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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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REVIEW: Pop Bumper Showdown, Part 1: BriteMods BriteCaps EVO

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Ah, the pop bumper. The ultimate ball randomizer. It was once the centerpiece of nearly every pinball table, but as technology changed and playfield layouts became more complex, the pop bumpers became somewhat of an intrusion, leftovers from a bygone era, and were tucked away in dark corners and hidden under elaborate ramps. Take Williams Demolition Man, for example. Not only was one pop bumper assembly completely removed from the layout, you’d be actually hard pressed to notice they exist at all, blocked from view by a series of ramps, wire forms and plastics. This is a far cry from the days when bumpers all but dominated the woodrail era games. Ask any pinball aficionado, though, and they’ll tell you that it ain’t a pinball machine unless there are pop bumpers on it! As the bumpers themselves moved to the periphery, it became obvious that the single light contained within the assembly itself wasn’t enough to draw attention to the unit. Faceted caps were employed in some instances, as in many modern Stern games, or covered up completely with molded plastics, as they were in Data East’s Simpsons and Williams’ White Water. However, for the most part, pinball companies old and new have resisted perfecting new lighting techniques for the pop bumper, and have stuck with the same old single bulb in a single socket.

The recent surge in enthusiasm for LED lighting has allowed aftermarket companies to offer up solutions for the tired looking, and somewhat forgotten, pop bumpers. Love them or hate them, LEDs are common place in today’s pinball landscape. So much, that every game that leaves Stern Pinball’s factory now comes with a full compliment of LEDs.  To move your old game into the 21st century, you could just remove the carbonized 555 incandescent that currently sits inside your pop bumper and replace it with one of countless LED designs on the market.  However, the minds at aftermarket lighting companies in the pinball landscape have dreamt up other designs that take lighting the pop bumper cap to the next level. In the next week or so, I’m going to try and wade through the sometimes confusing world of pop bumper lighting options, and weigh the pros and drawbacks of each solution. I’ve rounded up pop bumper lighting solutions from three of the biggest names in the hobby—Comet Pinball, CoinTaker and BriteMods—in an attempt to explore the different options out there. If you are a staunch supporter of incandescent bulbs, this series may not be for you. If you constantly strive to make your machine look its best, brightest and most colourful, I’ll try my best to help you make your pop bumpers really…um, pop.

Part 1: BriteMods BriteCaps EVO Series

When in doubt, start with the most expensive option, right? All kidding aside, BriteMods’ BriteCaps EVO pop bumper light has to be considered a front runner in the race to light your pops. It isn’t just a lightbulb, it’s an entire lighting solution. Available exclusively from go-to parts supplier Pinball Life, the BriteCaps EVO (which stands for Enhanced Visual Output) provides a visually pleasing experience while giving customers bang for their buck in extra features not available from the other aftermarket lighting companies. The BriteCaps EVO was born from BriteMods’ first foray into pop bumper lighting: the original BriteCap. The original design, which is still available from Pinball Life, was a unit consisting of 31-Surface Mounted Diode (SMD) lights mounted to both the top and bottom sides of a ring set inside a pop bumper cap. Since the unit came “pre-capped”, the end-user removed their old pop bumper cap and simply installed the new one with the BriteCap pre-installed in it. The BriteCap EVO takes the cap out of the equation and ups the LED count to an astounding 40 points of light: 24 SMDs on the topside available in a wide array of colours, 10 white SMDs on the bottom to illuminate the playfield, and 6 center SMDs that can be adjusted (via a switch) to always be on, or to react to the vibrations of the pop bumper. Your original pop bumper cap is used in the EVO application.

Background:

I had the opportunity to speak to Dan Rosen of BriteMods recently, and he was nice enough to fill us in on the company’s history and involvement in pop bumper modding:

“BiteMods has been around since 2013. I started designing and selling mods to folks on Pinside, but soon became overwhelmed by the response and needed a retail partner. Pinball Life was my immediate choice as partner, as they have a great reputation for quality products at fair prices, as well as exceptional service. I now sell exclusively through their web store. [Lighting pop bumpers] began with the original BriteCaps design and was simply an automotive accessory adapted for pinball. I wanted to design the ultimate pop bumper lighting from the ground up, and that’s what BriteCaps EVO represents.”

