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 superstar 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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 the 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.
Stern’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.
Internet Pinball Database – WWF Royal Rumble
Pinside – WWF Royal Rumble Club
Markus Rothkranz – MarkusRothkranz.com