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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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NEWS: Vonnie D Pinball announces “PINBALL GREMLINS”

Early this morning, after a lengthy teaser countdown, the pinball community was introduced to Vonnie D Pinball’s new project entitled Pinball Gremlins. The new machine was announced by way of a Kickstarter campaign and introduction video that asked for the community’s supportin realizing their dream of building a pinball machine. The video highlighted some lofty aspirations, which is fantastic, but only if those aspirations are realized. The goal they wish to achieve through crowd funding is $100,000USD, with supporter rewards that run from keychain-style trinkets to limited edition machines.

The Kickstarter announcement video featured engineer Von Davis and producer Wes Upchurch sitting in front of a row of pinball machines, speaking about the table they wish to produce. To appeal to a younger audience more attuned to video games, their Pinball Gremlins machine will be more “interactive” with the player, having players battle Gremlin “bosses” that actually “fight back” in various ways. I like the theme of “Gremlins in the machine”, as it is something everyone in the community can relate to–we’ve all had that nagging mechanical issue that can’t be explained within a machine in our collection and can only be attributed to a “pinball gremlin” wreaking havoc on the inside. And no, Pinball Gremlins has nothing to do with the 1984 film of the same name, but I’m sure confusion will exist.

Vonnie D Pinball stated that they are working with Pinball Life and Marco Specialties to provide the parts they require for production, and will have a board set developed by Pinball Controllers (the P-Roc guys). The game will be made in a widebody style. They have pinball designer Barry Oursler on board to provide further help in the design arena. With the original theme comes original artwork, which looks quite intriguing even though what was released isn’t much more than ink sketches at this time. LED lighting, a full-colour DMD and smaller LCD display screens near the playfield round out the features of note thus far. A playfield layout sketch was also released.

The Kickstarter funds don’t seem to cover anything special, they’ll just support the day-to-day operations of the company and help get the machine produced. As for the machines themselves, a $6,500USD Kickstarter donation gets you a standard version of the machine, while $7,000USD will get you a Limited Edition (that price raises to $8,000USD once ten at the $7,000USD level are sold). This version of the LE looks to have a run of 500. To complicate things further, there also exists a $9,000USD pledge that will get you a Kickstarter Limited Edition and a $10,000USD pledge for an “Ultra Rare Limited Edition Gold” version. You almost need a spreadsheet to keep track.

 

The announcement comes on the heels of Circus Maximus’ announcement over the weekend that they will be re-imagining Python Anghelo’s Pinball Circus and starting full-scale production without the aid of pre-orders of crowd funding. This market is getting dangerously crowded. The boutique market is seriously ready to collapse under its own weight unless one of these manufacturers can step up and prove that pinball on a small scale can actually run with Stern and Jersey Jack Pinball. Vonnie D marks another “boutique” manufacturer looking for money from the community up front to help get their machine made. However, there is already the feeling in the community that pre-ordering machines without actually seeing, touching and playing them first is just not best-practice anymore. Vonnie D has their work cut out for them, as their goal is quite lofty. However, selling a handful of their limited edition machines through Kickstarter will certainly get them there. It will be interesting to see if the community responds.

More insight and analysis to follow once more details are released.

Further Reading:
Kickstarter – Pinball Gremlins Pinball Machine
Vonnie D Pinball – Homepage

 

 

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FEATURE: Game Plan and the Mike Bossy Scoring Machine

I am an avid supporter of the New York Islanders hockey club. I started cheering for them when I was a kid–they were winning Stanley Cups in the early eighties so they easily achieved “favorite team” status. My current gameroom is painted orange, blue and white, Islanders colours, and memorabilia from their forty year history adorns the walls. Signed photos, game-worn jerseys, bobbleheads, sticks and pucks are just a few things down there. All that stuff seems less impressive to visitors as the memorabilia is out-muscled by an impressive row of pinball machines, my other collecting passion. Curiously, there is a point where these two collecting interests intersect–and it’s with Game Plan’s 1982 pinball machine, Mike Bossy: The Scoring Machine.

