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FEATURE: Smaller Muscles and Fewer Wrestlers, The History and Production of Data East’s WWF Royal Rumble

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Everyone has a pinball machine theme that feels like it was selected just for them. And it usually occurs where your passion for pinball intersects with another interest or collecting passion. Car buffs have Corvette and Mustang. Members of the Kiss Army have made the 1979 Bally game the ultimate Kiss Kollectable. Star Wars fanatics have a few different machines to choose from. Me, I have WWF Royal Rumble. I have long been a fan of wrestling, since the World Wrestling Federation turned the regional sideshow into a multi-national sports entertainment powerhouse in the mid-1980s. As a kid, I couldn’t get enough of the larger-than-life characters and their over-the-top gimmicks. It was all about the costumes, the pageantry, and the story lines. By 1994, like many others, I was tuning out of the wrestling scene to focus on more pressing matters (girls), but Data East’s April release from that year still works to turn my nostalgic crank.

Instead of doing a full-blown review of the game, I’ve decided to use this forum to focus on how the art package and layout of the game situates itself within the greater context of pinball history, and moreover, wrestling history. Be prepared for a heavy dose of discussion about the characters in the game, the history surrounding the release and the climate of the wrestling industry when WWF Royal Rumble would have appeared in arcades across the globe.

The Royal Rumble pinball machine is based upon on the yearly WWF Pay-Per-View event held every January where thirty of the best superstars are invited to participate in a high-stakes, chaotic, over the top rope battle royal. Unlike traditional battle royals, the Royal Rumble introduces one 00-wwfproto03superstar to the ring every two minutes (or ninety seconds, depending on the year) and are charged with eliminating other competitors, friend or foe, by throwing them over the top rope to the arena floor. Putting aside the predetermined nature of wrestling, stamina and luck of the draw are key in a Royal Rumble event. The last man standing in the ring after all thirty have entered, is declared the winner, and given number one contendership for the WWF championship at the following Wrestlemania, which is without a doubt the biggest wrestling event in North America.

WWF Royal Rumble was released by Data East and design of the game is credited to both Tim Seckel and Joe Kaminkow. Mr. Seckel was the designer of just four other production games at Data East: Hook (1992), Last Action Hero (1993), The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (1993) and Maverick (1994). Mr. Kaminkow was the larger-than-life co-founder of Data East (along with current Stern Pinball boss Gary Stern) and reports from various sources say he was a very “hands-on” type of leader (who was a full-fledged designer in his own right, having started his design career at Williams in the early-1980s). I had the opportunity to talk to designer Tim Seckel about Mr. Kaminkow’s role as a co-desinger on Royal Rumble, as Kaminkow was often credited as co-designer of games from this period:

“Joe was my boss, and really my mentor in pinball design.  He always had an active role in everything that happened there.  I don’t remember specific elements of the design or gameplay [he created for Royal Rumble], but he was always throwing out new ideas, suggestions, game modes, or tweaks to a shot that helped polish and enhance the game.”

Royal Rumble features a widebody design, giving the player more playfield space to play upon and the designer more room to pack in playfield features and shots. Whether or not a widebody design enhances the overall gameplay experience (versus a standard playfield size) is one of personal preference. Some like the extra space, others think that it messes with ball trajectory and slows down overall gameplay.  Data East’s decision to run Royal Rumble as a widebody game was probably a knee-jerk reaction to emulate the success Williams was having with their Superpin line of widebody games. In the months prior to Royal Rumble’s release, Williams had released Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure and Star Trek: the Next Generation, which resulted in game sales just shy of 25,000 units combined. It is public record that Royal Rumble was originally designed with a traditional sized layout, only to be reconfigured to a widebody sometime during the design period. Mark this as the first of many design and artwork changes Royal Rumble went through before hitting the production line. Mr. Seckel remembers the change from a standard to widebody format:

“The game was pretty far along as a narrow body.  I recall we had a full art package complete with working prototypes.  Going from memory, I believe the reason we changed direction was because of a recent shift from our competition to go to a wider game.  It was great because it provided more space inside the cabinet for features like the upper ring, and the shots could be spread out.  The biggest challenge was probably time to market.  As I mentioned, making the game wider allowed me to add features in the design, which is always a fun challenge.”

Data East programmer Orin Day also provided some details about the switch from narrow body to widebody in a quote found on the Internet Pinball Database:

“There was line art done for the narrow body playfield but there was never a screened playfield, just a whitewood, and I don’t think it was ever actually built up and playable.”

In an industry where the overall look of a game means just as much as the playability of a game, this appeared to be a change in cosmetics only. There may have been a perceived value in a larger, widebody game from casual players, perhaps attracting more attention because in the players’ minds, bigger equaled better–or bigger equaled more value for your quarters. The widebody trend in pinball failed to become an industry standard and petered out by the end of 1994. Williams only released a handful of other games in their Superpin line, and Data East called it quits on their supersized games after Guns n’ Roses, which followed Royal Rumble chronologically in their release schedule.

As a design footnote, it should be documented that Royal Rumble was set include three under-playfield magnets, the same style and positioning as those that appeared on Williams Addams Family. (Weird, right? Data East emulating Williams? Never!) The Internet Pinball Database shows a photo of the underside of a Royal Rumble playfield with three circular cutouts, the size of magnet cores, in the typical placement of underplayfield magnets in the area above the flippers. One can assume the magnets could have been activated during multiball or the “Pandemonium” mode to simulate the chaos and unpredictability of the Royal Rumble match. A few other Data East releases of the time included under-playfield magnets to disrupt ball travel, but perhaps it was decided that the shaker motor, that rumbles throughout the entire game with switch activation, provided enough sensory enhancement for the player.

If these design changes weren’t enough, WWF Royal Rumble was also saddled with some pretty unique artwork challenges that changed the overall feel and presence of the game, especially when viewed from the perspective of a die-hard wrestling fan. The artwork is credited to both Paul Faris and Markus Rothkranz. Mr. Rothkrantz, it is interesting to note as an aside, is now a self-proclaimed health expert and motivational speaker. He can also help you to achieve “epic love” (with the help of products available for purchase in his online store).

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Close-up of Dennis Nedry’s fingers, Jurassic Park playfield

The playfield features typical Data East playboard artwork of the period–whispy, shadowy, thin-linned art–of which I’m not really taken by. Such artwork style, in my opinion, appears sloppy, and detracts from the overall feel of the game. Other games that feature this style of artwork include Lethal Weapon 3 and Jurassic Park, the latter of which sums up my distaste for this sloppy style of playfield artwork in one image: Dennis Nedry’s fingers. The thin-lined, “realistic” style appeared to be an in-house preference of Data East, as it spans across different artists, and is a style that stands in direct contrast to the bold lines and cartoon-like feel of the artwork that Williams was applying to their playfields during the same period. Designer Tim Seckel was able to outline the roles of each artist in my discussions with him. Mr. Faris created the original prototype backglass artwork, playfield, plastics and cabinet, while Mr. Rothkrantz created the production backglass artwork only.

It is well known in the pinball community that Royal Rumble‘s production backglass differed greatly from the backglass first created for the game. The production translite looks almost anemic next to the prototype version, featuring fewer muscles and fewer wrestlers. The change to a more sparse backglass came at the behest of the WWF for two very distinct reasons.

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WWF Royal Rumble prototype translite

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WWF Royal Rumble production translite

First, the WWF was in the midst of a steroid scandal which began years before, set into public motion by an expose aired on the TV news magazine show Inside Edition. Apparently, WWF performers were being prescribed “vitamins” by one specific doctor, who was more than likely on the WWF’s unofficial payroll to keep their big names big in physical stature. By the time 1994 rolled around, current and former WWF employees, including Hulk Hogan himself, were summoned to take the stand in a very public federal investigation to answer to the widespread use of steroids and other foreign enhancement drugs within the company. (Hogan, under oath in 1994, stated that in his estimation, “75 to 80 percent, maybe more” of the WWF locker room were using some form of steroids.) With all of this bad press, the WWF made a distinct change in who they used as their main event talent. Gone were the chiseled, muscle-bound physiques of champions like the Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan. WWF owner Vince McMahon made a move to focus on the “little guys”–performers like Shawn Michaels and Bret “Hitman” Hart who didn’t have overtly muscular frames, but made up for it with in-ring ability and out-of-ring charisma. The 600-plus pound Yokozuna was also used as a WWF champion to throw the dogs off the steroid trail, because his frame was impressive for its girth, not its rippling, steroid-fueled muscle.

