CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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REVIEW: Pop Bumper Showdown, Part 3: The Wrap-Up

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Part One, featuring BriteMods, can be found here.  Part Two, featuring Comet Pinball, can be found here.

I don’t think there is a clear cut, flat out winner in the Pop Bumper Showdown. Like Art from Comet Pinball is known to say: it all comes down to personal preference. Different games call for different lighting solutions. Pin*Bot will be keeping a set of Comet’s 6LED Crystal Fans installed, paired with a set of Dennis Nordman’s sparkly pop bumper “thingies” (see below). The Comet fan offers a more traditional feel–the upper bagatelle playfield that lies atop the Pin*Bot pop bumper nest calls for a less harsh lighting option than the SMD rings and discs provide. As far as non-traditional pop bumper options go, I would recommend either Comet’s Pop Bumper Rings or BriteMods’ BriteCaps EVO. Both look fantastic installed, and both light the playfield beneath the pop bumpers (by way of bottom mounted SMD lights) which is a major selling point for both of these lighting options. The interactive flashing of the centre SMDs on the EVO is a nice touch, but in itself does not make the EVO a clear cut winner. The Comet rings just look darn cool and really pop, so much so that pinheads and non-pinheads alike have been marveling at the rings installed in my Mousin’ Around (its yellow pops are smack dab in the centre of the playfield and are now bright and bold thanks to the Comet touch). The Comet rings, however, may have a few points deducted because of installation issues (I had one short out on me, thanks to user error in test). The BriteCaps EVO lose points for the possibility of fit issues in areas with tight clearance, an issue I ran into on Pin*Bot during test. When all is said, the price really sets these options apart. If you want a great looking non-traditional lighting option at a great value, choose the Comet rings; if you want a total light experience with build quality akin to a Sherman tank and money is not a factor, go with the EVO. A clear cut winner is difficult to choose, given that, in the end, one man’s eye candy is another man’s eyesore.

All of the games that I used on test had pop bumpers with static lighting. Pin*Bot, Rollergames, Mousin’ Around and World Cup Soccer ’94 have pop lighting that is either on or off without the aid of computer controls. I attempted to test all of the available options in Funhouse, which has computer controlled lighting, and it was an utter failure. All of the options suffered from ghosting and leakage. The small amount of voltage present in the line which is burnt off by the incandescent without lighting the bulb is actually enough to fully light the lower voltage LED/SMDs. The newer technology doesn’t contain enough resistance to eat up that lingering voltage. In Funhouse, the SMD rings and discs were lit when they were not supposed to be, and even when one pop bumper was trying to behave normally, it still flickered and ghosted something awful. An LED OCD board would do the trick here, however, a two hundred dollar solution to a ten dollar problem isn’t something I’m willing to consider.  I’ll stick with incandescent bulbs in the Funhouse pops for the time being. This should serve as a word of warning to those wanting to mod games with computer-lit bumpers (it’s mostly Lawlor games, lets be honest).

Those Sparkly Thingies

00-pbwrap04The name itself is ridiculous: “Nordman’s Sparkly Pop Bumper Enhancement Thingy”, but it really does wonders in a pop bumper. I used them to bolster the look of Comet’s traditional LED choices in Part 2 of the review with fantastic results. It’ll come as no surprise from the name, that the little plastic disc was designed by famed pinball designer Dennis Nordman. The beauty of the design is in its simplicity. The plastic nests into the pop bumper body, and its sparkly design does a good job catching and reflecting light. Furthermore, it covers up the ugly guts of the pop bumper giving it a more clean look overall. The discs work great with a traditional 555 incandescent bulbs but really stand out when using a Comet bulb that directs light, such as the 6SMD Crystal Fan. It is a winning combination. The design is simple, and to be honest, can be easily replicated in your home workshop with a piece of Lexan and a roll of foil gift wrap. For those less inclined, the discs are available through Pinball Life for $2.95USD per “thingy” and are well worth the money…even though spending nearly ten bucks for a set of three pieces of plastic sounds kind of ridiculous!

Where’s CoinTaker?

Conspicuous by their absence in the Showdown were products from CoinTaker, but I’d like to give them some attention here in the wrap up. Their pop bumper-specific product is called the Afterburner, a disc-like lighting option akin to Comet’s disc. I was not able to do a full scale review of the Afterburner, as the products I bought for test, to be frank, blew up. I installed a red Afterburner in Pin*Bot as I did with the other lighting options, and when I gave the machine power, a loud pop was heard followed by smoke and that concerning smell of burnt plastic components. I feared the worst, obviously. Taking out the Afterburner, I noticed one of the components on the Afterburner was completely obliterated. I replaced the Afterburner with a Comet LED and (thankfully) there appeared to be no permanent damage to the game itself, however, the Afterburner was toast. I thought user error might have played a part, or even faulty wiring in my game, so I tried to install the remaining two Afterburners in both Rollergames and Elvira and the Party Monsters. However, the same meltdown results occurred to the Afterburner, which points to an error in the CoinTaker design, or a bad batch of components. I have emailed CoinTaker about the issue, but as of writing, I have received no response, explanation or replacement. I was informed that the red Afterburners used in the Pin*Bot test were a newer version of the product which boasted non-ghosting technology. I tested out an older version of the Afterburner in white, apparently without the non-ghosting technology, in my World Cup Soccer ’94, and it lit up just fine. I’m awaiting CoinTaker’s final word on why a set of their Afterburners went up in smoke in three different games of mine. The look of the Afterburner, once I got it lit in the WCS94, is very similar to that of Comet’s 11-SMD disc. Both products carry the same lighting pattern and come in a similar color palate, but the main difference is that Comet’s disc can have its brightness adjusted via an adjustment screw, whereas the CoinTaker Afterburner cannot. The price really sets the products apart: the Afterburner is $4.99USD for white but if you want colour you’ll have to pay $1.00 more (!) while the Comet disc is $4.95USD each across the board. The brightness adjustment feature and value give Comet the upper hand over the Afterburner.

