CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


3 Comments

NEWS: VAULT SPELL G-R-E-E-D, Stern Announces Iron Man Vault Edition

Does Stern’s PR department not do fact checking?  Do they not know that the words VAULT and GREED are forever connected in the world of pinball thanks to the Addams Family?  No matter…

Shortly after noon today, Stern announced they would be re-releasing Iron Man, in a special edition they call the “Iron Man Pro Vault Edition”, which, essentially, will feature LEDs instead of the original incandescent bulbs and improve the casts of the villain figurines on the playfield. No word on whether the game will feature artwork changes for the backglass or cabinet.

The impact seems minute at first glance: a company is remaking a product that was a dud when first released, but has since increased in popularity and a demand now exists for more. Anyone who has ever wanted an Iron Man, or even thought about owning an Iron Man, can now have a Vault Edition for a MSRP of $5495USD. This premise was first attempted, successfully, by Stern with multiple runs of Tron. However, the catchy “Vault” tag wasn’t used, rather, different translites indicated the different runs of the game. Stern and the pinball community at large are traversing a very different landscape now than we were back in 2012. In two short years, the market has become crowded with some excellent Stern releases with multiple models for each title, Jersey Jack’s games finally entering the market place, the actual realization of a few boutique titles like Predator and America’s Most Haunted, announcements of even more boutique titles like Wrath of Olympus and Full Throttle, and, of course, the Planetary Pinball remake of Medieval Madness. That final example is probably the catalyst for all of Stern’s recent re-envisionings like AC/DC’s Luci edition and this Iron Man redux.

I think Stern is well aware of the money, both real and imaginary, tied up in pre-orders. Whether the money is sitting in a manufacturer’s bank account in the form of a deposit or in the collector’s bank account in the form of earmarked money that will be going to a pre-ordered title, Stern wants it. Badly. If folks are willing to pay eight grand for a Medieval Madness, Stern is betting that folks would be willing to pay five (or less, retail) for an Iron Man. Sure, its apples and oranges in terms of theme but it’s the same basic idea: a fan layout old and cherished, in limited supply, made better, stronger and faster while maintaining the original spirit of the game. And with many of these pre-orders having refundable deposits, each new release by Stern has the potential to pull money away from a competitor’s project and add to their own bottom line. That’s a win-win if I ever heard one. Stern is gambling on the fact that we, as a community, are impatient and need instant satisfaction. Why wait six more months for a Medieval Madness? Why wait another six (hopefully) for The Hobbit? Why wait, well, who knows how many more, for one of John Popadiuk’s games? Just buy an Iron Man. We have lots and we have them now…no need to pre-order. Stern wants you to unlock your bank vault, and buy into their “Vault”.

Do you think Stern cares that the value of your original Iron Man just went down the toilet? Not a chance. They aren’t concerned what’s “good for pinball”. As far as they are concerned, they ARE pinball. Your old Iron Man is competition, just as a Williams Whirl Wind or a Data East Guns N’ Roses is “competition”. Competition in as much as it is a four hundred pound game taking up valuable space in your game room and valuable dollars in pinball assets. Stern needs both of those to stay in business. However, this may be a bit short sighted. If the secondary market dips enough, it will end up hurting new-in-box sales–nobody is going to want to put out five grand, only to have their investment sink to two-and-a-half grand when they try to sell the title in a year. It is a vicious cycle. It challenges Stern to include more “value added” features, and produce more “keepers”, however, your guess is as good as mine how many different titles, at thousands of dollars per pop, this community can sustain. We gotta run out of pinball money sometime, no? The operators can’t support Stern on their own.

I think this announcement will also create discussion about what other titles will re-enter “Vault” production. The Simpsons Pinball Party? Spider-Man? Both are candidates–they are titles that are always in demand in the secondary market and have held their value well. Could Stern venture back into the Data East catalogue? I’m actually at a loss as to what Data East games would be worth remaking…none come to mind…but something may click. It will be interesting to see how this all rolls out in the coming weeks, and leading up to the games actually hitting the market. Given Stern’s stinginess with production numbers, it will be a guessing game how many will actually be remade unless they announce a cap. Perhaps the losers in this whole situation, besides original Iron Man owners, are those that were waiting for the official announcement of Stern’s next game. Everything old is new again. Everything new must wait.

Further Reading:

Pinside – Stern is Re-Releasing IM

Stern Pinball – Iron Man Is Back!

