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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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FEATURE: The Worst Kept Location Games in North America

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Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to honour five of our own, who have given their earthborn lives to the service of others.  They have spent their days providing fun and merriment for the masses, at fifty cents a game, asking nothing in return.  The journey from their birth in the heart of Chicago, Illinois, to their final resting place in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, appeared to be long and arduous one.  Their bodies showed signs of extreme abuse and neglect that should not have befallen any one of their kind.  Their demise on the grounds of the Family Kingdom Amusement Park Arcade was an unfitting end for these five wounded warriors, who continued to soldier on, long after time has passed them by.  Please bow your heads in a moment of silence for these once great amusement devices that shall be permanently laid to rest.  For ever and ever. 

Amen.

Joking aside, I believe the five pinball machines being operated at the Family Kingdom Amusement Park Arcade at 300 S. Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, are in the running for the worst kept machines in operation in North America.  Pinside and social media are filled with images of unkempt location machines with filthy playfields, maladjusted switches and overall poor pinball hygiene.  But games of that nature usually stand alone, or in a group of two, all neglected because they are the lone “token pin” in the arcade, which nobody can be bothered, or has the ability, to fix.  In this instance, we have a collection of five games at a location (a pretty good number by today’s standards), all leftovers from the golden age of pinball and all at least twenty years old.  They have been cared for just enough to be kept in daily operation–that is, to accept two quarters for a three ball game.  However, as you will see, their condition leaves a lot to be desired.

The games are as follows: Dr. Dude and His Excellent Ray (Bally, 1990), Funhouse (Williams, 1990), Earthshaker (Williams, 1989), The Simpsons (Data East, 1990) and Jokerz! (Williams, 1988).  A decent lineup by anyone’s standards to be sure, and I think any enthusiast would be excited to find these games being operated in the wild.  You’ll find them being operated here, alright–but you won’t enjoy playing them…

I first encountered these games about four years ago when I first started to take a few weeks during the summer to vacation in Myrtle Beach.  Myrtle Beach isn’t my first choice for vacation destinations, but you can’t argue with free accommodation when your mother-in-law isn’t using her vacation home in a secluded area of the city.  Being away from my collection, and being a good pinball enthusiast, I compiled a list of places to play on location in Myrtle Beach upon my first arrival. Even with the large number of beachfront arcades in the city, the pinball scene was quite anemic.  I first encountered the above mentioned games when they were located at the Sea Mist Oceanfront Arcade, a rather sad resort indicative of those located to the east of the main boardwalk.  I went in knowing the games would be in poor condition, thanks to the reviews left for the location on Pinside, and sure enough I was met with games that were shells of their former selves.  The Earthshaker and Funhouse were virtually unplayable, while actual progress could be made on the Dr. Dude and Jokerz.  The Simpsons was in the best condition of the five at the time, but it was turned off–likely, the reason it was in such decent condition.

Being eager to know about how these games were still being operated given their sorry states, I asked the sixty-year-old attendant sitting in front of the yellowed and aging stuffed animal redemption gifts at the prize counter, and his curt response told me all I needed to know.  I’m sure the games still attracted curious quarters from the patrons, so these golden geese were still being featured prominently near the entrance of the arcade to try to gobble up profits.  As any pinball enthusiast knows, having games like this on location is a black eye on the reputation of pinball, and may do more harm than good. Customers would probably walk away in disgust having spent their hard earned money on a game that hardly worked or provided any real tactile feedback like pinball games normally would, and the chances of them dropping quarters into location games, if they were to find them in the future, would be slim given this disappointing experience.

I would check Pinside, from time to time, to see the status of games in the Myrtle Beach area, and before one visit last year, I found that the games had been completely removed from the Sea Mist Arcade.  “Finally”, I thought to myself, “They’ve been taken out of service!”  But further research of Pinside’s Pinball Map led me to find that this wasn’t the case at all. The five games were part and parcel hauled one mile down Ocean Boulevard to the Family Kingdom Amusement Park where they are still operated today.  Sadly, their condition has only worsened over time.  But there they sit, at the centre of their new arcade home, still hungry for quarters at fifty cents per play.

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A screen capture of Pinside’s location page for the Family Kingdom Amusement Park Arcade.

The Family Kingdom Amusement Park uses the term “amusement park” loosely.  They’ve got rides, concessions, games of skill and an arcade, but it’s more of a second-rate carnival than an amusement park proper.  There is no admission charge to enter, with all rides ticketed on a pay-to-ride basis.  It appears to be the kind of place that spends more money on billboard and radio advertisements than it does upkeep of their actual property.  The grounds are clean, but you find yourself checking your back pocket every so often to make sure your wallet is still there.  I grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the Canadian capital of price-gouging family entertainment, so I feel I am justified passing judgment on Family Kingdom here.

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I had been to Family Kingdom earlier in the year, in March, to visit the games at their new location, out of curiosity more than anything.  I wandered onto the grounds at about two o’clock, unaware that the park officially opened at four.  There were a few employees milling about, but otherwise, it was a ghost town.  It was also mid-week in March, so I thought nothing of it.  I located the arcade at the centre of the park, to find the sliding garage-style doors open, the overhead lights on, and all the games powered up and ready to play. I found the five soldiers of misfortune in their new home, assessed their condition (still very poor) and photographed their serial numbers for documentary purposes at the Internet Pinball Serial Number Database.  I made the decision to play, but vowed to not pump too many quarters into the games, thus continuing the vicious cycle of making the machines profitable in such a deplorable state.  Over about twenty minutes, I had played a game on each, ending my run on Jokerz.  During my first ball, I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I cradled up, and looked over my shoulder to find a disheveled (and probably underpaid) security guard of about sixty standing behind me. “Park opens at four. Leave.”, he stated curtly.  “Can I finish my game first?”, I asked. I really had nothing to lose by asking.  He grumbled, shook his head, and waved his hand begrudgingly allowing me to finish up, standing uncomfortably close to me until my last ball drained.  I thanked him–why, I don’t know–and headed for the exit.  He followed me for about fifty feet to make sure I actually did leave and didn’t make a U-turn and sneak back in to play the poorly cared for pinball machines he was paid to keep a close eye on.