What You Get:

Each BriteCaps EVO unit comes individually boxed. Inside the box, you get the BriteCaps EVO itself, a set of installation instructions and two pop bumper screws that are longer than the traditional ones to account for the extra height the BriteCaps EVO adds to the bumper. The BriteCaps EVO is a single unit—it’s built like a tank—and has no wires or other external hangings. The unit has a brightness adjustment dial, that can be manipulated with a Phillips screwdriver to set the brightness to your liking. Pinball Life gives you the option of adding on pop bumper caps to your BriteCaps EVO order, but from what I can see, they are just standard Williams/Bally caps that are offered.

Price:

The BriteCaps EVO experience isn’t a cheap one. Each EVO unit will set you back $12.95USD. That puts a set of three at $38.85USD. It still comes in cheaper than its predecessor the original BriteCap, which retails for $14.95USD each for a standard cap, and $16.95USD for a jeweled cap.

Palate:

The BriteCaps EVO brand comes in red, blue, green, purple, orange, yellow, warm white and cool white. Note that this colour choice is for the 30 lights on the top of the EVO only, the bottom ten lights are white across all colour choices.

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Application & Installation:

The EVO will work in any Williams/Bally, Stern, Sega or Data East game that uses a standard pop bumper body. Standard, unfaceted, unjewelled caps seem to be suggested (and encouraged) by BriteMods and Pinball Life, as they are offered as an add-on to your EVO order. The unit itself is pretty much plug and play. With the machine off, remove the bumper cap and 555 bulb, choose your Flash React™ setting via the switch on the bottom of the unit, carefully insert the EVO into the bumper socket, and reattach the cap with the two screws provided.

Review:

I really like the construction of the EVO unit. The base that plugs into the socket has incredible substance. The most frustrating part of LEDing a game is dealing with those little wire connections on the plastic stem of the bulb assembly. They need to be wiggled, adjusted and bent in a very particular way so that a solid connection is made with the socket. Hoping that connection is sustained, and doesn’t mis-align during normal game play, is a worry as well. The EVO design completely eliminates all this fiddling around. The connection point plugs into the pop bumper socket with ease and gives a robust connection on the first attempt.

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Base connection points of the EVO versus the standard 555 LED/SMD bulb.

The side-fire positioning of the top SMDs make for a visually pleasing experience. The theory behind the side-fire mounting is that the light is directed outwards, rather than directly up toward the player. This achieves maximum light throw without burning the retinas of the player. I was able to colour match red EVOs to the red pop bumpers in both Williams Pin*Bot and Rollergames. I prefer the look of matching the colour of the EVO to the bumper cap, rather than letting the colour of the bumper cap do all the work with a white light beneath it. The latter gives a washed out feeling, while colour matching gives a much more full and rich result (as it does when colour matching an LED with a playfield insert).  The picture below of the EVOs installed in Pin*Bot may not illustrate this completely, but the middle bumper with red EVO emits a far truer red than the bottom bumper does with its warm white EVO. The BriteMods website suggests that the user may also consider replacing coloured bumper caps with clear ones, giving the chosen colour of EVO a clean palate to work with. I swapped in a clear cap momentarily for the test in Pin*Bot, but it was not a look I was fond of. The light was much too harsh on the eyes and less visually pleasing than colour matching with a red cap. Admittedly, my eyes have a hard time processing LED/SMD lighting, and when I wear my glasses to play, it just gets worse. I installed the red BriteCaps EVO with a red pop bumper cap on full brightness on both Pin*Bot and Rollergames, and never had an issue with the light being harsh or distracting (we can thank colour matching the cap with the SMD and the side-firing for that, I believe).

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Pin*Bot Application: Top bumper contains a standard 555 incandescent, middle bumper contains a red EVO with Flash React enabled, bottom bumper contains a warm white EVO with Flash React disabled.

The 10 bottom white SMDs do a great job of completely lighting up the pop bumper area. The results were stellar in Rollergames, a pinball machine notorious for leaving the rear half of the playfield ill-lit and hidden under black plastic coverings. The light cast by the bottom SMDs work to illuminate the once gloomy area and in doing so bring to life the art around it. It also worked to brighten up the playfield area beneath the mini-playfield on Pin*Bot, nicely catching the sheen of the freshly clear-coated playfield I had installed.

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Rollergames application: A set of red EVOs are installed. The photo captures how well the EVOs light up the surroundings, compared to the dim incandescent bulbs near the rollovers.

