CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


2 Comments

OPINION: Big League Chew

00-base00

Perhaps I’ve just been spending too much time within the friendly confines of minor league ballparks this summer, but I think it’s time for the pinball industry to revisit sports themes: baseball in particular. In the current climate, it is going to need a licence attached to it: the participation of Major League Baseball and its players association. I think Stern is up to the task. Games with sports themes have not fared well in the recent past, however I think now is the time to give the theme another trip to the plate, so to speak, despite the built-in trouble areas that exist in getting sports-themed machines off the ground.

00-base02

Gottlieb’s 1970 Add-A-Ball Batter Up. Courtesy of pinrepair.com

Sports have a rich history in pinball, with an inordinate amount of woodrails and electromechanical machines carrying sports imagery. Gottlieb’s wedgehead lineup of sports games reads like an ESPN2 weekly broadcast schedule.  However, sport themes released in the DMD era have not fared so well. Take note, I’m talking about competitive sports proper, not recreational activities. As much as White Water and Fish Tales could be a fly in the ointment in my argument, I have considered them more recreational themes, and not sports themes. Taking a brief look at DMD era games and their Pinside Top 100/200/300 rankings (as of September 2, 2014) it reads like one of the worst gameroom lineups in the history of pinball:

Tee’d Off (Gottlieb 1993): Ranked 239
World Cup Soccer (Williams 1994): Ranked 53
Shaq Attaq (Gottlieb 1995): Ranked 278
No Fear: Dangerous Sports (Williams 1995): Ranked 95
Frank Thomas’ Big Hurt (Gottlieb 1995): Ranked 172
Indianapolis 500 (Williams 1995): Ranked 42
Mario Andretti (Gottlieb 1995): Ranked 283
Flipper Football (Capcom, 1996): Ranked 272
Space Jam (Sega, 1997): Ranked 287
No Good Gofers (Williams 1997): Ranked 32
NBA Fastbreak (Bally 1997): Ranked 108
Striker Extreme/NFL (Stern 2000): Ranked 296
NASCAR/Grand Prix (Stern 2005): Ranked 181
NBA (Stern 2009): Ranked 241

(Williams SlugFest, a DMD game that dispensed baseball cards, was extremely successful, but was not included in the above list, because, after all, it is not really a pinball machine in the strictest sense…it was a weird cross between a pitch ‘n’ bat and a redemption game)

There are notable exceptions in that list, and they all seem to be Bally/Williams titles. No Good Gofers is a fantastic comedic take on golf and is the highest ranked game on the above list, and Indy 500 well deserves its top fifty rank as it is a solid game with some unique Nordman-esque features. World Cup Soccer ‘94 is on everyone’s list of fun and affordable DMD games for both fledgling beginners and collectors with extensive lineups. (Plus, it is the cheapest John Popadiuk title available, so that boosts its in-demand status.) Baseball only appears once with Big Hurt, which was licenced through the Frank Thomas and Reebok camp only, and not endorsed whatsoever by Major League Baseball. Past that, it gets really dicey. Exactly half the games on the list fall into the bottom twenty percent of all games rated on Pinside, which is an extremely amazing, albeit pathetic, feat. Perhaps pinball players are not all that keen to have sports mixed in with their pingames, or maybe designers are so handcuffed by trying to stay true to the rules of the featured sport that it ends up skewing the overall flow and play of the game.

00-base03

Williams’ NBA Fastbreak.

Stern already had a kick at the can with two sports licences, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League. As I was compiling the above list, I was surprised to see that it was only five years ago that Stern released their NBA title. To me, the game seems much more dated than it actually is, probably due to its licence association with the older Williams NBA Fastbreak release. Why Stern released their own version of an NBA-themed game after Fastbreak appears to be unfathomable, but it was the result of downsizing. The game was originally slated for overseas export only, but once downsizing occurred, a decision was made to produce the completely developed NBA game rather than spend money developing something else. This must be the reason why the design and execution of the game feels wholly incomplete. A few years earlier, Stern’s NFL football-themed machine was an uninspired repackage of Striker Xtreme, their soccer-themed game, whose translite featured a different NFL team, depending on the hometown team of where the game was shipped (or the buyer’s personal preference). Both the NFL and NBA games were met with indifference by the pinball community and exist as lazy attempts at letting the theme make up for lack of unique design elements. Because of this laziness, both games now reside at the bottom of the Pinside Top 100/200/300.

