CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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NEWS: JJP’s Hobbit Playfield (a lament for hand-drawn artwork)

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.

Further Reading:
Pinside – Hobbit Artwork Revealed!
Fun With Bonus – Jersey Jack’s The Hobbit Playfield

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PEOPLE: “Pinsanity” Organizer Ken Rossi

Every May, there is an annual 32-player pinball tournament held in Somers Point, New Jersey, just a stone’s throw away from the home of wrestler King Kong Bundy: Atlantic City.  The tournament was dreamt up by one man, Ken Rossi, and he has been hosting the tournament in his well-stocked gameroom for the past three years.  The tournament attracts some of the best players in the Northeast, but more popular than the tournament itself are the posters that Mr. Rossi has created that promotes not only the tournament, but the pinball hobby as well.  Mr. Rossi has sold his posters across the US, and internationally for that matter, for his small basement tournament.  Never has a tournament, from Pinburgh on down to local league tournaments, had such a unified vision and integrated theme.  Because of demand, Mr. Rossi has had to up the limited production run of this year’s posters, and also consider re-running past posters that sold out quickly.  I had the chance to ask Ken Rossi about the challenges of running a tournament out of his home and pick his brain about the artistry associated with the Pinsanity project.

Credit Dot: This past May, you hosted the third yearly incarnation of the Pinsanity tournament. Can you give us some info about the tournament and its history?

Ken Rossi: After buying my first pinball machine in around 2009, I became quickly addicted as many of us do. I started to look for tournaments and shows locally or within a few hours drive to dive deeper into the hobby. I was told to go to a tournament at a guys home in Broomall, PA–his name was Rick Prince. After seeing Rick’s collection and having a ton of fun, I knew I had to eventually host my own tournament and invite him and the rest of those folks to my house. It took me a few years to build my collection to where I felt it was tournament worthy. While building, I would attend other tournaments and get ideas of how to run things: formats, game settings, etc. My collection quickly grew from 1 game to 3 games to 16 games. I had to finish off the garage, build the gameroom, restore the games, and learn to do board work–that’s how Pinsanity v1.0 was born. The Tournament is an all day event. The first half of the tournament is generally match play format similar to Pinburgh. I use Brian Smith’s software for that which is called Monthly Masters Tournament–you can buy it on iTunes for the iPad. This seeds the players for the second half of the day, which is some sort of elimination style format. Next year will be a new format I’m working on: survivor style with a double elimination twist. We also do a side tournament usually with 2 or 3 classic games which is played like a PAPA style Bank, and it has its own payout and is usually $3 or $5 per entry.

CD: Can you highlight some of the games that appeared at this year’s tournament?

KR: This year we had World Cup Soccer, Theatre of Magic, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Judge Dredd, Demolition Man, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, AC/DC, Jurassic Park, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Lord of the Rings, The Machine: Bride of Pinbot, High Speed, King Pin, Airborne Avenger, Conquest 200, Centaur…that’s most of them, but I might be missing some!

CD: The tournament is limited to 32 players…why the cap?

KR: Really, the cap is limited for two reasons. First, I just don’t have the space for more people to be comfortable, especially if the weather is bad. Luckily every year the weather has cooperated–we like to move games outside under tents for the side tournament, and put ping pong and foosball outside so people can unwind between rounds, I like to make it feel a little like a mini-festival. The other reason is the amount of games to people ratio. I like to have plenty of games in case something breaks, which something always does. And for the finals, the one thing you don’t want is people waiting around for games to end late into the night.

CD: How stressful is it running AND playing in your own tournament?

KR: It can be extremely stressful, especially if you are the one fixing the games, designing the posters and shirts, ordering the food and preparing your home for 30-40+ people to invade, all while doing your normal day to day stuff, like running a company. The stressful part for me is probably doing all the artwork for the posters and T-shirts, getting everything printed and coordinated, and building the trophy each year… but it is also the part I most love to do. As far as playing in the tournament, I’ve played terrible at Pinsanity every year so far. You’re always getting pulled in different directions, so I really do it for the folks that come…I can play well at THEIR tournaments when I’m not feeling so pressured.

CD: What are some of the highlights from the first three years of Pinsanity?