Advertisements


Leave a comment

NEWS: The Stern Facebook Conspiracy (or is it?)



(Ed. Note: I wrote this up over the last couple of days about Stern’s Facebook exploits. And then, last night into this morning, we got three more cryptic posts to drive collectors even more batty. A text only reference to “Blood Majik” (since deleted), a close up of “Coming Soon” art which highlights an animated bum, and a blurry picture of a Comic-Con International logo. A new release is on the horizon, and methinks we are being toyed with…)

The desk jockey that runs Stern’s Facebook page shares a lot of links and images on Stern’s Facebook wall. Many of them relate to recent Stern releases. For example, a link to an Easter-themed Mustang Hot Wheels car was posted over the Easter holiday after the initial release of the Mustang pinball, and multiple links directing readers to information about Metallica’s “Through the Never” concert film were shared in support of their successful Metallica pin. Easy to see why these items are posted–the themes are part of the Stern family and it makes for good brand integration.

However, the pinball conspiracy theorists have a field day when the social media department posts links to stories and photos from franchises that appear to have absolutely nothing to do with pinball. Is it just a total coincidence that all of the subjects of the shared media would make decent pinball themes? Probably not. Recently, visitors were met with a story about the new Planet of the Apes film and a trailer to the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie. More titillating is when they post media related to an already rumoured pinball theme: a zombie playing a Metallica pinball machine (Feb8) or the Muppet version of one of those dreadful “Which Character Are You?” quizzes (Jan16). The zombie reference is an interesting one, as it follows a post that dates back to 2012 with an open-ended question on August 6 of that year: “Who are your favourite zombies?” These open-ended questions are another favourite of the social media team, and February 12, 2013 saw two appear back-to-back–“Who is your favourite Justice League character?” and “What is your favourite Angry Birds game?”

So, do these seemingly “random” posts serve as a crystal ball to foreshadow future themes? If you read nearly any pinball message board, they certainly do. Each Facebook share is met shortly thereafter with the obligatory “(FACEBOOK POST SUBJECT) IS THE NEXT STERN!!!” post. These threads are only second in absurdity to the ones that state: “I have a friend who has a friend who owns an amusement shop in Tulsa and he says the next Stern theme will be (INSERT THEME CASUALLY REFERENCED IN A FACEBOOK SHARE HERE)”. Sometimes you won’t even get “owns amusement shop in Tulsa,” it will be replaced with “close to an industry insider”. (Most times, this “insider” is the guy who wipes up the spilled beer from atop the pinball machines at the local barcade.)

Stern plays it pretty close to the chest in their theme development for the most part, and all of the posts, thus far, have turned out to be random shares of cool links that may interest Stern’s key demographic. Perhaps the PR department just likes adding fuel to the rumour fire. If history tells us anything, it is that Stern did not openly reference any of their last few themes with an allusion to them in the form of a Facebook post. They did not post pictures of classic cars or share links to the Chicago Auto Show before Mustang’s release–only after the announcement did we got a flood of Ford propaganda. Before prior releases, there was no close-up detail from the cover of “……And Justice For All”, no “Which AC/DC album are you?”–no teaser hints ever seem to be given. I mined the Stern Facebook page for a reference to Star Trek before the announcement of the machine, and I was stymied there, too.

The pinball community is full of professional speculators, especially when trying to guess what Stern Pinball will do next. They are a company that, up until about two years ago, was horribly inefficient at sharing information with their customers and fans. Heck, they still refuse to share production numbers, which shows how secretive they are about their business. Secrets in the arcade world are historically ill-kept–thus we have Premier’s Monte Carlo and Williams’ Millionaire, both with roulette wheels, released in the same month in 1987, as well as Pinball Magic and Theatre of Magic hitting the marker almost concurrently in the 1990s. I don’t think there is much need for cloak and dagger anymore, with Stern being the undisputed king of the hill in the pinball business, but old habits die hard. And it feels like the social media team is having fun with red herrings.

