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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Solar City’s ten-target bank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Featured Game: Gottlieb’s CHARLIE’S ANGELS

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It can be said that nearly all of the early Gottlieb solid state machines were an exercise in form over function. We’ve spoken a lot about the perils of Gottlieb’s System 1 boardset here on Credit Dot–I dedicated an entire article to Gottlieb’s fall from atop the pinball mountain once solid state technology became the industry norm. I don’t know why, but I have a soft spot for these rudimentary, simplistic, one-dimensional games that Gottlieb put out between 1977 and 1980. Where the gameplay is lacking, the art package more than makes up for it. Charlie’s Angels is a curious case: the art package is up there with the best of the period and it tried to do adopt some pretty elaborate rules (bucking the simplistic limitations of the hardware), but is generally regarded as a ho-hum forgettable Gottlieb offering.

00-charl04By 1977, Columbia Pictures had taken over Gottlieb lock, stock and barrel. The studio giant wanted to diversify its global brand into other forms of entertainment–they already had their hands in music and television, so the arcade was the next logical place to claim dominance. On paper it was a slam dunk: they absorbed a company that was at the very top of its game, nearly unrivalled for pinball supremacy in the early-1970s. Who knew that Gottlieb’s industry supremacy would grind to a halt once the solid state era was ushered in. You can play the blame game here all you want–Columbia mismanagement, uninspired game design, unreliable parts–but I think it was a perfect storm of many factors at Gottlieb paired with the performance of their pinball contemporaries.

One of the early game-changers actually pre-dates the solid state era. Wizard! and Capt. Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy by Bally, in 1975 and 1976 respectively, introduced the idea of the licenced theme to pinball. No longer would a company have to rely on a card game or billiards to sell a machine to an audience, they used celebrities and well known film and television series.  Comfort for the pinball player now came from familiar faces, not familiar rules of popular past-times. Bally was quick to strike over the next few years as solid state technology hit its stride, licencing the images of the Six Million Dollar Man, Bobby Orr, Kiss, Dolly Parton, the Rolling Stones, Evel Knievel, Star Trek, and Hugh Hefner just to name a few. During this same period, Gottlieb licenced just five of their System 1 titles, despite being intimately connected to the film, music and television industry through their parent Columbia Pictures. For better or worse, I don’t know how Gottlieb resisted slapping an image of a Columbia property on each and every one of their games to make up for design and ruleset deficiencies.  [Ed. Note- Those five licenced System 1 games were: Sinbad, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Charlie’s Angels, Buck Rogers and the Incredible Hulk]

Charlie’s Angels did have an image slapped on it, almost literally.  The show had a connection to Columbia’s television arm, and was probably an easy acquisition on the licencing front.  I know the licences during this era seem pretty arbitrary to gameplay–one licence could be interchanged with the next with little to no alteration of the game itself. This was a time when fancy toys, like, say, Dr. Who’s Time Expander or Demolition Man’s Cryo-Claw, were not designed specifically for the licence. The Charlie’s Angels licence seems especially disconnected from the gameplay, and there may be a reason for that. In an interview with PA Pinball, game designer Allen Edwall had this to say about Charlie’s Angels:

“[Charlie’s Angels] evolved from a test design that helped verify the solid-state electronics, then to trying out all kinds of features, like dumping final scores to a teletype machine, allowing players in a multi-player game to tilt out or subtract score from other players, as well as many other innovations, most of which did not make it to the final commercial games because of the fact that customers paid to play. Tilting out another player probably would not have worked for the paying public.”

Reading between the lines, we see the reason for the disconnect on Charlie’s Angels: it was a test design for System 1 games to see how the solid state operating system would perform. Charlie’s Angels was released in November of 1978, a month before Gottlieb released both Dragon and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If I had to guess, I’d say that the licence for Charlie’s Angels crossed someone’s desk, and it was quickly paired up with Edwall’s test design to get it out onto the street as soon as possible. If, say, the art package for Dragon was paired with the test design, perhaps it may not have fared as well. However, pair it with the images of everyone’s favourite female crime fighting trio and the cumbersome layout stood a fighting chance at holding the customer’s attention.

They made an absolute ton of these games, nearly 8,000 units, which sounds impressive, but puts it at the middle of the pack numbers-wise of all System 1 games.  Despite the high production run, Charlie’s Angels isn’t a game that is seen all that often in private collections or retro arcades: one can guess that many of these games found their way to the junkyard after their arcade runs, due to their operating system unreliability (one can draw the same conclusion for the low survival rate of many of the Gottlieb System 1 titles).  An electromechanical version of the game was also release in far fewer numbers, 350 units, to appease operators weary of changing over to solid state technology (many of these skeptical ops were European buyers).

Good morning, Angels...

Good morning, Angels…

The game would have first hit arcades during the Angels’ third season. The backglass features Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd, who were the Angels du jour at the time of production. The most iconic angel, Farrah Fawcett, had left the show after the first season to pursue other ventures (resulting in a messy contract dispute), which explains her absence.  Any casual consumer of popular culture would surely name Ms. Fawcett if asked to name an actress on the show, despite her appearance in only about one-fifth of the total Angels episodes produced.  Fawcett did return to the show during this third season for guest spots in a handful of episodes which bolstered ratings slightly, but overall, it was the season that marked the end of the show’s cultural relevance. Time slots changes and a revolving door of actresses in “Angel” lead roles didn’t help matters. The property was red hot in its first season with Fawcett on the payroll, and perhaps Fawcett’s absence from the pinball machine’s art package is why this machine isn’t more sought after in the collecting community.

The oranges, purples and yellows on this machine just pop and will make it stand out in any lineup of games. It is kind of disappointing that artist Gordon Morison wasn’t given more leeway with the licence—the actresses that portray the Angels appear only once on the mirrored backglass, and then just once more on the playfield, depicting the very same pose that appears on the glass. There were some disconnected choices for the playfield art: a dancing red-headed girl, a cartoon policeman and a blonde in a purple leotard flinging a man by his arm into the upper pop bumper. None of these people bear any striking resemblance to characters in the show, unless that cop is supposed to be an undercover Bosley. The playfield is busy with colour (that’s a good thing) with pinks, oranges and blues on a yellow background. Arrows point in nearly every direction indicating rule and scoring changes, but Mr. Morison  does his best to organize it in such a way that it doesn’t seem cluttered. I am a fan of the curl of smoke that arcs under the Angels as a 70s muscle car peels away behind the five-bank of drop targets. Gordon Morison is at the top of his game here, using flash, dazzle and colour to draw attention away from the fact that there is little to tie the licence to the game other than a heavy reliance on the iconic Angel outline.

