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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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FEATURE: Drop Target Zine

I seem to have missed the boat on zines. I was a bit too young to catch its last culturally relevant kick at the can during the Riot Grrrl movement and, moreover, I wasn’t anywhere geographically close to the west coast cities that were known for zine production in the early 1990s. The closest I got was putting together a photocopied, hand-written newspaper with my buddies in grade four called the “You Can’t Do That On Television Times”, which discussed hard-hitting and edifying stories about the television show the paper was named after. It lasted two issues before the “editor”, our teacher, pulled the plug. Now, nearly everyone with an inflated ego and an internet connection can run their own blog (Hey, wait a minute!), thus, a need for hard copy zines was quelled for the most part.  The Internet served to spread information quicker and easier (and reached a larger audience) than a zine ever could. However, the spirit of the self-published, low production publication still lives on–the same way LPs are holding their own against digital music and pinball against console and mobile gaming. Happily, the paths of the zine and pinball cross in a fantastic publication called Drop Target Zine, which exists as part comic book and part magazine, and remains fully dedicated to a deep appreciation of the modern flipper game.

Drop Target Zine springs from the minds of Alec Longstreth and John Chad. It is a bi-costal collaboration of epic proportions: these men are no strangers to both the self-publishing world and the pinball community. In terms of pinball, Mr. Longstreth’s artistic work can be found frequently on Stern Pinball’s blog and Mr. Chad will be known to the community due to his fantastic (and altogether whimsical) sci-fi designs for the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association. Together they have accounted for five issues of “DTZ”, and have promised a sixth by the end of the summer.

Jon Chad, left, and Alec Longstreth, right, in self-portrait, teasing the theme of DTZ#6. Courtesy of Drop Target Zine #5.

For those uninitiated, a zine is basically a DIY magazine with limited publication and distribution, and very few frills. Traditionally, the content is photocopied and assembled by hand. Historically, the zine voice is that of the marginalised, ignored or unheard. Images are stolen and appropriated and the articles are typically unpolished manifestos “unfit” for publication in the mainstream media. That being said, the Drop Target Zine isn’t a radical proclamation calling for liberation through riot or pinball players to rise against society and take to the streets–those days of the zine are long past.  It is simply a quirky publication filled with great art, interviews and a healthy dose of imagination. It takes the original spirit of the zine and blends it with the polish and organization of a handmade comic book. The California-based Mr. Longstreth publishes his own line of comics entitled Phase 7 and also works as a freelance illustrator, while Mr. Chad lives and works in Vermont, teaching at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and is the creator of the Leo Geo series of comics. This must be a passion project as both have an appreciation for the silver ball and its place within popular culture. Two games that receive particular attention in the zine and in their online activity are Data East’s Jurassic Park and Williams’ Star Wars Episode I.  Many of the accounts in the zine, both written and illustrated, are very personal, highlighting shared experiences and their relationship to the world of pinball.  Mr. Chad and Mr. Longstreth illustrate themselves constantly throughout the zine, so the heavy hands of the authors/artists are always on display acting as cartoon Sherpas to guide the reader through the pages of the zine.

Each 5.5″x8.5″-sized issue of DTZ is focussed in its scope, choosing a topic to explore within its pages. The two issues I’ve chosen to review here are DTZ#4, “The Moves Issue”, and DTZ#5, “The Community Issue”. As such, Issue 4 features interviews with top players Keith Elwin and Bowen Kerins and an illustrated guide to ball control using the flippers.  Issue #5 has a feature on PAPA director Mark Stienman and two longer comics about competition and the shared pinball experience. Each issue also has recurring features: Pinhalls spotlights great places to play pinball across America and the Replay Review puts the focus on one particular machine and its rules (in Issues #4 and #5, the featured games are Jurassic Park and the Addams Family respectively). You may be underwhelmed by such features by reading about them here, as there are countless trip reports and an endless number of text and video reviews of popular machines like the Addams Family available if you know where to look. However, Pinhalls is usually accompanied by comic interpretations of the author’s visit to the featured location and the reviewed machine is met with the artist’s individual artistic interpretation, which spices up what would normally be a mundane text rundown of rules.  The artist’s touch puts a fresh spin on the sometimes stale information. The Addams Family review is fantastically illustrated by Mr. Longstreth, and includes his own interpretation of the entire TAF playfield, while the body of text is showered with individual illustrations of TAF’s unique playfield toys.

Mr. Longstreth’s interpretation of the TAF playfield. Courtesy of DTZ#5.

The standout feature of the zine is Dream Machines, where Mr. Longstreth, Mr. Chad and a few special guests create original pin tables that spring from their own imaginations. Each table is drawn to scale with a complete art package and, unbelievably, includes a complete and detailed ruleset. The magazine is printed in black and white, but each month, one dream table is given the colour treatment and is featured in the centre gatefold. Mr. Longstreth has provided a Harry Potter themed table for every issue thus far, and in an interesting spin, they are all based on the original J.K. Rowling books, not the Warner Brothers blockbuster movies. Other dream tables of note include Groo the Wanderer, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Conan the Barbarian and Inspector Gadget. Art and rulesets remain completely true to the licence and in most cases the technology remains true to the era in which the machine would have been produced given its year of release.

Mr. Chad’s fictional Conan the Barbarian design. Courtesy of DTZ#4.

With the lack of printed pinball “journalism” available to the community, save for Pinball Magazine which arrives only once per year and the recent appearance of a few special blogs (*wink*), the zine format is perfectly suited for a niche hobby like pinball. The $5USD cover price is a steal when you realize the work that goes into putting together each issue. My only gripe is that DTZ’s frequency mirrors that of Pinball Magazine–each issue is released on a yearly basis (approximately). However, its infrequency only adds to the charm of the publication and makes its arrival even sweeter. Reading the zine, you get the feel that it was hand-made specifically for YOU: it is an extremely personal experience in both production and reader reception. In a hobby where the multiplicity of online voices can be frustrating and condescending (and sometimes downright annoying), it is refreshing to sit down to with an issue of this zine and bask in the skilfully drawn comic panes and printed words.

Due to the limited run of the zine and its cult popularity, the first run printings of each issue, save for DTZ#3, are completely sold out. A second run, which lacks the screen-printed cover and colour Dream Machine centerfold (both reproduced in black and white), are available for $4USD plus shipping directly from the DTZ blog. If you are so inclined, a five-pack of mini-buttons with original DTZ art is also available for $3USD plus shipping.

First print issues of Drop Target Zine #4 and #5. The covers are beautifully screen-printed. Nice touch!

I highly recommend Drop Target Zine to anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the honest and simple roots of playing and experiencing the game of pinball. Every time I pick up an issue of the zine, I’m reminded of my childhood, where weekend trips to the arcade and reading comic books were my only concerns. It is a nice throwback to memories of those times, now that I have a career and family, leaving little time for such childhood thrills. It also reminds me how much fun PLAYING these machines can be, seeing as much of my free time, and probably yours as well, is spent modding, fixing and maintaining them. Mr. Longstreth and Mr. Chad have expertly blended the art of the zine with a passion for pinball. The result is something that can be embraced by the community at large.

Further Reading:
Drop Target Zine – Official Blog
Alec-Longstreth.com – Official Website
The Fizzmont Institute of Rad Science – Jon Chad’s Official Website
Stern Pinball – “Community” Blog
PAPA.org – PAPA Store

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FEATURE: “Only Give A Defect On Display, Any Stupidity”

I have a secret to reveal: I arranged to adopt a family from overseas. I offered to let them live with me. My wife wasn’t too happy when I told her. We’d have a lot less room in the house. She was even more upset when I told her how much it cost me to bring them here. I thought it was a good deal, actually. To have them at my service, year round? It was a no brainer. I brokered the deal through a man one province over, in Quebec, who had brought in multiple families in the past. He said the family would be arriving by boat, and would travel in a shipping container. I found this mode of transportation odd, but didn’t question the man’s motives–he claimed the deal was completely legal. I trusted him. I got word of the family’s safe arrival in the Montreal harbour, and arranged pickup through a good friend in the Ontario pinball community. Forty-eight hours later, the family arrived at my home for the first time. The Addams Family now lives in my basement, and I don’t ever want them to leave.

