Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…

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MODS: Startling! Shocking! Creature From the Unlit Speaker Panel!

As if Creature from the Black Lagoon owners didn’t have enough to concern them already–fading hologram, retrofitting pop bumper lights, expensive LCD screen mods, general difficultly in regular maintenance due to an overcrowded playfield–they have forever been plagued with the absence of, or difficulty with, a lit speaker panel. No other game lends itself quite like Creech does for a lit speaker panel; the car taillights, the moon, the UFO and the Starlight Drive-In all beg for lighting from third-party ingenuity. Many have tried to get this project off the ground, but there is no definitive “final form” for Creech owners to install. But there is hope…

There was some indication that the panel was going to be lit right out of the Williams factory back in 1992, but having no impact on the gameplay and bill of materials probably already astronomical, the idea was axed. Ever since collectors started putting these machines in our private homes, the chase was on to find a fully thought out and easy to work with solution to spice up the already busy area around the DMD. Options have been available, and some Creech games do exist with this mod in place. Some folks just went ahead and built their own controller board and mounted their own LEDs, while companies like Pinball Decals and Orbit Pinball have attempted to produce their own makeshift versions, which I’m sure work just fine, but are far from a definitive solution. The price of a Pinball Decals Inc. mod is prohibitive at $400USD. One could use that money to obtain a ColorDMD or a new hologram solution. Here is a video to the Pinball Decals Inc mod fully installed:

Price aside, there was hope for an end-all version. Pinbits–a company whose products quickly become the gold standard of mods soon after release due to their impeccable design and quality–promised a Creech panel mod. However, it has been marred in perpetual development for what seems to be ages. One of the hold ups for Pinbits was re-configuration due to the Classic Playfield Reproductions speaker panel they released in 2010. CPR released three versions of the panel; a true reproduction of the original, an enhanced version with lightblock masking that would work with panel illumination, and a deluxe edition that included the masking along with the added feature of chrome accents. The enhanced and deluxe editions are now sold out. The CPR website specifically notes that the panel was created with the Pinbits mod in mind. There is indication on the Pinbits website that the mod had to be adjusted to agree with differences in the CPR speaker panel plastic. That same page has not been updated for some time with the last entry promising “Design in February, Build in March”. Not sure if this was March 2012, 2013 or 2014; in any case the mod can be considered “past due” from the folks at Pinbits.

Any lighting mods that have arrived over the years have the extra annoyance of not being able to fit on the panel with a ColorDMD. The ColorDMD adds a fantastic new dimension to any of their featured games (Creech seems to be one of the best looking in my opinion) but owners were forced to choose between an intricately lit panel or the amazing coloured animations, as there was little room for both. Workarounds, in the form of spacers, do exist, but did not solve the problem outright. Thus, not only did Pinbits have to redesign what they had due to slight variations in the CPR light mask, they must also make sure their product will work for a collector who wants to run a ColorDMD in the panel. Oh, the problems of integrating modern technology with twenty year old pinball technology.

Creech owners were annoyed at the delay, to be sure, but would have been more up in arms if it wasn’t for PinballMikeD’s Creech Hologram mod that removed the under-playfield hologram altogether and replaced it with an interactive LCD screen. I would argue that this soothed the Creech fanbase, as the design was ingenious and added pop to an area that had been ignored for years. Those that were willing to tinker with panel lighting are the same people that would have an interest in replacing the hologram. A temporary massaging of a sore spot by another example of pin community ingenuity. However, the seed of DMD panel lighting had been planted and someone was going to have to step forward and reap the fertile soil.

With the Pinbits mod in infinite delay, and having some prior experience making light mods, Pinside user Jeff Thompson (thompso9) of Pittsburgh, PA saw a need and posted this about a year and a half ago:

So I just got a bunch of PM’s from RGP as a result of a bump of an old thread about the CFTBL speaker panel mods I made about a year ago. For those of you who aren’t aware of the mod, it is designed to work with the CPR repro speaker panel plastics with the light mask. It lights up the taillights of the cars, the moon, UFO, and chases the Starlight sign. I also offered a peel-and-stick vinyl light mask to be used with the original speaker panel plastic if someone didn’t want to spring for the new panel. I have a video of it in action that I’ll post once I find it again.
It seems there could be enough interest to do another run. I have had some people show interest in a version of this mod that had some lighting effects based on game triggers. So I am interested to know: a) are there are more people who want this mod, b) if there is interest, how much interest is there in a rev 2 mod that will have some lighting effects linked to gameplay, and c) if b, then what kind of effects are you interested in seeing?

