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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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FEATURED GAME: Williams FIRE!


I don’t have an affinity for Barry Oursler games. His oeuvre can be split into two distinct bodies of work: his early designs which all appear to echo one or two stand-by stock layouts, and his later designs which are too reliant on one feature or toy that make the games seem shallow and trite. For me, two games stand out as exceptions, Fire! in the former category and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the latter. BSD is currently the darling of collectors and tournament players alike and is enjoying a bit of a renaissance of sorts (meaning the price went up $1000). Maybe I don’t enjoy it because it IS beyond my skill level as a player, or perhaps the art package is just too wretch-inducing. Either way, it leaves me no choice but to take a closer look at Fire!

Fire! was released in August of 1987, and takes its theme from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. With nearly 8,000 units produced, the game was far from scarce, however, it is not a game that comes up often for sale in my area (maybe all the firemen have bought these up…firemen love being firemen and everything associated with fire history and fire prevention and being a fireman…just ask them). To put it into perspective, Williams made 8,100 units of Comet. I can’t go for three days without seeing someone trying to unload a Comet, so I guess once Fire! finds a home, they stay put. I mean, who doesn’t want a game in a poo brown cabinet to be the centre of their collection?

Legend says a cow (!) kicked over a lantern in a barn, and that’s what started the fire that burned for days and destroyed most of the city of Chicago. The game is a natural fit theme-wise, paying homage to the fire-fighting history of the city in which these great pinball machines were built. The theme stands out from other Williams/Data East machines being built at the time–-most being themed upon capitalistic Cold War paranoia (Millionaire, F-14 Tomcat, Secret Service) or Science Fiction in the pure sense of the genre (Pin*Bot, Laser War, Time Machine). You could almost picture olde tymey dudes with mutton chops and pork pie hats gathering around this amusement machine for a bit of merriment. Wait, those aren’t olde tymey dudes at all…just hipsters from Portland!

No pop bumpers in this game. Let’s get that out of the way. Purists have long complained that any game without pop bumpers isn’t a pinball machine at all. I think this just adds to the game’s overall flow and overarching theme, and helps to set it apart from the other games released at the time. Complete playfield symmetry is achieved here, each side of the playfield being a mirror image of the other, and can be read as a throwback to the simpler woodrail games of the 1940s and 1950s. There is also a post-up “hydrant” ball save which is seen on only a couple System 11 games of the era (moving towards a less expensive “lit” ball save instead).

The main idea of Fire! is to “put out” fires (no kidding!) by hitting the stand-up target banks in front of the the various vacuum-formed buildings around the playfield. Two banks lie mid-playfield, while two dead end ramp shots flank a mini-area with two more target banks. A second set of kickers really get the ball moving in that closed off mini-area. Surrounding the dead-end ramp shots is an elevated horseshoe orbit with lifting ramps (a la the left Pin*Bot ramp) that lock balls on either side once an indicated fire is extinguished. Dead centre is your rescue shot, which is a ramp (with no guides) that lifts out of the playfield to help launch the ball through a “window”. This can serve as your last shot to start three-ball multiball and carries with it a 50,000 bonus. One million points are awarded if all fires are put out in multiball and the rescue shot is achieved.

To me, the game feels like it’s a martyoshka nesting doll in both layout and art package. There is a layering effect to the loops and ramps that pulls the playfield together quite nicely and symmetry is something we don’t often get in modern era pinball, so you should enjoy it where you can. Bill of materials on this game must have been quite something. In the days before Dennis Nordman arrived at Williams and became the undisputed king of vacuum-formed plastic, Oursler orchestrated quite the miniature diorama of 19th century Chicago under glass here. The amount of detail Mark Sprenger put into fleshing out the plastic buildings is phenomenal. With such intricate playfield art, its easy to overlook the spinning fire reel that turns below the playfield to give a burning effect that flickers through the windows of the buildings above. Sprenger also nailed the gold leaf and cobblestone look of the era on the playfield to really give it that pre-Capone Chicago feel, as well as creating an intricate maze of a darkened huddled mass of citizens cowering from the power of the fire. Sound package is ho-hum, nothing to write home about…olde tyme piano mixed with limited speech from muffled male voices (as was the style for many System 11 games at the time), but man, that bell atop the backbox really catches your attention when it rings. I was at the Allentown show last year, and you could hear that thing ringing out from anywhere in the venue.

