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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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FEATURED GAME: Gottlieb CLEOPATRA

I am immediately drawn to anything bearing Egyptian imagery. My wife is an ancient history teacher and I went on a two week trip to Egypt a few years back in what can only be described as the trip of a lifetime. I got to go inside an actual pyramid. So it is no surprise that I have a strong affinity for Gottlieb’s Cleopatra. I played a lot of it at the Allentown Pinfest show this year.

Built upon the troublesome System 1 MPU, 1977’s Solid State Cleopatra stands as the most recognizable and definitive version of the game. An EM version with similar art does exist but its 1,600 units is a drop in the pan compared to the SS production run of nearly 7,500. Also, it should be mentioned that a two player EM entitled Pyramid, with completely different backglass art but same playfield layout does exist, however less than 1,000 of these saw the light of day. The game made its appearance during the period when all companies found it necessary to make a Solid State and Electromechanical version of the same game–Bally’s Mata Hari and many others from this period also exist in both EM and Solid State variations. Cleopatra appears to be Gottleib’s first official foray into Solid State manufacturing, and is also one of the first handful of games not to be released in the forever popular wedgehead style cabinet.

It comes as no surprise that Egyptian imagery was used during this time period. Egyptian history and style was experiencing a revival of sorts in the late 1970s due to the travelling “Treasures of King Tut” exhibit that criss-crossed North America between 1976 and 1979. The four year whirlwind tour made stops in Washington, New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and Toronto, and displayed artifacts from the Tut tomb that had never before left Egypt. The US was engulfed in Pharaoh Phever. Steve Martin and the Toot Uncommons recorded a song about Tut that was apparently hilarious to those living in the 1970s, but has aged very badly when listened to now, segregated from the social climate in which it was released. It is safe to say the Cleopatra theme was chosen due to the Tut tour. Cleopatra is also one of those mysterious women in world history that holds both sexual and political power, and is thus a clear choice to be forever immortalized in popular culture.

The game is really more of the same of what Gottleib was doing with EMs at the time. As was the style, there are quite a few rollovers, the same amount of drop targets and as always you are chasing that elusive special. Dead centre of the playfield lies five different coloured pairs of inserts. Each colour pair corresponds to a drop target just above, and a rollover at the top of the playfield. Knock down and roll over corresponding colours and you get the point value associated. Out of courtesy, a left or right saucer shot will spot you a rollover. At the top of this insert matrix is a halved circle. You must shoot both saucers to spot the insert whole, and then each shot to the saucer, when lit, will get you 500 points. When all drops are down, a “5000 when lit” target will be revealed. This shot is tricky…as it sits dead centre and the majority of the time you’ll lose the ball straight down the middle if you are brave enough to shoot for the big 5000 point target. Three sets of bumpers change the lit 500 point saucers and the lit 5000 point target. When the ball really gets bouncing around its quite the light show, jumping back and forth and flashing on and off. Further, when all rollovers, drops and saucers have been activated, the Special, awarded via a stand up targets, will also alternate left and right. It makes for a pretty exciting gameplay that has a little more pep than the other games of the period.

Despite the computer keeping score, its pretty cool to have the chimes ringing away as you play. The big jump forward of the Solid State system was probably a sight to behold for pinball players at the time, but exists as sort of an anachronism for younger players today who expect the beeps, bloops and whistles of a solid state machine to match the computer displays, but get chimes instead.

Cleopatra features the popular team of designer Ed Krynski and artist Gordon Morison, who worked together on some real classics–Royal Flush, Dragon, Totem, Genie, The Amazing Spiderman, and the list goes on seemingly forever. These guys were one of the most prolific teams at Gottlieb, and gave all of the games of the area a feel and look that brings about a certain comfort when you walk up to one. All of their games were made in the same style, and who could blame them, they were successful and you don’t try to fix what isn’t broken. Krynski and Morison were the team that recycled the layout of El Dorado/Gold Strike/Lucky Strike/Canada Dry/ Solar City/Target Alpha for international, add-a-ball and replay versions over the period of three years. I will say about Morison that each art package was better than the next in that series. Morison also delivers in his unique pop art version of Egyptian imagery and hieroglyphics on the playfield, and the colours integrate well in a game that relies on colour matching for the main object of game play.

