CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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NEWS: Stern Walks with the Dead, Pictures of the Walking Dead

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Well, they did it! They listened! Stern didn’t clutter up the playfield of their next release, the Walking Dead (correction AMC’s Walking Dead), with photoshopped pictures of the cast! The community spoke, and Stern listened. The Gameroom Junkies got the jump on everyone, including Stern themselves, and served up photos of the game’s final form for the hungry pinball masses earlier today. The photos showed a standard “Pro” version, and a fancier, thus more expensive, version. Fans hoping for art from the Walking Dead comic won’t be getting what they want, but they’ll get the next best thing: a playfield that doesn’t feature the floating heads of the Walking Dead cast.

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The top of the playfield takes on that grainy, unwashed burlap colour, reminiscent of an aged photograph or a chamomile tea stain on a white tablecloth. Of course, there is the requisite blood spattering here and there to “brighten up” the design. As your eyes make their way to the bottom of the playfield, you are met with a horde of zombies, shadowed in blue, “crowding” the player around the flippers. Placed on top of this art, white and red inserts with bold lettering really pop against the earthy tones. A series of weapons are on inserts between the flippers (items to collect, possibly), while provisions and numbers that look to represent allies are on others.

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Lifting ramp with zombie head on the money edition.

The pictures present what looks to be another modified fan layout, crammed tight with shots. The “busy” nature of the machine reminds me of many of designer John Borg’s other designs: think X-Men and Tron. Each orbit and ramp shot represents an important location in the Walking Dead series: the Center for Disease Control, the Tunnel, the Arena and the Barn. A fifth, of the same insert design, reads “Riot” beside the barn toy. An insert with the text “Welcome to Woodbury” also lies near the right kicker. It looks as if the game is going to remain very true to the show. Ramp shots head through the backboard, a la Party Zone and Black Rose, which widens the space the ball can travel, not limiting it to the constraints of the playfield.  We also get ROLLOVERS, they appear beside the barn!  Toys are present: a barn with doors that open to reveal a zombie head inside and a water-bloated zombie from the bottom of the well mid-playfield (reminiscent of an undead Wolverine) that leans back to reveal some sort of scoop. The more expensive model of the game looks to feature a firing crossbow that emerges from the apron, a lifting ramp with a zombie head underneath and even more Zombie heads in a Governor-style fish tank on the back board.

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Characters are relegated to the side art on the Pro edition. I performed my own little fist pump when I saw that Carl, the annoying-cum-brooding son on main character Rick, was not featured prominently anywhere. The bigger dollar version has a boarded-up crate-look, an approach similar to the Metallica pinball’s road case design. Neither version features main characters on the backglass, instead, they feature zombies. Kudos to someone at Stern or AMC for putting the zombies front and centre. One of the first comments after the photos hit Pinside inquired about the harshness of the AMC logo on the backglass and cabinet art. AMC, being a cable David versus the network Goliaths, have always marketed themselves with a heavy hand. It isn’t just Mad Men or the Walking Dead, its AMC’s Mad Men and AMC’s the Walking Dead. Getting name recognition for a cable station that only six years ago moved away from showing a steady diet of classic films pulled out of moth balls is pretty important to them. They have certainly done it on this piece of merchandise.

I’m not sure if I’m the first to notice this, but the game is a bit of a throwback to some of the features found on Williams’ Fire! Both feature earthy browns and yellows in the artwork, a lifting ramp, miniature buildings, and, the one that struck me first, “huddled masses” artwork shadowed in blue that lie between the flippers. I’m not arguing plagiarism, but as a Fire! owner, those were the similarities that popped out at me.  Besides, it wouldn’t be a Credit Dot post without a Fire! reference.

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Blue shadowed masses of Fire!, much like the zombie crowd on Sterns TWD.

