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FEATURE: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Michael Jackson and Pinball

It is surprising that no official Michael Jackson pinball machine exists.  His global celebrity and constant image reinvention lends itself nicely to a pingame.  Despite the lack of a licenced pinball bearing his image, the troubled pop icon’s relationship with this crazy hobby of ours runs deep. From being photographed with machines, to having a solid row of Sterns at his Neverland Ranch, Mr. Jackson certainly appears in the footnotes of pinball history. I originally intended this article to chronicle the somewhat bizarre eBay sale of a Data East pinball machine mocked up to promote a Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial (yes, you read that right: a pinball machine was made to promote a promotional advertisement), however, in doing some preliminary research, I realized that perhaps a brief exploration of Jackson’s connection to the pinball world would be beneficial to situate the one-off Data East “Pepsi Chase” machine into proper historical context.

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A Thriller-era Michael Jackson playing a Bally Space Invaders. A Bally Time Zone is in the background.

 

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Mr. Jackson as Peter Pan, airbrushed on the hood of Jackson’s Neverland golf cart.

Michael Jackson had a unique take on the idea of opulence: commissioned paintings of himself in nineteenth century royal garb, life-size superhero statues, animatronic robots, carnival rides, live animals (Bubbles the Chimp being the most famous) and, of course, arcade machines. These days, a pinball machine or stand-up video cabinet is probably the most normal thing you could own from that list, but in a time when having one (or multiples) in your home was a rarity, it was just one more reason to characterize the King of Pop as a weirdo. I’m no Jackson expert, but I assume his love for coin operated ephemera stemmed from his fascination with being young and refusal to let the feelings of childlike wonderment slip away. Some call it Peter Pan Syndrome. Mr. Jackson did nothing to help this persona characteristic, as it was reported that he himself leaked an untrue story that he was spending time in an oxygenated chamber to defy the effects of growing old.  As Jackson aged, the public perception of his obsession with being young became more troubling to comprehend…and then the allegations of child molestation surfaced.  His public image went from “obsessed with being a young child” to “obsessed with being WITH young children”, and it is a reputation that never really went away.  Michael Jackson’s is a story of a childhood lost to super-stardom, and he tried just about everything he could to recreate those lost feelings and memories. In the end, I guess that is what many of us from our generation are doing as well: trying to recapture, or somehow commoditize, those fleeting moments from our youth by amassing souvenirs of a bygone era.

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The Jackson 5, Michael in the middle, surrounded by a Bally Kick Off and Six Million Dollar Man.

Sentimentality aside, here are a couple of the more interesting pinball footnotes in Mr. Jackson’s oeuvre:

In the book Michael Jackson, Inc: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of a Billion Dollar Empire by Zack O’Malley Greenburg, there is one amusing anecdote retold about Jackson and a pinball machine. Luckily for you, the reader, you don’t have to plow through Greenburg’s book for one small reference. Washington Times reviewer Mike Musgrove does the hard work for us and mentions it in his review:

“Although he later became famous for his erratic behavior and million-dollar spending sprees, music executives who worked with Jackson from the beginning of his career turn up in Greenburg’s pages to declare that the young singer had a head for business. Jackson wrote notes in the margins of his contracts, recalls a former CBS records executive; Jackson made attentive comments in meetings, remembers another business associate. Unfortunately, the most memorable anecdotes that Greenburg unearthed tend to undermine his thesis –– such as the time Jackson called his lawyer in the middle of the night to complain about a broken pinball machine. Oh, Michael!”

Dollars to doughnuts a service call was made for the malfunctioning machine–I can’t see the King of Pop busting out the soldering iron and multi-meter to diagnose and replace a fried transistor.

Another interesting pinball footnote comes from the song “Liberian Girl”, which appeared on Mr. Jackson’s Bad album in 1987. Watch the interviewer try to ascribe feeling to Mr. Jackson’s authorship of the song, only to be shot down by the King of Pop himself, saying the inspiration came from his gameroom:

The video for “Liberian Girl”, which in all honesty was a throwaway song from the Bad album, featured Billy Dee Williams, Paula Abdul, Lou Diamond Phillips, John Travolta, Whoopi Goldberg, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Debbie Gibson, Steve Guttenberg and a host of other decades-past throwbacks (including Mr. Jackson’s chimp, Bubbles). Sadly, no pinball machines appear. The credits for this wandering, directionless, annoyingly self-reflexive piece run almost as long as the video itself, giving each “star” a still frame and text credit (Bubbles gets one too, just before Suzanne Somers). After listening to the song, any guesses as to which pinball machine Mr. Jackson was playing that inspired the beat?  (I’d guess either Williams Big Guns or Space Station, for the record…)

In 2008, Julien’s Auctions secured the right to liquidate Michael Jackson’s gameroom and other items from the Neverland Ranch, which had recently been foreclosed. All the items were removed from Mr. Jackson’s property and the original “arcade” space from the Ranch was recreated in a downtown Los Angeles building for public viewing. Shortly after securing the rights to sell, Mr. Jackson reneged on the agreement with the auction house, wanting instead to keep the items. Courts intervened, and a settlement was reached: in lieu of selling the items which had already been staged for auction, they would be displayed publicly, for a short time, in a museum-like exhibition entitled “The Collection of the King of Pop”. Thankfully, the people over at Pinsane.com have preserved a virtual walkthrough of the arcade collection. In looking over the items, I guess it is somewhat impressive, but I wouldn’t call it jaw-dropping.  The collection features a garden variety assortment of arcade games (curiously, no Moonwalker), and the pinball fare included the newest Stern titles of the time (Striker Xtreme, Austin Powers, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Terminator 3, and The Simpsons Pinball Party) along with two Williams Superpin classics (Star Trek: The Next Generation and Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure). It is interesting to note that Indiana Jones is the only pinball machine not powered on for the interactive tour. I’m unclear as to the status of the gameroom items after their public exhibition.  The King of Pop died just a few months after the exhibition’s closing and Julien’s continued to be the go-to source for estate liquidation. They famously sold the jacket he wore in the Thriller video for $1.8 million dollars in 2011.

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“Pinball Row” from Julien’s Los Angeles exhibit of Jackson’s arcade memorabilia.

Perhaps the oddest connection to the pinball world is the seemingly never-ending sale saga of a “Pepsi Chase” pinball machine cobbled together from a Data East Laser War machine.  All signs point to the machine first appearing in 1987 at the time of the release of Mr. Jackson’s aforementioned Bad album. Jackson was a long-time Pepsi pitchman. He most famously set his hair on fire at a mock concert filmed by Pepsi for a commercial–the torched tresses were due to ill-timed pyrotechnics. Despite a lawsuit that followed, Mr. Jackson and Pepsi continued their mutual promotion into the late eighties when a five-minute television commercial titled “Chase” was produced (or, over-produced, much like the music videos of the time: everyone thought they were an auteur no matter the medium).  The commercial featured tired action film tropes and a version of the song “Bad” with lyrics changed to suit the Pepsi brand.

