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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…

FEATURED GAME: Williams ALGAR

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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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2 thoughts on “FEATURED GAME: Williams ALGAR

  1. Great article ! It’s a game i’ve never played, looking forward to trying one out eventually 🙂 Having no speech is a major turn off for me unfortunately, just like Solar Fire which I owned. I loved the game but just couldn’t get passed the no speech issue..

  2. Thanks Sylvain! Algar having no speech is a bummer…it may have given it that extra kick it needed…it’s funny how a handful of words can make or break a game’s reputation. All of these games play very similar, perhaps its the speech that sets one game ahead of all the others?

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