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And then there’s gameplay. The game has a quirky set of rules that may have been deep for the time, but overall, end up bogging the game down. Whereas System 1 cousins Cleopatra and Totem have a clear objective to achieve (lighting all five coloured pairs in the former, and lighting the drop targets via the rollovers in the latter), Charlie’s Angels really doesn’t have a readily apparent objective past bashing drop targets. Like many other games in the System 1 family, points boil down to the bonus and its multipliers. If there is a chase in the ruleset, it comes from tracking down the multipliers, and it takes a pretty good memory to do so. The multiplier will advance by completing the 5-target bank or completing the C-H-I-C rollovers (the C’s are connected, roll one C and you get both). Further, if 2X is lit, you can collect a multiplier at the stand-up bulls-eye on the lower right. If 3X is lit, you can collect a multiplier at the first target in the 5-target bank. If 4X is lit, you can collect a multiplier at the first target in the 3-target bank on the right. Got all that? Good.  See if you can follow me on how the rollovers work. Further to advancing bonus, the letters H and I will reset the 3-target bank and increase their value to 5,000 points each. If you can roll over H when your bonus ladder is full, it’ll light the 3-target bank for an extra ball (yeah, you gotta knock them all down to collect).  As you can see, this right bank of targets is pretty important. Star rollover buttons down the side of the game are connected to the downed targets in the 5-target bank, lighting each for 1,000, which is a decent payday for a rollover button. I said above, artist Morison organizes the writing on the playfield in a way that it doesn’t seem visually cluttered, however, the sheer amount of ruleset verbiage on the playfield is confusing. What isn’t written on the playfield spills over onto the apron card with more “If-Then” rules.

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The dead space alleyway between the upper rail and the 5-target bank. Balls funnel out from rollovers, but cannot be shot back up thru them.

The game has a kicker arm on the bottom right by the dancing ginger bikini girl, and another up top just to the left of the Angels. This upper left kicker is a spot of trouble with indirect hits and dribbling balls, as it likes to send the ball careening toward the right outlane. The slow dribbler happens often in this area as there is a channel between the 5-target bank and the upper rail which is fed by the C and H rollovers. This channel has always concerned me, as seems out of place as a dead zone. I was troubled that I could never get the ball up into the area with enough force and accuracy to get it up and into the rollovers from the bottom right flipper. In all honesty, I thought I had re-assembled my game wrong after tearing it down. I have come to the realization that it is more of a one way ball exit from the rollovers, and it takes a lucky shot to get it up through a rollover lane from the bottom: I’ve only done it once. It is a bit of a wasted space, but at least it randomizes the ball movement after exits the CHIC lanes: pop bumpers normally do that, but Charlie’s Angels has just one pop under the lanes. The other pop resides lower down on the playfield, dangerously close to the flippers. This pop, like the upper kicker, likes to send the ball over to that troublesome right outlane.

If nothing else, the game can be commended for its asymmetrical layout, which is a nice contrast to the symmetrical layouts of other Gottlieb games of the era like Cleopatra and Pinball Pool.  Angels game designer Allen Edwall is an odd figure in pinball history.  He designed Centigrade 37, which, for many, represents the high water mark of late electromechanical game design, but if you look at his resume, he was mostly in charge of Gottlieb’s solid state hardware design and software development.  That explains his less than prolific run as a designer: he had plenty of other duties in his job description.  Centigrade 37 was his first game, and I think we can agree, looking at the other games he designed, he wouldn’t have a hand in designing another game that matched the timeless popularity of his first.  Charlie’s Angels downfall may be that a “computer guy” was in charge of the design.  The game suffers, in spite of trying for a cumbersome and esoteric set of “If-Then” rules that tested the bounds of the early solid state system. In this day and age, folks call a cumbersome set of rules on a game “deep”. However, on early games like this one, that have to rely on the written word to explain what’s going on, it just gets really confusing. Compare the amount of playfield text on Charlie’s Angels to that of Joker Poker. Joker Poker has far less explaining to do, due to a more straightforward set of rules. Joker Poker is seen as the superior game because it uses its layout to keep the player engrossed, not a jumbled set of “If-Then” rules. Perhaps Charlie’s Angels was supposed to be a showcase of what the System 1 hardware and software was capable of through an intricate set of “When Lit” inserts, but I think it kind of backfired, making for a game that devolved into ignoring all the rules and simply hammering on the drop targets.

As I mentioned, I have one of these games in my collection (for the moment). It arrived at my home in quite a frightful state, having been neglected in a barn or other type of out-building for many years. The boards were dead on arrival: corrosion and burnt transistors had taken their toll. With some tender loving care, a playfield touch-up and clear coat, backglass preservation, connector re-pinning, replacement parts from the Pinball Resource and a PI1x4 board from Pascal Janin, the game now looks and plays great (well, it looks better than it plays, given the discussion above). The Pascal PI1X4 board, which replaces all three System 1 backbox PCBs and the rudimentary cabinet sound board, is a superbly-designed compact board.  In retrospect, it was a pricy addition to a game that doesn’t command that much money on the pinball market, but it certainly brought new life to a game that needed it and I picked up the game for quite a steal. The Pascal board adds extra rules to some of games in the System 1 family, but the additions to Charlie’s Angels are negligible: a roll-over skill shot and an extra ball re-light. Given the often questionable constancy of the System 1 boards, it is nice to have the extra assurance of stability that the PI1x4 provides. A refresh of the side cabinet art was also needed on the game, as the purple Angels had faded to a pathetic grey. I cut my own stencil, accounted for the trademark “Gottlieb overspray”, found a suitable colour match in a rattle can and brought the art back to life. I also went ahead and bypassed the PI1x4 sound components, which accurately mimic the early System 1 “bloops” and “bleeps”, opting to install a set of authentic Gottlieb chimes. The process was extremely simple, and the sound of those chimes really works to make the gameplay more appealing.