At some point, someone took a Data East Laser War machine and repurposed it to create the one-off “Pepsi Chase” pinball machine. One can probably draw the conclusion that Data East had little to do with the machine’s re-theme, and was probably mocked up as a promotional piece by a third party. The re-theme kept the Laser War playfield unchanged, adding only new side art and a new backglass.  We do have a picture of Mr. Jackson playing the machine, and the haircuts of the people in the picture do look historically correct (which, for me, is a great indication of authenticity!) The game has floated in and out of the pinball community’s consciousness through marketplace sale advertisements over the past few years.  Curiously the Internet Pinball Database has no entry for the game, and little information exists other than the cached sale listings.  As I stated before, my gut tells me Data East had nothing to do with building the machine for Jackson or Pepsi, even though Data East is a company whose motto could have been “Licencing Everything”.  They were known for pricy one offs based upon existing machines—they most notably made two Aaron Spelling machines at his wife’s request and made a single unit for film producer Joel Silver.  Looking at pictures of the Spelling and Silver games, you can tell Data East did them in house as the art has all the spit and polish of a professionally assembled game.  Everything was themed: playfield, music, callouts, DMD animations, backglass and side art.  The “Pepsi Chase” machine is a little bit harder to peg due to very few pictures and incredibly faded artwork.  Data East was a new company at the time, Laser War was their first game.  Was the “Pepsi Chase” machine their first attempt at re-theming production games to kickstart extra income, or was this a private firm cobbling together a promotional piece to further the link between Mr. Jackson and Pepsi?  It is hard to tell.

The game first appeared in a California Craigslist ad in June 2010, which read:

“I am helping a friend sell a one of a kind pinball machine. We had an expert check on the validity of the claim. He looked for over 3 months for another machine like this and assured us that this was the only one of its kind EVER PRODUCED! Pepsi teamed with Michael Jackson for the famed faulty Pepsi ad in the late 80’s and as we all remember, Michael caught fire during the filming of one of the shoots. This machine was made to commemorate the joining of Michael Jackson and Pepsi. Michael Jackson originally wanted this machine, but my friend was able to get his hands on it. It initially was going to be shipped to Germany (all lettering is in German and coinage is based in the old german deutschemarc). This is the perfect piece for an avid pinball machine collector or the ULTIMATE MICHAEL JACKSON fan. All of the commentary during the game was done by none other than Michae Jackson himself. The machine recently underwent an overhaul. Springs and rubber were replaced during the service. My friend is only willing to entertain serious offers. Don’t waste our time with a lowball offer. If you want to search the internet to locate another, go ahead and try. This is the only one out there. Machine works great and can be turned on inside the locked area or you can use Deutcshmarcs.”

The three pictures above were included in this Craigslist ad.  The machine appears to be sun-faded and washed out, and may be a sign of the less-than-professional materials used to create the Jackson/Pepsi art.  The “selling for a friend” theme seems to be key in the Pepsi Chase machine history. The Craigslist ad incorrectly links the Chase commercial with the one in which Michael Jackson’s hair catches on fire: four years separates these events.  The listing says the machine was made to “commemorate the Joining of Michael Jackson and Pepsi”: they had already been partners for quite some time by the time that this game would have been made.  There is lots of verbal bravado using incorrect facts, which shows that the seller may not know all that much about the history of the game.  The seller also claims that the machine was made in the United States for export to the German market. The Craigslist ad also hints that custom speech was used to replace the original Laser War sound package. Some of the best pictures that do exist of this machine were originally included in this ad. From them, we can see the Laser War playfield looks to be in its original state.  Overall, the ad kind of smells fishy…but in the way all pinball ads smell fishy when written up by non-pinball enthusiasts: too much exuberance and salesmanship, leaving the pinball-attuned reader questioning the entire body of the work.

Pinball community mainstay “Pistol” Pete Haduch shared his e-mail correspondence with the same seller (at least it appears to be the same seller) on rec.games.pinball in May 2011.  The game’s owner writes:

“I have a friend who has a rare pinball machine. He was told it was a one of a kind. If you remember the Pepsi venture when they hired Michael Jackson on to push Pepsi (when Michaels hair caught on fire), they had some promo stuff with Michael and Pepsi stuff pictured together. Well, my friend has a pinball machine depicting Michael jumping off the back end of a Pepsi truck. The whole game has Michaels real voice as the actual voice over. Id like to know if you could put a value on this, or maybe know someone who can.  Thanks, Mike in California”

Pistol Pete’s response:

“Having never seen it really makes it tough to put a price on it. Photographs and video of the game would help, but your best bet is a local auction house for putting a value on the machine. The value could fall into several different categories: Pinball machine for a game player (probably the lowest), dedicated pinball collector, MJ memorabilia collector, pinball and MJ collector (best price). Being a one-of-a kind machine should also make it more valuable as long as it was produced by one of the major pinball companies such as Bally, Williams, Data East, Sega or Stern as replacement parts could still be available. If it was converted from a game to be used as a prop then it would most likely have a lower value than a game produced specifically for MJ by one of the major manufacturers.”

Mr. Haduch did not receive any further correspondence or photos from the seller. Nothing more seems to come of this. There doesn’t seem to be a retelling of anyone in the pinball community going to see this machine. No high quality pictures. No videos of gameplay. Nothing.  A revised Craigslist ad for what appears to be the same machine, surfaces a bit later, titled “Pin Ball Machine- Michael Jackson (Covina)” and reads as follows:

“This Pin Ball Machine is a one-of-a kind Pin Ball (which was verified by Orange County Arcades). This 4-player machine was built by “Data East Pinball, Inc.” out of Chicago, Illinois in 1987 for when Michael Jackson filmed the “Pepsi” commercial. I was told it is a “re-export” from Germany (all verbage [sic] and coin mech’s are in the German Language). The digital stereo sound system has recorded voice modules that sound just like MJ when targets are hit. It is a “three ball” machine that features the game “Chase / Laser War” but all the art work was designed to feature MJ (back glass portrait and cabinet artwork). The artwork on both sides of the cabinet are slightly faded (very obvious showing MJ driving what appears to be a Laborghini Testarossa down a highway passing a “Pepsi Truck”). The artwork was designed by “Hudson Graphics of O’connor Associates, Inc. The design team was “Team #28”. The machine works well. I am moving so I must sell. You can own this highly collectable Pinball for a fraction of what it is worth and own a piece of Pop History! Sacrificing for $3,500. Ask for Mark: Days (626) 331-3011 Evenings (626) 484-0274.”