In commentary that should shock no one, it is my opinion that this playfield, looking at the playfield art alone, looks head and shoulders above the art on Jersey Jack Pinball’s Hobbit. Those looking to put their money on style over substance, the definition of a pinball pre-order, would be hard pressed to choose the Hobbit over the Walking Dead. I like that Stern’s art team went the minimalist route again, much like they did on Star Trek, letting the inserts, and thus the light show, become the “art”.

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Those that were on “Stern Strike” until games were released with more complete code, or those that pledged not to buy another Stern game until they played it first, will find themselves frantically calling their distributor on photographs alone for this one. Already, many local collectors in my area have been freeing up money by selling games, in anticipation, after laying eyes on this series of visuals. Having John Borg designing and Lyman Sheats coding should also give potential buyers some faith.

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More money = more dismembered zombie heads.

The macabre theme really speaks to arcade and pinball aficionados for some reason. The Walking Dead stands to be a game that plays horror seriously, for probably the first time since Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Other machines of the macabre have went the campy route and added humour to soften the terror: Scared Stiff and Tales from the Crypt come to mind. Will the theme be too much of a gore-fest to appear in a family gameroom? If Funhouse’s Rudy had the power to scare children, perhaps dismembered zombie heads will, too. Stern has really buttered their bread on the adult side with this one, which is a bit of a departure for them as of late. Is it just me, or does anyone else remember Gary Stern pledging that there would be “no zombies” from Stern, as it was counter to the company’s overall stance that they make pinball machines for everyone?

Anyhow, Mr. Borg HAS been quoted on record as saying this is his best design ever, and it will only be a few short months before these games hit private collections and basements across North America so we can judge for ourselves.

 

Further Reading:

Pinside – The Walking Dead Photos

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OPINION: Big League Chew

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Perhaps I’ve just been spending too much time within the friendly confines of minor league ballparks this summer, but I think it’s time for the pinball industry to revisit sports themes: baseball in particular. In the current climate, it is going to need a licence attached to it: the participation of Major League Baseball and its players association. I think Stern is up to the task. Games with sports themes have not fared well in the recent past, however I think now is the time to give the theme another trip to the plate, so to speak, despite the built-in trouble areas that exist in getting sports-themed machines off the ground.

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Gottlieb’s 1970 Add-A-Ball Batter Up. Courtesy of pinrepair.com

Sports have a rich history in pinball, with an inordinate amount of woodrails and electromechanical machines carrying sports imagery. Gottlieb’s wedgehead lineup of sports games reads like an ESPN2 weekly broadcast schedule.  However, sport themes released in the DMD era have not fared so well. Take note, I’m talking about competitive sports proper, not recreational activities. As much as White Water and Fish Tales could be a fly in the ointment in my argument, I have considered them more recreational themes, and not sports themes. Taking a brief look at DMD era games and their Pinside Top 100/200/300 rankings (as of September 2, 2014) it reads like one of the worst gameroom lineups in the history of pinball:

Tee’d Off (Gottlieb 1993): Ranked 239
World Cup Soccer (Williams 1994): Ranked 53
Shaq Attaq (Gottlieb 1995): Ranked 278
No Fear: Dangerous Sports (Williams 1995): Ranked 95
Frank Thomas’ Big Hurt (Gottlieb 1995): Ranked 172
Indianapolis 500 (Williams 1995): Ranked 42
Mario Andretti (Gottlieb 1995): Ranked 283
Flipper Football (Capcom, 1996): Ranked 272
Space Jam (Sega, 1997): Ranked 287
No Good Gofers (Williams 1997): Ranked 32
NBA Fastbreak (Bally 1997): Ranked 108
Striker Extreme/NFL (Stern 2000): Ranked 296
NASCAR/Grand Prix (Stern 2005): Ranked 181
NBA (Stern 2009): Ranked 241

(Williams SlugFest, a DMD game that dispensed baseball cards, was extremely successful, but was not included in the above list, because, after all, it is not really a pinball machine in the strictest sense…it was a weird cross between a pitch ‘n’ bat and a redemption game)

