CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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NEWS: Stern Walks with the Dead, Pictures of the Walking Dead

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Well, they did it! They listened! Stern didn’t clutter up the playfield of their next release, the Walking Dead (correction AMC’s Walking Dead), with photoshopped pictures of the cast! The community spoke, and Stern listened. The Gameroom Junkies got the jump on everyone, including Stern themselves, and served up photos of the game’s final form for the hungry pinball masses earlier today. The photos showed a standard “Pro” version, and a fancier, thus more expensive, version. Fans hoping for art from the Walking Dead comic won’t be getting what they want, but they’ll get the next best thing: a playfield that doesn’t feature the floating heads of the Walking Dead cast.

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The top of the playfield takes on that grainy, unwashed burlap colour, reminiscent of an aged photograph or a chamomile tea stain on a white tablecloth. Of course, there is the requisite blood spattering here and there to “brighten up” the design. As your eyes make their way to the bottom of the playfield, you are met with a horde of zombies, shadowed in blue, “crowding” the player around the flippers. Placed on top of this art, white and red inserts with bold lettering really pop against the earthy tones. A series of weapons are on inserts between the flippers (items to collect, possibly), while provisions and numbers that look to represent allies are on others.

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Lifting ramp with zombie head on the money edition.

The pictures present what looks to be another modified fan layout, crammed tight with shots. The “busy” nature of the machine reminds me of many of designer John Borg’s other designs: think X-Men and Tron. Each orbit and ramp shot represents an important location in the Walking Dead series: the Center for Disease Control, the Tunnel, the Arena and the Barn. A fifth, of the same insert design, reads “Riot” beside the barn toy. An insert with the text “Welcome to Woodbury” also lies near the right kicker. It looks as if the game is going to remain very true to the show. Ramp shots head through the backboard, a la Party Zone and Black Rose, which widens the space the ball can travel, not limiting it to the constraints of the playfield.  We also get ROLLOVERS, they appear beside the barn!  Toys are present: a barn with doors that open to reveal a zombie head inside and a water-bloated zombie from the bottom of the well mid-playfield (reminiscent of an undead Wolverine) that leans back to reveal some sort of scoop. The more expensive model of the game looks to feature a firing crossbow that emerges from the apron, a lifting ramp with a zombie head underneath and even more Zombie heads in a Governor-style fish tank on the back board.

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Characters are relegated to the side art on the Pro edition. I performed my own little fist pump when I saw that Carl, the annoying-cum-brooding son on main character Rick, was not featured prominently anywhere. The bigger dollar version has a boarded-up crate-look, an approach similar to the Metallica pinball’s road case design. Neither version features main characters on the backglass, instead, they feature zombies. Kudos to someone at Stern or AMC for putting the zombies front and centre. One of the first comments after the photos hit Pinside inquired about the harshness of the AMC logo on the backglass and cabinet art. AMC, being a cable David versus the network Goliaths, have always marketed themselves with a heavy hand. It isn’t just Mad Men or the Walking Dead, its AMC’s Mad Men and AMC’s the Walking Dead. Getting name recognition for a cable station that only six years ago moved away from showing a steady diet of classic films pulled out of moth balls is pretty important to them. They have certainly done it on this piece of merchandise.

I’m not sure if I’m the first to notice this, but the game is a bit of a throwback to some of the features found on Williams’ Fire! Both feature earthy browns and yellows in the artwork, a lifting ramp, miniature buildings, and, the one that struck me first, “huddled masses” artwork shadowed in blue that lie between the flippers. I’m not arguing plagiarism, but as a Fire! owner, those were the similarities that popped out at me.  Besides, it wouldn’t be a Credit Dot post without a Fire! reference.

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Blue shadowed masses of Fire!, much like the zombie crowd on Sterns TWD.

In commentary that should shock no one, it is my opinion that this playfield, looking at the playfield art alone, looks head and shoulders above the art on Jersey Jack Pinball’s Hobbit. Those looking to put their money on style over substance, the definition of a pinball pre-order, would be hard pressed to choose the Hobbit over the Walking Dead. I like that Stern’s art team went the minimalist route again, much like they did on Star Trek, letting the inserts, and thus the light show, become the “art”.