The game’s seller is now Mark, not Mike.  Again we have a reference to custom, non-Laser War speech/sound. The first appearance of artwork and design information is teased, but it turns out these names are taken from the unmolested Laser War playfield: (Margaret) Hudson and (Kevin) O’Connor did the Laser War art package, while Team #28 was the collective codename for Joe Kaminkow and company who did the Laser War design. There is still no reference to any markings, trademarks or signatures on the replaced side art or playfield. The ticket price of $3,500 isn’t totally insane, but the “sacrifice” prefix placed on it by the seller is a bit dramatic. The price, in my opinion, remains not totally out of the question for a one-off curiosity that Michael Jackson himself may have played.  But at this point, we are without physical proof that the game was played or owned by Mr. Jackson.

Fast forward to late last year when the same Pepsi Chase machine surfaced on eBay. Remember how I said the first Craigslist ad seemed kind of fishy, and the $3,500 price tag on the second was somewhat reasonable? Yeah, forget all that with this eBay listing. The location of the game has apparently moved from California to Louisville, Kentucky. And the price has appreciated nearly thirty times in value: to a staggering $100,000USD. Seller “hollywuud8” has a glowing 100% feedback record: the majority of Mr. Wuud’s 313 transactions he played the role of the buyer, having only been credited with four instances of seller feedback. The auction is currently live and has been so since just before Christmas 2014.  It inevitably does not sell and gets relisted every four days or so. Photos are again sparse: two general pictures of the game’s side art and backglass with a copy of the December 20, 2014 USA Today placed within the frame to prove the pictures are current.  We also get to see the photo of Michael Jackson actually playing the machine for the first time (the seller includes the photo twice for some reason).

The description of the machine from the ad is as follows:

“used. and everything that comes along with being used. some scratches on metal. 1 nick break in wood, small, top left corner. some bad fading on the sides, but can still make them out. and the pinball machine plays. and the playfield is good. we think it look’s supper. like some one took good care of it. we are giving the Michael Jackson pinball a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. it can be refurbished if some one want’s to have it done. will be like new. but hey, Michael Jackson played on this very pinball machine. Michael Jackson loved pinball and arcade machine’s. we think this is the pinball machine that got Michael Jackson to start collecting pinball and other arcade machines, and we also think this was the pinball machine he was playing when he came up with Liberian girl.”

The machine has seen better days, obviously. It is nice that the seller doesn’t pawn off the machine as a museum showpiece, giving it a mediocre five out of ten for overall quality. I would challenge the final deduction that this was the pinball machine Mr. Jackson was playing when he came up with Liberian Girl. The song would have long been in the can and completed for the Bad album by the time the Chase commercial was being filmed. Anyhow, what follows is the lengthy description from the body of the listing. Having been relisted over fifteen times at the time of writing, I’m sure plenty of questions have been asked of the seller. He has been generous enough to answer them as part of his product description:

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Michael Jackson was and is the king of pop. we loved him in Kentucky. this is from an a estate sale. from someone that loved Michael jackson so much, that they had to have this pinball machine. after all, pinball and arcade machine’s played a big part in Michael Jacksons life. this is from Michael Jacksons bad tour day’s. the pepsi commercial ” the chase” probably one of the longest commercial’s ever. only someone like Michael Jackson could pull that off.  this was made by pepsi ( can you imagine someone made you a pinball machine)  what a complement. and he owned it, and played it, and loved it. we have at least two of the picture’s showing Michael Jackson playing his pinball machine. if you are a Michael Jackson collector, or loved him. how could you not want this. and this is it. there weren’t any other Michael Jackson pinball machines made.

we are offering a choice for the high bidder. you can have the Michael Jackson pinball machine delivered the way it is to you. or you can have it restored by a  professional ( we will pay for this service out of the money we get for the Michael Jackson pinball machine, in other words, it is included in the bid. if you want this service. ) it will be gone over cosmetically and mechanical wise. the Michael Jackson pinball machine will be close to new as possible. just like when Michael Jackson himself, would play on it. and loved it. please note. this service might and probably will mean it will take awhile, could be weeks or month’s to get done. we wont know till it happens. also, any money’s we pay out of the auction money we get, for the restore of the Michael Jackson pinball machine will be nonrefundable.  here is how this work’s .we will ship off  ( we will pay the shipping to get it to the restoration place as part of the restoration ) the Michael Jackson pinball machine. WE have a place in mind, they are supposed to be one of the best. we wont say there name right now. they will then be able to tell us a time line. and get the restore work in progress. then after the work is complete, the Michael Jackson pinball machine  will be ready to be shipped to the lucky new owner.

will add more pictures later. and more information on the listing. as we get it.

here are some questions we got and the answers we gave about the Michael Jackson pinball machine.

meszar2 asked this question.

so the owner does not want to add additional pictures so what is the plan with the machine when it doesn’t sell? for pinball collectors condition is everything and she is trying to get a 100,000 for a machine that you cant see other than the very faded side of the machine!?!?! I did a google search on this machine and there are pictures out there from a craigs list post selling this machine or one like it back in 2010 so I am perplexed wont allow pictures of the game. one has to assume the game is in poor condition and the reason there aren’t any picture’s showing the true condition of the machine is that it will show just that! I know you just listed this machine for the owner so please don’t take my question negatively against you. it’s just a pinball machine like this has a lot of collectible value for a pinball collector. , just perplexed as to how the owner can expect some one to pay any dollar amount for a machine you cant see. good luck with the sale!!!

hi meszar2. you got to remember that this is a estate sale. all of these items very emotional to sale. the lady that owns this Michael Jackson pinball machine says the same about this machine that she says about the other arcade items machine’s she is selling. and that is she don’t care how long they take to sell. and for your google search, this is the same pinball machine. straight out of California. we know, because we are the one’s that bought it for the person or the estate as it is now. right off craigslist. the person that passed checked the story. and it was 150 percent legit. ( we went out on a limb, and recommend that this person buy it also, even before he checked the story.) we sent the money order. the person that sold the machine was great, and had taken good care of this machine. it got picked up. and delivered, with out a problem. and that is how is the Michael Jackson pinball machine got to Louisville Kentucky. to later be sold at an estate sale.

pinballwizardmitch asked this question.

hello, as a big huge pinball and big huge Michael Jackson fan, I am very interested in this auction, and think it is awesome you have this. can you post some detailed picture’s of the playfield and back glass thanks so much.

hi pinballwizardmitch. yes we can get more picture’s. remember this is a estate auction. we have to drive where the woman lives to get picture’s. we are doing this for free. on our own time. we can take picture’s of the out side of the machine , but with the play field the lady is trying to decide to put pictures up or not. on one hand, she thinks who ever buys it , wont want the picture’s of the play field all over the internet. but on the other, she knows . people want to see it. right now, she is not putting picture’s of the play field up. that’s what we got to respect. she make’s the decisions on these estate item’s we have been selling for her. and we just say yes mam or no mam. she sold the new old stock major havoc arcade kit to a collector in a country in Europe, I cant think of the country’s name right now. he was happy to get it. and quiet a few other arcade related items to other’s. and every one has been happy with them.