KR: Well, there are always some incredible players that come from the Northeast…lots of guys in the Top 100 play at this tournament so some unbelievable scores get put up and matches get played. How fast the registration fills up is also amazing. I’m glad people enjoy the tournament that much! A non-pinball related highlight for me was during Pinsanity v1.0–my friend Ewan Dobson played guitar during the dinner break. He’s pretty unbelievable on guitar. Do yourself a favor and check out some of his YouTube videos here.

CD: The main reason this tournament is so widely known across North America is because of the fantastic posters you make to promote the event. Why did you decide to make posters for an event with such a limited number of attendees?

KR: I started making the artwork and posters because I wanted Pinsanity to feel more like an special event or festival about pinball then just a tournament on a Saturday at some guys house in Jersey. I live five minutes from the beach so some of the artwork, like the roller coaster and Ferris Wheel in Pinsanity v2.0, are sort of attributed to the location I’m from. There is a theme throughout, and each year I try and decorate the gameroom or trophy with bits of those elements. Last year when you registered, the day of the tournament, everyone was given a small toy alien, some of them are marked with prizes like a free t-shirt or free poster, this year everyone got small astronauts. Next year everyone will get dinosaurs…I hope I’m not giving to much away! The theme of the tournament is just something I really like to play off of creatively, and it helps me procrastinate from doing my real job!

(L) The trophy doubles as a drink shaker (R) Pinsanity moonmen

CD: Can you describe the printing process? Each poster is hand-printed and signed by you?

KR: The printing process is basically two color silk screen printed on a nice heavy paper. I get my posters printed at Enemy Ink in Florida, these guys do really great work. I sign and number each one and ship them to pinball enthusiasts all over the world…it is really an honor to see pictures of the posters I designed hanging in other peoples gamerooms. The pinball community is a tight knit group of amazing, kind and friendly people…it is a special hobby that deserves a little artwork.

CD: Are you a graphic artist by trade?

KR: Yes, I went to school for fine art and graphic design near Philadelphia.  I now own a small design company called Evolve Studios, and we mostly focus on print and web design and development.

CD: How did you arrive at the original “Mortal Man vs. Machine” theme?

KR: I’m not really sure how that came about, but pinball is really a physical battle between you and the machine. For Pinsanity v1.0, I came up with that when I was designing the robot made of pinball parts–I wanted something that felt like the winner was not only battling all the other players at the tournament but in the end had to defeat the machines to take home the trophy. I’ve always been into mechanical things and robots and space aliens and time travel…so I just kind of ran with it.

Courtesy of Pinsider SilverUnicorn.

CD: Each poster seems to add to an overall story. Can you elaborate on that? At what point did you decide to approach the posters in that way?

KR: Yes there is a story or theme…sort of.  Pinsanity v1.0 was about man fighting an evil robot constructed of pinball parts. He got defeated by Chris Newsome (winner of Pinsanity v1.0.) People wanted the robot to be integrated into the following year’s theme, but that wouldn’t totally make sense, so I decided from that point forward I would put parts of every past poster into the current one. So I turned the robot into scraps and made him a pinball machine as you can see in v2.0.

In Pinsanity v2.0, the aliens steal that pinball machine in hopes to resurrect their original evil robot. The aliens succeed in stealing the machine but not before Koi Morris (winner of Pinsanity v2.0) battles them into outerspace.

In Pinsanity v3.0 is about retrieving the Machine from the aliens and bringing it back to Earth to keep Humanity safe from the most evil pinball machine ever made.

For Pinsanity v4.0, well …. lets just say they make it back to earth, but they’re a few million years in the past!


CD: Even though they are limited to fifty per run, are you thinking of reprinting prior posters collectors may have missed?

KR: The first two years were limited to fifty.  This year’s was limited to 90 because of demand. I have thought about re-running the older posters, if I did I would probably make them a limited version–maybe different colors or just something different so the original short run keeps its integrity and collectability.  Not that they will be worth anything…but you never know…

CD: How humbling is it to know that your art is hanging in game rooms across North America?

