CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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REVIEW: Pinball Electronics’ Bally/Stern LED Lamp Driver Board

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The games produced by Bally and Stern between the years of 1977 and 1984 were enormously popular with players when they first graced the arcades, and remain popular to this day.  Soaring prices of New-In-Box games and classic 90’s era Williams titles have driven collectors, who may not have enjoyed these games when they were first on route in arcades, to discover and enjoy them in their own game rooms.  Perhaps collectors are finding that the Value:Fun ratio is more balanced in a Bally/Stern game than it is in more contemporary offerings.  The continued popularity of the Bally/Stern subset of games also points towards the acceptance of a more “no frills”-type of pinball: no deep rule sets, no complicated mechanisms or toys, no ramps or multi-level playfields.  The games offer the player a wild dash to the finish, rather than the long exhausting marathon sometimes offered by the more modern pinball machine.  Given the sheer number of games originally produced during the 1977 to 1984 run, the survival rate is very high and there is a great demand for reproduction parts to keep these games running properly.  This is a first review in a continuing series where Credit Dot will examine some of the reproduction parts being manufactured and how technological innovation is making Bally/Stern games look and play better than ever.

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I’ll state at the outset that I’m not a huge fan of LEDs in games made prior to 1986.  It’s an arbitrary date I’ve set for myself that coincides with Williams offering its first game powered by the System 11 operating system (High Speed in January of 1986).  For all Electromechanical and early Solid State games, I’m a firm believer that the warm glow of incandescent bulbs is the only way to go.  There’s no accounting for taste, however, and modifying a game in your collection to your personal tastes is half the fun of ownership.  As you may or may not know, Bally and Stern games between 1977 and 1984 cannot properly accommodate LED bulbs: the controlled inserts will offer a seizure inducing flicker if LEDs are added to a game without first making suitable modifications.  The LED bulbs draw so little current that the controlled lamps (any lamp that is turned on and off by the MPU) fail to “latch on”, resulting in the game attempting to turn on the lamp every fraction of a second until the signal is turned off.  Resistance must be added to the game in order for the LEDs to function properly, and allow the lamps to latch on.  There’s a few ways to go about doing this.

The first option is to solder a resistor to each MPU-controlled bulb socket.  It’s the cheapest way to go about the process, as a single resistor will only cost you $0.05, however, there’s a lot of soldering involved and it’s a pretty invasive process–having to permanently solder a 470 ohm resistor to each socket.  Another option is to buy an adapter kit from Siegecraft Electronics to add to your game.  The kit retails for $45.00USD, and can be found at the Siegecraft webstore or Pinball Life (both sites are out of stock at time of writing).  Essentially, the kit gives you three small circuit boards with resistors mounted on them that plug into your original lamp driver board in the backbox.  Instead of the resistors being mounted to the sockets themselves (as in our first example), multiple resistors are mounted onto the three daughter boards.

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The contents of a Siegecraft LED Adapter Kit.

The final option is to obtain an entirely new lamp driver board with the resistors incorporated in the design of the board itself.  Alltek Systems, makers of fine reproduction circuit board solutions for Bally/Stern games, have incorporated an “LED Flicker Free” feature into their lamp boards that will eliminate the LED flicker completely.  The Alltek board will set you back around $119.00USD.

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Alltek’s Ultimate LED/Lamp Driver Board

However, buying the entire board would be overkill for most people.   The original Bally/Stern lamp board is perhaps the easiest board in all of pinball to troubleshoot and repair.  The layout is straightforward and easy to follow from input signal to output signal, and there aren’t many wild card components to confuse those new to pinball repair.  Most times, it’s going to be a bad transistor component or connector issue that prevents a lamp from working properly.

I had a situation where I had acquired a classic Stern game that was completely missing the lamp board, so I was in the market for a board, whether or not I was going to put LEDs into it.  There are plenty of refurbished boards available for sale on Pinside, for around $50USD, from reputable sellers.  I was going to go this route, however, I found that Pinball Electronics (also known as NVram.weebly.com), a webstore maintained by Pinside user “barakandl”, had made available for purchase his own design of a Bally/Stern lamp driver board.  His board retails for $90USD (including shipping) and includes all the LED capabilities of the Alltek board for $30USD less than the more established brand.  Further to this, Pinball Electronics will sell the bare printed circuit board, with no components soldered to it, for a mere $15USD, and allow you to do the soldering work yourself.

