CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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NEWS: Wheel of Fortune Code Update (kind of)

Wheel of Fortune was one of those games that got lost in the shuffle during the dawn of a challenging period for Stern, who was busy trying to stay afloat under the weight and pressure of being the only pinball manufacturer in town. The stars kind of aligned for Wheel of Fortune’s misfortune: unappealing theme, experimental gameplay, off-putting playfield bobbleheads and the fact that it was Dennis Nordman’s swan song with Stern. The game has its fans, but it was a flop when it was new and it has not fared well in the secondary market either–being relegated to D-Lists and the third page (currently #212) of the Pinside Top 100. It is also one of those games to famously bear the heavy cross of “unfinished code”, which seems to bother the community to no end.

Unfinished code is nothing new. Especially for Stern. They only recently, after an ugly organized uprising by the community, became more adept at releasing code updates in a more timely fashion. We can thank the especially weak code Metallica code (and Stern’s disinclination to update it for more than a year) for the community backlash to rear its head and make Stern revisit its code update policy. However, Wheel of Fortune stumbled out of the gate in October of 2007, selling very few units, so there was no incentive for the company to go back and round out the rules of the game. Sometime after Wheel rolled off of the assembly line and into the discount bin, Stern decided to bury the game entirely, including burying designer Dennis Nordman, not inviting him back to work on future releases. It was almost as if they were just trying to get the game off of the books entirely. It is no surprise the troubled game didn’t get its due in the programming department.

The game is totally playable without the completed code, and, surprisingly, has a deeper and more entertaining ruleset than other Stern games of the period (IJ4, CSI, 24). It is missing a wizard mode and various animations/callouts, but on a whole, the game is fun if you can get past the grandmotherly theme. It had long been rumoured that programmer Keith Johnson did further work on the code during his time with Stern, and thanks to further processing within the rumour mill, some lay claim that Johnson had in fact completed the code.

That brings us to a For Sale thread that appeared on Pinside yesterday, advertising a $4500USD Wheel of Fortune with low plays and something interesting going on with its code. Seller, Pinside user devlman, touted in the original ad:

“It also has v6.02 software…I don’t know the origin of this but have never seen it before. From looking at it in the editor software it has some additional messages and another feature adjustment mode as compared to the latest public Stern release (5.xx).”

Devlman stated the game came with this code, and the previous seller told him not to share the code publicly, which he complied with. People were interested–even if this 6.02 code contained only minor fixes or additions it would still breathe new life into a long ignored game. I’m sure Devlman received more than a few private messages asking to share the code even though he stated outright that he would not right in the original for sale thread. Nearly 24 hours after the post apepared, and after much discussion of where the code originated, original Wheel of Fortune programmer Keith Johnson (Pinside ID “pinball_keefer”) joined the discussion to set things straight:

“I wasn’t going to say anything but I’ve been bugged about this a little bit so here’s what the deal is.

I released a version of software, “6.00I” (for IFPA, I don’t remember what tournament it was for) or some such, that basically added some competition mode stuff (derandomized wild card and big spin). Those are the ONLY changes from 5.00 which is the last public release I did while at Stern. 6.00I was circulated a fair amount amongst tournament types, mostly those running tournaments. (I didn’t/don’t care.)

While doing crapwork on other games (like IJ4 and CSI) I had time to add some of the stuff I wanted to on WOF. Many bugs got fixed. Probably more speech. I gave a test version to 1 person that I trust unconditionally. I don’t remember what version I called it, but I don’t think it was 6.02. I don’t remember for sure, though. I’m not sure if he still has his WOF or not, but I doubt it’s this game.

As someone stated, the main gameplay change that is noticeable is that there are “mode goals.” The goal is simply to score x points before time runs out. If you get the goal, you won, great. The next mode, the goal would be higher. If you didn’t win, oh well, the next mode, the goal would be lower. Also, you could replay the mode you failed, at 2x points. If you failed the same mode twice, you could play it a 3rd time for 3x points. If you failed 3 times, the game gave up. Oh, also for each mode you won, you got a “winnings x” for that ball’s bonus.

IIRC there’s no logic for completing the wheel yet, but the reward was going to be something like 10M for each mode won on try #1, 5M for each on try #2, 2.5M for each on try #3, and 1M for failed modes. If by some unfathomable stroke of luck you completed every mode on the first try, you’d get a bonus to round up the total to 100M.

And that’s pretty much it. Oh yeah, puzzle solutions in attract mode, too. No one other than my tester and myself had seen the code until (I think) expo 2010. Trent wanted 6.0 for the expo tourney. For some unknown reason, I was contacted by Stern asking where 6.0 code was, 2 years after I had been laid off and several months after I had been left out to dry on a possible rehire. I said something to the effect of I have [no fucking idea], look on my computer. I guess instead of finding the 6.00I version that had been around for a couple of years, they decided to compile whatever I had done and left sitting on my computer (since I wasn’t allowed to check in any changes after getting the boot) and release that.

So, the existence of 6.02 is solely due to Stern, and not due to me. I still do not have a copy of 6.02; my game runs 5.00. I have no way of making or creating any version of WOF. Stern released it to Trent, and whatever happened after that is between Stern and everyone else, not me. Other than having done the work on it while I was still there, I have absolutely no connection to the released image of 6.02.

If anyone cares, no, [I don’t give a fuck] if 6.02 gets passed around or not. Maybe Stern does and maybe they don’t; you’d have to ask them.”