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The front entrance of the arcade pavilion.

I returned to the Family Kingdom Amusement Park yesterday, during the prescribed operating hours this time (4pm to Midnight), to check in on Dr. Dude, Rudy and the rest of the gang.  I knew no miracles had occurred, but I wanted to accurately document these location games once and for all before vowing never to return.  I entered the park through the front gates, walked past the ticket booths and the sewer pumping station which greeted my arrival.  The station was emitting a rather pungent smell of raw sewage on this particularly humid Myrtle Beach evening, and provided just the right atmosphere for the visit.  The park contained many patrons on this evening, but many of the rides sat motionless and carnival games empty, in spite of the unenthused barkers dryly urging people to step up and fork over money.

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Ah, exactly what I want to see and smell when I enter a family friendly amusement park.

In the arcade, the games sat where I had found them months earlier.  And I didn’t have to spend much money on this visit.  I found three games with credits on them, with Funhouse having three credits on it alone.  Either the games are set fairly liberal with their free games (unlikely), or people are getting fed up with the condition of the games and walking away after one game (more likely).  The Simpsons and Earthshaker sat side by side in the middle of the arcade, while the Jokerz, Dr. Dude and Funhouse were lined up at the rear entrance of the arcade, positioned where the sun’s rays and intense heat beat down upon them.  While playing these games, the afternoon sun beat down upon my back, and was almost unbearable—I can just imagine what’s going on underneath the glass and inside the cabinet.

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In my following description of the games I will only highlight the extremes–I won’t be mentioning the excessive playfield wear, the caked-on playfield dirt, the salt-corroded metal apparatuses, burnt out lightbulbs, missing display segments, misadjusted and weak flippers, mismatched flipper bats, broken plastics, badly warped playfields, or sun-faded artwork.  Because every game displayed these symptoms.  Have you seen how the playfield rubber looks when you first open up a game that has been sitting in someone’s garage for thirty years?  The kind that’s cracked, has no bounce and has permanently taken the shape it has been stretched into?  Yeah, these games had that kind of rubber. On the Jokerz, the rubbers had completely rotted away, leaving behind only crusty remnants in the groove of the plastic post.  And they didn’t bother to replace the rubber after it had rotted away.

The Dr. Dude was completely out of commission, in a constant “TILT TILT” state, and its coin entrance housing was taped off with blue masking tape.  It was mercifully out of order.  When I played the Dude on my previous encounters, the Mixmaster was operational, and multi-ball was actually achievable.  I even registered a high score on it a few years back thanks to a “Super Dude” jackpot that had been built up for me to collect.  I’m sure the high score is long gone because I doubt the MPU has seen batteries for a decade to be able to save high scores.  The lower stand-up targets for the Heart of Rock n’ Roll and Big Shot were now mashed and bent so far back into their under-plastic spaces, it looked as if they wouldn’t be able to register hits anymore. The Big Shot himself was merely legs and a pelvis, missing everything above the waist.

The Earthshaker was a special treat, as it had drywall screws driven into the playfield, in front of the right up-kicker lock.  Who needs to replace a bad coil, switch or driving transistor when two drywall screws will do the job just as well.  And plenty cheaper, too.  There were a few other black screws strewn about the playfield, apparently in places where ball hang-ups were causing problems for the operator.

The Jokerz! played passibly on previous visits (as decent as the game can play, I find it to be one of the worst, if not worst, games of the System 11 era) but the four years since I first played it had taken its toll.  I think it’s a given that the backbox animation didn’t work, and I didn’t expect it to.  I didn’t expect the centre ramp to lift, but it did and awarded multi-ball when two balls were locked.  Deformed flasher caps, from locked-on flashers melting them from below, stood at the centre of the playfield as a telltale sign of neglect.

The Data East Simpsons had suffered from locked on flashers, as well, from the telltale burn marks on the playfield.  The game also displayed an instance of creatively blocking off a malfunctioning up-kicker: the Princess Kashmir kicker in the back right corner of the playfield.  They must have been short on drywall screws that day, because they instead used blue painter’s tape–the same kind they used to tape off Dr. Dude’s coin slots. This mod kind of gets a pass: the blue hue of the tape matches the overall colour scheme of the game.

Finally, we have poor Funhouse.  The good news was, Rudy partially worked. His jaw was fully operational.  Yet his eyes just stared off into the distance, over the player’s right shoulder, as if to wryly contemplate how he deserved such a horrible lot in life.  The cabinet was decorated with stickers of Rudy’s past home at the Sea Mist Resort and the backbox frame displayed the City of Myrtle Beach permit stickers from years past (including the current 2017 license). It almost reminded me of one of those worn old-tyme suitcases with the stickers from major cities stuck all over them.  The shooter rod had been broken, leaving some sharp edges for a child to run into–exactly the kind of liability you want in an arcade.  My favorite modification of the whole lineup was to be found here: a Sea Mist branded length of plastic they used to replace the trap door.  It was affixed with, you guessed it, blue painter’s tape. The sparkly green plastic looked to be a piece of a ruler, back scratcher, shoe horn or other cheap trinket given away at the redemption counter of the aging resort.  It was a nice throwback to the game’s prior home.  It has stood the test of time though–it’s been there since I first played the machine on the grounds of the Sea Mist arcade.  Unfortunately, the trap door doesn’t work. It would have been great if it did.

These games obviously serve a purpose at the Family Kingdom Amusement Park arcade just as they did at the Sea Mist before it.  They are there to maintain the illusion of an “arcade”, as there really isn’t much else in the place to entertain.  They are games that take money, serve up three balls, and then display “GAME OVER” once the last ball has drained.  For all intents and purposes, these games do “work”, however poorly.  If something breaks or malfunctions, put some tape on it and keep it in circulation.  If you can’t tape it up, drill some screws in it.  Keep taking those quarters from unsuspecting patrons by any means necessary, and empty the coin box at the end of the day.  I should mention, however, that during my half-dozen visits to the five games, not once did I see anyone else drop money into them, so maybe my assessment here isn’t entirely correct.