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Mr. Faris’ Lost World backglass

This shift can also be seen within the changes to the backglass. Gone are the inhuman bodies of Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior on the prototype translite, replaced by a more anemic Hogan, a small-framed Bret “Hitman” Hart and a fully-clothed Undertaker. The Royal Rumble logo is taken from the top of the glass on the prototype, enlarged, and placed in the centre of the production translite to draw even more attention away from the wrestlers. Mr. Faris’ original prototype art harkens back to some of his work for Bally in the 1980s, as many of his games, like Centaur, Paragon and Lost World, featured overly buff, fantastic male bodies that the perceived male audience would want to emulate. Hogan’s jacked torso makes him look as if he just stepped out of the Lost World backglass and onto the Royal Rumble‘s. Designer Tim Seckel remembers the artistic changes this way:

“[…] The biggest challenge was selecting the wrestlers to really focus on, and then figuring out how to translate their signature moves in to the play of the game.  Probably the biggest challenge with that is “time”. In other words, wrestlers popularity changes over time so, whoever was ‘king’ at the time we started the project probably wasn’t ‘king’ when the game went to market.  I recall The Ultimate Warrior was champ early on, but later fell out of grace with [the] WWF and he was taken out of the final version of the game.”

“Originally Paul Faris did the entire art package for the narrow body game.  When we changed the game to a wide body it meant he would have a lot of art to change on the playfield and plastics, and not a lot of time to make changes to the backglass–we had to remove The Ultimate Warrior, and probably a few others that I don’t remember.   It was also at that time that we decided to focus on a fewer number of wrestlers on the backglass.  So we hired Markus Rothkranz to paint a new backglass. For the most part, art follows the layout, so I wasn’t really restricted by any changes to the layout because of the art, but on the flipside, the art was definitely affected by the layout changes!

If the steroid scandal wasn’t enough of a challenge for the WWF, they were experiencing a major turnover in talent. Media mogul Ted Turner had purchased the other major national wrestling brand, World Championship Wrestling. Mr. Turner fancied himself as being king of the “rasslin’ business”, and what better way to succeed than by emulating the WWF? And what better way to emulate the WWF than by buying all its talent. Herein lies the second reason why the prototype translite wouldn’t fly with WWF brass: the majority of the featured wrestlers were jumping ship to the competition. By mid-1994, of those featured on the prototype translite, the British Bulldog, Sid Vicious/Justice, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Ric Flair, Earthquake, Typhoon, the Nasty Boys, and the Big Boss Man had all left the WWF to sign more lucrative contracts with the WCW. Keeping up with the WWF roster in 1994 was about as hard as keeping up with other major league sports teams during free agency period. The production translite streamlined all of this, featuring WWF performers who were, more or less, mainstays in the company.

Hulk Hogan is a special case here. He appears as one of the main focal points of both the prototype and production translite. By April of 1994 when the Royal Rumble game was released, Hogan was still technically a WWF property. He was sitting out the rest of his WWF contract after not having wrestled for the company since August of 1993, focusing instead on his acting career (we all know how that turned out). His image, to this day, is literally the face of wrestling–he’s arguably the most identifiable wrestler to ever walk the earth. Even though not active on WWF programming, his image appears centred on the backglass for that reason. Those familiar with wrestling history will know that Hogan’s foray into acting was short lived, and less than a year after he vowed never to wrestle again, in June of 1994, he signed a massive contact with the WCW. It is likely Royal Rumble machines were still rolling off of Data East assembly lines with the new face of the rival company plastered on the backglass.


WWF Royal Rumble BY THE NUMBERS:

  • Number of units sold: 3,500
  • Number of featured superstars on the Royal Rumble Production translite: 6
  • Number of featured superstars on the Royal Rumble Prototype translite (including the Beverly Brothers): 24
  • Number of superstars on the Prototype translite that were not with the company by 1994 year end: 18 (75%)
  • Number of superstars on the Prototype translite that would be on the WCW payroll by 1994 year end: 11 (46%)
  • Number of superstars on the Prototype translite that are now deceased: 8 (33%)
  • Number of superstars on the Production translite that are now deceased: 2 (33%)
  • Number of WWF superstars that appear on the playfield only, and not on either translite: 12
  • Of those twelve, number of deceased playfield only superstars: 3 (25%)

 

Thankfully, for collectors, if you yearn to have a fully fleshed out WWF roster on your backglass, the ingenuity and drive of the secondary collector market has made it an attainable goal. Pinside member RDReynolds had the wherewithal to print up a version of the translite based on the original prototype photos. I have one of these installed in my machine, and it totally fits with the overall feel of the game. The quality of the translite is second to none—no cheap printing methods in this project. One drawback is that the source image used for the printing was a bit muddy, which makes for some very soft lines and an overall quicksand-like feel to the image depending on how it is backlit. Such quality is to be expected, as I’m sure the RDReynolds was using blown up images from photographs of the prototype, and not the original Faris source art to complete the project. Lighting the new prototype art with incandescent bulbs helps to make the image less harsh and hides the muddyness, as opposed to back-lighting it with more modern LED bulbs. Those interested in buying one for their game, or for their gameroom wall, should contact RDReynolds directly, as a few more remain from his final run (as of writing in August 2016). If nothing else, the artwork stands as a constant reminder of what the game could have, and should have, looked like.

The playfield does a decent job of featuring the core of the WWF talent of the period and integrating them into the gameplay. In order to achieve the main multiball, you must “collect” nine wrestlers, from the two main ramp shots and far right orbit. Second tier wrestlers are featured here, such as Crush, Tatanka and Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Along with their images on the playfield, their theme songs are featured when they are collected. It is interesting to note that Hulk Hogan appears nowhere on the playfield. The tag team wrestlers on the far right–the Stiener Brothers, the Bushwhackers and the Smoking Gunns–have little bearing on gameplay, and only appear as images on the playfield. However, the Gunns do provide a special hook for the extra ball DMD animation (“shoot” again, get it?) Razor Ramon and Mr. Perfect appear at the playfield outlanes, as afterthoughts, not included in any other aspects of rules or gameplay. It is also interesting to note that Crush appears as “Kona Crush” on the playfield art–his fun-loving, good-guy persona–but as his villainous, painted face, heel persona in the DMD animations. Trying to capture an accurate representation of the ever-changing WWF is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle, I guess. (I’d also like to nit pick that Mr. Fuji, who appears at the upper scoop as a lit insert for the extra ball, is a representation of the bowler hat/tuxedo Fuji from the 1980s, and that Fuji had been sporting a shaved head and kimono ever since he started to manage Yokozuna in 1992. It is an anachronism that will bother only the most devout WWF fans.)

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Royal Rumble playfield, courtesy of Pinside user “Buzz”.

Yet another change to the Royal Rumble art package came in the form of the cabinet art. The Pingame Journal unearthed a picture of a prototype cabinet that featured red, white and blue shooting stars and the images of Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and Randy Savage. This approach, much like the backglass, must have been scrapped due to superstar turnover and decreased focus on the muscle-bound bodies. The production cabinet is much more muted: a giant WWF Royal Rumble logo on a plain black background. Just like the translite change, the focus became the branding of the logo, rather than the performers themselves. The blue background of the translite is the only leftover from the overall blue feel of the prototype package.

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Pingame Journal’s photograph of the Royal Rumble prototype cabinet art as it appears on IPDB.org

I stated at the outset that WWF Royal Rumble is a snapshot of the WWF at a time when I wasn’t really interested in wrestling. What I wouldn’t give for this game to be made five years earlier, during WWF’s silver age in the late-1980s. Granted, it would have been a very different game and lacked a DMD display and immersive sound package, which are two of 00-wwfproto01the greatest features of the game as it was manufactured, as they had not been perfected in the earlier era. As it stands, I wasn’t really a fan of WWF’s sickeningly-sweet, family-friendly programming of 1994. The colourful personas of the 1980s were replaced with dull personas in colourful costumes in the early-1990s. One needn’t look further than Doink the Clown and Tatanka, two wrestlers predominantly featured in the Royal Rumble pinball machine. As the 1990s began, it was the dawn of a new era for wrestling fans: the curtain had been pulled back, and everyone could clearly see Vince McMahon in all his Oz-like glory, pulling the strings behind the scenes. The steroid scandal had a lot to do with that. As a result, Mr. McMahon wanted to be seen as the head of a wholesome, all-American entertainment company akin to Disney…or the American Gladiators. It wouldn’t be until much later in the 1990s that McMahon threw this approach out the window, and decided The Jerry Springer Show was the prototype to emulate—packing in all the sex, gore and violence that a smarter, more-self-aware audience could handle. It should come as no surprise that this is when I tuned back into wrestling–during the WWF’s, now WWE’s, “Attitude Era”.