Game Plan began producing video games, slot machines and cocktail pinball tables in the late 1970s. Many of the pin games were designed by 1990s Data East stalwart Ed Cebula, who was, at the time, just starting out in the industry. The company found little success with their niche cocktail tables in an already crowded pinball market, itself on the verge of a massive collapse thanks to the popularity of upright video games. It is interesting to note that Game Plan saw licencing as a viable marketing strategy very early on. Black Velvet liquor, Real brand cigarettes and Camel Lights cigaterres were three early “themes” for the company, and remain the most interesting cross-promotional tables the pinball world has ever seen. It was no secret the intended market for Game Plan–-their early machines were not for kids in arcades, but rather for sophisticated, discerning adults in bars and private clubs. As time marched on and the pinball bust took effect, Game Plan reversed this strategy, whole heartedly in 1979, releasing the cocktail tables Family Fun!, which depicted the smiling faces of a mom, a dad and their leaping child, and Star Trip, a pseudo-Star Wars knockoff. These two “arcade friendly” games appear just before the company released their first traditional pinball table, and first real success, Sharpshooter. Sharpshooter was designed by Mr. Cebula, Joe Joos and pinball godfather Roger Sharpe (he’s also depicted as the main cowboy character on the backglass), and turned Game Plan into a viable upstart competitor to Williams, Stern and Bally.

Sadly, Game Plan would never reach the heights of success that Sharp Shooter had realized. The runs of their three following titles–Old Coney Island! (a knock-off of the Sharp Shooter design), Super Nova and Pinball Lizard-–barely sold as many games COMBINED as did Sharp Shooter’s entire run of 4,200 units. What followed those short run titles were two that never got out of the production stage at all: Global Warfare, a Cebula/Sharpe game with John Trudeau art (yes, THAT John Trudeau) that only managed ten sample games, and Mike Bossy: The Scoring Machine.

When Game Plan licenced the Bossy machine, he was at the top of his game. He was in the process of helping lead the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cups, and, in true “Scoring Machine” fashion, racked up fifty goal seasons in each of the campaigns he played. Further, he has the honour of being the only player to score back-to-back Stanley Cup game winning goals and the only player to score four game winning goals in one best-of-seven playoff series. All this on his way to holding the highest regular season goals-per-game average in NHL history, a record that stands to this day. He was undoubtedly worthy of his own pinball machine, yet it still seems an odd choice, because a young upstart named Wayne Gretzky was tearing it up in the NHL at the very same time. Bossy was a more proven and successful commodity, but Gretzky had youth, good looks and marketability on his side….AND his own action figure. The sports world has never really given the Islanders their due, even when they were dominating the NHL in a way rarely seen since, and Game Plan’s selection of Bossy was a rare instance of putting the spotlight on a member of the rag-tag franchise. Regardless, the game never made it to production. Only one prototype exists. Maybe they should have went with Gretzky.

The dual-layered backglass, think Bally’s Space Invaders or Stern’s Iron Maiden, featured a rear glass with a soft portrait of Bossy, and a front transparent glass with a depiction of Bossy skating, an Islanders goalie, and the game title text. The “O” in Bossy featured the Islanders logo. “Concept” for the overall game is credited to Gil Pollock, whose only other pinball credit is on another sports theme: Premier’s Chicago Cubs Triple Play. Game Plan workhorse Mr. Cebula is credited as designer. The playfield is sparse, to say the least. It is a three-flipper game–-the third mini-flipper is utilized near the top right of the playfield to help players snipe “goals” into a “net” located in the top left corner. The “net” is a bank of what looks to be four targets, with a single left-to-right moving target acting as the goalie trying to stop the ball from hitting the four-bank. Each goal is supposedly accompanied by a flashing goal light and the sound of a goal siren. Further, spelling “MIKE BOSSY”, through the orbit gate when lit or via targets that run down the right hand side of the machine, will help amass more points. The art itself relies on hockey sticks and shooting stars on the periphery, with Bossy stick-handling around three helmetless players in what look to be Boston Bruin uniforms as the main centrepiece of the playfield. The Isles logo appears amongst the busyness of the playfield and plastics, so not only was it a Mike Bossy machine, it was a New York Islanders machine as well. The art is very Bobby Orr Power Play-esque, which was probably the model that Game Plan was shooting for, so to speak. Photographs exist of the playfield with Islanders logos on the pop bumper caps. The photo of the playfield above was taken from the wonderful resource http://www.gameplanpinball.com, which is absolutely worth a visit for a complete rundown of Game Plan’s pinball history.