So the code in devlman’s game amounts to a unreleased version with a few extra features for a game long maligned for being incomplete. It is a very interesting revelation, even if the update doesn’t amount to very much in the grand scheme of things, nor does it fix some of the more glaring omissions from the 5.XX code. It is amazing that something like this exists in a community where nearly everyone is connected to someone in the industry, and nobody can keep their mouth shut (being in such a tight knit community is a blessing and a curse all at the same time). So I suppose the rumour can be put to bed: Keith Johnson didn’t complete the Wheel of Fortune code, but he did work on an updated version while he was at Stern. Short of someone going back and rewriting the code (a la Data East Star Wars), this will have to give Wheel owners hope for the time being. Hopefully this talk of updated WoF code forces Stern’s hand, and, as a gesture of good will and new-found dedication to code updates, they will release this in some official capacity through their website. It may not be much, but it will be an olive branch. Even if that olive branch still doesn’t have a wizard mode.

Further Reading:

Pinside – FS: HUO WOF 550 Plays Mint Condition (quotes above taken from this page)
Pinball News – Wheel of Fortune Review
Pinside – Tell Me About Wheel of Fortune
Stern Pinball – Wheel of Fortune (Check here for future code updates!  Ha!)

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NEWS: Stern’s “Custom Dirty Donny Premium Edition” Metallica

I thought the idea of double dipping was outrageous when a studio revisited the DVD release of one of their films I had already purchased, and re-released it in an “Ultimate Edition” DVD package, jammed with new extra features, commentaries and bonus materials. And then Blu-Rays came along and then I had to buy them all a third time. I guess that’s a triple dip, technically. Regardless, this sort of double dipping is now a trend in pinball. That five grand pinball machine you bought two years ago? Yeah, if you are any sort of fan you are going to have to buy this spruced up edition with new art or different coloured trim. Or in the case of Stern’s Metallica, a set of custom painted plastic playfield toys…and not much else.

The announcement rolled out today on Stern’s Facebook page that there would be a “limited number” of what Stern calls a “Custom Dirty Donny Premium Edition”. From the mock-up, it looks like the buyer will get a signed Donny Premium translite, along with a series of hand-painted, hand-signed playfield plastic toys: the snake, the crosses, the hammer, and, of course, the Sparky bobblehead. I suppose this was a logical move–folks have been custom paining their Sparky toys since the release of the game and some even “contracted” Donny to do the painting. This follows a much larger trend started by Jersey Jack Pinball who announced the release of a Ruby Red Wizard of Oz machine, a year or so after the initial release of the game but not before all of the original orders for the game were fulfilled. Stern followed this trend with the “success” of the Luci edition of AC/DC, which reignited interest in the game by removing photos of old dudes and adding a drawing of devil woman with big “horns”. If there is any surprise here, it is that the Metallica translite and side art remains unchanged from the regular run of premium editions. You’d think Stern/Donny would go the extra mile to make this game stand apart from all the rest by changing up the art package a bit (I think a reason does exist for not changing the art, and I’ll discuss it below). I’ll admit, when I first got wind of the announcement, my focus was immediately on the backglass and cabinet art…to see if a cartoon woman with enormous breasts was added.

Early reports of price have the MSRP north of $8000USD. Yikes. Seeing as you could potentially sniff out a new in box Premium for around $6500USD, and probably a bit less on the HUO secondary market, I’m not seeing $1500+ of value added material in this special edition machine. Sure it’s cool and one-of-a-kind, but $8000+ is a bit rich for some painted toys.

Stern is inheriting virtually no extra cost or licencing anxiety here: as stated above there is no commitment or cost to producing/printing a new cabinet art package, and their relationship with Donny is on very good terms (the Facebook page showed Donny and Uncle Gary out for a power lunch or something a few months back, and Donny has also designed Stern swag that they sell in their online store). Even if they only sell twenty of these editions, its not like they have sunk any money into it. Worst case scenario: they ship twenty sets of toys to Donny, he paints them and signs them, ships them back and they slap them onto a Premium sitting in their warehouse and write “Custom Dirty Donny” on the outside of the box and ship it to the poor sap who just had to have the deluxe version.

I’m no business dude, but in my humble opinion, it would have been in Stern’s best financial interest to individually sell custom painted Donny figures and market them as the “ultimate customization mods”…instead of selling them as a part of an entire machine. Metallica owners would eat them up by the spoonful and demand more. Especially if you were shipped a random Donny customization–each piece with its own unique colour and detail–it would drive collectors nutty and I guarantee they would buy not only one of each custom painted toy but MULTIPLES of the SAME toy. Further, it would also inspire trading of these pieces within the community. Sort of like Dunny Bunnies or Simpsons Lego for pinball machines. You could have ultra-rare “chase” paintjobs, or hell, don’t make it random at all and just charge more money for the most popular or rarest designs. And owners of ALL Metallica machines, Pros, Premiums and Limited Editions, could participate and mod out their machine with a unique piece of Donny designed memorabilia. I’m not sure how busy of a guy Donny is, but it seems like this idea is right up his alley. Think of how much money they could charge for each piece of custom painted plastic. Compare that to the limited number of Custom Donny machines Stern thinks they are going to sell.  It may be an idea that opens up a disastrous financial wormhole for the future of pinball, but its yours for free Stern. Use it wisely.

Will there be buyers for this Custom Donny edition? Sure. There are always people that absolutely must have the scarce, limited or hard to come by. Will there be a mass dumping of regular edition Pros and Premiums by collectors in order to upgrade to this custom edition? Probably not. But be on the lookout for more of this Jersey Jack model of “revisiting games” late into production in the near future…I wonder what the Special Edition Premium version of Star Trek is going to look like…?


