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FEATURE: Smaller Muscles and Fewer Wrestlers, The History and Production of Data East’s WWF Royal Rumble

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Everyone has a pinball machine theme that feels like it was selected just for them. And it usually occurs where your passion for pinball intersects with another interest or collecting passion. Car buffs have Corvette and Mustang. Members of the Kiss Army have made the 1979 Bally game the ultimate Kiss Kollectable. Star Wars fanatics have a few different machines to choose from. Me, I have WWF Royal Rumble. I have long been a fan of wrestling, since the World Wrestling Federation turned the regional sideshow into a multi-national sports entertainment powerhouse in the mid-1980s. As a kid, I couldn’t get enough of the larger-than-life characters and their over-the-top gimmicks. It was all about the costumes, the pageantry, and the story lines. By 1994, like many others, I was tuning out of the wrestling scene to focus on more pressing matters (girls), but Data East’s April release from that year still works to turn my nostalgic crank.

Instead of doing a full-blown review of the game, I’ve decided to use this forum to focus on how the art package and layout of the game situates itself within the greater context of pinball history, and moreover, wrestling history. Be prepared for a heavy dose of discussion about the characters in the game, the history surrounding the release and the climate of the wrestling industry when WWF Royal Rumble would have appeared in arcades across the globe.

The Royal Rumble pinball machine is based upon on the yearly WWF Pay-Per-View event held every January where thirty of the best superstars are invited to participate in a high-stakes, chaotic, over the top rope battle royal. Unlike traditional battle royals, the Royal Rumble introduces one 00-wwfproto03superstar to the ring every two minutes (or ninety seconds, depending on the year) and are charged with eliminating other competitors, friend or foe, by throwing them over the top rope to the arena floor. Putting aside the predetermined nature of wrestling, stamina and luck of the draw are key in a Royal Rumble event. The last man standing in the ring after all thirty have entered, is declared the winner, and given number one contendership for the WWF championship at the following Wrestlemania, which is without a doubt the biggest wrestling event in North America.

WWF Royal Rumble was released by Data East and design of the game is credited to both Tim Seckel and Joe Kaminkow. Mr. Seckel was the designer of just four other production games at Data East: Hook (1992), Last Action Hero (1993), The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (1993) and Maverick (1994). Mr. Kaminkow was the larger-than-life co-founder of Data East (along with current Stern Pinball boss Gary Stern) and reports from various sources say he was a very “hands-on” type of leader (who was a full-fledged designer in his own right, having started his design career at Williams in the early-1980s). I had the opportunity to talk to designer Tim Seckel about Mr. Kaminkow’s role as a co-desinger on Royal Rumble, as Kaminkow was often credited as co-designer of games from this period:

“Joe was my boss, and really my mentor in pinball design.  He always had an active role in everything that happened there.  I don’t remember specific elements of the design or gameplay [he created for Royal Rumble], but he was always throwing out new ideas, suggestions, game modes, or tweaks to a shot that helped polish and enhance the game.”

Royal Rumble features a widebody design, giving the player more playfield space to play upon and the designer more room to pack in playfield features and shots. Whether or not a widebody design enhances the overall gameplay experience (versus a standard playfield size) is one of personal preference. Some like the extra space, others think that it messes with ball trajectory and slows down overall gameplay.  Data East’s decision to run Royal Rumble as a widebody game was probably a knee-jerk reaction to emulate the success Williams was having with their Superpin line of widebody games. In the months prior to Royal Rumble’s release, Williams had released Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure and Star Trek: the Next Generation, which resulted in game sales just shy of 25,000 units combined. It is public record that Royal Rumble was originally designed with a traditional sized layout, only to be reconfigured to a widebody sometime during the design period. Mark this as the first of many design and artwork changes Royal Rumble went through before hitting the production line. Mr. Seckel remembers the change from a standard to widebody format:

“The game was pretty far along as a narrow body.  I recall we had a full art package complete with working prototypes.  Going from memory, I believe the reason we changed direction was because of a recent shift from our competition to go to a wider game.  It was great because it provided more space inside the cabinet for features like the upper ring, and the shots could be spread out.  The biggest challenge was probably time to market.  As I mentioned, making the game wider allowed me to add features in the design, which is always a fun challenge.”

Data East programmer Orin Day also provided some details about the switch from narrow body to widebody in a quote found on the Internet Pinball Database:

“There was line art done for the narrow body playfield but there was never a screened playfield, just a whitewood, and I don’t think it was ever actually built up and playable.”

In an industry where the overall look of a game means just as much as the playability of a game, this appeared to be a change in cosmetics only. There may have been a perceived value in a larger, widebody game from casual players, perhaps attracting more attention because in the players’ minds, bigger equaled better–or bigger equaled more value for your quarters. The widebody trend in pinball failed to become an industry standard and petered out by the end of 1994. Williams only released a handful of other games in their Superpin line, and Data East called it quits on their supersized games after Guns n’ Roses, which followed Royal Rumble chronologically in their release schedule.