In my opinion, no pinball machine is beyond saving through extensive restoration, but these games are probably pretty close to parts machines, if not dumpster fodder. Ridden hard and put away wet, as the saying goes.  I hasten to use the term “Redneck Ingenuity” to describe the upkeep of these games, but perhaps “Ingenuity Without the Aid of Proper Tools, Funding or Compassion” would be a better phrase to describe what’s going on here.  Even though these games are listed on the Pinside Pinball Map, concerned Pinsiders have voiced their warnings about their condition, urging people to stay away. Hopefully the advice is heeded by enthusiasts visiting the area.  My frequent visits have been out of morbid curiosity, kind of like slowing down on the freeway to take a look at a messy car crash. That said, there isn’t much in the way of pinball alternatives.  The arcade at Black Pearl Mini Golf  in North Myrtle Beach is the home to five “pre-Stern” games in good overall condition, and there’s a rumored Myrtle Beach Pinball Museum moving forward in the fall of 2017, but beyond a few games sparsely peppered here and there at restaurants and bars, it’s pretty barren.  Perhaps it is time to ask my Mother-in-law to set up a few games at her place to scratch my pinball itch.  In any event, this will be my very last visit to the five forlorn games that have died on the grounds of the Family Kingdom Amusement Park.  May they forever rest in peace.

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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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FEATURE: Code-Breaker, the Rise of #WHERESTHECODE

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The story of Stern Pinball Inc. shipping their games with incomplete code has become a generally accepted practice in our hobby. Nobody is surprised when a new Stern game hits the streets with an incomplete set of modes, not much to shoot for, and “random” awards giving out the same point value over and over and over again. The practice is so accepted, it has become a tolerable joke: for example, “I’ll sell you my restored Fathom when Stern releases a game with complete code!”  A recent movement on Pinside asked collectors to take a pledge: resist buying New-In-Box Stern games until code is complete, in hopes of sending a message to the company by hurting their bottom line. It worked to a certain extent. In a totally non-scientific study, just from reading Pinside, there has been a lot more “I like the theme but I’m not buying ‘til I see code” talk than there was in years prior. Pinside user “Flashinstinct” of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada took it a step further, planting the hashtag “#wheresthecode” into the pinball collectors’ lexicon, hoping to promote change and accountability.

Flashinstinct (that’s how he wants to be identified in this article) was tired of the disorganization and rhetoric associated with Stern code discussions. He took to Pinside and called for a day of action, January 31, 2015, for pinball enthusiasts to bombard Stern’s social media and other contact outlets demanding that games like Star Trek, Avengers, and The Walking Dead receive a code update they sorely needed in order to make the games whole. Here’s what Flashinstinct had to say in the first post of the “@wheresthecode” Pinside thread (which has been heavily edited since its first appearance a month ago):

“Ok folks….. I’ve had enough of the where’s the code, when is Stern going to release new code…..can we do something about this code….Can we fix this code…. all these threads achieve nothing but getting a lot of people on pinside annoyed, others get mad, other bash each other and in the long run nothing gets done. So as of today…..Mark your calendars and do something productive….on January 31st I vow to post on Sterns facebook page and twitter feeds with something about finishing the code. And I encourage everyone to do the same. Mine will read something to the effect of:

“You keep releasing games but not finishing the code? What gives?? If you can create a new platform and 3 new games a year why can’t you polish the code?”

I don’t hold a particular hatred for Stern as I wait until the code is polished before buying there games but I’ll jump on board with everyone to make Stern a bit more accountable. If everyone that is pissed off is willing to get banned from Stern’s facebook page for a while I encourage you to do this and get it over with. This will keep the folks at Stern busy for a while and it will get the message across.  In turn, this will reduce the amount of bitching, whining and hatred on this forum and will clear space for more productive posts.

SO MARK YOUR CALENDARS AND POST ON JAN 31!!!”

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An early meme from the campaign.

 

Facebook was the main target to get the code complaints out to the public. It was known from the start that Stern’s social media team would simply delete posts and ban users that raised questions and concerns that ran contrary to the image they wanted to portray on their page. Heck, if you haven’t been banned from Stern’s Facebook page at least once for sarcastic or questioning posts, you can’t call yourself a real pinball collector (I got the ban hammer for the first time shortly before Credit Dot existed).

January 31st fell on a Saturday, which may have been either poor or genius planning on Flashinstinct’s part. Leading up the kickoff, there were a multitude of attitudes toward the project. Some thought it wasn’t worth their time because it wouldn’t change a damn thing. Others thought Flashinstinct should get off Stern’s back because the company is, singlehandedly, keeping pinball alive by releasing new games, regardless of how incomplete the code is. Others still, were just as fed up as Flashinstinct and wanted to do as much as they could to support the project hoping to inspire change. Below are some reactions to the project itself:

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I talked to Flashinstinct about a couple of issues in the past week, and the divided reception was one topic we covered:

“You’ll always have people on both sides of the fence and that’s fine. Some people will fight tooth and nail for something they believe in, one way or the other. Some people think I am doing this for fame, some to stir up the pot, others are totally for it and some people just flat out hate me. All I can say is that I wanted to create something for the little guy, the consumer and pinball enthusiasts that are tired of not being heard. I’m not against Stern, I do believe that they make good pinball machines. I just wanted them to be more accountable to the home market and try to make code a priority. It almost feels like they have put code files on the shelves and revisit them when they feel like it.”