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CoinTaker’s 4/1LED bulbs.

CoinTaker also carries a pop bumper light that I was not able to test, which contains four side SMDs and one on top. I was able to test the forerunner to that 4/1SMD, which is essentially the same lighting layout, except using LED technology. I tried to locate this product on the CoinTaker’s new website, but could not.  I did, however, find the product here on the old CoinTaker website. The 4 perimeter LEDs actually did a good job lighting up the pop bumpers without being too harsh on the eyes, allowing the bulb to be a viable alternative to anything sold by Comet.  Check the picture below where the two right pops contain the CoinTaker4/1LED in green and bathe the area in a nice green hue.  I cannot speak to the SMD version of the bulb, but both the SMD and the LED versions have a price comparable to that of Comet’s “Crystal Fan” option.

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Left pop bumper contains a warm white CoinTaker Afterburner, the right two contain a CoinTaker 4/1 LED.

As you can see, my attempt at reviewing CoinTaker products kind of fell flat and was an overall disappointing showing from a traditionally cutting-edge leader in the hobby. I don’t base that statement solely on the faulty products I received from the company, either. For a long time, CoinTaker was the only lighting game in town, their name synonymous with pinball lighting alternatives. CoinTaker LED kits used to be the gold standard in modding and was major selling feature for games that had them installed. However, with the emergence of Comet LED, BriteMods and other pinball lighting companies, it appears to me that CoinTaker has not stepped up their game to match or exceed the ingenuity, value and choice being offered in a cutthroat lighting market.

WINNERS!

To end on a positive note, the random winners of the BriteMods contest are Katie C. and Stephen L. Katie C will receive a set of BriteMods BriteCaps EVO and a set of BriteMods BriteButtons. Stephen L will get a set of BriteMods BriteButtons. The winners of the Comet Pinball contest are Josiah C. and Tony L. Both winners will receive a prize pack including some of Comet’s pop bumper lighting solutions as well as other Comet goodies. Thanks to the great people over at BriteMods and Comet Pinball for their generous donation of prizes! Thanks to all who emailed in—the response was overwhelming. I guess everyone loves free stuff!

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OPINION: The Complications of Letting Go

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I’m very good at buying games. I’m getting better at restoring games. But I’m absolutely dreadful at selling or trading games. My gameroom is something akin to a black hole or Jame Gumb’s basement: the things that enter seldom leave.

This was all well and good when disposable income and space were both plentiful. Recently, however, the household (ie. my wife) has tightened the purse strings on frivolous expenses and the basement is reaching absolute critical mass. I’m at the point where furniture would need to be removed to add more games. The once-promised sitting room, housing just “a few” games, where guests could be comfortably entertained, is bordering on a full-fledged arcade with little room for socialization. The eleven games in my current collection eclipses the maximum of eight that my wife once asked me to observe. I am at the point now where one game must to go if another is to come in. And that poses a problem for me.

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My son, at ten months, “playing” Solar Fire in 2012.

I’m not sure how many are affected the same way: I have completely fabricated a personal attachment to each of the games in my gameroom and I have a very hard time letting go. Of the games that I purchased with my own hard-earned money, I’ve only ever been able to bring myself to sell or trade one of them. And trading that one game was tough. Heart-breaking, even. Much more so because it was my very first game that I purchased back in 1995, a Williams Solar Fire which I have written about here. I traded it to a good friend who appreciates early Solid State games from the dawn of the 80s more than I ever will. In return, I got a Pin*Bot which came with an uninstalled Classic Playfield Reproductions playfield. I seized the opportunity to flesh out my collection with a game I enjoy one hundred times more than Solar Fire, but still, packing up that Solar Fire for delivery made me sick to my stomach. I had grown with it. It was the game that started the adventure of building a pinball collection.

I understand that these things are inanimate objects–heaps of steel, plastic and wood–and any feeling or attachment I have for them is a construct of my own subconscious, but it doesn’t help ease the distress. I’ve got a whole laundry list of “important landmarks” I can attach to each of my games: the first game I got when my son was born, the first game I completely restored from the ground up, a copy of the game I played endlessly with my father at an arcade when I was growing up. I’ve manufactured reasons to horde these commercial oddities in an unhealthy fashion. I suppose others are affected to a greater extent: whereas I’m reluctant to let go of any one of my eleven fully working games, others have trouble letting go storage units full of games that aren’t even on legs! We’re listening to the same radio station, just consumed at different volumes, I guess.

There is also the fact that I covet the value of the bird-in-hand, as opposed to the two that may be in the bush. If I let go of my Addams Family, when will I ever be in a position to get another if the market continues to trend upward as it has over the past few years? To replace a game with another copy in the same (or better) condition at the price point I have originally acquired it would prove to be difficult. I’m more of a “stand pat” kind of guy rather than throwing caution to the wind, and that complicates things.