since_2010 asked this question

i’ll give you 3000 for it without any pictures. 10,000 if I can get a lot of photos of the playfield and under the cabinet.

hi since_2010. what a great offer. you see the value we knew was there. and that is great. after all, we aren’t just talking about a pinball machine. we are talking about the king of music, Michael Jackson. and this Michael Jackson pinball machine was one of the things he loved. we are going to have to decline your offer though. but, your question has helped us make what we think is a good decision. we at the winning bidders choice, like leave it as is, or have us ( meaning the lady that owns the Michael Jackson pinball machine, have it restored to as new as possible, as we can get any way’s by professional’s.) and this will involve having the part we pay out for restoration to be nonrefundable. this way, any one concerned about not being enough picture’s. or not being able to come by and see the Michael Jackson pinball machine in person. wont have to worry. it will be as close to new as we can get. ( and to any bidder’s. this will take some time to get done. could be week’s. or 3 or 4 month’s. really don’t know till it happens. )

since_2010 asked this question also.

is this machine available to view in person before I place a bid.

hi since_2010. the lady that owns the Michael Jackson pinball machine and or the other arcade machines that are for sale. doesn’t want anybody coming to where she lives. this is because of a violent burglary that happened. and she says she is sorry, because she knows people want to come and see them. but, she likes to feel safe in her home. she hopes everybody understands.

Yikes, where to start. First, I guess it is kind of nice that the seller will have the machine completely restored before shipping it—a service that is included in the hammer price. Maybe they should offer to have the game restored to its original condition…as a Data East Laser War. It is confirmed that this is the same machine from the California Craigslist advertisements.  I needn’t say that the price is outrageous, it goes without saying.  I will say that it is very convenient that the machine belongs to someone other than the seller.  And that the lady who owns the machine is afraid of visitors so viewing the machine is impossible.  And that she doesn’t care if it sells or not.  And that the seller is too busy to take more detailed photos.  And the seller’s grammar.  And.  And.  And.  We could go on for days here.  I’m sure the machine exists and that it currently resides in the greater Louisville area, but further to that, I’m calling baloney on many of the facts contained within.  Sure, there is a sucker born every minute, but a sucker big enough to outlay $100,000USD on a machine whose origin is completely unknown with only two detail deficient pictures of it attached in the listing?  I don’t think so.  If only this machine could get into the right hands, or be accessed by the right hands, to gain a bit more knowledge about it.

I don’t think the eBay auction for the Pepsi Chase machine bears too much more analysis.  The pinball community has already concluded that it is a seller trying to hook a whale with some questionable business practices.  I wanted to collect the verbiage used in the auction listing to preserve it, and place it alongside the other appearances on Craigslist.  Since little information exists, perhaps it would be helpful to gather what we know and put it all one place, no matter how ridiculous that information is.

I know people talk about themes that were no-brainers in pinball’s hey-day all the time, but how in the hell did a Michael Jackson pinball machine proper not get produced in the late-80s or early-90s?  Slash, guitarist for Guns ‘n’ Roses and avid pinball enthusiast, used his celebrity sway to get Data East on board for a GnR pinball machine in 1994.  Jackson’s brand would have been ripe for a transition to the arcade world (and was, Sega released Moonwalker in 1989 to warm-ish reviews).  It would have been a fantastic, synergistic promotional tool for his worldwide brand (a fact that someone, somewhere picked up on when putting together the Pepsi Chase machine).  With Jackson’s apparent appreciation for the game of pinball and Data East’s love of licencing, I cannot fathom how this partnership didn’t happen.   Actually I can fathom it: by 1993 the sex abuse allegations against Jackson came to light, and really killed all chances of a game being produced whose main demographic would be young adults.  If someone really wants a Michael Jackson machine in their collection, they’ll have to spend $100,000USD to get one, or build one themselves.  I wonder what his high score was on Striker Xtreme?

Further Reading:

Pinsane.com – Julien’s Auctions Michael Jackson Memorabilia: Arcade Walkthrough

Julien’s Auctions – King of Pop, A Once in a Lifetime Public Exhibition

San Diego Pinball Club – Michael Jackson/Pepsi Pinball Machine

Montreal Arcade & Amusement Collectors Association – Michael Jackson Pinball

rec.games.pinball – Never knew about this pinball machine: Michael Jackson/Pepsi Pinball Machine

eBay – michael jackson 1987 chase pepsi arcade pinball machine. from the bad tour days.

Pinside – Michael Jackson Pinball Machine Resurfaces on eBay

Anthony King – Michael Jackson The Chase Pepsi Commercial

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PEOPLE: Jess Askey of the Internet Pinball Serial Number Database

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I don’t consider myself a numbers guy, but there is something fascinating going on over at the Internet Pinball Serial Number Database (not to be confused by the equally useful Internet Pinball Database). IPSND webmaster Jess Askey has created a project that collects serial numbers from pinball machines and pinball parts, mostly through user submissions, and compiles them for public record. From the information collected, Mr. Askey presents his own analysis and identification of trends, and, since the data is open source, allows visitors to identify trends of their own. Personally, I have been a member of the IPSND for over two years and have recently volunteered my time to take care of some of the site’s administrative and moderation duties. Ever since I started doing interviews for Credit Dot, I’ve wanted to ask Mr. Askey a series of questions about the IPSND’s history and vision. In my opinion, the site is an underused resource in the community and deserves the attention. Please read on as Mr. Askey unravels the history behind the numbers.

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Credit Dot: How did you originally become interested in pinball serial numbers? It’s kind of a strange fascination…

Jess Askey: Well, I suppose it all started sometime in 1999 when I decided to buy a Jungle Lord from eBay. Back then, it was very rare for auctions to have photos but I found a good deal on one and decided to buy it. It shipped the old fashioned way: Forward Air, no palette required! When it arrived, I was very upset because the owner had clearly painted the cabinet blue (with red and yellow stripes) and not disclosed this information in the listing. I shot him off an email and he said that all Jungle Lord games were blue. He said I was crazy to think that it should be red. However, all the Jungle Lords I’d seen in my hometown were in red cabinets when I was a kid. A quick posting to rec.games.pinball revealed that the majority were blue, only a few were red. It seemed that the running knowledge amongst the RGP community suggested that the sample games were red and the production games were blue. The guess at the time was that Williams was making about 100 or so sample games for each title. I then did what everyone else did at the time for the games that they were interested in–I made a game owners list and rule sheet for Jungle Lord (archived here). People of course e-mailed me their serial number and I asked if the cabinet was Red or Blue and I updated the owners list until, just like every other owners list out there, I stopped updating it due to lack of interest and lack of time.

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The red Jungle Lord cabinet, taken from Mr. Askey’s Jungle Lord site that preceded the IPSND project.

 

CD: What renewed your interest?