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From the FLIPPP! website: the amazing PI1x4 board that replaces all three backbox boards and the cabinet sound board. Less interconnect wires mean better stability. Better stability means less headaches!

I’m unsure whether Charlie’s Angels will have legs in my collection. I think sheer pride in the fact that I brought the game back to life is keeping it around for the time being. If I had unlimited funds and space, which at the current time I have neither, I’d like to obtain a Bally Six Million Dollar Man machine to install beside the Angels and create the ultimate pinball shrine to 1970s hour-long, action drama television (there’s a bit of history there too, missing pinball Angel Farrah Fawcett was once married to Lee Majors, the Bionic Man himself). You can’t expect the world from a System 1 game as, admittedly, it was a transition period in the business.  The cumbersome rules gave a bit more, but perhaps a bit more simplicity would have been in order.  In essence, I’m asking for more and less all at the same time.  Certainly the rules betrayed the game, and the layout did nothing to make up for its confusing faults. If Joker Poker represents the high water mark of System 1 games, Charlie’s Angels may very well bring up the rear.

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Many thanks to my beautiful wife for talking pictures of the Angels machine. You would have got some dumpy cell phone pictures otherwise. Also, I highly recommend reading PA Pinball’s interview with Charlie’s Angels designer Allen Edwall (I quoted from this interview in the article).  It provides a lot of insight as to what was going on at Gottlieb during the System 1 days from Edwall’s perspective.  It is a designer’s perspective that hasn’t been canonized in pinball history, and therefore, a valuable one.

Further Reading:

PA Pinball – An Interview with Allen Edwall
FLIPPP! Pinball (Pascal Janin) – PI1x4 All In One Board for Gottlieb System 1 Pinballs
IPDB.org – Charlie’s Angels
Pinside – Charlie’s Angels
Pinrepair.com – Gottlieb System 1 Pinball Repair


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FEATURED GAME: Williams ROLLERGAMES

While researching where my games appeared within the Pinside Top 100/200/300 list, I was absolutely shocked to see that Rollergames was ranked #172 out of three hundred ranked games, which places it, solidly, in the bottom fifty percent, behind games such as Class of 1812, Grand Lizard, Bad Cats and Al’s Garage Band Goes on a World Tour. The Pinside Top 100 is not an exact science, but it does properly reflect the attitudes of players and collectors towards specific titles. Is anyone else surprised by this ranking? Am I blinded by the fact that I own the game and enjoy it thoroughly? Perhaps I’m doubly blinded because I was one of the twelve people that actually watched the Rollergames television show when it was first broadcast. But really, even the simple fact that the game was designed by Steve Ritchie should push it higher in the rankings than it currently resides, given the community’s wild devotion to anything Mr. Ritchie has a hand in. And how has the recent resurgence of the roller derby amongst the hipster crowd not helped push this game higher?  Its time to take a look, albeit a biased look, at Williams Rollergames.

Both Mr. Ritchie and Roger Sharpe have spoke of this game as a cautionary tale of licencing gone wrong. As the story goes, Mr. Sharpe had the option of picking up the licence for either American Gladiators or Rollergames when both shows premiered in 1989. Both seemed to take a cue from WWF wrestling, which was riding a wave of popularity with male audiences of all ages. Like WWF programming, American Gladiators and Rollergames were syndicated hour-long shows that filled the void on Saturday afternoons, between morning cartoons and dinnertime. The shows relied on muscle, speed, agility, intense competition and spandex costumes all set within an arena setting. Why Williams didn’t just licence the WWF for a game–the company that perfected this type of programming to begin with–is beyond me. Mr. Sharpe untimately went with Rollergames, and claims it was because he viewed the roller derby was a timeless American pseudo-sport due for a resurgence. He was right about it being an American institution–it has its roots as a competition sport all the way back to the 1920s and was an almost permanent fixture, alongside wrestling, on American television beginning in the 1950s. The derby’s popularity had waned as the 1980s rolled around, but Mr. Sharpe was betting that the resurgence of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation would pull the sport up by its skate-straps and back into the mainstream. It didn’t. Rollergames lasted only one season on American television, whereas the original incarnation of the American Gladiators enjoyed an eight year syndicated run and a host of merchandising opportunities that included action figures, lunch boxes and workout videos. Rollergames hangs its hazy legacy on a Konami arcade game and this Williams pinball machine.

The Rollergames figure eight track. Courtesy of rollerderby.be

The Rollergames television show hasn’t aged well, containing heaps of 90s style with very, very little substance to back it up. Each episode featured a roller derby match between two teams, taped in front of a live audience at the Super Roller Dome under the banner of WAR (World Alliance of Rollersports). The six teams were clearly divided between good and evil–the fan favourites being the LA Thunderbirds, the Rockers and the Hot Flash, and the heels consisting of the Violators, Bad Attitude and the Maniacs. Each team had both male and female membership, and each gender would compete against each other in a series of “jams”. Teams competed on a figure eight shaped track with one end being smaller and elevated. This style track is more common in the staged-for-teleivison derby, and differs from the oval flat-track more commonly used in the current derby resurgence. The raised end of the figure eight is known as “The Wall”, and two designated players, which Rollergames called “jetters”, hurl their bodies into the fourteen-foot ramp hoping for as much height as possible to score maximum points. A small ramp jump coming out of the Wall area scores more points and puts the jetters back into the round with the rest of the players. Passing players of the opposite team in the round scores even more points.

Gimmicks for the players were almost mandatory to keep up with McMahon’s WWF: skaters were assigned nicknames like “The California Kid” and “Ice Box” and given finishing moves just like their wrestling brethren. Each team came complete with a manager, that either followed the rules or completely ignored them,

A member of the T-Birds hits the pit.

depending on the moral alliance of their team. The most ubiquitous manager had to be Skull, whose bald head and bearded visage graces the middle of the Rollergames playfield. Other “stars” of the figure eight track included the T-Bird twins, Jennifer and Kristine Van Galder, and “Stars and Stripes” Matt Bickham, all of whom are featured on the backglass of the pinball machine. Returning to the rules of Rollergames, ties after regulation time were decided via Sudden Death, featuring, get this, four live alligators. The gators would be paraded out, placed into “The Pit”, and to win the overtime bout, one team would have to throw a member of the opposite team into said pit. This, mixed with sporadic musical appearances by Warrant and Lita Ford, made for a show that SHOULD have been a hit…but sadly, was not. The production folded before the pinball machine prototypes were even released to test markets.