But what is pinball if not good clean, American entertainment and a chance to use your imagination?  In 1994, it was a match made in heaven. It featured all the sights and sounds of the World Wrestling Federation, with very little actual wrestling. Very few DMD animations focus on hand-to-hand combat, save for a pathetic grappling video mode, cartoonish punching associated with pop-bumper hits and an interactive chair bashing mode. The majority of the “wrestling” is implied, and is drawn from the kinetics of the ball and a knowledge of the sport. In the art package, there isn’t one instance of two wrestlers engaged in a wrestling contest making physical contact—the images of the Big Boss Man and Bret Hart performing wrestling moves on opponents were erased from the final version of the translite (along with the muscles and three-quarters of the 1993 WWF roster). The player is presented the “idea” of wrestling, and is asked to fill in the blanks on their own. Despite all their downfalls, the roster was given a chance to let their personas be the centre of the action.

Considering the artistic strife the game suffered during development, the overall art package represents this disappointing time in the WWF quite admirably. One complaint I do have about overall gameplay is the lack of incorporating the wrestlers’ signature moves. We get a reference to Yokozuna’s banzai drop, but Bret Hart’s sharpshooter, Undertaker’s tombstone piledriver, Razor Ramon’s razor’s edge and Hawksaw Jim Duggan’s two-by-four are nowhere to be to be found. These could have easily been incorporated into modes, animations or artistic splashes around the playfield just as the banzai had. The chaotic nature of the Royal Rumble match comes off beautifully within the game—a countdown by the fans results in adding a ball into play during multiball (in effect adding another wrestler into the match just as the Rumble is known for), and locking a ball on the upper playfield during Pandemonum does the same in the featured special scoring mode. The upper ring may appear to be an under-utilized design choice to layman players, but if used properly to increase jackpots and multipliers, it can be a valuable little area of the playfield. Lets face it, a wrestling game without an actual “ring” isn’t much of a wrestling pinball game.

00-wwfproto07Stern’s 2015 release of Wrestlemania, and limited edition version Legends of Wrestlemania, shared the same sentiment of the need for a ring, however, their use of the upper ring feature detracts from overall gameplay, whereas Royal Rumble‘s works to compliment it. And while we are on the topic, and without diving too deep into contrasting the two games (that will make for a fully fleshed out article of its own), the Legends of Wrestlemania game could have done so much more to appease collectors and players who are avid wrestling fans by fully incorporating 80s and 90s legends into the art package and gameplay, but totally missed the mark by playing it safe, instead representing the bygone era on the cabinet art alone.

I’m not sure I’m fully sold on Data East games from this era, as they seemed to be trying too hard to emulate their Bally/Midway/Williams trailblazing brethren. It’s a cross that 1990s Data East games had to bear during the era in which they were released, and now to a greater extent in the discerning collectors market of today. However, as the prices rise on the coveted Williams titles, these Data East games become more desirable as “value games”. WWF Royal Rumble seems to be one of those games, providing a whole lot of game that incorporates the theme wholeheartedly at a fraction of the price of some of the top tier Williams/Bally/Midway DMD titles. It is a shame the Data East library only includes two widebody titles, as that is one thing the company seemed to do very well. For my money, Royal Rumble and Guns n’ Roses are the two best playing, and best looking, games of their DMD era. I only own one Data East title, and that’s WWF Royal Rumble...and I’m glad that both theme and gameplay gelled with me in order to make it a keeper in my collection.

Further Reading:

Internet Pinball Database – WWF Royal Rumble

Hulk Hogan’s Testimony from the WWF’s 1994 Steroid Trial

Vice.com – The Forgotten Steroid Trial That Almost Brought Down Vince McMahon

Pinside – Back in Stock: WWF Royal Rumble Prototype Trans

Pinside – WWF Royal Rumble Club

Markus Rothkranz – MarkusRothkranz.com


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FEATURE: Drop Target Zine

I seem to have missed the boat on zines. I was a bit too young to catch its last culturally relevant kick at the can during the Riot Grrrl movement and, moreover, I wasn’t anywhere geographically close to the west coast cities that were known for zine production in the early 1990s. The closest I got was putting together a photocopied, hand-written newspaper with my buddies in grade four called the “You Can’t Do That On Television Times”, which discussed hard-hitting and edifying stories about the television show the paper was named after. It lasted two issues before the “editor”, our teacher, pulled the plug. Now, nearly everyone with an inflated ego and an internet connection can run their own blog (Hey, wait a minute!), thus, a need for hard copy zines was quelled for the most part.  The Internet served to spread information quicker and easier (and reached a larger audience) than a zine ever could. However, the spirit of the self-published, low production publication still lives on–the same way LPs are holding their own against digital music and pinball against console and mobile gaming. Happily, the paths of the zine and pinball cross in a fantastic publication called Drop Target Zine, which exists as part comic book and part magazine, and remains fully dedicated to a deep appreciation of the modern flipper game.

Drop Target Zine springs from the minds of Alec Longstreth and John Chad. It is a bi-costal collaboration of epic proportions: these men are no strangers to both the self-publishing world and the pinball community. In terms of pinball, Mr. Longstreth’s artistic work can be found frequently on Stern Pinball’s blog and Mr. Chad will be known to the community due to his fantastic (and altogether whimsical) sci-fi designs for the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association. Together they have accounted for five issues of “DTZ”, and have promised a sixth by the end of the summer.

Jon Chad, left, and Alec Longstreth, right, in self-portrait, teasing the theme of DTZ#6. Courtesy of Drop Target Zine #5.

For those uninitiated, a zine is basically a DIY magazine with limited publication and distribution, and very few frills. Traditionally, the content is photocopied and assembled by hand. Historically, the zine voice is that of the marginalised, ignored or unheard. Images are stolen and appropriated and the articles are typically unpolished manifestos “unfit” for publication in the mainstream media. That being said, the Drop Target Zine isn’t a radical proclamation calling for liberation through riot or pinball players to rise against society and take to the streets–those days of the zine are long past.  It is simply a quirky publication filled with great art, interviews and a healthy dose of imagination. It takes the original spirit of the zine and blends it with the polish and organization of a handmade comic book. The California-based Mr. Longstreth publishes his own line of comics entitled Phase 7 and also works as a freelance illustrator, while Mr. Chad lives and works in Vermont, teaching at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and is the creator of the Leo Geo series of comics. This must be a passion project as both have an appreciation for the silver ball and its place within popular culture. Two games that receive particular attention in the zine and in their online activity are Data East’s Jurassic Park and Williams’ Star Wars Episode I.  Many of the accounts in the zine, both written and illustrated, are very personal, highlighting shared experiences and their relationship to the world of pinball.  Mr. Chad and Mr. Longstreth illustrate themselves constantly throughout the zine, so the heavy hands of the authors/artists are always on display acting as cartoon Sherpas to guide the reader through the pages of the zine.

Each 5.5″x8.5″-sized issue of DTZ is focussed in its scope, choosing a topic to explore within its pages. The two issues I’ve chosen to review here are DTZ#4, “The Moves Issue”, and DTZ#5, “The Community Issue”. As such, Issue 4 features interviews with top players Keith Elwin and Bowen Kerins and an illustrated guide to ball control using the flippers.  Issue #5 has a feature on PAPA director Mark Stienman and two longer comics about competition and the shared pinball experience. Each issue also has recurring features: Pinhalls spotlights great places to play pinball across America and the Replay Review puts the focus on one particular machine and its rules (in Issues #4 and #5, the featured games are Jurassic Park and the Addams Family respectively). You may be underwhelmed by such features by reading about them here, as there are countless trip reports and an endless number of text and video reviews of popular machines like the Addams Family available if you know where to look. However, Pinhalls is usually accompanied by comic interpretations of the author’s visit to the featured location and the reviewed machine is met with the artist’s individual artistic interpretation, which spices up what would normally be a mundane text rundown of rules.  The artist’s touch puts a fresh spin on the sometimes stale information. The Addams Family review is fantastically illustrated by Mr. Longstreth, and includes his own interpretation of the entire TAF playfield, while the body of text is showered with individual illustrations of TAF’s unique playfield toys.

Mr. Longstreth’s interpretation of the TAF playfield. Courtesy of DTZ#5.