The six center SMD lights, armed with Flash React™ technology, are a neat little bonus you get with the BriteCaps EVO brand. Some may use this interactivity to help justify the expensive sticker price of the unit itself. On the bottom side of the EVO, there is a small toggle button. If left in its original position, it disables the trademarked feature and the six lights stay on with the other 24 top lights. If depressed, the lights will remain off until vibrations from the game (moreover, the pop bumpers) are detected, which will light the six center lights briefly. It makes for a neat light show when the ball gets bouncing around in the pop bumper nest. I would have liked to have seen more than just six of the thirty lights react to pop bumper hits, but I’m sure it walks a fine line—too many would have created unwanted strobe. I can’t help but think that there seems to be missed potential with the technology as it is employed here. However, Flash React™ is not a necessary feature that needed to be included, but makes for a nice interactive, customizable bonus and is a feature that may work to set EVO apart from its competitors.

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Flash React in action

One unavoidable downfall with the EVO is that it adds 5mm in height to your pop bumpers. The circumference of the EVO is just as big as the pop bumper cap itself, meaning the EVO will not nest inside the cap like an original BrightCap ring would have. It’s an unavoidable issue: the inner plastic lip of the pop bumper cap traditionally envelops the outer edge of the pop bumper body, however the EVO sits flush on top of the body, thus, the pop bumper cap may only rest flush on top of the EVO. A word of warning: be ready for frustrating clearance issues and making an endless amount of adjustments for any game with pop bumpers that have ramps, wireforms or mini playfields that rest on top of or near them. On test, Rollergames was able to handle the extra height of the EVO, however, Pin*Bot’s mini-playfield posed fit problems after EVO installation. I already had the thicker Classic Playfield Reproductions mini-playfield installed, and those extra 5mm really threw everything out of whack, even creating a ball hang-up on the mini-playfield where there was not one before. As stated above, each EVO is shipped with a set of longer pop bumper screws that take into account the extra height added, which is fantastic forethought, but short of grinding out that inner pop bumper lip with a Dremel, there is a high probability of fit issues in many modern games. BriteMods also warns of using the EVO in games where partially cut bumper caps are necessary (think Addams Family’s single sawed-off cap next to the side ramp).

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A warm white EVO installed in Pin*Bot

Bottom Line:

If you can justify spending the money, BriteMods’ BriteCaps EVO provides an excellent lighting solution and a quality product that will make the pop bumpers, and their surroundings, stand out. The build quality of the unit is truly exceptional. The first product reviewed in the series looks to be a front-runner for top of the class. That said, the extra interactivity provided by the Flash React™ is a fun and unique attribute to have, but the result of six small lights reacting in time with the firing of pop bumpers may not be enough for some to consider the feature “value added”.  The extra height is a major downfall in an otherwise fantastic product. Fit issues will prevent me from keeping the EVO in my Pin*Bot, but the extra splash of light and colour they add to Rollergames makes for a welcome change to the dull 555 lighting.

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Check back for Part Two in the series, where CoinTaker’s AfterBurner pop bumper lighting solution is tested and reviewed.

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Credit Dot Pinball/BriteMods Contest!

Two BriteMods prize packages are up for grabs! The prizes were generously donated by Dan Rosen at BriteMods. The first randomly selected winner will receive a set of three BriteCaps EVO and a set of BriteMods BriteButtons flipper buttons. The second randomly selected winner will receive a set of BriteMods BriteButtons. To enter, simply send an e-mail to creditdotpinball@gmail.com with the word “EVO” in the subject line. One entry per person please. Two winners will be picked at random (using random.org). Contest closes July 1st, 2015 and winners will be announced shortly thereafter. Open to residents of the US and Canada only…I’d love to open it up, I can’t afford to ship stuff overseas!

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PEOPLE: An E-Mail from Doug Watson

I had contacted pinball artist Doug Watson earlier in the week to see if he would be interested in participating in an email interview about his time working in the pinball industry. Mr. Watson’s pinball artwork spans three decades and four distinct pinball manufacturers. Some of the games he worked on include 80s cult favourites like Devil’s Dare and Big Game, as well as some of the most popular titles of the DMD era like The Shadow, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Attack From Mars. My personal favourite piece of his is the backglass from the 1981 Williams game Barracora. It is absolutely breathtaking–the eyes of the fish-woman seem to peer directly into your soul. Mr. Watson is currently an instructor at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and has recently signed on with the upstart British pingame manufacturer Heighway Pinball. I received a response to my email from Mr. Watson yesterday afternoon, and in a strange bit of foreshadowing, a game on which he did the artwork showed up in my gameroom exactly twenty-four hours later:

Mr. Watson was extremely welcoming to an interview request, and went on to give me some rather nice feedback about this site. He also went on to comment on an article I wrote up a few days ago about Jersey Jack Pinball’s The Hobbit playfield artwork. In that article, I bemoan the cut-and-paste style of JJP’s release, and go on to generally lament the death of hand drawn playfield artwork. Turns out Mr. Watson agreed. So much so, his email briefly, but passionately, layed out his opinion on how times have changed along with the economics and aesthetics of pingame art. I was so taken by Mr. Watson’s email, that I found it a shame that I would be the only one to read it. I asked to post an excerpt on the site, and he graciously agreed:

“Rob,

I took a look at your Credit Dot site. Very well written in my opinion. I could not tell who the author of each essay was though. I assume you wrote a number of them but you don’t credit yourself. Who wrote the Hobbit playfield art essay? [Ed. note: It was me, I write them all] My opinion echoes the author’s. What he talks about is the absence of the imprint of an individual artist’s style. When you play a Gordon Morrison game, or a Greg Freres game, or a Kevin O’Connor game, or a John Youssi game, or one of mine you know it immediately. The artists from that era left an indelible imprint of their own unique artistic aesthetic on their games. In our modern era that has largely been lost.

The economics of pinball art are very different now. Game makers hire artists, often good ones, with no pingame experience whatsoever to do their art packages. No matter how gifted an illustrator may be, only long term ongoing close association with the development of the game fosters the wisdom and insight into how to make pin art, particularly playfield art, not just attractive and pleasing…but effective. In the 17 years I did it, I strove constantly to improve the effectiveness of my work. I experimented, I studied other artist’s work, I had failures and successes, and most of all I was a player. I knew what I wanted the artwork to do from a player’s standpoint and an operator’s standpoint, in addition to my designer’s standpoint and of course to a license holder’s standpoint.

The economics and technology of Photoshop-created art has played a huge role in 21st century pin art, combined with modern sophisticated process printing. Collaging together found images or those supplied by a license holder requires significantly less time and effort than the old days. Original art in an artist’s original style requires a great deal more effort. We old Bally and Williams artists used to pour our hearts and souls into our work. Greg, Pat, Tony and I did countless “all-nighters” to make printing deadlines. I remember we all would go two and three straight days without ever leaving the building to get a painting done. We would paint up until the last possible second until it had to be ripped off our desks and sent out for color separations. Then we would go home and crash in bed for a few days before coming back to work.

As an example, to get just the right look I wanted for the Martians in Attack from Mars I built an armature and sculpted a maquette about 9 inches tall, inventing it as I went. Then I set up lighting arrangements and posed it in different positions and took lots of photos. I recruited a lovely young lady from the front office to model and took her to a costume shop in Chicago to rent a Marilyn dress. Then I set up another photo session with her and eventually hand glued her into the arms of one of my Martians. The sculpting, the costuming, the lighting, the photography, and all the drawing that came afterward took weeks. Today an illustrator would simply go online, find a bunch of images and Photoshop them together. Might take them a couple days. And often these days the artist might not ever even play the whitewood of the game they are packaging. Ultimately the creative process and effort put into pinball art now is very different. It has a generic quality to it that struggles to satisfy the soul of anyone with a true passion for the genre.

Best regards,

Doug”

Consider that teaser to the upcoming interview I will conduct with Mr. Watson sometime in the coming month, or when time permits. Until then, check out Pinball Magazine #2 for a brief interview with Mr. Watson about the saga of the Demolition Man backglass artwork–it is a good look into the artwork revision process and the troubles associated with working with a licence. As a side note, Mr, Watson also mentioned that he would “walk through fire to work with Brian Eddy again”. Fitting, as I, and many other pinball aficionados, would walk through fire just to PLAY one of Brian Eddy’s machines. Anyhow, I look forward to talking to Mr. Watson further–he has a flair for the written word that certainly matches his flair in pinball artistry.

Further Reading:
Doug Watson Digital – Homepage
Academy of Art University – Homepage
Internet Pinball Database – Doug Watson Pinball History
Credit Dot Pinball – NEWS: JJP’s Hobbit Playfield (a lament for hand drawn artwork)