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Pinball Electronics’ $90USD fully assembled LED Lamp Driver Board

I had the opportunity to speak to Andrew from Pinball Electronics about the newly offered lamp board and the reasons behind offering it as a DIY kit.  Andrew’s love of pinball is deeply rooted in Bally and Stern pinball games.  He explains:

“I learned electronics by fixing early Bally and Sterns. I think they are perfect game for a new person looking for their first pinball restoration project. There are lots of reproduction parts available and plenty of online documentation to reference.” 

If you are a Bally/Stern owner experiencing a problem with your game, and ask the pinball community for help on Pinside, there’s a good chance that Andrew’s online alter ego, “barakandl”, will be one of the first to respond, offering troubleshooting techniques or possible solutions.  When asked about the reasons for offering a DIY board as well as a completely assembled board, Andrew responded:

“I think the average skillset of pinball collectors is decreasing with more and more people getting into the hobby. Kits like these help people get their feet wet doing PCB repair. Collectors also love modding their games. Kits like these can be considered a ‘mod’, a project someone can assemble and install themselves, and feel good when the job is done.” 

With an influx of collectors and players entering the pinball hobby, perhaps there are a greater number of people diving into PCB repair feet first, without knowing the basics (or having a practical understanding of what they are doing).  Being able to assemble a relatively simple PCB from scratch not only helps beginners learn the basics of soldering, but it will help build confidence and comfort in working with PCBs when the next repair is needed.  For those with a more advanced skill set, it appears that building the board from scratch, and doing the tedious soldering yourself, will offer a lamp board solution that will be very friendly to your pocketbook.

The board design itself isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it does offer a couple of improvements over the original Bally and Stern designs.  Andrew explains:

“I placed the resistor footprints in a way that the end user has component options. Isolated resistors are in banks of eight, so you can use a DIP-16 resistor array, a Bourns 4116R, or standard discrete resistors. Also, resistors with a common bussed pin can employ a 9-pin bussed resistor network or, again, use discrete resistors.” 

Further, the footprints for the four 4514 chips have been designed to accommodate both the original DIP-24 4514 chips (marked as obsolete but still available), or the more readily available, and cheaper, SO-24 (small outline) 4514 chips.

I ordered the bare lamp board with a few other items from Pinball Electronics, so shipping ended up being free.  The rest of the materials I sourced from Great Plains Electronics.  I could have shopped around at Mouser or Digikey, but I find their sites a bit overwhelming, and further, GPE is a great friend to the pinball hobby so I throw my business their way whenever I can.  The following is my bill of materials for the lamp board:

GRAND TOTAL: $59.44

ALTERNATE COMPONENTS

The SO-24 4514 chips can replace the DIP-24 4514 chips and are available from Digikey for $1.16ea. https://www.digikey.com/products/en?keywords=1727-6338-1-ND%20

The 4116R resistor array can replace the 2K resistors and are available from GPE for $0.35ea. https://www.greatplainselectronics.com/proddetail.asp?prod=4116R-2-222

As you can tell from my bottom line total above, there is value in building the board yourself.  It checks in at nearly half the price of an Alltek lamp board, and is just a few dollars more than the kit offered by Siegecraft, while offering the same functionality and LED support as both options.  If you are willing to shop around for the alternate parts, you may be able to shave a few dollars more from my total above.  I opted to use discrete, individual resistors in my build, rather than using the resistor array packages. No difference in function in the end, just a few more points to solder.

Assembling the board is as straightforward as can be.  Pinball Electronics offers a bare bones data sheet as to where each component needs to be soldered. For those who are not adept at DIY board population, a temperature controlled solder station, like the Hakko FX888, with a fine tip isn’t completely necessary to complete the job here, but it will ensure a clean looking and fully functioning end product.  I had my board fully assembled and installed in my machine in about an hour and fifteen minutes.  The board worked “right out of the box”, as it were, as I had re-pinned all of my connectors as a preventative measure while restoring the game (I implore beginners, please take the time to learn how to use a Molex crimping tool and re-pin your connectors before trying to locate bad components on your boards–I don’t know how many times I’ve read “It ended up being a connector issue” in Bally/Stern repair threads).