Each link to an ALF episode guide or Anchorman 2 movie trailer immediately becomes fodder for a new pinball rumour. All this blind speculation must be good for Stern’s business, too. It gets people talking about the company—a company that, almost overnight, has some stiff competition to contend with in the pinball market. Spooky Pinball and Skit-B are boutique companies that don’t have to show they have indy-cool credibility, it is built-in. Maybe Stern is going out of their way to mine some sort of pop culture credibility. Sure a few people will be disappointed that a Muppets or Walking Dead pinball machine won’t be hitting the market anytime soon, but those are people who probably wouldn’t be happy with the layout, or art package, or code, or colour of the post rubbers if the theme somehow did get produced. With the inevitable community buzz about potential themes in Facebook comments and on message boards, you have an automatic focus group (albeit a very unfocussed focus group) containing the sort of people that keep you in business—folks who buy and/or play pinball machines. Of course you can’t please everyone, but you can get a general feeling of what will work, and what will be met with utter distain.

Credit Dot isn’t going to join the professional speculators. I’m no industry insider, and I don’t know anyone who owns an amusement company in small town America. We can, however, assume that the next theme will return to its “roots” after throwing us a curve ball with Mustang: the smart money is on a music or comic theme that hasn’t been referenced on their Facebook wall. However, they have NOT made reference to a lot of themes on Facebook, so the guessing remains wide open for the masses: Monty Python’s Flying Circus, ZZ Top, The Big Bang Theory and scrambled eggs. It is best not to join the speculators, as I’ll end up looking like a fool (well, more so) when the theme doesn’t pan out. But part of me wants to go directly to Pinside and post that I know for a fact that scrambled eggs will the theme of Stern’s next pinball machine…

(Another Ed. Note: Okay, f you want some wild speculation, I do have some. I referenced the Zombie/Justice League open-ended questions posted on August 6th 2012 in the above article, which I researched last week. When I went back to take a screengrab of the two questions back-to-back on their wall, Stern has apparently deleted the reference to Justice League between the time I saw it last week and today. The Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy posts were also scrubbed clean from their wall. Something is afoot…)

Further Reading:

Facebook – Stern Pinball Official Facebook Page


4 Comments

NEWS: Wheel of Fortune Code Update (kind of)

Wheel of Fortune was one of those games that got lost in the shuffle during the dawn of a challenging period for Stern, who was busy trying to stay afloat under the weight and pressure of being the only pinball manufacturer in town. The stars kind of aligned for Wheel of Fortune’s misfortune: unappealing theme, experimental gameplay, off-putting playfield bobbleheads and the fact that it was Dennis Nordman’s swan song with Stern. The game has its fans, but it was a flop when it was new and it has not fared well in the secondary market either–being relegated to D-Lists and the third page (currently #212) of the Pinside Top 100. It is also one of those games to famously bear the heavy cross of “unfinished code”, which seems to bother the community to no end.

Unfinished code is nothing new. Especially for Stern. They only recently, after an ugly organized uprising by the community, became more adept at releasing code updates in a more timely fashion. We can thank the especially weak code Metallica code (and Stern’s disinclination to update it for more than a year) for the community backlash to rear its head and make Stern revisit its code update policy. However, Wheel of Fortune stumbled out of the gate in October of 2007, selling very few units, so there was no incentive for the company to go back and round out the rules of the game. Sometime after Wheel rolled off of the assembly line and into the discount bin, Stern decided to bury the game entirely, including burying designer Dennis Nordman, not inviting him back to work on future releases. It was almost as if they were just trying to get the game off of the books entirely. It is no surprise the troubled game didn’t get its due in the programming department.

The game is totally playable without the completed code, and, surprisingly, has a deeper and more entertaining ruleset than other Stern games of the period (IJ4, CSI, 24). It is missing a wizard mode and various animations/callouts, but on a whole, the game is fun if you can get past the grandmotherly theme. It had long been rumoured that programmer Keith Johnson did further work on the code during his time with Stern, and thanks to further processing within the rumour mill, some lay claim that Johnson had in fact completed the code.

That brings us to a For Sale thread that appeared on Pinside yesterday, advertising a $4500USD Wheel of Fortune with low plays and something interesting going on with its code. Seller, Pinside user devlman, touted in the original ad:

“It also has v6.02 software…I don’t know the origin of this but have never seen it before. From looking at it in the editor software it has some additional messages and another feature adjustment mode as compared to the latest public Stern release (5.xx).”

Devlman stated the game came with this code, and the previous seller told him not to share the code publicly, which he complied with. People were interested–even if this 6.02 code contained only minor fixes or additions it would still breathe new life into a long ignored game. I’m sure Devlman received more than a few private messages asking to share the code even though he stated outright that he would not right in the original for sale thread. Nearly 24 hours after the post apepared, and after much discussion of where the code originated, original Wheel of Fortune programmer Keith Johnson (Pinside ID “pinball_keefer”) joined the discussion to set things straight:

“I wasn’t going to say anything but I’ve been bugged about this a little bit so here’s what the deal is.