JA: It sat for a few years until I decided that I would create the Internet Pinball Serial Number Database proper, and use it as a “practice site” for learning all the new programming technologies that interested me in my professional career. ASP.NET was the first challenge, Microsoft SQL Server was the second. I knew I didn’t want to conflict with the already established Internet Pinball Database, but I used their game identification numbers as my key for simplicity sake. I also had to get a listing of all the games on the IPDB along with pertinent info (number of players, manufacturer, release dates, etc). I wrote a little application that programmatically started at game number 1 and went all the way up to something like 4500 (which was the “newest” IPDB entry at the time) and screen scraped the data off the IPDB web server responses (Sorry Wolf!). Now I had a starting list of games. Next, I got the full listing of old pinball serial numbers from the deprecated and outdated Pinball Pasture/Internet Pinball Project, from Daina Petit (you can still find the original Internet Pinball Project on archive.org if you want to peek at it). From that, I had my first database of serial numbers.

CD: What was the original philosophy or goal of the serial number project?

JA: Circle back to the original Jungle Lord owner’s list project and its inherent problems–my goal was for the new IPSND to do three things:

1. Allow submissions of serial numbers to my database which was ‘in-sync’ with IPDB games.

2. Allow people with owners lists to easily incorporate my serial lists directly into their sites (using simple inline javascript and HTML) so they no longer had to maintain the “serial listing” portion of their sites.

3. Allow tracking of specific game traits (like cabinet color, or other minor changes that happen throughout the production run of a game) along with serial numbers, so collectors could see trends on those game traits and understand if they were specific to the production run. In the case of Jungle Lord, it also allowed us to know that there were more like 400 red cabinet Jungle Lords and not 100 as was originally suspected.

Points two and three were the big long term goals as it really allowed the IPSND to become a centralized storage mechanism for all these game serial registrations, but also allowed that centralized knowledge to be shared outwards to other sites and collectively freed the owners list community from needing to waste minutes a day to update their sites with submissions. Owner’s List site owners rejoice!

CD: How long has the IPSND been active?

JA: I first registered and put the site up in 2006 with about 7500 serial numbers from the Internet Pinball Project. As of February 2015, there are 32,917 serials registered by over 4900 different people.

CD: In what ways has the site changed from when you first started it?

JA: Well, it started simple. On launch day, it just allowed you to search games and look at serial numbers, plus submit a serial number of your own (without the option of submitting a photo). By 2008, we had added photo support, our “nudging” system, the SerialBot points rating system, an RSS feed, geolocation mapping using Google Maps, bulk uploading, mobile Android support and a host of other features. Late last year I added backglass images to help submitters get the correct game more often. To see a log of all the changes, updates and feature announcements over the years, readers can view them here.

CD: What are you attempting to achieve by collecting all this data?

JA: Well, outside of the 3 goals I started with, I just continue to enjoy seeing the data come in, and with the help of other members, come up with interesting questions and solutions to fixing them. My overarching goal is that eventually this whole thing will go into the cloud and will be improved and maintained by other collectors long past the time when I’m gone (maybe?) Since serial numbers get submitted multiple times throughout the course of a game’s existence (as a game is bought/sold, or shown at a pinball show), in like 50 years, not only should most circulating games be in the database, but you will be able to see how they have moved around the country, or even the world. Perhaps this becomes the main registry for finding a game you want to buy, or to sell?

CD: In what ways can this open-source information be used by collectors and pinball fans?

JA: That is a great question. I suppose I don’t have the answers for this but I definitely see that this should become something like the IPDB that is a public repository of all information. It makes sense for the IPSND and the IPDB to combine at some point, I would think, but I don’t think Wolf and I are up for that challenge yet. Maybe some awesome young pinball coder will come forth and take on that responsibility at some point…

CD: What is your day job? I’m guessing something to do with statistics?

JA: Ha, not so much, but I guess in a way. I currently am an I.T. Project manager for New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado. If you pinball collectors are ever in town for a Brewery tour, let me know, I will come have a beer with you and we can talk pinball. Beer + Pinball = Awesome!

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The grounds of New Belgium Brewing. Home of Mr. Askey’s day job and the delicious Fat Tire Amber Ale.

 

CD: Say someone new to the site wants to submit the serial numbers for their games. Can you outline the steps one would take to submit that serial number into the database and maximize its usefulness? Is there any other information other than the serial that needs to be collected for submission?

JA: Sure, that is the point of the IPSND and it is amazing because I think this kind of stuff actually happens. I get lots of non-pinball people who submit serial numbers just because they found a game in their basement and somehow found my site. In general, to submit a serial number, it is very straightforward.

1. Search for the game name and make sure you find the correct one (we have added backglass images for the more popular games to help identify them better since some are very similar: for example, Bally’s Capt Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy and the Captain Fantastic Home Edition)

2. Look at the serial numbers for that game already submitted to make sure that your number is actually similar to the submitted ones (there are lots of non-serial numbers printed on games). Alternatively, you can click on the ‘finding the serial number’ tab for game listing to find user hints on the best way to accurately find the correct number to submit.

3. Click on the ‘Submit Serial Number’ button and fill out the form. Adding a photo helps immensely, so try to add a photo of the actual serial number if you can. That’s it. Done!

If a game has ‘traits’ (color variations, feature variations, etc.) then on the serial submission form you can select if your game falls into those categories, otherwise, you can simply leave them at ‘Unknown’ which is the default value. The submission form has several other pieces of information that you can add if you have it: date stamps on the game, whether you are physically looking at the serial number or perhaps you are just looking at a picture. There are little ‘?’ icons on the form that describe what each field is for.

CD: The database is “peer reviewed” by a nudging system that was briefly mentioned above. Can you explain how that works?

I added this feature because the one fatal flaw in the original system was that these numbers could be totally fictitious and made up unless there was some sort of physical proof of the serial number’s existence. So, I figured that it would be great for a submitter to upload a photo of the actual serial number. However, one of the first issues was that users were submitting photos of their machine, and not of the serial number! So, I figured that leveraging the IPSND points feature (members get points for doing various things on the site, submissions mostly) might make sense to allow the members to have a vote on the quality of the photo. So, basically that is what happens! When a submission comes in with a photo, it is “Open for Nudging”–meaning that another member can look at the photo, compare it to the submitted serial number and give it a ‘Thumbs Up’ or ‘Thumbs Down’ vote on the accuracy and quality of the photo.

A serial number for Gorgar that had been positively "nudged" by five IPSND members.

A serial number for Gorgar that had been positively “nudged” by five IPSND members.