Overall, the game looks like it would be a dud. It has the sparse feel of a prototype mockup, which it is, however it must have made it through the white-wood prototype stage, as a complete populated playfield and professionally rendered backglass both exist. It also looked to be marketed as a multi-player game, as it would keep score, up to nine goals, between four different opponents. The promotional materials were vague at best, boasting the word “HOCKEY” over the name Mike Bossy, and claiming it was a “hockey game you play like a pin ball game”. It appears as if the Scoring Machine fell into some sort of neither region–a convoluted mix between a traditional pinball, a puck bowler, table top hockey and a pitch and bat–without actually deciding what the game was going to be. Instead of working out the kinks, I guess the idea was just completely scrapped.

Louisville, KY collector Jeremy Fleitz is the current owner of the only Bossy machine in existence, and according to his Pinball Magazine interview in Issue #1, the ROMs that do exist for the game are incomplete, so he’s taking it upon himself to write his own code to make the game function properly and more accurately replicate a “hockey game”. The game is cobbled together from one populated playfield and the two backglasses, which were all the fruits of a tireless hunt for Mr. Fleitz, whose collection boasts all the traditional pinball tables Game Plan ever made.

The reason I felt compelled to write this essay for Credit Dot at this time, is that I won an exclusive meet and greet with Mr. Bossy which occurred last night at a venue just outside of Toronto. After asking Mr. Bossy about his fifty goals in fifty games feat, and he asking me how on earth I became a New York Islanders fan living on the outskirts of Toronto, I brought up the subject of the Game Plan pinball machine. The aging Scoring Machine they now call “Boss” got a look of childlike wonder on his face, staring off into the distance with a faint smile. He said “It’s funny you should ask that, I had forgotten all about it.” I told him what I knew about the game and asked him what he remembered. He didn’t recall much. He remembered going to Chicago to meet with the folks from Game Plan, and obviously recalled that the game never actually materialized. “They didn’t actually make them, did they?”, he said. I told him what I knew about the one in existence. He said he was given a backglass at one point as a gesture of good will, but wasn’t sure what became of it. He bent down to sign a photo I had brought. The pen stopped, inches from the photo, and he shook his head, “I hadn’t thought about that in years!” he said quietly, “I’ll have to go digging through my things in the basement. You’ll have to give me your email address and I’ll let you know what I find.” I’ve had some epic moments in my life, but this nearly trumps them all: the greatest New York Islander of all-time asked for my email address so we could talk about pinball. They nearly had to scrape me up off the ground.

The author, his son, and the legend

It took three years for Game Plan to produce a commercially run machine between 1981’s Pinball Lizard and their 1983 offering Sharp Shooter II. That limbo period in between was taken up with producing video games and slot machines, and monkeying around with the Mike Bossy Scoring Machine pinball table. Established companies were having problems selling pinball games during these years as well, so folding on the Scoring Machine, a machine seriously lacking in direction, was probably a wise option. Finding a Mike Bossy machine for my pinball/Islanders basement game room is a next to impossible task–-I don’t see Mr. Fleitz parting with the only known one in existence any time soon. I’ll have to take solace in the fact that I stirred up some long forgotten pinball memories in one of the greatest players to ever pick up a hockey stick…and hope that he emails me about some further recollections of the project.

Further Reading:
Game Plan Pinball – Mike Bossy the Scoring Machine
Internet Pinball Database – Mike Bossy the Scoring Machine
Wikipedia – Mike Bossy the Scoring Machine
Pinball Magazine – Issue #1 Homepage


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NEWS: Python Anghelo’s Pinball Circus to be produced!

News broke at the Southern Fried Gameroom Expo on Sunday that a company called Circus Maximus Games will be producing a version of Python Anghelo’s prototype masterpiece Pinball Circus. Southern Fried’s Twitter feed broke the story giving just a few details: Circus Maximus is building two whitewood test tables, twelve prototype models, followed by a regular run of games with a production number yet to be determined. They also provided the picture to left of one of the Pinball Circus playfields, which is signed by the pinball vampire himself.

You had the feeling some sort of Python Anghelo project was on the horizon. From his final interview with Spooky Pinball, his last show appearance at the Louisville Arcade Expo and the final video released to his fans on Kickstarter and Pinside, you could tell something was bubbling just beneath the surface that Mr. Anghelo was excited to talk about. There was lots of speculation that he spent the final months before his death doing what he loved: designing pinball machines. This is probably one of the fruits of his final hours labour. How fitting that Mr. Anghelo’s legacy will be carried on by producing his controversial Williams design, a design that turned out to be his last for the company.