Fire! plastic sets are currently available from Classic Playfields, and a repro playfield is currently in development by the CPR folks and available for pre-order. Repro plastic buildings, however, are a different story. These vacuum formed plastics are subject of a ton of wear and breakage with the physics of the playfield the way they are. Plenty of promises out there from companies “if there is enough interest”, but nothing as of yet has materialized. Not only would the plastic have to be vacuum formed, the art would also have to be reproduced as stickers to affix to them. I think this is something beyond what CPR or other repro company would be interested in doing (profit-wise), so it will be up to the ingenuity of the pinball community to find a work-around. Plenty of call must exist for these, as the production run on the machine was quite hefty.

There was also a “Champagne Edition” of Fire! released concurrently with the standard edition which was a classier version, probably for use in higher class bars, restaurants and atriums looking to cash in on the re-emergence of pinball as an arcade staple. The game came with a real wood veneer cabinet, gold rails/legs/lockdown bar and two extra spinning fire cylinders in the backbox, like the one below the playfield. Only about 300 were released.

This game is an anomaly not only in the oeuvre of Oursler, but also in the design and theme of what Williams and their contemporaries were coming out with at the time. Fire! can be viewed as the Eight Ball Deluxe of the System 11 era. When Bally was making a ton of sci-fi themed games and licencing everything under the sun, they came out with EBD to appeal to a very different demographic of pinball player and hit a home run. Fire! exists somewhat in the same way, just a tad less successful. For Fire!, they were shooting for a more refined demographic, and the production of a more refined looking machine in the “Champagne Edition” really hammers this point home. I mean, look at that Champagne flyer below. You could put the game in an atrium (SEE! I TOLD YOU!) surrounded by ferns and play the game IN YOUR DAMN TUXEDO! This game is so f*cking classy, right?? Anyhow, the standard edition is a beautifully executed machine, did I mention it came in a poo brown cabinet, with a straightforward ruleset much like the other games from the System 11 family. Go put out some fires and save Chicago.

Further Reading:

Classic Playfield Reproductions – Fire! Plastic Set Photo Gallery
Pinball.org – Fire! Rulesheet
AAARPinball – Fire! Restoration

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FEATURED GAME: Bally SPECTRUM

If you ever wanted the excitement of the code-breaking board game Mastermind in a pinball cabinet, and who hasn’t, Spectrum is the game for you.

This classic Bally from August 1982 has striking art from Margaret Hudson, whose work I really don’t much care for overall, but she does a magnificent job here. Besides the art, it’s what the machine lacks that stands out the most–it doesn’t have a shooter lane or outlanes. The ball launches via the right flipper, a modification so confusing that the Squak & Talk voice in the game instructs you how to launch your ball (using valuable speech memory). Failing that, the game just gets tired of waiting and auto launches the ball after a set period of inactivity. Oh, and there are no slingshot kickers either. Designer Claude Fernandez really tried to break the mould with this one.

The game is difficult. Really difficult. Not only do you have to accustom yourself with the drastic changes in the machine, you’re aim has to be dead on–game progression and scoring is determined by hitting saucers followed by knocking down complete banks of targets and completely avoiding the other banks. Kind of like a more confusing Volley EM. The rules are so confusing, in fact, let’s just let Todd Tuckey of TNT Amusements describe them…

I’m really drawn to the way that locking a ball immediately kicks a different ball out of a saucer to the flipper. As Tuckey explains, the inside of the game is packed with boards and extra relays to control nearly 80 playfield insert lamps (!) as well as flashing GI and backbox lamps.

Estimates have less than 1,000 of these games made, and nearly half of them when straight to the junkyard. I think a game like this was too radically different to catch on with casual players. Imagine a cowboy in a shitkicker bar who honed his skills playing the more straight forward and understandably themed Eight Ball Deluxe trying to figure out how to play a Spectrum. I see it as one of those early-80s pinball games that tried too hard to harness the complexity of a video game, which were dominating at the arcades at the time. It would be a great game to have in a large collection…as it would be difficult to master, and it would definitely stand out as a unique oddity. On top of that, it would be pretty to look at. But with a very small number surviving, you’ll need a little luck and great timing to find one.

Further Reading:

Spectrum Rulesheet – Pinball.org
Bally Spectrum – IPDB
Mastermind (board game) – Wikipedia