As a design footnote, it should be documented that Royal Rumble was set include three under-playfield magnets, the same style and positioning as those that appeared on Williams Addams Family. (Weird, right? Data East emulating Williams? Never!) The Internet Pinball Database shows a photo of the underside of a Royal Rumble playfield with three circular cutouts, the size of magnet cores, in the typical placement of underplayfield magnets in the area above the flippers. One can assume the magnets could have been activated during multiball or the “Pandemonium” mode to simulate the chaos and unpredictability of the Royal Rumble match. A few other Data East releases of the time included under-playfield magnets to disrupt ball travel, but perhaps it was decided that the shaker motor, that rumbles throughout the entire game with switch activation, provided enough sensory enhancement for the player.

If these design changes weren’t enough, WWF Royal Rumble was also saddled with some pretty unique artwork challenges that changed the overall feel and presence of the game, especially when viewed from the perspective of a die-hard wrestling fan. The artwork is credited to both Paul Faris and Markus Rothkranz. Mr. Rothkrantz, it is interesting to note as an aside, is now a self-proclaimed health expert and motivational speaker. He can also help you to achieve “epic love” (with the help of products available for purchase in his online store).

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Close-up of Dennis Nedry’s fingers, Jurassic Park playfield

The playfield features typical Data East playboard artwork of the period–whispy, shadowy, thin-linned art–of which I’m not really taken by. Such artwork style, in my opinion, appears sloppy, and detracts from the overall feel of the game. Other games that feature this style of artwork include Lethal Weapon 3 and Jurassic Park, the latter of which sums up my distaste for this sloppy style of playfield artwork in one image: Dennis Nedry’s fingers. The thin-lined, “realistic” style appeared to be an in-house preference of Data East, as it spans across different artists, and is a style that stands in direct contrast to the bold lines and cartoon-like feel of the artwork that Williams was applying to their playfields during the same period. Designer Tim Seckel was able to outline the roles of each artist in my discussions with him. Mr. Faris created the original prototype backglass artwork, playfield, plastics and cabinet, while Mr. Rothkrantz created the production backglass artwork only.

It is well known in the pinball community that Royal Rumble‘s production backglass differed greatly from the backglass first created for the game. The production translite looks almost anemic next to the prototype version, featuring fewer muscles and fewer wrestlers. The change to a more sparse backglass came at the behest of the WWF for two very distinct reasons.

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WWF Royal Rumble prototype translite

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WWF Royal Rumble production translite

First, the WWF was in the midst of a steroid scandal which began years before, set into public motion by an expose aired on the TV news magazine show Inside Edition. Apparently, WWF performers were being prescribed “vitamins” by one specific doctor, who was more than likely on the WWF’s unofficial payroll to keep their big names big in physical stature. By the time 1994 rolled around, current and former WWF employees, including Hulk Hogan himself, were summoned to take the stand in a very public federal investigation to answer to the widespread use of steroids and other foreign enhancement drugs within the company. (Hogan, under oath in 1994, stated that in his estimation, “75 to 80 percent, maybe more” of the WWF locker room were using some form of steroids.) With all of this bad press, the WWF made a distinct change in who they used as their main event talent. Gone were the chiseled, muscle-bound physiques of champions like the Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan. WWF owner Vince McMahon made a move to focus on the “little guys”–performers like Shawn Michaels and Bret “Hitman” Hart who didn’t have overtly muscular frames, but made up for it with in-ring ability and out-of-ring charisma. The 600-plus pound Yokozuna was also used as a WWF champion to throw the dogs off the steroid trail, because his frame was impressive for its girth, not its rippling, steroid-fueled muscle.

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Mr. Faris’ Lost World backglass

This shift can also be seen within the changes to the backglass. Gone are the inhuman bodies of Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior on the prototype translite, replaced by a more anemic Hogan, a small-framed Bret “Hitman” Hart and a fully-clothed Undertaker. The Royal Rumble logo is taken from the top of the glass on the prototype, enlarged, and placed in the centre of the production translite to draw even more attention away from the wrestlers. Mr. Faris’ original prototype art harkens back to some of his work for Bally in the 1980s, as many of his games, like Centaur, Paragon and Lost World, featured overly buff, fantastic male bodies that the perceived male audience would want to emulate. Hogan’s jacked torso makes him look as if he just stepped out of the Lost World backglass and onto the Royal Rumble‘s. Designer Tim Seckel remembers the artistic changes this way:

“[…] The biggest challenge was selecting the wrestlers to really focus on, and then figuring out how to translate their signature moves in to the play of the game.  Probably the biggest challenge with that is “time”. In other words, wrestlers popularity changes over time so, whoever was ‘king’ at the time we started the project probably wasn’t ‘king’ when the game went to market.  I recall The Ultimate Warrior was champ early on, but later fell out of grace with [the] WWF and he was taken out of the final version of the game.”