00-base05

Stern’s Striker Xtreme: “NFL LE”, with a Pittsburgh Steelers translite.

With Gary Stern’s frequent assertion that his company is “Made in the USA” and with baseball-mad Chicago being his home base, it is curious as to why Stern has not optioned Major League Baseball to partner with. The appeal of baseball is certainly on-par with that of basketball on an international level, with international sales traditionally being a key factor in theme selection. However, there is a fantastic market for such a game here in North America alone. While football relies on tailgating in parking lots, I would argue that much of baseball’s pre-game drinking takes place at sports bars, with Wrigleyville in Chicago being the penultimate example: a row of drinking establishments all vying for pre-game patronage. What better place to put one of these machines than in a sports bar catering to the pre-game crowd?  Especially given the recent resurgence of the bar as a bastion for pinball. I’m sure Major League Baseball could get a few of these machines into the stadiums themselves, as well.

00-base07

Jaleco didn’t pay the league, now Ryne Sandberg has to play ball in a generic, cheap lookin’ Cubs uniform.

A Major League Baseball pinball machine would run into the same problem as the NBA machines before it: it would remain “current” only for a season or two before: a) free agency takes over, moving players to the highest bidder, and b) uniform sales falter, forcing teams to consider a change in colour or logo. Whereas themes like AC/DC and X-Men seem to remain timeless, team logos, colours, home cities and player rosters change so quickly in the business of sports today, that it automatically puts a timestamp on a product such as this. One could argue that the DMD player and team appearances could be tweaked, at least somewhat, in code updates…but we all know Stern’s recent track record with that. To erase the team names or star players from the machine, in effect short circuiting the need for a licence, isn’t an option.  A generic baseball theme just wouldn’t cut it. It will always feel cheap and incomplete, like when you see a top athlete in a deodorant commercial playing his sport of choice wearing a generic white uniform and not the uniform of the team he plays for. The deodorant company obviously didn’t have the dough to licence the team logo through the league, and their commercial ends up looking like a top player playing sandlot ball.

Themes of this nature are a hard sell right out of the gate.  What is the crossover of people who REALLY enjoy baseball and REALLY enjoy pinball?  When Stern released Mustang, there was an overwhelming number of people who took the stance: “I’m not a car guy, I’m not buying this machine.” Contrast this with the announcement of AC/DC, Metallica or Star Trek: while pinball collectors/players may not be a fan of that particular genre of music/film, it seemed that they still reserved judgement and played the game before making a final call. You hear far more stories of people stating, “I don’t like ACDC/Metallica music but I bought the game because it plays great”. I think you would have to be prepared for people to dismiss the game right out of the gate with the MLB theme attached.

00-base01With all the problem areas stacking up, it appears that the MLB theme wouldn’t be all that good of an option for Stern. However, I am intrigued by the fact that John Trudeau is now working for Stern, and has a semi-rich history with the theme of baseball. Trudeau designed the Chicago-area favourite Chicago Cubs Triple Play for Premier, a veritable staple in the basements of Cubs fans and in the corners of Wrigleyville bars alike. He also did the stripped-down, “street level” game Silver Slugger, also for Premier. Further, he was commissioned, by Fox Sports, to design a table for the 2005 MLB All-Star game. It looks as if a physical game was never actually built, but instead the design served as a blueprint for a CGI animation backdrop that appeared in both commercials and lead-ins for the annual meeting of baseball’s greatest stars. Even though the table looks to be a mix of old and new pinball elements (heck, it has both numeric 4-player scoring AND a DMD!), it looks as if the table’s physics are correct in its design. Mr. Trudeau recently stated in an interview that he’d like to take another stab at a baseball pintable, which is a good sign. Besides being one of the true workhorses in the industry with a flair for innovation, Mr. Trudeau’s designs tend to be synonymous with Americana–from the drive-in meta-theme of the Creature from the Black Lagoon to the All-American muscle car theme of Mustang–making him the perfect candidate to take a stab at America’s pastime.