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MODS: That Sinking Feeling– Earthshaker’s Sinking Institute

Here sits the head accountant of Williams, in a small office, just before Christmas of 1988. Sad, threadbare Christmas decorations that were purchased in the late 1960s hang in his office. Gloom surrounds him. He sharpens his pencil and looks over some documents, dreading the time he would have to spend time with his extended family over the holidays. Cousin Al would drink too much and likely go on a tirade fuelled by egg nog and bigotry, his ungrateful children would be disappointed at their large haul of gifts (again), and his mother and wife would fail miserably at trying to hide their distain for one another. His heart sank. If HE wasn’t going to be happy over the Christmas holidays, nobody else would either. He dropped his pencil, grabbed the closest bill of materials report and picked up a red felt-tipped pen. “This oughta do it,” he whispered to himself as a twisted smile crept across his lips. He slowly struck out a line reading “Sinking ES Institute” on the Earthshaker bill of materials, and beside it wrote in big letters “OVER BUDGET – REMOVE IMMEDIATELY”. He let the pen drop from his hands and pressed a red button on an intercom. Softly, he said to his secretary, “Janet, can you please come in here and run a very important document down to Mr. Lawlor and his team?” The secretary enters the office, and the accountant extends the document across the desk. The secretary attempts to take the document, but the accountant’s grip will not relinquish. Their eyes meet. “Oh, and Janet,” the accountant whispers almost incoherently, “Tell Pat to have a Merry Christmas…” He lets go of the document and the secretary slowly backs out of the office. The melancholy account leans back in his chair, holds his head in his hands and begins to weep.

That’s how I imagine it happening, but it was probably a more subtle process. Regardless of how it happened, it did happen. Late in the production of Williams Earthshaker in early 1989, due to budget constraints, a device that would make the Earthshaker Institute sink into the playfield was removed from the bill of materials. About 200 units made it to market with the sinking feature, many of them sample games. The removal was decided so late into production that the playfield was still cut and drilled to include the feature and the programming still contained code to make the device work properly. This was the perfect toy to include in the earthquake-themed game, but was probably low on the list of importance given the other toys included–the California-Nevada fault line which directly impacts gameplay by diverting balls, and the almost mandatory (in an earthquake game, anyhow) shaker motor. Lawlor’s games always seem packed with toys and expensive hardware, Roadshow being the ultimate example of this. I think if Earthshaker would have been released after Funhouse and Addams Family, there would be absolutely no question that the sinking institute would have been left in, as Williams pretty much let Lawlor go to town after having these back-to-back grand slam successes. But Earthshaker was Mr. Lawlor’s second game after Banzai Run, an expensive game in its own right, and perhaps this reigning in process, in terms of budget was a Williams strategy to keep him in check. The subject of why the sinking institute was cut was brought up on part one of Clay Harrell’s three part interview with Lawlor, but Lawlor heads off in another direction to talk about High Speed and theme selection instead of answering the question as it was asked. As I interpret the answer, the sinking building helped reinforce the overall theme and helped set a specific mood, thus Lawlor saw it as an important element of Earthshaker and it should have been included in the final version.

Time for pingenuity to take over once again. With all the proper holes and programming to make the building sink, dammit if someone didn’t step forward and build a rig similar to the original to make it sink! Al Warner (Pinside ID: awarner) and Mark Davidson from Basement Arcade have become the brain trusts of the Earthshaker Institute. The two had previously formed Pinball Obsession, which had offered the kit, however, that website has since ceased operation and the Earthshaker kit now calls Basement Arcade its home on the web. The project of reintroducing movement to the building has roots all the way back to 2003, and has been engineered to near perfection since. Mr. Davidson was able to create an original rig by setting two Earthshakers side by side–a prototype model with lowering Institute and the more common production version with stationary building. Within a month of starting the project, Mr. Davidson had a sinking institute in his production version that sank much like the original.

The process of installing one of these kits seems simple enough. Remove the stationary building from the playfield and attach it to the rig that is provided. The most delicate part appears to be drilling out two rivets on the original assembly. Using the piggyback connectors supplied, wire the unit up through the power and interconnect boards and attach the connector to the rig itself. Then it is just a matter of reinstalling the new assembly below the playfield. It’s as easy as that really. There has been one slight hiccup: buildings raise in such a way that it will bind on games that have reproduction ramps, resulting in the owner having to notch their repro ramp for the proper clearance. Other than that, Mr. Davidson has done all the hard work for you, and left the end user with a very simple installation process and detailed photographic instructions to help you along the way. I particularly like the fact that piggyback connectors are provided, so those collectors who are not adept at splicing wires or crimping connectors would be able to install this mod with ease (also a plus for lazy modders, I guess). Further, it makes this mod completely reversible with little effort. However, once this mod goes in, it will probably never come out.

I find it incredible that this piece of machinery is made by hand by Mr. Davidson in his free time. Much of this sort of thing is farmed out overseas to minimise cost these days. At $275USD plus shipping, the mod is a pricy one, and all for the up and down movement of a square piece of plastic. Many have balked at the price, and in response, Mr. Warner, on Pinside, outlined all the man-hours and craftsmanship put into making one of these and touted its glowing track record:

“All of the parts are made, one at a time with a C&C. Some individual parts take over an hour each. After you have all the parts you made (at considerable expense), you then have to source motors that will work. You purchase the motors (that probably went up since the last time you made these) and now all you need is wiring harnesses which uses connectors that are not available anywhere so you MAKE YOUR OWN CONNECTORS that allow the unit to be installed without having to splice a single wire. Finally, you assemble it all and put it in a box to sell. Because you don’t have unlimited funds, you can only spend $5000.00 of your own money until you get some more orders or can sell the ones you made. then when you sell them, some people start complaining that “They are too expensive” or “They can make them cheaper”. This goes along until you sell them all and people want them again. Then they complain that they would pay anything for one now and that you should spend your entire life making these things not knowing if you’ll ever sell another. We have lives with Families. We make this stuff for a modest profit and provide something that no one else does. We can’t make them faster, we can only make them well and on our schedule. We’ve had one return in the 10 years we’ve made [Dr. Who] Wobble Heads and ES kits […] Everyone that has them has had no complaints.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Credit Dot write-up without some bad news: the availability is very limited. Mr. Warner revived the idea of putting the kits back into production as recently as one month ago, and Mr. Davidson fulfilled the interest by making five (yes, just five) more kits to satisfy demand. I’m unaware if any of these kits are left for purchase at the current time. It appears from the Pinside conversation that finding and purchasing the motors for the unit is the key to the whole operation (besides the time needed to put the mech together). As much as the quality looks to be top notch on these kits, I’ll mention the Basement Arcade website is ghastly to navigate and not very appealing to the eye. It may turn some away. It is a good thing much of the interest is garnered through Pinside without having to go to the Basement Arcade to get your hands on a kit. There are a large number of DIY instruction pages on the web that show you how to make your own sinking Institute, if you’d rather not spend the money on the professionally made kit.

I’m actually surprised that a larger pinball company has not tried to build their own Institute kit at a lower price point, or even approached Mr. Davidson to make a small quantity to be offered on their conglomerate webstore. The thread I quoted above was started by a Pinside user looking to buy one of the sold out building kits, and it heads off of the garden path rather quickly into a discussion about the perceived high cost of the item. Mr. Warner mentions the Dalek wobblehead kit in the above quote, a project he and Mr. Davidson also worked on which brought motion back to the Dr. Who topper (motion that was also axed before production). It seems a version of their kit was offered by a different company for a lower price than what Pinball Obsession was offering it, but the quality was grossly inferior. Again, I’m shocked that it hasn’t happened with the Earthshaker kit as well, given the cutthroat mentality of some folks in this community. Perhaps it proves that there is still no substitute for quality.

Production of this mod looks to be a labour of love for Mr. Davidson. I’m not saying there is no money to be made here, but any profits to be had are well-deserved, as the time and effort that goes into making them appears to be at a maximum. The mod itself has been through three revisions throughout its existence. Revisions, as I observe them, are a redesign of the arm that raises and lowers the building, a clean up of the wiring/connectors and an overall sprucing up of the fit and finish of the actual unit.

If Earthshaker is a game that will reside in your collection for any length of time, this is the ultimate mod to have. It is a feature that was meant to be there all along, so it is only natural to retro-fit it back into the game. It is a modification that appears to be easily reversible, so one could conceivably remove it to keep the price of their game saleable, however, the feature is much sought after and if left in, would be a key selling point for the game. I personally do not have an Earthshaker, but I do enjoy the game immensely (more so than its disaster brethren, Whirlwind). I would have one, but having limited space in my gameroom and having two of those spaces taken up by Lawlor games already, I’m hesitant to add another. If I did have one, I would probably suck it up and spend the money on this kit. It’s a cool feature that doesn’t have much to do with gameplay, but it was part of the original vision for the game, and that is enough for most collectors to buy in. Here’s hoping production continues at a pace that satisfies demand.

If you are interested in adding your name to the list for an upcoming run of the Earthshaker Sinking Institute Kit, please contact Al Warner via Pinside PM (username “awarner”) or email Mark Davidson at mark[at]basementarcade.com.

Further Reading:

Pinside – Earthshaker Sinking Building
Basement Arcade – Earthshaker Institute Sinking Building Kit
Basement Arcade – Operation Moving EI
Pinball Obsession – Homepage (Inactive)
Pinball Obsession – Earthshaker Kit Manual Version 1 (original)Version 2Version 3 (Current)
KLOV/VAPS – Earthshaker Sinking Building Kit (2011/12)
Instructables – DIY Earthshaker Sinking Institute


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FEATURED GAME: Williams ALGAR

Gorgar was unleashed onto unsuspecting pinball players in December 1979, and talked his way to major success, using all seven of the words in his programmed vocabulary. Trying to expand the family, Williams went for a sequel of sorts, introducing Gorgar’s larger, uglier, mute brother Algar in October 1980. The similarities are difficult to ignore–-the title font, the poorly drawn mythical title character, the “-gar” suffix. Unfortunately for Williams, the no-speech widebody game was met with little interest. Algar was a flop. Steve Ritchie is famously quoted as saying:

“Gor’s brother Al” is what we used to call Algar. The Gar family kind of died after that. I don’t remember [Black Knight] as having anything to do with Algar’s failure. BK was a narrow body and built on a different line than Algar. Algar didn’t earn money. I think Al was just a dud of a game. [Ipdb.org]

Algar reaches “ultra-rare” status with only 349 confirmed units produced. The game appeared at a time when Williams was in transition between System 6 and System 7 operating systems, and exists as a System 6A game. There is only one other machine in the 6A family, Alien Poker, and the system itself rode the fence between the 6 and 7 eras–using a System 6 board set with the System 7 influenced seven-digit displays. As referenced in the above quote, Algar had the dubious honour of being designed and released at the same time as Ritchie’s Black Knight. If operators were buying pinball machines from Williams, chances are, the money was going to the proven earner, Black Knight, and not the chunky Algar. This is only one excuse offered as to the failure of the game. Others can be spotted as well. Operators and players who appreciated Gorgar for its groundbreaking speech capabilities were probably underwhelmed with its “sequel”, which inexplicably contained no speech at all (according to Todd Tuckey of TNT Amusements it was a financial decision, as speech chips were very expensive at the time). In a field where each new game has to offer something bigger and better than the last, especially one linked so explicitly like its predecessor, Algar fails to raise the bar (it actually lowered it). Further, Tony Kraemer, designer of other low production wonders such as Varkon and Transporter: The Rescue, apparently took over the Algar design from Claude Fernandez when he left for Bally. Fernandez’s name was wiped clean from the official historical record, Kreamer gets the only design credit, and in hindsight, that’s not a bad thing for Fernandez given the game’s ultimate failure. Not to be an elitist, but neither Kreamer or Fernandez are a part of the upper echelon of pinball designers, and the disruption of a single vision carried through from design into production did not help Algar to become a success.