“Originally Paul Faris did the entire art package for the narrow body game.  When we changed the game to a wide body it meant he would have a lot of art to change on the playfield and plastics, and not a lot of time to make changes to the backglass–we had to remove The Ultimate Warrior, and probably a few others that I don’t remember.   It was also at that time that we decided to focus on a fewer number of wrestlers on the backglass.  So we hired Markus Rothkranz to paint a new backglass. For the most part, art follows the layout, so I wasn’t really restricted by any changes to the layout because of the art, but on the flipside, the art was definitely affected by the layout changes!

If the steroid scandal wasn’t enough of a challenge for the WWF, they were experiencing a major turnover in talent. Media mogul Ted Turner had purchased the other major national wrestling brand, World Championship Wrestling. Mr. Turner fancied himself as being king of the “rasslin’ business”, and what better way to succeed than by emulating the WWF? And what better way to emulate the WWF than by buying all its talent. Herein lies the second reason why the prototype translite wouldn’t fly with WWF brass: the majority of the featured wrestlers were jumping ship to the competition. By mid-1994, of those featured on the prototype translite, the British Bulldog, Sid Vicious/Justice, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Ric Flair, Earthquake, Typhoon, the Nasty Boys, and the Big Boss Man had all left the WWF to sign more lucrative contracts with the WCW. Keeping up with the WWF roster in 1994 was about as hard as keeping up with other major league sports teams during free agency period. The production translite streamlined all of this, featuring WWF performers who were, more or less, mainstays in the company.

Hulk Hogan is a special case here. He appears as one of the main focal points of both the prototype and production translite. By April of 1994 when the Royal Rumble game was released, Hogan was still technically a WWF property. He was sitting out the rest of his WWF contract after not having wrestled for the company since August of 1993, focusing instead on his acting career (we all know how that turned out). His image, to this day, is literally the face of wrestling–he’s arguably the most identifiable wrestler to ever walk the earth. Even though not active on WWF programming, his image appears centred on the backglass for that reason. Those familiar with wrestling history will know that Hogan’s foray into acting was short lived, and less than a year after he vowed never to wrestle again, in June of 1994, he signed a massive contact with the WCW. It is likely Royal Rumble machines were still rolling off of Data East assembly lines with the new face of the rival company plastered on the backglass.


WWF Royal Rumble BY THE NUMBERS:

  • Number of units sold: 3,500
  • Number of featured superstars on the Royal Rumble Production translite: 6
  • Number of featured superstars on the Royal Rumble Prototype translite (including the Beverly Brothers): 24
  • Number of superstars on the Prototype translite that were not with the company by 1994 year end: 18 (75%)
  • Number of superstars on the Prototype translite that would be on the WCW payroll by 1994 year end: 11 (46%)
  • Number of superstars on the Prototype translite that are now deceased: 8 (33%)
  • Number of superstars on the Production translite that are now deceased: 2 (33%)
  • Number of WWF superstars that appear on the playfield only, and not on either translite: 12
  • Of those twelve, number of deceased playfield only superstars: 3 (25%)

 

Thankfully, for collectors, if you yearn to have a fully fleshed out WWF roster on your backglass, the ingenuity and drive of the secondary collector market has made it an attainable goal. Pinside member RDReynolds had the wherewithal to print up a version of the translite based on the original prototype photos. I have one of these installed in my machine, and it totally fits with the overall feel of the game. The quality of the translite is second to none—no cheap printing methods in this project. One drawback is that the source image used for the printing was a bit muddy, which makes for some very soft lines and an overall quicksand-like feel to the image depending on how it is backlit. Such quality is to be expected, as I’m sure the RDReynolds was using blown up images from photographs of the prototype, and not the original Faris source art to complete the project. Lighting the new prototype art with incandescent bulbs helps to make the image less harsh and hides the muddyness, as opposed to back-lighting it with more modern LED bulbs. Those interested in buying one for their game, or for their gameroom wall, should contact RDReynolds directly, as a few more remain from his final run (as of writing in August 2016). If nothing else, the artwork stands as a constant reminder of what the game could have, and should have, looked like.

The playfield does a decent job of featuring the core of the WWF talent of the period and integrating them into the gameplay. In order to achieve the main multiball, you must “collect” nine wrestlers, from the two main ramp shots and far right orbit. Second tier wrestlers are featured here, such as Crush, Tatanka and Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Along with their images on the playfield, their theme songs are featured when they are collected. It is interesting to note that Hulk Hogan appears nowhere on the playfield. The tag team wrestlers on the far right–the Stiener Brothers, the Bushwhackers and the Smoking Gunns–have little bearing on gameplay, and only appear as images on the playfield. However, the Gunns do provide a special hook for the extra ball DMD animation (“shoot” again, get it?) Razor Ramon and Mr. Perfect appear at the playfield outlanes, as afterthoughts, not included in any other aspects of rules or gameplay. It is also interesting to note that Crush appears as “Kona Crush” on the playfield art–his fun-loving, good-guy persona–but as his villainous, painted face, heel persona in the DMD animations. Trying to capture an accurate representation of the ever-changing WWF is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle, I guess. (I’d also like to nit pick that Mr. Fuji, who appears at the upper scoop as a lit insert for the extra ball, is a representation of the bowler hat/tuxedo Fuji from the 1980s, and that Fuji had been sporting a shaved head and kimono ever since he started to manage Yokozuna in 1992. It is an anachronism that will bother only the most devout WWF fans.)

