pin*Bot and other early System 11 games

Thought I would share my well documented, yet under utilized fix for early Williams System 11 games up to and including Fire! Oh, the irony…they fixed this design flaw–one that would literally start a fire in the backbox–after the release of the game Fire!  A colleague of mine on Pinball Revolution, Grauwulf, actually had some crispy wires occur while playing a friend’s Pin*Bot due to this design flaw–he posted about it here and followed up with photos of the deep fried wire hereThat scenario should be more than enough reason to perform this relatively quick mod/fix.

I performed this fix on my Pin*Bot…which was in a few different collector’s hands before I got it last year at about this time (a different P*B than the one that caught on fire above).  The first thing I did was unplugged the the damn machine…no need to tempt fate.

Locate the two bridge rectifiers mounted to the inside of the backbox. Hard to miss.  Below are the innards of my Pin*Bot, but most games from this era will be the same. Bridges will be on the lower right hand side.

00-pinbot1
I’ll be putting fuses in line with the positive 18 and 25 volt power flow, so if the bridges short or anything else funky happens with the transformer, the fuse will blow and the machine won’t. The process is the same for each bridge.

Bridge will have four leads. One lead will lay side to side, the other three will be standing up and down. We are NOT looking to modify the one that lays on its side (and has two wires attached), NOR are we looking at the one that sits diagonally across from it. We need one of the remaining two. In Pin*Bot’s case here, they sport matching red wires on the top BR, and matching blue wires on the bottom one. Clay’s guide states that it doesn’t matter which of these two wires the fuse is put in line with as both are “AC” and run in line with each other. I chose the one at the top right terminal for both bridges.

00-pinbot2

Snip the existing selected wire leaving enough room for both wires to reach the mounted fuse block. Affix a connector on each end of the snip. Mount a single fuse block near the rectifier being careful not to short it on any other nearby hardware. I pre-sunk a hole through the metal backbox plate with my cordless drill to make the mounting process easier…some may choose to mount them to the side of the backbox (in this case, new wire will have to be run for length). The connectors slide onto each lead of the fuse block. Williams chose to solder their slide connectors to the BR, so I did the same on the fuse block posts. Insert an 8AMP slow blow fuse. Check for continuity. Repeat process for the other BR.

Simple as that. Final product should look something like this:

00-pinbot3

It’s as simple as that…a sub-$5 fix/mod that could save you an insurance claim.

Further Reading:
Flipperwinkel – Part One of Clay’s guide that covers this fix (Jump to Section 2a)
Purcellville Pinball – Adding Fuses to System 11 games Fire! and before


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NEWS: KISS Alive! In pinball form…

When Stern released AC/DC, I was bummed that it wasn’t a KISS machine. The band absolutely lends itself to a Stern-produced Ritchie-designed pinball. The old Bally KISS was a smashing success (17,000 units), granted it was released at the pinnacle of both KISS and pinball’s popularity. That KISS game plays like an absolute bag of garbage, but the art package on it is killer.

So here we are in 2014, and we now have another KISS “machine” that doesn’t play AT ALL, and again, the art package is killer. So killer, in fact, that I would argue the art on this Zidware/Popadiuk KISS mock-up blows away any art on a pinball machine released in the past twenty years.

I’m a pretty big fan of the band. I’m amazed that they still remain somewhat culturally relevant. Like AC/DC and the Stones, its all in the marketing of the name. In my area, KISS has filled full-size arenas and outdoor parks four the last five years in a row. It is downright difficult to get a good seat at a reasonable price. They are ironically popular with the hipster crowd, which boggles my mind as hipster morals run almost counter to the Gene Simmons capitalist model. But, for the most part, it’s the die-hard fans that grew up with the band that keep their pockets lined. Members of the KISS Army (myself included) have grown up and now have disposable income to spend on ultimate backstage pass experiences and all the crap with a KISS logo on it. If all goes well, a KISS pinball machine may be one of those pieces of crap!

So the story goes: Popadiuk and a friend played in a KISS cover band in their younger days, and both enjoyed pinball so much that they vowed to someday make a KISS pin themselves. Despite many irons in the fire already (RAZA, Magic Girl, Alice in Wonderland) and with Popadiuk’s friend terminally ill, he decided to mock up a non-working foamcore model with a complete art package that he unveiled at the Midwest Gaming Classic in Wisconsin a week ago. The game has no ramps and is pretty simplistic in its layout, which lead many to believe that this the first step in a much larger journey. It is unclear if the mock up was built to honour an obligation to a sick friend, to take to Gene Simmons for a blessing to build on a larger scale, or both.

Any negotiations with Simmons will be an uphill battle. He ain’t in it for the fine art package or build quality–he’s only interested in bottom line profit. Nate Shivers from Coast2Coast Pinball mentioned that a guitar company he worked for was in negotiations with Simmons to build a replica of his signature bass guitar, but they quickly deteriorated as it was clear Simmons was solely a profit monger and thus difficult to work with. This is Simmons’ M.O., and he’s very candid about it. I think if I busted my ass for forty years wearing full face makeup and ten-inch platform boots maybe I’d just want the payday, too.

If this machine is going to be produced, it really needs to be Stern at the helm, not a small scale, quality driven, boutique manufacturer like Zidware. Stern is better suited to build a KISS machine…they have an entire department dedicated to hammering out the profit margins with the KISS marketing juggernaut. Stern also has a proven track record with other successful music themed pins under their belt. Zidware has…well…cool plans to build three different machines and a hunk of foam that looks really cool with some KISS art pasted to it. And if Stern makes it, we will be able to bring the machine home within the year, and not have to wait three just to see sketches of the backbox side art.