The above paragraph outlines my acquisition of an Addams Family pinball machine through the re-import process: it arrived by boat from Bari, Italy on the Adriatic Sea, across the Atlantic Ocean, down the historic St. Lawrence Seaway into the port of Montreal and finally by land down Highway 401 to my home in the Greater Toronto Area. I rolled the dice on this machine, buying sight unseen through pictures only, and, in my opinion, won. The game arrived as described and has worked 100% since its arrival. Others have not been so lucky with these so-called “re-imports” (also known as “container pins” in these parts) sent over in massive shipping containers from across the ocean. They arrive mainly from Europe, Northern Africa and, in some rare instances, South America. It is an approach to collecting machines that made sense at one time for North American collectors, however due to the recent climate of the pinball market in the U.S. and Canada, it has been less attractive, both financially and logistically.

A line of Stern games in an Italian warehouse, waiting for buyers.

Besides the incredible hassle of brokering a multi-national deal for the purposes of obtaining an amusement machine, there seems to be, in Canada anyhow, an incredible stigma associated with games that are re-imported to North America from overseas. The games are almost always treated as second class units. Many of the For Sale threads on our local forums will state explicitly “North American machine, not a re-import”, to add credibility. If it is not mentioned, given the number of re-imports on Canadian soil, Canuck collectors have been trained to ask the provenance of the machine or at very least perform a visual inspection of the machine to look for any sign of the letter “I” in the serial number, coin slot configuration, 220V stickers or country names that would explicitly mark it as a re-import. Collectors paint all foreign pinball operators as untrained hacks that “fix” machines with improper tools and parts. There is also the line of thinking that says the overseas machines are subjected to much more abuse than their North American counterparts. With many of the European machines being operated in bars and coffee shops throughout their life, there is the thought that they would be subjected to longer time spent on route, massive amounts of play upon them, little maintenance upkeep and a greater risk of beverages being spilt upon them. European operators have the reputation of trying to squeeze every cent they can out of their investment, riding the machines hard, and, given the beverages spilt upon them, putting them away wet. Some developing countries have been known to operate their machines out-of-doors, so there is a fear of finding those turn up in a container as well.

In reality though, a routed game is a routed game, no matter if it comes off of a route in Buffalo, New York or Hamburg, Germany. North America has its fair share of hack operators that substitute a wad of tinfoil for a 4 amp fuse, too, not just the ones working overseas. For some reason, collectors are under the impression that just because a game has been brought back through a European wholesaler, it is automatically a basket case that has been played within an inch of its life, complete with hidden issues and unfathomable hacks. Granted, many do arrive on North American soil in pretty awful shape, however, I would argue games in similar condition existed in North America at one time as well, but due to the incredible demand for pinball machines here it has driven these basket cases to be completely restored by capable collectors or pieced out as donor machines. In my opinion, a game should be evaluated on the way it plays and its overall appearance rather than the addition of a letter or two in its serial number, or 110 extra volts.

I actively follow the restorations performed by Chris Hutchins of High End Pins on his website. He provides clients and enthusiasts alike with before, during and after photographs of the games he works on, showing the meticulous care he takes in bringing the shine back to a machine. For nearly every game he brings back to showroom quality, Mr. Hutchins reprints the serial number decals as part of the restoration process. On one Addams Family restoration in particular, which I was able to peg from the outset as re-import game, Mr. Hutchins, at what I would assume was his client’s request, erased all markings of the game being a re-import. The coin door was changed to the North American two-slot standard, the European stickers that reference 220V were removed, and, when reprinting the serial number stickers, the “I”, which would have categorically marked the Addams as an original overseas export, was completely eliminated from all of the reproduction stickers. Thus, the stigma of the “re-import” ran so deep that this particular collector wanted the machine to look as if it never left the confines of North America. Did that “I” act as a scarlet letter for the collector? Did he not want his high end Addams Family restoration to bear the markings of a re-import game? This isn’t a common practice for Mr. Hutchins: the majority of the games he restores will transcribe the official serial number onto new stickers–digit-for-digit and letter-for-letter. This was obviously a special case. In the end, who cares, really? It’s the collector’s game. He’s paying for the high end restore; he can do as he wishes with it…even if it involves monkeying with a historical document such as a serial number. I think this just proves that the community devalues games that have spent time on foreign soil.

A FEW WAYS TO SPOT A RE-IMPORT…

So why import these machines in the first place if people approach them with so much trepidation? It boils down to a ravenous desire for a particular title (sometimes any title at all) at the right price. I only considered buying my Addams Family from overseas after about a year of not being able to find one in reasonable condition at a reasonable price here in Canada. [Ed. Note: Seriously…12,000 production games, and I couldn’t find a single damn one for sale here!] The lure of a deal will bring any collector to his/her knees. To be completely transparent with the bottom line on my container game, after all was said and done, I have $3900CAD into my Addams Family. The desire to get my hands on one drove me to this avenue, and it could have turned out much, much worse than it did. However, that is the risk you run buying a machine you have not played before purchasing and viewed only through a handful of pictures halfway across the world. In looking at the price lists available from the Italian wholesaler we worked with, “deals” on re-imports are few and far between, and if they are there, they will only be available on “A-List” titles that have rocketed in value on this side of the continent: Twilight Zone, Cirqus Voltare, The Addams Family, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and so forth. One must also think about landing a container in North America and the charges associated, which will also wreak havoc on your bottom line. After the numbers have been crunched and you find you can save a thousand or so dollars on a desirable machine, you still have to get past the idea of taking on a considerable amount of risk.

An Italian Monster Bash, with a pretty bashed cabinet.

A lot of the risk comes from the possibility that the game is misrepresented in pictures or the description. And the possibility that the machine was in fact operated just as horribly as the community assumes they were operated. It is almost impossible to capture the essence of a machine by looking at five general pictures of it, and that is really all you’ll get from many overseas wholesalers. We collectors can be faulted a bit too, expecting perfection from a machine that had a bargain basement price tag. Descriptions of the games are often vague and include lingo that is completely lost in translation. One popular term the Italians liked to use in the lists we received was “invisible wear on playfield”. What does this even mean? Do they mean “visible” wear? Do they mean wear that can hardly be seen? Games have been known to show up utterly filthy, reeking of stale smoke, water damaged, corroded, or missing parts/boards. There is a fabled story in the Canadian pinball community, which I cannot confirm or deny, that a certain Canadian retailer is known to import pinball machines from Algeria, a North African country on the Mediterranean, which are sold to collectors who end up finding that the machines are still filled with sand from the country’s vast desert landscape. Finding a reliable overseas contact is key when setting up a container deal. Just as we have saints and scumbags who sell machines here in North America, so it goes with wholesalers overseas.

A shipping container’s worth of Italian pinball machines destined for Canada, packed and ready to load.

I asked a fellow collector from the Toronto pinball community, Adriano Jorge (also known as Drano on Pinside), to offer his thoughts on the idea of buying container games. He’s one of the more seasoned experts, having bought a handful of games from our Italian source.

“From the moment I started collecting pinball machines, “container” or re-imported games were always something to be wary of. As I got more comfortable repairing and restoring machines, they started becoming a tempting source of inexpensive projects, especially in our relatively small Canadian market. But, who among us had tens of thousands of dollars to speculate on a container full of machines?

When a local collector started organizing group funded shipments, I had to look again. And, when that same source started offering titles such as Cactus Canyon, I was hooked. Cactus Canyon was/is my holy grail of restoration projects. So, I sold my restored Twilight Zone and ran, cash in hand, to try my luck. With shipping costs and taxes covered in the price of the machine, all I had to do was get it transported to my door.

I was expecting pure horror. My expectations were fairly low after hearing some experience a others had with their “gaucho games”. In the end, I was lucky. The Cactus Canyon arrived filthy with a terrible cabinet…but otherwise working with minimal playfield damage. It was a perfect restoration candidate.

Each month a new list was available… some with rarely seen titles like a Zaccaria Farfalla… which ended up being my next container purchase. After building a small rapport with this Canadian importer, I started getting an early peek at incoming games. Many were wrecks, but a few real gems were mixed in. I finally decided to try a bulk buy and committed to three more games (Fish Tales, Tales of the Arabian Nights, High Speed), while also coordinating transport for other local buyers and their games [Ed. note: I was one of these local buyers, and the TAF came over in this shipment].

It was here that I got to see the diversity of container pin buyers. Some were like me, capable of cleaning up a game or performing simple repairs, ready to deal with issues. Others, were wide-eyed new enthusiasts trying to get into this increasingly expensive hobby and praying for the best.