The game was released by Williams in June of 1990, sandwiched between the release of Whirl Wind and Diner, and ran on the System 11C boardset. Steve Ritchie headed up the design and it is another one of those Ritchie themes that oozes physicality, toughness and speed. The integration of the Rollergames theme into the mechanics of the pinball machine is absolutely fantastic. The aforementioned “Wall” and “Pit” features of the show make an appearance in the machine: the Wall is the side ramp and the Pit is a saucer with vertical up-kicker (VUK). Both of these features rely heavily on the upper right flipper. This flipper is used to send the ball up the Wall ramp, while the Pit kicker will propel the ball to a magnet (via wireform), which will grab the ball and perfectly tee up a shot up the Wall ramp. Once up the Wall ramp, the ball will be returned to one of the flippers via wireforms (which flipper depends on the velocity of the ball), or locked in a physical lock over the shooter lane if lock is lit. Lighting lock is simple: shoot for the bank of drop targets that say “MULTI-BALL” on them. Knock the entire bank down three times, lock three balls, and you get three-ball multiball with the jackpot shot being up the wall ramp. Locked balls carry over from game to game, which also means locked ball stealing in multi-player games is in full effect.  A neat programming feature will fire locked balls around the wireform and back into the physical lock during gameplay, which can be really confusing for the uninitiated.  At random intervals, about once per game depending on game length, a call-out states “It’s Sudden Death, go for the Wall!”. Each wall shot bags you a million points. The Pit magnet is lit constantly during Sudden Death (sadly, with no alligator imagery) so you can tee up shots for the Wall ramp jackpot with ease…but only if you can consistently shoot the Pit. During regular play, the magnet is lit at the start of the game. Remember to listen to the game, it will instruct you: “Don’t Flip…” when the VUK is firing the ball over to the magnet, and “…..FLIP!” when the magnet has caught the ball and the shot is teed up. Game settings can be adjusted to re-light the magnet with each new ball in play. The Pit also awards “RollerMotion” when lit, which is a series of random awards. The orbits are lit at the in-lanes for five seconds. Each orbit shot, after being lit, awards a Rollergames team. Lighting all six teams lights an extra ball, collected at a tight shot up beside the pop bumpers.

This game is classic Steve Ritchie, and by “classic Steve Ritchie” I mean that its basically a kicked up copy of High Speed. A cross-playfield shot from the plunger, banks of targets that sit perpendicular to the player, a left side kickback, a right hand side upper flipper, a side ramp that feeds back to either flipper, a “hideout” physical ball lock, and fast flowing orbits–the similarities between Rollergames and High Speed should be pretty obvious to the trained eye. Their flow and speed are pretty similar, however Rollergames plays a bit easier given that the magnet tees up shots up the side ramp and requires absolutely no skill to complete (beyond listening for the game to tell you when to “FLIP!”). High Speed also sets up shots for the upper flipper using a saucer with a side kick out, but skill and timing on the part of the player is still required to put the ball where it needs to go.

The Pat McMahon art package is absolutely stunning, and as I mentioned before, very true to the iconography of the television show. Many write the art off as “cheesy”, but it’s a product of its time, and it captures the nuances of the period nicely. The red girders that were omni-present in the Roller Dome are everywhere from the speaker panel to the physical ball lock to the playfield itself. The incorporation of the “characters” from the show in the package is great as well, and having Skull, with his trademark aviator shades and bullwhip, pointing to the magnet on the playfield is a nice touch. The television show was heavy on in-program advertising and it is a trend that continues in the pinball machine, with the logos of Pepsi, Mug Root Beer, Slice, ShareData, Thermos and GamePro Magazine appearing on the speaker panel and on the playfield. It’s a double edged sword: their appearance, while fascinating to see such commercial integration on a machine from this era, guarantees that Classic Playfield Reproductions, or any other source, will not be able to make reproduction playfields, as they would need to pay licencing fees to each of the entities that have logos present (with three of them belonging to PepsiCo). In true 1990s fashion there is plenty of neon, arrows, spandex and Saved By the Bell-esque confetti. The wireform ramps came coated in red, yellow and blue, but it seems some games were shipped with bare steel wireforms or a combination of coated and bare. The coated versions really add some pop to the game and add to the overall colourful flavour of the art package.

The sound package is where the game really wins over its devotees, or drives its detractors to the point of insanity. The main Rollergames theme (with the repeating lyrics “Rock, rock, rock n’ Rollergames…”) plays constantly throughout normal gameplay, and, admittedly, can wear pretty thin after playing for long periods. However, there are different music cues for Sudden Death, multiball lead-up, multiball, Jackpot and W-I-L-L-I-A-M-S bonus modes, which really works to add variety to the soundtrack. My favourite musical piece is the “Kick Butt” Jackpot remix, and needs to be heard to be appreciated (it’s a nice reward for achieving multiple jackpots). The call-outs are absolutely fantastic. There is both a female voice and a male voice that can be heard in the game, and I seriously doubt that the actual characters from the television show were used. However, if the male voice is not that of Skull himself, the voice actor definitely does a good job channelling the heel manager. Visitors always get a kick out of his call-outs when playing the game, from naming the teams when hitting an orbit (“BAD Attitude”) to his amazement when a jackpot has been collected (“UN-BE-LIEVABLE”). Even the incidental sounds when hitting a spinner, a target or a ramp totally fit with the overarching Rollergames vibe.

I touched on the problem with reproducing the playfield, however Rollergames owners can look forward to the possibility of Classic Playfield Reproductions reproducing the plastics for Rollergames in the near future.  A thread on Pinside confirmed they have a New Old Stock set in their possession to work with. As another side note, it seems that back when the game was released the steel diverter link that ran along the top of the Wall ramp was easily broken, thus hindering the movement of the diverter. This was such a problem that Williams released a service bulletin to operators making them aware of the issue. Early in 2014, Pinside user “jasonpaulbauer” went ahead and reproduced the troublesome link, using its original specifications, for owners strapped with the broken hardware. Pingenuity saves the day once again.

