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FEATURE: Stumbling into Solid State! Gottlieb System 1

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Who among us has a deep appreciation for Gottlieb System 1 games? I mean, a real appreciation. A basement full of appreciation. Countless are the collectors who have a wide assortment of early Stern games, and I can name a few people in my circle of collectors who pride themselves on having multiple examples of Gottlieb wedgehead EMs amongst their prized pinball possessions. But where are all the Gottleib System 1s? The same could be asked about System 1’s big brother, the Gottlieb System 80, but with a strong representation from Black Hole and Haunted House in that operating system, their numbers are more robust and examples easier to find. The System 1 was trouble from its inception, and the Gottlieb Co. did itself no favours along the way to alleviate it. Once a mighty giant of the industry, the System 1 experiment was the first move in a convoluted series of events that knocked Gottlieb from its throne, and ultimately began its long, slow demise. History has not been kind to the System 1 platform, and those difficulties only quantified as time marched forward, and pinball machines marched from the confines of the arcade to the privacy of our homes.


With competition being fierce in the silver (maybe bronze?) age of pinball of the late 1970s, it is almost unfathomable that Gottlieb wholly fumbled the ball the way it did. History tells us that Gottlieb had issues in-house creating their own Solid State operating system, whereas the transition was much more seamless for competitors Bally and Stern, who, to make matters worse, “teamed up” to use common technology and parts. Gottlieb eventually contracted out the Solid State platform creation to an outside firm, which would completely handcuff Gottlieb–certainly more so than if the system was created by one of their own inside the friendly confines of the Chicago factory. It added more steps to the overall creation process and would inevitably cost the company more in the long run. Not to mention you would have to work on someone else’s schedule instead of being able to tighten the screws on your own in-house crew.

The System 1 boardset was designed in such a way that there were a finite number of board driven devices that were able to be included in the game. Thus, Gottlieb games from this era seem somewhat lacking in unique features and designers had a hefty challenge on their hands to work within in the limitations of the computer’s controlling ability. Transistors had to be mounted to the underside of the playfield to control any extra features that could not be controlled by the drivers.

Another downfall, not tech related, would be the lack of licencing. Bally had the likes of Ann Margaret, Elton John, Bobby Orr, Evel Kinevel and the Six Million Dollar Man as a part of their pinball stable before Gottlieb even began to venture into viable licences. Their early System 1 games harken back to popular wedgehead themes that were recycled ad nauseam—generic sports, historical time periods, card games, and sci-fi absurdity. Moving forward into the 1980s, Bally kept it current and cool with the Harlem Globetrotters and the Rolling Stones, while Gottlieb used limited licencing, choosing to continue the EM tradition.  Thus, we were met with futuristic bucking broncos and girls with big hips in joker costumes.

To complicate issues, Gottlieb’s foray into Solid State coincided with their buy-out by the Columbia Pictures corporation. I’m sure the merger with the massive entertainment corporation based on opposite ends of the country (New York and LA–Chicago left in no-man’s land in the middle) only furthered Gottlieb’s lack of direction and corner cutting approach to building machines. It speaks volumes that the once iconic Gottlieb logo was slowly swallowed up by the image of the Columbia “rising torch”. It boggles my mind that Columbia, rich in potential music, television and film licences, waited as long as they did to push crossover licences onto Gottlieb pinball machines.  When they eventually did, it was nowhere the pace set by Bally. The bottom line here is that Gottlieb now had to march in line with a coastal, multi-faceted, entertainment-driven corporate agenda, rather than a corporate family philosophy that had been previously driven by one thing: making a profit by building great pinball machines.

Back on the tech side of things, Bally was able to go tits out and do a complete switch to a computerized operating system, whereas Gottlieb System 1s were a motley mix of both new Solid State technology and antiquated Electromechanical mechanisms (the best example of this would be the non-computer controlled, EM-style, switch-driven pop bumpers). Heck, Gottlieb was still towing the EM line a few games into SS production by making EM versions of the first five solid state games–Cleopatra, Sinbad, Joker Poker, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Dragon–albeit in limited numbers.  Perhaps this was done to burn off old stock, but more likely it was done to appease stubborn operators who refused to accept the half-assed System 1 OS. This should be another hint that Gottlieb was not fully confident in their Solid State operating system, even though the above mentioned games did sell well (9,000 games on average for that run of five).