Eventually the economics got in the way…and maybe a little greed, too. As the Canadian dollar sank and the Euro rose, container deals just stopped making sense for us. The last frontier of the used pinball market was quickly disappearing into the sunset. Maybe it was for the best. With so many new manufacturers and reproduction WPC machines vying for our dollars, the decision to gamble on a container game doesn’t have the same appeal as it once did. I’m just happy I was able to stash away a few reasonable projects for the future.”

Container buys as I know them in Canada, and as Mr. Jorge has outlined above, are done on a group basis. A member of the pinball community in Quebec receives a list of games available from his contact in Italy which he distributes to anyone interested through our Canadian forums. He acts as organizer and middle-man. Pictures of the games are normally included, and can either be a detailed set including close-ups, or simply a shot of the machine lying on the floor with no legs. Our organizer crunches the numbers and attaches a bottom line price, in Canadian dollars, for each game which includes freight, import taxes and probably a cut for himself. The organizer has certain requirements he has to fill-—he can’t just load up a container full of Addams Families and Twilight Zones. He has to buy some of the lower echelon titles as well. Percentages, I assume, are set by the Italian seller. I’m sure they don’t want to be stuck with a warehouse full of Diamond Ladys and Cactus Jacks; they want to spread their A-Listers out to help move the undesirable trash. If the quotas are met, full payment is sent to our organizer and the wait begins for the boat to arrive on Canadian soil and clear customs. A link is sent out to the participants so the freighter can be tracked via satellite as it travels across the ocean. Once the game arrives, transport from the organizer’s facility outside of Montreal is the responsibility of the buyer.

There have been disappointments for individual collectors within our community from these group buys. One instance saw a collector lift the playfield of his re-import Doctor Who to find each and every mechanism, bracket and stand-off rusted beyond repair, which would indicate that the game was on location, or in storage, at or near a seaside town where the salt water would accelerate the oxidization process. Thankfully, this collector was able to exchange the “Doctor Rust” machine for a different title on a future shipment. Another collector saw a Cirqus Voltare arrive incomplete, with unique playfield parts and mechanisms completely missing from the game. It was sold at a loss by this collector, as he didn’t have the time or patience for such a project and, further, was completely crest-fallen with his failed “re-import” score and wished to wash his hands of it. These two cases I have mentioned are extreme, and are probably a result from lack of information and proper photos by the wholesaler. They are tales that should give buyers pause, and depict just how risky buying from overseas can be. For every gem, there are an equal number of turds.

Whovian Rust, Part 1

Whovian Rust, Part 2

I’d like to talk a little about my personal experience that I touched on at the outset of the article. Our Italian wholesaler had five-plus Addams Family machines on their list. Nearly all had burns in the magnet area, a couple were missing the topper, and some had completely trashed cabinets. The price difference between all of the machines varied by only $1000CDN. Not willing to take a chance on a bucket of bolts, I figured the most expensive one was probably the one in the best condition. Another positive indicator was that this highest priced machine had over twenty pictures available for viewing: both sides of the cabinet, areas with slight wear, under the playfield, behind the backglass, in the Thing Box and everywhere in between. Also, the machine was turned on in the pictures, and the DMD looked nice and bright with no missing dots or segments. It did, however, have a credit dot. Further, the machine had legs on it, and looked to be in a different part of the warehouse than the rest of the games. Most of the pins available from the Italian source had only one or two general pictures of the game’s condition, and most had their legs removed and were sitting on the ground in a veritable rouges gallery of pinballs. This Addams seemed like a special case: perhaps a game that was fully setup in the warehouse for potential customers or employees to play as a “showcase” piece. From these twenty pictures of the TAF, I saw a pretty decent cabinet, a bright DMD, an acceptable playfield with minor issues and very little magnet burn of any sort. I sent payment, and waited a month for its arrival.

One of the twenty original sales photos provided by our Italian wholesaler for this particular Addams Family.

I was nothing short of amazed at the condition the game was in when it finally arrived. It was plug and play (after jumping the game to 110V) has been solid ever since. The credit dot I saw in the pictures was due to a couple of switches that had not been activated for a long period of time. One good play blew the cobwebs out and it was good to go. I came to find that the playfield was waxed at some point recently; however the underside of the game and playfield nooks and crannies had their fair share of black carbon and grime. No rust to speak of on any of the mechanical parts. I did have to rebuild the flippers to add some extra snap and a new set of rubbers were thrown on to replace the ancient ones it arrived with. Another surprise was that a remote battery pack was already installed. My greatest surprise, though, was that there was no funky “container pin smell” of cigarettes and urine in the cab, as many of these games are known to have. If this machine wasn’t in a private collection overseas, it was well maintained by a god-sent operator in some location other than a smoky bar or coffee house. Language was default German, but coined for Italian Lire. My coin door still has three slots, and the serial number sticker still proudly sports its letter “I”. As stated above, I paid $3900CAD for the machine, shipped to my doorstep, which to me, was a good price. I was a successful experience. But would I do it again? Probably not. The chance of disappointment is too great for me to shoulder.

This sort of disappointment would probably be lessened if a single buyer (or company) was importing an entire shipping container on their own and could spread out the financing needed to fix up one or two basket cases over the entire load which may contain a few gems. Kind of like a shell game: a hundred dollars of parts on one is covered by a few hundred dollars of profit on another. But the days of retailers being able to bring these machines over in any sort of quantity is behind us, for the most part. The profit just isn’t there anymore. Our European connections can simply check the most times inflated prices of eBay and Boston Pinball and adjust their prices accordingly. The days of getting a Popeye Saves the Earth in a container for $250USD are long, long gone. I have a feeling the European sellers have now tried to target the collectors directly rather than selling to North American distributors. A distributor wouldn’t pay what amounts to $1500USD for a Roadshow with major issues–there just isn’t enough profit to be made after fixing it up. However, a private collector who wants to take on a restoration project might. Finding this collector, or group of collectors, that want a bulk load of thirty-five to seventy machines, with 25% of those being C and D list titles, is tough. Below is a list of prices for Bally/Williams games from an overseas seller, received in April 2014, just to give you an idea of how much a European wholesaler wants for their games now. The ever-hilarious “invisible wear” description makes a few appearances, as does the title of this article in reference to a Star Trek: The Next Generation, the absolutely eloquent: “Only give a defect on display, any stupidity”.

000-cont01

Anyone tempted by the €6000 sight-unseen Medieval Madness with a repainted playfield? Yeah, the one where the paint job is described as “not very professional work”? I didn’t think so. The series of Twilight Zone machines seem reasonable, and look to have enough meat left on the bone to account for near catastrophic damage or a few missing parts. However, the €700 Millionaire and €600 Fire! that is missing a flipper and won’t start definitely shows that Italians have no idea the value of D-list System 11 machines. And really, who does anymore?

In order to examine just how much times have changed in the last fifteen years, I went right to the source, and contacted pinball repair guru and current operator of the Pinball Ninja webzine Clay Harrell to ask him if he’d care to chronicle his experience importing container loads of machines in a very different pinball climate. Mr. Harrell is a veteran of over one dozen private container imports onto American soil, so he is obviously one of the experts in this field. Anyone who has watched Mr. Harrell’s pin repair DVD series “This Old Pinball” will remember that he included footage of his container spoils in episodes TOP3 and TOP4. Mr. Harrell writes:

Mr. Harrell, as Shaggy, with an unopened container. This Old Pinball, Volume 3

“Back ten to twenty years ago, I visited the rec.games.pinball newsgroup a lot. It was a different time: the group was smaller, friendlier, and much more polite than, say, Pinside. I forget how it happened, but through RGP got hooked up with a guy from Belgium named Bart. He was just getting into selling container loads of pinballs to guys in the U.S.

Now remember, back around 2000 or so the market was completely different. In Europe, few people wanted games, mostly because space was an issue and they had more local pubs and coffee shops where operators placed games. There really wasn’t a need to have a home pinball and house sizes are generally much smaller in Europe too, so it’s less practical to have games there.

Bart was driving around Belgium buying games, and assembling them at a storage place. When he got 72 games (the number that fits–shoe horns really–into a container), he would email me the list and ask if I wanted them. The answer was always “YES!”. The price for a 72 game container was generally about $15,000 to $20,000USD. Shipping was about $3500 (with about $50 per game added for shipping).

At the time, I didn’t have a place to land a full container. That, and you were only given two hours to unload the container, or you got charged heavily. So a loading dock or a fork lift was needed to unload (plus several guys). For this reason my friend Marty was the one that actually bought the container. My “tip” for setting up the deals was that I got ONE FREE GAME and I got to pick the game first right off the container, any game I wanted.