To finish the installation, the board needs to be attached to the switched illumination bus (found at one of the controlled lamps sockets on the swing-out wooden back board).  All of the aftermarket replacement solutions discussed above need this modification for proper operation.  The Siegecraft kit needs each of the mini-boards to be connected to the bus, resulting in a three wire menagerie running to the backboard.  The Alltek and the Pinball Electronics boards have built-in terminals ready for the user to tap into.  In the case of the Pinball Electronics board I built, a four-terminal Molex plug can be used to attach the wire to the board, as four 0.1 male pins, in parallel, have been integrated into the design of the board.  This provides an overall cleaner look using parts correct to the period, and appearing less “hack”-like.

Some collectors like the having original boards in their machines for the purposes of keeping it “all original”.  I’m not one of those people.  With the number of reproduction parts available for the Bally/Stern games these days, keeping your game looking flawless AND “all original” is nearly impossible.  If the reproduction works, I’ll use it.  In eighteen short months, Pinball Electronics has offered a handful of reproduction boards such as a universal Bally/Stern MPU, the (n)ever-popular Bally/Stern rectifier board and, of course, this lamp driver.  It seems that Andrew is just getting started, as I asked what new projects were on the horizon:

“Ongoing current projects include the Bally -50 sound board and a Stern High Voltage DMD Power Supply.  And I have just begun working on a reproduction Stern SB-300 sound board. I plan on tackling anything that will make sense to assemble, and has a demand for aftermarket replacements in the community.”

The Pinball Electronics lamp board is a quality product at a fantastic price point given the other options available on the market.  If you want to add LEDs to your Bally/Stern game, the board offers a sleek look with the LED option built right in at a price point that can’t be beat.  If you don’t mind a little manual soldering labour and assemble it yourself, it offers a value that can’t be matched.

FURTHER READING:

Pinball Electronics
http://nvram.weebly.com/

Pinside – New Repro Bally/Stern Lamp Driver Board with LED Support
https://pinside.com/pinball/forum/topic/new-repro-bally-stern-lamp-driver-board-with-led-support

Vid’s Review – Classic Bally/Stern LED Adapter Kit
https://pinside.com/pinball/forum/topic/classic-ballystern-led-adapter-kit-review


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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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PEOPLE: Kristin from MEZELMODS

Albuquerque, New Mexico isn’t a hotbed of pinball by any stretch of the imagination. However, pinball is alive and well in the ABQ. The local group of enthusiasts, Duke City Pinball, is enjoying record numbers and the city can boast that it is home to both Don of the Pinball Podcast and the good people at Mezelmods. In less than one year Tim Mezel and Kristen Browning-Mezel (pronounced like the spotty disease) have been creating, making and selling pinball modifications that can be classified as “MUST HAVES” for the machines they are manufactured for. You probably know them best for their Metallica snake fangs and the “Donut Heaven” mod for High Speed II: The Getaway. I got a chance to ask the Mezel’s better half, Kristin, a few questions about how the company began, the mod creation process and Pinball Podcast Don’s frequent visits.

Tim and Kristin

Credit Dot: Can you give me an idea who makes up the Mezel Mods team?

Kristin Browning-Mezel: Our team is small but efficient. Tim is the entrepreneur and the founder of Mezelmods. He doesn’t rest until his latest mod idea is up and running. I’m the business operations person which includes everything from marketing, sales, customer service, inventory management and manufacturing. Don Walton [of Pinball Podcast fame] works in what I call Mezelmods West. He lives right around the corner and pours hours of his time into the electrical work behind most our mods. He’s also the brains behind the mods we’ve produced for Jersey Jack’s Wizard of Oz.

CD: How long have you been in business?

KBM: A whopping seven months! When I joined Tim in December he had just hit it big with the Metallica snake fangs. He was drowning in orders. Ever since, we’ve had consistently growing revenue.