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Royal Rumble playfield, courtesy of Pinside user “Buzz”.

Yet another change to the Royal Rumble art package came in the form of the cabinet art. The Pingame Journal unearthed a picture of a prototype cabinet that featured red, white and blue shooting stars and the images of Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and Randy Savage. This approach, much like the backglass, must have been scrapped due to superstar turnover and decreased focus on the muscle-bound bodies. The production cabinet is much more muted: a giant WWF Royal Rumble logo on a plain black background. Just like the translite change, the focus became the branding of the logo, rather than the performers themselves. The blue background of the translite is the only leftover from the overall blue feel of the prototype package.

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Pingame Journal’s photograph of the Royal Rumble prototype cabinet art as it appears on IPDB.org

I stated at the outset that WWF Royal Rumble is a snapshot of the WWF at a time when I wasn’t really interested in wrestling. What I wouldn’t give for this game to be made five years earlier, during WWF’s silver age in the late-1980s. Granted, it would have been a very different game and lacked a DMD display and immersive sound package, which are two of 00-wwfproto01the greatest features of the game as it was manufactured, as they had not been perfected in the earlier era. As it stands, I wasn’t really a fan of WWF’s sickeningly-sweet, family-friendly programming of 1994. The colourful personas of the 1980s were replaced with dull personas in colourful costumes in the early-1990s. One needn’t look further than Doink the Clown and Tatanka, two wrestlers predominantly featured in the Royal Rumble pinball machine. As the 1990s began, it was the dawn of a new era for wrestling fans: the curtain had been pulled back, and everyone could clearly see Vince McMahon in all his Oz-like glory, pulling the strings behind the scenes. The steroid scandal had a lot to do with that. As a result, Mr. McMahon wanted to be seen as the head of a wholesome, all-American entertainment company akin to Disney…or the American Gladiators. It wouldn’t be until much later in the 1990s that McMahon threw this approach out the window, and decided The Jerry Springer Show was the prototype to emulate—packing in all the sex, gore and violence that a smarter, more-self-aware audience could handle. It should come as no surprise that this is when I tuned back into wrestling–during the WWF’s, now WWE’s, “Attitude Era”.

But what is pinball if not good clean, American entertainment and a chance to use your imagination?  In 1994, it was a match made in heaven. It featured all the sights and sounds of the World Wrestling Federation, with very little actual wrestling. Very few DMD animations focus on hand-to-hand combat, save for a pathetic grappling video mode, cartoonish punching associated with pop-bumper hits and an interactive chair bashing mode. The majority of the “wrestling” is implied, and is drawn from the kinetics of the ball and a knowledge of the sport. In the art package, there isn’t one instance of two wrestlers engaged in a wrestling contest making physical contact—the images of the Big Boss Man and Bret Hart performing wrestling moves on opponents were erased from the final version of the translite (along with the muscles and three-quarters of the 1993 WWF roster). The player is presented the “idea” of wrestling, and is asked to fill in the blanks on their own. Despite all their downfalls, the roster was given a chance to let their personas be the centre of the action.

Considering the artistic strife the game suffered during development, the overall art package represents this disappointing time in the WWF quite admirably. One complaint I do have about overall gameplay is the lack of incorporating the wrestlers’ signature moves. We get a reference to Yokozuna’s banzai drop, but Bret Hart’s sharpshooter, Undertaker’s tombstone piledriver, Razor Ramon’s razor’s edge and Hawksaw Jim Duggan’s two-by-four are nowhere to be to be found. These could have easily been incorporated into modes, animations or artistic splashes around the playfield just as the banzai had. The chaotic nature of the Royal Rumble match comes off beautifully within the game—a countdown by the fans results in adding a ball into play during multiball (in effect adding another wrestler into the match just as the Rumble is known for), and locking a ball on the upper playfield during Pandemonum does the same in the featured special scoring mode. The upper ring may appear to be an under-utilized design choice to layman players, but if used properly to increase jackpots and multipliers, it can be a valuable little area of the playfield. Lets face it, a wrestling game without an actual “ring” isn’t much of a wrestling pinball game.

00-wwfproto07Stern’s 2015 release of Wrestlemania, and limited edition version Legends of Wrestlemania, shared the same sentiment of the need for a ring, however, their use of the upper ring feature detracts from overall gameplay, whereas Royal Rumble‘s works to compliment it. And while we are on the topic, and without diving too deep into contrasting the two games (that will make for a fully fleshed out article of its own), the Legends of Wrestlemania game could have done so much more to appease collectors and players who are avid wrestling fans by fully incorporating 80s and 90s legends into the art package and gameplay, but totally missed the mark by playing it safe, instead representing the bygone era on the cabinet art alone.