Prices for games was cheap. System11 games were generally $100 to $200. WPC games were $200 to $500. The only exception was the Addams Family and Twilight Zone and some other WPC95 games: those were usually $600 to $800.

I must of brought in at least eight containers for Marty. And I got eight free games. Good stuff too, like Tales of the Arabian Nights, Champion Pub, Shadow, and other stuff like that. But after eight containers, Bart couldn’t find any more games in Belgium! He said we bought them all. It’s not a big country. Overall the quality of games from Belgium was outstanding. These games were NICE.

I then started buying containers from Phil of Pinball Heaven in the U.K. These were usually “half containers” of 36 games, but sometimes full containers, too. But, now I was the one buying them. I still landed the games at Marty’s shop, but then had friends come over to help unload. And they would each haul the games they wanted straight home. I would put the rest in my driveway and sell them quickly (and hope for no rain!) at $100USD over cost. I would keep the titles I wanted and essentially get them for free. The longest it ever took me to sell a container of games was eleven days.

The good thing about Phil at Pinball Heaven that was he spoke English and he was a blast to deal with. Also he was VERY picky about his games. If there were any cosmetic problems, he would sell them to me. He wanted low hanging fruit for HIS business, and I got the “junk.” For example, a bunch of Star Trek: The Next Generations for $240 each that had broken ramps. Now remember, Phil is in a different part of the world where parts are harder to find. Pinball Inc wasn’t in business at the time. So any “problem” games with hard to source parts he sold to me. For me, in the US, the STTNG ramps were not a problem source at the time.

I also got a Medieval Madness from Phil for $750USD. It had some minor flipper wear. And got a Safecracker for $400USD in the original box! (Not brand new, but very lightly used.) He
actually had a NIB Safecracker I could have had for $800USD, but I passed. Duh! I did probably
five or six containers with Phil, and then he ran out of games for me also. Overall the quality of games from the U.K. was not as nice as Belgium…

Then we switched to buying containers from South America. I only did a couple loads from Argentina because now the game quality was starting to get very poor. South America had no parts, so everything was hacked and modified. It was still worth it, but only marginally so. Also, now it was the mid-2000s, and prices were starting to rise. And this is before prices here in the U.S. were very high. I did a couple containers from South America and then stopped. Also, the South American guys weren’t easy to understand and were a lot less fun to deal with than Bart or Phil.

At this point, I think it was about 2006. I was done with containers. Games were crappy and too expensive. I see some people now doing it again with European guys. I just got a list of a half container of 36 games. The guy wanted 50,000 euros for it! Yikes!! That’s crazy. Unfortunately, the time has passed on containers…at least for me.”

The spoils of Mr. Harrell’s container, in his garage, This Old Pinball, Volume 4

Up until now, I’ve really only touched on the North American experience with container pinball machines. Looking to the other side of the globe, Australians, too, have a ravenous desire to build their collections, but the availability of games on the island is finite. Generally speaking, there is still a reliance upon container imports down under, and it probably has as much to do with game availability as it does finding a deal. I contacted the most famous Australian pinball enthusiast I knew, Rod Cuddihy who co-hosts the Pinheadz Pinball Podcast, to have him weigh in on container imports from an Aussie perspective:

“Australia is the biggest island on the planet, so unless it is produced locally it’s got to come into the country by air or sea. When it comes to pinball machines it’s pretty clear which option is the most economic alternative. However, after your freight costs, Customs agent fees, port handling charges, goods & services tax, trucking expenses and the potential of further fees from the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service you can add anywhere from $1000-$2000AUD to the cost of your game.

It is at this point that the appeal of importing an entire container begins to look a lot more attractive to the Aussie Pinhead. The per unit cost of bringing pins into the country decreases significantly, however, the initial capital required to import an entire container combined with significant logistic challenges means most of us ultimately put the idea into the “Too Hard” basket. So generally, dealers are the ones importing the majority of containers.

A restoration professional who imports a container into the country annually once told me that at any given time, there is always a container of pinball machines on the water coming to Australia. Nearly all those containers are coming from Europe and house games from both the Electromechanical and Solid State eras. Obviously, this doesn’t include the new Stern games that are coming in from the US.

While my collection has a number of “Australian Delivered” games, I also have games that were initially sent to Italy, France, Germany and New Zealand. The New Zealand game, a Fish Tales, is odd, as I’ve never heard of anyone importing a container from New Zealand, but it’s made it’s way over here somehow. The biggest bone of contention within the Australian pinball collecting community is “container pin condition”. In a nutshell, opinions are generally formed from personal experience–some say they’ll never buy “trashed beaters” brought in by the container load. But generally Aussie pinheadz know that pins can get equally trashed wherever you are in the world, so if it’s in nice condition – who cares where it comes from. In my experience, the condition of imported games is generally very good. I’ve bought a collector quality Family Guy and Sopranos virtually straight out of a container. But, maybe I’ve just been lucky. Don’t get me wrong I’ve witnessed some disasters where unwitting first time importers have been taken advantage of by an unscrupulous overseas wholesaler who’s dumped a load of “project pins” on them. But the stories of sharks are rare.

The overseas containers being brought into the country are the lifeblood of the pinball resurgence in Australia. In a number of cases we’re seeing games that were never released in Australia or initially brought out here in very low numbers.”

While the containers that came to North America in the last fifteen years contained mainly Bally-Williams and Data East DMD games as their prize bounties, the Australian’s receive a steady diet of pinball machines from all ages, including Electromechanical and early Solid State titles. That may be a sign of the interests of the Aussies, or perhaps that the collectors down under are hungry for whatever they can get their hands on. For a sampling of the types of machines imported into Australia, an idea of their general condition and their asking prices (in Australian dollars), please check out the blog maintained by Pinball Machines Australia, a retailer outside of Melbourne that regularly posts photos of their container imports. It appears that they clean and refurbish what they can to sell in their showroom and shuffle off the basket cases that require a significant amount of time and work as “AS IS” projects. More insight into what arrives into Australia via container can be gleaned from the Pinheadz Pinball Podcast Episode Three, wherein Mr. Cuddihy tags along with Pinball Memories, another Melbourne-area retailer based in Caroline Springs, as they open a newly-landed container and organize its contents.

A container arrives at Pinball Machine Australia, Melbourne.

With the worldwide resurgence of pinball, I’m sure overseas wholesalers are having a tough time prying loose merchandise from former operators and collectors to send across the ocean. As Mr. Harrell noted, some countries were completely tapped back in the mid-2000s, so there is bound to be little left. The significant price increase paired with the lower quality “dregs” still available to the wholesaler makes this market almost dead to North Americans. For the Aussies, it obviously remains a viable avenue. Does this have something to do with the Aussies being more adept at “making do”? Anyhow, I’m glad I participated when I did, and added a game to my collection that will probably never leave. I’m happy with it and in the end that’s all that really matters. My refugee re-import Addams Family stands as a container success story among tales of misrepresentation, foul smells, water damage, corrosion, missing parts and a few handfuls of sand.

I would like to thank Clay Harrell, Rod Cuddihy, and Adriano Jorge for their contribution to this article. Special thanks to Don Walton, Jr. Extra special thanks to the Credit Dot readership for their patience in what seemed to be a long break between posts.

Further Reading:

Pinball Revolution – Container Pinballs *list received*
High End Pins – Gallery
Pinball Revolution – Dr@no’s Fun-Filled (and often long winded) Restorations
Pinball Revolution – Converting Pinball Voltage From European to North American
PinRepair.com – This Old Pinball DVDs
Pinheadz Pinball Podcast – Homepage
Pinball Machines Australia – Container Day Pics
Facebook – Pinball Memories Australia


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FEATURE: Game Plan and the Mike Bossy Scoring Machine

I am an avid supporter of the New York Islanders hockey club. I started cheering for them when I was a kid–they were winning Stanley Cups in the early eighties so they easily achieved “favorite team” status. My current gameroom is painted orange, blue and white, Islanders colours, and memorabilia from their forty year history adorns the walls. Signed photos, game-worn jerseys, bobbleheads, sticks and pucks are just a few things down there. All that stuff seems less impressive to visitors as the memorabilia is out-muscled by an impressive row of pinball machines, my other collecting passion. Curiously, there is a point where these two collecting interests intersect–and it’s with Game Plan’s 1982 pinball machine, Mike Bossy: The Scoring Machine.