Things ended up kicking off before the weekend of January 31st. Flashinstinct called for help to identify existing Stern code idiosyncrasies and bugs. Catchy, well-designed, “meme-like” images were created to support the cause. Re-reading the thread, it is plain to see that none of this was created with a mean spirit or sneaky ulterior motives–it was simply a grassroots campaign to try and push a company toward code responsibility. Since Stern’s Facebook page was going to be on lockdown, a “Where’s The Code” Facebook page was created so that pinball fans could have a voice. A minor “win” came early: it seemed that Stern’s social media team blacklisted the “#wheresourcode” hashtag on Facebook, proving that they were aware of the campaign and had preemptively battened down the hatches for a bumpy weekend ride. An insightful supporter tweaked his hashtag so that it wouldn’t be auto-blocked on Facebook and became one of the first to officially kick off the campaign:

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This post was, of course, removed within minutes of being submitted. Stern also completely removed the comment feature from their page to prepare for the barrage of code-related concerns raised by owners and enthusiasts. The night before January 31st, it was business as usual for Stern, sharing a picture of their new Wrestlemania Pro being filmed for a promotional video.  To try and keep the campaign as clean and fair as possible, Flashinstinct took the high road and also added praise for Stern games that were completely coded:

“I added the positive memes because I didn’t want to make it solely about code problems, but also Stern’s code successes. Obviously Stern as made phenomenal games…Tron, Lord of the Rings, Iron Man, to name a few. You have to look at both sides of the coin.

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00-codes11The January 31st date came and went, and obviously, no code was released. There was a promise that Star Trek code was on its way from designer Steve Ritchie himself, but really, that’s been rumoured to be in the works for quite some time. I guess Stern got the message, but this isn’t an issue where indicators of change can be immediately be pinpointed. However, in all honesty, I don’t think much is going to change. Stern will keep selling games, operators and collectors will keep buying, and the cogs in the machine will keep turning. If Gary Stern thought lack of code was hindering sales, I think it would be addressed immediately.  However, it is hard for the company to draw cause and effect between code dissatisfaction and poor performance on the balance sheet. It is much easier to blame a bland theme or a poorly designed game for lagging sales. Most of these code complaints are coming from the collector market–the very same market that Gary Stern has said, time and time again, is not the company’s bread and butter. He has made the assertion that operators are Stern’s most important source of revenue. Up until quite recently, I’ve found Mr. Stern’s attitude towards the home enthusiast very dismissive, which has always been troublesome for me to reconcile. I don’t think an operator cares if the “Zombie Horde” mode is not functional or not on the Walking Dead Pro he’s running at the local arcade, so in essence, why should Gary Stern? For the most part, Flashinstinct agreed with this in our brief correspondence:

“You can’t expect the home market to wait forever for these updates. People feel deceived and tricked when code never gets revised and the machine is not working as intended.  Stern sends out statements that they are “working on code”. You can’t have a more open ended statement than that. I would counter and ask: where is the proof? If they have time to release three games in one year, setup an assembly line for the Medieval Madness Remake, accommodate time to create a new operating platform, and plan the logistics of moving their facilities to a new location, then they should have made time to address code issues and fixes. I don’t really think Stern takes the home market seriously.”

Anyhow, the campaign chugged along with regular updates. More smartly designed memes followed, but with no apparent movement or acknowledgement from Stern on the issue.  It made for little to talk about. Flashinstinct again highlighted the soft-handed approach of the campaign, tagging each picture with the phrase “Make a smart pinball purchase…wait until code is finished before buying”, echoing the sentiments of the previous Pinside pledge campaign.  The campaign, from my perspective had slowed to a crawl. For those that like forshadowing, Flashinstinct posted this message on page 12 of his thread:

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The “Offending” logo.

A t-shirt campaign with the “Where’s the Code, Stern?” logo on it (based on Stern’s current logo) was made available via a tiltsourcing-style model. All of the profits were to go to charity. Regular followers of the thread will know where this is headed; those with any knowledge of trademark law will as well. It now seemed Stern wasn’t standing pat on the whole issue–they were instead drawing up a cease and desist order to send to Pinside, requesting the offending image be removed and as well as all links to the sale of the shirts with the logo on it. It seems the parody image of their logo was too close to the real thing for their liking. Flashinstinct removed what he thought necessary, but then tried to respond with a different logo that, again, was too similar to the Stern logo. In the end, moderators banned him from posting in his very own thread. The Pinside moderators did respond forthwith, as did Pinside founder Robin himself, stating that the ban didn’t have anything to do with expressing free speech or opinion, but due to Flashinstinct’s refusal to abide by Pinside’s copyright rules after doling out a warning about the order they had received. Here is moderator Xerico’s explanation of the action taken:

“We told the [original poster] that Stern had raised a copyright infringement notification to Pinside.  In accordance with Pinside rules, once the copyright infringement was properly submitted, Robin considered the request and then decided to remove the links to the t-shirts and logo.  The [original poster] was notified about the reason, which was the logo. He then continued to create different logos that were not much different.  He was then directly told by the Mod Team to stop.  He did not listen, and continued anyway. So he was ejected from his own thread.  He was not ejected for free speech issues. He was ejected because he ignored a directive from the mod staff.  We have been discussing the issue with him, and he will be returning to his own thread.  But when the Mod Staff makes a request regarding a post, please follow it. If you disagree, please feel free to start a moderator feedback thread and we’ll be happy to discuss our decision.  We work as a Moderator Staff. There are no lone wolves. We discuss these issues and then we reach an agreement and then act as a team.  I hope this clears the air a bit.”

And an excerpt from Pinside boss Robin’s response:

“We have made a very clear decision here, which is to follow the legal requests to take down (links to) copyright infringing stuff that was being offered for sale.  Note that we have not closed this thread because protest and fee speech is pretty important for a discussion forum. But this is also a privately owned website and I simply cannot allow people breaking the law and putting the site (and me personally) at risk.  Please try and be respectful to Pinside staff and try to understand that Pinside is not pirate country.”