The standout feature of the zine is Dream Machines, where Mr. Longstreth, Mr. Chad and a few special guests create original pin tables that spring from their own imaginations. Each table is drawn to scale with a complete art package and, unbelievably, includes a complete and detailed ruleset. The magazine is printed in black and white, but each month, one dream table is given the colour treatment and is featured in the centre gatefold. Mr. Longstreth has provided a Harry Potter themed table for every issue thus far, and in an interesting spin, they are all based on the original J.K. Rowling books, not the Warner Brothers blockbuster movies. Other dream tables of note include Groo the Wanderer, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Conan the Barbarian and Inspector Gadget. Art and rulesets remain completely true to the licence and in most cases the technology remains true to the era in which the machine would have been produced given its year of release.

Mr. Chad’s fictional Conan the Barbarian design. Courtesy of DTZ#4.

With the lack of printed pinball “journalism” available to the community, save for Pinball Magazine which arrives only once per year and the recent appearance of a few special blogs (*wink*), the zine format is perfectly suited for a niche hobby like pinball. The $5USD cover price is a steal when you realize the work that goes into putting together each issue. My only gripe is that DTZ’s frequency mirrors that of Pinball Magazine–each issue is released on a yearly basis (approximately). However, its infrequency only adds to the charm of the publication and makes its arrival even sweeter. Reading the zine, you get the feel that it was hand-made specifically for YOU: it is an extremely personal experience in both production and reader reception. In a hobby where the multiplicity of online voices can be frustrating and condescending (and sometimes downright annoying), it is refreshing to sit down to with an issue of this zine and bask in the skilfully drawn comic panes and printed words.

Due to the limited run of the zine and its cult popularity, the first run printings of each issue, save for DTZ#3, are completely sold out. A second run, which lacks the screen-printed cover and colour Dream Machine centerfold (both reproduced in black and white), are available for $4USD plus shipping directly from the DTZ blog. If you are so inclined, a five-pack of mini-buttons with original DTZ art is also available for $3USD plus shipping.

First print issues of Drop Target Zine #4 and #5. The covers are beautifully screen-printed. Nice touch!

I highly recommend Drop Target Zine to anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the honest and simple roots of playing and experiencing the game of pinball. Every time I pick up an issue of the zine, I’m reminded of my childhood, where weekend trips to the arcade and reading comic books were my only concerns. It is a nice throwback to memories of those times, now that I have a career and family, leaving little time for such childhood thrills. It also reminds me how much fun PLAYING these machines can be, seeing as much of my free time, and probably yours as well, is spent modding, fixing and maintaining them. Mr. Longstreth and Mr. Chad have expertly blended the art of the zine with a passion for pinball. The result is something that can be embraced by the community at large.

Further Reading:
Drop Target Zine – Official Blog
Alec-Longstreth.com – Official Website
The Fizzmont Institute of Rad Science – Jon Chad’s Official Website
Stern Pinball – “Community” Blog
PAPA.org – PAPA Store


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FEATURE: “Only Give A Defect On Display, Any Stupidity”

I have a secret to reveal: I arranged to adopt a family from overseas. I offered to let them live with me. My wife wasn’t too happy when I told her. We’d have a lot less room in the house. She was even more upset when I told her how much it cost me to bring them here. I thought it was a good deal, actually. To have them at my service, year round? It was a no brainer. I brokered the deal through a man one province over, in Quebec, who had brought in multiple families in the past. He said the family would be arriving by boat, and would travel in a shipping container. I found this mode of transportation odd, but didn’t question the man’s motives–he claimed the deal was completely legal. I trusted him. I got word of the family’s safe arrival in the Montreal harbour, and arranged pickup through a good friend in the Ontario pinball community. Forty-eight hours later, the family arrived at my home for the first time. The Addams Family now lives in my basement, and I don’t ever want them to leave.

The above paragraph outlines my acquisition of an Addams Family pinball machine through the re-import process: it arrived by boat from Bari, Italy on the Adriatic Sea, across the Atlantic Ocean, down the historic St. Lawrence Seaway into the port of Montreal and finally by land down Highway 401 to my home in the Greater Toronto Area. I rolled the dice on this machine, buying sight unseen through pictures only, and, in my opinion, won. The game arrived as described and has worked 100% since its arrival. Others have not been so lucky with these so-called “re-imports” (also known as “container pins” in these parts) sent over in massive shipping containers from across the ocean. They arrive mainly from Europe, Northern Africa and, in some rare instances, South America. It is an approach to collecting machines that made sense at one time for North American collectors, however due to the recent climate of the pinball market in the U.S. and Canada, it has been less attractive, both financially and logistically.

A line of Stern games in an Italian warehouse, waiting for buyers.

Besides the incredible hassle of brokering a multi-national deal for the purposes of obtaining an amusement machine, there seems to be, in Canada anyhow, an incredible stigma associated with games that are re-imported to North America from overseas. The games are almost always treated as second class units. Many of the For Sale threads on our local forums will state explicitly “North American machine, not a re-import”, to add credibility. If it is not mentioned, given the number of re-imports on Canadian soil, Canuck collectors have been trained to ask the provenance of the machine or at very least perform a visual inspection of the machine to look for any sign of the letter “I” in the serial number, coin slot configuration, 220V stickers or country names that would explicitly mark it as a re-import. Collectors paint all foreign pinball operators as untrained hacks that “fix” machines with improper tools and parts. There is also the line of thinking that says the overseas machines are subjected to much more abuse than their North American counterparts. With many of the European machines being operated in bars and coffee shops throughout their life, there is the thought that they would be subjected to longer time spent on route, massive amounts of play upon them, little maintenance upkeep and a greater risk of beverages being spilt upon them. European operators have the reputation of trying to squeeze every cent they can out of their investment, riding the machines hard, and, given the beverages spilt upon them, putting them away wet. Some developing countries have been known to operate their machines out-of-doors, so there is a fear of finding those turn up in a container as well.

In reality though, a routed game is a routed game, no matter if it comes off of a route in Buffalo, New York or Hamburg, Germany. North America has its fair share of hack operators that substitute a wad of tinfoil for a 4 amp fuse, too, not just the ones working overseas. For some reason, collectors are under the impression that just because a game has been brought back through a European wholesaler, it is automatically a basket case that has been played within an inch of its life, complete with hidden issues and unfathomable hacks. Granted, many do arrive on North American soil in pretty awful shape, however, I would argue games in similar condition existed in North America at one time as well, but due to the incredible demand for pinball machines here it has driven these basket cases to be completely restored by capable collectors or pieced out as donor machines. In my opinion, a game should be evaluated on the way it plays and its overall appearance rather than the addition of a letter or two in its serial number, or 110 extra volts.

I actively follow the restorations performed by Chris Hutchins of High End Pins on his website. He provides clients and enthusiasts alike with before, during and after photographs of the games he works on, showing the meticulous care he takes in bringing the shine back to a machine. For nearly every game he brings back to showroom quality, Mr. Hutchins reprints the serial number decals as part of the restoration process. On one Addams Family restoration in particular, which I was able to peg from the outset as re-import game, Mr. Hutchins, at what I would assume was his client’s request, erased all markings of the game being a re-import. The coin door was changed to the North American two-slot standard, the European stickers that reference 220V were removed, and, when reprinting the serial number stickers, the “I”, which would have categorically marked the Addams as an original overseas export, was completely eliminated from all of the reproduction stickers. Thus, the stigma of the “re-import” ran so deep that this particular collector wanted the machine to look as if it never left the confines of North America. Did that “I” act as a scarlet letter for the collector? Did he not want his high end Addams Family restoration to bear the markings of a re-import game? This isn’t a common practice for Mr. Hutchins: the majority of the games he restores will transcribe the official serial number onto new stickers–digit-for-digit and letter-for-letter. This was obviously a special case. In the end, who cares, really? It’s the collector’s game. He’s paying for the high end restore; he can do as he wishes with it…even if it involves monkeying with a historical document such as a serial number. I think this just proves that the community devalues games that have spent time on foreign soil.

A FEW WAYS TO SPOT A RE-IMPORT…

So why import these machines in the first place if people approach them with so much trepidation? It boils down to a ravenous desire for a particular title (sometimes any title at all) at the right price. I only considered buying my Addams Family from overseas after about a year of not being able to find one in reasonable condition at a reasonable price here in Canada. [Ed. Note: Seriously…12,000 production games, and I couldn’t find a single damn one for sale here!] The lure of a deal will bring any collector to his/her knees. To be completely transparent with the bottom line on my container game, after all was said and done, I have $3900CAD into my Addams Family. The desire to get my hands on one drove me to this avenue, and it could have turned out much, much worse than it did. However, that is the risk you run buying a machine you have not played before purchasing and viewed only through a handful of pictures halfway across the world. In looking at the price lists available from the Italian wholesaler we worked with, “deals” on re-imports are few and far between, and if they are there, they will only be available on “A-List” titles that have rocketed in value on this side of the continent: Twilight Zone, Cirqus Voltare, The Addams Family, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and so forth. One must also think about landing a container in North America and the charges associated, which will also wreak havoc on your bottom line. After the numbers have been crunched and you find you can save a thousand or so dollars on a desirable machine, you still have to get past the idea of taking on a considerable amount of risk.