There are notable exceptions in that list, and they all seem to be Bally/Williams titles. No Good Gofers is a fantastic comedic take on golf and is the highest ranked game on the above list, and Indy 500 well deserves its top fifty rank as it is a solid game with some unique Nordman-esque features. World Cup Soccer ‘94 is on everyone’s list of fun and affordable DMD games for both fledgling beginners and collectors with extensive lineups. (Plus, it is the cheapest John Popadiuk title available, so that boosts its in-demand status.) Baseball only appears once with Big Hurt, which was licenced through the Frank Thomas and Reebok camp only, and not endorsed whatsoever by Major League Baseball. Past that, it gets really dicey. Exactly half the games on the list fall into the bottom twenty percent of all games rated on Pinside, which is an extremely amazing, albeit pathetic, feat. Perhaps pinball players are not all that keen to have sports mixed in with their pingames, or maybe designers are so handcuffed by trying to stay true to the rules of the featured sport that it ends up skewing the overall flow and play of the game.

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Williams’ NBA Fastbreak.

Stern already had a kick at the can with two sports licences, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League. As I was compiling the above list, I was surprised to see that it was only five years ago that Stern released their NBA title. To me, the game seems much more dated than it actually is, probably due to its licence association with the older Williams NBA Fastbreak release. Why Stern released their own version of an NBA-themed game after Fastbreak appears to be unfathomable, but it was the result of downsizing. The game was originally slated for overseas export only, but once downsizing occurred, a decision was made to produce the completely developed NBA game rather than spend money developing something else. This must be the reason why the design and execution of the game feels wholly incomplete. A few years earlier, Stern’s NFL football-themed machine was an uninspired repackage of Striker Xtreme, their soccer-themed game, whose translite featured a different NFL team, depending on the hometown team of where the game was shipped (or the buyer’s personal preference). Both the NFL and NBA games were met with indifference by the pinball community and exist as lazy attempts at letting the theme make up for lack of unique design elements. Because of this laziness, both games now reside at the bottom of the Pinside Top 100/200/300.

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Stern’s Striker Xtreme: “NFL LE”, with a Pittsburgh Steelers translite.

With Gary Stern’s frequent assertion that his company is “Made in the USA” and with baseball-mad Chicago being his home base, it is curious as to why Stern has not optioned Major League Baseball to partner with. The appeal of baseball is certainly on-par with that of basketball on an international level, with international sales traditionally being a key factor in theme selection. However, there is a fantastic market for such a game here in North America alone. While football relies on tailgating in parking lots, I would argue that much of baseball’s pre-game drinking takes place at sports bars, with Wrigleyville in Chicago being the penultimate example: a row of drinking establishments all vying for pre-game patronage. What better place to put one of these machines than in a sports bar catering to the pre-game crowd?  Especially given the recent resurgence of the bar as a bastion for pinball. I’m sure Major League Baseball could get a few of these machines into the stadiums themselves, as well.

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Jaleco didn’t pay the league, now Ryne Sandberg has to play ball in a generic, cheap lookin’ Cubs uniform.

A Major League Baseball pinball machine would run into the same problem as the NBA machines before it: it would remain “current” only for a season or two before: a) free agency takes over, moving players to the highest bidder, and b) uniform sales falter, forcing teams to consider a change in colour or logo. Whereas themes like AC/DC and X-Men seem to remain timeless, team logos, colours, home cities and player rosters change so quickly in the business of sports today, that it automatically puts a timestamp on a product such as this. One could argue that the DMD player and team appearances could be tweaked, at least somewhat, in code updates…but we all know Stern’s recent track record with that. To erase the team names or star players from the machine, in effect short circuiting the need for a licence, isn’t an option.  A generic baseball theme just wouldn’t cut it. It will always feel cheap and incomplete, like when you see a top athlete in a deodorant commercial playing his sport of choice wearing a generic white uniform and not the uniform of the team he plays for. The deodorant company obviously didn’t have the dough to licence the team logo through the league, and their commercial ends up looking like a top player playing sandlot ball.