KR: Its extremely humbling to know not only is my artwork in some incredible game rooms in America, but I have sent posters all over the world: Canada, New Zealand, Australia, France, The Netherlands and more! I love that people around the globe like the work and enjoy playing pinball as much as the rest of us do.

CD:With the word spreading about Pinsanity through the popularity of the posters, is there any chance that you will expand the tournament next year to include more players?

KR: I would like to expand the tournament, but right now its just not possible, unless I move or decide to get a bigger location it will probably just stay the size it is. I’m good friends with another collector about fifteen minutes away, so this year we had a tournament the night before at his house from 9pm to 2am called Pinsomnia – these two tournaments may piggy back again or could turn into a full weekend event with Saturday and Sunday tournaments! [Ed. note: Pinsanity?  Pinsomnia?  C’mon! Ken comes up with the coolest tournament names, doesn’t he!  Please make Pinsomnia posters!]

CD: This project seems like a labour of love. At $25 per poster, shipping included. There doesn’t seem to be much money to be made here. Am I correct?

KR: Yep totally a labor of love, I make a few bucks on each poster but in reality the time invested and spent doing everything actually costs me money, its about making something people can enjoy and helping the pinball community and pinball in general grow and survive.

CD: T-shirts with the same design as the poster are also available. Is this the first year for them?

KR: Nope I’ve done T-shirts for all three years. They are just very limited because of the sizes and cost. I dont want to have 20 xxl shirts sitting here that I can’t get rid of, so I do a small run mainly for the guys that show up at the tournament.

CD: A question unrelated to the Pinsanity project. What are your absolute keeper games in your collection that you never get tired of playing? Any games currently on your radar you’d like to add?

KR: I like games that are good tournament playing games, so games like Bram Stokers Dracula will probably never leave, and others like Centaur, High Speed, Lord of the Rings, too. I would like to get another Funhouse, and maybe add a game like White Water or an older Solid State game like Harlem Globetrotters On Tour to the collection.

CD: I’d like to close with a philosophical question…who IS winning in the battle in the recent resurgence of pinball? Man OR machine?

KR: I would have to say the Machines are still winning, men come and go but I have machines that are 40 years old and play like the day they came out of the box, not to many men can say that!

Ken Rossi’s Pinsanity posters are available directly by contacting Mr. Rossi at ken@evolvestudios.com.  As of writing, only the 2014 edition, V3.0, are available, but are extremely limited.  Best to buy them ASAP if you want one.  Pricing is set at $25USD including shipping within the USA, $30USD including shipping to Canada, and $35USD including shipping to Australia.  T-shirts from the 2014 tournament are also available for $25USD, but sizing is limited.  Check the below Pinside link for sizes.  Look for V4.0 of the poster (and the tournament) in May of 2015.

Further Reading:
Pinsanity – Official Site
Ken Rossi’s Evolve Studios – Official Site
Pinside – Pinsanity V3.0 Posters
Pinside – Pinsanity V3.0 T-Shirts Very Limited Quantity


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PEOPLE: Python’s Sausage Party

While sitting around in a hotel room full of fifteen pinball collectors, drinking beer and watching a pin-tech fix an old EM, I was privy to a story about the late, great Python Anghelo. The story sounds more like folklore than fact, with details added and details taken away in its retelling. I’m not sure if this was a commonly told tale at Pinball Expo over the years, but I had never heard it before. As Jimmy Stewart says, in the film The Man Who Shot the Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Fitting, since Python is a true legend in the industry.

So the story goes, Python Anghelo had a favourite Polish delicatessen in Chicago that he frequented on a regular basis. Ever the lover of smoked and encased meats, this deli was his local source for some of the best Polish kielbasa and sausage in the entire city. This was not Python’s little secret, the deli was known as the go-to meat spot in the Chicagoland area. One day in late 1987, Python stopped in to load up on some of his favourite meaty treats. It was only after the butcher filled the order, that Python noticed the enormously long line to pay the cashier. He was late as it was. Waiting in that cash line would make him much, much later. So, he decided to do what any reasonable artist and pinball designer would: stuff the sausage into his coat and walk out the front door without paying for it. But the owner of the store caught him red handed. He called the cops and imposed a lifetime ban on Python, barring him from ever stepping foot inside his deli again. Python may have lost a little bit of pride that day, but more devastating was the fact that he had lost the privilege of shopping in his favourite Chicago delicatessen.