I had the pleasure of playing this rare game at the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. The production run of the game sits at just two prototype units. The Hall of Fame machine was donated to operator Tim Arnold by longtime Williams honcho Steve Kordek, and each play on the machine will run you one dollar. Much has been said about its unique four level vertical design, and most of it has to do with its novelty and rarity. There is not much to the gameplay–it is very simple and quite repetitive. The game sits inside of a modified upright arcade cabinet, and a DMD is located in the play area itself, a la Cirqus Voltaire. Gameplay focuses on progressing through the three rings of a circus represented by three different playfields. The fourth, and last, playfield represents a final battle with a circus clown. The game has odd flipper configurations throughout: the main playfield has off-set pair of primary flippers, while the third has only one right flipper with a kicker in place of left. After three or four games on the Pinball Circus, I had done all that there was to do in the game.

The main tagline associated with Pinball Circus from those who have played it is: “You’ve gotta play it, at least once.” The translation being: there ain’t that much to it, but it is unique enough to hold your attention for a game or two. Nate Shivers, Coast 2 Coast Pinball host and Southern Fried attendee, stated on Facebook that the Circus Maximus folks would be introduing features that Python Anghelo originally planned to have in the game. We can only hope that these changes will make the game a little more deep than the original prototype. Otherwise, Circus Maximus is going to have a hard time finding average customers who are willing to spend thousands of dollars on a one trick pony with so many other viable options in the market today. Nostalgia for Mr. Angelo alone will not sell the game, unfortunately. There will be some collectors who will buy this game in a heartbeat on reputation alone, but folks tight on money and space will probably have a hard time justifying the purchase.

As of press time I couldn’t find any information about Circus Maximus games or who they have on board as “talent”. Hopefully more details will roll out from the attending parties at the Expo once the excitement dies down. Wonder if this means a Zingy Bingy is on the horizon, too?


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PEOPLE: Matt from TITAN PINBALL

There are a lot of familiar sites online from which to order your pinball parts. Pinball Life. Marco Specialties. Bay Area Amusements. These are the big players. The established names. But today we are featuring a newcomer to the pinball supply scene, Titan Pinball. This Georgia-based company, run by the husband and wife duo of Matt and Eve, has just begun providing collectors with all the parts and supplies needed to “shop out” their games. As of press time, the breadth of items in their webstore is rather limited, but it is a supply that is growing daily. They do have a hook–they offer a full line of coloured rubber rings, allowing almost endless combinations of customization for the machines in your collection. I got the chance to ask Matt from Titan Pinball a few questions about throwing himself completely at the business of pinball supply and his plans for growth in the future.

Credit Dot: The Titan Pinball story begins after the company you worked for closed up shop and you became jobless. You decided to follow the course of action pinball enthusiasts only dream of: opening your own online pinball store. Was it nerve-racking making the initial decision?

Matt from Titan: The initial decision was more whimsical than anything. It just came up in conversation over dinner one evening. I didn’t really want to pursue a living in the same industry I had worked for the past fourteen years. What else could we do? How about pinball? The actual process of starting the business was beyond nerve-racking.

CD: Who are the members of the Titan “team”?

MT: I am the owner. My wife, Eve, is my supervisor.

CD: How did your relationship with pinball begin? What are some of the earliest games you remember playing?

MT: My first pinball experience was with my father in the early 80s. The local arcade had four or five machines. He would play pinball while I defended the earth from Space Invaders. Eventually, he persuaded me to give it a whirl. Eight Ball Deluxe is the first game I ever really remember playing. I recall being very frustrated by the difficulty of pinball and didn’t give it much of a chance. In the 90s, I was reintroduced to pinball through a popular college game room. They had (although I was unaware of it at the time) a great lineup of machines that constantly rotated in and out. The Addams Family, White Water, Junk Yard, Funhouse, Scared Stiff, and so on. I loved playing them, but lacked any real skill. The only way a replay was coming my way was through a match. It wasn’t soon after that pinball machines began to disappear on location. After a year or so, other interests had my attention and it would be fifteen years before I would enjoy playing pinball again.

CD: As for your business, how difficult is it to maintain competitive pricing? Do you always have your eye on other retailers’ websites?

MT: We try to stay up to date on competitor pricing. It’s very difficult to compete due to the volume in which larger stores purchase. We buy in volume whenever possible and, at least for now, have a low overhead which lets us sell at comparable prices.

CD: I’ll bet you’ve done your fair share of counting out quantities of hex screws and lock nuts!

MT: You have no idea…

CD: Do you have a facility you work out of? Or is your basement filled with pinball supplies?

