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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…

FEATURED GAME: Williams ROLLERGAMES

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While researching where my games appeared within the Pinside Top 100/200/300 list, I was absolutely shocked to see that Rollergames was ranked #172 out of three hundred ranked games, which places it, solidly, in the bottom fifty percent, behind games such as Class of 1812, Grand Lizard, Bad Cats and Al’s Garage Band Goes on a World Tour. The Pinside Top 100 is not an exact science, but it does properly reflect the attitudes of players and collectors towards specific titles. Is anyone else surprised by this ranking? Am I blinded by the fact that I own the game and enjoy it thoroughly? Perhaps I’m doubly blinded because I was one of the twelve people that actually watched the Rollergames television show when it was first broadcast. But really, even the simple fact that the game was designed by Steve Ritchie should push it higher in the rankings than it currently resides, given the community’s wild devotion to anything Mr. Ritchie has a hand in. And how has the recent resurgence of the roller derby amongst the hipster crowd not helped push this game higher?  Its time to take a look, albeit a biased look, at Williams Rollergames.

Both Mr. Ritchie and Roger Sharpe have spoke of this game as a cautionary tale of licencing gone wrong. As the story goes, Mr. Sharpe had the option of picking up the licence for either American Gladiators or Rollergames when both shows premiered in 1989. Both seemed to take a cue from WWF wrestling, which was riding a wave of popularity with male audiences of all ages. Like WWF programming, American Gladiators and Rollergames were syndicated hour-long shows that filled the void on Saturday afternoons, between morning cartoons and dinnertime. The shows relied on muscle, speed, agility, intense competition and spandex costumes all set within an arena setting. Why Williams didn’t just licence the WWF for a game–the company that perfected this type of programming to begin with–is beyond me. Mr. Sharpe untimately went with Rollergames, and claims it was because he viewed the roller derby was a timeless American pseudo-sport due for a resurgence. He was right about it being an American institution–it has its roots as a competition sport all the way back to the 1920s and was an almost permanent fixture, alongside wrestling, on American television beginning in the 1950s. The derby’s popularity had waned as the 1980s rolled around, but Mr. Sharpe was betting that the resurgence of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation would pull the sport up by its skate-straps and back into the mainstream. It didn’t. Rollergames lasted only one season on American television, whereas the original incarnation of the American Gladiators enjoyed an eight year syndicated run and a host of merchandising opportunities that included action figures, lunch boxes and workout videos. Rollergames hangs its hazy legacy on a Konami arcade game and this Williams pinball machine.

The Rollergames figure eight track. Courtesy of rollerderby.be

The Rollergames television show hasn’t aged well, containing heaps of 90s style with very, very little substance to back it up. Each episode featured a roller derby match between two teams, taped in front of a live audience at the Super Roller Dome under the banner of WAR (World Alliance of Rollersports). The six teams were clearly divided between good and evil–the fan favourites being the LA Thunderbirds, the Rockers and the Hot Flash, and the heels consisting of the Violators, Bad Attitude and the Maniacs. Each team had both male and female membership, and each gender would compete against each other in a series of “jams”. Teams competed on a figure eight shaped track with one end being smaller and elevated. This style track is more common in the staged-for-teleivison derby, and differs from the oval flat-track more commonly used in the current derby resurgence. The raised end of the figure eight is known as “The Wall”, and two designated players, which Rollergames called “jetters”, hurl their bodies into the fourteen-foot ramp hoping for as much height as possible to score maximum points. A small ramp jump coming out of the Wall area scores more points and puts the jetters back into the round with the rest of the players. Passing players of the opposite team in the round scores even more points.

Gimmicks for the players were almost mandatory to keep up with McMahon’s WWF: skaters were assigned nicknames like “The California Kid” and “Ice Box” and given finishing moves just like their wrestling brethren. Each team came complete with a manager, that either followed the rules or completely ignored them,

A member of the T-Birds hits the pit.

depending on the moral alliance of their team. The most ubiquitous manager had to be Skull, whose bald head and bearded visage graces the middle of the Rollergames playfield. Other “stars” of the figure eight track included the T-Bird twins, Jennifer and Kristine Van Galder, and “Stars and Stripes” Matt Bickham, all of whom are featured on the backglass of the pinball machine. Returning to the rules of Rollergames, ties after regulation time were decided via Sudden Death, featuring, get this, four live alligators. The gators would be paraded out, placed into “The Pit”, and to win the overtime bout, one team would have to throw a member of the opposite team into said pit. This, mixed with sporadic musical appearances by Warrant and Lita Ford, made for a show that SHOULD have been a hit…but sadly, was not. The production folded before the pinball machine prototypes were even released to test markets.