Was Python ashamed? Probably not. He seemed like a guy that wasn’t ashamed of much. In fact, to celebrate this indiscretion, he created a promotional plastic piece for the game Cyclone that depicted a clown with a trench coat full of sausages, forever venerating the time he got caught stuffing sausages into his own coat. I’m sure you thought those hanging sausages in the clown’s coat were a reference to something phallic!


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NEWS: VAULT SPELL G-R-E-E-D, Stern Announces Iron Man Vault Edition

Does Stern’s PR department not do fact checking?  Do they not know that the words VAULT and GREED are forever connected in the world of pinball thanks to the Addams Family?  No matter…

Shortly after noon today, Stern announced they would be re-releasing Iron Man, in a special edition they call the “Iron Man Pro Vault Edition”, which, essentially, will feature LEDs instead of the original incandescent bulbs and improve the casts of the villain figurines on the playfield. No word on whether the game will feature artwork changes for the backglass or cabinet.

The impact seems minute at first glance: a company is remaking a product that was a dud when first released, but has since increased in popularity and a demand now exists for more. Anyone who has ever wanted an Iron Man, or even thought about owning an Iron Man, can now have a Vault Edition for a MSRP of $5495USD. This premise was first attempted, successfully, by Stern with multiple runs of Tron. However, the catchy “Vault” tag wasn’t used, rather, different translites indicated the different runs of the game. Stern and the pinball community at large are traversing a very different landscape now than we were back in 2012. In two short years, the market has become crowded with some excellent Stern releases with multiple models for each title, Jersey Jack’s games finally entering the market place, the actual realization of a few boutique titles like Predator and America’s Most Haunted, announcements of even more boutique titles like Wrath of Olympus and Full Throttle, and, of course, the Planetary Pinball remake of Medieval Madness. That final example is probably the catalyst for all of Stern’s recent re-envisionings like AC/DC’s Luci edition and this Iron Man redux.

I think Stern is well aware of the money, both real and imaginary, tied up in pre-orders. Whether the money is sitting in a manufacturer’s bank account in the form of a deposit or in the collector’s bank account in the form of earmarked money that will be going to a pre-ordered title, Stern wants it. Badly. If folks are willing to pay eight grand for a Medieval Madness, Stern is betting that folks would be willing to pay five (or less, retail) for an Iron Man. Sure, its apples and oranges in terms of theme but it’s the same basic idea: a fan layout old and cherished, in limited supply, made better, stronger and faster while maintaining the original spirit of the game. And with many of these pre-orders having refundable deposits, each new release by Stern has the potential to pull money away from a competitor’s project and add to their own bottom line. That’s a win-win if I ever heard one. Stern is gambling on the fact that we, as a community, are impatient and need instant satisfaction. Why wait six more months for a Medieval Madness? Why wait another six (hopefully) for The Hobbit? Why wait, well, who knows how many more, for one of John Popadiuk’s games? Just buy an Iron Man. We have lots and we have them now…no need to pre-order. Stern wants you to unlock your bank vault, and buy into their “Vault”.

Do you think Stern cares that the value of your original Iron Man just went down the toilet? Not a chance. They aren’t concerned what’s “good for pinball”. As far as they are concerned, they ARE pinball. Your old Iron Man is competition, just as a Williams Whirl Wind or a Data East Guns N’ Roses is “competition”. Competition in as much as it is a four hundred pound game taking up valuable space in your game room and valuable dollars in pinball assets. Stern needs both of those to stay in business. However, this may be a bit short sighted. If the secondary market dips enough, it will end up hurting new-in-box sales–nobody is going to want to put out five grand, only to have their investment sink to two-and-a-half grand when they try to sell the title in a year. It is a vicious cycle. It challenges Stern to include more “value added” features, and produce more “keepers”, however, your guess is as good as mine how many different titles, at thousands of dollars per pop, this community can sustain. We gotta run out of pinball money sometime, no? The operators can’t support Stern on their own.