Collectors say it all the time: “You can’t keep’em all!”. And it’s true. Gameroom turnover keeps things fresh, and rejuvenates one’s interest in the hobby. But, I’ve come to love the little intricacies of my games, tinkering with them, making them “my own”, bringing them back to life. I probably enjoy twiddling about in the backbox or under the playfield just as much as I do playing the games. Don’t get me wrong, I probably average about twenty minutes a day in the gameroom actively flipping, however, working on games and playing them with any high level of expertise are two unique skill sets. For many like me, there is little overlap. I’m firmly in the “collector camp”, as my playing skills leave much to be desired. This is probably another reason for my unwillingness to let go: I’ve become heavily involved in making them perform at their absolute zenith rather than just playing the snot out of them with reckless abandon. I’m like a mad scientist who forbids the angry mob from harming the monster he created.

I promise, I’m not a freak.  I’m not sleeping under the machines or gently stroking them while whispering sweet nothings of how they’ll be waxed later in the week. My wife isn’t being supplanted with Pin*Bot. I just need to learn to let go. I need to suppress these manufactured emotional connections I have. They can’t all be keepers. All still water will get stagnant eventually.

White Water, reluctantly packed up and ready to leave.

White Water, reluctantly packed up and ready to leave.

So, two weeks ago, I overcame the manufactured odds and traded my second game. I had to let another escape, if only for my own sanity. I traded my White Water for a World Cup Soccer ‘94 and some cash. The White Water wasn’t collector quality–the cabinet was beat, however everything under the glass was really nice and it was solid as a rock for the three years I had owned it. I liked the game. One of Nordman’s best, for sure. Diverse gameplay, unique layout, fantastic art and perhaps the best music ever created for a pinball machine. But it wasn’t getting much play by anyone other than me. When guests would visit, White Water wasn’t given a second look. Even my three-year-old son, who indiscriminately, yet passionately, flips away on all the machines, gave the game the cold shoulder. On the other hand, I really wanted a World Cup Soccer. My collection was devoid of a John Popadiuk-designed game, and World Cup is the only one of his that can be had without breaking the bank. More importantly, my three-year-old son has played soccer since he could walk and has really taken to the sport–I thought he’d get a real kick out of the game (pun intended). A really, really nice one became available, and my potential trade partner wanted my White Water in return. I came close to pulling the plug at a few points during negotiations, but I finally cut the cord, folded up White Water with little fanfare and brought home a World Cup Soccer ‘94. (Not having moved a game OUT of the basement gameroom proved to be a blessing in disguise for all these years–turns out they are much more heavy and awkward to remove than they are to put in). A friend of mine says that with each game exiled, it only gets easier to see them leave. I hope he’s right.

Any regrets I had about the trade quickly eroded when I lifted the backbox on World Cup and my son, standing on his overturned milk-crate softly cooed: “Soccer ball pin ball…my favourite!” His eyes were like saucers and he was grinning from ear to ear as he took in everything from the cartoon dog Striker on the backglass to the rotating soccer ball on the playfield. During his first game he raised his hands in victory when he scored his first goal, only to have the ball immediately drain while he was celebrating as it was kicked back to the right flipper. On separate occasions, he excitedly tried to explain to a lady at the library and his long-time soccer coach about our new gameroom acquisition. Neither could understand him, as excitement turned him into a complete marble-mouth. I had to explain on his behalf. I then had to explain further that, yes, we did have a full-sized pinball machine in our basement, and, yes, we did have more than one.

The boy playing his new favourite game.  Made the trade worthwhile.

The boy playing his new favourite game. Made the trade worthwhile.

Only today am I struck by the irony: World Cup Soccer is the game my son now runs to first when we visit the gameroom, and he has even started to refer to it as “his” game. Thus, the kid is a chip off the old block when it comes to forming emotional attachments to pinball machines. Looks like we got another keeper on our hands and a potential problem when it comes time to get rid of World Cup Soccer. However, my emotional attachment here isn’t with the machine…clearly, it’s with my son. And that’s something that can’t be fabricated.


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PEOPLE: Greg Freres on his Early Bally Backglass Prints

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Greg Freres’ career in pinball has spanned many companies and job titles, and has seen many ebbs and flows in the popularity of the game.  Yet throughout, he has been able to solidify his place within the very top echelon of pinball’s artistic operatives by adopting a widely varying artistic style while at the same time providing underlying base elements that tie the package together within Mr. Freres’ wider oeuvre of work. Mr. Freres currently works on the artistic team at Stern Pinball and is co-founder of Whizbang Pinball (with his perpetual collaborator, pinball designer Dennis Nordman), with the company’s first title, Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons, recently being tapped by Stern for production and worldwide distribution. On top of these commitments, Mr. Freres has recently released a line of 12’x12′ high quality art prints through retailer Pinball Life, which highlight his early work on four non-licenced Bally pinball backglasses. Each piece sells for $79.95USD, comes pre-framed, is signed by the artist and arrives with a note from Mr. Freres himself about the subject matter.  There is definitely a lack of high-quality pinball-related wall accoutrement to display in your gameroom these days, and I think Mr. Freres’ prints fill this void nicely. I was fortunate enough to have Mr. Freres agree to an interview, and I limited my questions, for the most part, to the line of art prints and the games they feature. (A wider account of Mr. Freres’ oeuvre can be found in Pinball Magazine #2’s feature length interview with Mr. Nordman and Mr. Freres.)

