CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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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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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…?


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MODS: A Trifecta of Transposing Translites

If you are adding a machine to your private collection, it goes without saying that you want it to look its very best. You can have a complete unbroken set of plastics, a quadruple clear coated playfield and a fresh sheet of Invisi-glass, but if Alec Baldwin’s icy stare is looking back at you from the backbox, nobody is going to notice any of that other stuff. There has been a recent trend for pinball fans to produce their own high quality replacement translites for machines that have otherwise questionable art choices. Again, this is the ingenuity of the community at work. These high quality works are not produced in art houses or fancy production companies, but rather on laptops in people’s homes. Well, one person’s home in particular.

The backglass for the once sleeper pinball machine The Shadow is almost universally panned by the pinball community as one of the worst to grace a machine since the Premier/Gottlieb photographic abominations of the mid-1980s. Necessity being the mother of invention, it was absolutely necessary for everyone to erase Alec Baldwin’s handsome face from the annals of pinball history.

Pinsider Aurich took it upon himself to create a brand new Shadow translite that looked better than the original and was of far better quality than any other alternate translites available on the market. Alternate homebrew Shadow translites existed before Aurich’s version, but none really cut the mustard in overall execution or print quality. For some reason, printing on large scale translucent plastic is tough for most sellers of aftermarket translites. Most are washed out, pixelated or just generally inferior. Aurich’s translite is a true work of art. It encapsulates the spirit of the 1930s Shadow serials and presents it in a straightforward, uncluttered manner. Further, to complete the package, a PETG speaker panel was manufactured and sold with the translite as a set. The new Aurich art matches the art deco feel of the playfield much better, in fact, than the original does. The general consensus from Pinsiders was that THIS version was the absolute definitive version. You can’t blame artist Doug Watson for the abomination that is the original. He was following the high-budget, high-concept, no-substance formula that gripped Hollywood in the mid-1990s, thus the original art is a good representation of those values. Also, I’m sure Williams/Bally/Midway was strong-armed by the production company to push Baldwin as a matinee idol, and what better way to do so than with a big ol’ Baldwin head front and centre. (As an aside, this was just one backglass in Doug Watson’s “Big Head Triliogy”, which also includes Terminator 2 and Demolition Man.)

As beautiful as the new art package looks, I’m torn as to whether I would display it on my Shadow machine, if I owned one. A lot of the drive I have in collecting and playing pinball is the connection it has to my youth and experiencing these machines in public spaces in their original forms. Hence, I have a lot of games that I remembered playing when I was younger, and no games that preceded that era or followed it (ie. no EMs, no early SS, no Sterns). Also, I’m not heavy into modding my machines, believing that a pinball machine is best left alone in order to accurately represent the time period from which is was released. I’ve actually taken out mods installed by previous owners after I have added them to my collection. Granted, I have not come across anything that needs modding quite like the Baldwin backglass does. The purist in me would like to think that I would keep the original on the game as historical document. It is far more interesting to keep it installed and preserve it as a snapshot of history…and to wonder how in God’s name someone at Williams/Bally/Midway AND the movie studio looked at it back in 1994 and said “Yup, nailed it!”. I say study/celebtate/comment/criticize the mistakes that have been made in history, don’t erase them.

But again, I think of how horribly executed that original art is compared to how WONDERFULLY executed Aurich’s art is. I guess it’s a good thing I don’t own a Shadow so I don’t have to make this kind of executive decision.

Aurich wasn’t done yet. Next he tackled Stern’s AC/DC art package…setting his sights on a shirtless old rock and roll star (the Premium edition). For his new version, Aurich took the route of so many eBay alternate translites that came before..he just added boobs.

So here we have a hellish female bearing the name of Helen, complete with come hither eyes, a large chest and erect nipples. Again, his package included extras to pull the package together, including a decal to cover up the sneering Angus Young face on the Pro playfield where the lower playfield resides on the more expensive editions. I personally have a few acquaintances who went bonkers over this translite and bought it without question based on the quality of Aurich’s Shadow work, only to have their wives say “Nope…not in this house!” upon its buxom arrival. It’s not family friendly, for sure. It would work in, say, frat houses and biker bars, but not in a family environment (many Pinsiders agree–the first comment from Jodester says: “This looks cool Aurich! My wife would never let me put it on my AC/DC though…”). What really sends me over the edge is that Aurich had requests in the original thread to make Helen topless. Really? Different strokes, I suppose. Almost concurrently with Aurich’s Helen production, Stern revamped the AC/DC game themselves and offered a “Luci” edition…with…you guessed it, no band members and multiple pairs of cartoon boobs. Aurich claims he didn’t make his Helen translite to mimic Stern’s lead. And I believe him. It doesn’t surprise me that two separate entities decided to add boobs to a translite to generate sales from middle-aged men.

The final occurance in the recent translite trifecta is more in line with historical detail. Pinsider RDReynolds, with the help of Aurich, retouched and cleaned up a poor quality reproduction of a Data East WWF Royal Rumble prototype translite and offered it up for sale to the community.

Pinball history maintains that the prototype was mocked up by either Paul Faris or Markus Rothkranz and submitted for use on test machines, yet was pulled before production due to several wrestlers on the prototype leaving the company before the release and to tone down the super-ripped bodies of the wrestlers (there was a steroid scandal just surfacing in the WWF at the time of the game’s development, and Vince McMahon didn’t want any undue attention brought upon it). Technically, boobs were added to this translite too…but they belong to Miss Elizabeth and she was class all the way so it’s a wash. I’m more comfortable giving thumbs way up to this translite as it’s not considered “alternate”…its considered a repro prototype. Upon first glance, it doesn’t appear to be drastically different from the original other than the fact that there are more wrestlers on it–it has the same art style and primary colours as the original, so it’s a seamless replacement. And the best part is that it was made to be there in the first place!

These three examples of backbox “pingenuity” are beautifully executed, of a high quality befitting of the high standards in the pinball community, and are almost universally accepted as being superior to the original art on the three machines. If Aurich choses to expand his portfolio, I’m sure there will be collectors ready to buy in. But like all projects lately, one must tread lightly in the copyright jungle. Aurich made sure to leave all copyrighted logos and images off of his translites (Midway/Bally logos, AC/DC logo) as to not infringe on any intellectual properties. However, if he were to take on, say, Demolition Man or Wheel of Fortune, he’d undoubtably have to contend with licenced likenesses, logos and trademarks in order to make the work flow with the rest of the machine. Will a pinball company just hire this guy already?

As of April 21st, there was another small run of Shadow translite packages available at $175USD shipping within the US included. Both the ACDC Helen and WWF Royal Rumble are in standby mode, and may be run again if demand warrants. Pricing for a Helen package was $125USD plus extras, and WWF Royal Rumble stand-alone translite was $75. Add a message to the thread if you are interested in getting in on a future run.  Links to the original Pinside threads are below.

Further Reading:

Pinside – The Shadow – New original translite
Pinside – AC/DC: New original translite, meet Helen!
Pinside – WWF Royal Rumble Prototype Trans