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Those that were on “Stern Strike” until games were released with more complete code, or those that pledged not to buy another Stern game until they played it first, will find themselves frantically calling their distributor on photographs alone for this one. Already, many local collectors in my area have been freeing up money by selling games, in anticipation, after laying eyes on this series of visuals. Having John Borg designing and Lyman Sheats coding should also give potential buyers some faith.

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More money = more dismembered zombie heads.

The macabre theme really speaks to arcade and pinball aficionados for some reason. The Walking Dead stands to be a game that plays horror seriously, for probably the first time since Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Other machines of the macabre have went the campy route and added humour to soften the terror: Scared Stiff and Tales from the Crypt come to mind. Will the theme be too much of a gore-fest to appear in a family gameroom? If Funhouse’s Rudy had the power to scare children, perhaps dismembered zombie heads will, too. Stern has really buttered their bread on the adult side with this one, which is a bit of a departure for them as of late. Is it just me, or does anyone else remember Gary Stern pledging that there would be “no zombies” from Stern, as it was counter to the company’s overall stance that they make pinball machines for everyone?

Anyhow, Mr. Borg HAS been quoted on record as saying this is his best design ever, and it will only be a few short months before these games hit private collections and basements across North America so we can judge for ourselves.

 

Further Reading:

Pinside – The Walking Dead Photos

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NEWS: CPR Catches Fire!

Hot off the press, from Classic Playfield Reproductions, comes a definitive reproduction playfield for the Williams 1987 release, Fire! I have raved about the art package on this game in the past, and the playfield is, without a doubt, the centrepiece, and perhaps one of the most beautiful of the entire System 11 era. Early photos released of these repro playfields show that the integrity of the original Mark Sprenger art remains in tact, as is nearly always the case with any release by the folks at CPR.

CPR’s repro on the left, a NOS original on the right. Courtesy of classicplayfields.com/photo156.html.

The Fire in Mr. Wright’s game room, as it appeared in the Pinside thread “Williams Fire! Club”

This may have been a particularly interesting project for CPR artist Stu Wright, as his current collection includes a Fire! that has a restored cabinet and colour-matched power coated trim. Mr. Wright contacted me after the article was posted, and commented:

“I spent about 1,200 Hours on the Fire! Playfield artwork. Call me crazy for doing it, but as an artist myself I just love this artwork and I appreciate the original artist’s painting — I hope my repro artwork does justice [to] this beautiful game.”

Please take a look at the absolutely detailed production notes for this reproduction process, as Mr. Wright the CPR team had to make some difficult decisions. Since Williams used various manufacturers to produce their playfields, there were always slight variations in colour, artwork, masking, registration, dimpling, cuts and registration. This makes the process difficult for the folks at Classic Playfields, as a “definitive” version has to be decided upon for reproduction. And we all know how picky us pinball folk can be. Classic Playfield’s FAQ describes the process of selecting a breadth of new-old-stock original material to use as master pieces and account for variations when preparing re-mastered artwork. Fire! looks to be a special case, with some weird variances in playfield art and design that made it into production games: cut-outs for the skill-shot switches came in a variety of variations, the centerpiece “burning buildings” art had differences in colour, and, probably the most notable, the main playfield colour was released in brown, dark brown and black versions. I’m sure some will cry foul that the skill shot switch lane has five cuts instead of two, or that the playfield is brown instead of the “original black”, but to get your hands on a Fire! playfield that isn’t completely blown out to put into your machine…you’ll have to deal with it.

Skill shot switch cut-outs, as collected by Pinside user “Lonzo”.

Light bleed on the original playfield. Courtesy of classicplayfields.com/photo156.html

In addition to this, CPR has addressed two nagging issues in the playfield design and took it upon themselves to correct them: the light-blocking layer of paint in the CPR version is darker which makes for a less washed out light show in the building inserts, and a complete re-imagining of the shape of the large insert behind the Fire! logo dead centre of the playfield to eliminate some ugly light bleed. Thus, CPR makes every attempt to be true to the original Williams design and art, and they also leave room for innovation and change where time has proven that the original design wasn’t executed in the most effective fashion.