Some questions about the mod were answered early on in this six page thread:

1) Can I use the original panel?
Yes, I have created a custom-cut vinyl peel-and-stick mask for using the original speaker panel for $15. The original is set up for backlighting but Bally/WMS applied the black adhesive mask on the back of the panel like they do on many games that completely blacked out the entire panel. This needs to be removed with Goo Gone (or similar) and some elbow grease. If you are willing to do this, then the $15 will save you the cost of the CPR repro panel. Mind you, the CPR panels are very nicely done and the premium version includes the mirrored car bumpers which looks really neat. FYI the video I posted is of my original panel with the light mask as I scratched the crap out of my CPR repro during the development process (there are lots of sharp things in my workshop).
2) What is included?
The panel itself is baltic birch plywood (not cheap MDF like the original), painted black and custom routed to contain the PCBs and other hardware from the original panel. You’ll need to transfer over all the metal parts, except t-nuts and display mounting screws, which are already installed, to the new panel. Speaker grilles are also included since the cutting of these is pretty intricate to create openings for the LEDS and i didn’t want people to be cursing as they accidentally cut too much off their originals, or cut them jagged and scratched the artwork on the panel, anyway you get the idea. There is a plug and pass-through connector that plugs onto one of the +5V connectors on the power driver board. That’s basically it. I will post the installation instructions for the kit when I get a chance so you can all see how it will go.

This looked promising. Finally a version of the mod that would take into consideration all the trouble areas that have popped up, work with the existing CPR panels if you were able to get one and also work with the panel currently in your machine if a CPR version eluded your grasp. On top of that, the mod promised a dynamic light show during game play. A version was shipped by Mr. Thompson about six months after the original announcement, and folks seemed genuinely happy with it. There are a slew of people waiting for the next revision of the mod as well–wading through the “I’m in!” posts in the original thread to find actual information about the progress is a frustrating task. An upcoming revised version of the panel mod, which could end up being the ultimate definitive version, is still unshipped at the time of writing, but unlike the Pinbits mod, an end seems to be in sight. An update was given by Mr. Thompson three months back outlining the revisions and price:

I figure this is the best way to get word out that the latest run of CFTBL speaker panel LED kits is going to be available very soon. PCBs are on order now and parts are coming in for the new build.
Here are the changes/improvements in this latest revision:
1) All connectors encapsulated in the panel: ColorDMD and other mods should fit without interference now due to the fact that there is no wire harness connecting the LED boards together externally. Everything is done inside the cavities in the panel now and won’t even be visible from the back anymore (save the power entry connector).
2) Jumper-selectable taillight behavior: A jumper will configure whether the taillights are always on or dynamic.
3) Thinner PCBs: This will move the LED boards back from the bezel a bit and allow the light to spread out more to reduce pinpoint brightness issues.
As before the panel still supports game integration features that I have been dragging my feet on implementing. I have a PCB design that should do the trick and need to get that done after these ship.
Price is $149. I know this is a bit more than last time but costs never seem to go down anymore, everything costs more each time I do this. Shipping is generally via USPS Priority Mail for $15 anywhere in the contiguous US, but I do also ship elsewhere, at various rates.
Shipping will occur in groups as soon as I get the PCBs back from the assembler. This is the biggest unknown right now as this is not a huge job for them and they need to squeeze it in between other stuff. But things are on track and I want to make sure everyone knows that this next batch is definitely going to happen.

That isn’t a typo. $149USD for the painted wood panel with lighting installed, complete with a PCB, speaker grilles and room for a ColorDMD. Another $15 for a light mask if you don’t have the CPR panel. Plus $15 to ship it all. People were practically crawling over each other to give Mr. Thompson their PIN numbers. Joking aside, this looks to be the grand finale of a very long journey at a price and quality that certainly blows any version that currently exists right out of the water. I started writing this post a few days ago, then finally, last night, as if Mr. Thompson knew my essay needed a happy ending:

The wait is over! CFTBL panels are slated to start shipping this month! I’ll be notifying the first shipping group by email (or Pinside mail, whichever I happen to have on file) in the next 2 weeks. The emails will include payment instructions and a serial # to help me match up people with panels.
Here are some pics of a finished panel. You’ll see in the pictures below that there is a new component added to the design, a light block to prevent bleed from letter to letter over the Starlight sign. This, in my opinion, was needed because of the change over to the white circuit boards, and because the boards are now further back from the panel plastic. While this spreads the light out more and fights “hotspots” in the lighting, it does also give the light more opportunity to bleed over to neighboring areas where it doesn’t belong. With the addition of the light block the sign looks much more crisp during animation.
What’s really cool is the view from the inside of the panel – no wires save for the power connector! Everything is wide open for ColorDMD to lay down flat with no interference.
Thanks for your patience, everyone. This has been the biggest batch of panels yet and I’ve brought some other people into the process so we can get LED panels for some other titles out there as well. TZ is a likely next game but others have been discussed. Suggestions are welcome.