MT: We work in an area that was formerly known as the living room. There is pinball machine in the kitchen, one in my office, and another under the stairs.

CD: How have you used social media and community-oriented websites such as Pinside to promote your store and connect with your customers?

MT: It’s a must when you are a small company in a smaller hobby. Other than “supervisor”, one of my wife’s other titles is “Social Media Manager”. So far, the response has been very positive and we have met a lot of friendly individuals in the pinball community.

CD: I hear international orders can be a bit of a headache. How are you handling shipping across borders?

MT: Shipping is a nightmare in general. We are still small enough to where each order can be given individual attention. Most overseas customers contact me through email first to discuss the shipping price before hand. We don’t like making money on shipping, so we always refund any overage.

CD: Can you shed some light on how the “Tilt-o-meter” came about and the manufacturing process?

MT: Out of the blue. We were working on the Flintstones with the playfield up when I happened to look down at the tilt. I wondered how hard it would be to have all of my machines set to the same sensitivity. The first Tilt-o-Meter was a piece of paper taped to the tilt mechanism. Then came the idea for a small device. After struggling with 3D printer software for a few days, I sent the model to be fabricated. We realized 3D printing was great for a prototype, but not really conducive for volume production. This gave us a great excuse to play with silicone molds. After much trial and error, we finally made a mold that works relatively well. We cast in resin, pop them out, sand them, and apply the label. Voila, you have a Tilt-o-Meter.

CD: You have complicated the age-old argument of white rubber versus black rubber buy selling six different colours of rubber rings plus the standard black and white. Are you the only company currently offering coloured rubber?

MT: As far as we know. Although I doubt it will be too much longer before someone else manufactures them.

CD: These rubber rings are made exclusively for Titan Pinball. How involved are you in the manufacturing process?

MT: Very. It’s been a year since we sent the first e-mail to a rubber manufacturer. There are always samples being sent back and forth–tweaking the color or the hardness, and trying out new companies. While we are happy with our current lineup of rings, there is always room for improvement.

CD: Do you assure the same feel and bounce as standard white rubber?

MT: No, primarily because of the different number of manufacturers being used in the industry. Some parts suppliers have their own formulas, while others rely more on NOS rings made several years ago. We looked more toward consistency throughout our product line. We order in Shore A 45, which is a relative equivalent to red flipper rubber.

CD: This innovation was a long time coming for a community ravenous to make their machines unique. Why has it taken so long for coloured rubber to hit the market?

MT: I think it was primarily due to the logistics of creating kits, and the possibility of offering too many choices and overwhelming the customer.

CD: Super-bands and Saturn Rings, two prominent flipper “rubber” innovations made with synthetic rubber, have been met with mixed reviews. Some claim they modify ball movement in undesirable ways, thus negatively changing the way a game plays. Others like the control the rubbers give. What is your opinion on these synthetic flipper bands?

MT: I think the new rings types are a much needed innovation for pinball. Whether or not you are a fan, it’s a new feel and it can change your experience with a machine. I believe that’s a positive thing. Coincidentally, we were toying around with a new rubber type a month or two before the urethane rings were announced. We only had the funds to bring in one type, so we stuck with the regular rubber. Currently, we are working with a new manufacturer to bring in a full line of silicone rings. We’ve given prototypes to a handful of players, and so far the response has been very positive.

CD: Will you eventually sell ring kits or will you leave it to the customer to compile their own?

MT: That has been the question from day one. We struggled for months trying to figure out how to make it easy for the community to get a kit with so many permutations of colors. Hopefully, we have found the solution. We are a week or two away from introducing a public, crowd-sourced database of rubber ring and led kits. Users will be able to easily make their own kits, upload photos, and tweak other users ideas. Eventually, these kits will be tied into product SKUs of any pinball supplier that wishes to participate. It’s hard to say whether or not it will work, but we are very excited about it.

CD: Looking at your sales figures, what is the most popular rubber size thus far? And the most popular colour?

MT: 2 and 2 1/2 inch. The most common slingshot sizes. I’d say red and blue have been the most popular, with purple a close second.

CD: Are there any new colours on the horizon?

MT: We hope so. If we continue to do well we’d like bring in some silver/grey, different shades of our more popular colors and, of course, hot pink!

CD: What items are you looking at adding to your stable of products in the future?

MT: Certainly more plastics, such as lane guides and pop bumper caps. We are already negotiating standoffs and mini-posts, as well as flipper rebuild kits. It’s still a little while off, but they are high up on the list.