CPR’s custom window. Courtesy of classicplayfields.com/photo156.html

It seems that Fire! payfields, in particular, take quite the beating, and I’ve never seen an original in a working game that isn’t completely blown out or suffering from noticeable damage. Fire!, in particular, is prone to some serious mylar bubbling, lifting the art right off of the playfield inserts. And with inserts as large as the ones on Fire!, this is a serious problem. Lots of these playfields suffer from serious planking issues as well, in the un-mylared areas. [Ed. note: Is it just me, or did Williams use less-than-quality materials all around on Fire! production? The cabinets have more knots than my two year old’s hair after a bath, and the playfields have aged about as well as Keith Richards.] Further, the art on the playfield between the top set of slings–around the ladder/inner horseshoe–-seem to suffer from heavy wear on nearly every game with an original playfield. That poor “Rescue Shot!” insert is nearly always ruined by lifting mylar, and no replacement decal exists. These top slings are so close together that the ball just hammers the playfield when it gets going back and forth, not to mention that it also severely wears the lip of the playfield where the ladder rises, catching a bit of air in the process if not adjusted properly. The mylar sheet comes to an end in this area as well, so you are left with quite the mess at the top of the playfield.

Courtesy of classicplayfields.com/photo156.html

With so many of these playfields beat to hell, it is great to see Mark Sprenger’s original artwork get a new lease on life. The beautifully rendered gold leaf seamlessly flows with the yellow and orange hues of the flames engulfing the buildings. These warm shades stand out against the dark background and surround the moonlit huddled masses of Chicago seeking protection from the raging, city-wide fire. The shadowy crowd was addressed using black and blue shades of the night, with orange and yellow highlights depicting just how powerful the raging fire is against the darkness of night. Sprenger perfectly captures the chaos and panic in downtown Chicago in one single mass of humanity–men, women and children headed in every direction. Also, it is nice to see the majority of the men wearing fancy hats, as was the style at the time, proving that even in times of high chaos, the 19th Century man still had an eye for fashion. Billowy smoke gives way to an intricate cobblestone design that dominates the upper symmetrical orbits, the majority of which is hidden by the playfield plastics and ramps. The vacuum-formed houses are obviously one of the most striking physical features of the completed game, however seeing the playfield without any hardware or plastic decor on it really highlights how much detail Sprenger put into his creation.

The author’s planking playfield.

The Fire! playfield in my game is better than some I’ve seen, but still displays much of the wear I’ve described above. I’m on the CPR list but my spot is near the bottom: as bad luck would have it, I got my Fire! one day after they closed their pre-order list. This playfield has been on the pre-order page for quite some time, and was there to properly gauge interest from collectors via e-mail. It appears that, like many of the CPR offerings such as their High Speed repro playfield from last year, that quantities will be limited to the approximate interest from collectors. It makes little financial sense for CPR to press thousands of these, with an unknown market. As of writing, the pre-order page states that interested parties are now being notified via e-mail, in “batches of twenty”, first come first served, that the playfields are ready to ship and that payment is due.

The author’s abused upper playfield. The mylar stops just below the ladder cut-out.

Even though it is a game that is not in particular demand, Fire! is the perfect candidate for a CPR repro: existing playfields are nearly always gassed, and it’s a high production game with a unique theme and gameplay that makes for a very small but dedicated fan base. Some will argue that dropping in a new playfield would be like polishing a turd-–sure, your Fire! will look fantastic, but it is STILL a Fire! Personally, if I do end up getting the invoice for a CPR playfield, $699USD+$59USD shipping, I’d be into my game within the range of about $1800-$2000CDN, which is by all accounts, even in today’s topsy-turvy pinball market, an amount I would never be able to get out of the machine if I decided to sell it sometime down the road. Given the steep ticket price of the reproduction playfields, any pre-1992 production game getting the CPR playfield treatment had better be a keeper (or done simply for the welfare of the game), as you’d be hard pressed to recoup your output when it comes time to move along (unless you can find someone who absolutely must have the given title in plug-and-play condition or, in the case of Fire!, a fire chief with deep pockets). Unless space really gets tight, I don’t see myself having a fire sale for the Fire! (see what I did there?), so I think the game is going to be a CPR candidate if I get the call.