Cleopatra marks a distinct shift in Gottlieb pinball production. Even though everything looks Electromechanical status quo in design and art, the Solid State operating system gave the company a push in a very different direction that they had taken in the years prior. This technology shift would bring with it a shift in theme–ushering in a new era where Buck Rogers, the Incredible Hulk, Asteroid Annie, and other sci-fi/fantasy heroes dominated the Gottlieb landscape, and really, all of pinball. It seemed cowboys and Cleopatra-esque period pieces were part of a bygone mechanical score reel driven era. When you are trying to highlight the cutting edge nature of your gaming system, it is not wise to feature characters that have been dead for hundreds of years. Also gone was the idea of theme recycling not long after Cleopatra’s release. Krynski did revisit El Dorado and Jacks Open with updated revisionings in the early 80s, but this was a clear sign of an out-of-touch designer fresh out of good ideas in the twilight of his career. Cleopatra is one of those rare games that is able to encapsulate the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. How is it that one game can represent both a shift AND stasis all at once?

Further Reading/Viewing:
PAPA.ORG – Cleopatra Gameplay (video)
Pinside – Gottlieb Cleopatra – Worth the trouble?
International Arcade Museum – Cleopatra

 

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FEATURED GAME: Williams FIRE!


I don’t have an affinity for Barry Oursler games. His oeuvre can be split into two distinct bodies of work: his early designs which all appear to echo one or two stand-by stock layouts, and his later designs which are too reliant on one feature or toy that make the games seem shallow and trite. For me, two games stand out as exceptions, Fire! in the former category and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the latter. BSD is currently the darling of collectors and tournament players alike and is enjoying a bit of a renaissance of sorts (meaning the price went up $1000). Maybe I don’t enjoy it because it IS beyond my skill level as a player, or perhaps the art package is just too wretch-inducing. Either way, it leaves me no choice but to take a closer look at Fire!

Fire! was released in August of 1987, and takes its theme from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. With nearly 8,000 units produced, the game was far from scarce, however, it is not a game that comes up often for sale in my area (maybe all the firemen have bought these up…firemen love being firemen and everything associated with fire history and fire prevention and being a fireman…just ask them). To put it into perspective, Williams made 8,100 units of Comet. I can’t go for three days without seeing someone trying to unload a Comet, so I guess once Fire! finds a home, they stay put. I mean, who doesn’t want a game in a poo brown cabinet to be the centre of their collection?

Legend says a cow (!) kicked over a lantern in a barn, and that’s what started the fire that burned for days and destroyed most of the city of Chicago. The game is a natural fit theme-wise, paying homage to the fire-fighting history of the city in which these great pinball machines were built. The theme stands out from other Williams/Data East machines being built at the time–-most being themed upon capitalistic Cold War paranoia (Millionaire, F-14 Tomcat, Secret Service) or Science Fiction in the pure sense of the genre (Pin*Bot, Laser War, Time Machine). You could almost picture olde tymey dudes with mutton chops and pork pie hats gathering around this amusement machine for a bit of merriment. Wait, those aren’t olde tymey dudes at all…just hipsters from Portland!

No pop bumpers in this game. Let’s get that out of the way. Purists have long complained that any game without pop bumpers isn’t a pinball machine at all. I think this just adds to the game’s overall flow and overarching theme, and helps to set it apart from the other games released at the time. Complete playfield symmetry is achieved here, each side of the playfield being a mirror image of the other, and can be read as a throwback to the simpler woodrail games of the 1940s and 1950s. There is also a post-up “hydrant” ball save which is seen on only a couple System 11 games of the era (moving towards a less expensive “lit” ball save instead).

The main idea of Fire! is to “put out” fires (no kidding!) by hitting the stand-up target banks in front of the the various vacuum-formed buildings around the playfield. Two banks lie mid-playfield, while two dead end ramp shots flank a mini-area with two more target banks. A second set of kickers really get the ball moving in that closed off mini-area. Surrounding the dead-end ramp shots is an elevated horseshoe orbit with lifting ramps (a la the left Pin*Bot ramp) that lock balls on either side once an indicated fire is extinguished. Dead centre is your rescue shot, which is a ramp (with no guides) that lifts out of the playfield to help launch the ball through a “window”. This can serve as your last shot to start three-ball multiball and carries with it a 50,000 bonus. One million points are awarded if all fires are put out in multiball and the rescue shot is achieved.

To me, the game feels like it’s a martyoshka nesting doll in both layout and art package. There is a layering effect to the loops and ramps that pulls the playfield together quite nicely and symmetry is something we don’t often get in modern era pinball, so you should enjoy it where you can. Bill of materials on this game must have been quite something. In the days before Dennis Nordman arrived at Williams and became the undisputed king of vacuum-formed plastic, Oursler orchestrated quite the miniature diorama of 19th century Chicago under glass here. The amount of detail Mark Sprenger put into fleshing out the plastic buildings is phenomenal. With such intricate playfield art, its easy to overlook the spinning fire reel that turns below the playfield to give a burning effect that flickers through the windows of the buildings above. Sprenger also nailed the gold leaf and cobblestone look of the era on the playfield to really give it that pre-Capone Chicago feel, as well as creating an intricate maze of a darkened huddled mass of citizens cowering from the power of the fire. Sound package is ho-hum, nothing to write home about…olde tyme piano mixed with limited speech from muffled male voices (as was the style for many System 11 games at the time), but man, that bell atop the backbox really catches your attention when it rings. I was at the Allentown show last year, and you could hear that thing ringing out from anywhere in the venue.