I released a version of software, “6.00I” (for IFPA, I don’t remember what tournament it was for) or some such, that basically added some competition mode stuff (derandomized wild card and big spin). Those are the ONLY changes from 5.00 which is the last public release I did while at Stern. 6.00I was circulated a fair amount amongst tournament types, mostly those running tournaments. (I didn’t/don’t care.)

While doing crapwork on other games (like IJ4 and CSI) I had time to add some of the stuff I wanted to on WOF. Many bugs got fixed. Probably more speech. I gave a test version to 1 person that I trust unconditionally. I don’t remember what version I called it, but I don’t think it was 6.02. I don’t remember for sure, though. I’m not sure if he still has his WOF or not, but I doubt it’s this game.

As someone stated, the main gameplay change that is noticeable is that there are “mode goals.” The goal is simply to score x points before time runs out. If you get the goal, you won, great. The next mode, the goal would be higher. If you didn’t win, oh well, the next mode, the goal would be lower. Also, you could replay the mode you failed, at 2x points. If you failed the same mode twice, you could play it a 3rd time for 3x points. If you failed 3 times, the game gave up. Oh, also for each mode you won, you got a “winnings x” for that ball’s bonus.

IIRC there’s no logic for completing the wheel yet, but the reward was going to be something like 10M for each mode won on try #1, 5M for each on try #2, 2.5M for each on try #3, and 1M for failed modes. If by some unfathomable stroke of luck you completed every mode on the first try, you’d get a bonus to round up the total to 100M.

And that’s pretty much it. Oh yeah, puzzle solutions in attract mode, too. No one other than my tester and myself had seen the code until (I think) expo 2010. Trent wanted 6.0 for the expo tourney. For some unknown reason, I was contacted by Stern asking where 6.0 code was, 2 years after I had been laid off and several months after I had been left out to dry on a possible rehire. I said something to the effect of I have [no fucking idea], look on my computer. I guess instead of finding the 6.00I version that had been around for a couple of years, they decided to compile whatever I had done and left sitting on my computer (since I wasn’t allowed to check in any changes after getting the boot) and release that.

So, the existence of 6.02 is solely due to Stern, and not due to me. I still do not have a copy of 6.02; my game runs 5.00. I have no way of making or creating any version of WOF. Stern released it to Trent, and whatever happened after that is between Stern and everyone else, not me. Other than having done the work on it while I was still there, I have absolutely no connection to the released image of 6.02.

If anyone cares, no, [I don’t give a fuck] if 6.02 gets passed around or not. Maybe Stern does and maybe they don’t; you’d have to ask them.”

So the code in devlman’s game amounts to a unreleased version with a few extra features for a game long maligned for being incomplete. It is a very interesting revelation, even if the update doesn’t amount to very much in the grand scheme of things, nor does it fix some of the more glaring omissions from the 5.XX code. It is amazing that something like this exists in a community where nearly everyone is connected to someone in the industry, and nobody can keep their mouth shut (being in such a tight knit community is a blessing and a curse all at the same time). So I suppose the rumour can be put to bed: Keith Johnson didn’t complete the Wheel of Fortune code, but he did work on an updated version while he was at Stern. Short of someone going back and rewriting the code (a la Data East Star Wars), this will have to give Wheel owners hope for the time being. Hopefully this talk of updated WoF code forces Stern’s hand, and, as a gesture of good will and new-found dedication to code updates, they will release this in some official capacity through their website. It may not be much, but it will be an olive branch. Even if that olive branch still doesn’t have a wizard mode.

Further Reading:

Pinside – FS: HUO WOF 550 Plays Mint Condition (quotes above taken from this page)
Pinball News – Wheel of Fortune Review
Pinside – Tell Me About Wheel of Fortune
Stern Pinball – Wheel of Fortune (Check here for future code updates!  Ha!)


7 Comments

NEWS: Stern’s “Custom Dirty Donny Premium Edition” Metallica

I thought the idea of double dipping was outrageous when a studio revisited the DVD release of one of their films I had already purchased, and re-released it in an “Ultimate Edition” DVD package, jammed with new extra features, commentaries and bonus materials. And then Blu-Rays came along and then I had to buy them all a third time. I guess that’s a triple dip, technically. Regardless, this sort of double dipping is now a trend in pinball. That five grand pinball machine you bought two years ago? Yeah, if you are any sort of fan you are going to have to buy this spruced up edition with new art or different coloured trim. Or in the case of Stern’s Metallica, a set of custom painted plastic playfield toys…and not much else.