As far as I know, as a Creech owner, I’m on the list to get this mod. I’ll be watching my inbox feverishly. I don’t have the CPR Enhanced or Deluxe plastic panel, so I’m going the light mask/tape removal route. I shouldn’t count my chickens before they hatch through, from what I can decipher, I’m pretty far down the list (I hope I don’t get bumped). All signs point to a happy ending for this sordid, four year mod soap opera for everyone involved. However there will still be folks adding Creech machines to their collections in the future, and those people will be out in the cold, mod-less, unless Mr. Thompson decides to run another batch. For owners, was it worth going down this road in the first place? Spending money on inferior light mods that no longer cut the mustard? Buying speaker panels in anticipation of mod production? Belly aching about the various delays? I’ve only owned my Creech machine for five months or so, so I’m not as invested as some owners that have been waiting years…but I’ll make sure to follow up in a few months with an answer if and when I get my hands on one…

Further Reading:
Pinside – Interest/Advice on CFTBL Speaker Panel LED Mod Re-Run
Pinside – Update on CFTBL Light Mod
Classic Playfield Reproductions – Creature Backbox Speaker Panels Photo Gallery
Kansas Pinball – Creature from the Black Lagoon DMD Panel Mod Page
Pinball Decals Inc. – CFTBL Tail Light Mod
Pinbits – CFTBL Tail Light LED Kit
Pinball Mike D – CFTBL Hologram Mod

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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?

Further Reading/Viewing:
PAPA.ORG – Cleopatra Gameplay (video)
Pinside – Gottlieb Cleopatra – Worth the trouble?
International Arcade Museum – Cleopatra


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NEWS: Allentown Pinfest 2014 In Review

Pinfest has drawn to a close for another year. We, as a group, rode the crest of excitement for 48 long hours–some more, some less–but now that it is over we have no choice but to begin the countdown until next year’s show. I ate my fill of pretzel wraps from the farmer’s market, met a few new friends whom I knew via avatar only, and I was lucky enough to bring home a project machine to keep me busy for the foreseeable future.

A group of us from the Toronto area started a convoy of vehicles down to Allentown early Thursday morning, in order to arrive by 3pm to set up the games that accompanied us. The show is not open to the public on Thursday, but the doors are open to anyone bringing a game to set up (between the hours of 1pm to 9pm). After checking in at the venue’s registration and the games for the group were set up to our satisfaction, I took it upon myself to help out some of the other folks at the show… by “play-testing” THEIR games. You know, just to make sure they were set up correctly for opening day. I played ‘til I had my fill, and it was a godsend to have any game in the entire room available to play with no lines or crowds to battle. If you are going to do Pinfest, I urge you to bring a game. Not only does it help the event, it is your ticket to a free preview of the show. After leaving the venue, I ate a sushi dinner with some of the other Canadian collectors and then proceeded to drink to excess. Not a good choice, seeing as it was an early morning the next day and I had a belly full of raw fish…but I made it…barely. The show hours this year were Friday Noon to 9pm and Saturday 9am to 8pm. $17 admission fee per day, per adult, with no weekend passes available. Bring a game and you get free admission for as long as the game remains in the free play area.

Game selection was pretty good as it always seems to be. Some machines of note were:

– Pinsider EABundy’s restored T2 that was purchased at last year’s show as a basket case for less than $50USD,
– a nicely restored Taxi that looked better than new,
– two Popeye Saves the Earths (!),
– a Banzai Run (which was part of the convoy from Canada),
– a Barb Wire,
– a gorgeous Black Knight 2000 in the vendor area,
– multiple Shadows,
– multiple Tales of the Arabian Nights,
– show organizer Ivan’s seldom-seen Bally Game Show, and,
– two, yes, two Bally Spectrums.