I think this announcement will also create discussion about what other titles will re-enter “Vault” production. The Simpsons Pinball Party? Spider-Man? Both are candidates–they are titles that are always in demand in the secondary market and have held their value well. Could Stern venture back into the Data East catalogue? I’m actually at a loss as to what Data East games would be worth remaking…none come to mind…but something may click. It will be interesting to see how this all rolls out in the coming weeks, and leading up to the games actually hitting the market. Given Stern’s stinginess with production numbers, it will be a guessing game how many will actually be remade unless they announce a cap. Perhaps the losers in this whole situation, besides original Iron Man owners, are those that were waiting for the official announcement of Stern’s next game. Everything old is new again. Everything new must wait.

Further Reading:

Pinside – Stern is Re-Releasing IM

Stern Pinball – Iron Man Is Back!


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FEATURE: Santiago Ciuffo’s PINBALL

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Roger Sharpe’s landmark publication “Pinball!” and wondered aloud if the recent Pinball Magazine publication of Santiago Ciuffo’s book “Pinball” would serve as a companion piece to Sharpe’s book or run in a completely different direction. I’m happy to report, it does both.

The goods arrived from the Netherlands, packaged superbly in reinforced cardboard. The mail carriers would’ve had to work extra hard to inflict damage upon it. The cover price of €30.95 (plus shipping from Europe) is admittedly quite rich, but you are getting a professionally printed, tightly bound hardcover coffee table book in return. Typically, photography books such as this tend to skew on the expensive side, so perspective is everything here. If you have ordered an issue of Pinball Magazine from their site, you are already familiar with the costly cover price, but also the suburb product Jonathan Joosten and the Pinball Magazine staff have to offer. My hat is off to Mr. Joosten, for without his dedication to the project and securing the international rights to publish this book, it probably would not have seen the light of day outside its native Argentina. Packaged with Ciuffo’s book is a supplement under the Pinball Magazine banner that features an interview with the photographer (in 12 languages) and contains photos that are exclusive to the supplement and not found in the bound publication. As a bonus to early adopters, the first five hundred books ordered also include a set of ten postcards featuring exquisite photos from Ciuffo’s image bank. This postcard set is absolutely suitable for framing, as the quality is akin to something you’d find in a museum gift shop. My book came with a set of these postcards, so as of writing, we are still within the “first five hundred” quota.

Whereas Roger Sharpe and photographer James Hamilton presented pinball as a global phenomenon (and it needed to be presented that way, as nobody had bothered to organize the game in such a historical framework prior), Mr. Ciuffo presents pinball as a national phenomenon in his home country of Argentina. For North Americans, and many Europeans, this is a unique and fresh look at the game, both historically and culturally. Mr. Sharpe punctuated Mr. Hamilton’s photos with an outpouring of love for the game; Mr. Ciuffo lets his pictures do the majority of the talking. Other than a brief introduction and a few end notes, the book is packed with nearly 200 pages of incredible pinball photography.

The written word is not needed for the most part. The games themselves tell the story. I would surmise that the target audience of this book will already be familiar with the majority of the games photographed, which reduces the need for descriptions or footnotes. During the three language introduction, Mr. Ciuffo teases the reader by including black and white images of the games we love. Page after page is devoid of colour, until your visual sense is overwhelmed with the bright colours of a Bally bingo game called Variety. From there on out, the colours and visual textures of the machines in their natural environment are on full display. Many of the machines are worn, beaten or otherwise blown out. Other photographers would have balked at the chance to photograph a severely cracked and worn Gottlieb Charlie’s Angles backglass, but Mr. Ciuffo did not. To me, this is the book’s most gorgeous photo, and conveys, without words, the Argentinean aura of pinball that Mr. Ciuffo was trying to capture. In a hobby where collectors are obsessed with the terms “completely restored” and “collector’s quality”, it is refreshing to see that well-loved and well-used games are getting their due. Mr. Ciuffo would probably have a hard time tracking down expertly restored games to photograph on Argentinean soil (compared to their abundance in America), but something tells me that wasn’t what the photographer was after anyhow. There is also a fantastic photo of a completely blown out Stern Nine Ball playfield, worn to the wood, that is unrecognizable save for the mylar’d portions of paint in front of the vertical drop targets.