The announcement rolled out today on Stern’s Facebook page that there would be a “limited number” of what Stern calls a “Custom Dirty Donny Premium Edition”. From the mock-up, it looks like the buyer will get a signed Donny Premium translite, along with a series of hand-painted, hand-signed playfield plastic toys: the snake, the crosses, the hammer, and, of course, the Sparky bobblehead. I suppose this was a logical move–folks have been custom paining their Sparky toys since the release of the game and some even “contracted” Donny to do the painting. This follows a much larger trend started by Jersey Jack Pinball who announced the release of a Ruby Red Wizard of Oz machine, a year or so after the initial release of the game but not before all of the original orders for the game were fulfilled. Stern followed this trend with the “success” of the Luci edition of AC/DC, which reignited interest in the game by removing photos of old dudes and adding a drawing of devil woman with big “horns”. If there is any surprise here, it is that the Metallica translite and side art remains unchanged from the regular run of premium editions. You’d think Stern/Donny would go the extra mile to make this game stand apart from all the rest by changing up the art package a bit (I think a reason does exist for not changing the art, and I’ll discuss it below). I’ll admit, when I first got wind of the announcement, my focus was immediately on the backglass and cabinet art…to see if a cartoon woman with enormous breasts was added.

Early reports of price have the MSRP north of $8000USD. Yikes. Seeing as you could potentially sniff out a new in box Premium for around $6500USD, and probably a bit less on the HUO secondary market, I’m not seeing $1500+ of value added material in this special edition machine. Sure it’s cool and one-of-a-kind, but $8000+ is a bit rich for some painted toys.

Stern is inheriting virtually no extra cost or licencing anxiety here: as stated above there is no commitment or cost to producing/printing a new cabinet art package, and their relationship with Donny is on very good terms (the Facebook page showed Donny and Uncle Gary out for a power lunch or something a few months back, and Donny has also designed Stern swag that they sell in their online store). Even if they only sell twenty of these editions, its not like they have sunk any money into it. Worst case scenario: they ship twenty sets of toys to Donny, he paints them and signs them, ships them back and they slap them onto a Premium sitting in their warehouse and write “Custom Dirty Donny” on the outside of the box and ship it to the poor sap who just had to have the deluxe version.

I’m no business dude, but in my humble opinion, it would have been in Stern’s best financial interest to individually sell custom painted Donny figures and market them as the “ultimate customization mods”…instead of selling them as a part of an entire machine. Metallica owners would eat them up by the spoonful and demand more. Especially if you were shipped a random Donny customization–each piece with its own unique colour and detail–it would drive collectors nutty and I guarantee they would buy not only one of each custom painted toy but MULTIPLES of the SAME toy. Further, it would also inspire trading of these pieces within the community. Sort of like Dunny Bunnies or Simpsons Lego for pinball machines. You could have ultra-rare “chase” paintjobs, or hell, don’t make it random at all and just charge more money for the most popular or rarest designs. And owners of ALL Metallica machines, Pros, Premiums and Limited Editions, could participate and mod out their machine with a unique piece of Donny designed memorabilia. I’m not sure how busy of a guy Donny is, but it seems like this idea is right up his alley. Think of how much money they could charge for each piece of custom painted plastic. Compare that to the limited number of Custom Donny machines Stern thinks they are going to sell.  It may be an idea that opens up a disastrous financial wormhole for the future of pinball, but its yours for free Stern. Use it wisely.

Will there be buyers for this Custom Donny edition? Sure. There are always people that absolutely must have the scarce, limited or hard to come by. Will there be a mass dumping of regular edition Pros and Premiums by collectors in order to upgrade to this custom edition? Probably not. But be on the lookout for more of this Jersey Jack model of “revisiting games” late into production in the near future…I wonder what the Special Edition Premium version of Star Trek is going to look like…?