Enough excuses for poor “Al”. How does the game play? Well, pretty much like any other Williams game from the era. For a widebody, there is a good amount of side to side movement on the game–it uses its girth well. Four chunky roll-over lanes run across the top of the game to spell KONA, and are centred by a saucer which opens an outlane gate and gives an extra ball when lit. The game features lane changing via the flippers, first introduced earlier in 1980 by Firepower. A cool “River Styx” shot runs behind both sets of drop targets and returns the ball to the flippers via a one-way gate right through the left outlane a la Bally classics of the same period like Embryon and Vector. A third kicker on the right hand side also ramps up the side to side movement of the ball. The most unique feature of the playfield design is “The Chamber”, which houses three captive balls, each in a separate lane that will lock at the top of the lane when hit. Locking each ball within its lane gives big points. Resetting the balls back down to the bottom of the lane to start the process over again is achieved by hitting the upper left saucer. Points can be collected at that saucer as well depending on the number of times all six lower drop targets have been dropped. As a matter of fact, there are lots of points to be collected in the game, and many have to be collected by achieving more than one objective (achieve this, then collect the bonus points over here). All of the objectives are spelled out, in typical Constantino Mitchell fantasy font, on the playfield and plastics.

Sound, like many games of the era, plays like a “Williams Greatest Hits” package. It seems that all of these Williams games sound the same…so you can pick out clips from Solar Fire, Black Knight and Defender amongst the buzzes and bloops in Algar. Solid State sound was still in its infancy here, so I guess it cannot be faulted. Algar is one of those games with a constant drone of sound in the background that speeds up as objectives are achieved and points are scored, which annoys the hell out of many, but it sets a frantic mood as ball times reach epic proportions. The biggest knock on the sound, to beat a dead horse, is that speech was not included.

I mentioned Constantino Mitchell above, and he’s the art guy for many of these early Williams solid state games, and uses a style that can be best described as “child with ballpoint pen accompanied by bold colour choice”. Much of his art, including work on Flash and big brother Gorgar, looks like it was lifted from the margins of lined paper belonging to a 1980s D-student who spent his days doodling fantasy scenes with a Bic instead of paying attention in third period Geography. I guess that was the audience pinball machines were built to attract, so maybe this art was high school-esque by design. Algar looks like a third-string Thundercat with fish scales, and a WWF championship belt wrapped around his waist. Much like Mitchell’s work on Solar Fire, it’s a mishmash of imagery with very little direction or a unifying theme.

Two Algars sold on the Montreal Arcade & Amusement Collectors Association (here and here) within the last couple of years, and I’m fairly sure they were not the same machine. Perhaps Canada got the LION’S share of the 349 games (Algar was half-lion, get it?). Both sold within the $800-$900CAD range. Heck, you get a lot of game for such a reasonable price, especially given its rare status. I got to play Algar at the Vintage Flipper World Showcase last weekend. It was my first chance to play it, and probably one of the few times outside of that venue I will get to. The machine has a commanding presence with its widebody frame and bright orange cabinet, and even though the art is just so-so, it works when you place the machine in the correct time period with other early Solid State offerings (which the VFW does, lining it up in a row with other Williams machines of the era). It is easy to realize why players balked at Algar upon its initial release, however, with a game as rare as this one, you’d be silly not to put a few games on it if you were able to find one.

 


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MODS: Foiled Again! The White Water Topper Reproduction

You could easily file this next twisted tale of never-ending reproduction development in the same category as the Creature from the Black Lagoon speaker panel mod I wrote about earlier in the month. While the definitive Creech speaker panel is slowly making its way into the hands of collectors as you read this, the White Water reproduction topper foil is still surrounded by question marks and disappointment.

An original White Water topper is a sight to behold. I had seen the effect in arcades when I was younger, but I was still blown away when I bought my White Water and fired it up for the first time. To this day I’m still amazed at the ingenuity used to create a feature that was completely divorced from gameplay. It was purely a hook used to snag quarters from across a busy arcade. Like the Addams Family before it, the game title was featured on the topper alone, not on the backglass. This glowing topper also makes the game stand taller than all the rest in a lineup, mountainous even, which works well with the overall theme. Like many toppers of the era, quite a few were discarded, broken or stolen over their life in the arcade, so finding one with a complete assembly attached, no matter the condition, should be considered a bonus. I was lucky to get mine complete: with a relatively un-faded foil sticker, properly cascading lights and decent clear dome. However, many of the twenty-year-old assemblies have seen better days. The special bulbs used in the topper obviously generate heat, and the enclosed plastic dome hinders proper ventilation–so many of the white plastic backers are cracked and brittle, and the affixed waterfall foils bubbled, faded and stressed. The metallic sticker is a four-colour process on a heavy foil cardstock and embossed using a die, so that the sweeping lights reflect off of the stamped ridges, making the water and mist looks as if it is in constant motion. A bubbled or stressed sticker will interfere with this delicate effect. Further, UV rays have not been kind to the orange and blue hues, fading them to a muddy mess.