Most of the games photographed are from the 1960s through the early-1980s (historical factors are discussed in the intro to the book as to why these games are prevalent), with a few of the earlier bingo-style pin games thrown in for good measure. Late solid state games do make cameo appearances though–I spotted a Fish Tales, a Hurricane and a Lethal Weapon 3 in the background of some photos, but they are surely not the focus here. Half the fun is picking out the games lurking in the shadows, whether they be complete or in parts. Many photos capture the less-than-perfect machines in their natural Argentinean environment, packed into storage sheds or piled high in humid warehouses waiting for a former operator to part them out. The games are not the only focus, though. One fantastic two-page spread shows members of a Buenos Aires pinball club huddled around a topless Medieval Madness, talking repair strategy, while meat roasts on a nearby outdoor grill. This photo, in conjunction with the aforementioned Angels backglass and Nine Ball playfield, capture the current state of the hobby in Argentina–passion for the game fuelled by a kinship that exists between fellow collectors, while simultaneously existing within less than perfect, sometimes downright ugly, collecting conditions. We North Americans take a lot for granted, as these pictures portray, however pinball comradery appears to be universal (and is probably stronger under trying and challenging circumstances).

Hopefully this book is met with success. It really deserves it. And hopefully more books follow in the same vein. We have all seen these games before at shows or in our own private collections, but when was the last time you looked at, I mean really looked at, the playfield art of a Gottlieb Roller Disco? Mr. Ciuffo included a two-page spread of a detail close-up, with its almost blinding pinks, oranges and purples, and it highlights the absolute beauty of Gordon Morison’s original artwork. The success of this book will probably foretell the possibility of future projects, but this book really begs for other photographers to capture the games and players in their own nation, and create a pictorial history of their own country. I mean, how does a coffee table book of pinball photography, from special pinball events and notable private collections around the United States, not exist yet? Someone needs to quit their day job and get on this! Gene X. Hwang, are you reading this? Jonathan Joosten, can you please make it happen? However, it will not be an easy task, as Mr. Ciuffo has set the bar quite high under an optimal set of cultural circumstances. The photographer can be absolutely proud of what he has accomplished and bestowed upon the pinball community.

If you are still reading this, I believe it is time for you to head over to Pinball Magazine’s webstore site and order Santiago Ciuffo’s book for yourself…if you have the funds at your disposal. The price, again, is the only stumbling block, however, a project like this cannot be successful if done on the cheap. The book is museum quality, and the quality of the contents cannot be beat. Mr. Ciuffo’s book will be placed next to my copy of the Sharpe/Hamilton tome on my gameroom bookshelf–a higher honour cannot be bestowed. I will be taking it out frequently and letting my mind wander off to a musty, humid old Argentinean warehouse where an old man has Stern and Bally pins stacked to the rafters…

 

 


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FEATURED GAME: Gottlieb VOLLEY

In 1973, Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King captured the interest of a nation by participating in a tennis match labelled “The Battle of the Sexes”. The media frenzy leading up to the match brought tennis, momentarily, to the forefront of American sport. Riggs was outspoken and sexist (it may have been an act) claiming that the women’s tennis game was inferior to the men’s. King went on to beat the 55-year-old handedly–Riggs was clearly past his prime. Over 30,000 people were in attendance at the Houston Astrodome to watch the match, a tennis attendance record that stands to this day. Sports historians will likely find flaws in the following statement, however, I see this match as the point that marked the end of the laurel-wearing, upper-crust era of tennis and ushered in a new era that featured increased showmanship and spectacle. With tennis being a revitalized sport across the nation, Gottlieb capitalized, and released Volley, their tennis-themed wedgehead, and did so to coincide with the 1976 US Open, America’s largest and most popular tournament.