2 Comments

NEWS: Vintage Flipper World Showcase In Review

Vintage Flipper World is situated inside of an unassuming white panelled building, along a country dirt road on the outskirts of Brighton, Michigan. If you are not looking for it, you’ll miss it. If you didn’t have prior knowledge of what the building looked like, you’ll probably drive right past it. Therein lies the charm of the VFW, brainchild of Clay Harrell and his merry band of pinheads. The location makes sense–serene, unobtrusive, subdued–given that Mr. Harrell has a long and arduous history with disparagers, detractors and backbiters in the pinball community at large. The VFW literally puts space between those people and Mr. Harrell’s dream of a pinball oasis–acres and acres worth of space.

Inside the hall is much less serene, as you’d expect an old Veterans-hall-cum-arcade filled with around 200 pinball machines to sound like. Not to mention the ever present sound of classic rock emitting from the hall’s public jukebox. I walked the aisles and let the sounds of the different decades wash over me. From the soft clamour of Electromechanical chimes, to the electronic squawk of early Solid State technology, to unforgettable call-outs you’d recognize anywhere (“Move your car!”, “The Ma-Mush-Ka!”, “Ooh, nice organ!”). This is an arcade on steroids, with no stand-up video games in sight. In short, it is what many of us picture the afterlife to look like.

I attended the Saturday of the three day event. I had a ticket pre-purchased and with good reason–a crudely written sign hung above the door: “Sold Out”. Selling a limited amount of tickets in advance gets the thumbs up from this reviewer. It kept crowds extremely manageable. I had to wait to play a game once (Big Bang Bar). All other games I wanted to play were free at one point or another during the seven hours I spent there and in every case, I had the option of having a couple games in a row on any given machine (there was never anyone standing by waiting for their turn). Free posters were given away so everyone could leave with a small souvenir to pin up in their gameroom. Other, more traditional concert style posters, were sold for $3USD each.

The area immediately to the left and right of the entrance is filled with woodrail pinball games, and to be honest, I didn’t spend much time there. I played a few games on a woodrail called Niagara, but that was it. The rest of the facility held too many other treasures that kept my attention for the entire day. The main hall has games lining each wall and three rows of games lined up back to back, creating four aisle ways that run the length of the building–thus games flank you on either side when walking down a desired row. The game selection is organized very well, for example all of the Bally Solid State games and Williams DMD games are grouped together in the same aisle. The Williams DMD aisle was rocking the entire time I was there, and with players shoulder to shoulder playing (sometimes two-player) games, it got very crowded, so much so that it was hard for someone to walk the length of the aisle without elbowing someone. If you have a wide leaning stance while playing, like me, be prepared to be nudged, bumped into, and stepped on in this area. The other aisles were much more airy and easy to navigate. There is also a back room of games, containing more high-profile WPCs (Twilight Zone, Monster Bash) and other oddities (Safecracker, Joust), as well as the aforementioned Big Bang Bar. The playfield “art” that lines the hallway to this back room, I’d like to add, are probably in better condition than some of the playfields in my games currently. This is only one aspect of decor. Everywhere you look in the entire facility there is neon…it’s a stark contrast to the vintage dark-stained exposed wood beams and plaster of the aging hall, but it helps create the arcade mood.

Game selection was overwhelming. The line of ealry-Solid State Stern games is unbelievable, and probably the most complete on display in the entire world. The row of Electromechanical Gottlieb games ran the length of the building, in nearly chronological order and ran from early offerings like Slick Chick and the “Flipper” series all the way through later wedgeheads like Neptune and Golden Arrow. The classic Bally solid state games were an impressive sight to behold lined up next to one another. The obvious draw was the Williams WPC area, as I stated above, and I would be hard pressed to name a game that was glaring from its exclusion (they didn’t have a Popeye, but I don’t think anyone was hollering for a refund because of its exclusion).

All games were exceptionally clean and fully functioning. Outlanes opened to the max, pitch set high, and playfields waxed to a high gloss…all making for very fast, very punishing games. The games included looked to be choice examples from their respective runs: no lifting mylar, no broken ramps, and every bulb shining bright. There may have been one feature that wasn’t working on one game that I played, but that was on a Strange Science, and I’m not at all familiar with the rules of the game, so it could have been my ignorance, not a mechanical glitch. Techs wandered about and had playfields lifted amongst the players flipping away, themselves fixing on the fly. One minute a Whirlwind is out of order with two VFW staff pulling the glass off…ten minutes later, I’m playing the game, fully operational. I actually witnessed staff pulling a Demolition Man out of the lineup on a pin dolly, and brought back to the workshop for further diagnosis and repair, as the problem looked to be much more severe than a lame flipper or disconnected wire. No “Out of Order” sign needed here.