Game Plan began producing video games, slot machines and cocktail pinball tables in the late 1970s. Many of the pin games were designed by 1990s Data East stalwart Ed Cebula, who was, at the time, just starting out in the industry. The company found little success with their niche cocktail tables in an already crowded pinball market, itself on the verge of a massive collapse thanks to the popularity of upright video games. It is interesting to note that Game Plan saw licencing as a viable marketing strategy very early on. Black Velvet liquor, Real brand cigarettes and Camel Lights cigaterres were three early “themes” for the company, and remain the most interesting cross-promotional tables the pinball world has ever seen. It was no secret the intended market for Game Plan–-their early machines were not for kids in arcades, but rather for sophisticated, discerning adults in bars and private clubs. As time marched on and the pinball bust took effect, Game Plan reversed this strategy, whole heartedly in 1979, releasing the cocktail tables Family Fun!, which depicted the smiling faces of a mom, a dad and their leaping child, and Star Trip, a pseudo-Star Wars knockoff. These two “arcade friendly” games appear just before the company released their first traditional pinball table, and first real success, Sharpshooter. Sharpshooter was designed by Mr. Cebula, Joe Joos and pinball godfather Roger Sharpe (he’s also depicted as the main cowboy character on the backglass), and turned Game Plan into a viable upstart competitor to Williams, Stern and Bally.

Sadly, Game Plan would never reach the heights of success that Sharp Shooter had realized. The runs of their three following titles–Old Coney Island! (a knock-off of the Sharp Shooter design), Super Nova and Pinball Lizard-–barely sold as many games COMBINED as did Sharp Shooter’s entire run of 4,200 units. What followed those short run titles were two that never got out of the production stage at all: Global Warfare, a Cebula/Sharpe game with John Trudeau art (yes, THAT John Trudeau) that only managed ten sample games, and Mike Bossy: The Scoring Machine.

When Game Plan licenced the Bossy machine, he was at the top of his game. He was in the process of helping lead the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cups, and, in true “Scoring Machine” fashion, racked up fifty goal seasons in each of the campaigns he played. Further, he has the honour of being the only player to score back-to-back Stanley Cup game winning goals and the only player to score four game winning goals in one best-of-seven playoff series. All this on his way to holding the highest regular season goals-per-game average in NHL history, a record that stands to this day. He was undoubtedly worthy of his own pinball machine, yet it still seems an odd choice, because a young upstart named Wayne Gretzky was tearing it up in the NHL at the very same time. Bossy was a more proven and successful commodity, but Gretzky had youth, good looks and marketability on his side….AND his own action figure. The sports world has never really given the Islanders their due, even when they were dominating the NHL in a way rarely seen since, and Game Plan’s selection of Bossy was a rare instance of putting the spotlight on a member of the rag-tag franchise. Regardless, the game never made it to production. Only one prototype exists. Maybe they should have went with Gretzky.

The dual-layered backglass, think Bally’s Space Invaders or Stern’s Iron Maiden, featured a rear glass with a soft portrait of Bossy, and a front transparent glass with a depiction of Bossy skating, an Islanders goalie, and the game title text. The “O” in Bossy featured the Islanders logo. “Concept” for the overall game is credited to Gil Pollock, whose only other pinball credit is on another sports theme: Premier’s Chicago Cubs Triple Play. Game Plan workhorse Mr. Cebula is credited as designer. The playfield is sparse, to say the least. It is a three-flipper game–-the third mini-flipper is utilized near the top right of the playfield to help players snipe “goals” into a “net” located in the top left corner. The “net” is a bank of what looks to be four targets, with a single left-to-right moving target acting as the goalie trying to stop the ball from hitting the four-bank. Each goal is supposedly accompanied by a flashing goal light and the sound of a goal siren. Further, spelling “MIKE BOSSY”, through the orbit gate when lit or via targets that run down the right hand side of the machine, will help amass more points. The art itself relies on hockey sticks and shooting stars on the periphery, with Bossy stick-handling around three helmetless players in what look to be Boston Bruin uniforms as the main centrepiece of the playfield. The Isles logo appears amongst the busyness of the playfield and plastics, so not only was it a Mike Bossy machine, it was a New York Islanders machine as well. The art is very Bobby Orr Power Play-esque, which was probably the model that Game Plan was shooting for, so to speak. Photographs exist of the playfield with Islanders logos on the pop bumper caps. The photo of the playfield above was taken from the wonderful resource http://www.gameplanpinball.com, which is absolutely worth a visit for a complete rundown of Game Plan’s pinball history.

Overall, the game looks like it would be a dud. It has the sparse feel of a prototype mockup, which it is, however it must have made it through the white-wood prototype stage, as a complete populated playfield and professionally rendered backglass both exist. It also looked to be marketed as a multi-player game, as it would keep score, up to nine goals, between four different opponents. The promotional materials were vague at best, boasting the word “HOCKEY” over the name Mike Bossy, and claiming it was a “hockey game you play like a pin ball game”. It appears as if the Scoring Machine fell into some sort of neither region–a convoluted mix between a traditional pinball, a puck bowler, table top hockey and a pitch and bat–without actually deciding what the game was going to be. Instead of working out the kinks, I guess the idea was just completely scrapped.

Louisville, KY collector Jeremy Fleitz is the current owner of the only Bossy machine in existence, and according to his Pinball Magazine interview in Issue #1, the ROMs that do exist for the game are incomplete, so he’s taking it upon himself to write his own code to make the game function properly and more accurately replicate a “hockey game”. The game is cobbled together from one populated playfield and the two backglasses, which were all the fruits of a tireless hunt for Mr. Fleitz, whose collection boasts all the traditional pinball tables Game Plan ever made.

The reason I felt compelled to write this essay for Credit Dot at this time, is that I won an exclusive meet and greet with Mr. Bossy which occurred last night at a venue just outside of Toronto. After asking Mr. Bossy about his fifty goals in fifty games feat, and he asking me how on earth I became a New York Islanders fan living on the outskirts of Toronto, I brought up the subject of the Game Plan pinball machine. The aging Scoring Machine they now call “Boss” got a look of childlike wonder on his face, staring off into the distance with a faint smile. He said “It’s funny you should ask that, I had forgotten all about it.” I told him what I knew about the game and asked him what he remembered. He didn’t recall much. He remembered going to Chicago to meet with the folks from Game Plan, and obviously recalled that the game never actually materialized. “They didn’t actually make them, did they?”, he said. I told him what I knew about the one in existence. He said he was given a backglass at one point as a gesture of good will, but wasn’t sure what became of it. He bent down to sign a photo I had brought. The pen stopped, inches from the photo, and he shook his head, “I hadn’t thought about that in years!” he said quietly, “I’ll have to go digging through my things in the basement. You’ll have to give me your email address and I’ll let you know what I find.” I’ve had some epic moments in my life, but this nearly trumps them all: the greatest New York Islander of all-time asked for my email address so we could talk about pinball. They nearly had to scrape me up off the ground.

The author, his son, and the legend

It took three years for Game Plan to produce a commercially run machine between 1981’s Pinball Lizard and their 1983 offering Sharp Shooter II. That limbo period in between was taken up with producing video games and slot machines, and monkeying around with the Mike Bossy Scoring Machine pinball table. Established companies were having problems selling pinball games during these years as well, so folding on the Scoring Machine, a machine seriously lacking in direction, was probably a wise option. Finding a Mike Bossy machine for my pinball/Islanders basement game room is a next to impossible task–-I don’t see Mr. Fleitz parting with the only known one in existence any time soon. I’ll have to take solace in the fact that I stirred up some long forgotten pinball memories in one of the greatest players to ever pick up a hockey stick…and hope that he emails me about some further recollections of the project.

Further Reading:
Game Plan Pinball – Mike Bossy the Scoring Machine
Internet Pinball Database – Mike Bossy the Scoring Machine
Wikipedia – Mike Bossy the Scoring Machine
Pinball Magazine – Issue #1 Homepage


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FEATURE: Santiago Ciuffo’s PINBALL

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Roger Sharpe’s landmark publication “Pinball!” and wondered aloud if the recent Pinball Magazine publication of Santiago Ciuffo’s book “Pinball” would serve as a companion piece to Sharpe’s book or run in a completely different direction. I’m happy to report, it does both.