I’m not a tennis fan. I know the basics and will watch it, but only if it is on a waiting room television at a dentist’s office or auto garage. I went through a brief phase where I had a turbo crush on Martina Hingis and watched a lot of women’s tennis in the 1990s, however, today it is not a sport that I follow. My love of tennis these days is limited to Volley. Gottlieb expertly crafted this single-player game–it is easy to learn, pretty straight forward and a ton of fun. As stated in the introduction, Volley was released in August of 1976, and came from the prolific designer/artist duo of Ed Krynski/Gordon Morison, a team responsible for over one hundred Gottlieb games that spanned from EM Wedgeheads to early Solid State System 1s. That number may be bloated, as many games by Krynski and Morison were just redesigns of popular layouts with artwork differences to accommodate the add-a-ball/replay needs of different US states and countries. However Volley was not one of them. It was released as a replay game only, and no add-a-ball/WOW! or 4-player version exists.

If we observe tennis as a fad conjured up by the media in the mid-70s, Morison’s art captures it completely–the pink and orange pastels, umbrella’d spectators, and one-piece tennis mini-skirts. It shouldn’t be overlooked that the main backglass image features a man playing a woman in a competitive game of tennis a la Riggs vs. King. The side art, even with its minimalist two-colour-on-white composition, depicts a male versus female tennis exchange, with the muscular female’s hair in a short bob reminiscent of King’s. A more buxom blonde, showing off her, ahem, “forehand”, is placed front and centre on the playfield, which is pretty typical for Morison at Gottlieb. He loved featuring attractive blondes in a variety of social situations. The symmetrical playfield is balanced with the sexes–if a male appears on a right hand side plastic, a female will be featured on the matching left. Sample Volleys had a different playfield art package than that of the regular run. Gone are the unpainted wood tones near the apron and top arch, and are replaced with a pastel blue leaving no bare wood anywhere. A different rendering of a female, with a shorter skirt and a “bigger” forehand swing, replaces buxom blonde. Bloated, “70s style” lettering and numbering appears around the inserts indicating scoring and point values, whereas the main run was changed back to the black block caps used in nearly every game of the era, regardless of manufacturer. The production version of Volley towed the Gottlieb line by displaying all their usual characteristics-the sample game, in contrast, looked as if it was trying to deviate. David Gottlieb’s company became the gold standard of pinball in this era by sticking to the script, so much so that they allowed the same two guys to spearhead the design and art on the majority of their games. Perhaps this is the reason why the art on the sample games was abandoned for a more traditional art package?

Gameplay doesn’t get much simpler. Three lanes lie under the top arch of the machine, each lane with a different coloured insert–red, blue and green. These correspond with the three pop bumpers and the three sets of five-bank drop targets below. If you are able to light one of these colour-coded lanes, the associated pop bumper scores 1,000 points, and associated drop targets score 5,000 instead of the normal 500. Once the lane has been lit, it stays lit for the entire game or until all fifteen targets are knocked down. A bit of strategy comes into play here. To maximize score, you will want to avoid the drops altogether until you are able to light all three lanes, then proceed to go on a target bashing spree at 5,000 points a piece. More difficult would be to attack one colour at a time–you are bound to knock down a bunch of unlit colours, losing a ton of points in the process. You can, however, just focus on the targets and go after the special. The special is lit when all targets have been dropped-it alternates between the left and right upper lanes. The centre yellow lane is worth 5,000 when lit and will light with the special. And that’s about it really. Gameplay is mostly flows up and down–there is not much side-to-side action as the slingshots have no kickers beneath them. Mostly, you find yourself trying the fling the ball to the upper lanes in order to start the drop target frenzy. The yellow bank that sits dead centre is brutal, a dead on hit often sends the ball straight down the middle. Much like El Dorado before it, the fun factor in this game lies in the drop targets. If you don’t like drops, you probably won’t like Volley.

The production run of Volley sits at a modest 2,900 units, falling well short of the bar set by other 1976 releases such as Target Alpha (7,285) and Royal Flush (12,250) and also behind those releases that existed in multiple versions like Buccaneer/Ship Ahoy (combined 4,800) and Surf Champ/Surfer (combined 3,770). Volley was one of the last original releases from Gottlieb before they were sold to Columbia Pictures. If the sale did not occur, I believe Volley probably would have be tweaked to accommodate the Add-a-Ball or 4-Player treatment. In the year between Volley and Gottlieb’s first solid state game, Cleopatra, little was seen in the way of design innovation, and the company instead relied on repackaging old designs and rule tweaks for past games. In a way, Volley marks the end of an era filled with innovation and success for Gottlieb. and it is fitting that the design and rules are very simple, yet fun and extremely entertaining.