Rollergames does have a loyal following. It is constantly mentioned as a “value game” for those starting out in the hobby and its soundtrack gets mentioned in just about every discussion about “best pinball music”. Nate Shivers of Coast 2 Coast Pinball specifically mentioned that both its reputation and price were on the rise in a Going Up/Going Down segment this past winter, and a copy of Rollergames recently won Best In Show (Pinball) at the inaugural Southern Fried Gameroom Expo this past June. It is also one of those games, like Volley, that appears in unusual numbers here in Canada. Many prototype versions are floating around in the Canadian collector community, and can be identified by their Diamond Plate playfields and extra flashers. It seems that the Quebec distributor Laniel Automatic was at it again, importing large quantities of this game, perhaps at a special price seeing as the licence had completely tanked by the time the games were ready to go. The game in my collection came through the Laniel channel as it bears all the tell-tale markings. I can say without hesitation, that Rollergames is the machine non-pinball visitors gravitate towards when visiting my gameroom. The theme seems to draw them in and the simple rules keep objectives within reach. There is a glimmer of recognition in these visitors’ eyes, but most of them seem to recall Roller Jam, the roller derby reboot on TNN that ran on Friday nights the mid-nineties, rather than the actual Rollergames show. It doesn’t hinder their enjoyment of the game though, as they can still immerse themselves within the excessive neon hues of the 1990s while flipping around the playfield.

All this said, I’m still amazed at Rolelrgames’ lowly rank on Pinside. Sure, it’s a System 11 game, and isn’t afforded untouchable royalty status like the WPC era games that followed it just a year-and-a-half later, but for me, it is the complete package of entertaining gameplay and a well integrated theme. Perhaps what hurts the game is that it is strapped with both a theme that isn’t ingrained into the collective imagination of our generation and a fairly shallow System 11 ruleset (according to more seasoned players). Not to mention its near complete mimicking of the High Speed design. High Speed is one of those watershed games that is rightly labelled as “important” by the community. If someone wanted a kicked up version of High Speed, they’d probably rather buy a High Speed 2: The Getaway, and not a Rollergames. I’m not arguing for the game to be listed in the top fifty or anything, but I think it does deserve to fall within the #120 thru #150 range. I guess there are very few people, like me, who want their rock, rock, rock…’n’ Rollergames.

Further Reading:

Pinside – Top 100, Page 2 
Internet Pinball Database – Rollergames
Pinside – CPR Needs Rollergames Plastic Set NOS in Order to Remake Them
Pinside – Roller Games Divertor [sic] Drive Link Reproduction
YouTube – Rollergames Alligator Sudden Death Overtime
YouTube – Rockers vs. Violators (full game)


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FEATURED GAME: Bally KISS

Well, Stern got the Kiss licence. Somewhere in the distant future we are going see Gene Simmons and company on a Pro, a Premium, and as many different Limited Editions as our hobby will tolerate. No matter what the community says, this is a no brainer for Stern and a licence that should have been acquired years ago. There is a built-in fan base. If you look at pictures of any Kiss fanatic’s rec-room, you are bound to see, amongst all the other Kiss Krap, a 1979 Bally KISS pinball machine. Guaranteed, these same fanatics will pony up as much money as it takes to get a brand new Stern Kiss Dynasty Limited Edition (or whatever they are going to call it) right off the assembly line, if only to display beside the Bally original. The Bally game isn’t groundbreaking in terms of gameplay, but its popularity and theme make it a very important game in pinball history and an expensive game to obtain on the secondary market.

The game’s production began in mid-1978, but was ultimately released to the public in June 1979, with Kiss, arguably, at the peak of their popularity. This era saw the band release the certified platinum albums Love Gun and Dynasty, and the double platinum smash hit Alive II that redefined how the music industry recorded and marketed live albums. I think even hardcore fans would like to forget that the band also released their four individual solo albums during this period, which all eventually obtained platinum status, but are considered a commercial and artistic failure by many. At the time the pinball machine hit the market, their line of Barbie-sized Mego action figures were on the toy shelves across North America. The band also filmed a made-for-television movie entitled “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park” which aired on NBC in 1978, and is an absolute nightmare in both production value and storyline, but hey, they were on network television, right? Even if the quality went off the rails a time or two, Kiss always knew how to market themselves. They did something almost unachievable: they were at the forefront of 1970s pop culture, while existing as complete outsiders in the mainstream. They were the biggest band in America, selling out stadiums across the globe, but number one hits and artistic credibility eluded them. It is bound to happen with one-dimensional lyrics and silver face paint.

As with the Mego dolls, the backglass of Bally’s Kiss depicts the band in a slight variation of their Love Gun era costumes. The art is beautifully rendered by Kevin O’Connor–it is one of the earliest pinball art packages he worked on and is far and away his best work as a pinball artist. The backglass captures all the sexuality and excitement the band exuded while performing on stage. You can almost smell the sweat. I hope that’s sweat I smell. O’Connor still works in the medium, most recently working on Stern’s X-Men and Star Trek. It is interesting to note that O’Connor worked on Bally’s Star Trek as well, so if he gets the opportunity to work on Stern’s Kiss release, he will have come full circle on two licences (wait, make that three, he also worked on the Data East Simpsons and Stern’s Simpsons Pinball Party). The playfield features snakes and fire and lightning and breasts and everything that a teenager would be drawn to. The playfield follows the rule of fours: four drop targets, four pop bumpers, four stand-up targets, four letters in the bank A-B-C-D, a four-by-four matrix of K-I-S-S letters and, of course, four members of the band. There are five roll-over lanes at the top of machine that throws that whole theory off though–four of them representing a single letter in K-I-S-S and an extra lane in the centre to represent the entire word.