Great Lakes’ WH20 Topper Light PCB

Treasure Cove’s “masking” solution

I guess the good news first: if your topper is missing completely, you can get pretty close to replacing the entire assembly. The cascading lamp PCBs are available from the good folks at Great Lakes Modular for $30USD each (the game uses two). Keep in mind the bulb size for these lamps are the oddball 194s, not your standard 555s. A reproduction dome, the same one that is used by Fish Tales to house that damn flapping fish, is readily available from many sources, like Marco Specialties, for $69.00. Unfortunately, one piece of the puzzle is missing: the foil die-pressed sticker. The only solution offered to this point is available from Treasure Cove. Two versions are offered: a complete sticker printed on vinyl that lacks die pressing which does not reproduce the cascading effect at all, and a “cutout” version, also printed on vinyl, that would leave the original embossing exposed and would only cover up the faded colour artwork. This is by no means a definitive solution…but I guess it would look okay, and some have settled for it. If someone would come up with a true reproduction of the original effect on a foil sticker, there WOULD be a market for it. Word of a true reproduction surfaced on rec.games.pinball (RGP) in December 2011 via Daren Jacobs of Phoenix Arcade. Mr. Jacobs wrote:

“I have been in touch with the original artist Phillip Grear who says for sure the plates are gone for good. I take him at his word and didnt question them. New plates need to be made and he says he can do them but attached a very hefty price tag to them. There is also a relatively new process I’ve found through a company who says they can do this. Once we get a little further with this Ill get some samples from them. I also visited a company in PHX when I lived there that does this type of work and seen samples in person. But it was quite pricey to do. We want to target $200 and not go above it. That’s the goal.”

Response seemed fairly positive. Folks were willing to pre-order to cover costs, if necessary, and genuinely thought $200 was a fair price for the foil sticker. It would be up to the purchaser to obtain the white plastic support or reuse their old one. Having the original artist on board for consult and direction was a good sign. Rough numbers were bandied about, and it was stated that a cost-effective run would be in the area of 500 units and 250 would have to be sold to hit the break-even mark. 250 is a lot, however, there were a lot of sorry looking WH20 toppers out there with owners that wanted them looking their best. The die tooling would probably eat up the majority of start-up costs. James Loflin of Pinball Inc. posted in the thread and said he would help fund the costs of the project, which was met with, one can assume, off-board discussion between Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Loflin, however there was no sign that Mr. Loflin would be involved (Loflin will make his return later on in this story, so keep reading). Months passed, before Mr. Jacobs gave this update in March 2012:

“Made a little more progress and established a working relationship with the original foil artist Philip Grear who will be highly instrumental in getting this project done. At this point I’m stepping aside to let Rick [Bartlett, of Planetary Pinball/Bay Area Amusements] take it from here and get you all a sweet new topper. Just ask that you continue to be patient. I’m confident Rick will make you all pretty happy.”

Thus, the project was handed over to Mr. Bartlett. There is a gap that needs to be filled in here as to why. Funding? Licencing? General difficulty in getting this item manufactured? My money is on general difficulty. Regardless, it seemed the project was in Mr. Bartlett’s capable hands. The thread goes dead here after a few promises of progress. Then, in May of 2013, nearly a year and a half after the original suggestion of the project, a post appeared on Pinside announcing the White Water topper decal would be available from Twisted Pins, a relatively new pinball restoration online retailer. The post announced:

“Twisted Pins is pleased to announce that we have released a Whitewater foil topper that is approved and available under the PPS license. As you may know this topper has never been reproduced by anybody. Our topper decal is made the exact same way Williams made it. The topper is printed using a 4-color process over white and embossed artwork using .010 foil stock. These are not paper thin decals or printed by an inkjet printer or next generation technology.”

Screen cap from Twisted Pins’ web store

The original cost for the foil sticker with white plastic support was $179USD, or you could add the clear tub to the package for $219USD (prices have since increased). The foreshadowing should not be lost here: the project passed hands from Bartlett, a trusted retailer of quality repro parts, to an unproven player in the market with a shallow track record in large scale press production. Regardless, a pre-order schedule was included in this original announcement and folks started sending in their money. The printing and embossing work was done in Germany, as Twisted Pins claimed that nobody in the US could work with a die as large as this one. With hindsight being an author’s best friend, its very interesting to see so many participants in the Pinside thread asking to see a video of their first samples or early production pieces. Video was promised, but not offered. A photo surfaced of an original next to a Twisted Pins reproduction piece. One user, “ShaunoftheDead”, responded:

“It looks weird in the photos, the original seems more detailed, deeper embossed – the foil part. Be interesting to see if its just the way its been pictured, but I guess video will tell.. […] Surprised they announced/put it up for sale before a video…”

This post, read now, speaks volumes. The grand unveiling was to be at Pin-A-Go-Go 2013, however Twisted Pins were unable to fulfill the promise due to shipping logistics. Interested parties, those that had purchased and those that were waiting for further video evidence, were still waiting with baited breath. When the topper finally reached the hands of those that had pre-ordered, following the Pin-A-Go-Go-No-Show, the first signs of disappointment surfaced, led by user “Tortelvis”:

“Mine arrived today and I don’t see the same cascading water illusion like the original has.”

Many other “fail” reviews, and the above videos, followed. Quick on the recovery, Twisted Pins chimed in:

“We stand behind everything we sell. We will gladly exchange out the toppers at no cost for anybody who wishes when we get our next run done in 2 weeks. We currently are making a new die for the embossing that will allow for it to be much deeper. Should anybody wish to return it that is fine also.”