There is certainly a leftover wedgehead “vibe” to these early System 1 games and for that reason you’d think they would be more popular with collectors as Gottlieb wedgeheads are top of the heap when it comes to Electromechanical style and substance. However, collectors and techs alike seem to steer away from this era of Solid State game due to various technical and mechanical issues that include, but are not limited to: 1) a hellish CPU mounted, fixed battery, that if not removed will obviously corrode and deteriorate the board and connections, 2) edge connectors, that are probably the only connection style more unreliable than the Williams IDC that everyone gripes about, 3) the nearly non-existent and difficult to navigate self test procedures, 4) grounding issues that were present right out of the factory, 5) availability of parts, and 6) cost of replacement parts.

I mention those last two as general umbrella “issues”. These machines, when restored, really have to be done for a love of the game, not for profit. Repair difficulty and tracking down pricy replacement parts make restoring a System 1 machine for resale (or a “I’ll get my money back if/when I sell it” scenario) absolutely cost prohibitive. If you are relying on the services of a pinball technician, this is one case where you should believe the tech when he says “The repairs are going to cost more than the machine is worth”. These games were released to the public in large numbers, by today’s standards, however you have to assume most found their way into the dumpster or scrap parts bin given the issues the system had.

I say “large numbers” above, but it is all relative…Gottlieb System 1 production numbers could be dismissed as minuscule compared to the massive production runs of Williams games from the same era. Gorgar, Flash, Black Knight and Firepower all eclipsed the 14,000 unit mark individually. Gottlieb released an impressive number of different titles per year (five in 1978, six in 1979) with respectable production runs, whereas Willaims seemed to craft one big hit (more often than not it was Steve Ritchie doing the crafting) and built it in prolific numbers…on a more reliable operating system at that. You can kind of follow the numbers here, and see how Williams carried pinball into the 1980s and 1990s while Gottlieb limped to their eventual demise. There seems to be an endless supply of Flash and Firepower units on Craigslist…the same cannot be said about Count-Down or Solar Ride. Operators perhaps didn’t have the patience or parts to prepare the Gottlieb games for the home market when their days of earning were through.

Now, however, there are options if you do wish to bring one of these games back to life. Steve Young at Pinball Resource will be a collector’s best friend if a complete restoration is what you wish to achieve, as he stocks unique signature items and other Gottlieb parts you will almost certainly need and won’t find anywhere else. However, Mr. Young’s antiquated octo-step payment system is a pain in the rear to traverse. New customers may be overwhelmed by the old school business practices, and would perhaps benefit by tagging their items onto orders of repeat customers. It is certainly not a click checkout/pay with PayPal scenario.

The entire System 1 boardset is readily available from aftermarket manufacturers like Rottendog and Ni-Wumpf, so you are covered if any backbox component is damaged beyond repair (at the applicable price, of course). A saviour for the entire System 1 OS has been around for a few years now, and his name is Pascal Janin. He has engineered his own version of System 1 replacement boards (and also System 80/80a/80b boards) that are more robust and reliable than the originals. They are affectionately known as “Pascal Boards”, after their creator, and are available directly from Janin’s FLIPPP! organization. The site claims that FLIPPP! makes no profit (!) from the sale of these boards, and that, quote, “Our only pleasure is to see games working back [sic] instead of being trashed because of no suitable boards”. Any one of Pascal’s System 1 boards will serve the complete line of System 1 games, as all information from the series of pinballs has been encapsulated into one board and is accessible through DIP switch settings. Janin also offers an all-in-one board option that replaces ALL backbox components (a combined CPU/Power Supply/Driver Board/Sound Board…fewer edge connectors! Pictured left.) However, it will set you back 235 Euro (that’s approximately $320USD at the time of writing) plus shipping from the EU. Individual boards are also available. To take the project a step further, Janin and Co. have programmed new rules for most of the games, including skill shots and general fixes for game exploits, giving these sometimes one dimensional games a breath of fresh air. All of these new rules can be toggled on and off with the flick of a DIP switch.