The staff was friendly, courteous and altogether welcoming. You could see the club members beaming with pride to have a world class facility like this and witnessing so many visitors enjoying themselves within the confines of their stomping grounds. I swear, at one point over the course of the day, there looked to be more staff members in their orange shirts than there were paying patrons at the facility. It must have been an “all hands on deck scenario”, knowing a full week in advance that the VFW would be at prescribed capacity. I saw Mr. Harrell briefly out in the furthest reaches of the parking area, but never again over the course of my visit. However, as much as I wanted to shake his hand and say thanks, I was having a banner day playing some games I had not played, or had played only once or twice before.

Just as I did in Allentown this year, I spent a minuscule amount of time with DMD era games, as most of them can be found in private collections close to home. I ventured down the aisle with classic Bally and Stern games first, and I couldn’t pull myself away, spending nearly half the day awash in Solid State bliss. I have very little experience with older solid-state Sterns, and was able to get schooled in a clinic of what the company was doing back then with an almost complete oeuvre to choose from. Iron Maiden was absolutely punishing as was Viper, I laughed off Split Second on first glance, but it ended up being the Stern machine I played most. I had my first go at Orbitor 1, and I’ll echo the sentiment that it’s the pinball equivalent of the morning after a wedding with an open bar. I had some pretty decent scores on Harlem Globetrotters On Tour, Centaur and Nitro Groundshaker, and I now want to own them all. A game that I had not played all that much, Vector, also stood out as a deep, well designed game with a seemingly endless amount of shots and gimmicks. I played EM games Neptune and Lucky Hand for an insane amount of time, as they are add-a-ball Gottleib classics and the “Wow’s” just kept on ringing up. I didn’t fare so well on the System 11 games I love so much. I drained my pants off on Fire! and Elvira and the Party Monsters, which didn’t give me too much hope as I currently own one that I am restoring and the other is at the top of my want list. I’ll have to chalk it up to the games being setup on “extra unforgiving”. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I got to play the super-rare, super-wide Williams Algar, but as I expected, it played much like all the other Williams games of the era. I had a go at my childhood “sweetheart” that is no longer in my collection, Solar Fire, and followed it up by playing its other three siblings in the Williams dual-level game series (Jungle Lord, Pharaoh and Black Knight). Jesus, these are all basically the same game. No wonder pinball was in such trouble back then!

Not having the velvet rope of “THE TOURNAMENT” at the facility was a nice change of pace. All games were accessible to all paying customers. Two games–Bally Strikes and Spares and Williams Fun Fest–were the “tournament” options. Drop a quarter in the coin slot, and if you beat the previous score posted on a sticky-note on the backglass and have it stand all day, you win the money in the cash box. Honour system applied, and the games were on free-play, so if you just wanted to play and didn’t want to “enter” the tournament with a quarter, you didn’t have to. Scores, early in the day, were quite modest, and I forgot to return to check their status before I departed. Mr. Harrell’s insistence that the focus be on playing games and having fun rather than competing rubbed some from the “It’s More Fun To Compete” community the wrong way, but I don’t think that was the type of crowd he was looking for anyhow. This was a showcase for collectors and folks who wanted to pay a small amount of money with nothing to take away except the fun and excitement of playing amongst a well-kept collection of vintage machines. Egos and holier-than-thou attitudes were checked at the door. I say this being a world-class flop at playing pinball. Maybe if I were a ranked player, I’d have my panties in a bunch, too. But it didn’t look like the club needed the support of the tournament players. Everyone had a smile on their face, and there were WOMEN! GLORIOUS WOMEN! More women than I’ve ever seen before at a pinball event! If they key to getting women to come out to these events is to axe the tournament characters, I say it is a path we should follow to pinball equality!

In all, it was well worth the 7-hour, round trip drive. It is nice to have a facility such as this within driving distance, however, the frequency of the facility being open to the public remains unknown. The VFW collection rivals that of the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. Yet, the VFW collection wins hands down in the category of organization, atmosphere, and general game maintenance. The tech area the club has organized looked to be world class, and stocked every pinball part imaginable. The club members donating their time to making the show run in a smooth fashion, from those parking the cars to those soldering loose wires, should be proud to have a hand in such a project. After years of floundering in pinball flux for a viable location to house his immense collection, Clay Harrell now has the VFW. He has shared it with the community for one weekend, and hopefully he chooses to do so on a regular basis. It felt like being at a town hall meeting in small town America, and pinball machines forever held the floor. If you didn’t experience it for yourself, I guarantee you would have been in awe of the passion and excitement that exuded from this unassuming pinball Mecca on the outskirts of Brighton.