As an outsider, not having a horse in the race and reading this thread as it unfolded, it sure seems to me that Twisted Pins shipped a product that they knew did not accurately replicate the original. That isn’t good business. Especially not in a small hobby where trust is key and customers have an elephant’s memory. Twisted Pins claimed that if you used a shim under the white plastic support (in the form of a washer) the cascading effect would be more pronounced. Regardless, when the first batch arrived at Twisted Pins HQ and they tested the product, they most certainly should have been scrapped rather than shipped, or at least offered a video of its performance for their customers to decide if it was up to their standards. It’s great to have a customer friendly return policy, but how about being friendly to customers in the first place by not wasting their time by shipping them a product that does not live up to expectations.

Time marched on in the eight page Pinside post, up until the present day. James Loflin (see! I promised!) joined the conversation briefly in the thread. There now sits a series of blank posts where Mr. Loflin and Travis of Twisted Pins had a back and forth, presumably relating to Mr. Loflin’s non-involvement dating back to the Phoenix Arcade initiation. Every so often, Twisted Pins surfaces in the thread and offers that progress, albeit slow, is being made. They claim they have “too much money invested” in the project to let it fail–and I believe that–but how many failed die pressings does it take before you wash your hands of the entire project? Maybe someone else needs to take the reins. Maybe a different solution has to be implemented in the form of a digital display. The failure or unwillingness to follow through with topper reproduction by two other known and trusted commercial entities in the pinball community should speak volumes as to the difficulty of replicating the original.

Twisted Pins has recently announced they are going to start making ramps, beginning with the Taxi “Spinout” ramp. There is a lot of call for this particular ramp, however, to say that Twisted Pins has damaged their reputation in the White Water topper disaster is an absolute understatement. I sincerely hope they get everything sorted out, and a viable foil topper reproduction can enter the marketplace. Many have received refunds for their toppers, while others have kept them, waiting and hoping for a replacement to be sent. Either way, I’m afraid this story doesn’t have a happy ending just yet…

(Note: Twisted Pins was contacted through their contact email address AND through the “Contact Us” form on their website on May 15 2014, but no one bothered to reply. I clearly stated my intentions for this article, to chronicle the history of the WH20 topper with as little muck-raking as possible. I also included a timeframe as to when I was going to post it. They were either unwilling or unable to respond.)


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NEWS: Vintage Flipper World Showcase In Review

Vintage Flipper World is situated inside of an unassuming white panelled building, along a country dirt road on the outskirts of Brighton, Michigan. If you are not looking for it, you’ll miss it. If you didn’t have prior knowledge of what the building looked like, you’ll probably drive right past it. Therein lies the charm of the VFW, brainchild of Clay Harrell and his merry band of pinheads. The location makes sense–serene, unobtrusive, subdued–given that Mr. Harrell has a long and arduous history with disparagers, detractors and backbiters in the pinball community at large. The VFW literally puts space between those people and Mr. Harrell’s dream of a pinball oasis–acres and acres worth of space.

Inside the hall is much less serene, as you’d expect an old Veterans-hall-cum-arcade filled with around 200 pinball machines to sound like. Not to mention the ever present sound of classic rock emitting from the hall’s public jukebox. I walked the aisles and let the sounds of the different decades wash over me. From the soft clamour of Electromechanical chimes, to the electronic squawk of early Solid State technology, to unforgettable call-outs you’d recognize anywhere (“Move your car!”, “The Ma-Mush-Ka!”, “Ooh, nice organ!”). This is an arcade on steroids, with no stand-up video games in sight. In short, it is what many of us picture the afterlife to look like.

I attended the Saturday of the three day event. I had a ticket pre-purchased and with good reason–a crudely written sign hung above the door: “Sold Out”. Selling a limited amount of tickets in advance gets the thumbs up from this reviewer. It kept crowds extremely manageable. I had to wait to play a game once (Big Bang Bar). All other games I wanted to play were free at one point or another during the seven hours I spent there and in every case, I had the option of having a couple games in a row on any given machine (there was never anyone standing by waiting for their turn). Free posters were given away so everyone could leave with a small souvenir to pin up in their gameroom. Other, more traditional concert style posters, were sold for $3USD each.

The area immediately to the left and right of the entrance is filled with woodrail pinball games, and to be honest, I didn’t spend much time there. I played a few games on a woodrail called Niagara, but that was it. The rest of the facility held too many other treasures that kept my attention for the entire day. The main hall has games lining each wall and three rows of games lined up back to back, creating four aisle ways that run the length of the building–thus games flank you on either side when walking down a desired row. The game selection is organized very well, for example all of the Bally Solid State games and Williams DMD games are grouped together in the same aisle. The Williams DMD aisle was rocking the entire time I was there, and with players shoulder to shoulder playing (sometimes two-player) games, it got very crowded, so much so that it was hard for someone to walk the length of the aisle without elbowing someone. If you have a wide leaning stance while playing, like me, be prepared to be nudged, bumped into, and stepped on in this area. The other aisles were much more airy and easy to navigate. There is also a back room of games, containing more high-profile WPCs (Twilight Zone, Monster Bash) and other oddities (Safecracker, Joust), as well as the aforementioned Big Bang Bar. The playfield “art” that lines the hallway to this back room, I’d like to add, are probably in better condition than some of the playfields in my games currently. This is only one aspect of decor. Everywhere you look in the entire facility there is neon…it’s a stark contrast to the vintage dark-stained exposed wood beams and plaster of the aging hall, but it helps create the arcade mood.

Game selection was overwhelming. The line of ealry-Solid State Stern games is unbelievable, and probably the most complete on display in the entire world. The row of Electromechanical Gottlieb games ran the length of the building, in nearly chronological order and ran from early offerings like Slick Chick and the “Flipper” series all the way through later wedgeheads like Neptune and Golden Arrow. The classic Bally solid state games were an impressive sight to behold lined up next to one another. The obvious draw was the Williams WPC area, as I stated above, and I would be hard pressed to name a game that was glaring from its exclusion (they didn’t have a Popeye, but I don’t think anyone was hollering for a refund because of its exclusion).