The goods arrived from the Netherlands, packaged superbly in reinforced cardboard. The mail carriers would’ve had to work extra hard to inflict damage upon it. The cover price of €30.95 (plus shipping from Europe) is admittedly quite rich, but you are getting a professionally printed, tightly bound hardcover coffee table book in return. Typically, photography books such as this tend to skew on the expensive side, so perspective is everything here. If you have ordered an issue of Pinball Magazine from their site, you are already familiar with the costly cover price, but also the suburb product Jonathan Joosten and the Pinball Magazine staff have to offer. My hat is off to Mr. Joosten, for without his dedication to the project and securing the international rights to publish this book, it probably would not have seen the light of day outside its native Argentina. Packaged with Ciuffo’s book is a supplement under the Pinball Magazine banner that features an interview with the photographer (in 12 languages) and contains photos that are exclusive to the supplement and not found in the bound publication. As a bonus to early adopters, the first five hundred books ordered also include a set of ten postcards featuring exquisite photos from Ciuffo’s image bank. This postcard set is absolutely suitable for framing, as the quality is akin to something you’d find in a museum gift shop. My book came with a set of these postcards, so as of writing, we are still within the “first five hundred” quota.

Whereas Roger Sharpe and photographer James Hamilton presented pinball as a global phenomenon (and it needed to be presented that way, as nobody had bothered to organize the game in such a historical framework prior), Mr. Ciuffo presents pinball as a national phenomenon in his home country of Argentina. For North Americans, and many Europeans, this is a unique and fresh look at the game, both historically and culturally. Mr. Sharpe punctuated Mr. Hamilton’s photos with an outpouring of love for the game; Mr. Ciuffo lets his pictures do the majority of the talking. Other than a brief introduction and a few end notes, the book is packed with nearly 200 pages of incredible pinball photography.

The written word is not needed for the most part. The games themselves tell the story. I would surmise that the target audience of this book will already be familiar with the majority of the games photographed, which reduces the need for descriptions or footnotes. During the three language introduction, Mr. Ciuffo teases the reader by including black and white images of the games we love. Page after page is devoid of colour, until your visual sense is overwhelmed with the bright colours of a Bally bingo game called Variety. From there on out, the colours and visual textures of the machines in their natural environment are on full display. Many of the machines are worn, beaten or otherwise blown out. Other photographers would have balked at the chance to photograph a severely cracked and worn Gottlieb Charlie’s Angles backglass, but Mr. Ciuffo did not. To me, this is the book’s most gorgeous photo, and conveys, without words, the Argentinean aura of pinball that Mr. Ciuffo was trying to capture. In a hobby where collectors are obsessed with the terms “completely restored” and “collector’s quality”, it is refreshing to see that well-loved and well-used games are getting their due. Mr. Ciuffo would probably have a hard time tracking down expertly restored games to photograph on Argentinean soil (compared to their abundance in America), but something tells me that wasn’t what the photographer was after anyhow. There is also a fantastic photo of a completely blown out Stern Nine Ball playfield, worn to the wood, that is unrecognizable save for the mylar’d portions of paint in front of the vertical drop targets.

Most of the games photographed are from the 1960s through the early-1980s (historical factors are discussed in the intro to the book as to why these games are prevalent), with a few of the earlier bingo-style pin games thrown in for good measure. Late solid state games do make cameo appearances though–I spotted a Fish Tales, a Hurricane and a Lethal Weapon 3 in the background of some photos, but they are surely not the focus here. Half the fun is picking out the games lurking in the shadows, whether they be complete or in parts. Many photos capture the less-than-perfect machines in their natural Argentinean environment, packed into storage sheds or piled high in humid warehouses waiting for a former operator to part them out. The games are not the only focus, though. One fantastic two-page spread shows members of a Buenos Aires pinball club huddled around a topless Medieval Madness, talking repair strategy, while meat roasts on a nearby outdoor grill. This photo, in conjunction with the aforementioned Angels backglass and Nine Ball playfield, capture the current state of the hobby in Argentina–passion for the game fuelled by a kinship that exists between fellow collectors, while simultaneously existing within less than perfect, sometimes downright ugly, collecting conditions. We North Americans take a lot for granted, as these pictures portray, however pinball comradery appears to be universal (and is probably stronger under trying and challenging circumstances).

Hopefully this book is met with success. It really deserves it. And hopefully more books follow in the same vein. We have all seen these games before at shows or in our own private collections, but when was the last time you looked at, I mean really looked at, the playfield art of a Gottlieb Roller Disco? Mr. Ciuffo included a two-page spread of a detail close-up, with its almost blinding pinks, oranges and purples, and it highlights the absolute beauty of Gordon Morison’s original artwork. The success of this book will probably foretell the possibility of future projects, but this book really begs for other photographers to capture the games and players in their own nation, and create a pictorial history of their own country. I mean, how does a coffee table book of pinball photography, from special pinball events and notable private collections around the United States, not exist yet? Someone needs to quit their day job and get on this! Gene X. Hwang, are you reading this? Jonathan Joosten, can you please make it happen? However, it will not be an easy task, as Mr. Ciuffo has set the bar quite high under an optimal set of cultural circumstances. The photographer can be absolutely proud of what he has accomplished and bestowed upon the pinball community.

If you are still reading this, I believe it is time for you to head over to Pinball Magazine’s webstore site and order Santiago Ciuffo’s book for yourself…if you have the funds at your disposal. The price, again, is the only stumbling block, however, a project like this cannot be successful if done on the cheap. The book is museum quality, and the quality of the contents cannot be beat. Mr. Ciuffo’s book will be placed next to my copy of the Sharpe/Hamilton tome on my gameroom bookshelf–a higher honour cannot be bestowed. I will be taking it out frequently and letting my mind wander off to a musty, humid old Argentinean warehouse where an old man has Stern and Bally pins stacked to the rafters…

 

 


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FEATURE: Roger Sharpe’s “Pinball!”

I responded to an ad on Kijiji (the Canadian version of Craigslist) that advertised a “Pinball Machine” book. I clicked through the ad to find it was a copy of Roger Sharpe’s 1977 landmark coffee table book entitled “Pinball!” with photos by James Hamilton. The ad claimed the book came with the original dust jacket and that it was a first edition. Further, the ad went on to state that the book was signed by the author. Included was a photo of the inside end paper–scrawled in felt-tip pen it read “Best Wishes, Roger Sharpe”. The seller was asking $40. I immediately sent over a message and by Tuesday afternoon I had arranged a weekend pickup. Mr. Sharpe’s book is difficult to find on the secondary market, a signed first edition in good condition with dust jacket intact even more so. As an example, Amazon lists about five of them from their third-party sellers, and the cheapest one, which is also a signed first edition, will run you $250USD+$3.99USD shipping (this was on Amazon.ca. Quick! Amazon.com has one for $45.00USD+$3.99 shipping!). I have always wanted the book, however, I was not willing to pay the astronomical prices the book commands. I wasn’t looking forward to the Saturday morning drive to the other side of Toronto to pick it up, but I would have been silly to balk at the chance of owning it for $40CAD.

For someone like me, who admittedly is more comfortable talking about and working on games from the Solid State era, the contents of this book are foreign territory. Mr. Sharpe chronicles the emergence of pinball as a national pastime from its pre-war roots as modernized bagatelles, up to the colourful, noisy, non-licenced Electromechanical machines we recognize as a pinball machine. As stated in the introduction, the book was released in 1977, so the most recent games that are photographed are the Bally releases Captain Fantastic and Night Rider, however the text does briefly reference games that rode the crest of Solid State technology, like Evel Knievel and The Atarians. It is almost unbelievable that Sharpe chose this moment in time to release his book, as it bisects the EM and Solid State eras perfectly. Sharpe and Co. tie a bow around the manufacturing, playing, operating and legislating of pinball machines before the dawn of circuit boards and LCD displays.

Much of Mr. Sharpe’s writing early in the book is flowery and dramatic, which isn’t much my taste, but was probably influenced by the subject matter. I get it: he was trying to put feeling and emotion into the static workings of a mechanical machine. He is, in essence, trying to show that the machines are dynamic, almost alive when controlled by the player. Mr. Sharpe gets over-zealous in the text about playing a Bally Old Chicago, describing each ball in elaborate detail. This is a zeal that has waned and faded within the pinball community over the years, perhaps lost to a more jaded generation such as ours, who are now more focussed on resale values and the number of after-market mods in our prized machines. Some lines are very quotable, if not written specifically for entertainment value alone:

“Playing pinball is like making love: It demands the complete concentration and total emotional involvement of the player. Nothing else will do.”