I’m not sure I’m fully sold on Data East games from this era, as they seemed to be trying too hard to emulate their Bally/Midway/Williams trailblazing brethren. It’s a cross that 1990s Data East games had to bear during the era in which they were released, and now to a greater extent in the discerning collectors market of today. However, as the prices rise on the coveted Williams titles, these Data East games become more desirable as “value games”. WWF Royal Rumble seems to be one of those games, providing a whole lot of game that incorporates the theme wholeheartedly at a fraction of the price of some of the top tier Williams/Bally/Midway DMD titles. It is a shame the Data East library only includes two widebody titles, as that is one thing the company seemed to do very well. For my money, Royal Rumble and Guns n’ Roses are the two best playing, and best looking, games of their DMD era. I only own one Data East title, and that’s WWF Royal Rumble...and I’m glad that both theme and gameplay gelled with me in order to make it a keeper in my collection.

Further Reading:

Internet Pinball Database – WWF Royal Rumble

Hulk Hogan’s Testimony from the WWF’s 1994 Steroid Trial

Vice.com – The Forgotten Steroid Trial That Almost Brought Down Vince McMahon

Pinside – Back in Stock: WWF Royal Rumble Prototype Trans

Pinside – WWF Royal Rumble Club

Markus Rothkranz – MarkusRothkranz.com

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FEATURED GAME(S): Gottlieb’s Target Alpha & Solar City

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Travel with me, if you will, to a far off place in time (and space) where ninety-degree angles do not exist. To a place where jaunty headgear (with optional eye protection) is all the rage. To a place where flying machines pull strings of targets to be shot at. With lasers. For sport. To a place where only men do the shooting, and women do the…um, pointing at the things being shot. If this idyllic future is too much for your senses, how about a trip to the future past? There’ll be castles. And bow n’ arrows. And loin cloths. There is target shooting here too, but this time, women ARE invited to participate.

Welcome, friends, to the wonderful world of Gottlieb’s Target Alpha and Solar City, two of the most popular, and most beautiful, multi-player games the company produced in the 1970s. If the layout looks familiar, it should. It was a popular one–filled with an impressive fifteen drop targets. So popular with pinball players, the layout was recycled many times under different names. I’ve narrowed this article to discuss Target Alpha and Solar City, the 4-player and 2-player version of the layout, however, no discussion would be complete without referencing their counterpart games with similar shot maps. Target Alpha and Solar City saw release just as the electromechanical era was petering out and giving way to solid state games, but the relative success of the two games may have influenced Gottlieb not to give up the goat, as it were, on electromechanical technology.

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I’ve discussed (at length) Gottlieb’s graceless belly flop into the solid state era in the article Stumbling Into Solid State and the feature on their first foray into computer-driven machines, Cleopatra. Gottlieb was clinging onto electromechanical technology for just over two years after it was completely abandoned in flipper games by competitors Williams and Bally. It may have been a selling hook for Gottlieb, though. Perhaps there were still a few operators who resisted the change from relays to PCB-mounted transistors–these may have been the operators Gottlieb wanted to cater to. However, such dedication to the almighty score reel may have put them behind the 8-Ball, literally. Bally’s success with Eight Ball (20,230 units), Evel Knievel (14,000 units) and Bobby Orr’s Power Play (13,750 units) in late-1977 proved that solid state technology in pinball machines wasn’t just a fad, it was a massive draw for players and was the inevitable future of pinball. It is no surprise that Gottlieb’s electromechanical production slowed to a crawl as these Bally games hit the market. However, take a look at how good things were just one year before the EM wall tumbled down. In 1976 and early-1977, Gottlieb did great business with their two- and four-player EM games–like Spirit of 76/Pioneer (13,925 units combined), Royal Flush/Card Whiz (15,500 units combined), Bronco/Mustang (11,385 units combined) and our focus here, Target Alpha/Solar City (9,810 units combined). The single-player wedgehead games were still being produced in this era, but not in the numbers they once were. Gottlieb’s highest production wedgeheads of 1976, Sure Shot and Buccaneer, were a drop in the hat compared to the giant numbers listed above. While not as popular with collectors today, it is pretty evident that the multi-player games were Gottlieb’s bread and butter in the late-EM era.

Making the historical link between wedgeheads and multi-player games comes full circle when discussing Target Alpha and Solar City, as Gottlieb presents the player with the same layout as a wedgehead game die-hards arcade goers would have been familiar with: El Dorado. The basic layout of the game remains the same: the iconic ten drop target bank across the top of the playfield, two off-set pop bumpers and the lower five bank of drop targets. Key differences arise in the rule-set, though. Missing from Target Alpha and Solar City is the “Moving Spot” on El Dorado. El Dorado offered a lit spot that moved from drop target to drop target with each hit of the lower stand-up target or middle rollover. The spot is important to El Dorado’s gameplay as it increases the value of each target from 500 points to 5000 points. Also, once all targets are completed on El Dorado, the targets reset, another important feature missing from the multi-player games with the same design.