Image courtesy users.cis.fiu.edu/~jweiss

If the layout is too simple, at least it is nicely balanced. It is a Jim Patla design, he of Silverball Mania and Centaur fame. Kiss is more Silverball Mania speed (they both rely on spelling quite a bit), and is no where near as complex as Centaur. The game is about as simple as they come, with just one hook: spell KISS. Over and over and over again. This must have been a planned occurrence. The Kiss theme would probably draw people in, specifically the very young, who were not overly familiar with playing pinball. The game’s simplicity would work to hook them. There is a Kiss “matrix”, that spells out K-I-S-S four times on circular inserts, that lies in the middle of the playfield to track your progress of spelling the band’s name. Letters can be gained through the roll-over lanes at the top arch and at four red stand-up targets located around the playfield. Roll through that centre lane at the top arch I mentioned earlier and you will light one entire row of K-I-S-S letters. Also, knocking down all four drop targets on the left side will score you a KISS line. You really have to get the ball through that centre roll-over lane though: not only will it get you a full KISS line, it will open the return lane on the right and light the spinners for extra points. If you can light the entire four-by-four KISS matrix once it will award a super bonus. A second time awards the colossal bonus and the chance at a special. A third time lights another special only. Specials and extra balls can be awarded through the right bank of A-B-C-D targets. Pretty standard fare.

The game sports a Bally AS-2518-35 MPU, which was Bally’s go-to unit from about 1977 until they moved to the ever troublesome 6803 operating system under the Bally/Midway banner. With a little elbow grease and some well documented modifications, the -35 MPU can be solid, and if not, you can always get yourself any one of a handful of after market replacements. The Internet Pinball Database page for the game has a quote from a Bally employee claiming that the game had originally contained speech in prototype versions, which would have preceded Gorgar, the first game with speech, by about a year-and-a-half. The sound package contains all the beeps and bloops of the era, with the extra bonus of having a few lame bars of “Rock and Roll All Night” play when you start a game, and an almost unrecognizable electronic mess of the “Shout It Out Loud” chorus at game over. They should have sunk their money into speech. Foreign markets received a different backglass than the North American market at the request of the Germans: the two trademark lightning bolt “S” letters in the Kiss name were changed to generic lettering (reminiscent of sports jersey lettering), as it too closely resembled the “SS” logo of the Nazi police. Germans have the right to be a little sensitive about Nazi connotations, I suppose, but it just goes to show how much influence the European distributors had over American pinball manufacturers. Add this change to a list which includes, but is not limited to, an alternate backglass for Special Force and the introduction of Williams lightning flippers.

As a Kiss fan, the only reason I don’t own this game is that they demand insane money on the secondary market. They made an absolute ton of these games, a run of 17,000 confirmed units, but the problem is condition. The game did so well on location, for so many years, that the original playfields are absolutely blown out to the bare wood (especially around the centre Kiss matrix) and the cabinets beat to hell and back. Reproduction playfields are available, but sinking that kind of money into such a one dimensional game is something few collectors are willing to do–unless the machine holds some sort of sentimental value or they happen to be a Kiss fanatic. Reproduction pop bumper caps are also out there, and they are probably the coolest to ever grace a machine: each one bearing the visage of one of the members of the band.

With Stern’s Kiss machine on the horizon, you’d think that this table would be trending up in price, but at its current value, that would be difficult. Be prepared to pay $3000USD and up for a decent version, more for something completely restored. I can’t see prices that high trending further upwards, but stranger things have happened. How can a game from this era command such an insane price? The reality is, you are paying for the Kiss branding and nothing more. Without some sort of intimate connection to this game, my guess is that most pinball collectors would rather have a Funhouse, Terminator 2 or Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in their lineup for that kind of dough.

Bally’s Kiss is the kind of game that you’ll be able to get out of your system if you play it for a half-hour at a buddy’s place, the Vintage Flipper World museum, or the Pinball Hall of Fame. Nothing ground breaking, but it is worth the experience. Imagine walking up to this game as an 11-year-old Kiss fan with a pocket full of quarters. You’d be in total awe. Just like the band, this machine has style to spare, but very little substance to make it worthwhile. And as a Kiss fan, it pains me to say that.


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FEATURED GAME: Gottlieb VOLLEY

In 1973, Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King captured the interest of a nation by participating in a tennis match labelled “The Battle of the Sexes”. The media frenzy leading up to the match brought tennis, momentarily, to the forefront of American sport. Riggs was outspoken and sexist (it may have been an act) claiming that the women’s tennis game was inferior to the men’s. King went on to beat the 55-year-old handedly–Riggs was clearly past his prime. Over 30,000 people were in attendance at the Houston Astrodome to watch the match, a tennis attendance record that stands to this day. Sports historians will likely find flaws in the following statement, however, I see this match as the point that marked the end of the laurel-wearing, upper-crust era of tennis and ushered in a new era that featured increased showmanship and spectacle. With tennis being a revitalized sport across the nation, Gottlieb capitalized, and released Volley, their tennis-themed wedgehead, and did so to coincide with the 1976 US Open, America’s largest and most popular tournament.

I’m not a tennis fan. I know the basics and will watch it, but only if it is on a waiting room television at a dentist’s office or auto garage. I went through a brief phase where I had a turbo crush on Martina Hingis and watched a lot of women’s tennis in the 1990s, however, today it is not a sport that I follow. My love of tennis these days is limited to Volley. Gottlieb expertly crafted this single-player game–it is easy to learn, pretty straight forward and a ton of fun. As stated in the introduction, Volley was released in August of 1976, and came from the prolific designer/artist duo of Ed Krynski/Gordon Morison, a team responsible for over one hundred Gottlieb games that spanned from EM Wedgeheads to early Solid State System 1s. That number may be bloated, as many games by Krynski and Morison were just redesigns of popular layouts with artwork differences to accommodate the add-a-ball/replay needs of different US states and countries. However Volley was not one of them. It was released as a replay game only, and no add-a-ball/WOW! or 4-player version exists.

If we observe tennis as a fad conjured up by the media in the mid-70s, Morison’s art captures it completely–the pink and orange pastels, umbrella’d spectators, and one-piece tennis mini-skirts. It shouldn’t be overlooked that the main backglass image features a man playing a woman in a competitive game of tennis a la Riggs vs. King. The side art, even with its minimalist two-colour-on-white composition, depicts a male versus female tennis exchange, with the muscular female’s hair in a short bob reminiscent of King’s. A more buxom blonde, showing off her, ahem, “forehand”, is placed front and centre on the playfield, which is pretty typical for Morison at Gottlieb. He loved featuring attractive blondes in a variety of social situations. The symmetrical playfield is balanced with the sexes–if a male appears on a right hand side plastic, a female will be featured on the matching left. Sample Volleys had a different playfield art package than that of the regular run. Gone are the unpainted wood tones near the apron and top arch, and are replaced with a pastel blue leaving no bare wood anywhere. A different rendering of a female, with a shorter skirt and a “bigger” forehand swing, replaces buxom blonde. Bloated, “70s style” lettering and numbering appears around the inserts indicating scoring and point values, whereas the main run was changed back to the black block caps used in nearly every game of the era, regardless of manufacturer. The production version of Volley towed the Gottlieb line by displaying all their usual characteristics-the sample game, in contrast, looked as if it was trying to deviate. David Gottlieb’s company became the gold standard of pinball in this era by sticking to the script, so much so that they allowed the same two guys to spearhead the design and art on the majority of their games. Perhaps this is the reason why the art on the sample games was abandoned for a more traditional art package?