There is also something a bit “Canadian” to Volley, which is weird, because we, as a nation, are not known as the biggest tennis enthusiasts on the planet. I know of three Volleys that are in private collections within a fifty kilometre radius of my home, and I’ve played two of them. One owner had four pass through his hands, all upgrades, before settling on the near collector quality example that sits in his collection now. That seems like an oddly high amount of games to be residing in one part of North America considering its 2,900 unit production run. The final tip-off for me was in Allentown this year. One of the aforementioned Canadian Volleys made its way down to Pinfest, and one American collector remarked, “You guys sure do have a lot of Volleys up there”. So it must be true if an American collector said it, right? I had a chance to run this by Robert Baraké, former employee of Laniel Automatic, who worked for the company at a time when they were Canada’s largest arcade and amusement distributor. Laniel’s legacy can still be observed in the Canadian secondary market to this day–three of the games in my personal collection bear Laniel markings and a large number of sample and prototype games call Canada home because of Laniel’s buying power and influence.  Mr. Baraké had this to say about the number of Canadian Volleys:

“The truth of the matter, I believe, has to do with two factors, and not so much to do with the Volley title exclusively. 1) It has to do with Gottlieb being the preferred line of pins at Laniel Automatic at that particular period, and 2) The city by-laws changing in Montreal and Ottawa in 1976-77 thus allowing pins to be operated again in street locations. Laniel’s VP at the time was very tight with the Gottlieb agency. When the city by-laws changed in 1977 in Ottawa and Montreal, permitting the operation of pinball machines in the city streets again, Laniel Automatic’s VP Jean Coutu probably went on a buying spree at his main, and favourite, pinball manufacturer. Gottlieb was an agency he secured for Laniel a few years after he first started working there in 1947, and was loyal to Gottlieb products in his purchasing patterns as VP of sales thereafter.”

So Volley was made at the right place and the right time. I suppose it didn’t matter if the theme was tennis, volleyball, skeet shooting or checkers, Mr. Coutu was going to snap up whatever he could to put into service on locations throughout Quebec and across Canada. Other operators were probably operating under the same buying frenzy, so between Laniel and everyone else hoping to make a buck on the new by-laws, Gottlieb games hit the Canadian market en masse. Mr. Baraké concludes:

“Some supporting evidence. I have seen more than a normal share of Surf Champs in my repairs over the past three years. I would say easily 12 to 18 Surf Champs in the Montreal area that I have been called upon to service. For a supposedly confirmed run of 1000 machines, this seems a little high for one small area, but then again 1000 pinball machines is a lot of machines. Wish I could tell you more, but one has to be careful not to colour history without taking into careful consideration what we know as more or less certain.”

As Mr. Baraké stated above, this Laniel phenomenon is not exclusive to Volley and extends to other releases of the same period. It is not conclusive evidence, but it seems pretty reasonable to believe this was the factor at play. It is interesting how historical details can intersect with pinball releases to influence not only their theme, but their overall appearance and performance in the marketplace. As we conclude this brief look at Volley, I’m left to wonder what the coinbox take for Volley was in the fall of 1976. Did the theme matter at all to hungry Canadian players? Or were they looking for something, anything, with two flippers and a coin mechanism to drop twenty-five cents into? After all, you can’t get any less Canadian than surfing and tennis, and those two themes were probably dominant on routes during that time period. It would be interesting to research, as it would put a fascinating spin on the age old question “Does theme matter?” When it comes to this game, it doesn’t. I don’t like tennis. But I absolutely adore Volley.

I’d like to thank Robert Baraké for helping to fit the pieces together–he has a great historical eye and is an asset to the Canadian pinball community. Also, please visit IPDB.com here to view pictures of the sample Volley playfield. I hear they are pretty strict with their copyright policies so I did not lift the images to display them within the article.

Further Reading:
Montreal Pinball – North of the 49th
Internet Pinball Database – Volley
Pinrepair.com – 1976 Gottlieb Volley Pinball