Credit Dot: To begin, why did you choose to commemorate these four particular titles in your series of collectable prints?

Greg Freres: I chose Hotdoggin’, Fathom, Strange Science, and Black Pyramid because all of these pieces are unlicensed titles. I have an agreement with WMS that allows me to reproduce art prints from the unlicensed art from my past. I also chose them because they represent a group of games from earlier in my career at Bally. I now realize that the games from the early eighties are very collectable.

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Greg Freres and his wife Andi. Courtesy of Whizbang Pinball, whizbangpinball.blogspot.com

CD: Are the prints limited in number?

GF: No, these prints are not limited.

CD: Is the art depicted in the prints culled from the original backglass paintings?  Do you own the originals?

GF: Yes – the art is scanned at a high resolution from my original paintings.

CD: How did the partnership with Pinball Life come about?

GF: I met Terry [DeZwarte, proprietor of Pinball Life] while Dennis Nordman and I were working on Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons. Terry came out to Dennis’ shop to see what we were working on. He started selling ancillary products for Whizbang Pinball including WNBJM t-shirts, backglasses, and other branded merchandise. Once I started the art prints, it seemed a natural fit to work with Terry again.

CD: How have sales been so far?

GF: Sales are good. I know the album cover size prints are small but I thought that was a great idea for places where a pinball enthusiast might want to see some backglass art without taking up to much wall space. I’ve talked to buyers who end up taking them to work to hang in their office.

CD: The prints are a product of a high quality “giclee” reproduction of the original work.  Can you speak a bit about the term for those not familiar with the giclee process?

GF: Giclee art prints have become the standard for many fine artists. All fine art is scanned at high resolution from the originals and then printed on acid-free museum grade paper (various paper weights and finishes are available from the vendor.) It’s basically a digital process that creates the closest color reproduction to the original art. It’s a great process for the artist because you don’t need to commit to a “run” of lithographic produced pieces. You can run small numbers and not be affected by the pricing constraints of a run in the hundreds.

CD: Now that many of the best places to play pinball are in private gamerooms across the country, there seems to be an insatiable desire for pinball-related gameroom décor.  Was the decision to release these prints a response to that particular “need”?

GF: My wife has been planting this seed for a number of years after she witnessed the response from enthusiasts at various pinball collector shows around the world to my work. I always felt that most pinball people want to spend their money on pinball parts, after-market bling, and anything that will help keep their “investment” running and looking great. A piece of art to hang on the wall seemed like an expense that most collectors would not be interested in. I hope that the more I can get the word out, and actually get my website built and monetized, that I’ll be able to reach more people with the art that has been mostly seen in bars, arcades, bowling alleys, and basements.

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Hotdoggin’ (1980), photo courtesy of Pinball Life.

CD: The four prints serve as a good cross section of your work at Bally, and portray how you were called upon to create an art package in varying styles: from the morose, horror-like mood created by Fathom to the more lighthearted and flashy flair of Hotdoggin’.  How are you able to reconcile these wild shifts in style from game to game?

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Ed “Big Daddy” Roth model kit, circa 1963.

GF: My best and most honest answer to that is – I guess I’m still searching for my “style”. When I started working at Bally as a full-time illustrator for their art team, I was a kid: 23 years old with only 2 years of experience as an apprentice designer at a point-of-purchase advertising company. I have always been influenced by a wide variety of artists and illustrators. I guess I can be a chameleon when it comes to the subject matter I work on. I love the satire that Mad Magazine brought to my youth, I watched every monster movie that they showed on Creature Features, I built every Big Daddy Roth “Weirdo” model kit, and I played drums. So my interests have always been all over the map – I guess that helps tackle the variety of subjects.

CD: Speaking of Fathom, suggested titles for the game were Barracuda and Deep Threat, the latter being your suggestion (rejected by Bally I’m assuming because of connotations to the Linda Lovelace film Deep Throat?).  How integrated in the creation process were you in the early days at Bally?  Could an artist influence game design or other important elements such as game title?

GF: We always had a lot of creative freedom in the pinball business early on–actually for many years of my career. Game design was so much simpler when I started. Norm Clark would have a line-up of whitewoods in the test room and at some point he would tell marketing and sales which one was ready for production. Once it went to the art department the artists sometimes could make suggestions for themes, even adding lights to the playfield to spell a specific word. Bally was just bringing licenses to the table back then but for non-licensed games the art department could get really involved in theme selection and direction.

CD: How did you come about creating the female characters for Fathom? They seem to carry elements of fish, snake, mermaid and human.

GF: I’ve never been asked that – I guess they are mermaids with incredibly long tails. How else could they take down their prey? Paul Faris art directed me on this project in a big way – he kept pushing me to do better and better with a theme that was not easy to envision. I hope to someday do a prequel graphic novel that leads up to the moment on the backglass and playfield.

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Fathom (1981), photo courtesy of Pinball Life.

CD: There is a strong sense of helplessness in the Fathom backglass art, and I think that comes from the detail that the drowning man doesn’t look particularly panicked–as if he’s resigned himself to the fact that he’s going to die at the hands of the two sirens.  I often feel helpless myself when playing Fathom, because the game is deadly hard. Is this just a coincidence?