The nudging process is only open until the voting swings +3 or -3 nudges (and has a minimum of 5 total nudges) and then it closes with the result of being ‘Nudged Up’ or ‘Nudged Down’. On the submission page for the individual serial number, this nudge result affects the points that the submission gets, and ends up being +3 points or -3 points accordingly. So, if a person submits a serial number with a poor photo that doesn’t show the serial number clearly or accurately, the submission quality will get dinged points. Additionally, members get a point for each nudge they complete. As of now, our highest “nudger” has examined and voted on over 7500 photos. Some members submit rarely, but nudge regularly. If there is good consensus on the nudging, the submission will close quickly, sometimes within minutes, but some submissions generate a discussion-heavy nudge history and some submissions have taken over 25 nudges simply because the voting result never swayed more than +3 or -3 over the opposing vote. You can see the Most Contentious Nudges and read the comments on the IPSND Statistics Page. I think the best part of this is that everyone judges a photo differently.

CD: You mention a point system that is in place. Do we win anything if we collect enough points??

JA: Well, you know how we humans work! Unless there is a way to create competition, some things can get boring pretty quickly…especially serial numbers. I figure that the points were created simply to let people get credit for their work and effort they put into the site. Originally points were only awarded for submissions. Points are now awarded for nudging, too, but the original motive remains: to try and get a high quality score through quality submissions. Right now, IPSND member John Vorwek has over 13,000 points on 2,270 unique serial number submissions. John has been supporting the site for years and has become very good at scouring eBay for good serial number photos and scrutinizing them to make sure that the game assignment is accurate. Some members have very few submissions, but mostly concentrate on nudging to get their points. On the topic of winning something: right now you just get name recognition on the site. I definitely owe a small handful of people an IPSND t-shirt, so I figured that I would get a bunch silk-screened and pay off my debts to supporters of the site. However, there is no formal time frame for that.

CD: The software you use to run the site and gather information is very intuitive–for example, your “Serial Bot” recognizes and alerts the submitter when a serial number doesn’t match the known format used on a particular game’s run. Can you talk a little about the software/code used and how it was developed?

JA: The IPSND site was actually created by me sort as hobby for the reasons I spoke to in the very first question. I have done enough software in my life that I didn’t want to make something that was just a database. The things that give systems and organisms something special are ‘closed loops’ which means systems collect, recycle and re-feed data in such a way that the whole system or organism evolves. While I’m no rocket scientist, the premise of the site evolving and potentially ‘self-governing’ itself seemed pretty cool to me: make some basic rules and let the site and members go at it and see where it goes, then modify the rules to keep it balanced. The site actually attempts to dynamically calculate everything. For example, the points are not scored once and then saved, but the software calculates the points on each load of the page–that keeps the math out of the database and makes sure that everything is interpreted at the time of viewing in case the rules (for accruing points, as an example) change.

CD: References to “The Internet Pinball Project” have come up rather frequently on the site and in this interview. Can you give a bit of history about them and how you came to inherit their collected information?

JA: The Internet Pinball Project was an old part of the original Pinball Pasture which started back in 1997. The Pinball Pasture was created by Dave Byers and included information such as the original Internet Pinball Database (before Jay and Wolf took it over to ipdb.org), playing tips and strategies, a Pinball Glossary and the original Serial Numbers Database. (check out the wayback machine here to browse it from 1999.)

Even in 2004, the original database was getting stale and the process of e-mailing in serial numbers and logging them manually was difficult. Additionally, there was no mechanism for submitting photos at that time (remember, this is back when digital cameras were not very common, much less phones with high-res cameras in them). When I started the IPSND, I posted on RGP about the old Pinball Database, and luckily Daina Pettit (of Mr. Pinball Classifieds) had saved a copy. They serials were only organized by ‘Game Name’ and manufacturer, so I had to do some cleansing of the data and also determine which exact ‘Game Number’ that each serial was for (for example, if a serial was for Williams 1960 Black Jack or Bally 1976 Black Jack). So, the database was born using that data. Thanks to Daina and David for all their work, because it certainly helped start with 7500 serial numbers rather than the 13 I had in my personal collection! One final note is that in talking to Daina about this, he requested that I make the site have a feature that would let people download the entire database for whatever purpose they chose at any time. I thought that was both a good idea and also a fun technical challenge. To this day, you can download the entire core database in a single, flat CSV format (.zipped and e-mailed to you) if you want to do any external analysis…or otherwise.

CD: What are some of the more interesting statistics you have extrapolated from the submitted information?

JA: Well, I have a handful of cool things that I reference…

1. Williams 1981 Jungle Lord – It was always guessed by the RPG community that there were approximately 100 ‘Red Cabinet’ sample games made. It is pretty clear now by looking at the data, that there were actually about 425 of them made (see here). You can see the early serial numbers are grouped by the ‘cluster tool’ on the left side of the table. Although we clearly don’t have all 425 accounted for and we probably never will, due to the habit of route operators taking games to the dump, it at least shows us the upper and lower bounds of the range for those particular games. I don’t think that the data could present itself any better in this particular situation. Luckily, this was the original question I had for building the database, so I seem to have found the answer.

2. Williams 1991 Black Knight 2000 – If you visit the page for BK2K here, and click on the ‘Game Traits’ tab, you will see something interesting. Summarized in the top table is a listing of two ‘properties’ for the game: the style of plastics on the game and the color of some lettering on the backglass. It was postulated on RGP, that both of these variations might have been related to the “sample game run” or early test versions of games. By looking at the gathered data, you can see that both the plastics artwork and the color seem to actually be dispersed across the entire production run, not just early run examples. So, more than likely, these batches were not made sequentially, but the assembly line were just delivered “either/or” versions of the plastics and backglasses, perhaps coming from different printers. As we get more data, we may start to see the smaller patterns of the game plastics flipping between the two styles, which may tell us how many plastics sets came on a palette from the supplier. Keep in mind that Williams also had two production lines, so maybe one line had the ‘futuristic artwork’ and the other had the ‘Stone Castle’ plastics. If I had to guess, this second scenario was more likely.

3. Williams used a single number sequence when making games, but as I mentioned before, they also had two production lines running at the same time. Imagine how games are created: they are done in “runs” or “batches”. If you take a look at this page or the graphic below, (it looks rough, apologies), you will see a listing of all 1980s Williams games with the highest and lowest number in a clustered range. You can see how most games are listed in this sequence, sometimes two to four times, as they were being built in “runs”. Let’s use Black Knight as an example (RED Color Block). You can see it first appears in the list around the time of Firepower/Blackout/Algar, which were the last of the System 6 games. Having Black Knight appear in that run shows that Williams actually made 42 Black Knight games at the same time as the System 6 games (and most likely, that is the version of the game with the System 6 hardware). Now, jump down to the next Black Knight (about 15 rows down): they made exactly 100 games in this run. Those must have been the sample games. You can see that they were finishing up with the Blackout and Alien Poker runs at this time too. I think that this view is pretty interesting because it really shows you how often they flipped games on and off of production, and this was probably very tightly related to pending orders from distributors. If you continue to follow Black Knight, you will next see the big run of 10,000 games and then a couple “clean-up” runs which probably took care of remaining parts inventory.