Just as Janin has designed not-for-profit boards for the troubled operating system in the interest of saving games, our friend Clay Harrell also seems bent on providing as much assistance as he can to collectors in order to save System 1 games from the scrap heap. As most will be aware, the majority of Clay’s repair guides for the more popular operating systems are not officially available from Clay himself and those that have been mirrored on the web are sorely incomplete. However, the System 1 repair guide is one of the last remaining complete guides available directly from Clay in an official capacity, and he has also posted a handful of YouTube videos showing oddities and helpful tips when working on the system. The main takeaway from the videos is that the games, while being generally shoddy in construction, are not any more difficult to fix than other Solid State games of the era…given the proper instruction.

I would not mind taking a crack at restoring one of these games myself, however their reputation of being bottomless money pits, accompanied by countless stories of collectors chasing ghosts in their machines, have me a bit worried, much like the majority of the collecting community. One overall saving grace is that the art on these games is superb. They are absolutely stunning to behold, as I stated when I reviewed a System 1 game, Cleopatra, earlier in the month. I think Totem holds claim to having one of the greatest art packages of this period, and even though Gottlieb was quite late to the party in the licencing arena, licences don’t get much better, for me, than Charlie’s Angles (even without Farrah). Sure Williams was doing volume during this era, but their art could not match that of Gottlieb workhorse Gordon Morison.  I was able to pick up a pair of “heavily enjoyed” System 1 playfields in Allentown, the aforementioned Totem and Charlie’s Angels…maybe I’ll just stick with cleaning those up and hanging them on my wall, rather than committing to the restoration of a machine that may be more trouble than its worth.

At the 2014 Allentown show, there were quite a few System 1 games on the free-play floor–Cleopatra, Pinball Pool avec Pascal Board, Buck Rogers,etc.  However, there were countless more outside in the flea market area in various states of disrepair, begging to be restored. Finding someone with the knowhow, patience and deep pockets to take on these games is a different story. Bless those that have tried to make the System 1 games more easy to work with through aftermarket parts production and detailed repair information, and let us not forget those that have rescued these games from the scrapheap–it is truly a labour of love for a series of Gottlieb pinballs that seemed to be doomed for failure from the very beginning.

Gottlieb System 1 Games (Year, Units Produced): Cleopatra (1977, 7,300), Sinbad (1978, 12,950), Joker Poker (1978, 9,280), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978, 9,950), Dragon (1978, 6,550), Charlie’s Angles (1978,7.950), Solar Ride (1979, 8,800), Count-Down (1979, 9,899), Pinball Pool (1979, 7,200), The Incredible Hulk (1979, 6,150), Totem (1979, 6,643), Genie (1979, 6,800), Buck Rogers (1980, 7,410), Roller Disco (1980, 2,400), Torch (1980, 3,880), Asteroid Annie and the Aliens (1980, 211).

Further Reading:

FLIPPP! – Pascal Board homepage
Pinrepair.com – Gottlieb System 1 Pinball Repair
Pinball Repair on YouTube – System 1 Oddities
Pinball Repair on YouTube – System 1 First Time Power-on Procedure
Rottendog – Product Homepage
Ni-Wumph – Homepage
Pinside – Home for the Gottlieb SYS1-SYS80B guys, Yep it’s a club

 

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2 thoughts on “FEATURE: Stumbling into Solid State! Gottlieb System 1

  1. Pingback: Featured Game: Gottlieb’s CHARLIE’S ANGELS | CREDIT DOT

  2. Pingback: FEATURED GAME(S): Gottlieb’s Target Alpha & Solar City | CREDIT DOT

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