In the end, I really hope Popadiuk finds a way to make this happen as the machine is absolutely breathtaking.  I would be the first in line shaking my fistful of money a la the Fry “Shut up and take my money” meme.  I guess Uncle Gene will be happy as long as the checks don’t bounce, but would the price be too high for Popadiuk to build on a boutique budget?

Further Reading/Listening:
Coast2Coast Pinball – Episode 76 “Midwest Gaming Classic Day 1 or Wisconsin Gets Spooky”
Pinside – JPOP’s KISS prototype game at MGC
Pinball Revolution – Kiss pinball by Zidware!


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MODS: An Evening with Uncle Lester

Question: What is the first thing someone does after they purchase an Addams Family?
Answer:  Weep, as the price paid for it was probably astronomical.  Then, if the game doesn’t already have one, install Uncle Lester.

I’m guilty of immediately putting in an Uncle Lester as well.  My TAF arrived last year at this time, fresh off of a container from Italy, and I had ol’ Lester pre-purchased ready for its arrival.  I ask myself in retrospect, why was I so keen on getting him in?  Mostly, it’s just accepted practice.  A TAF without a Lester in a private collection, in my experience, is a rare occurrence indeed.  Also, it’s pretty unobtrusive and easy to install.  But look at it.  Honestly, it’s very ugly.  And it doesn’t look like Fester/Christopher Lloyd at all, but rather an emaciated nun with a ball-gag in her mouth.   The lack of likeness, in all likeliness, has something to do with skirting copyright…much like the Lester name change.  The arms of the figure shoot out at 90-degrees, not resting upon the arms of the electric chair as it appears they are designed to.  Further, Lester isn’t “plugged into” anything—no headpiece to give him a jolt or arm straps to “secure” him in (the scene in the film where Fester IS in the chair both mentioned props are used).

Food for thought–of the five completely restored and overhauled TAFs that Christopher Hutchins of High End Pins has posted for public viewing on his site, only one has the Lester mod included in the final restored product.  That doesn’t mean that the other four owners won’t eventually add them to their beautifully restored machines, but it speaks volumes as to the opinion of the mod to a professional like Hutchins (and the folks with money who pay Hutchins to restore their machines).  It could have something to do with restoring the machine back to “showroom original”—and Lester is obviously not stock.  But that chair looks annoyingly empty without SOMETHING sitting in it!

Granted, construction and wiring of the Lester mod, overall, is solid, and installation is a breeze.  I’ve never had a problem with the figure coming loose from the chair even with continuous playfield raising and lowering (thanks to a malfunctioning “Thing Flips” 555 socket and a weak upper right flipper), nor in a bumpy move from my old house to my new one. 

But for all its durability, this is a mod that sits front and centre, inches from the flippers and it’s hard to ignore.  So the question becomes what looks worse—an empty electric chair or a garish looking Lester? The mod itself has been through a few incarnations and available from a few sources over the years.  Currently, Lester is available direct from Pinball Pro for $89.95USD or through their eBay store (LINK) for $99.95USD+$8.99USD shipping within the US (international around $20US shipping).  I say this with no real experience in manufacturing or economies of scale, but that strikes me as a bit pricy.  But obviously it’s a price people have gladly paid to fill their electric chair.

  Other options appear to be limited.  Another “Fester” was available from a seller in Spain–beautifully sculpted after the image of Fester on the backglass.  I have not seen this one in person, so I can’t speak to the quality of the mod, but it looks to be quite impressive.  As of writing, this new Fester cannot be located on eBay.  Either production has stopped, or the mod is so massively popular and intricate to make that they can’t keep them in stock.  The same seller also had a polar bear head that was sculpted after the polar bear on the playfield to mount above the Bear Kick ramp (don’t get me started on how absurd the game looks with a live, in-stride polar bear mounted above the ramp) and a mini-graveyard to mount near the pops (again, the absurdity of the other “mossy graveyard” mod also boggles my mind).  My recollection is fuzzy, but I don’t think there were any lit or moving parts on this version of Fester—it was a static figure that sat in the electric chair…and the price was around $230USD+$15USD worldwide shipping.  I guess if they are charging $110 for an ugly Lester, $250 for an intricately crafted one isn’t outrageous.  One can also surmise that this version is also unlicensed, infringing on the copyright of Paramount’s Fester character and the John Youssi backglass art.

The licencing problems with TAF are well documented.  The estate of Raul Julia (Gomez Addams) has prevented anything with Julia’s image from being reproduced for parts or in digital form from the moment Williams lost the production licence/Julia passed away.  Can we assume that a company with influence, say, Planetary Pinball Supply, would be able to navigate the rocky terrain that is licensing acquisition to get a decent licenced version of Fester produced?  There would be a market for it and I don’t think Julia’s estate would have to be involved.  Without a doubt, TAF is the most modded classic era machine out there, behind only Twilight Zone.  With over 21,000 machines produced and a burning desire from collectors to have the newest mods in their machines, it would be a home run.  I’m sure it would be a pricy venture, and obviously the cost would be passed onto the consumer…but if it fell into the $100-$200 range and was of good quality, it would sell, no question.

Until such a time, we all have to stand pat with old Uncle Lester or wait until his Spanish counterpart (Tío Lester?)  becomes readily available again AND we get comfortable enough blowing another $200+ on a mod most of us have probably purchased a version of already.

Further Reading:
Pinside – SEEN THE NEW UNCLE FESTER MOD…??
Pinball Revolution – Wong168 Installs TAF Uncle Lester Light Up Mod