GF: It must be coincidence because we didn’t play it much before starting the theme and art. Fathom has garnered the most interest of any project I’ve been associated with and I believe it is because of the intensity required to do well. It’s a great playfield and can be pretty mean. The guy’s knife is floating downward; maybe the clue you caught in his resignation.

CD: The notion of the helpless male figure depicted in that Fathom backglass is a bit of a departure from the hyper-masculinized male figures normally depicted in pinball from this era.  Even examining your prior work for Bally, we see the larger-than-life shirtless image of Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones and the uber-masculine bearded outdoorsman of Frontier (who is the furthest thing from helpless–he battles a bear with his bare hands).  Was this a consideration to add to the overall mood of the game?

GF: Not a conscious decision – we were experimenting with so many ideas and directions with the non-licensed themes. Heavy Metal Magazine was a major influence on all of us at that time and we followed that vibe of each story (and in our case each game) having a completely different visual direction and thematic choice.

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Doug Johnson’s “tubular” pop-art style on full display on the cover of Judas Priest’s 1984 album Defenders of the Faith.

CD: Is there a name for the particular bubble/balloon style of art used on Hotdoggin’?

GF: I had just seen the Art of Playboy exhibition in Chicago that year and some of my favorite illustrators of the day were in that show. Plus one of my favorite board games as a kid was Candyland. When I saw Doug Johnson’s work at that show I felt his bright color schemes and tubular architecture felt right for this ski theme.

CD: There seems to be a lot of actual hot dog imagery in the Hotdoggin’ art in both shape and colour.  Am I just seeing things?

GF: Well, I guess Chicago is known for its Hot Dogs! Influence can come in many forms.

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Greg Hildebrandt’s “Little Mermaid”

CD: Black Pyramid is some of the first pinball art you created under the Bally-Midway banner.  Was there any change in direction for the company after the merge, or was it business as usual?

GF: Pinball had waned a great deal at this point since video games took the front seat at Midway. I was doing more managerial work at this point so it was good to be back on the board. I wanted to attempt a color scheme more like the Hildebrandt brothers- cool shadows playing against ultra-warm and bright highlight areas. I like to joke that the state of the business for pinball was in such dire straits that the skeletal warriors represent the cost-cutting and blood-letting that was happening via layoffs and cost reduced games.

CD: While not as blatant as some of the Gottlieb games from the same era (Hollywood Heat and Deadly Weapon for example), Black Pyramid appears to harness the success of the Indiana Jones films without having an Indiana Jones licence.  Is it an art form in itself trying to hit all the genre elements without infringing on official copyrights?

GF: I’m not sure it’s an art form but it was definitely fun to try and touch the essence of the theme without infringing.

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Black Pyramid (1984), photo courtesy of Pinball Life.

CD: By the time Strange Science hit arcades, the displays had moved to the bottom of the backglass.  Did this make life easier for the artist, not having to design around score displays within the art piece itself?

GF: Absolutely! No doubt! Those 5 displays broke any continuity in an otherwise great layout because when you walked in a gameroom all you saw was a portion of the art because we used an opaque layer to make sure heavy shadows from the displays wouldn’t cut off any cool visual.

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Strange Science (1986), photo courtesy of Pinball Life.

CD: Strange Science has an overt comic book style with the backglass being the cover of the “comic” and the playfield being the inner pages, complete with boxed text.  We saw a comic influence before in the Fathom flyer, and we’d see it again, in spades, with Dr. Dude and his Excellent Ray.  How did your fascination with the comic style begin?

GF: This was me trying to be the Mad Magazine guy in pinball. I always loved their parodies on current movies and TV shows so I wanted to try and capture that spirit in my work.

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MAD Magazine art circa 1968. Mort Drucker was the artist on this MAD send-up of 2001: A Space Odyssey entitled “201 Mins. Of A Space Idiocy.

CD: The Strange Science era games were released in generic “Bally/Midway” cabinets devoid of game specific art.  Was this a cost-cutting measure?  Did this help or hinder the overall artistic presentation of the game?

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Strange Science in the generic Bally/Midway cabinet. Photo courtesy of Clay Harrell, http://www.pinrepair.com

GF: Cost cutting all the way. Pinball was hanging on for dear life at that point so the product suffered accordingly. To stay competitive someone thought the cabinet art should be the first to go since most games get lined up in rows. It did, however, allow the artist more time to focus on the backglass and playfield.

CD: With some lesser enjoyed games like Strange Science and Black Pyramid, is it satisfying to hear players and collectors attest that your art packages were often times much more memorable than the gameplay of the games they graced?

GF: Yes – quite a bit of my art has been on games that didn’t sell as well as the bigger games. Of course I would have liked to have been on the more successful games (in terms of sales and game play) but I’m fine with being the underdog of the group. Maybe as I got closer to game design in my career I was still influenced by that underground mindset.

CD: The four prints represent some of your earliest work in pinball, and you are coming up on forty years in the industry.  Besides the actual process of creating the art, how has the job changed for the artist from your time with Bally to your work today with Stern?