Gameplay doesn’t get much simpler. Three lanes lie under the top arch of the machine, each lane with a different coloured insert–red, blue and green. These correspond with the three pop bumpers and the three sets of five-bank drop targets below. If you are able to light one of these colour-coded lanes, the associated pop bumper scores 1,000 points, and associated drop targets score 5,000 instead of the normal 500. Once the lane has been lit, it stays lit for the entire game or until all fifteen targets are knocked down. A bit of strategy comes into play here. To maximize score, you will want to avoid the drops altogether until you are able to light all three lanes, then proceed to go on a target bashing spree at 5,000 points a piece. More difficult would be to attack one colour at a time–you are bound to knock down a bunch of unlit colours, losing a ton of points in the process. You can, however, just focus on the targets and go after the special. The special is lit when all targets have been dropped-it alternates between the left and right upper lanes. The centre yellow lane is worth 5,000 when lit and will light with the special. And that’s about it really. Gameplay is mostly flows up and down–there is not much side-to-side action as the slingshots have no kickers beneath them. Mostly, you find yourself trying the fling the ball to the upper lanes in order to start the drop target frenzy. The yellow bank that sits dead centre is brutal, a dead on hit often sends the ball straight down the middle. Much like El Dorado before it, the fun factor in this game lies in the drop targets. If you don’t like drops, you probably won’t like Volley.

The production run of Volley sits at a modest 2,900 units, falling well short of the bar set by other 1976 releases such as Target Alpha (7,285) and Royal Flush (12,250) and also behind those releases that existed in multiple versions like Buccaneer/Ship Ahoy (combined 4,800) and Surf Champ/Surfer (combined 3,770). Volley was one of the last original releases from Gottlieb before they were sold to Columbia Pictures. If the sale did not occur, I believe Volley probably would have be tweaked to accommodate the Add-a-Ball or 4-Player treatment. In the year between Volley and Gottlieb’s first solid state game, Cleopatra, little was seen in the way of design innovation, and the company instead relied on repackaging old designs and rule tweaks for past games. In a way, Volley marks the end of an era filled with innovation and success for Gottlieb. and it is fitting that the design and rules are very simple, yet fun and extremely entertaining.

There is also something a bit “Canadian” to Volley, which is weird, because we, as a nation, are not known as the biggest tennis enthusiasts on the planet. I know of three Volleys that are in private collections within a fifty kilometre radius of my home, and I’ve played two of them. One owner had four pass through his hands, all upgrades, before settling on the near collector quality example that sits in his collection now. That seems like an oddly high amount of games to be residing in one part of North America considering its 2,900 unit production run. The final tip-off for me was in Allentown this year. One of the aforementioned Canadian Volleys made its way down to Pinfest, and one American collector remarked, “You guys sure do have a lot of Volleys up there”. So it must be true if an American collector said it, right? I had a chance to run this by Robert Baraké, former employee of Laniel Automatic, who worked for the company at a time when they were Canada’s largest arcade and amusement distributor. Laniel’s legacy can still be observed in the Canadian secondary market to this day–three of the games in my personal collection bear Laniel markings and a large number of sample and prototype games call Canada home because of Laniel’s buying power and influence.  Mr. Baraké had this to say about the number of Canadian Volleys:

“The truth of the matter, I believe, has to do with two factors, and not so much to do with the Volley title exclusively. 1) It has to do with Gottlieb being the preferred line of pins at Laniel Automatic at that particular period, and 2) The city by-laws changing in Montreal and Ottawa in 1976-77 thus allowing pins to be operated again in street locations. Laniel’s VP at the time was very tight with the Gottlieb agency. When the city by-laws changed in 1977 in Ottawa and Montreal, permitting the operation of pinball machines in the city streets again, Laniel Automatic’s VP Jean Coutu probably went on a buying spree at his main, and favourite, pinball manufacturer. Gottlieb was an agency he secured for Laniel a few years after he first started working there in 1947, and was loyal to Gottlieb products in his purchasing patterns as VP of sales thereafter.”

So Volley was made at the right place and the right time. I suppose it didn’t matter if the theme was tennis, volleyball, skeet shooting or checkers, Mr. Coutu was going to snap up whatever he could to put into service on locations throughout Quebec and across Canada. Other operators were probably operating under the same buying frenzy, so between Laniel and everyone else hoping to make a buck on the new by-laws, Gottlieb games hit the Canadian market en masse. Mr. Baraké concludes:

“Some supporting evidence. I have seen more than a normal share of Surf Champs in my repairs over the past three years. I would say easily 12 to 18 Surf Champs in the Montreal area that I have been called upon to service. For a supposedly confirmed run of 1000 machines, this seems a little high for one small area, but then again 1000 pinball machines is a lot of machines. Wish I could tell you more, but one has to be careful not to colour history without taking into careful consideration what we know as more or less certain.”

As Mr. Baraké stated above, this Laniel phenomenon is not exclusive to Volley and extends to other releases of the same period. It is not conclusive evidence, but it seems pretty reasonable to believe this was the factor at play. It is interesting how historical details can intersect with pinball releases to influence not only their theme, but their overall appearance and performance in the marketplace. As we conclude this brief look at Volley, I’m left to wonder what the coinbox take for Volley was in the fall of 1976. Did the theme matter at all to hungry Canadian players? Or were they looking for something, anything, with two flippers and a coin mechanism to drop twenty-five cents into? After all, you can’t get any less Canadian than surfing and tennis, and those two themes were probably dominant on routes during that time period. It would be interesting to research, as it would put a fascinating spin on the age old question “Does theme matter?” When it comes to this game, it doesn’t. I don’t like tennis. But I absolutely adore Volley.