CD: The “Donut Heaven” mod for The Getaway: High Speed 2 was another mod that helped put you on the map. Can you give me some insight as to what inspired the original build, and how it morphed into what it is today?

KBM: Tim got interested in pinball mods after purchasing the Getaway. He found the metal bracket above the ball launch distracting and ugly. After combing Pinside, he found others that felt the same way, and also the plans for a Donut Heaven café which was rumored to have been part of the original design for the game. His first effort to build Donut Heaven was less than sufficient. The materials available at the hobby shop just didn’t cut it. So, he decided to buy a 3D printer (technology he had coveted for some time) to build the mod. The feedback from Pinsiders was overwhelming and the rest, as they say, is history.

CD: Was the success of Donut Heaven that moment when you said to yourself “I can make a living from this!”?

KBM: I’m not sure we are convinced that we can make a living off of this yet! That being said, after Donut Heaven, Tim began to see many opportunities to mod Metallica. Those mods continue to be widely successful. As a result, we frequently talk about the possibility of growing the business into other aspects of pinball, and beyond into other niche hobby markets.

CD: How do you decide what mods get made?

KBM: We’ve had a few knock down drag outs over what to make, and what not to make. I want to make more for WOZ, whereas Tim says we are done. But in all honesty, Tim is the entrepreneur. He looks at the machine for places where something is missing or could use improvement. My involvement starts once a concept has been formulated and we are ready to start refining the idea.

CD: Tron and AC/DC top the list of Pinball’s Most Modded, having more mods available than any other game. Collectors really seem to love to mod their Stern games right out of the box: the mods you offer reflect this. Why does this trend exist?

KBM: The Stern business model lends itself to adding mods. The three tiered approach to releasing machines–Pro, Premium and Limited Edition models–means the lower two tiers quite often have lots of space for mods. Additionally, Stern seems to focus on what they are best at: building a great game around a popular theme. They have one or two centerpiece playfield ‘toys’ that are accentuated by colors and graphics. This leaves tons of room for modders to make interesting additions.

CD: After a mod is first made, how long, if at all, is it play tested in the machine it is made for?

KBM: Test time varies by mod. Some mods, drop targets for example, have to go through extensive testing, up to a month on multiple machines, prior to launch. Others simply need to be tried out for a few weeks.

CD: Quite a few of your products are dependent on 3D Printing technology. Can you give us some insight into what equipment you use?

KBM: We currently utilize a consumer grade printer by Makerbot and are in discussions to partner with a firm with more high-end, business printers. We want to be able to develop mods using technology that our Makerbot is not capable of producing.

CD: How many mods are too many mods in a pinball machine? Is there such thing as “over-modding”?

KBM: To mod or not to mod; that is the question. Some keep their machines pristine. Others come close to creating their own little version of pinball hoarding with trinkets everywhere. Modding is a matter of personal preference. We believe that the best mods are those that could have been included pre-market. They are obvious gaps: a snake without fangs, a dark area in the playfield, a trinket that was planned but cut from the final design. Those types of mods sell like crazy. While we sell trinkets or add-ons to the game, personally, we don’t like to over do it.

CD: What are your thoughts about Stern’s announcement of the “Custom Dirty Donny Premium Edition” of Metallica? This is basically a “modded” machine straight from the factory! Is it worth the enormous price tag for what you get?

KBM: There are pinball fanatics who are also music fanatics who will no doubt pick up this game. Collectors may also be interested in this game because Metallica is likely going to end up on the majority of collectors’ top ten lists. It is a great game. Combine that with custom artwork and it is likely worth it to the right person. While it is a hefty price tag, the custom painting looks fantastic. Bottom line, this is a niche machine for a very specific audience.

CD: A game such as Funhouse has very little available, mod-wise. It stands out because it was a high production game with a theme that lends itself to adding “theme park” augmentations. What makes a game like Funhouse “immune” to modding?

KBM: Our biggest limiter to modding new machines such as Funhouse is accessibility to the machine. Tim’s creative genius comes from hours of play and staring at the playfield. While having Don’s machines just down the street has helped, nothing replaces having the pin at home. Maybe we will open an arcade so we have access to more machines!

CD: Can you give us a sneak peak on what new products do you have on the horizon?