Fire! plastic sets are currently available from Classic Playfields, and a repro playfield is currently in development by the CPR folks and available for pre-order. Repro plastic buildings, however, are a different story. These vacuum formed plastics are subject of a ton of wear and breakage with the physics of the playfield the way they are. Plenty of promises out there from companies “if there is enough interest”, but nothing as of yet has materialized. Not only would the plastic have to be vacuum formed, the art would also have to be reproduced as stickers to affix to them. I think this is something beyond what CPR or other repro company would be interested in doing (profit-wise), so it will be up to the ingenuity of the pinball community to find a work-around. Plenty of call must exist for these, as the production run on the machine was quite hefty.

There was also a “Champagne Edition” of Fire! released concurrently with the standard edition which was a classier version, probably for use in higher class bars, restaurants and atriums looking to cash in on the re-emergence of pinball as an arcade staple. The game came with a real wood veneer cabinet, gold rails/legs/lockdown bar and two extra spinning fire cylinders in the backbox, like the one below the playfield. Only about 300 were released.

This game is an anomaly not only in the oeuvre of Oursler, but also in the design and theme of what Williams and their contemporaries were coming out with at the time. Fire! can be viewed as the Eight Ball Deluxe of the System 11 era. When Bally was making a ton of sci-fi themed games and licencing everything under the sun, they came out with EBD to appeal to a very different demographic of pinball player and hit a home run. Fire! exists somewhat in the same way, just a tad less successful. For Fire!, they were shooting for a more refined demographic, and the production of a more refined looking machine in the “Champagne Edition” really hammers this point home. I mean, look at that Champagne flyer below. You could put the game in an atrium (SEE! I TOLD YOU!) surrounded by ferns and play the game IN YOUR DAMN TUXEDO! This game is so f*cking classy, right?? Anyhow, the standard edition is a beautifully executed machine, did I mention it came in a poo brown cabinet, with a straightforward ruleset much like the other games from the System 11 family. Go put out some fires and save Chicago.

Further Reading:

Classic Playfield Reproductions – Fire! Plastic Set Photo Gallery
Pinball.org – Fire! Rulesheet
AAARPinball – Fire! Restoration


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FEATURED GAME: Bally SPECTRUM

If you ever wanted the excitement of the code-breaking board game Mastermind in a pinball cabinet, and who hasn’t, Spectrum is the game for you.

This classic Bally from August 1982 has striking art from Margaret Hudson, whose work I really don’t much care for overall, but she does a magnificent job here. Besides the art, it’s what the machine lacks that stands out the most–it doesn’t have a shooter lane or outlanes. The ball launches via the right flipper, a modification so confusing that the Squak & Talk voice in the game instructs you how to launch your ball (using valuable speech memory). Failing that, the game just gets tired of waiting and auto launches the ball after a set period of inactivity. Oh, and there are no slingshot kickers either. Designer Claude Fernandez really tried to break the mould with this one.

The game is difficult. Really difficult. Not only do you have to accustom yourself with the drastic changes in the machine, you’re aim has to be dead on–game progression and scoring is determined by hitting saucers followed by knocking down complete banks of targets and completely avoiding the other banks. Kind of like a more confusing Volley EM. The rules are so confusing, in fact, let’s just let Todd Tuckey of TNT Amusements describe them…

I’m really drawn to the way that locking a ball immediately kicks a different ball out of a saucer to the flipper. As Tuckey explains, the inside of the game is packed with boards and extra relays to control nearly 80 playfield insert lamps (!) as well as flashing GI and backbox lamps.

Estimates have less than 1,000 of these games made, and nearly half of them when straight to the junkyard. I think a game like this was too radically different to catch on with casual players. Imagine a cowboy in a shitkicker bar who honed his skills playing the more straight forward and understandably themed Eight Ball Deluxe trying to figure out how to play a Spectrum. I see it as one of those early-80s pinball games that tried too hard to harness the complexity of a video game, which were dominating at the arcades at the time. It would be a great game to have in a large collection…as it would be difficult to master, and it would definitely stand out as a unique oddity. On top of that, it would be pretty to look at. But with a very small number surviving, you’ll need a little luck and great timing to find one.

Further Reading:

Spectrum Rulesheet – Pinball.org
Bally Spectrum – IPDB
Mastermind (board game) – Wikipedia