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Gottlieb’s single player El Dorado (Image borrowed from J. Weiss at https://users.cs.fiu.edu)

The layout specific layout was reincarnated a whopping seven times. El Dorado, the single-player replay game led the way; followed by the add-a-ball Gold Strike and add-a-ball export version Lucky Strike later in 1975. Target Alpha and Solar City, the multi-players, rolled out in late 1976. Concurrent with the 1976 production, Gottlieb used the design again with new art to create Canada Dry, a four-player clone of Target Alpha, which was exported to promote Canada Dry soft drinks in Europe. The final incarnation was released in the solid state era as El Dorado: City of Gold in 1984 with a few new rule hooks and a slick sound package, but with an identical shot map.

I think Target Alpha and Solar City are the most interesting of the bunch, even if they are not the most sought after. I, like most EM enthusiasts, prefer the added strategy that El Dorado provides. However, the two multi-player games attempt to convey a sense of futurism and mysticism in the art package that simply isn’t there in the inner workings of the game—an attempt to cover up the fact that Gottlieb wasn’t actively pursuing solid state avenues for their machines. Instead of going toe-to-toe with Bally’s first solid state offerings in 1977, they recycled an earlier popular design and masked it with colourful futurist artwork and two ultramodern names to project the feeling that they had an eye on the future of pinball gaming. (Aside: another example of this which is infinitely more pitiful is the seven-segment numbers used on the score reels of Hit the Deck/Neptune, released in 1978). The hint of irony should not be lost: Gottlieb chose an old layout based on olde tyme gold rush cowboys to “modernize” with catchy new futuristic graphics, while still relying on olde tyme pinball technology. The flyers for the games are not shy about the art being one of the few “new” selling features of the game, and turn it into its major selling point to operators. Both the Target Alpha and Solar City flyers trumpet, in italicized capitals: “NEWER THAN TOMORROW PLAYBOARD AND ARTWORK THEME WILL CATCH EVERY EYE!” This feature is placed in larger font above all of the other actual gameplay features. With a historical eye, it looks to be smoke and mirrors, as if to say, “Yeah, it’s the same old game we sold you three years ago, AND no, it doesn’t have any of those fancy new computers inside it, but the game looks like it came from the future, doesn’t it?” The next two multi-player games, Jet Spin and Super Spin, subscribe to this same “blind them with science” mentality in the artwork (at least they went ahead and designed a completely new layout those games). No amount of flying machines or helmeted men shooting lasers can cover up the fact that Gottlieb was playing catch-up to Bally and Williams in the race to the future of pinball.

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Gottlieb Solar City flyer.  Check out that eye-catching “artwork theme”!

As the Target Alphas and Solar Citys were rolling out of the factory in early-1977, Bally was churning out their first solid state best-seller, the big-rig themed Night Rider, which meant that they had already perfected their solid state operating system for general release. It wasn’t until much later in the year that Gottlieb presented Cleopatra, their first solid state machine. There is some indication that Gottlieb was only beginning to test their solid state operating system in early-1977, as information points to a prototype Solar City that was created with solid state mechanics. Not much information exists about this test machine, or if its solid state internals would come to be Gottlieb’s (n)ever-popular System 1 operating system.

Moving onto the layout and rules of the two games, I’ve mentioned that the truncated features and rules work to hobble the game in comparison to its El Dorado cousin, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a blast to play. I mean, who doesn’t love drop targets? It’s a sharpshooter’s dream. It gets a bronze medal for total number of drop targets with fifteen, behind only Gottlieb’s 2001/Dimension with twenty and Gottlieb’s High Hand/Capt. Card with sixteen. The five target bank that sit above the right flipper allow you to work the angles off of the left flipper, while the seemingly never-ending bank of ten targets that work their way across the top of the playfield challenge the player to long-range accuracy from both flippers. Barring long-range accuracy, the game provides two mini-flippers at the top of the playfield for the player to bash away at the targets. I own a Solar City, and I have my game at such a steep pitch, that I find myself using the bottom flippers to lob balls up to the top flippers for a better chance at knocking down targets. The top flippers encourage blindly flailing at any ball that comes near them as you cannot cradle the ball for an aimed shot. However, a timed drop-catch or quick flip can deaden an arcing ball for an aimed flip at a needed target. The last target in that upper bank row actually holds a record: it is the longest shot in all of pinball. Since the layout has no top arch, it allows the targets to run into the normally unused space occupied by the top metal arch. The distance from the left flipper to the target is an amazing 32.5 inches! The upper flippers are not very useful in collecting this target, thus the game encourages a timed shot from the lower left flipper (and it feels fantastic when you make it).

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Solar City’s ten-target bank.