With their work on Fire!, Classic Playfield Reproductions continues their tradition of quality and dedication to this hobby of ours that is constantly striving for polish and shine in aging, mass-produced, commercial amusement machines. I’m particularly proud that these guys are Canadian, if only for the fact that, as a Canadian, I pay ten dollars less for playfield shipping than those south of the border. For many, $699USD is far too much to pay to refurbish any game, let alone a lowly System 11/Oursler designed Fire!–bubbling mylar, worn playfield art down to the wood and broken plastics will suit them just fine. But for those looking to bring elegance and shine back to the topside of their fatigued Fires!, it is again CPR to the rescue. (I couldn’t have included more fire and rescue innuendo in this article if I tried…find them all!)

Further Reading:
Classic Playfield Reproductions – Fire! Reproduction Playfields
Pinside – Williams Fire Restoration (Thread started by user “Lonzo”, referenced in the switch cut-out photo)
Pinside – |\/\/\/\/| Williams Fire! Club – Save My Baby!
Marco Specialties – CPR’s Fire! (Williams) Plastic Set


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NEWS: Vintage Flipper World Showcase In Review

Vintage Flipper World is situated inside of an unassuming white panelled building, along a country dirt road on the outskirts of Brighton, Michigan. If you are not looking for it, you’ll miss it. If you didn’t have prior knowledge of what the building looked like, you’ll probably drive right past it. Therein lies the charm of the VFW, brainchild of Clay Harrell and his merry band of pinheads. The location makes sense–serene, unobtrusive, subdued–given that Mr. Harrell has a long and arduous history with disparagers, detractors and backbiters in the pinball community at large. The VFW literally puts space between those people and Mr. Harrell’s dream of a pinball oasis–acres and acres worth of space.

Inside the hall is much less serene, as you’d expect an old Veterans-hall-cum-arcade filled with around 200 pinball machines to sound like. Not to mention the ever present sound of classic rock emitting from the hall’s public jukebox. I walked the aisles and let the sounds of the different decades wash over me. From the soft clamour of Electromechanical chimes, to the electronic squawk of early Solid State technology, to unforgettable call-outs you’d recognize anywhere (“Move your car!”, “The Ma-Mush-Ka!”, “Ooh, nice organ!”). This is an arcade on steroids, with no stand-up video games in sight. In short, it is what many of us picture the afterlife to look like.

I attended the Saturday of the three day event. I had a ticket pre-purchased and with good reason–a crudely written sign hung above the door: “Sold Out”. Selling a limited amount of tickets in advance gets the thumbs up from this reviewer. It kept crowds extremely manageable. I had to wait to play a game once (Big Bang Bar). All other games I wanted to play were free at one point or another during the seven hours I spent there and in every case, I had the option of having a couple games in a row on any given machine (there was never anyone standing by waiting for their turn). Free posters were given away so everyone could leave with a small souvenir to pin up in their gameroom. Other, more traditional concert style posters, were sold for $3USD each.

The area immediately to the left and right of the entrance is filled with woodrail pinball games, and to be honest, I didn’t spend much time there. I played a few games on a woodrail called Niagara, but that was it. The rest of the facility held too many other treasures that kept my attention for the entire day. The main hall has games lining each wall and three rows of games lined up back to back, creating four aisle ways that run the length of the building–thus games flank you on either side when walking down a desired row. The game selection is organized very well, for example all of the Bally Solid State games and Williams DMD games are grouped together in the same aisle. The Williams DMD aisle was rocking the entire time I was there, and with players shoulder to shoulder playing (sometimes two-player) games, it got very crowded, so much so that it was hard for someone to walk the length of the aisle without elbowing someone. If you have a wide leaning stance while playing, like me, be prepared to be nudged, bumped into, and stepped on in this area. The other aisles were much more airy and easy to navigate. There is also a back room of games, containing more high-profile WPCs (Twilight Zone, Monster Bash) and other oddities (Safecracker, Joust), as well as the aforementioned Big Bang Bar. The playfield “art” that lines the hallway to this back room, I’d like to add, are probably in better condition than some of the playfields in my games currently. This is only one aspect of decor. Everywhere you look in the entire facility there is neon…it’s a stark contrast to the vintage dark-stained exposed wood beams and plaster of the aging hall, but it helps create the arcade mood.