Many were quick to assume that Pinside bowed to the request in an attempt to not rock the boat with Stern, or not biting the hand that feeds. Stern is a big player and Pinside maintains a pretty close relationship with the company (I believe Mr. Stern visited Pinside’s official arcade, the Koog, the last time he was in the Netherlands). From my point of view, it doesn’t look like Pinside is carrying a political agenda here, its just another instance of a pinball company protecting their trademark (and rightly so, I guess) and a third party trying to protect their interest from violations. Robin goes on:

“Look, I’ve talked to a lot of the people at Stern and trust me, I’ve been pretty critical in those talks about a lot of things. I’ve told them how I hate the LE model and that I am worried about the unfinished code situation. I’ve told them I disliked the new power button location. Etc. Etc. They were very interested in my criticism and we had great discussions.  In response to the takedown request for the infringing t-shirt design I have had a back and forth with some folks at Stern and I’ve pressed them that freedom of speech (and the right to protest) is very important, especially in a forum.  Me personally, I think this protest has gotten to a point where it might start to be doing more harm than good. The message has come across, maybe we need to give it some time now. However, if you feel differently, then please know that I have no intent whatsoever to close this thread down IF -and only if- it is kept respectful and not looking to find the boundaries of the law or putting Pinside in a position where it simply does not want to be in.”

00-codes12I’m not sure I would agree with this project doing more harm than good. It is being rolled out in a far more respectful manner than much of the other static about code on Pinside. Any Stern customer, which, for the record I am not, has the right to kick up a fuss if they are dissatisfied, just as they should sing praise when they are satisfied.  We have been assured that Stern has heard the masses loud and clear.  But how do we know that?  There has been little to no acknowledgement from the Stern camp to verify that change is coming.  The “wait and see” approach doesn’t work: just ask an Avengers or Star Trek owner.  Regardless, the #wheresthecode logo has been changed to one that carries a generic, off-the-shelf font, and looks as if it is going to continue unfettered, if not a little gun shy.

I don’t think the last chapter has been written here. The C&D order has only called attention to the #wheresthecode movement. It probably would have kept moving in a quiet corner of Pinside, continuing to release funny memes for the collector’s enjoyment with little fanfare (to the delight of those that doomed the project from the start). Now it has kind of grown into a bigger animal, and one that is much more difficult to control as it spins out of control, wrongly citing issues of censorship as a way to squash code talk. Maybe Stern should stick to selling to operators, as they really don’t know how to interact with the collector market. As I stated at the outset, there was an already shifting tide in amongst the community about buying games with unfinished code prior to this campaign’s appearance. I think the next year and a half will be very telling for Stern Pinball: to see if the message was received, and to see if home buyers refraining from buying machines with incomplete code can hurt the company’s bottom line. I’ll leave you with a final quote from Flashinstinct that I obtained earlier today:

“My original intention remains the same: not to give Stern Pinball Inc. a bad name, but to make them more accountable to their existing clients that are waiting on promised features and code updates, in some instances for more than two years. Potential clients have a right to know what they are getting into.”

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The “Redesigned” Logo.

 


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pistol Pete’s response:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

meszar2 asked this question.

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

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

pinballwizardmitch asked this question.

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

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

since_2010 asked this question

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

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

since_2010 asked this question also.

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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

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

San Diego Pinball Club – Michael Jackson/Pepsi Pinball Machine

Montreal Arcade & Amusement Collectors Association – Michael Jackson Pinball

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

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

Pinside – Michael Jackson Pinball Machine Resurfaces on eBay

Anthony King – Michael Jackson The Chase Pepsi Commercial


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FEATURE: GRC’s Elvira and the Party Monsters Re-Theme and Issues of Pinball Objectivity

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(The following article contains one video where multiple pairs of cartoon breasts can be seen. Maybe this is not the best article to read at the family dinner table or at the office, however, you can be the judge on its appropriateness given the previous warning. Enjoy.)

I get it…the whole philosophy of pinball was based on capitalism: getting the maximum amount of quarters out of the pockets of impressionable young boys and into the coin box. The easiest way to do this, short of making a fantastic machine whose layout and gameplay scream for repeat plays, is by filling the backglass and playfield with barely clad women to attract the target teenage demographic. Roy Parker was the grandfather of the sexy pinball lady, illustrating babes in bikinis beginning in the 1950s for Gottlieb, followed closely a decade-and-a-half later by Dave Christensen, who perfected the art of the well endowed woman well into the 80s. Grown-up pinball enthusiasts far and wide, who are probably complete gentlemen outside of the hobby, have kept up the tradition of talking like horny, sex-starved teenage boys when it comes to the subject of women in pinball art. Now that we children of the 80s are “all growed up”, we are seeing objectification rear its ugly head in some very extreme forms. Far be it for me to bellyache about passive objectification of women in pinball art, but one particular instance has been weighing on my mind for quite some time. I’m not the one to carry the feminist rally flag into the pinball arena–others are doing it much better than I ever could–however, the appearance of an Elvira and the Party Monsters re-theme courtesy of Downington, PA-based retailer Gameroom Collectibles really rubbed me the wrong way…so to speak.

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Parker’s 4-Belles (Gottlieb, 1954) and Christensen’s Strikes and Spares (Bally, 1977)

00-elvb02I was introduced to the game via a YouTube video released by the Gameroom Collectibles guys that appeared about seven months ago. The video chronicled the modifications and restoration work done by the GRC team to a 1989 Bally Elvira and the Party Monsters pinball machine. The seductively-dressed Elvira had what little modesty she possessed completely removed: the game features a bare-breasted Mistress of the Dark on the backglass and throughout the playfield. One change on a playfield insert goes as far as to add a tuft of pubic hair to the kneeling illustrated Elvira. Further, the jelly-plastic Boogie Men that danced near the Party Monsters pop bumpers were replaced with a giant set of moulded plastic boobs that shake and dance just as Boogie Men did. This whole re-theme has been dubbed “Elvira and the Boobie Monsters” or “Elvira and the Party Boobs”. Elvira’s breasts on the backglass and near the flippers are cartoonishly large and ill-proportioned, but the effect is clear. Jim from Gameroom Collectibles, your host of the video, is quick to point out that the playfield art was not created in-house, but rather acquired from Robert Winter, a macabre enthusiast and all-around good guy in the pinball hobby. In a Pinside thread, it is revealed that Burlington, WI user “CaptainNeo” was the artist who fleshed out the breasts and applied the clearcoat. They also state that Party Monsters designer Dennis Nordman gave his “thumb of approval” (a mixed metaphor of thumbs up and seal of approval, I’m assuming?) by way of a Facebook post. No word on how original Party Monsters artist Greg Freres feels about the changes to his original artwork.