00-base06With Trudeau at the helm, here’s my two cents, for free, on how to successfully theme the game. Just as Creature from the Black Lagoon is not actually about the Creature from the Black Lagoon as it is about the overall drive-in experience, I would NOT theme the game around the traditional rules of baseball, instead, I would suggest basing the game around going to the stadium to WATCH a baseball game. Just as you have to complete drive-in features in Creech (such as necking in the back seat of your car of visiting the snack bar), you could do the very same with the stadium experience: buying your ticket, finding your seat, visiting the concessions, catching a foul ball, watching the hotdog or pirogi race in the fifth inning, participating in the seventh inning stretch and so forth. Only in multi-ball, after loading the bases with three locked balls, would you participate in the more traditional rules of a baseball machine by hitting homers and scoring runs. Further, different modes could send you to different stadiums across the major leagues, like Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park or Wrigley Field…kind of like a cross-country baseball tour, exploring the elements that make each stadium unique. With this approach, you could almost get away without the participation of the players association, as specific athletes wouldn’t play as large a role as they would if the rules revolved around the pitching, hitting and fielding aspects of the game.

It seems like a risky move for Stern to return to the killing fields where they were met with underwhelming results in the past, but if anyone can pull it off, they can in the current climate. If there is one thing Stern likes to do, it’s fishing in the same pond: rock ‘n’ roll, comic books, etc. Needless to say, the MLB title would attract more than just pinheads: anyone with a Yankees or Red Sox themed mancave would jump at the chance to add a pinball machine decked out with the logo of their favourite team. Maybe there is something in place that prevents the MLB licence from being acquired? Perhaps the league wants too much control over the final product or maybe it is just too expensive to make the project financially feasible.  More than likely, music, comic book and film licences are easier to execute. However, it seems like an absolute natural fit for both parties, given that baseball and amusement machines have such a rich history together. With all the fanfare of Opening Day, it would be the perfect time to release the machine. So get cracking, Stern…only eight months remain until the first pitch of the 2015 baseball season…

Advertisements


Leave a comment

FEATURE: Game Plan and the Mike Bossy Scoring Machine

I am an avid supporter of the New York Islanders hockey club. I started cheering for them when I was a kid–they were winning Stanley Cups in the early eighties so they easily achieved “favorite team” status. My current gameroom is painted orange, blue and white, Islanders colours, and memorabilia from their forty year history adorns the walls. Signed photos, game-worn jerseys, bobbleheads, sticks and pucks are just a few things down there. All that stuff seems less impressive to visitors as the memorabilia is out-muscled by an impressive row of pinball machines, my other collecting passion. Curiously, there is a point where these two collecting interests intersect–and it’s with Game Plan’s 1982 pinball machine, Mike Bossy: The Scoring Machine.

Game Plan began producing video games, slot machines and cocktail pinball tables in the late 1970s. Many of the pin games were designed by 1990s Data East stalwart Ed Cebula, who was, at the time, just starting out in the industry. The company found little success with their niche cocktail tables in an already crowded pinball market, itself on the verge of a massive collapse thanks to the popularity of upright video games. It is interesting to note that Game Plan saw licencing as a viable marketing strategy very early on. Black Velvet liquor, Real brand cigarettes and Camel Lights cigaterres were three early “themes” for the company, and remain the most interesting cross-promotional tables the pinball world has ever seen. It was no secret the intended market for Game Plan–-their early machines were not for kids in arcades, but rather for sophisticated, discerning adults in bars and private clubs. As time marched on and the pinball bust took effect, Game Plan reversed this strategy, whole heartedly in 1979, releasing the cocktail tables Family Fun!, which depicted the smiling faces of a mom, a dad and their leaping child, and Star Trip, a pseudo-Star Wars knockoff. These two “arcade friendly” games appear just before the company released their first traditional pinball table, and first real success, Sharpshooter. Sharpshooter was designed by Mr. Cebula, Joe Joos and pinball godfather Roger Sharpe (he’s also depicted as the main cowboy character on the backglass), and turned Game Plan into a viable upstart competitor to Williams, Stern and Bally.

Sadly, Game Plan would never reach the heights of success that Sharp Shooter had realized. The runs of their three following titles–Old Coney Island! (a knock-off of the Sharp Shooter design), Super Nova and Pinball Lizard-–barely sold as many games COMBINED as did Sharp Shooter’s entire run of 4,200 units. What followed those short run titles were two that never got out of the production stage at all: Global Warfare, a Cebula/Sharpe game with John Trudeau art (yes, THAT John Trudeau) that only managed ten sample games, and Mike Bossy: The Scoring Machine.