All games were exceptionally clean and fully functioning. Outlanes opened to the max, pitch set high, and playfields waxed to a high gloss…all making for very fast, very punishing games. The games included looked to be choice examples from their respective runs: no lifting mylar, no broken ramps, and every bulb shining bright. There may have been one feature that wasn’t working on one game that I played, but that was on a Strange Science, and I’m not at all familiar with the rules of the game, so it could have been my ignorance, not a mechanical glitch. Techs wandered about and had playfields lifted amongst the players flipping away, themselves fixing on the fly. One minute a Whirlwind is out of order with two VFW staff pulling the glass off…ten minutes later, I’m playing the game, fully operational. I actually witnessed staff pulling a Demolition Man out of the lineup on a pin dolly, and brought back to the workshop for further diagnosis and repair, as the problem looked to be much more severe than a lame flipper or disconnected wire. No “Out of Order” sign needed here.

The staff was friendly, courteous and altogether welcoming. You could see the club members beaming with pride to have a world class facility like this and witnessing so many visitors enjoying themselves within the confines of their stomping grounds. I swear, at one point over the course of the day, there looked to be more staff members in their orange shirts than there were paying patrons at the facility. It must have been an “all hands on deck scenario”, knowing a full week in advance that the VFW would be at prescribed capacity. I saw Mr. Harrell briefly out in the furthest reaches of the parking area, but never again over the course of my visit. However, as much as I wanted to shake his hand and say thanks, I was having a banner day playing some games I had not played, or had played only once or twice before.

Just as I did in Allentown this year, I spent a minuscule amount of time with DMD era games, as most of them can be found in private collections close to home. I ventured down the aisle with classic Bally and Stern games first, and I couldn’t pull myself away, spending nearly half the day awash in Solid State bliss. I have very little experience with older solid-state Sterns, and was able to get schooled in a clinic of what the company was doing back then with an almost complete oeuvre to choose from. Iron Maiden was absolutely punishing as was Viper, I laughed off Split Second on first glance, but it ended up being the Stern machine I played most. I had my first go at Orbitor 1, and I’ll echo the sentiment that it’s the pinball equivalent of the morning after a wedding with an open bar. I had some pretty decent scores on Harlem Globetrotters On Tour, Centaur and Nitro Groundshaker, and I now want to own them all. A game that I had not played all that much, Vector, also stood out as a deep, well designed game with a seemingly endless amount of shots and gimmicks. I played EM games Neptune and Lucky Hand for an insane amount of time, as they are add-a-ball Gottleib classics and the “Wow’s” just kept on ringing up. I didn’t fare so well on the System 11 games I love so much. I drained my pants off on Fire! and Elvira and the Party Monsters, which didn’t give me too much hope as I currently own one that I am restoring and the other is at the top of my want list. I’ll have to chalk it up to the games being setup on “extra unforgiving”. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I got to play the super-rare, super-wide Williams Algar, but as I expected, it played much like all the other Williams games of the era. I had a go at my childhood “sweetheart” that is no longer in my collection, Solar Fire, and followed it up by playing its other three siblings in the Williams dual-level game series (Jungle Lord, Pharaoh and Black Knight). Jesus, these are all basically the same game. No wonder pinball was in such trouble back then!

Not having the velvet rope of “THE TOURNAMENT” at the facility was a nice change of pace. All games were accessible to all paying customers. Two games–Bally Strikes and Spares and Williams Fun Fest–were the “tournament” options. Drop a quarter in the coin slot, and if you beat the previous score posted on a sticky-note on the backglass and have it stand all day, you win the money in the cash box. Honour system applied, and the games were on free-play, so if you just wanted to play and didn’t want to “enter” the tournament with a quarter, you didn’t have to. Scores, early in the day, were quite modest, and I forgot to return to check their status before I departed. Mr. Harrell’s insistence that the focus be on playing games and having fun rather than competing rubbed some from the “It’s More Fun To Compete” community the wrong way, but I don’t think that was the type of crowd he was looking for anyhow. This was a showcase for collectors and folks who wanted to pay a small amount of money with nothing to take away except the fun and excitement of playing amongst a well-kept collection of vintage machines. Egos and holier-than-thou attitudes were checked at the door. I say this being a world-class flop at playing pinball. Maybe if I were a ranked player, I’d have my panties in a bunch, too. But it didn’t look like the club needed the support of the tournament players. Everyone had a smile on their face, and there were WOMEN! GLORIOUS WOMEN! More women than I’ve ever seen before at a pinball event! If they key to getting women to come out to these events is to axe the tournament characters, I say it is a path we should follow to pinball equality!

In all, it was well worth the 7-hour, round trip drive. It is nice to have a facility such as this within driving distance, however, the frequency of the facility being open to the public remains unknown. The VFW collection rivals that of the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. Yet, the VFW collection wins hands down in the category of organization, atmosphere, and general game maintenance. The tech area the club has organized looked to be world class, and stocked every pinball part imaginable. The club members donating their time to making the show run in a smooth fashion, from those parking the cars to those soldering loose wires, should be proud to have a hand in such a project. After years of floundering in pinball flux for a viable location to house his immense collection, Clay Harrell now has the VFW. He has shared it with the community for one weekend, and hopefully he chooses to do so on a regular basis. It felt like being at a town hall meeting in small town America, and pinball machines forever held the floor. If you didn’t experience it for yourself, I guarantee you would have been in awe of the passion and excitement that exuded from this unassuming pinball Mecca on the outskirts of Brighton.