00-elvb05I’m a huge Elvira fan. A signed picture of her graces my wall of autographs (the wall happens to be in my bathroom, but that’s besides the point). I’ve been a fan of her over-the-top innuendo-laden comedy since I was very young, thanks to some very liberal parents who let me consume such media at a young age. The key to Cassandra Petersen’s classic character is that she was naughty and overtly sexual without actually being lewd or explicitly obscene. It was sex-based comedy for the whole family, relying on double entendre and knee-slapping one-liners to drive home, with a knowing wink, that the whole performance of the Elvira character was a self-reflexive farce. The character was the embodiment of excess without excessive sexuality. Much of her popularity stemmed from from horndog teens in the 80s dreaming of what Elvira looked like without her clothes on. The Elvira and the Party Monsters retheme completely removes this key mystique. Those familiar with Ms. Peterson’s oeuvre will know that nude pictures of her did surface in High Society magazine and on the cover of a Tom Waits album, but this was long before the Elvira character was ever created. The Elvira character proper, to my knowledge, has never bared it all, leaving everything to the imagination. The whole basis of her 1988 movie was to rally against the conservative extremists of small-town America who labelled her a bad influence and a cheap slut, and throughout the film she works to prove to them that her appearance and mannerisms were a sign of expression and freedom, and not a raunchy display of ill-morals. Stand-up comics would be booed off any stage in North America using the corny sexual innuendo Ms. Petersen employed in her act, but it worked in the context of the Elvira character given her extreme appearance. Both Elvira pin-games worked in the same manner: they walked the fine line between suggestive and lewd, never crossing into vulgar territory. Therein lied the charm. Heck, the games even added a failsafe of “clean” versions of audio and, in the case of Party Monsters, offered a “modesty sticker” operators could place over Elvira’s cleavage on the backglass to allow the games to be placed within more conservative environments. The Gameroom Collectibles machine destroys that delectate balance both machines strove for and pulls the game, kicking and screaming, into lewd territory. I don’t think anyone would argue that Elvira’s character embodied the term “classy”, but any class she tried to inject into the character is completely removed by the Gameroom Collectibles re-theme.

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Original Bally flyer for EATPM. The text relies heavily on double entendre and “the tease”.

 

00-elvb04I think the ultimate irony of the video appears when Jim from Gameroom Collectibles dramatically points out that there was a penis carved into the side of the cabinet when it first arrived as a restoration candidate. For some, the addition of a topless Elvira is just as disgraceful as the crudely carved penis. One is expertly crafted with an airbrush and sealed under a glossy clear-coat, and one is barbarically done with a jackknife. I ask: which degrades the game more?

Despite the addition of the nudity, the restoration looks absolutely stellar, as most Gameroom Collectibles restorations do. The machine is spotless, and obviously a lot of care was taken to restore it to its original lustre. Tracking down ramps for this machine back in late-2013 was quite a feat unto itself, as it predates Pinball Inc’s reproductions that appeared in April of this year. A new Classic Playfield Reproductions plastic set and a skull for the lock area round out the playfield work, while new cabinet decals erased the offensive penis. The latter half of the video highlights gameplay, and it looks to play fantastic atop the game’s glass-like clearcoat.

00-elvb01The host of the video tries to keep it as professional as possible…as professional as one can keep it when talking about a game whose main feature is “boobies”. However, there is an air of discomfort. He seems to be almost bashful when talking about the game, and averts his eyes when looking at the backglass–as if looking directly at the spherical masses of cartoon flesh will stimulate blindness. Nerves, perhaps, but the coyness appears genuine, as if there was a tinge of trepidation in the presentation of the overly erotic project. It sounds as if Jim from Gameroom Collectibles spearheaded the project to place in his own collection, yet has a difficult time talking about breasts in any sort of direct manner.

At the risk of alienating my (perceived) predominately male audience, I’d argue that this re-themed Elvira is just another instance of chauvinism within the male dominated world of pinball, and aligns itself with other sexist phenomena that have recently popped up to objectify the female form in cases where no objectivity was present: the nude (or nearly nude) backglasses for Monopoly and Wheel of Fortume (available on eBay) or the Luci/Helen “sexy devil” themes available for AC/DC come to mind. Collectors who grew up playing games with less overt forms of objectification are now employing modifications that take female objectification to the nth degree. There has been a steady increase in the number of women players in recent years and it is great to see that they have embraced the pastime, however these “mods”, as described above, work to toe the historical party line of sexism, to extreme ends, and further push the hobby deeper into the realm of the male collector/player.