The game was released by Williams in June of 1990, sandwiched between the release of Whirl Wind and Diner, and ran on the System 11C boardset. Steve Ritchie headed up the design and it is another one of those Ritchie themes that oozes physicality, toughness and speed. The integration of the Rollergames theme into the mechanics of the pinball machine is absolutely fantastic. The aforementioned “Wall” and “Pit” features of the show make an appearance in the machine: the Wall is the side ramp and the Pit is a saucer with vertical up-kicker (VUK). Both of these features rely heavily on the upper right flipper. This flipper is used to send the ball up the Wall ramp, while the Pit kicker will propel the ball to a magnet (via wireform), which will grab the ball and perfectly tee up a shot up the Wall ramp. Once up the Wall ramp, the ball will be returned to one of the flippers via wireforms (which flipper depends on the velocity of the ball), or locked in a physical lock over the shooter lane if lock is lit. Lighting lock is simple: shoot for the bank of drop targets that say “MULTI-BALL” on them. Knock the entire bank down three times, lock three balls, and you get three-ball multiball with the jackpot shot being up the wall ramp. Locked balls carry over from game to game, which also means locked ball stealing in multi-player games is in full effect.  A neat programming feature will fire locked balls around the wireform and back into the physical lock during gameplay, which can be really confusing for the uninitiated.  At random intervals, about once per game depending on game length, a call-out states “It’s Sudden Death, go for the Wall!”. Each wall shot bags you a million points. The Pit magnet is lit constantly during Sudden Death (sadly, with no alligator imagery) so you can tee up shots for the Wall ramp jackpot with ease…but only if you can consistently shoot the Pit. During regular play, the magnet is lit at the start of the game. Remember to listen to the game, it will instruct you: “Don’t Flip…” when the VUK is firing the ball over to the magnet, and “…..FLIP!” when the magnet has caught the ball and the shot is teed up. Game settings can be adjusted to re-light the magnet with each new ball in play. The Pit also awards “RollerMotion” when lit, which is a series of random awards. The orbits are lit at the in-lanes for five seconds. Each orbit shot, after being lit, awards a Rollergames team. Lighting all six teams lights an extra ball, collected at a tight shot up beside the pop bumpers.

This game is classic Steve Ritchie, and by “classic Steve Ritchie” I mean that its basically a kicked up copy of High Speed. A cross-playfield shot from the plunger, banks of targets that sit perpendicular to the player, a left side kickback, a right hand side upper flipper, a side ramp that feeds back to either flipper, a “hideout” physical ball lock, and fast flowing orbits–the similarities between Rollergames and High Speed should be pretty obvious to the trained eye. Their flow and speed are pretty similar, however Rollergames plays a bit easier given that the magnet tees up shots up the side ramp and requires absolutely no skill to complete (beyond listening for the game to tell you when to “FLIP!”). High Speed also sets up shots for the upper flipper using a saucer with a side kick out, but skill and timing on the part of the player is still required to put the ball where it needs to go.

The Pat McMahon art package is absolutely stunning, and as I mentioned before, very true to the iconography of the television show. Many write the art off as “cheesy”, but it’s a product of its time, and it captures the nuances of the period nicely. The red girders that were omni-present in the Roller Dome are everywhere from the speaker panel to the physical ball lock to the playfield itself. The incorporation of the “characters” from the show in the package is great as well, and having Skull, with his trademark aviator shades and bullwhip, pointing to the magnet on the playfield is a nice touch. The television show was heavy on in-program advertising and it is a trend that continues in the pinball machine, with the logos of Pepsi, Mug Root Beer, Slice, ShareData, Thermos and GamePro Magazine appearing on the speaker panel and on the playfield. It’s a double edged sword: their appearance, while fascinating to see such commercial integration on a machine from this era, guarantees that Classic Playfield Reproductions, or any other source, will not be able to make reproduction playfields, as they would need to pay licencing fees to each of the entities that have logos present (with three of them belonging to PepsiCo). In true 1990s fashion there is plenty of neon, arrows, spandex and Saved By the Bell-esque confetti. The wireform ramps came coated in red, yellow and blue, but it seems some games were shipped with bare steel wireforms or a combination of coated and bare. The coated versions really add some pop to the game and add to the overall colourful flavour of the art package.

