I am immediately drawn to anything bearing Egyptian imagery. My wife is an ancient history teacher and I went on a two week trip to Egypt a few years back in what can only be described as the trip of a lifetime. I got to go inside an actual pyramid. So it is no surprise that I have a strong affinity for Gottlieb’s Cleopatra. I played a lot of it at the Allentown Pinfest show this year.
Built upon the troublesome System 1 MPU, 1977’s Solid State Cleopatra stands as the most recognizable and definitive version of the game. An EM version with similar art does exist but its 1,600 units is a drop in the pan compared to the SS production run of nearly 7,500. Also, it should be mentioned that a two player EM entitled Pyramid, with completely different backglass art but same playfield layout does exist, however less than 1,000 of these saw the light of day. The game made its appearance during the period when all companies found it necessary to make a Solid State and Electromechanical version of the same game–Bally’s Mata Hari and many others from this period also exist in both EM and Solid State variations. Cleopatra appears to be Gottleib’s first official foray into Solid State manufacturing, and is also one of the first handful of games not to be released in the forever popular wedgehead style cabinet.
It comes as no surprise that Egyptian imagery was used during this time period. Egyptian history and style was experiencing a revival of sorts in the late 1970s due to the travelling “Treasures of King Tut” exhibit that criss-crossed North America between 1976 and 1979. The four year whirlwind tour made stops in Washington, New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and Toronto, and displayed artifacts from the Tut tomb that had never before left Egypt. The US was engulfed in Pharaoh Phever. Steve Martin and the Toot Uncommons recorded a song about Tut that was apparently hilarious to those living in the 1970s, but has aged very badly when listened to now, segregated from the social climate in which it was released. It is safe to say the Cleopatra theme was chosen due to the Tut tour. Cleopatra is also one of those mysterious women in world history that holds both sexual and political power, and is thus a clear choice to be forever immortalized in popular culture.
The game is really more of the same of what Gottleib was doing with EMs at the time. As was the style, there are quite a few rollovers, the same amount of drop targets and as always you are chasing that elusive special. Dead centre of the playfield lies five different coloured pairs of inserts. Each colour pair corresponds to a drop target just above, and a rollover at the top of the playfield. Knock down and roll over corresponding colours and you get the point value associated. Out of courtesy, a left or right saucer shot will spot you a rollover. At the top of this insert matrix is a halved circle. You must shoot both saucers to spot the insert whole, and then each shot to the saucer, when lit, will get you 500 points. When all drops are down, a “5000 when lit” target will be revealed. This shot is tricky…as it sits dead centre and the majority of the time you’ll lose the ball straight down the middle if you are brave enough to shoot for the big 5000 point target. Three sets of bumpers change the lit 500 point saucers and the lit 5000 point target. When the ball really gets bouncing around its quite the light show, jumping back and forth and flashing on and off. Further, when all rollovers, drops and saucers have been activated, the Special, awarded via a stand up targets, will also alternate left and right. It makes for a pretty exciting gameplay that has a little more pep than the other games of the period.
Despite the computer keeping score, its pretty cool to have the chimes ringing away as you play. The big jump forward of the Solid State system was probably a sight to behold for pinball players at the time, but exists as sort of an anachronism for younger players today who expect the beeps, bloops and whistles of a solid state machine to match the computer displays, but get chimes instead.
Cleopatra features the popular team of designer Ed Krynski and artist Gordon Morison, who worked together on some real classics–Royal Flush, Dragon, Totem, Genie, The Amazing Spiderman, and the list goes on seemingly forever. These guys were one of the most prolific teams at Gottlieb, and gave all of the games of the area a feel and look that brings about a certain comfort when you walk up to one. All of their games were made in the same style, and who could blame them, they were successful and you don’t try to fix what isn’t broken. Krynski and Morison were the team that recycled the layout of El Dorado/Gold Strike/Lucky Strike/Canada Dry/ Solar City/Target Alpha for international, add-a-ball and replay versions over the period of three years. I will say about Morison that each art package was better than the next in that series. Morison also delivers in his unique pop art version of Egyptian imagery and hieroglyphics on the playfield, and the colours integrate well in a game that relies on colour matching for the main object of game play.
Cleopatra marks a distinct shift in Gottlieb pinball production. Even though everything looks Electromechanical status quo in design and art, the Solid State operating system gave the company a push in a very different direction that they had taken in the years prior. This technology shift would bring with it a shift in theme–ushering in a new era where Buck Rogers, the Incredible Hulk, Asteroid Annie, and other sci-fi/fantasy heroes dominated the Gottlieb landscape, and really, all of pinball. It seemed cowboys and Cleopatra-esque period pieces were part of a bygone mechanical score reel driven era. When you are trying to highlight the cutting edge nature of your gaming system, it is not wise to feature characters that have been dead for hundreds of years. Also gone was the idea of theme recycling not long after Cleopatra’s release. Krynski did revisit El Dorado and Jacks Open with updated revisionings in the early 80s, but this was a clear sign of an out-of-touch designer fresh out of good ideas in the twilight of his career. Cleopatra is one of those rare games that is able to encapsulate the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. How is it that one game can represent both a shift AND stasis all at once?