GF: The easiest difference to point out is the computer. When I started in the business it was all hand-drawn – a term that collectors have been clamoring for the return to since computer graphics have made everything so much more efficient, and somewhat generic. We did both line art and spot colors for playfields; inked line art and the colors all hand-cut from rubylith (a unique graphic arts film that could be cut into and peeled away to create a masking effect, then contact exposed onto litho film to create the film positives needed for silk-screen printing.) Our backglasses were paintings that got reproduced on glass via silk-screen, and then later we switched to translite technology (plastic instead of glass) for better resolution and consistency, and to save money as well.

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More of Mr. Freres’ beautiful “hand drawn” art on the Fathom playfield.

Even though we were traditional artists we needed to make the transition to digital art to continue to work. Once Stern started with a heavy percentage of licensed themes, it made sense to provide a more photo-composed package for easier approvals and efficiency in the production side of the art. Now that Stern is offering a tiered product structure with the Pro, Premium and Limited versions of each game, it’s tough for one artist to complete an entire games worth of art. Since starting at Stern two years we’ve been tag-teaming the design of the art packages while trying to keep a consistent look throughout all three tiers.

My goal as AD at Stern is to eventually return to some degree of a hand-drawn look to the games we produce. Pinball has a rich history of great art and I want to make sure we can recapture that spirit in future games.

CD: Citing a few specific examples from the series of four prints, can you give us some insight as to your artistic process when designing a backglass?

GF: With any illustration, the process begins with research, especially for games that are non-licensed. Before even thinking about the structure of the layout you have to familiarize yourself with the subject. So for Fathom, I borrowed a stack of scuba magazines from a college friend. With Hotdoggin’, ski magazines showed up from another friend upon request. Keep in mind this was way before computers and Google. So most research was done at book stores, libraries, comic book shops, and of course, my own photography once the rough layout was established and I started to refine character poses.

All of this research leads to idea generation. Certain pictures or other art can act as a spark for further ideas of your own, and then like any other design, build upon those ideas and see what might work, and learn what definitely doesn’t work. Small thumbnail sketches are key to getting ideas down quickly without wasting too much time.

Those thumbnails often, at least for me, are so doodley, that only I can see or understand what I’ve drawn. Sometimes, I leave written notes on sketches because the scrawling can be so frenetic and scribbley, that later when I go back to the sketch only the words can explain what is there.

Once I have a feel for what could be a good composition, I can then begin to spend some real time on getting the pieces in place, including character poses background and foreground elements, and other details to help complete the story or add to the theme.

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Legendary pinball artist and long-time Bally artistic director Paul Faris signs an Evel Knievel playfield at the Texas Pinball Festival.

For Fathom, there was a lot of time spent on creating the “dance” of the three characters. My art director Paul Faris was instrumental in helping achieve this composition and keeping the illuminated art focused in the center without having bad shadows from the display panel areas negatively affecting the overall visual quality.

On Strange Science my goal was to get away from the overtly detailed backglass style that I had learned from my mentors, and I wanted to try something different that had a more “in your face” attitude that could be viewed from a distance (across the arcade or bar) to help grab the first quarter, then the rest of the story could be told on the playfield.

On Hotdoggin’, it was more about the design feel and less about the characters. That was a mistake that I realized after I had invested too much time in all of the hotdoggy architecture, when I should have been focused on making the female lead character a better focal point. I still like the final outcome for the pure colorful and playful vibe that it evokes.

Once the preliminary skeleton is built, a tight pencil is created, then transferred to illustration board. I usually do a color sketch, either very rough, or very tight, depending on my confidence going into the final painting. I prefer to work out all of the color issues in the color sketch phase so once I start committing to paint, I have less to figure out since painting can be stressful as printing deadlines approach. The painting phase may be the only time I can enjoy listening to music since most all the problems are figured out and it’s all about doing the best I can with a brush or an airbrush.

The final detail phase is critical to pushing the piece to the best it can be. This is where I review the entire piece and sweat the small stuff. Small highlights on edges can create the illusion of reality and correct lighting. And adding glows or reflective edge or fill lighting can help create the drama needed to pop characters off the background.

Many things have changed since then but just like any kind of structure, be it a building, or a vehicle, or a sculpture, it’s all about the internal structure, or the skeleton. In illustration, the accuracy of the final drawing before adding the “flesh” (or paint) onto that skeletal structure is key: no amount of color or flair can help a bad layout.

CD: In recent years, a dichotomy has appeared: pitting pinball as low culture amusement against pinball as high culture pop art.  Does having your commercial art being reproduced as a museum quality print also serve to bring your commercial art into a new artistic light?

GF: I have always hoped that pinball art, in all of its lowbrow glory, could someday get recognized by a larger community of art collectors or aficionados. Our small fraternity of artists that have had the pleasure of making a living from the silverball have not only enjoyed the creative freedom and storytelling that pinball has allowed, but it has become our passion to create a unique artform that can provide entertainment as well.

CD: Are there any other titles you worked on that will be available in this art print series in the future?

GF: At some point in the near future I hope to introduce Frontier, Dr. Dude, Party Zone and a few others. CD: The prints appear to be a Pinball Life exclusive.

CD: Do you have any final thoughts or comments for fans of your work?

GF: I appreciate the legions of pinball fans worldwide and am humbled to know that my name has become synonymous with pinball art. Thanks to all who have ever played, purchased, or refurbished a pinball machine in the hopes that they could be mildly entertained by this unique piece of American history. Pinball has always had a certain “cool factor” and I hope that I can continue to help support a small part of that “cool”.