One of Target Alpha and Solar City’s main features, as advertised on the flyer, is that the gameplay is “convertible” to add-a-ball play. This is just a fancy way of saying that the player can get an extra ball during play rather than a replay/special. With true add-a-ball games, you can keep collecting up to ten extra balls during gameplay, whereas these multi-player games give the player the chance to earn just one extra ball for every ball in play. Knocking down either bank of targets will light the extra ball: if the entire top bank is dropped, extra ball is lit at the right rollover, while dropping the right five-bank will light extra ball at the left rollover. This is a key feature for collectors looking to put the game in their home collection. Specials mean little when every game is free, and provides little to play for other than a satisfying knock. A good sharpshooter can play for hours earning extra ball after extra ball.

Sadly, a good sharpshooter may get bored with the game: once all fifteen drop targets are collected and the bonus is maxed out, there really isn’t that much more to shoot for to build up your point total. The real strategy of the game is to knock down all the available targets, collect the extra ball, let the current ball drain thus resetting the targets, and then starting the process all over again.

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All of the points in the game lie in the drop targets. Target values vary depending on whether the game is set on three-ball or five-ball operation, and a selectable score adjustment for the bottom bank of targets. For example, my Solar City is set on three-ball, thus the top bank of targets have the inflated value of 2,000 points each, while each bottom bank target scores 500 points each (this value can be adjusted to 1,000 points each each via a Jones plug under the playfield if the owner wishes). Five-ball play would decrease the top bank value to 1,000 points for each target. Replacing El Dorado’s “Moving Spot” bonus, is the multi-players’ end-of-ball bonus. The player is awarded an extra 1,000 points for each downed target. It’s pretty satisfying to feel the bonus stepper chunking away under the playfield and the 1,000 point chime ringing out when all fifteen targets are downed. To add an extra dimension to the bonus countdown, Target Alpha and Solar City will award double bonus on the last ball (be it ball three or five, depending on operator settings), giving you 2,000 points for each target at the end-of-ball. Obtaining an extra ball during on your last ball is lucrative, as it gives you another chance at the double bonus scoring. During the last ball, I like to work on the lower bank of five targets first in an attempt to light and collect the extra ball quickly before working on the upper targets.

If Target Alpha and Solar City bring up the rear to El Dorado in the gameplay race, they surge ahead in terms of the art package. Like nearly every other game of the 1970s, Gordon Morison took care of artistic duties. Target Alpha’s backglass makes great use of its space, especially with the male target shooter in the foreground shooting “behind” the first player’s score reels to hit his target in the top corner of the game. Like many of Mr. Morison’s backglasses, perceived depth is executed wonderfully. He presents us with a futuristic game of target shooting, complete with spectator areas, layered on top of a purple and pink background. The same colour scheme is used on the playfield, and works to tie the whole package together. The chaotic flow of the playfield art fills up the empty space nicely. Where Target Alpha has a sci-fi lean, Solar City takes the fantasy route. The word “Solar” certainly conveys a futuristic feel—it has also been used in Gottlieb’s Solar 00-alpcity12Ride and Williams’ Solar Fire to lend sci-fi flavour to the mechanized themes. Target Alpha’s lasers have been replaced here with the bow and arrow, the flying machines with winged humanoids, and the futuristic jumpsuits with an interesting selection of tribal wear. The pink and purple hues that dominate Target Alpha are abandoned in favour of reds and blues. I’m particularly troubled by the bearded, sleepy old man in the bottom corner of the backglass. Why is he there? Why is he so weary? It just seems out of place. A tribal figure is doubled on the playfield, which more or less reproduces the designs laid out on the Target Alpha package.

Mr. Morison created two very different visions in the art for these games. However, in a curious move, Gottlieb decided to only run one package of artwork for the plastics. The Target Alpha plastics, featuring characters that look to belong to the Target Alpha world, are used on Solar City as well–the only difference is that the Solar City plastics adopt a blue hue, instead of purple, in an attempt to make them blend in with the game’s overall colour scheme. Without seeing the games side-by-side, I guess it does not pose that big of a problem, but it is a bit of a gripe for Solar City owners may feel a bit cheated. It is an issue that doesn’t arise in any of the other two- and four-player sister games because the art packages tend to be identical save for the number of score reel windows on the backglass. Using the same art on both sets of plastics was probably a cost-cutting measure, but in the grand scheme of things, they really could have cut costs by adopting a single vision and colour scheme for both games, just as they had in the past.

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Target Alpha plastics with purple accents, bottom, reproduced for Solar City with blue accents, top.  Character art remains unchanged.

As an aside, I guess it could be asked why Gottlieb made two-player versions and four-player versions of the same game in the first place. In every case, the four-player game outsold the two-player game (and nearly always, outsold it by a large margin). In every case except Target Alpha and Solar City, the same playfield and backglass artwork was used to keep production costs low. The real difference came in the internal hardware: the four-player game had twice the number of score reels, extra switch stacks and extra relays that the two-player version wouldn’t need to operate. I asked pinball maven Clay Harrell why he thought two- and four-player versions were made:

“It was cost savings and maybe regional preference, but it was mostly about money. It costs less to make a two-player. Not a ton less, but from a manufacturing point of view, two-players used eight less score reels, no coin stepper unit and a number of other relays were not needed. It’s actually pretty dramatic how much more ‘stuff’ is needed to make a 4-player versus a 2-player. This was reflected in the cost of the game. The extent of the differences can be seen in the backbox sizes. Four-player backboxes are about four inches taller to accommodate all the additional stuff.”