No Bugs Bunny Birthday Balls…the bar was set high after last year when three showed up. Also, I didn’t recall last year’s show being so heavy on Gottleib System 80 games; there were a ton this year…which ain’t a bad thing. They say the best System 80 game is someone else’s System 80 game anyway, because when it has issues, and they always have issues, you aren’t the one who has to repair it! Sadly, an Amazing Spiderman, which I would argue sports one of the most beautiful art packages of the 1980s, sat dark all weekend. I didn’t play too many DMD era games, I stuck with early Solid State, and, in an effort to expand my knowledge of games from the golden age of pinball, I put a lot of time on some lovingly restored EM s. Two electromechanical gems that stood were are a lightly used Golden Arrow with only 16,000 plays on it and the soccer-themed Team One. Both were a blast and both had me chasing specials all around the damn playfield. Jersey Jack was on hand with a few Wizard of Oz machines, including a Ruby Red edition, although I didn’t take the time to play any of them.

The boutiques were also there in the form of Wrath of Olympus and America’s Most Haunted. I had a couple of games on Riot Pinball’s Wrath, and I must say, this game is the real deal. Even as a prototype, the game felt solid and had unbelievable shot physics. I’m not even sure what I could compare it to…a bit Shadow-esque? The left orbit/upper right flipper/upper playfield ramp/upper playfield ramp flipper combo feels really, really good when executed seamlessly. The soundtrack is heavy, with driving guitars and instructive call-outs and really pulls it all together. Riot had photos of new toys they plan to include in the next prototype revision, and with a little spit and polish on the playfield art package this game looks like it will make some serious hay. I didn’t get a chance to have a single game on America’s Most Haunted. It was down. Every time I went by to try to play it. Lots of concerned folks looking at the little green board in the backbox while on cellular telephones (“Collect call for Ben Heck from Pinfest, will you accept the charges?”). I was looking forward to giving this game a fair shake, ever since Nate Shivers of the Coast2Coast Pinball podcast raved about it at the Midwest Gaming Classic. I was wondering what I was missing. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be.

Lots of shopping to be done as well. All the usual suspects like Cointaker, Mayfair Amusements, and Marco Specialties had their tables set up in the main building. Business looked to be swift…Rottendog had “Sold Out” posted on many of their boards (great show specials available from the Rottendog crew), and the boys at Pinball Inc. looked like they had a very bare ramp table near the end of Saturday (completely selling out of their ramp stock for Creature from the Black Lagoon and a few others). New vendor Rob Kahr had his WPC daughterboard for sale and business looked to be successful for the newbie as well. Out of doors, countless U-hauls and bread trucks displayed their discarded arcade wares at the outdoor swap meet. The weather cooperated nicely with sunshine and a cool breeze. One seller had what looked to be a Hurricane Katrina show special–an Iron Man and Rolling Stones which can be best described as mud-caked and water-damaged. EABundy came forward on Pinside and admitted that he bought the Rolling Stones, I’m sure to attempt to recreate the magic he was able to conjure up with the T2 restoration.

I bought one of my treasures out of the back of one of these trucks as well…a Williams Fire! (which was the last game I featured on this site before leaving for Allentown…weird how fate works). The game was missing the display board which was quickly remedied with a brand new gas-less display board from the good folks at Rottendog for $100. This Fire! was, in my opinion, cosmetically superior to nearly all of the Fire! machines I’ve seen or played in the past. With a little wheeling and dealing, the price was too good to pass up, and I felt the need to have this Fire! make the 5 hour journey back to Canada with me. While loading the game onto my dolly, I was honoured to be briefly interviewed by Todd Tuckey of TNT Amusements…perhaps I’ll make an appearance on Mr. Tuckey’s YouTube channel? The game is a project for sure. It now sits in the garage, as I have not yet had the time, or nerve, to attempt an initial boot up. There was, however, a brand new, complete Marco rubber ring kit stuffed inside the cabinet…that has to be a good sign, right? That poo brown cabinet I was ripping on just two days ago will, with a little elbow grease, be sitting in my basement collection in the very near future.

In all, the show was extremely well attended and had about 250 games for free play on the floor at its peak Friday afternoon. As the weekend wore on, that number dwindled, due to breakage and outright sales, but that is to be expected. There were a few bargains to be found. The $700 Bally Mousin’ Around didn’t last long, and I’m sure many didn’t even make it into the show from the parking lot. Anyhow, those who wanted popular fare (TAFs a-plenty, four I think), to old gems (two 60s Williams games, Friendship 7 and Heat Wave, are of note here), to the off-beat standards that show up year after year (I swear I played these same copies of Kings of Steel and Swords of Fury last year) would not be disappointed with what was on free play display at this year’s show. The Allentown Pinfest remains the undisputed king of grass roots, blue collar pinball shows. So who’s in for next year?