Further Reading:

Pinball Life – Greg Freres Classic Bally Framed Artwork
Wizbang Pinball – Official Blog
Whizbang Pinball – Official Facebook Page
Stern Pinball – Greg Freres Joins Stern Pinball
Internet Pinball Database – List of games on which Greg Freres was a contributor


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FEATURE: GRC’s Elvira and the Party Monsters Re-Theme and Issues of Pinball Objectivity

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(The following article contains one video where multiple pairs of cartoon breasts can be seen. Maybe this is not the best article to read at the family dinner table or at the office, however, you can be the judge on its appropriateness given the previous warning. Enjoy.)

I get it…the whole philosophy of pinball was based on capitalism: getting the maximum amount of quarters out of the pockets of impressionable young boys and into the coin box. The easiest way to do this, short of making a fantastic machine whose layout and gameplay scream for repeat plays, is by filling the backglass and playfield with barely clad women to attract the target teenage demographic. Roy Parker was the grandfather of the sexy pinball lady, illustrating babes in bikinis beginning in the 1950s for Gottlieb, followed closely a decade-and-a-half later by Dave Christensen, who perfected the art of the well endowed woman well into the 80s. Grown-up pinball enthusiasts far and wide, who are probably complete gentlemen outside of the hobby, have kept up the tradition of talking like horny, sex-starved teenage boys when it comes to the subject of women in pinball art. Now that we children of the 80s are “all growed up”, we are seeing objectification rear its ugly head in some very extreme forms. Far be it for me to bellyache about passive objectification of women in pinball art, but one particular instance has been weighing on my mind for quite some time. I’m not the one to carry the feminist rally flag into the pinball arena–others are doing it much better than I ever could–however, the appearance of an Elvira and the Party Monsters re-theme courtesy of Downington, PA-based retailer Gameroom Collectibles really rubbed me the wrong way…so to speak.

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Parker’s 4-Belles (Gottlieb, 1954) and Christensen’s Strikes and Spares (Bally, 1977)

00-elvb02I was introduced to the game via a YouTube video released by the Gameroom Collectibles guys that appeared about seven months ago. The video chronicled the modifications and restoration work done by the GRC team to a 1989 Bally Elvira and the Party Monsters pinball machine. The seductively-dressed Elvira had what little modesty she possessed completely removed: the game features a bare-breasted Mistress of the Dark on the backglass and throughout the playfield. One change on a playfield insert goes as far as to add a tuft of pubic hair to the kneeling illustrated Elvira. Further, the jelly-plastic Boogie Men that danced near the Party Monsters pop bumpers were replaced with a giant set of moulded plastic boobs that shake and dance just as Boogie Men did. This whole re-theme has been dubbed “Elvira and the Boobie Monsters” or “Elvira and the Party Boobs”. Elvira’s breasts on the backglass and near the flippers are cartoonishly large and ill-proportioned, but the effect is clear. Jim from Gameroom Collectibles, your host of the video, is quick to point out that the playfield art was not created in-house, but rather acquired from Robert Winter, a macabre enthusiast and all-around good guy in the pinball hobby. In a Pinside thread, it is revealed that Burlington, WI user “CaptainNeo” was the artist who fleshed out the breasts and applied the clearcoat. They also state that Party Monsters designer Dennis Nordman gave his “thumb of approval” (a mixed metaphor of thumbs up and seal of approval, I’m assuming?) by way of a Facebook post. No word on how original Party Monsters artist Greg Freres feels about the changes to his original artwork.

00-elvb05I’m a huge Elvira fan. A signed picture of her graces my wall of autographs (the wall happens to be in my bathroom, but that’s besides the point). I’ve been a fan of her over-the-top innuendo-laden comedy since I was very young, thanks to some very liberal parents who let me consume such media at a young age. The key to Cassandra Petersen’s classic character is that she was naughty and overtly sexual without actually being lewd or explicitly obscene. It was sex-based comedy for the whole family, relying on double entendre and knee-slapping one-liners to drive home, with a knowing wink, that the whole performance of the Elvira character was a self-reflexive farce. The character was the embodiment of excess without excessive sexuality. Much of her popularity stemmed from from horndog teens in the 80s dreaming of what Elvira looked like without her clothes on. The Elvira and the Party Monsters retheme completely removes this key mystique. Those familiar with Ms. Peterson’s oeuvre will know that nude pictures of her did surface in High Society magazine and on the cover of a Tom Waits album, but this was long before the Elvira character was ever created. The Elvira character proper, to my knowledge, has never bared it all, leaving everything to the imagination. The whole basis of her 1988 movie was to rally against the conservative extremists of small-town America who labelled her a bad influence and a cheap slut, and throughout the film she works to prove to them that her appearance and mannerisms were a sign of expression and freedom, and not a raunchy display of ill-morals. Stand-up comics would be booed off any stage in North America using the corny sexual innuendo Ms. Petersen employed in her act, but it worked in the context of the Elvira character given her extreme appearance. Both Elvira pin-games worked in the same manner: they walked the fine line between suggestive and lewd, never crossing into vulgar territory. Therein lied the charm. Heck, the games even added a failsafe of “clean” versions of audio and, in the case of Party Monsters, offered a “modesty sticker” operators could place over Elvira’s cleavage on the backglass to allow the games to be placed within more conservative environments. The Gameroom Collectibles machine destroys that delectate balance both machines strove for and pulls the game, kicking and screaming, into lewd territory. I don’t think anyone would argue that Elvira’s character embodied the term “classy”, but any class she tried to inject into the character is completely removed by the Gameroom Collectibles re-theme.