When Game Plan licenced the Bossy machine, he was at the top of his game. He was in the process of helping lead the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cups, and, in true “Scoring Machine” fashion, racked up fifty goal seasons in each of the campaigns he played. Further, he has the honour of being the only player to score back-to-back Stanley Cup game winning goals and the only player to score four game winning goals in one best-of-seven playoff series. All this on his way to holding the highest regular season goals-per-game average in NHL history, a record that stands to this day. He was undoubtedly worthy of his own pinball machine, yet it still seems an odd choice, because a young upstart named Wayne Gretzky was tearing it up in the NHL at the very same time. Bossy was a more proven and successful commodity, but Gretzky had youth, good looks and marketability on his side….AND his own action figure. The sports world has never really given the Islanders their due, even when they were dominating the NHL in a way rarely seen since, and Game Plan’s selection of Bossy was a rare instance of putting the spotlight on a member of the rag-tag franchise. Regardless, the game never made it to production. Only one prototype exists. Maybe they should have went with Gretzky.

The dual-layered backglass, think Bally’s Space Invaders or Stern’s Iron Maiden, featured a rear glass with a soft portrait of Bossy, and a front transparent glass with a depiction of Bossy skating, an Islanders goalie, and the game title text. The “O” in Bossy featured the Islanders logo. “Concept” for the overall game is credited to Gil Pollock, whose only other pinball credit is on another sports theme: Premier’s Chicago Cubs Triple Play. Game Plan workhorse Mr. Cebula is credited as designer. The playfield is sparse, to say the least. It is a three-flipper game–-the third mini-flipper is utilized near the top right of the playfield to help players snipe “goals” into a “net” located in the top left corner. The “net” is a bank of what looks to be four targets, with a single left-to-right moving target acting as the goalie trying to stop the ball from hitting the four-bank. Each goal is supposedly accompanied by a flashing goal light and the sound of a goal siren. Further, spelling “MIKE BOSSY”, through the orbit gate when lit or via targets that run down the right hand side of the machine, will help amass more points. The art itself relies on hockey sticks and shooting stars on the periphery, with Bossy stick-handling around three helmetless players in what look to be Boston Bruin uniforms as the main centrepiece of the playfield. The Isles logo appears amongst the busyness of the playfield and plastics, so not only was it a Mike Bossy machine, it was a New York Islanders machine as well. The art is very Bobby Orr Power Play-esque, which was probably the model that Game Plan was shooting for, so to speak. Photographs exist of the playfield with Islanders logos on the pop bumper caps. The photo of the playfield above was taken from the wonderful resource http://www.gameplanpinball.com, which is absolutely worth a visit for a complete rundown of Game Plan’s pinball history.

Overall, the game looks like it would be a dud. It has the sparse feel of a prototype mockup, which it is, however it must have made it through the white-wood prototype stage, as a complete populated playfield and professionally rendered backglass both exist. It also looked to be marketed as a multi-player game, as it would keep score, up to nine goals, between four different opponents. The promotional materials were vague at best, boasting the word “HOCKEY” over the name Mike Bossy, and claiming it was a “hockey game you play like a pin ball game”. It appears as if the Scoring Machine fell into some sort of neither region–a convoluted mix between a traditional pinball, a puck bowler, table top hockey and a pitch and bat–without actually deciding what the game was going to be. Instead of working out the kinks, I guess the idea was just completely scrapped.

Louisville, KY collector Jeremy Fleitz is the current owner of the only Bossy machine in existence, and according to his Pinball Magazine interview in Issue #1, the ROMs that do exist for the game are incomplete, so he’s taking it upon himself to write his own code to make the game function properly and more accurately replicate a “hockey game”. The game is cobbled together from one populated playfield and the two backglasses, which were all the fruits of a tireless hunt for Mr. Fleitz, whose collection boasts all the traditional pinball tables Game Plan ever made.