00-elvb03Really, my opinion doesn’t matter in the grande scheme of things. Bare breasts wouldn’t work in my gameroom, but they may work in someone else’s. Jim from Gameroom Collectibles is adamant to let his audience know that the custom machine is “Girlfriend Approved”, meaning that his partner doesn’t mind the bare breasts appearing in his collection (a form of the quoted term was used on Pinside as well as in YouTube comments). In discussing this article with my wife, she chuckled when I described the dancing plastic boobies, shooting my theory of sexism straight to hell. She said that as a woman, she didn’t find it THAT offensive, and that my stance may be a little uptight. She then reasoned that my problem with this particular Elvira machine lies in two areas, neither of which mark me as a complete prude. The first being the total short circuiting of the Elvira character’s approach to comedy (discussed above), and the second being that of a pinball purist, seeing a machine being modded in such a way that adds little to the overall game and removing it from its place within pinball history. My wife went on to state: “You guys love to modify your games. From what I’ve seen, mods either make the game look prettier or play better. The boobs don’t make the game play better, but maybe that guy thinks boobs make his game prettier.” Maybe she’s right. When placing the game in the greater context of pinball history, it becomes problematic. However, when taking the machine at face value, secluded from the underlying sexism in pinball, it is just a game made by a guy who wants to have some fun by objectifying Elvira’s bare breasts while enjoying his machine. I’m not sure if the game CAN be divorced from the greater context in my mind, but for some, it absolutely can. To me, if I want to look at boobs, I have other options of seeing them. My wife has a matching set and the internet is full of them, too. I don’t need to go out of my way to add them to my pinball machines.

The response in the community has been somewhat mixed. Some YouTube comments applaud the “fucking awesome[ness]” of what Gameroom Collectibles has done with their machine, while others find it problematic for a variety of reasons, with early Pinside responders describing it as “tacky” and “embarrassingly bad”. Whichever camp you are in, the discussion is good for pinball: drawing attention to the machines themselves and the attitudes of those who play them. I personally can’t bring myself to look at the machine divorced from the greater context, and further, I view it as just another barrier to keep the opposite sex away from the hobby. I wonder how Cassandra Peterson feels about all this?

Further Reading:
Pinside – Elvira Boobie Monsters??? One of a kind restoration featured! Beware – Boobs!
YouTube – Comments for Elvira & The Party (BOOBS!) Monsters (Custom) Pinball Machine
Gameroom Collectibles – Homepage
Elvira, Mistress of the Dark – Official Webpage


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FEATURE: Pinball in a Hall, the Strong Museum’s “Pinball Playfields”

00-strong00 When my wife suggested a trip to the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, with our two kids, I was game. I had the inside track. I knew they had pinball machines there and she didn’t. Thus, my wife, who has been the subject of scammed trips in the past to the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas and Clay Harrell’s VFW Showcase in Brighton, MI, had walked right into this one. She logged onto the Museum’s website and said, “Oh, looks like they have a big pinball display going on”. I ambled over to the computer, and sure enough, a banner on their main page touted “Pinball Playfields”. It promised more pinball machines than the normally feature in the permanent collection and insight into the creation of the wooden decks that the silver ball rolls upon. It was going to be tough to ditch my wife and kids on a family trip at the Museum of Play to play pinball, but I was up for the challenge.

The Strong Museum is a really odd place. It is one of those museums that cropped up in the seventies and eighties which takes popular (low) culture subject matter and turns it into high culture by putting it into a museum. Where else would you find a Tickle Me Elmo doll, new in box, preserved behind glass and tagged with its official manufacture date? That said, the museum prides itself on its “hands-on” activities: craft stations, dress-up areas, a small-sized play restaurant and supermarket, console gaming stations, and so forth. The problem I found, is that I had no time to enjoy the vintage toys behind glass or the interactive displays because I was too busy running after my two-and-a-half year old, making sure he was sharing and taking turns with the billion other kids that were visiting on the afternoon we were there. I could have let my child run wild–there was plenty of that going on, to be sure– but as a responsible parent I followed a few meters behind my son, keeping an eye on him, as he tore running and laughing from exhibit-to-exhibit for six hours.  Visiting isn’t about the parents enjoying themselves. My wife was nice enough, however, to take sole guardianship of the kids as I explored the pinball display. And that’s where the story finally begins.

Keep in mind the information posted on their website:

“Play your way through more than 80 years of pinball history in this all-new exhibit at The Strong museum. Trace the evolution of the playfield—the surface where the ball ricochets through a maze of lights and obstacles to rack up points—from countertop games of the 1930s to sophisticated, electronic versions that remain popular today.

  • View pioneering pinball machines from The Strong’s collections including Ballyhoo (1932), Humpty Dumpty (1947), and Triple Action (1948).
  • Rack up the high-score on machines such as Vagabond (1962), FunHouse (1990), Monster Bash (1998), and Lord of the Rings (2003).
  • Wrap your arms around Hercules (1979), the world’s largest commercial pinball machine.
  • View unique artifacts, including playfield prototypes and sketches by pinball machine designers.
  • Design your own playfield and see if you have what it takes to be a pinball machine designer.

Playable machines in Pinball Playfields require purchased tokens. Money collected from the sale of tokens helps maintain these original artifacts.”

The Strong has two arcades, one “Boardwalk arcade” on the main floor with redemption games and vintage arcade offerings, and another on the second floor which focusses on gaming through the ages. The “special exhibit” about pinball playfields was in a transient hallway between one part of the museum and another. It was a weird place for these machines to be set up, given they could have carved out a space within one of the two existing arcade spaces to set up the display. While playing the games, with a wide stance one foot in front of the other, I was definitely in the way of passers-by, as this hallway is a main artery that connects two main parts of the museum. To be honest, it really reminded me of the Pinball Hall of Fame Annex at the Rivera Hotel and Casino: a bunch of games thrown into a hallway, and labelled an attraction. They had a couple artifacts on the wall for viewing: a George Gomez photograph with a couple of quotes, some original pre-production drawings and photos from the Gomez-designed Johnny Mnemonic and Monster Bash, an original High Speed whitewood and flyer, and a few written tidbits about the evolution of the playfield. Add to this two vintage wood rails and a bagatelle style game displayed for viewing only and a few random pinball flyers, and that was about it for the display. As an “exhibit”, it left a lot to be desired. But then again, I didn’t see many people reading the walls, most, like me, were playing the machines.

The machines were not on free play, however, required only one token to play. And five tokens were only a buck. Replays seemed to be set very low, and I matched a handful of times while playing as well. I played a lot on just a couple of bucks. And had enough left over to give to my son to aimlessly flip around on a few games at the end of the day. I was impressed at this, at first, but then I remembered that, as an adult, I was required to pay $13.50USD for entrance into the museum in the first place. Anyone over the age of two was required to pay this amount, thus I was on the hook for forty bucks for the entire family. But parking was free, which really blew my mind, so it’s a wash in the end.