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Original Bally flyer for EATPM. The text relies heavily on double entendre and “the tease”.

 

00-elvb04I think the ultimate irony of the video appears when Jim from Gameroom Collectibles dramatically points out that there was a penis carved into the side of the cabinet when it first arrived as a restoration candidate. For some, the addition of a topless Elvira is just as disgraceful as the crudely carved penis. One is expertly crafted with an airbrush and sealed under a glossy clear-coat, and one is barbarically done with a jackknife. I ask: which degrades the game more?

Despite the addition of the nudity, the restoration looks absolutely stellar, as most Gameroom Collectibles restorations do. The machine is spotless, and obviously a lot of care was taken to restore it to its original lustre. Tracking down ramps for this machine back in late-2013 was quite a feat unto itself, as it predates Pinball Inc’s reproductions that appeared in April of this year. A new Classic Playfield Reproductions plastic set and a skull for the lock area round out the playfield work, while new cabinet decals erased the offensive penis. The latter half of the video highlights gameplay, and it looks to play fantastic atop the game’s glass-like clearcoat.

00-elvb01The host of the video tries to keep it as professional as possible…as professional as one can keep it when talking about a game whose main feature is “boobies”. However, there is an air of discomfort. He seems to be almost bashful when talking about the game, and averts his eyes when looking at the backglass–as if looking directly at the spherical masses of cartoon flesh will stimulate blindness. Nerves, perhaps, but the coyness appears genuine, as if there was a tinge of trepidation in the presentation of the overly erotic project. It sounds as if Jim from Gameroom Collectibles spearheaded the project to place in his own collection, yet has a difficult time talking about breasts in any sort of direct manner.

At the risk of alienating my (perceived) predominately male audience, I’d argue that this re-themed Elvira is just another instance of chauvinism within the male dominated world of pinball, and aligns itself with other sexist phenomena that have recently popped up to objectify the female form in cases where no objectivity was present: the nude (or nearly nude) backglasses for Monopoly and Wheel of Fortume (available on eBay) or the Luci/Helen “sexy devil” themes available for AC/DC come to mind. Collectors who grew up playing games with less overt forms of objectification are now employing modifications that take female objectification to the nth degree. There has been a steady increase in the number of women players in recent years and it is great to see that they have embraced the pastime, however these “mods”, as described above, work to toe the historical party line of sexism, to extreme ends, and further push the hobby deeper into the realm of the male collector/player.

00-elvb03Really, my opinion doesn’t matter in the grande scheme of things. Bare breasts wouldn’t work in my gameroom, but they may work in someone else’s. Jim from Gameroom Collectibles is adamant to let his audience know that the custom machine is “Girlfriend Approved”, meaning that his partner doesn’t mind the bare breasts appearing in his collection (a form of the quoted term was used on Pinside as well as in YouTube comments). In discussing this article with my wife, she chuckled when I described the dancing plastic boobies, shooting my theory of sexism straight to hell. She said that as a woman, she didn’t find it THAT offensive, and that my stance may be a little uptight. She then reasoned that my problem with this particular Elvira machine lies in two areas, neither of which mark me as a complete prude. The first being the total short circuiting of the Elvira character’s approach to comedy (discussed above), and the second being that of a pinball purist, seeing a machine being modded in such a way that adds little to the overall game and removing it from its place within pinball history. My wife went on to state: “You guys love to modify your games. From what I’ve seen, mods either make the game look prettier or play better. The boobs don’t make the game play better, but maybe that guy thinks boobs make his game prettier.” Maybe she’s right. When placing the game in the greater context of pinball history, it becomes problematic. However, when taking the machine at face value, secluded from the underlying sexism in pinball, it is just a game made by a guy who wants to have some fun by objectifying Elvira’s bare breasts while enjoying his machine. I’m not sure if the game CAN be divorced from the greater context in my mind, but for some, it absolutely can. To me, if I want to look at boobs, I have other options of seeing them. My wife has a matching set and the internet is full of them, too. I don’t need to go out of my way to add them to my pinball machines.

The response in the community has been somewhat mixed. Some YouTube comments applaud the “fucking awesome[ness]” of what Gameroom Collectibles has done with their machine, while others find it problematic for a variety of reasons, with early Pinside responders describing it as “tacky” and “embarrassingly bad”. Whichever camp you are in, the discussion is good for pinball: drawing attention to the machines themselves and the attitudes of those who play them. I personally can’t bring myself to look at the machine divorced from the greater context, and further, I view it as just another barrier to keep the opposite sex away from the hobby. I wonder how Cassandra Peterson feels about all this?

Further Reading:
Pinside – Elvira Boobie Monsters??? One of a kind restoration featured! Beware – Boobs!
YouTube – Comments for Elvira & The Party (BOOBS!) Monsters (Custom) Pinball Machine
Gameroom Collectibles – Homepage
Elvira, Mistress of the Dark – Official Webpage


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NEWS: Wheel of Fortune Code Update (kind of)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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