Python Anghelo put that line of thought into circulation, but it looks as though Mr. Sharpe minted it in this book. I would disagree, however. I’m not totally sold on the similarities between sex and pinball. However, my wife may find a comparison between the two…given my reputation for “short ball times”…

A large part of the book is dedicated to chronicling the history of the game, which, now, can be taken for granted, as we can piece together our own history using various sources on the web. However, nothing of its kind would have been available in the 1970s and Mr. Sharpe’s documentation of pinball history and culture brought legitimacy to a pastime that had always been thought of as residing on the lowest rung of the cultural ladder, and thus, had its history discounted and ignored. Giants of the industry, Sam Stern, Harry Williams and David Gottlieb are given their due in hearty helpings. Mr. Sharpe gives little significance to his own efforts of helping break through the legislative barriers in New York City, which can now be viewed as an incredible pinball landmark. It’s a good thing that everyone who has since interviewed Sharpe has made him chronicle, in detail, the experience, thus we have an accurate play by play of what happened that day in April 1976. The book only provides only one photo of Mayor LaGuardia’s “public busting” of pinballs in 1941, which seems to be too few for such an important event.

But Mr. Sharpe paints a beautiful picture of the pingame back in 1977. Let these words wash over you:

“Pinball games are no longer relegated to rundown arcades and shabby taverns. Carpeted, well-lighted game rooms, college student unions, suburban shopping malls, airports, department stores, and a new generation of family amusement centers–these are the places where contemporary pinball wizards can be found.”

Ah, to live in a time where pinball seemed to exist everywhere. Currently, the shopping mall arcade is all but dead, and you’d be lucky to see a pinball machine worth dropping quarters into at a family amusement center anymore. One can argue that pinball has come full circle, and has reclaimed its original home in the “shabby tavern”, which is now affectionately dubbed the “dive bar”.

Mr. Sharpe’s apparent vision for the book was that of situating pinball as a global phenomenon and he does so with panache. We are treated to gorgeous photos of long extinct bars, coffee houses and arcades from across Europe by photographer James Hamilton, each photo expertly capturing a slice of pinball life. Sharpe’s text adopts long-standing stereotypes of European countries and applies them to pinball culture. Sharpe paints a picture of the “rigid”, community-oriented German, the emotional “individualist” Italian, the “subdued” and “loyal” Brit and the “cool and detached” Frenchman. The Spaniards are given particular attention for their love of fast games with a steep pitch and their outright government-imposed ban of American-made machines. Both of these factors led to the Spanish re-working American machines to their own liking and adopting a prolific pinball manufacturing industry of their own. Sharpe couldn’t resist referencing stereotypical Spanish swordplay to punctuate the section:

“The players seem to slash at the speeding ball, like swordsman duelling with a deadly opponent.”

The book is also ahead of the curve in many instances. Mr. Sharpe references the machines as “work(s) of art”, at a time when they were pegged as little more than money-making amusement machines. There is also the “bold” proclamation that the arrival of video games and Solid State technology would change the face of the pinball forever, and I think we can all agree that it did, and to an extent that eclipsed what Mr. Sharpe had in mind. He then calls for a pinball “olympiad” where all the great players would converge and compete–an objective that Mr. Sharpe would later help establish through the creation of the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA), which in turn would pave the way for competition-based organizations such as the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA). Further, Mr. Sharpe dedicates space to describing how someone would go about examining and buying a game for use in a home environment. I’m not sure if Mr. Sharpe foresaw the movement, en masse, of pinball machines into basements across North America nearly four decades later, but he foreshadowed it quite nicely. Sharpe’s advice for buying a machine remains eerily true for the modern-day buyer:

“If you are thinking of buying a pinball game for your own home or apartment, however, be careful–especially if you are not dealing with an established firm […]. Examine the machine thoroughly before you buy it. Try it out. Then try it again. If there are problems, find out how they can be fixed, and ask whether the game is guaranteed or not. Service is important, too. […] Your choice of games is of course a personal decision, but I recommend picking a machine that will continue to be challenging and exciting every time it’s played.”

It’s as if Mr. Sharp was warning buyers about deceptive sellers decades before Craigslist even existed, and concludes by suggesting the buyer select a “deep” game long before the term “deep” became an overused buzzword in this community.

The book, as a whole, has worth in both its word and its photographs. It is a snapshot of a snapshot of history: we can look back upon how Mr. Sharpe looked back upon pinball. Sadly, Mr. Sharpe has not revisited the coffee table book format to bring the story of pinball into the Solid State era and beyond. The idea of a follow-up book is another popular question Sharpe has to field in nearly every interview. His answer is, most often, that it would be a immense undertaking to execute correctly, an undertaking that he cannot tackle at this time in his life. This is a man who has worked hard in the industry for countless years, and I’m sure he’d like nothing more than to rest, play pinball and enjoy the company of his grandchildren, rather than trek across the world compiling information for another book. In any case, it’s a different time now. If the pinball revival hits full stride and the machines become front and centre in popular culture once again, Mr. Sharpe (or perhaps his sons, Josh or Zack) may be able to capture the spirit of the original book. Otherwise, he’d be writing about, and photographing private basement arcades across North America, which is not the overall vibe Pinball! attempted to capture. (I believe there is a market for a picture book about private pinball arcades though…a huge untapped market.) Until such a time when Mr. Sharpe decides to put pen to paper again, we will have to make due with the similarly titled book “Pinball” by Argentinean photographer Santiago Ciuffo. My copy is in the mail, and I’m excited to see how his book stacks up against Mr. Sharpe’s beautifully crafted love letter to the game we all know and enjoy.


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FEATURE: Stumbling into Solid State! Gottlieb System 1

Who among us has a deep appreciation for Gottlieb System 1 games? I mean, a real appreciation. A basement full of appreciation. Countless are the collectors who have a wide assortment of early Stern games, and I can name a few people in my circle of collectors who pride themselves on having multiple examples of Gottlieb wedgehead EMs amongst their prized pinball possessions. But where are all the Gottleib System 1s? The same could be asked about System 1’s big brother, the Gottlieb System 80, but with a strong representation from Black Hole and Haunted House in that operating system, their numbers are more robust and examples easier to find. The System 1 was trouble from its inception, and the Gottlieb Co. did itself no favours along the way to alleviate it. Once a mighty giant of the industry, the System 1 experiment was the first move in a convoluted series of events that knocked Gottlieb from its throne, and ultimately began its long, slow demise. History has not been kind to the System 1 platform, and those difficulties only quantified as time marched forward, and pinball machines marched from the confines of the arcade to the privacy of our homes.


With competition being fierce in the silver (maybe bronze?) age of pinball of the late 1970s, it is almost unfathomable that Gottlieb wholly fumbled the ball the way it did. History tells us that Gottlieb had issues in-house creating their own Solid State operating system, whereas the transition was much more seamless for competitors Bally and Stern, who, to make matters worse, “teamed up” to use common technology and parts. Gottlieb eventually contracted out the Solid State platform creation to an outside firm, which would completely handcuff Gottlieb–certainly more so than if the system was created by one of their own inside the friendly confines of the Chicago factory. It added more steps to the overall creation process and would inevitably cost the company more in the long run. Not to mention you would have to work on someone else’s schedule instead of being able to tighten the screws on your own in-house crew.

The System 1 boardset was designed in such a way that there were a finite number of board driven devices that were able to be included in the game. Thus, Gottlieb games from this era seem somewhat lacking in unique features and designers had a hefty challenge on their hands to work within in the limitations of the computer’s controlling ability. Transistors had to be mounted to the underside of the playfield to control any extra features that could not be controlled by the drivers.

Another downfall, not tech related, would be the lack of licencing. Bally had the likes of Ann Margaret, Elton John, Bobby Orr, Evel Kinevel and the Six Million Dollar Man as a part of their pinball stable before Gottlieb even began to venture into viable licences. Their early System 1 games harken back to popular wedgehead themes that were recycled ad nauseam—generic sports, historical time periods, card games, and sci-fi absurdity. Moving forward into the 1980s, Bally kept it current and cool with the Harlem Globetrotters and the Rolling Stones, while Gottlieb used limited licencing, choosing to continue the EM tradition.  Thus, we were met with futuristic bucking broncos and girls with big hips in joker costumes.