I’d like to thank Robert Baraké for helping to fit the pieces together–he has a great historical eye and is an asset to the Canadian pinball community. Also, please visit IPDB.com here to view pictures of the sample Volley playfield. I hear they are pretty strict with their copyright policies so I did not lift the images to display them within the article.

Further Reading:
Montreal Pinball – North of the 49th
Internet Pinball Database – Volley
Pinrepair.com – 1976 Gottlieb Volley Pinball


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FEATURED GAME: Williams ALGAR

Gorgar was unleashed onto unsuspecting pinball players in December 1979, and talked his way to major success, using all seven of the words in his programmed vocabulary. Trying to expand the family, Williams went for a sequel of sorts, introducing Gorgar’s larger, uglier, mute brother Algar in October 1980. The similarities are difficult to ignore–-the title font, the poorly drawn mythical title character, the “-gar” suffix. Unfortunately for Williams, the no-speech widebody game was met with little interest. Algar was a flop. Steve Ritchie is famously quoted as saying:

“Gor’s brother Al” is what we used to call Algar. The Gar family kind of died after that. I don’t remember [Black Knight] as having anything to do with Algar’s failure. BK was a narrow body and built on a different line than Algar. Algar didn’t earn money. I think Al was just a dud of a game. [Ipdb.org]

Algar reaches “ultra-rare” status with only 349 confirmed units produced. The game appeared at a time when Williams was in transition between System 6 and System 7 operating systems, and exists as a System 6A game. There is only one other machine in the 6A family, Alien Poker, and the system itself rode the fence between the 6 and 7 eras–using a System 6 board set with the System 7 influenced seven-digit displays. As referenced in the above quote, Algar had the dubious honour of being designed and released at the same time as Ritchie’s Black Knight. If operators were buying pinball machines from Williams, chances are, the money was going to the proven earner, Black Knight, and not the chunky Algar. This is only one excuse offered as to the failure of the game. Others can be spotted as well. Operators and players who appreciated Gorgar for its groundbreaking speech capabilities were probably underwhelmed with its “sequel”, which inexplicably contained no speech at all (according to Todd Tuckey of TNT Amusements it was a financial decision, as speech chips were very expensive at the time). In a field where each new game has to offer something bigger and better than the last, especially one linked so explicitly like its predecessor, Algar fails to raise the bar (it actually lowered it). Further, Tony Kraemer, designer of other low production wonders such as Varkon and Transporter: The Rescue, apparently took over the Algar design from Claude Fernandez when he left for Bally. Fernandez’s name was wiped clean from the official historical record, Kreamer gets the only design credit, and in hindsight, that’s not a bad thing for Fernandez given the game’s ultimate failure. Not to be an elitist, but neither Kreamer or Fernandez are a part of the upper echelon of pinball designers, and the disruption of a single vision carried through from design into production did not help Algar to become a success.

Enough excuses for poor “Al”. How does the game play? Well, pretty much like any other Williams game from the era. For a widebody, there is a good amount of side to side movement on the game–it uses its girth well. Four chunky roll-over lanes run across the top of the game to spell KONA, and are centred by a saucer which opens an outlane gate and gives an extra ball when lit. The game features lane changing via the flippers, first introduced earlier in 1980 by Firepower. A cool “River Styx” shot runs behind both sets of drop targets and returns the ball to the flippers via a one-way gate right through the left outlane a la Bally classics of the same period like Embryon and Vector. A third kicker on the right hand side also ramps up the side to side movement of the ball. The most unique feature of the playfield design is “The Chamber”, which houses three captive balls, each in a separate lane that will lock at the top of the lane when hit. Locking each ball within its lane gives big points. Resetting the balls back down to the bottom of the lane to start the process over again is achieved by hitting the upper left saucer. Points can be collected at that saucer as well depending on the number of times all six lower drop targets have been dropped. As a matter of fact, there are lots of points to be collected in the game, and many have to be collected by achieving more than one objective (achieve this, then collect the bonus points over here). All of the objectives are spelled out, in typical Constantino Mitchell fantasy font, on the playfield and plastics.

Sound, like many games of the era, plays like a “Williams Greatest Hits” package. It seems that all of these Williams games sound the same…so you can pick out clips from Solar Fire, Black Knight and Defender amongst the buzzes and bloops in Algar. Solid State sound was still in its infancy here, so I guess it cannot be faulted. Algar is one of those games with a constant drone of sound in the background that speeds up as objectives are achieved and points are scored, which annoys the hell out of many, but it sets a frantic mood as ball times reach epic proportions. The biggest knock on the sound, to beat a dead horse, is that speech was not included.

I mentioned Constantino Mitchell above, and he’s the art guy for many of these early Williams solid state games, and uses a style that can be best described as “child with ballpoint pen accompanied by bold colour choice”. Much of his art, including work on Flash and big brother Gorgar, looks like it was lifted from the margins of lined paper belonging to a 1980s D-student who spent his days doodling fantasy scenes with a Bic instead of paying attention in third period Geography. I guess that was the audience pinball machines were built to attract, so maybe this art was high school-esque by design. Algar looks like a third-string Thundercat with fish scales, and a WWF championship belt wrapped around his waist. Much like Mitchell’s work on Solar Fire, it’s a mishmash of imagery with very little direction or a unifying theme.

Two Algars sold on the Montreal Arcade & Amusement Collectors Association (here and here) within the last couple of years, and I’m fairly sure they were not the same machine. Perhaps Canada got the LION’S share of the 349 games (Algar was half-lion, get it?). Both sold within the $800-$900CAD range. Heck, you get a lot of game for such a reasonable price, especially given its rare status. I got to play Algar at the Vintage Flipper World Showcase last weekend. It was my first chance to play it, and probably one of the few times outside of that venue I will get to. The machine has a commanding presence with its widebody frame and bright orange cabinet, and even though the art is just so-so, it works when you place the machine in the correct time period with other early Solid State offerings (which the VFW does, lining it up in a row with other Williams machines of the era). It is easy to realize why players balked at Algar upon its initial release, however, with a game as rare as this one, you’d be silly not to put a few games on it if you were able to find one.