An Italian Monster Bash, with a pretty bashed cabinet.

A lot of the risk comes from the possibility that the game is misrepresented in pictures or the description. And the possibility that the machine was in fact operated just as horribly as the community assumes they were operated. It is almost impossible to capture the essence of a machine by looking at five general pictures of it, and that is really all you’ll get from many overseas wholesalers. We collectors can be faulted a bit too, expecting perfection from a machine that had a bargain basement price tag. Descriptions of the games are often vague and include lingo that is completely lost in translation. One popular term the Italians liked to use in the lists we received was “invisible wear on playfield”. What does this even mean? Do they mean “visible” wear? Do they mean wear that can hardly be seen? Games have been known to show up utterly filthy, reeking of stale smoke, water damaged, corroded, or missing parts/boards. There is a fabled story in the Canadian pinball community, which I cannot confirm or deny, that a certain Canadian retailer is known to import pinball machines from Algeria, a North African country on the Mediterranean, which are sold to collectors who end up finding that the machines are still filled with sand from the country’s vast desert landscape. Finding a reliable overseas contact is key when setting up a container deal. Just as we have saints and scumbags who sell machines here in North America, so it goes with wholesalers overseas.

A shipping container’s worth of Italian pinball machines destined for Canada, packed and ready to load.

I asked a fellow collector from the Toronto pinball community, Adriano Jorge (also known as Drano on Pinside), to offer his thoughts on the idea of buying container games. He’s one of the more seasoned experts, having bought a handful of games from our Italian source.

“From the moment I started collecting pinball machines, “container” or re-imported games were always something to be wary of. As I got more comfortable repairing and restoring machines, they started becoming a tempting source of inexpensive projects, especially in our relatively small Canadian market. But, who among us had tens of thousands of dollars to speculate on a container full of machines?

When a local collector started organizing group funded shipments, I had to look again. And, when that same source started offering titles such as Cactus Canyon, I was hooked. Cactus Canyon was/is my holy grail of restoration projects. So, I sold my restored Twilight Zone and ran, cash in hand, to try my luck. With shipping costs and taxes covered in the price of the machine, all I had to do was get it transported to my door.

I was expecting pure horror. My expectations were fairly low after hearing some experience a others had with their “gaucho games”. In the end, I was lucky. The Cactus Canyon arrived filthy with a terrible cabinet…but otherwise working with minimal playfield damage. It was a perfect restoration candidate.

Each month a new list was available… some with rarely seen titles like a Zaccaria Farfalla… which ended up being my next container purchase. After building a small rapport with this Canadian importer, I started getting an early peek at incoming games. Many were wrecks, but a few real gems were mixed in. I finally decided to try a bulk buy and committed to three more games (Fish Tales, Tales of the Arabian Nights, High Speed), while also coordinating transport for other local buyers and their games [Ed. note: I was one of these local buyers, and the TAF came over in this shipment].

It was here that I got to see the diversity of container pin buyers. Some were like me, capable of cleaning up a game or performing simple repairs, ready to deal with issues. Others, were wide-eyed new enthusiasts trying to get into this increasingly expensive hobby and praying for the best.

Eventually the economics got in the way…and maybe a little greed, too. As the Canadian dollar sank and the Euro rose, container deals just stopped making sense for us. The last frontier of the used pinball market was quickly disappearing into the sunset. Maybe it was for the best. With so many new manufacturers and reproduction WPC machines vying for our dollars, the decision to gamble on a container game doesn’t have the same appeal as it once did. I’m just happy I was able to stash away a few reasonable projects for the future.”

Container buys as I know them in Canada, and as Mr. Jorge has outlined above, are done on a group basis. A member of the pinball community in Quebec receives a list of games available from his contact in Italy which he distributes to anyone interested through our Canadian forums. He acts as organizer and middle-man. Pictures of the games are normally included, and can either be a detailed set including close-ups, or simply a shot of the machine lying on the floor with no legs. Our organizer crunches the numbers and attaches a bottom line price, in Canadian dollars, for each game which includes freight, import taxes and probably a cut for himself. The organizer has certain requirements he has to fill-—he can’t just load up a container full of Addams Families and Twilight Zones. He has to buy some of the lower echelon titles as well. Percentages, I assume, are set by the Italian seller. I’m sure they don’t want to be stuck with a warehouse full of Diamond Ladys and Cactus Jacks; they want to spread their A-Listers out to help move the undesirable trash. If the quotas are met, full payment is sent to our organizer and the wait begins for the boat to arrive on Canadian soil and clear customs. A link is sent out to the participants so the freighter can be tracked via satellite as it travels across the ocean. Once the game arrives, transport from the organizer’s facility outside of Montreal is the responsibility of the buyer.

There have been disappointments for individual collectors within our community from these group buys. One instance saw a collector lift the playfield of his re-import Doctor Who to find each and every mechanism, bracket and stand-off rusted beyond repair, which would indicate that the game was on location, or in storage, at or near a seaside town where the salt water would accelerate the oxidization process. Thankfully, this collector was able to exchange the “Doctor Rust” machine for a different title on a future shipment. Another collector saw a Cirqus Voltare arrive incomplete, with unique playfield parts and mechanisms completely missing from the game. It was sold at a loss by this collector, as he didn’t have the time or patience for such a project and, further, was completely crest-fallen with his failed “re-import” score and wished to wash his hands of it. These two cases I have mentioned are extreme, and are probably a result from lack of information and proper photos by the wholesaler. They are tales that should give buyers pause, and depict just how risky buying from overseas can be. For every gem, there are an equal number of turds.

Whovian Rust, Part 1

Whovian Rust, Part 2

I’d like to talk a little about my personal experience that I touched on at the outset of the article. Our Italian wholesaler had five-plus Addams Family machines on their list. Nearly all had burns in the magnet area, a couple were missing the topper, and some had completely trashed cabinets. The price difference between all of the machines varied by only $1000CDN. Not willing to take a chance on a bucket of bolts, I figured the most expensive one was probably the one in the best condition. Another positive indicator was that this highest priced machine had over twenty pictures available for viewing: both sides of the cabinet, areas with slight wear, under the playfield, behind the backglass, in the Thing Box and everywhere in between. Also, the machine was turned on in the pictures, and the DMD looked nice and bright with no missing dots or segments. It did, however, have a credit dot. Further, the machine had legs on it, and looked to be in a different part of the warehouse than the rest of the games. Most of the pins available from the Italian source had only one or two general pictures of the game’s condition, and most had their legs removed and were sitting on the ground in a veritable rouges gallery of pinballs. This Addams seemed like a special case: perhaps a game that was fully setup in the warehouse for potential customers or employees to play as a “showcase” piece. From these twenty pictures of the TAF, I saw a pretty decent cabinet, a bright DMD, an acceptable playfield with minor issues and very little magnet burn of any sort. I sent payment, and waited a month for its arrival.

One of the twenty original sales photos provided by our Italian wholesaler for this particular Addams Family.

I was nothing short of amazed at the condition the game was in when it finally arrived. It was plug and play (after jumping the game to 110V) has been solid ever since. The credit dot I saw in the pictures was due to a couple of switches that had not been activated for a long period of time. One good play blew the cobwebs out and it was good to go. I came to find that the playfield was waxed at some point recently; however the underside of the game and playfield nooks and crannies had their fair share of black carbon and grime. No rust to speak of on any of the mechanical parts. I did have to rebuild the flippers to add some extra snap and a new set of rubbers were thrown on to replace the ancient ones it arrived with. Another surprise was that a remote battery pack was already installed. My greatest surprise, though, was that there was no funky “container pin smell” of cigarettes and urine in the cab, as many of these games are known to have. If this machine wasn’t in a private collection overseas, it was well maintained by a god-sent operator in some location other than a smoky bar or coffee house. Language was default German, but coined for Italian Lire. My coin door still has three slots, and the serial number sticker still proudly sports its letter “I”. As stated above, I paid $3900CAD for the machine, shipped to my doorstep, which to me, was a good price. I was a successful experience. But would I do it again? Probably not. The chance of disappointment is too great for me to shoulder.