If Mr. Harrell’s well-reasoned analysis is to be believed, Gottlieb produced the less popular two-player games to appease cost-conscious operators–those who wanted to operate games, but wanted to be penny-wise with their initial investment. In a time when all other companies were producing nothing but four-player games, Gottlieb had again cornered the market on skinflint operators that wanted to save a few bucks or knew exactly what their clients wanted. (As a curious aside, Stern Electronics’ early solid state games, Stingray and Stars, offered operators the chance to buy two-player versions of their games, as well. They were shipped with a special backglass with only two score windows, included two less digital score displays and were switched to two-player operation via MPU dip switches. There was obviously a niche market, or regional markets, for two player games in the late-70s.)

Despite El Dorado being the more coveted game, Target Alpha and Solar City still have fans in the collector market. It is a game that has a proven layout and some unique artwork. The games’ price on the secondary market also has something to do with it, I’d imagine. Currently, you can pick up a Target Alpha or Solar City for about half the price of an El Dorado. Restoring the game has been made possible as many unique materials are available to make the games look pretty. Classic Playfield Reproductions, whose products normally skew to solid state projects, reproduced both backglasses for collectors some years back with the art expertly reproduced by CPR team artists Matt Farmer (Solar City) and Ray Lockhart (Target Alpha). Both glasses remain in stock at time of writing. There is a promise from Pinball Rescue Australia that reproduction plastics for Solar City will be available in late-2016, while the Target Alpha plastics are readily available from Steve Young at Pinball Resource (part number GTB-C15565B: because you know Steve Young is going to want it when you place your order). Jeff Miller, of Pinball Pimp Stencil Kits, is currently working on a licencing agreement for Gottlieb cabinet stencil production, and it’s almost a given that Target Alpha will be one of the first in the series to be produced.

The main complaint with the games, as discussed above, is that once all targets are down, there is nothing left to shoot for. The same problem exists in another popular drop target

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French collector kangourou’s Royal Flush bottom board with an added relay for drop target reset.

multi-player game, the four-player Royal Flush and the two-player Card Whiz. One resourceful collector from France, who goes by the Pinside handle kangourou, took it upon himself to wire a work-around so that once all targets had been knocked down in his Royal Flush, they would reset again, opening up a whole new dimension to gameplay and scoring. The process involves adding a relay of switches to the bottom board, an extra switch to the target bank and a whole mess of new wires.  The walk-thru, in French, can be found here, and a discussion about the modification, in English, can be found on Pinside, here. Those resourceful enough to attempt such a modification to their game would need to translate the French instructions to English, and the Royal Flush schematic references to Target Alpha or Solar City. The process does look complex, however I’m surprised more people have not pursued this modification to add a new dimension to their game.

 

Before wrapping up, I’d like to share a tech tip unique to Target Alpha and Solar City that was added to the Pinball Ninja repair database by Clay Harrell, and involves the correct adjustment of the scan unit to properly count end-of-ball bonus scoring. My Solar City was incorrectly adjusted when it arrived for restoration, so I’m assuming it is a very common problem. (The video below is taken from the Pinball Ninja Webzine, which is a pay-per-view site and is used with permission. To get access to the entire catalogue of over 800 Pinball Ninja repair tips, please email cfh@provide.net)

I think the Solar City in my collection has a permanent home. The game needed lots of love. The playfield was touched up and cleared, as it had areas of paint worn right to the wood, and the ever-popular oversized screws that a previous owner had popped through the top of the playfield from beneath. I ended up cutting my own stencils and repainting the cabinet as there were large areas exposed wood. I invested in a reproduction backglass from Classic Playfield Reproductions, too, which was probably overkill, but it completed the package. It is, currently, the most played game in my modest electromechanical lineup. I much prefer the art on Target Alpha, but you take what you can get, and Solar City was available. Having less moving internal parts to troubleshoot and clean was a blessing in the long run, compared to the extra internals included on the four-player Target Alpha.

As I try to sum up my feelings about Target Alpha and Solar City, I keep thinking of that old man that appears in the bottom right corner of the Solar City backglass. The more I think about it, the more that man comes to represent D. Gottlieb & Co., the company itself. The old man was obviously a once dominant warrior, given his headdress that resembles those of his younger counterparts in the background. Time has now passed him by, and he stands, idle, as the younger, more virile warriors out-perform him on the same hallowed grounds where he once reigned supreme. He is part of a bygone generation: old, weary, tired, worn-out, out-dated and obsolete. He is an electromechanical warrior battling on a solid state battlefield.