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The author tilting Hercules.

The lineup of games to play within the main floor exhibit were: Gottlieb Incredible Hulk, Atari Superman, Williams Scorpion, Atari Hercules, Black Knight, Banzai Run, Funhouse, Cirqus Voltaire, Monster Bash, Lord of the Rings, Wizard of Oz and Stern’s Star Trek Pro. All games appeared to be in decent condition, but all had a credit dot (free advertising for this blog!). The only major issues were that WoZ was scoring with each press of the flipper button, and Hercules had a lame left flipper spring that wouldn’t return the massive bat to its rest position. Luckily, it made drop catches easy to execute, given the sheer weight of the massive ball, returning the flipper to its rest position before a well timed flip sent the ball back up the playfield. It was my first time playing Hercules in any capacity, and it was a real blast. Like many have said before me, it’s a game that everyone needs to play once, but nobody needs to own. It was bigger than I thought it would be. However, I was still able to tilt the behemoth with a couple of ill-advised nudges. The Cirqus Voltaire was in tip-top shape, as was the Monster Bash. The vintage superhero games played well too, but seemed like they were an afterthought. It really felt like they were moved from the Marvel/DC superhero exhibit that was literally fifty meters away in an attempt to bulk up this rag-tag pinball exhibit and add age to its lineup.  The advertising write-up touts that you can play through the ages…as long as those ages are 1980 thru present day.  I guess Gottlieb wedgeheads aren’t a part of Strong’s truncated pinball history.

00-strong09Upstairs in the arcade exhibit is where you will find more machines, again requiring only one token per play. As you walk into the area, a bank of four games greets you: Gottlieb Haunted House, Williams Indiana Jones, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Stern Avengers. A display further in attempts to recreate the crowded feel of a 1980s arcade, and there you’ll find a Gottlieb Spiderman, High Speed, Tron LE, and Transformers. The High Speed was eating tokens, displaying 30 credits at the time I approached it, but refused to start a game. All other games were in great condition, especially the Haunted House. It was the nicest example I’ve ever played, granted, I’ve only played maybe four different copies of it in the past. I heard an Addams Family exists at the Strong, but I could not locate it. Out for service perhaps, or maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough?

Overall, I’m impressed at the condition of the games and their slight cost to play, if not a little disappointed that the pinball exhibit didn’t present more unique artifacts, a wider breadth of games, or give proper space for the games to be displayed. They certainly have a fantastic lineup of pingames in the collection from one of the greatest pinball eras spread out in two different areas, but gaps exist in their history. Perhaps putting all games in one dedicated exhibit area would make the display more powerful. However, you’d be shooting yourself in the foot: patrons, especially those with small children, could easily skip over it and move on to something more “kid-friendly” (a parent looks at a museum map: “Pinball? Who plays that anymore? Let’s go to the Berenstain Bears area.”) Having ten-plus machines on a major thoroughfare in the museum gets pinball seen by the greatest number of people possible and hopefully, parents and children alike choose to stop and drop a couple of tokens.

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The author’s two-and-a-half year old son putting some serious leg english on the Hulk.

Given that pinball is a slightly dead medium, you are likely to find credits on these games: racked up by unknowing players via replay or match, or through the sheer kindness of strangers walking away from them leaving behind accumulated credits. I left a few that I earned on Cirqus Voltaire and Funhouse for someone to take advantage of. My wife said she was surprised the games were not on free play, however, I’m sure it prevents exuberant toddlers from starting four games, launching one ball, and then walking away. As for my son’s experience, he was immediately drawn to Funhouse, as we own one and he has dubbed it his favourite, and the Incredible Hulk, as he has underwear with the Hulk’s green visage on them. One person playing next to us was surprised that my son had the patience and ability (albeit very limited ability) to keep the ball alive and play out an entire game. I explained that we had a basement full of games at home for him to practice on, to which the person became even more surprised. Even though we are in a “pinball resurgence”, we are still entrenched in a very, very niche hobby.

Kudos to the Strong for a valiant attempt at spotlighting pinball as one form of play with this current exhibit. Their scope is a bit misleading however: the “history” of the playfield is certainly skewed towards the 80s and 90s, and their “unique artifacts” amounted to little more than someone could easily acquire on eBay or through Pinside if they knew who to ask. I didn’t even spot the “design your own playfield” area, unless it was the row of tables with construction paper and markers twenty meters away in the atrium. They should have just labelled the exhibit “Look! Functioning Pinball Machines in this Hallway!”, as that is what it amounted to, and I’m sure people would have been equally impressed. The Strong does boast a fantastic selection of games, but the collection is only available for play if admission to the museum is paid. Honestly, you can only really enjoy the museum’s games without being impeded by your own children, and I’m not sure how comfortable a single grown adult would be paying admission to a museum geared towards children/families just to play pinball amongst hyperactive four-year-olds making crowns out of construction paper and pretending to shop at a kid-sized grocery store. If you visit with your kids, like I did, you are obligated to spend time doing things that they are interested in, and chances are, their interests won’t lie in the pinball exhibit for very long. The exhibit is a positive for pinball’s exposure to a younger audience, however seasoned pinheads will find a wider breadth of machines and a more extensive collection of artifacts in some of the better private collections across the US and Canada. I got to play pinball at a privately-funded museum on a family trip, so I can’t complain that much, but I still left wholly underwhelmed by unfilled potential.

The Strong National Museum of play is located at One Manhattan Square in downtown Rochester, NY.  The museum is open Monday-Thursday 10am-5pm, Friday-Saturday 10am-8pm, and Sunday Noon-5pm.  The Pinball Playfields exhibit runs through September 7th, 2014.

Further Reading:

The Strong National Museum of Play – Pinball Playfields