Game selection was overwhelming. The line of ealry-Solid State Stern games is unbelievable, and probably the most complete on display in the entire world. The row of Electromechanical Gottlieb games ran the length of the building, in nearly chronological order and ran from early offerings like Slick Chick and the “Flipper” series all the way through later wedgeheads like Neptune and Golden Arrow. The classic Bally solid state games were an impressive sight to behold lined up next to one another. The obvious draw was the Williams WPC area, as I stated above, and I would be hard pressed to name a game that was glaring from its exclusion (they didn’t have a Popeye, but I don’t think anyone was hollering for a refund because of its exclusion).

All games were exceptionally clean and fully functioning. Outlanes opened to the max, pitch set high, and playfields waxed to a high gloss…all making for very fast, very punishing games. The games included looked to be choice examples from their respective runs: no lifting mylar, no broken ramps, and every bulb shining bright. There may have been one feature that wasn’t working on one game that I played, but that was on a Strange Science, and I’m not at all familiar with the rules of the game, so it could have been my ignorance, not a mechanical glitch. Techs wandered about and had playfields lifted amongst the players flipping away, themselves fixing on the fly. One minute a Whirlwind is out of order with two VFW staff pulling the glass off…ten minutes later, I’m playing the game, fully operational. I actually witnessed staff pulling a Demolition Man out of the lineup on a pin dolly, and brought back to the workshop for further diagnosis and repair, as the problem looked to be much more severe than a lame flipper or disconnected wire. No “Out of Order” sign needed here.

The staff was friendly, courteous and altogether welcoming. You could see the club members beaming with pride to have a world class facility like this and witnessing so many visitors enjoying themselves within the confines of their stomping grounds. I swear, at one point over the course of the day, there looked to be more staff members in their orange shirts than there were paying patrons at the facility. It must have been an “all hands on deck scenario”, knowing a full week in advance that the VFW would be at prescribed capacity. I saw Mr. Harrell briefly out in the furthest reaches of the parking area, but never again over the course of my visit. However, as much as I wanted to shake his hand and say thanks, I was having a banner day playing some games I had not played, or had played only once or twice before.

Just as I did in Allentown this year, I spent a minuscule amount of time with DMD era games, as most of them can be found in private collections close to home. I ventured down the aisle with classic Bally and Stern games first, and I couldn’t pull myself away, spending nearly half the day awash in Solid State bliss. I have very little experience with older solid-state Sterns, and was able to get schooled in a clinic of what the company was doing back then with an almost complete oeuvre to choose from. Iron Maiden was absolutely punishing as was Viper, I laughed off Split Second on first glance, but it ended up being the Stern machine I played most. I had my first go at Orbitor 1, and I’ll echo the sentiment that it’s the pinball equivalent of the morning after a wedding with an open bar. I had some pretty decent scores on Harlem Globetrotters On Tour, Centaur and Nitro Groundshaker, and I now want to own them all. A game that I had not played all that much, Vector, also stood out as a deep, well designed game with a seemingly endless amount of shots and gimmicks. I played EM games Neptune and Lucky Hand for an insane amount of time, as they are add-a-ball Gottleib classics and the “Wow’s” just kept on ringing up. I didn’t fare so well on the System 11 games I love so much. I drained my pants off on Fire! and Elvira and the Party Monsters, which didn’t give me too much hope as I currently own one that I am restoring and the other is at the top of my want list. I’ll have to chalk it up to the games being setup on “extra unforgiving”. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I got to play the super-rare, super-wide Williams Algar, but as I expected, it played much like all the other Williams games of the era. I had a go at my childhood “sweetheart” that is no longer in my collection, Solar Fire, and followed it up by playing its other three siblings in the Williams dual-level game series (Jungle Lord, Pharaoh and Black Knight). Jesus, these are all basically the same game. No wonder pinball was in such trouble back then!

