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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…

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.

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2 thoughts on “FEATURED GAME(S): Gottlieb’s Target Alpha & Solar City

  1. Solar Ride is one of the most gorgeous pinball ever designed.

  2. This is an amazing article and really had me intrigued about the differences in 2 very similar games.

    Still not too hot about EMs but you got me looking on kijiji for one to polish into a gem.

    Check out my atari restore on my YouTube channel. Would love if you penned an article on Atari pinball with your knowledge and crticial analysis.

    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAeWX8MCTjqEp-4k15wG9hg

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