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CD: Is there a socially acceptable way to collect the serial information when in a public setting like a show or a friend’s collection? Do some people view it as “stealing” their personal information?

JA: Yeah, that is a great question, too. I think it sorta depends on how you approach it. If you are at a show and are crawling inside of people’s games without permission then obviously, they might get a little miffed. The best approach is to always ask and take the opportunity to inform the owner about the serial’s value and how their data may help clarify some interesting things for the pinball collecting community.

Along those same lines, I certainly have received numerous e-mails from individuals saying that someone else had registered their serial number on the site and they would like it removed because they were not the owner of the game. I think in part that comes from the site allowing people to print out ‘Serial Number Certificates’ for any submission which look nice but really are meaningless. When this happens, I try to explain the bigger picture goal of the site and also the main point is that we don’t just want ONE submission for each serial number, but we want MULTIPLE submissions of a serial number over time. Because we also allow submitters to track the location of a game (in a general way, you probably don’t want to put your specific address in there), we can see how games have travelled around in their lifetime. This type of data is going to take lots of time to gather, but my best example right now is this particular serial number for Aquarius which seems to show up often at the Pacific Pinball Expo.

CD: Do you get the feeling there is a negative perception in the pinball community toward people who are focused on the collection numerical data? I’m reminded of the somewhat unflattering light that the filmmakers used when chronicling old-school data collector Sam Harvey in their Special When Lit documentary.

JA: Well, like I said above: if you approach people the right way, then I think that a lot of benefit can come from the conversation. The thing to understand about Sam is that back in the 80s and 90s when the pinball collecting community was much smaller, everyone knew Sam and they knew what he was about. They expected to see him coming up to their games, opening them up and digging around until he found every serial number in that game. As the community grew (and changed), Sam’s behaviour didn’t and maybe it rubbed people the wrong way. Some people could get really pissed if some dude with a big afro was digging around in a game that you just restored. I think that what Sam was doing was a remarkable undertaking and I wish that I could get access to his books upon books of serial numbers recorded numbers. However, I would also expect that there are a significant number of errors in his recording of serials just because they are so damn difficult to read sometimes.

Sam Harvey, still from the Special When Lit  documentary (2008).

Sam Harvey, still from the Special When Lit documentary (2008).

CD: In your estimation, what percentage of all existing pinball machines has the site gathered the serial numbers for?

JA: Well, it is pretty small… I think that with the games we know of what the production run was, we get more than 3,300,462 pinball machines that have been produced. Since we don’t know production numbers for many of the ‘games of olde’ when pinball was really booming, I’ll bet that number is only 75% of the actual number. Right now there are 32,191 submissions for about 30,000 unique serial numbers. Thus, we only have .9% of all games registered. Looking at specific games that have a decent production run (reference the site statistics page: http://www.ipsnd.net/stats.aspx?id=2), we have 15.2% of all The Addams Family Gold games, 36.7% of Spacelab games and 8.4% of the Safecrackers. So, once you start looking at specific games, the numbers are a bit more impressive!

CD: How can the pinball community help grow the IPSND?

JA: Well, I think that it is sort of happening naturally. First and foremost, we can grow the site by talking about it and sharing the benefits. I think that conversation can ignite the curiosity that all of us pinball collectors have. Obviously, making sure that all your games are registered on the site, with a photo and a geo-location, helps move the site to its long term goals. Making sure that the data is correct is also important.

I have received help from many leaders in the pinball community in both organizing the site, submitting serials, and submitting traits…

• ‘Pistol’ Pete Haduch has been helping me on the site for years as far as fixing submission errors, following up with questions, approving tips and traits, creating game serial masks and overall keeping things in line.

• Convention Gatherers like Basil Leblanc, Mark Gibson, Dan Gutchess, Seal Clubber, KoP and yourself submit serials from games at the various shows around the country and can give us a snapshot of what is being shown, bought or sold without actually attending these shows.

• Service Gatherers like Daina Pettit, Ray Johnson, Antti Peltonen submit serials for games they service (these are the games often buried in people’s houses)

• Jon Vorwerk patrols eBay and doesn’t let a serial get past him. Of particular note here is that Jon is continuing to submit valuable ‘Game Part’ serial numbers, which, while are not associated directly with a game, helps us determine if a serial number exists for the future when we start to analyse bigger data trends.

• Pinball Eric helped out by giving all the serial numbers from the Pinball Price Guide (very nice of him)

• Jay Stafford and Wolf at IPDB.org have been very supportive as well, allowing me to integrate with their data and make our sites work in harmony. I think that if our sites were on the same technology (IPDB is PHP and IPSND is ASP.NET) it would make sense for them to merge someday… that is probably for the next generation of pinball collector software guys though!

These folks and many others are the real winners of the site.

CD: Can we help with a monetary donation to keep things running?

JA: I definitely get Paypal donations for the hardware of the server and the internet connection. Everyone that donates gets a little dollar sign next to their name on the site. I get about $100 per year in donations which helps a bit with costs (cost averages about $750/year). If you like the site, I would love to move it to an Amazon cloud server or something so that it isn’t sitting in my basement at risk of being knocked over and destroyed. Anyone own a hosting company? Ping me!

CD: Are there any concepts on the horizon to make the submission process easier? An “on-the-go” app for smartphones?

JA: Yes, I currently have an Android app made with Phonegap in the download section of the site. It works, but is a bit clunky. It certainly makes submitting games very easy with a smartphone, though. Anyone have any Phonegap skillz that could help out? Geez, I’m really starting to beg here!

CD: What challenges lie ahead for the IPSND?

JA: I think that with any big project like this, the guarantee that the data is secure and lives on is the biggest long term challenge. I will continue to make the site better in small ways, but that is time reliant, and my children really suck my time away from coding on the site (as they should). Luckily as I mentioned above, many people in the community are actively helping on the site which keeps it moving in the right direction. The thing I want this site to transcend is the 20 year lifespan of many sites. I want to eventually get the code for the entire site checked into GIT and made public so it can be maintained by multiple people and put into the cloud. Then barring some sort of apocalypse, the site should run for a very long time and this information can stay growing and informing into the future. With companies like Jersey Jack and Stern Pinball, luckily we still have new pinball machines coming off the production lines and keeping our passion alive for future generations.

CD: Finally, what games are in your collection? What era of games tend to be your favourite? What is your favourite game?

JA: I have a smaller collection than I used to, but I’ve whittled it down to my core games. I started collecting when I was 13 when my dad bought me a Williams San Francisco. I still have that, plus some video games, which are also my passion. Other than the San Francisco, I have a Tales of the Arabian Nights, Hyperball, Time Fantasy, Cosmic Gunfight, Solar Fire, Jungle Lord, Warlock, Joust (the pinball machine), Centaur, Big Chief, and a 1934 Pacific Novelty Contact. On the video game side, I have Robotron 2084, Mystic Marathon, Xybots, Alpha One (Major Havoc Prototype) and a Williams Spellbinder which was never released and is currently being rebuilt. Obviously, I love those early 80’s Williams games. But, Centaur might be my favorite!