Not having the velvet rope of “THE TOURNAMENT” at the facility was a nice change of pace. All games were accessible to all paying customers. Two games–Bally Strikes and Spares and Williams Fun Fest–were the “tournament” options. Drop a quarter in the coin slot, and if you beat the previous score posted on a sticky-note on the backglass and have it stand all day, you win the money in the cash box. Honour system applied, and the games were on free-play, so if you just wanted to play and didn’t want to “enter” the tournament with a quarter, you didn’t have to. Scores, early in the day, were quite modest, and I forgot to return to check their status before I departed. Mr. Harrell’s insistence that the focus be on playing games and having fun rather than competing rubbed some from the “It’s More Fun To Compete” community the wrong way, but I don’t think that was the type of crowd he was looking for anyhow. This was a showcase for collectors and folks who wanted to pay a small amount of money with nothing to take away except the fun and excitement of playing amongst a well-kept collection of vintage machines. Egos and holier-than-thou attitudes were checked at the door. I say this being a world-class flop at playing pinball. Maybe if I were a ranked player, I’d have my panties in a bunch, too. But it didn’t look like the club needed the support of the tournament players. Everyone had a smile on their face, and there were WOMEN! GLORIOUS WOMEN! More women than I’ve ever seen before at a pinball event! If they key to getting women to come out to these events is to axe the tournament characters, I say it is a path we should follow to pinball equality!

In all, it was well worth the 7-hour, round trip drive. It is nice to have a facility such as this within driving distance, however, the frequency of the facility being open to the public remains unknown. The VFW collection rivals that of the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. Yet, the VFW collection wins hands down in the category of organization, atmosphere, and general game maintenance. The tech area the club has organized looked to be world class, and stocked every pinball part imaginable. The club members donating their time to making the show run in a smooth fashion, from those parking the cars to those soldering loose wires, should be proud to have a hand in such a project. After years of floundering in pinball flux for a viable location to house his immense collection, Clay Harrell now has the VFW. He has shared it with the community for one weekend, and hopefully he chooses to do so on a regular basis. It felt like being at a town hall meeting in small town America, and pinball machines forever held the floor. If you didn’t experience it for yourself, I guarantee you would have been in awe of the passion and excitement that exuded from this unassuming pinball Mecca on the outskirts of Brighton.


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NEWS: Allentown Pinfest 2014 In Review

Pinfest has drawn to a close for another year. We, as a group, rode the crest of excitement for 48 long hours–some more, some less–but now that it is over we have no choice but to begin the countdown until next year’s show. I ate my fill of pretzel wraps from the farmer’s market, met a few new friends whom I knew via avatar only, and I was lucky enough to bring home a project machine to keep me busy for the foreseeable future.

A group of us from the Toronto area started a convoy of vehicles down to Allentown early Thursday morning, in order to arrive by 3pm to set up the games that accompanied us. The show is not open to the public on Thursday, but the doors are open to anyone bringing a game to set up (between the hours of 1pm to 9pm). After checking in at the venue’s registration and the games for the group were set up to our satisfaction, I took it upon myself to help out some of the other folks at the show… by “play-testing” THEIR games. You know, just to make sure they were set up correctly for opening day. I played ‘til I had my fill, and it was a godsend to have any game in the entire room available to play with no lines or crowds to battle. If you are going to do Pinfest, I urge you to bring a game. Not only does it help the event, it is your ticket to a free preview of the show. After leaving the venue, I ate a sushi dinner with some of the other Canadian collectors and then proceeded to drink to excess. Not a good choice, seeing as it was an early morning the next day and I had a belly full of raw fish…but I made it…barely. The show hours this year were Friday Noon to 9pm and Saturday 9am to 8pm. $17 admission fee per day, per adult, with no weekend passes available. Bring a game and you get free admission for as long as the game remains in the free play area.