The reason I felt compelled to write this essay for Credit Dot at this time, is that I won an exclusive meet and greet with Mr. Bossy which occurred last night at a venue just outside of Toronto. After asking Mr. Bossy about his fifty goals in fifty games feat, and he asking me how on earth I became a New York Islanders fan living on the outskirts of Toronto, I brought up the subject of the Game Plan pinball machine. The aging Scoring Machine they now call “Boss” got a look of childlike wonder on his face, staring off into the distance with a faint smile. He said “It’s funny you should ask that, I had forgotten all about it.” I told him what I knew about the game and asked him what he remembered. He didn’t recall much. He remembered going to Chicago to meet with the folks from Game Plan, and obviously recalled that the game never actually materialized. “They didn’t actually make them, did they?”, he said. I told him what I knew about the one in existence. He said he was given a backglass at one point as a gesture of good will, but wasn’t sure what became of it. He bent down to sign a photo I had brought. The pen stopped, inches from the photo, and he shook his head, “I hadn’t thought about that in years!” he said quietly, “I’ll have to go digging through my things in the basement. You’ll have to give me your email address and I’ll let you know what I find.” I’ve had some epic moments in my life, but this nearly trumps them all: the greatest New York Islander of all-time asked for my email address so we could talk about pinball. They nearly had to scrape me up off the ground.

The author, his son, and the legend

It took three years for Game Plan to produce a commercially run machine between 1981’s Pinball Lizard and their 1983 offering Sharp Shooter II. That limbo period in between was taken up with producing video games and slot machines, and monkeying around with the Mike Bossy Scoring Machine pinball table. Established companies were having problems selling pinball games during these years as well, so folding on the Scoring Machine, a machine seriously lacking in direction, was probably a wise option. Finding a Mike Bossy machine for my pinball/Islanders basement game room is a next to impossible task–-I don’t see Mr. Fleitz parting with the only known one in existence any time soon. I’ll have to take solace in the fact that I stirred up some long forgotten pinball memories in one of the greatest players to ever pick up a hockey stick…and hope that he emails me about some further recollections of the project.

Further Reading:
Game Plan Pinball – Mike Bossy the Scoring Machine
Internet Pinball Database – Mike Bossy the Scoring Machine
Wikipedia – Mike Bossy the Scoring Machine
Pinball Magazine – Issue #1 Homepage


Leave a comment

PODCAST: Coast2Coast Episode #77

EPISODE #77 – SPECIAL EDITION OR A FORUM OF INFLUENCE

Coast2Coast host Nate Shivers moderated a talk with a bevy of pinball luminaries last weekend at the Midwest Gaming Classic in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Shivers recorded the event, and it has been released as Coast2Coast Pinball Episode #77.

Nothing ground-breaking is discussed here–Steve Ritchie is the king of innovation, John Popaduik places theme/art above all else, Ben Heck likes to hear himself talk–but its cool to hear the interactions (or divisions?) between the old guard (Trudeau, Ritchie, Freres) and the new boutique designers (Emery, Heck, Kulek). The talk DOESN’T devolve into a reminiscence about the good ol’ days at Williams, which is refreshing and disappointing all at the same time. Stern employee Trudeau, when asked about innovation, said that it all starts on the playfield, in other words dismissing JJP’s innovative backbox LCD screen (or just providing a reason why Uncle Gary hasn’t adopted the technology yet?). Stern employee Ritchie wouldn’t acknowledge the Wizard of Oz by name, instead making reference to it as “the girl with the red shoes”, and claiming (perhaps rightly) that you can’t milk any excitement from the theme. Tanio Klyce is probably a name unfamiliar to most among the other giants on the panel…but you’ll be familiar with him after the podcast as the guy who rambles on and on and on and basically has very little to say. But can you blame him? He’s on a panel with some legends and is probably a bit out of his class. If nothing else, its great to hear Popaduik pontificate about pinball. He exudes brilliance. His is a voice noticeably absent from Clay Harrell’s old TopCast interviews, and I’m not sure I’ve heard him speak about pinball in its other forms in the past few years. From what I gather, he saves his communication energies for those that have committed to put down $16,000USD for a pinball game that has not yet been built.

Nate doesn’t have to do much moderation–the 50-minute set unfolds through the kinetics of the speakers–but its great that he was able to record the event for his podcast. Give it a listen.

Listen to Coast2Coast Pinball Episode #77 Here

Visit Coast2Coast Pinball Here