CD: What games are currently in the Titan Pinball collection?

MT: We currently enjoy a Flintstones (our first restore), Star Trek: The Next Generation, Tee’d Off, and a Virtual Pin the wife and I built.

CD: To close, what advice you can give to others that are thinking of giving up their day job and turning their pinball passion into a business venture?

MT: The same advice I was given: Don’t! If you get into a pinball related business, you had better be doing it for the love of your hobby. It’s long hours for little/no pay. Having said that, I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s a passion, and we love it! It’s also mandatory to have a wonderful and understanding significant other. I am fortunate enough to have a fantastic wife, without whom none of this would be possible.

Please visit Matt and Eve at http://www.titanpinball.com. They can also be found at this weekend’s Southern Fried Gameroom Expo in Atlanta, GA.

Further Reading:
Pinside – Announcing Titan Pinball “Shop Out” Supplies & Colored Rubber Rings


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PEOPLE: An E-Mail from Doug Watson

I had contacted pinball artist Doug Watson earlier in the week to see if he would be interested in participating in an email interview about his time working in the pinball industry. Mr. Watson’s pinball artwork spans three decades and four distinct pinball manufacturers. Some of the games he worked on include 80s cult favourites like Devil’s Dare and Big Game, as well as some of the most popular titles of the DMD era like The Shadow, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Attack From Mars. My personal favourite piece of his is the backglass from the 1981 Williams game Barracora. It is absolutely breathtaking–the eyes of the fish-woman seem to peer directly into your soul. Mr. Watson is currently an instructor at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and has recently signed on with the upstart British pingame manufacturer Heighway Pinball. I received a response to my email from Mr. Watson yesterday afternoon, and in a strange bit of foreshadowing, a game on which he did the artwork showed up in my gameroom exactly twenty-four hours later:

Mr. Watson was extremely welcoming to an interview request, and went on to give me some rather nice feedback about this site. He also went on to comment on an article I wrote up a few days ago about Jersey Jack Pinball’s The Hobbit playfield artwork. In that article, I bemoan the cut-and-paste style of JJP’s release, and go on to generally lament the death of hand drawn playfield artwork. Turns out Mr. Watson agreed. So much so, his email briefly, but passionately, layed out his opinion on how times have changed along with the economics and aesthetics of pingame art. I was so taken by Mr. Watson’s email, that I found it a shame that I would be the only one to read it. I asked to post an excerpt on the site, and he graciously agreed:

“Rob,

I took a look at your Credit Dot site. Very well written in my opinion. I could not tell who the author of each essay was though. I assume you wrote a number of them but you don’t credit yourself. Who wrote the Hobbit playfield art essay? [Ed. note: It was me, I write them all] My opinion echoes the author’s. What he talks about is the absence of the imprint of an individual artist’s style. When you play a Gordon Morrison game, or a Greg Freres game, or a Kevin O’Connor game, or a John Youssi game, or one of mine you know it immediately. The artists from that era left an indelible imprint of their own unique artistic aesthetic on their games. In our modern era that has largely been lost.

The economics of pinball art are very different now. Game makers hire artists, often good ones, with no pingame experience whatsoever to do their art packages. No matter how gifted an illustrator may be, only long term ongoing close association with the development of the game fosters the wisdom and insight into how to make pin art, particularly playfield art, not just attractive and pleasing…but effective. In the 17 years I did it, I strove constantly to improve the effectiveness of my work. I experimented, I studied other artist’s work, I had failures and successes, and most of all I was a player. I knew what I wanted the artwork to do from a player’s standpoint and an operator’s standpoint, in addition to my designer’s standpoint and of course to a license holder’s standpoint.

The economics and technology of Photoshop-created art has played a huge role in 21st century pin art, combined with modern sophisticated process printing. Collaging together found images or those supplied by a license holder requires significantly less time and effort than the old days. Original art in an artist’s original style requires a great deal more effort. We old Bally and Williams artists used to pour our hearts and souls into our work. Greg, Pat, Tony and I did countless “all-nighters” to make printing deadlines. I remember we all would go two and three straight days without ever leaving the building to get a painting done. We would paint up until the last possible second until it had to be ripped off our desks and sent out for color separations. Then we would go home and crash in bed for a few days before coming back to work.