Game selection was pretty good as it always seems to be. Some machines of note were:

– Pinsider EABundy’s restored T2 that was purchased at last year’s show as a basket case for less than $50USD,
– a nicely restored Taxi that looked better than new,
– two Popeye Saves the Earths (!),
– a Banzai Run (which was part of the convoy from Canada),
– a Barb Wire,
– a gorgeous Black Knight 2000 in the vendor area,
– multiple Shadows,
– multiple Tales of the Arabian Nights,
– show organizer Ivan’s seldom-seen Bally Game Show, and,
– two, yes, two Bally Spectrums.

No Bugs Bunny Birthday Balls…the bar was set high after last year when three showed up. Also, I didn’t recall last year’s show being so heavy on Gottleib System 80 games; there were a ton this year…which ain’t a bad thing. They say the best System 80 game is someone else’s System 80 game anyway, because when it has issues, and they always have issues, you aren’t the one who has to repair it! Sadly, an Amazing Spiderman, which I would argue sports one of the most beautiful art packages of the 1980s, sat dark all weekend. I didn’t play too many DMD era games, I stuck with early Solid State, and, in an effort to expand my knowledge of games from the golden age of pinball, I put a lot of time on some lovingly restored EM s. Two electromechanical gems that stood were are a lightly used Golden Arrow with only 16,000 plays on it and the soccer-themed Team One. Both were a blast and both had me chasing specials all around the damn playfield. Jersey Jack was on hand with a few Wizard of Oz machines, including a Ruby Red edition, although I didn’t take the time to play any of them.

The boutiques were also there in the form of Wrath of Olympus and America’s Most Haunted. I had a couple of games on Riot Pinball’s Wrath, and I must say, this game is the real deal. Even as a prototype, the game felt solid and had unbelievable shot physics. I’m not even sure what I could compare it to…a bit Shadow-esque? The left orbit/upper right flipper/upper playfield ramp/upper playfield ramp flipper combo feels really, really good when executed seamlessly. The soundtrack is heavy, with driving guitars and instructive call-outs and really pulls it all together. Riot had photos of new toys they plan to include in the next prototype revision, and with a little spit and polish on the playfield art package this game looks like it will make some serious hay. I didn’t get a chance to have a single game on America’s Most Haunted. It was down. Every time I went by to try to play it. Lots of concerned folks looking at the little green board in the backbox while on cellular telephones (“Collect call for Ben Heck from Pinfest, will you accept the charges?”). I was looking forward to giving this game a fair shake, ever since Nate Shivers of the Coast2Coast Pinball podcast raved about it at the Midwest Gaming Classic. I was wondering what I was missing. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be.

Lots of shopping to be done as well. All the usual suspects like Cointaker, Mayfair Amusements, and Marco Specialties had their tables set up in the main building. Business looked to be swift…Rottendog had “Sold Out” posted on many of their boards (great show specials available from the Rottendog crew), and the boys at Pinball Inc. looked like they had a very bare ramp table near the end of Saturday (completely selling out of their ramp stock for Creature from the Black Lagoon and a few others). New vendor Rob Kahr had his WPC daughterboard for sale and business looked to be successful for the newbie as well. Out of doors, countless U-hauls and bread trucks displayed their discarded arcade wares at the outdoor swap meet. The weather cooperated nicely with sunshine and a cool breeze. One seller had what looked to be a Hurricane Katrina show special–an Iron Man and Rolling Stones which can be best described as mud-caked and water-damaged. EABundy came forward on Pinside and admitted that he bought the Rolling Stones, I’m sure to attempt to recreate the magic he was able to conjure up with the T2 restoration.