KBM: The Wizard of Oz State Fair mod is just about to be released thanks to Don’s hard work. We are also working on a pretty cool backbox addition for AC/DC. One of our customers is testing a Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Idol mod which is just about ready for prime time, too. Our next machine to work with is World Cup Soccer ‘94! Expecting great things from that one!

CD: How active are you in the social aspect of the hobby?

KBM: We are very active…social butterflies in social media, as it were! Pinside is our go-to place to get feedback on new mods and to find out what customers might want to see next. We are slowly, but steadily, growing our fan base on Facebook and Twitter. Come check us out! Like our page! Follow us! [Ed. note: links can be found at the conclusion of the interview.]

CD: What is your best selling mod to date?

KBM: Hands down our Metallica snake fangs. They have sold like gangbusters. This is likely due to what I mentioned previously about the best types of mods. If we had the chance, we would have loved to have manufactured these for Stern pre-market. Virtually everyone agrees: the Metallica snake needs its fangs!

CD: What games are in the Mezel gameroom currently?

KBM: We currently have eight games occupying a good bit of our front room and garage. The three games in the front room are primarily being modded–Metallica, AC/DC and High Speed 2. In the garage we have Johnny Mnemonic, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Star Wars, Revenge From Mars and a currently non-functional World Cup Soccer ‘94. Have we mentioned the cobbler has no shoes? My WCS94 has been down since the business started!

CD: What is the pinball scene like in Albuquerque?

KBM: Small. And we’d love to change that. One of our business ideas is an arcade/restaurant in the 505’s downtown area. We know there are folks out there who play, we just don’t have a ‘go-to’ place here in town. We do have a group of enthusiasts organized under the Duke City Pinball banner.

CD: With Don from the Pinball Podcast being a neighbour, I imagine he comes over to “borrow a cup of sugar” quite a bit and ends up in your gameroom…

KBM: Pre-Mezelmods, Don and Tim did quite a bit of pinball visiting. Now that we are running full tilt (no pun intended) most of our get-togethers are business related. We talk about the best gauge of wire, what kind of Molex connectors we need, and the best type of LEDs. OK…we maybe talk a little pinball in between, but we hardly have a chance to play together!

CD: Any closing thoughts for the modest group of readers out there?

KBM: We love getting ideas from fellow players. If you have an idea for one of your machines please get in touch with us. We love partnering with customers on a new mod!

You can visit Mezelmods at http://www.mezelmods.com. The Mezel’s run a blog, and can be found on Facebook and can be found on Twitter by following @MezelMods.

 


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Mom tilts, and other memories

My mom played pinball. From what I gather, she played lots of it. When I brought my first machine into my childhood home, a Solar Fire when I was fourteen years old, I think my mother played it more than I did the first year it was in the house. I can remember lying in bed on school nights and hearing the now familiar sounds of that early solid state Williams game coming from the basement for hours and hours. I also got to watch my mom, who grew up a tomboy, unceremoniously tilt out on a Funhouse at our local arcade. She was a nudger, and not very lady-like about her technique. She was also adamant that Rudy was calling her a “bitch”…all these years later, I now know he’s saying “Biff”, however, I still think of my mom every time Rudy uses the poorly enunciated term. I never talked to my mother at any great length about her experiences with pinball while she grew up, but I can also remember hitting the recreation room with my aunt on yearly camping trips to play whatever pinball machine we could find. My aunt’s skill was more refined, so it must have been a popular past-time in their neighbourhood while they were growing up in the tourist trap of Niagara Falls in the 60s and 70s.

My mom passed away several years ago and my aunt several years before that. This past Easter, what remains of my mom’s side of the family came for dinner at our home, and we ended the night in the gameroom with all machines buzzing away. I couldn’t help but remember those old days when everyone would gather around Solar Fire after any given holiday dinner for a few games that got intense and very competitive in a hurry.

I miss my mom dearly and I wish more than anything that she was still with us so that she could experience, love and spoil her grandson and soon-to-be granddaughter as much as I know she would. I don’t have too many memories about my mom and pinball, I just thought it was apropos to share what I did remember, this being the day we celebrate all moms.