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.
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.