I bought one of my treasures out of the back of one of these trucks as well…a Williams Fire! (which was the last game I featured on this site before leaving for Allentown…weird how fate works). The game was missing the display board which was quickly remedied with a brand new gas-less display board from the good folks at Rottendog for $100. This Fire! was, in my opinion, cosmetically superior to nearly all of the Fire! machines I’ve seen or played in the past. With a little wheeling and dealing, the price was too good to pass up, and I felt the need to have this Fire! make the 5 hour journey back to Canada with me. While loading the game onto my dolly, I was honoured to be briefly interviewed by Todd Tuckey of TNT Amusements…perhaps I’ll make an appearance on Mr. Tuckey’s YouTube channel? The game is a project for sure. It now sits in the garage, as I have not yet had the time, or nerve, to attempt an initial boot up. There was, however, a brand new, complete Marco rubber ring kit stuffed inside the cabinet…that has to be a good sign, right? That poo brown cabinet I was ripping on just two days ago will, with a little elbow grease, be sitting in my basement collection in the very near future.

In all, the show was extremely well attended and had about 250 games for free play on the floor at its peak Friday afternoon. As the weekend wore on, that number dwindled, due to breakage and outright sales, but that is to be expected. There were a few bargains to be found. The $700 Bally Mousin’ Around didn’t last long, and I’m sure many didn’t even make it into the show from the parking lot. Anyhow, those who wanted popular fare (TAFs a-plenty, four I think), to old gems (two 60s Williams games, Friendship 7 and Heat Wave, are of note here), to the off-beat standards that show up year after year (I swear I played these same copies of Kings of Steel and Swords of Fury last year) would not be disappointed with what was on free play display at this year’s show. The Allentown Pinfest remains the undisputed king of grass roots, blue collar pinball shows. So who’s in for next year?


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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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MODS: “Fireproofing” Pin*Bot and other early System 11 games

Thought I would share my well documented, yet under utilized fix for early Williams System 11 games up to and including Fire! Oh, the irony…they fixed this design flaw–one that would literally start a fire in the backbox–after the release of the game Fire!  A colleague of mine on Pinball Revolution, Grauwulf, actually had some crispy wires occur while playing a friend’s Pin*Bot due to this design flaw–he posted about it here and followed up with photos of the deep fried wire hereThat scenario should be more than enough reason to perform this relatively quick mod/fix.

I performed this fix on my Pin*Bot…which was in a few different collector’s hands before I got it last year at about this time (a different P*B than the one that caught on fire above).  The first thing I did was unplugged the the damn machine…no need to tempt fate.

Locate the two bridge rectifiers mounted to the inside of the backbox. Hard to miss.  Below are the innards of my Pin*Bot, but most games from this era will be the same. Bridges will be on the lower right hand side.

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I’ll be putting fuses in line with the positive 18 and 25 volt power flow, so if the bridges short or anything else funky happens with the transformer, the fuse will blow and the machine won’t. The process is the same for each bridge.

Bridge will have four leads. One lead will lay side to side, the other three will be standing up and down. We are NOT looking to modify the one that lays on its side (and has two wires attached), NOR are we looking at the one that sits diagonally across from it. We need one of the remaining two. In Pin*Bot’s case here, they sport matching red wires on the top BR, and matching blue wires on the bottom one. Clay’s guide states that it doesn’t matter which of these two wires the fuse is put in line with as both are “AC” and run in line with each other. I chose the one at the top right terminal for both bridges.

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Snip the existing selected wire leaving enough room for both wires to reach the mounted fuse block. Affix a connector on each end of the snip. Mount a single fuse block near the rectifier being careful not to short it on any other nearby hardware. I pre-sunk a hole through the metal backbox plate with my cordless drill to make the mounting process easier…some may choose to mount them to the side of the backbox (in this case, new wire will have to be run for length). The connectors slide onto each lead of the fuse block. Williams chose to solder their slide connectors to the BR, so I did the same on the fuse block posts. Insert an 8AMP slow blow fuse. Check for continuity. Repeat process for the other BR.

Simple as that. Final product should look something like this:

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It’s as simple as that…a sub-$5 fix/mod that could save you an insurance claim.

Further Reading:
Flipperwinkel – Part One of Clay’s guide that covers this fix (Jump to Section 2a)
Purcellville Pinball – Adding Fuses to System 11 games Fire! and before