The sound package is where the game really wins over its devotees, or drives its detractors to the point of insanity. The main Rollergames theme (with the repeating lyrics “Rock, rock, rock n’ Rollergames…”) plays constantly throughout normal gameplay, and, admittedly, can wear pretty thin after playing for long periods. However, there are different music cues for Sudden Death, multiball lead-up, multiball, Jackpot and W-I-L-L-I-A-M-S bonus modes, which really works to add variety to the soundtrack. My favourite musical piece is the “Kick Butt” Jackpot remix, and needs to be heard to be appreciated (it’s a nice reward for achieving multiple jackpots). The call-outs are absolutely fantastic. There is both a female voice and a male voice that can be heard in the game, and I seriously doubt that the actual characters from the television show were used. However, if the male voice is not that of Skull himself, the voice actor definitely does a good job channelling the heel manager. Visitors always get a kick out of his call-outs when playing the game, from naming the teams when hitting an orbit (“BAD Attitude”) to his amazement when a jackpot has been collected (“UN-BE-LIEVABLE”). Even the incidental sounds when hitting a spinner, a target or a ramp totally fit with the overarching Rollergames vibe.

I touched on the problem with reproducing the playfield, however Rollergames owners can look forward to the possibility of Classic Playfield Reproductions reproducing the plastics for Rollergames in the near future.  A thread on Pinside confirmed they have a New Old Stock set in their possession to work with. As another side note, it seems that back when the game was released the steel diverter link that ran along the top of the Wall ramp was easily broken, thus hindering the movement of the diverter. This was such a problem that Williams released a service bulletin to operators making them aware of the issue. Early in 2014, Pinside user “jasonpaulbauer” went ahead and reproduced the troublesome link, using its original specifications, for owners strapped with the broken hardware. Pingenuity saves the day once again.

Rollergames does have a loyal following. It is constantly mentioned as a “value game” for those starting out in the hobby and its soundtrack gets mentioned in just about every discussion about “best pinball music”. Nate Shivers of Coast 2 Coast Pinball specifically mentioned that both its reputation and price were on the rise in a Going Up/Going Down segment this past winter, and a copy of Rollergames recently won Best In Show (Pinball) at the inaugural Southern Fried Gameroom Expo this past June. It is also one of those games, like Volley, that appears in unusual numbers here in Canada. Many prototype versions are floating around in the Canadian collector community, and can be identified by their Diamond Plate playfields and extra flashers. It seems that the Quebec distributor Laniel Automatic was at it again, importing large quantities of this game, perhaps at a special price seeing as the licence had completely tanked by the time the games were ready to go. The game in my collection came through the Laniel channel as it bears all the tell-tale markings. I can say without hesitation, that Rollergames is the machine non-pinball visitors gravitate towards when visiting my gameroom. The theme seems to draw them in and the simple rules keep objectives within reach. There is a glimmer of recognition in these visitors’ eyes, but most of them seem to recall Roller Jam, the roller derby reboot on TNN that ran on Friday nights the mid-nineties, rather than the actual Rollergames show. It doesn’t hinder their enjoyment of the game though, as they can still immerse themselves within the excessive neon hues of the 1990s while flipping around the playfield.

All this said, I’m still amazed at Rolelrgames’ lowly rank on Pinside. Sure, it’s a System 11 game, and isn’t afforded untouchable royalty status like the WPC era games that followed it just a year-and-a-half later, but for me, it is the complete package of entertaining gameplay and a well integrated theme. Perhaps what hurts the game is that it is strapped with both a theme that isn’t ingrained into the collective imagination of our generation and a fairly shallow System 11 ruleset (according to more seasoned players). Not to mention its near complete mimicking of the High Speed design. High Speed is one of those watershed games that is rightly labelled as “important” by the community. If someone wanted a kicked up version of High Speed, they’d probably rather buy a High Speed 2: The Getaway, and not a Rollergames. I’m not arguing for the game to be listed in the top fifty or anything, but I think it does deserve to fall within the #120 thru #150 range. I guess there are very few people, like me, who want their rock, rock, rock…’n’ Rollergames.

Further Reading:

Pinside – Top 100, Page 2 
Internet Pinball Database – Rollergames
Pinside – CPR Needs Rollergames Plastic Set NOS in Order to Remake Them
Pinside – Roller Games Divertor [sic] Drive Link Reproduction
YouTube – Rollergames Alligator Sudden Death Overtime
YouTube – Rockers vs. Violators (full game)

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4 thoughts on “FEATURED GAME: Williams ROLLERGAMES

  1. Nice writeup. There’s a Rollergames near my house and I agree with what you say about it being underrated. It’s got classic Steve Ritchie gameplay, and really it’s just plain fun.

  2. Pingback: Episode 65 – Slice Soda and Kick Butt Stuff | The Pinball Podcast

  3. Pingback: Podcast Update : The Pinball Podcast : Episode 65 – Slice Soda and Kick Butt Stuff | Epicenter For All Things Pinball

  4. Nice review..
    There’s a RG in my flat. Since the early 90s i love this Pin (Music, samples, speed)
    The 90s Artwork is so cheesy…

    But my buddies don’t like the Pin…
    I don’t know why….

    Anyway….i never sold him…

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