On the heels of Stern announcing their Vault Edition of Iron Man, Jersey Jack Pinball ponied up with the playfield art for their forthcoming Hobbit machine. Reviews within the community were mixed, as they tend to be. If you are okay with photographic collages, you’ll probably be okay with the look of this playfield. It attempts to follow the lead of grander and “epic-ness” set by Stern’s Lord of the Rings. In that respect, it’ll look good next to its predecessor. But, there is something off…maybe it’s the lack of originality. I’m looking at this in terms of art alone, not actual playfield mechanics, because frankly, there isn’t much there yet in terms of mechanics to dissect.
I’m kind of sad that Jersey Jack Pinball didn’t go outside the box on this one. I get it, it’s a licence. They were probably handcuffed by the studio to employ a certain style or a specific set of images. Yet, whatever happened to a time when a pinball company could put out a game like Demolition Man or Jurassic Park and uphold their end of the licence while having appropriated hand-drawn art? Maybe it’s just far easier now to get a graphic artist to cut and paste from production stills. Also, these photo paste-up playfields better serve the studio’s unified vision of the original film. Without sounding like an old man–“In the good ol’ days, sonny, we used to have hand-drawn art on our playfields…!”–-I really DO lament those bygone days. Sure, most of the art on the 1990s Data East games looked whispy and weak, but Williams/Bally/Midway had it down to a science with their robust black outlines and bold colour choices. Games used to stand alone as their own work, with a fresh take. Now, they are just pieces of merchandise that carry pre-approved production images–-the same ones that are sent out to toy companies, food manufacturers and the Bradford Exchange.
What the community wouldn’t give to have this Hobbit playfield carry “Tolkien-style” artwork, or at least one artist’s rendering of the film’s characters in that style. The literary roots of the franchise begs for a more refined, delicate approach. I’ve never read the Hobbit books, nor am I a fan of this brand of fantasy, but don’t hand drawn maps play a huge role in these kinds of books? There are maps on Jack’s playfield, but they are tucked away in the upper right and left orbits. I believe there are a whole host of artists who make their salt by drawing elves, dragons and wizards. However, time is not on Jersey Jack’s side, it never has been, and one can assume art approval would have ate up valuable manpower in an already tight production schedule, even if that was an approach the company wanted to take. Maybe cut-and-paste art was the way to go here, given time and budget: the path of least resistance. This game has to get out by the end of the year in time for the release of the third film in the series.
What makes this artwork choice for the Hobbit playfield even more curious, is that Stern, who perfected the cut-and-paste technique, has made a marked effort to move away from the approach with its recent releases. They tried to make up for past indiscretions by releasing a new version of AC/DC, removing all photographic art on the cabinet and translite and replacing it with images bearing the artist’s touch. Metallica was lauded for signalling a return to the “playfield artist”, thanks to the participation of Dirty Donny. Even Mustang tried to bestow artistic credibility upon itself by boasting the inclusion of artist/designer Camilo Pardo to the creative team. Stern is listening: we wanted original art, and we got it. It’ll be interesting to see if they are strong-armed back to their old ways with future releases, especially those with high profile film or television licences attached to them.
It boils down to this: the community wants something value added and something unique that doesn’t look like DVD packaging or a plastic collector’s cup from Burger King. The easiest way to inject value, yet probably the costliest, is through drawn art. Everything about a pinball machine is considered “art” these days–the mechanics, the toys, the electronics, the way the ball moves–but the actual art package of the machine is what injects heart and soul into an otherwise cold and commercial unit. This Hobbit playfield art doesn’t scream hear and soul, unfortunately. Its computer generated images are just one step away from the static electronics contained inside the backbox.
What is present isn’t that impressive. The cut-and-paste dragon on the middle of the playfield looks oddly out of place, as do the disembodied heads by the drop targets and inserts. There also seem to be too many shadowy images of scenes from the film scattered mid-playfield. The artist in charge is trying to tell too much of the epic story on the playfield. You guys have an LCD SCREEN IN THE BACKBOX for crying out loud! Let your most powerful mode of communication in the entire machine tell the story. A lit insert with a bit of text would suffice on the playfield as a place holder. Steve Ritchie, the king of in-your-face, over-the-top style, took a step back with the most recent Star Trek and allowed the art to be more subdued, leaving the playfield uncluttered and allowing the game’s yarn to unravel through physics, animations and programming. Once the toys and wire forms are included I’m sure the playfield will seem less offensive to the senses. I am, however, glad the playfield isn’t scattered with hundreds of inserts, like Jersey Jack’s Wizard of Oz. Different themes call for different approaches, and less inserts on the Hobbit was the right approach to take. I hope the inserts that are added work to fill out some of the colours in the game. Stern’s Lord of the Rings playfield is extremely colourful in artistic flourishes, whereas the Hobbit doesn’t stray far from muddy earth tones and hints of gold.
I suppose it is a difficult task to capture the events of nine cinematic hours of film in a single machine with the licensor’s gun to your head. But Stern somehow did it with Lord of the Rings, with less disembodied heads and way more colour. It still boggles my mind how Stern can change their artistic ways after all these years to the universal applause of the pinball community, while Jersey Jack Pinball chooses to rely upon the same old drag n’ drop principles of playfield art. Someone please call John Youssi or Mark Sprenger, their services are desperately needed.