This sort of disappointment would probably be lessened if a single buyer (or company) was importing an entire shipping container on their own and could spread out the financing needed to fix up one or two basket cases over the entire load which may contain a few gems. Kind of like a shell game: a hundred dollars of parts on one is covered by a few hundred dollars of profit on another. But the days of retailers being able to bring these machines over in any sort of quantity is behind us, for the most part. The profit just isn’t there anymore. Our European connections can simply check the most times inflated prices of eBay and Boston Pinball and adjust their prices accordingly. The days of getting a Popeye Saves the Earth in a container for $250USD are long, long gone. I have a feeling the European sellers have now tried to target the collectors directly rather than selling to North American distributors. A distributor wouldn’t pay what amounts to $1500USD for a Roadshow with major issues–there just isn’t enough profit to be made after fixing it up. However, a private collector who wants to take on a restoration project might. Finding this collector, or group of collectors, that want a bulk load of thirty-five to seventy machines, with 25% of those being C and D list titles, is tough. Below is a list of prices for Bally/Williams games from an overseas seller, received in April 2014, just to give you an idea of how much a European wholesaler wants for their games now. The ever-hilarious “invisible wear” description makes a few appearances, as does the title of this article in reference to a Star Trek: The Next Generation, the absolutely eloquent: “Only give a defect on display, any stupidity”.

000-cont01

Anyone tempted by the €6000 sight-unseen Medieval Madness with a repainted playfield? Yeah, the one where the paint job is described as “not very professional work”? I didn’t think so. The series of Twilight Zone machines seem reasonable, and look to have enough meat left on the bone to account for near catastrophic damage or a few missing parts. However, the €700 Millionaire and €600 Fire! that is missing a flipper and won’t start definitely shows that Italians have no idea the value of D-list System 11 machines. And really, who does anymore?

In order to examine just how much times have changed in the last fifteen years, I went right to the source, and contacted pinball repair guru and current operator of the Pinball Ninja webzine Clay Harrell to ask him if he’d care to chronicle his experience importing container loads of machines in a very different pinball climate. Mr. Harrell is a veteran of over one dozen private container imports onto American soil, so he is obviously one of the experts in this field. Anyone who has watched Mr. Harrell’s pin repair DVD series “This Old Pinball” will remember that he included footage of his container spoils in episodes TOP3 and TOP4. Mr. Harrell writes:

Mr. Harrell, as Shaggy, with an unopened container. This Old Pinball, Volume 3

“Back ten to twenty years ago, I visited the rec.games.pinball newsgroup a lot. It was a different time: the group was smaller, friendlier, and much more polite than, say, Pinside. I forget how it happened, but through RGP got hooked up with a guy from Belgium named Bart. He was just getting into selling container loads of pinballs to guys in the U.S.

Now remember, back around 2000 or so the market was completely different. In Europe, few people wanted games, mostly because space was an issue and they had more local pubs and coffee shops where operators placed games. There really wasn’t a need to have a home pinball and house sizes are generally much smaller in Europe too, so it’s less practical to have games there.

Bart was driving around Belgium buying games, and assembling them at a storage place. When he got 72 games (the number that fits–shoe horns really–into a container), he would email me the list and ask if I wanted them. The answer was always “YES!”. The price for a 72 game container was generally about $15,000 to $20,000USD. Shipping was about $3500 (with about $50 per game added for shipping).

At the time, I didn’t have a place to land a full container. That, and you were only given two hours to unload the container, or you got charged heavily. So a loading dock or a fork lift was needed to unload (plus several guys). For this reason my friend Marty was the one that actually bought the container. My “tip” for setting up the deals was that I got ONE FREE GAME and I got to pick the game first right off the container, any game I wanted.

Prices for games was cheap. System11 games were generally $100 to $200. WPC games were $200 to $500. The only exception was the Addams Family and Twilight Zone and some other WPC95 games: those were usually $600 to $800.

I must of brought in at least eight containers for Marty. And I got eight free games. Good stuff too, like Tales of the Arabian Nights, Champion Pub, Shadow, and other stuff like that. But after eight containers, Bart couldn’t find any more games in Belgium! He said we bought them all. It’s not a big country. Overall the quality of games from Belgium was outstanding. These games were NICE.

I then started buying containers from Phil of Pinball Heaven in the U.K. These were usually “half containers” of 36 games, but sometimes full containers, too. But, now I was the one buying them. I still landed the games at Marty’s shop, but then had friends come over to help unload. And they would each haul the games they wanted straight home. I would put the rest in my driveway and sell them quickly (and hope for no rain!) at $100USD over cost. I would keep the titles I wanted and essentially get them for free. The longest it ever took me to sell a container of games was eleven days.

The good thing about Phil at Pinball Heaven that was he spoke English and he was a blast to deal with. Also he was VERY picky about his games. If there were any cosmetic problems, he would sell them to me. He wanted low hanging fruit for HIS business, and I got the “junk.” For example, a bunch of Star Trek: The Next Generations for $240 each that had broken ramps. Now remember, Phil is in a different part of the world where parts are harder to find. Pinball Inc wasn’t in business at the time. So any “problem” games with hard to source parts he sold to me. For me, in the US, the STTNG ramps were not a problem source at the time.

I also got a Medieval Madness from Phil for $750USD. It had some minor flipper wear. And got a Safecracker for $400USD in the original box! (Not brand new, but very lightly used.) He
actually had a NIB Safecracker I could have had for $800USD, but I passed. Duh! I did probably
five or six containers with Phil, and then he ran out of games for me also. Overall the quality of games from the U.K. was not as nice as Belgium…

Then we switched to buying containers from South America. I only did a couple loads from Argentina because now the game quality was starting to get very poor. South America had no parts, so everything was hacked and modified. It was still worth it, but only marginally so. Also, now it was the mid-2000s, and prices were starting to rise. And this is before prices here in the U.S. were very high. I did a couple containers from South America and then stopped. Also, the South American guys weren’t easy to understand and were a lot less fun to deal with than Bart or Phil.

At this point, I think it was about 2006. I was done with containers. Games were crappy and too expensive. I see some people now doing it again with European guys. I just got a list of a half container of 36 games. The guy wanted 50,000 euros for it! Yikes!! That’s crazy. Unfortunately, the time has passed on containers…at least for me.”

The spoils of Mr. Harrell’s container, in his garage, This Old Pinball, Volume 4

Up until now, I’ve really only touched on the North American experience with container pinball machines. Looking to the other side of the globe, Australians, too, have a ravenous desire to build their collections, but the availability of games on the island is finite. Generally speaking, there is still a reliance upon container imports down under, and it probably has as much to do with game availability as it does finding a deal. I contacted the most famous Australian pinball enthusiast I knew, Rod Cuddihy who co-hosts the Pinheadz Pinball Podcast, to have him weigh in on container imports from an Aussie perspective:

“Australia is the biggest island on the planet, so unless it is produced locally it’s got to come into the country by air or sea. When it comes to pinball machines it’s pretty clear which option is the most economic alternative. However, after your freight costs, Customs agent fees, port handling charges, goods & services tax, trucking expenses and the potential of further fees from the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service you can add anywhere from $1000-$2000AUD to the cost of your game.

It is at this point that the appeal of importing an entire container begins to look a lot more attractive to the Aussie Pinhead. The per unit cost of bringing pins into the country decreases significantly, however, the initial capital required to import an entire container combined with significant logistic challenges means most of us ultimately put the idea into the “Too Hard” basket. So generally, dealers are the ones importing the majority of containers.

A restoration professional who imports a container into the country annually once told me that at any given time, there is always a container of pinball machines on the water coming to Australia. Nearly all those containers are coming from Europe and house games from both the Electromechanical and Solid State eras. Obviously, this doesn’t include the new Stern games that are coming in from the US.

While my collection has a number of “Australian Delivered” games, I also have games that were initially sent to Italy, France, Germany and New Zealand. The New Zealand game, a Fish Tales, is odd, as I’ve never heard of anyone importing a container from New Zealand, but it’s made it’s way over here somehow. The biggest bone of contention within the Australian pinball collecting community is “container pin condition”. In a nutshell, opinions are generally formed from personal experience–some say they’ll never buy “trashed beaters” brought in by the container load. But generally Aussie pinheadz know that pins can get equally trashed wherever you are in the world, so if it’s in nice condition – who cares where it comes from. In my experience, the condition of imported games is generally very good. I’ve bought a collector quality Family Guy and Sopranos virtually straight out of a container. But, maybe I’ve just been lucky. Don’t get me wrong I’ve witnessed some disasters where unwitting first time importers have been taken advantage of by an unscrupulous overseas wholesaler who’s dumped a load of “project pins” on them. But the stories of sharks are rare.