To complicate issues, Gottlieb’s foray into Solid State coincided with their buy-out by the Columbia Pictures corporation. I’m sure the merger with the massive entertainment corporation based on opposite ends of the country (New York and LA–Chicago left in no-man’s land in the middle) only furthered Gottlieb’s lack of direction and corner cutting approach to building machines. It speaks volumes that the once iconic Gottlieb logo was slowly swallowed up by the image of the Columbia “rising torch”. It boggles my mind that Columbia, rich in potential music, television and film licences, waited as long as they did to push crossover licences onto Gottlieb pinball machines.  When they eventually did, it was nowhere the pace set by Bally. The bottom line here is that Gottlieb now had to march in line with a coastal, multi-faceted, entertainment-driven corporate agenda, rather than a corporate family philosophy that had been previously driven by one thing: making a profit by building great pinball machines.

Back on the tech side of things, Bally was able to go tits out and do a complete switch to a computerized operating system, whereas Gottlieb System 1s were a motley mix of both new Solid State technology and antiquated Electromechanical mechanisms (the best example of this would be the non-computer controlled, EM-style, switch-driven pop bumpers). Heck, Gottlieb was still towing the EM line a few games into SS production by making EM versions of the first five solid state games–Cleopatra, Sinbad, Joker Poker, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Dragon–albeit in limited numbers.  Perhaps this was done to burn off old stock, but more likely it was done to appease stubborn operators who refused to accept the half-assed System 1 OS. This should be another hint that Gottlieb was not fully confident in their Solid State operating system, even though the above mentioned games did sell well (9,000 games on average for that run of five).

There is certainly a leftover wedgehead “vibe” to these early System 1 games and for that reason you’d think they would be more popular with collectors as Gottlieb wedgeheads are top of the heap when it comes to Electromechanical style and substance. However, collectors and techs alike seem to steer away from this era of Solid State game due to various technical and mechanical issues that include, but are not limited to: 1) a hellish CPU mounted, fixed battery, that if not removed will obviously corrode and deteriorate the board and connections, 2) edge connectors, that are probably the only connection style more unreliable than the Williams IDC that everyone gripes about, 3) the nearly non-existent and difficult to navigate self test procedures, 4) grounding issues that were present right out of the factory, 5) availability of parts, and 6) cost of replacement parts.

I mention those last two as general umbrella “issues”. These machines, when restored, really have to be done for a love of the game, not for profit. Repair difficulty and tracking down pricy replacement parts make restoring a System 1 machine for resale (or a “I’ll get my money back if/when I sell it” scenario) absolutely cost prohibitive. If you are relying on the services of a pinball technician, this is one case where you should believe the tech when he says “The repairs are going to cost more than the machine is worth”. These games were released to the public in large numbers, by today’s standards, however you have to assume most found their way into the dumpster or scrap parts bin given the issues the system had.

I say “large numbers” above, but it is all relative…Gottlieb System 1 production numbers could be dismissed as minuscule compared to the massive production runs of Williams games from the same era. Gorgar, Flash, Black Knight and Firepower all eclipsed the 14,000 unit mark individually. Gottlieb released an impressive number of different titles per year (five in 1978, six in 1979) with respectable production runs, whereas Willaims seemed to craft one big hit (more often than not it was Steve Ritchie doing the crafting) and built it in prolific numbers…on a more reliable operating system at that. You can kind of follow the numbers here, and see how Williams carried pinball into the 1980s and 1990s while Gottlieb limped to their eventual demise. There seems to be an endless supply of Flash and Firepower units on Craigslist…the same cannot be said about Count-Down or Solar Ride. Operators perhaps didn’t have the patience or parts to prepare the Gottlieb games for the home market when their days of earning were through.

Now, however, there are options if you do wish to bring one of these games back to life. Steve Young at Pinball Resource will be a collector’s best friend if a complete restoration is what you wish to achieve, as he stocks unique signature items and other Gottlieb parts you will almost certainly need and won’t find anywhere else. However, Mr. Young’s antiquated octo-step payment system is a pain in the rear to traverse. New customers may be overwhelmed by the old school business practices, and would perhaps benefit by tagging their items onto orders of repeat customers. It is certainly not a click checkout/pay with PayPal scenario.

The entire System 1 boardset is readily available from aftermarket manufacturers like Rottendog and Ni-Wumpf, so you are covered if any backbox component is damaged beyond repair (at the applicable price, of course). A saviour for the entire System 1 OS has been around for a few years now, and his name is Pascal Janin. He has engineered his own version of System 1 replacement boards (and also System 80/80a/80b boards) that are more robust and reliable than the originals. They are affectionately known as “Pascal Boards”, after their creator, and are available directly from Janin’s FLIPPP! organization. The site claims that FLIPPP! makes no profit (!) from the sale of these boards, and that, quote, “Our only pleasure is to see games working back [sic] instead of being trashed because of no suitable boards”. Any one of Pascal’s System 1 boards will serve the complete line of System 1 games, as all information from the series of pinballs has been encapsulated into one board and is accessible through DIP switch settings. Janin also offers an all-in-one board option that replaces ALL backbox components (a combined CPU/Power Supply/Driver Board/Sound Board…fewer edge connectors! Pictured left.) However, it will set you back 235 Euro (that’s approximately $320USD at the time of writing) plus shipping from the EU. Individual boards are also available. To take the project a step further, Janin and Co. have programmed new rules for most of the games, including skill shots and general fixes for game exploits, giving these sometimes one dimensional games a breath of fresh air. All of these new rules can be toggled on and off with the flick of a DIP switch.

Just as Janin has designed not-for-profit boards for the troubled operating system in the interest of saving games, our friend Clay Harrell also seems bent on providing as much assistance as he can to collectors in order to save System 1 games from the scrap heap. As most will be aware, the majority of Clay’s repair guides for the more popular operating systems are not officially available from Clay himself and those that have been mirrored on the web are sorely incomplete. However, the System 1 repair guide is one of the last remaining complete guides available directly from Clay in an official capacity, and he has also posted a handful of YouTube videos showing oddities and helpful tips when working on the system. The main takeaway from the videos is that the games, while being generally shoddy in construction, are not any more difficult to fix than other Solid State games of the era…given the proper instruction.

I would not mind taking a crack at restoring one of these games myself, however their reputation of being bottomless money pits, accompanied by countless stories of collectors chasing ghosts in their machines, have me a bit worried, much like the majority of the collecting community. One overall saving grace is that the art on these games is superb. They are absolutely stunning to behold, as I stated when I reviewed a System 1 game, Cleopatra, earlier in the month. I think Totem holds claim to having one of the greatest art packages of this period, and even though Gottlieb was quite late to the party in the licencing arena, licences don’t get much better, for me, than Charlie’s Angles (even without Farrah). Sure Williams was doing volume during this era, but their art could not match that of Gottlieb workhorse Gordon Morison.  I was able to pick up a pair of “heavily enjoyed” System 1 playfields in Allentown, the aforementioned Totem and Charlie’s Angels…maybe I’ll just stick with cleaning those up and hanging them on my wall, rather than committing to the restoration of a machine that may be more trouble than its worth.

At the 2014 Allentown show, there were quite a few System 1 games on the free-play floor–Cleopatra, Pinball Pool avec Pascal Board, Buck Rogers,etc.  However, there were countless more outside in the flea market area in various states of disrepair, begging to be restored. Finding someone with the knowhow, patience and deep pockets to take on these games is a different story. Bless those that have tried to make the System 1 games more easy to work with through aftermarket parts production and detailed repair information, and let us not forget those that have rescued these games from the scrapheap–it is truly a labour of love for a series of Gottlieb pinballs that seemed to be doomed for failure from the very beginning.

Gottlieb System 1 Games (Year, Units Produced): Cleopatra (1977, 7,300), Sinbad (1978, 12,950), Joker Poker (1978, 9,280), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978, 9,950), Dragon (1978, 6,550), Charlie’s Angles (1978,7.950), Solar Ride (1979, 8,800), Count-Down (1979, 9,899), Pinball Pool (1979, 7,200), The Incredible Hulk (1979, 6,150), Totem (1979, 6,643), Genie (1979, 6,800), Buck Rogers (1980, 7,410), Roller Disco (1980, 2,400), Torch (1980, 3,880), Asteroid Annie and the Aliens (1980, 211).

Further Reading:

FLIPPP! – Pascal Board homepage
Pinrepair.com – Gottlieb System 1 Pinball Repair
Pinball Repair on YouTube – System 1 Oddities
Pinball Repair on YouTube – System 1 First Time Power-on Procedure
Rottendog – Product Homepage
Ni-Wumph – Homepage
Pinside – Home for the Gottlieb SYS1-SYS80B guys, Yep it’s a club