The Internet Pinball Serial Number database can be found at http://www.ipsnd.net, and relies heavily on the support and submissions of the pinball community.  If you have not submitted the serial numbers of the games and parts in your collection ,or the routed games on locations near you, I strongly urge you to do so.  A greater understanding of the pinball business and trends within the collecting community await discovery…using the information gathered by pinheads around the globe.


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HARDWARE: The Elusive “Bally Side Rail”

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Quite a lot of Bally System 11 games have dented side rails.  It’s almost an epidemic.  Read any For Sale description of an Elvira and the Party Monsters, and more often than not, you’ll get a mention of damaged side rails from an errant backbox drop.  They seem be dented and left unfixed in high numbers due of the lack of new (or NOS) replacement rails available in the marketplace.  The rails are an oddball size and only appeared on a handful of games, so parts manufacturers have neglected making them.  Drop the backbox and dent the rails on your WPC machine and it’s a $50 mistake that is easily remedied with an order through Pinball Life.  Dent the rails on your Mousin’ Around? You’re pretty much screwed.  The dents will be a constant reminder of your stupidity.  Might as well get out the hammer and try to bang out the damage, because these rails are pretty hard to source.

The games bearing these rare rails are Truck Stop, Atlantis, Transporter: The Rescue, Elvira and the Party Monsters and Mousin’ Around, and the reference number for the elusive part is A-12359-1 (the parts catalogue mentions that Bally Game Show may also use these rails, however, I cannot find definitive photographic evidence of this–Game Show was the first Bally game to employ the external rounded hinge, which leads me to believe a different shorter rail was used.  If you have leads, or photos, please let me know.)  All of the above mentioned games were manufactured under the “Midway” banner (despite bearing the “Bally” name on the backbox) during a time when Williams had just absorbed the struggling Bally/Midway brand.  The rail length for these games, from end to end, for a System 11 Bally Rail runs 51.5 inches, making it nearly 5 inches longer than the identical looking in every other way WPC side rail (A-12359-3).

Blackwater 100, the first appearance of the thin "Bally Rail"

Blackwater 100, the first appearance of the thin “Bally Rail”

The reason for the extra length is that the backbox on these five Bally games sits on a built-up pedestal of sorts, and the side rails run underneath the backbox to the backside of the cabinet.  The hinges on the backboxes are not external, but rather contained within the backbox pedestal, allowing the rail to run undisturbed to the rear of the cabinet.  Bally games that followed Mousin’ Around had their backboxes sit flush with the cabinet and employ a set of external rounded hinges (similar to other late model Williams System 11 games), thus the side rails had to terminate at the backbox.  (It is interesting to note that Bally Midway’s  March ’88 release Blackwater 100, pre-Williams takeover, appears to be the first “modern game” with the thinner and longer 51.5 inch rail incorporated into the design, however, this version of the rail is affixed to the cabinet with a series of nails running its  length, whereas the later version of the rail we are speaking about here is affixed to the cabinet with double-sided tape, a Torx screw on the back end and a bolt on the front near the flipper button.)  To complicate matters more, rails on the games from the same era bearing the Williams logo, such as Fire!, Earthshaker, Jokerz! and Black Knight 2000 to name a few, were wider in height and incorporated the flipper button right into the rail itself.  You could almost cut two thin Bally rails out of the metal used on one of the Williams games.  Less metal meant cost savings: thus, it should come as no surprise that Williams adopted the thinner Bally-style rail when a standard design for all pinball machines was adopted for the WPC platform in the 1990s.

A quick search shows that Bay Area Amusements has the A-12359-1 rail advertised on their page for purchase; however, like many other desperately needed niche parts listed on their site, they are currently out of stock.  I have checked the page for the last five months, and I have never been lucky enough to find the item available for immediate purchase (if in stock, retail price would be $59.00USD+shipping).  The Ministry of Pinball, the Netherlands-based pin retailer, also lists the rails for purchase (retail price: 29.95 Euro), which remains an option for our Euro friends, but those stateside would pay dearly for shipping due to the awkward size of the parts (you’d have to add another 35.00 Euro for shipping to the US or Canada…it gets cost ineffective pretty quick).

In some rare instances, the rails do pop up for sale.  Not two months ago, a set was offered, and quickly purchased, on Pinside for $125USD (shipping included).  A search of the rec.games.pinball newsgroup shows that a few sets have sold over the years with the asking price ranging between $150USD-$200USD.  RGP also mentions the existence of a user named “Timathie” who manufactured the rails for the RGP community years ago.  As per a post from 2011, it appears that the user is no longer making them.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI bought an Elvira and the Party Monsters game late last summer, and wouldn’t you know it, it had dented side rails from an errant backbox drop.  It was disclosed to me in the original description and photos of the game, so I knew I would be (possibly) snookered if I ever wanted to replace them.  The ingenuity of the pinball collector took over.  I was able to locate a set of new, uninstalled Williams System 11 side rails within the community marketplace at a very reasonable price (the wide ones that incorporated the flipper buttons, which turned out to be a set of these: Pinball Life’s Williams Stainless Steel Side Rail Set – Circa 1989-90, pictured right).  I bought them hoping that they could be precision cut to fit my needs.  Unlike the other Williams System 11 wide rails, this 1989-90 version has no extra nail or screw holes that would be left behind once the excess was trimmed off, and they met the length requirements of 51.5 inches.  I contacted a nearby metal fabrication outfit (CIM Metals Inc. , of Burlington, Ontario, Canada) and for $45CDN they were able to cut both rails, using laser technology to replicate the look of a thin Bally rail for my game.  I pulled off an original dented rail for them to use as a template (they only needed one, each Bally rail is interchangeable with no characteristics or markings that require specific left or right side installation).  They were able to match the original tapering and square screw holes faithfully, which made installation a breeze.   For about $85CDN, all told, I had a new set of undented rails on my EATPM, which was a bit cheaper than finding a NOS set, and a bit less frustrating than waiting around for a North American company to stock them.  I had to jump through a few hoops to get it done, but I’m happy with the results.  I’m not one for total perfection on my games but when an opportunity presents itself, I can’t pass it up.  Here’s hoping someone takes the lead on this and starts producing the Bally rails for the community, in sustainable quantities, as they are sorely needed.  Until then, keep those backbox bolts nice and tight…

Further Reading:

Pinside – For Sale: 51-1/2″ side rails (EatPM, Atlantis, Mousin’) – SOLD
Pinside – WTB- set of Side Rails for Eatpm
Bay Area Amusements – Metal Side Rails (pair) – System 11, etc
Ministry of Pinball – Elvira and the Party Monster Side Rails
rec.games.pinball – EATPM side rails