The overseas containers being brought into the country are the lifeblood of the pinball resurgence in Australia. In a number of cases we’re seeing games that were never released in Australia or initially brought out here in very low numbers.”

While the containers that came to North America in the last fifteen years contained mainly Bally-Williams and Data East DMD games as their prize bounties, the Australian’s receive a steady diet of pinball machines from all ages, including Electromechanical and early Solid State titles. That may be a sign of the interests of the Aussies, or perhaps that the collectors down under are hungry for whatever they can get their hands on. For a sampling of the types of machines imported into Australia, an idea of their general condition and their asking prices (in Australian dollars), please check out the blog maintained by Pinball Machines Australia, a retailer outside of Melbourne that regularly posts photos of their container imports. It appears that they clean and refurbish what they can to sell in their showroom and shuffle off the basket cases that require a significant amount of time and work as “AS IS” projects. More insight into what arrives into Australia via container can be gleaned from the Pinheadz Pinball Podcast Episode Three, wherein Mr. Cuddihy tags along with Pinball Memories, another Melbourne-area retailer based in Caroline Springs, as they open a newly-landed container and organize its contents.

A container arrives at Pinball Machine Australia, Melbourne.

With the worldwide resurgence of pinball, I’m sure overseas wholesalers are having a tough time prying loose merchandise from former operators and collectors to send across the ocean. As Mr. Harrell noted, some countries were completely tapped back in the mid-2000s, so there is bound to be little left. The significant price increase paired with the lower quality “dregs” still available to the wholesaler makes this market almost dead to North Americans. For the Aussies, it obviously remains a viable avenue. Does this have something to do with the Aussies being more adept at “making do”? Anyhow, I’m glad I participated when I did, and added a game to my collection that will probably never leave. I’m happy with it and in the end that’s all that really matters. My refugee re-import Addams Family stands as a container success story among tales of misrepresentation, foul smells, water damage, corrosion, missing parts and a few handfuls of sand.

I would like to thank Clay Harrell, Rod Cuddihy, and Adriano Jorge for their contribution to this article. Special thanks to Don Walton, Jr. Extra special thanks to the Credit Dot readership for their patience in what seemed to be a long break between posts.

Further Reading:

Pinball Revolution – Container Pinballs *list received*
High End Pins – Gallery
Pinball Revolution – Dr@no’s Fun-Filled (and often long winded) Restorations
Pinball Revolution – Converting Pinball Voltage From European to North American
PinRepair.com – This Old Pinball DVDs
Pinheadz Pinball Podcast – Homepage
Pinball Machines Australia – Container Day Pics
Facebook – Pinball Memories Australia


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MODS: That Sinking Feeling– Earthshaker’s Sinking Institute

Here sits the head accountant of Williams, in a small office, just before Christmas of 1988. Sad, threadbare Christmas decorations that were purchased in the late 1960s hang in his office. Gloom surrounds him. He sharpens his pencil and looks over some documents, dreading the time he would have to spend time with his extended family over the holidays. Cousin Al would drink too much and likely go on a tirade fuelled by egg nog and bigotry, his ungrateful children would be disappointed at their large haul of gifts (again), and his mother and wife would fail miserably at trying to hide their distain for one another. His heart sank. If HE wasn’t going to be happy over the Christmas holidays, nobody else would either. He dropped his pencil, grabbed the closest bill of materials report and picked up a red felt-tipped pen. “This oughta do it,” he whispered to himself as a twisted smile crept across his lips. He slowly struck out a line reading “Sinking ES Institute” on the Earthshaker bill of materials, and beside it wrote in big letters “OVER BUDGET – REMOVE IMMEDIATELY”. He let the pen drop from his hands and pressed a red button on an intercom. Softly, he said to his secretary, “Janet, can you please come in here and run a very important document down to Mr. Lawlor and his team?” The secretary enters the office, and the accountant extends the document across the desk. The secretary attempts to take the document, but the accountant’s grip will not relinquish. Their eyes meet. “Oh, and Janet,” the accountant whispers almost incoherently, “Tell Pat to have a Merry Christmas…” He lets go of the document and the secretary slowly backs out of the office. The melancholy account leans back in his chair, holds his head in his hands and begins to weep.

That’s how I imagine it happening, but it was probably a more subtle process. Regardless of how it happened, it did happen. Late in the production of Williams Earthshaker in early 1989, due to budget constraints, a device that would make the Earthshaker Institute sink into the playfield was removed from the bill of materials. About 200 units made it to market with the sinking feature, many of them sample games. The removal was decided so late into production that the playfield was still cut and drilled to include the feature and the programming still contained code to make the device work properly. This was the perfect toy to include in the earthquake-themed game, but was probably low on the list of importance given the other toys included–the California-Nevada fault line which directly impacts gameplay by diverting balls, and the almost mandatory (in an earthquake game, anyhow) shaker motor. Lawlor’s games always seem packed with toys and expensive hardware, Roadshow being the ultimate example of this. I think if Earthshaker would have been released after Funhouse and Addams Family, there would be absolutely no question that the sinking institute would have been left in, as Williams pretty much let Lawlor go to town after having these back-to-back grand slam successes. But Earthshaker was Mr. Lawlor’s second game after Banzai Run, an expensive game in its own right, and perhaps this reigning in process, in terms of budget was a Williams strategy to keep him in check. The subject of why the sinking institute was cut was brought up on part one of Clay Harrell’s three part interview with Lawlor, but Lawlor heads off in another direction to talk about High Speed and theme selection instead of answering the question as it was asked. As I interpret the answer, the sinking building helped reinforce the overall theme and helped set a specific mood, thus Lawlor saw it as an important element of Earthshaker and it should have been included in the final version.

Time for pingenuity to take over once again. With all the proper holes and programming to make the building sink, dammit if someone didn’t step forward and build a rig similar to the original to make it sink! Al Warner (Pinside ID: awarner) and Mark Davidson from Basement Arcade have become the brain trusts of the Earthshaker Institute. The two had previously formed Pinball Obsession, which had offered the kit, however, that website has since ceased operation and the Earthshaker kit now calls Basement Arcade its home on the web. The project of reintroducing movement to the building has roots all the way back to 2003, and has been engineered to near perfection since. Mr. Davidson was able to create an original rig by setting two Earthshakers side by side–a prototype model with lowering Institute and the more common production version with stationary building. Within a month of starting the project, Mr. Davidson had a sinking institute in his production version that sank much like the original.

The process of installing one of these kits seems simple enough. Remove the stationary building from the playfield and attach it to the rig that is provided. The most delicate part appears to be drilling out two rivets on the original assembly. Using the piggyback connectors supplied, wire the unit up through the power and interconnect boards and attach the connector to the rig itself. Then it is just a matter of reinstalling the new assembly below the playfield. It’s as easy as that really. There has been one slight hiccup: buildings raise in such a way that it will bind on games that have reproduction ramps, resulting in the owner having to notch their repro ramp for the proper clearance. Other than that, Mr. Davidson has done all the hard work for you, and left the end user with a very simple installation process and detailed photographic instructions to help you along the way. I particularly like the fact that piggyback connectors are provided, so those collectors who are not adept at splicing wires or crimping connectors would be able to install this mod with ease (also a plus for lazy modders, I guess). Further, it makes this mod completely reversible with little effort. However, once this mod goes in, it will probably never come out.

I find it incredible that this piece of machinery is made by hand by Mr. Davidson in his free time. Much of this sort of thing is farmed out overseas to minimise cost these days. At $275USD plus shipping, the mod is a pricy one, and all for the up and down movement of a square piece of plastic. Many have balked at the price, and in response, Mr. Warner, on Pinside, outlined all the man-hours and craftsmanship put into making one of these and touted its glowing track record:

“All of the parts are made, one at a time with a C&C. Some individual parts take over an hour each. After you have all the parts you made (at considerable expense), you then have to source motors that will work. You purchase the motors (that probably went up since the last time you made these) and now all you need is wiring harnesses which uses connectors that are not available anywhere so you MAKE YOUR OWN CONNECTORS that allow the unit to be installed without having to splice a single wire. Finally, you assemble it all and put it in a box to sell. Because you don’t have unlimited funds, you can only spend $5000.00 of your own money until you get some more orders or can sell the ones you made. then when you sell them, some people start complaining that “They are too expensive” or “They can make them cheaper”. This goes along until you sell them all and people want them again. Then they complain that they would pay anything for one now and that you should spend your entire life making these things not knowing if you’ll ever sell another. We have lives with Families. We make this stuff for a modest profit and provide something that no one else does. We can’t make them faster, we can only make them well and on our schedule. We’ve had one return in the 10 years we’ve made [Dr. Who] Wobble Heads and ES kits […] Everyone that has them has had no complaints.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Credit Dot write-up without some bad news: the availability is very limited. Mr. Warner revived the idea of putting the kits back into production as recently as one month ago, and Mr. Davidson fulfilled the interest by making five (yes, just five) more kits to satisfy demand. I’m unaware if any of these kits are left for purchase at the current time. It appears from the Pinside conversation that finding and purchasing the motors for the unit is the key to the whole operation (besides the time needed to put the mech together). As much as the quality looks to be top notch on these kits, I’ll mention the Basement Arcade website is ghastly to navigate and not very appealing to the eye. It may turn some away. It is a good thing much of the interest is garnered through Pinside without having to go to the Basement Arcade to get your hands on a kit. There are a large number of DIY instruction pages on the web that show you how to make your own sinking Institute, if you’d rather not spend the money on the professionally made kit.