As an example, to get just the right look I wanted for the Martians in Attack from Mars I built an armature and sculpted a maquette about 9 inches tall, inventing it as I went. Then I set up lighting arrangements and posed it in different positions and took lots of photos. I recruited a lovely young lady from the front office to model and took her to a costume shop in Chicago to rent a Marilyn dress. Then I set up another photo session with her and eventually hand glued her into the arms of one of my Martians. The sculpting, the costuming, the lighting, the photography, and all the drawing that came afterward took weeks. Today an illustrator would simply go online, find a bunch of images and Photoshop them together. Might take them a couple days. And often these days the artist might not ever even play the whitewood of the game they are packaging. Ultimately the creative process and effort put into pinball art now is very different. It has a generic quality to it that struggles to satisfy the soul of anyone with a true passion for the genre.

Best regards,

Doug”

Consider that teaser to the upcoming interview I will conduct with Mr. Watson sometime in the coming month, or when time permits. Until then, check out Pinball Magazine #2 for a brief interview with Mr. Watson about the saga of the Demolition Man backglass artwork–it is a good look into the artwork revision process and the troubles associated with working with a licence. As a side note, Mr, Watson also mentioned that he would “walk through fire to work with Brian Eddy again”. Fitting, as I, and many other pinball aficionados, would walk through fire just to PLAY one of Brian Eddy’s machines. Anyhow, I look forward to talking to Mr. Watson further–he has a flair for the written word that certainly matches his flair in pinball artistry.

Further Reading:
Doug Watson Digital – Homepage
Academy of Art University – Homepage
Internet Pinball Database – Doug Watson Pinball History
Credit Dot Pinball – NEWS: JJP’s Hobbit Playfield (a lament for hand drawn artwork)


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FEATURED GAME: Bally KISS

Well, Stern got the Kiss licence. Somewhere in the distant future we are going see Gene Simmons and company on a Pro, a Premium, and as many different Limited Editions as our hobby will tolerate. No matter what the community says, this is a no brainer for Stern and a licence that should have been acquired years ago. There is a built-in fan base. If you look at pictures of any Kiss fanatic’s rec-room, you are bound to see, amongst all the other Kiss Krap, a 1979 Bally KISS pinball machine. Guaranteed, these same fanatics will pony up as much money as it takes to get a brand new Stern Kiss Dynasty Limited Edition (or whatever they are going to call it) right off the assembly line, if only to display beside the Bally original. The Bally game isn’t groundbreaking in terms of gameplay, but its popularity and theme make it a very important game in pinball history and an expensive game to obtain on the secondary market.

The game’s production began in mid-1978, but was ultimately released to the public in June 1979, with Kiss, arguably, at the peak of their popularity. This era saw the band release the certified platinum albums Love Gun and Dynasty, and the double platinum smash hit Alive II that redefined how the music industry recorded and marketed live albums. I think even hardcore fans would like to forget that the band also released their four individual solo albums during this period, which all eventually obtained platinum status, but are considered a commercial and artistic failure by many. At the time the pinball machine hit the market, their line of Barbie-sized Mego action figures were on the toy shelves across North America. The band also filmed a made-for-television movie entitled “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park” which aired on NBC in 1978, and is an absolute nightmare in both production value and storyline, but hey, they were on network television, right? Even if the quality went off the rails a time or two, Kiss always knew how to market themselves. They did something almost unachievable: they were at the forefront of 1970s pop culture, while existing as complete outsiders in the mainstream. They were the biggest band in America, selling out stadiums across the globe, but number one hits and artistic credibility eluded them. It is bound to happen with one-dimensional lyrics and silver face paint.

As with the Mego dolls, the backglass of Bally’s Kiss depicts the band in a slight variation of their Love Gun era costumes. The art is beautifully rendered by Kevin O’Connor–it is one of the earliest pinball art packages he worked on and is far and away his best work as a pinball artist. The backglass captures all the sexuality and excitement the band exuded while performing on stage. You can almost smell the sweat. I hope that’s sweat I smell. O’Connor still works in the medium, most recently working on Stern’s X-Men and Star Trek. It is interesting to note that O’Connor worked on Bally’s Star Trek as well, so if he gets the opportunity to work on Stern’s Kiss release, he will have come full circle on two licences (wait, make that three, he also worked on the Data East Simpsons and Stern’s Simpsons Pinball Party). The playfield features snakes and fire and lightning and breasts and everything that a teenager would be drawn to. The playfield follows the rule of fours: four drop targets, four pop bumpers, four stand-up targets, four letters in the bank A-B-C-D, a four-by-four matrix of K-I-S-S letters and, of course, four members of the band. There are five roll-over lanes at the top of machine that throws that whole theory off though–four of them representing a single letter in K-I-S-S and an extra lane in the centre to represent the entire word.