Themes of this nature are a hard sell right out of the gate.  What is the crossover of people who REALLY enjoy baseball and REALLY enjoy pinball?  When Stern released Mustang, there was an overwhelming number of people who took the stance: “I’m not a car guy, I’m not buying this machine.” Contrast this with the announcement of AC/DC, Metallica or Star Trek: while pinball collectors/players may not be a fan of that particular genre of music/film, it seemed that they still reserved judgement and played the game before making a final call. You hear far more stories of people stating, “I don’t like ACDC/Metallica music but I bought the game because it plays great”. I think you would have to be prepared for people to dismiss the game right out of the gate with the MLB theme attached.

00-base01With all the problem areas stacking up, it appears that the MLB theme wouldn’t be all that good of an option for Stern. However, I am intrigued by the fact that John Trudeau is now working for Stern, and has a semi-rich history with the theme of baseball. Trudeau designed the Chicago-area favourite Chicago Cubs Triple Play for Premier, a veritable staple in the basements of Cubs fans and in the corners of Wrigleyville bars alike. He also did the stripped-down, “street level” game Silver Slugger, also for Premier. Further, he was commissioned, by Fox Sports, to design a table for the 2005 MLB All-Star game. It looks as if a physical game was never actually built, but instead the design served as a blueprint for a CGI animation backdrop that appeared in both commercials and lead-ins for the annual meeting of baseball’s greatest stars. Even though the table looks to be a mix of old and new pinball elements (heck, it has both numeric 4-player scoring AND a DMD!), it looks as if the table’s physics are correct in its design. Mr. Trudeau recently stated in an interview that he’d like to take another stab at a baseball pintable, which is a good sign. Besides being one of the true workhorses in the industry with a flair for innovation, Mr. Trudeau’s designs tend to be synonymous with Americana–from the drive-in meta-theme of the Creature from the Black Lagoon to the All-American muscle car theme of Mustang–making him the perfect candidate to take a stab at America’s pastime.

00-base06With Trudeau at the helm, here’s my two cents, for free, on how to successfully theme the game. Just as Creature from the Black Lagoon is not actually about the Creature from the Black Lagoon as it is about the overall drive-in experience, I would NOT theme the game around the traditional rules of baseball, instead, I would suggest basing the game around going to the stadium to WATCH a baseball game. Just as you have to complete drive-in features in Creech (such as necking in the back seat of your car of visiting the snack bar), you could do the very same with the stadium experience: buying your ticket, finding your seat, visiting the concessions, catching a foul ball, watching the hotdog or pirogi race in the fifth inning, participating in the seventh inning stretch and so forth. Only in multi-ball, after loading the bases with three locked balls, would you participate in the more traditional rules of a baseball machine by hitting homers and scoring runs. Further, different modes could send you to different stadiums across the major leagues, like Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park or Wrigley Field…kind of like a cross-country baseball tour, exploring the elements that make each stadium unique. With this approach, you could almost get away without the participation of the players association, as specific athletes wouldn’t play as large a role as they would if the rules revolved around the pitching, hitting and fielding aspects of the game.

It seems like a risky move for Stern to return to the killing fields where they were met with underwhelming results in the past, but if anyone can pull it off, they can in the current climate. If there is one thing Stern likes to do, it’s fishing in the same pond: rock ‘n’ roll, comic books, etc. Needless to say, the MLB title would attract more than just pinheads: anyone with a Yankees or Red Sox themed mancave would jump at the chance to add a pinball machine decked out with the logo of their favourite team. Maybe there is something in place that prevents the MLB licence from being acquired? Perhaps the league wants too much control over the final product or maybe it is just too expensive to make the project financially feasible.  More than likely, music, comic book and film licences are easier to execute. However, it seems like an absolute natural fit for both parties, given that baseball and amusement machines have such a rich history together. With all the fanfare of Opening Day, it would be the perfect time to release the machine. So get cracking, Stern…only eight months remain until the first pitch of the 2015 baseball season…