Leave a comment

NEWS: Coming Up…Vintage Flipper World Showcase, May 16-18, 2014

With Allentown just behind us, and all my money spent on the treasures there, I didn’t think that I would be able to get another pass from the family to head out to Clay Harrell’s grand opening showcase weekend of the Vintage Flipper World outside of Ann Arbor, MI. I was able to float the idea past my wife guised as a relaxing weekend away–-a weekend where our son would stay with his grandpa. To my surprise, she agreed! Probably because she saw the excursion as an excuse to shop while I spent the day playing pinball. Regardless, I’m planning to attend the Saturday event!

I’ve referenced Clay Harrell’s VFW project on this site a couple of times already so I won’t rehash the rich history. Just know that Harrell has filled an old Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) hall with 190 pinball games from every era and re-named the place the Vintage Flipper World (still VFW…I see what you did there).

The details: The showcase runs Friday May 16 5pm-10pm, Saturday May 17 10am-9pm and Sunday May 18 10am-4pm. Tickets are offered on a first come, first serve basis and are available here. Payment can be made through Paypal, and a printed Paypal receipt is required for admission. Friday and Sunday entrance fee is $20, while Saturday runs you $25. With Saturday’s ticket comes an entry into a draw for a Bally Odds and Evens pinball machine. You need not be there in person to win. Clay limited the number of patrons in the venue to not only control crowds, but to keep the lines short on the more popular games. The Saturday ticket is a hot commodity, so buy it fast if you plan on attending!

The games: This list is here. It is extensive. There are going to be complaints from almost everyone that their favorite game of a particular era isn’t present. That said, I’m going to complain in the most positive way possible! I’m surprised that Centigrade 37 and Volley do not make the cut in the 1970s category…then again, those are pretty popular games you’d be able to find at a friend’s place or on a league night (I know of three collections within 45 minutes of my house that have a C37, so there you go). The Bally solid-state lineup is impeccable. The System 11 collection hits all the high spots, however notable from their exclusions are Earthshaker and Dr. Dude. Since I’m a fan of this era, I wish more games that are unique for their rarity were present (Transporter: The Rescue, Radical!)…because using the above EM scenario, I can play a High Speed or F14 Tomcat nearly anywhere, but my chances of finding a Radical! is very limited. The DMD era games make up the bulk of the collection and its a pretty complete smattering of favourites and rarities (including a Safecracker and a Cactus Canyon).

The tournament (if you can call it that): Clay is de-emphasizing tournaments at the VFW. No world rankings, no whopper points, no hefty buy-ins. Certain games will be declared tournament games and if you drop a quarter in, you have entered the tournament. Highest score at the end of the day gets all the money in the coin box. Clay & Co. have the right to disqualify anyone they deem a “pro” or “ringer”. This is a very bold move. In essence, this show is for collectors, casual players and pinball connoisseurs, not for “pros” who spend hundreds of dollars to qualify to win a pot of $250.

The swap meet: The VFW site has plenty of room for folks to come and show off their wares. Vendors are encouraged. Parts guys from Pinball Life and Pin Restore will also be there.

The venue: As a Kickstarter backer, I got to see pictures and videos of this venue throughout its various stages of construction, and it looks to be the perfect place for a pinball showcase such as this. The venue is over 6000sq/ft and includes a pinball workshop on site. Surrounded by acres of land, there is plenty of room to barbecue or camp for the showcase weekend. The venue is located on the outskirts of Brighton, MI–at 8891 Spicer Rd, Brighton MI, 48116. Lodging available in nearby Brighton for those coming from out of town.

From Clay’s comments to Nate Shivers the other day on Coast2Coast Pinball, I fear this may be the only chance, or one of very few chances, we get to explore the wonders of the venue and its treasures within. It is cleared to open four times a year, yet Clay pretty much came out and said they would only be open once this calendar year, and left a big question mark if it would even maintain a yearly schedule. One can only hope this the opening weekend is a success. For me, the three-and-a-half hour drive is a drop in the hat to play some rare games, and some favourites too. For pinball starved aficionados in Michigan, Southern Ontario and Northern Ohio, excitement should be high for this type of event.

Further Reading:
Vintage Flipper World (VFW) – Home Page