Image courtesy users.cis.fiu.edu/~jweiss

If the layout is too simple, at least it is nicely balanced. It is a Jim Patla design, he of Silverball Mania and Centaur fame. Kiss is more Silverball Mania speed (they both rely on spelling quite a bit), and is no where near as complex as Centaur. The game is about as simple as they come, with just one hook: spell KISS. Over and over and over again. This must have been a planned occurrence. The Kiss theme would probably draw people in, specifically the very young, who were not overly familiar with playing pinball. The game’s simplicity would work to hook them. There is a Kiss “matrix”, that spells out K-I-S-S four times on circular inserts, that lies in the middle of the playfield to track your progress of spelling the band’s name. Letters can be gained through the roll-over lanes at the top arch and at four red stand-up targets located around the playfield. Roll through that centre lane at the top arch I mentioned earlier and you will light one entire row of K-I-S-S letters. Also, knocking down all four drop targets on the left side will score you a KISS line. You really have to get the ball through that centre roll-over lane though: not only will it get you a full KISS line, it will open the return lane on the right and light the spinners for extra points. If you can light the entire four-by-four KISS matrix once it will award a super bonus. A second time awards the colossal bonus and the chance at a special. A third time lights another special only. Specials and extra balls can be awarded through the right bank of A-B-C-D targets. Pretty standard fare.

The game sports a Bally AS-2518-35 MPU, which was Bally’s go-to unit from about 1977 until they moved to the ever troublesome 6803 operating system under the Bally/Midway banner. With a little elbow grease and some well documented modifications, the -35 MPU can be solid, and if not, you can always get yourself any one of a handful of after market replacements. The Internet Pinball Database page for the game has a quote from a Bally employee claiming that the game had originally contained speech in prototype versions, which would have preceded Gorgar, the first game with speech, by about a year-and-a-half. The sound package contains all the beeps and bloops of the era, with the extra bonus of having a few lame bars of “Rock and Roll All Night” play when you start a game, and an almost unrecognizable electronic mess of the “Shout It Out Loud” chorus at game over. They should have sunk their money into speech. Foreign markets received a different backglass than the North American market at the request of the Germans: the two trademark lightning bolt “S” letters in the Kiss name were changed to generic lettering (reminiscent of sports jersey lettering), as it too closely resembled the “SS” logo of the Nazi police. Germans have the right to be a little sensitive about Nazi connotations, I suppose, but it just goes to show how much influence the European distributors had over American pinball manufacturers. Add this change to a list which includes, but is not limited to, an alternate backglass for Special Force and the introduction of Williams lightning flippers.

As a Kiss fan, the only reason I don’t own this game is that they demand insane money on the secondary market. They made an absolute ton of these games, a run of 17,000 confirmed units, but the problem is condition. The game did so well on location, for so many years, that the original playfields are absolutely blown out to the bare wood (especially around the centre Kiss matrix) and the cabinets beat to hell and back. Reproduction playfields are available, but sinking that kind of money into such a one dimensional game is something few collectors are willing to do–unless the machine holds some sort of sentimental value or they happen to be a Kiss fanatic. Reproduction pop bumper caps are also out there, and they are probably the coolest to ever grace a machine: each one bearing the visage of one of the members of the band.

With Stern’s Kiss machine on the horizon, you’d think that this table would be trending up in price, but at its current value, that would be difficult. Be prepared to pay $3000USD and up for a decent version, more for something completely restored. I can’t see prices that high trending further upwards, but stranger things have happened. How can a game from this era command such an insane price? The reality is, you are paying for the Kiss branding and nothing more. Without some sort of intimate connection to this game, my guess is that most pinball collectors would rather have a Funhouse, Terminator 2 or Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in their lineup for that kind of dough.

Bally’s Kiss is the kind of game that you’ll be able to get out of your system if you play it for a half-hour at a buddy’s place, the Vintage Flipper World museum, or the Pinball Hall of Fame. Nothing ground breaking, but it is worth the experience. Imagine walking up to this game as an 11-year-old Kiss fan with a pocket full of quarters. You’d be in total awe. Just like the band, this machine has style to spare, but very little substance to make it worthwhile. And as a Kiss fan, it pains me to say that.