I’m actually surprised that a larger pinball company has not tried to build their own Institute kit at a lower price point, or even approached Mr. Davidson to make a small quantity to be offered on their conglomerate webstore. The thread I quoted above was started by a Pinside user looking to buy one of the sold out building kits, and it heads off of the garden path rather quickly into a discussion about the perceived high cost of the item. Mr. Warner mentions the Dalek wobblehead kit in the above quote, a project he and Mr. Davidson also worked on which brought motion back to the Dr. Who topper (motion that was also axed before production). It seems a version of their kit was offered by a different company for a lower price than what Pinball Obsession was offering it, but the quality was grossly inferior. Again, I’m shocked that it hasn’t happened with the Earthshaker kit as well, given the cutthroat mentality of some folks in this community. Perhaps it proves that there is still no substitute for quality.

Production of this mod looks to be a labour of love for Mr. Davidson. I’m not saying there is no money to be made here, but any profits to be had are well-deserved, as the time and effort that goes into making them appears to be at a maximum. The mod itself has been through three revisions throughout its existence. Revisions, as I observe them, are a redesign of the arm that raises and lowers the building, a clean up of the wiring/connectors and an overall sprucing up of the fit and finish of the actual unit.

If Earthshaker is a game that will reside in your collection for any length of time, this is the ultimate mod to have. It is a feature that was meant to be there all along, so it is only natural to retro-fit it back into the game. It is a modification that appears to be easily reversible, so one could conceivably remove it to keep the price of their game saleable, however, the feature is much sought after and if left in, would be a key selling point for the game. I personally do not have an Earthshaker, but I do enjoy the game immensely (more so than its disaster brethren, Whirlwind). I would have one, but having limited space in my gameroom and having two of those spaces taken up by Lawlor games already, I’m hesitant to add another. If I did have one, I would probably suck it up and spend the money on this kit. It’s a cool feature that doesn’t have much to do with gameplay, but it was part of the original vision for the game, and that is enough for most collectors to buy in. Here’s hoping production continues at a pace that satisfies demand.

If you are interested in adding your name to the list for an upcoming run of the Earthshaker Sinking Institute Kit, please contact Al Warner via Pinside PM (username “awarner”) or email Mark Davidson at mark[at]basementarcade.com.

Further Reading:

Pinside – Earthshaker Sinking Building
Basement Arcade – Earthshaker Institute Sinking Building Kit
Basement Arcade – Operation Moving EI
Pinball Obsession – Homepage (Inactive)
Pinball Obsession – Earthshaker Kit Manual Version 1 (original)Version 2Version 3 (Current)
KLOV/VAPS – Earthshaker Sinking Building Kit (2011/12)
Instructables – DIY Earthshaker Sinking Institute


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MODS: An Evening with Uncle Lester

Question: What is the first thing someone does after they purchase an Addams Family?
Answer:  Weep, as the price paid for it was probably astronomical.  Then, if the game doesn’t already have one, install Uncle Lester.

I’m guilty of immediately putting in an Uncle Lester as well.  My TAF arrived last year at this time, fresh off of a container from Italy, and I had ol’ Lester pre-purchased ready for its arrival.  I ask myself in retrospect, why was I so keen on getting him in?  Mostly, it’s just accepted practice.  A TAF without a Lester in a private collection, in my experience, is a rare occurrence indeed.  Also, it’s pretty unobtrusive and easy to install.  But look at it.  Honestly, it’s very ugly.  And it doesn’t look like Fester/Christopher Lloyd at all, but rather an emaciated nun with a ball-gag in her mouth.   The lack of likeness, in all likeliness, has something to do with skirting copyright…much like the Lester name change.  The arms of the figure shoot out at 90-degrees, not resting upon the arms of the electric chair as it appears they are designed to.  Further, Lester isn’t “plugged into” anything—no headpiece to give him a jolt or arm straps to “secure” him in (the scene in the film where Fester IS in the chair both mentioned props are used).

Food for thought–of the five completely restored and overhauled TAFs that Christopher Hutchins of High End Pins has posted for public viewing on his site, only one has the Lester mod included in the final restored product.  That doesn’t mean that the other four owners won’t eventually add them to their beautifully restored machines, but it speaks volumes as to the opinion of the mod to a professional like Hutchins (and the folks with money who pay Hutchins to restore their machines).  It could have something to do with restoring the machine back to “showroom original”—and Lester is obviously not stock.  But that chair looks annoyingly empty without SOMETHING sitting in it!

Granted, construction and wiring of the Lester mod, overall, is solid, and installation is a breeze.  I’ve never had a problem with the figure coming loose from the chair even with continuous playfield raising and lowering (thanks to a malfunctioning “Thing Flips” 555 socket and a weak upper right flipper), nor in a bumpy move from my old house to my new one. 

But for all its durability, this is a mod that sits front and centre, inches from the flippers and it’s hard to ignore.  So the question becomes what looks worse—an empty electric chair or a garish looking Lester? The mod itself has been through a few incarnations and available from a few sources over the years.  Currently, Lester is available direct from Pinball Pro for $89.95USD or through their eBay store (LINK) for $99.95USD+$8.99USD shipping within the US (international around $20US shipping).  I say this with no real experience in manufacturing or economies of scale, but that strikes me as a bit pricy.  But obviously it’s a price people have gladly paid to fill their electric chair.

  Other options appear to be limited.  Another “Fester” was available from a seller in Spain–beautifully sculpted after the image of Fester on the backglass.  I have not seen this one in person, so I can’t speak to the quality of the mod, but it looks to be quite impressive.  As of writing, this new Fester cannot be located on eBay.  Either production has stopped, or the mod is so massively popular and intricate to make that they can’t keep them in stock.  The same seller also had a polar bear head that was sculpted after the polar bear on the playfield to mount above the Bear Kick ramp (don’t get me started on how absurd the game looks with a live, in-stride polar bear mounted above the ramp) and a mini-graveyard to mount near the pops (again, the absurdity of the other “mossy graveyard” mod also boggles my mind).  My recollection is fuzzy, but I don’t think there were any lit or moving parts on this version of Fester—it was a static figure that sat in the electric chair…and the price was around $230USD+$15USD worldwide shipping.  I guess if they are charging $110 for an ugly Lester, $250 for an intricately crafted one isn’t outrageous.  One can also surmise that this version is also unlicensed, infringing on the copyright of Paramount’s Fester character and the John Youssi backglass art.

The licencing problems with TAF are well documented.  The estate of Raul Julia (Gomez Addams) has prevented anything with Julia’s image from being reproduced for parts or in digital form from the moment Williams lost the production licence/Julia passed away.  Can we assume that a company with influence, say, Planetary Pinball Supply, would be able to navigate the rocky terrain that is licensing acquisition to get a decent licenced version of Fester produced?  There would be a market for it and I don’t think Julia’s estate would have to be involved.  Without a doubt, TAF is the most modded classic era machine out there, behind only Twilight Zone.  With over 21,000 machines produced and a burning desire from collectors to have the newest mods in their machines, it would be a home run.  I’m sure it would be a pricy venture, and obviously the cost would be passed onto the consumer…but if it fell into the $100-$200 range and was of good quality, it would sell, no question.

Until such a time, we all have to stand pat with old Uncle Lester or wait until his Spanish counterpart (Tío Lester?)  becomes readily available again AND we get comfortable enough blowing another $200+ on a mod most of us have probably purchased a version of already.

Further Reading:
Pinside – SEEN THE NEW UNCLE FESTER MOD…??
Pinball Revolution – Wong168 Installs TAF Uncle Lester Light Up Mod