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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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FEATURED GAME: Bally KISS

Well, Stern got the Kiss licence. Somewhere in the distant future we are going see Gene Simmons and company on a Pro, a Premium, and as many different Limited Editions as our hobby will tolerate. No matter what the community says, this is a no brainer for Stern and a licence that should have been acquired years ago. There is a built-in fan base. If you look at pictures of any Kiss fanatic’s rec-room, you are bound to see, amongst all the other Kiss Krap, a 1979 Bally KISS pinball machine. Guaranteed, these same fanatics will pony up as much money as it takes to get a brand new Stern Kiss Dynasty Limited Edition (or whatever they are going to call it) right off the assembly line, if only to display beside the Bally original. The Bally game isn’t groundbreaking in terms of gameplay, but its popularity and theme make it a very important game in pinball history and an expensive game to obtain on the secondary market.

The game’s production began in mid-1978, but was ultimately released to the public in June 1979, with Kiss, arguably, at the peak of their popularity. This era saw the band release the certified platinum albums Love Gun and Dynasty, and the double platinum smash hit Alive II that redefined how the music industry recorded and marketed live albums. I think even hardcore fans would like to forget that the band also released their four individual solo albums during this period, which all eventually obtained platinum status, but are considered a commercial and artistic failure by many. At the time the pinball machine hit the market, their line of Barbie-sized Mego action figures were on the toy shelves across North America. The band also filmed a made-for-television movie entitled “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park” which aired on NBC in 1978, and is an absolute nightmare in both production value and storyline, but hey, they were on network television, right? Even if the quality went off the rails a time or two, Kiss always knew how to market themselves. They did something almost unachievable: they were at the forefront of 1970s pop culture, while existing as complete outsiders in the mainstream. They were the biggest band in America, selling out stadiums across the globe, but number one hits and artistic credibility eluded them. It is bound to happen with one-dimensional lyrics and silver face paint.

As with the Mego dolls, the backglass of Bally’s Kiss depicts the band in a slight variation of their Love Gun era costumes. The art is beautifully rendered by Kevin O’Connor–it is one of the earliest pinball art packages he worked on and is far and away his best work as a pinball artist. The backglass captures all the sexuality and excitement the band exuded while performing on stage. You can almost smell the sweat. I hope that’s sweat I smell. O’Connor still works in the medium, most recently working on Stern’s X-Men and Star Trek. It is interesting to note that O’Connor worked on Bally’s Star Trek as well, so if he gets the opportunity to work on Stern’s Kiss release, he will have come full circle on two licences (wait, make that three, he also worked on the Data East Simpsons and Stern’s Simpsons Pinball Party). The playfield features snakes and fire and lightning and breasts and everything that a teenager would be drawn to. The playfield follows the rule of fours: four drop targets, four pop bumpers, four stand-up targets, four letters in the bank A-B-C-D, a four-by-four matrix of K-I-S-S letters and, of course, four members of the band. There are five roll-over lanes at the top of machine that throws that whole theory off though–four of them representing a single letter in K-I-S-S and an extra lane in the centre to represent the entire word.

Image courtesy users.cis.fiu.edu/~jweiss

If the layout is too simple, at least it is nicely balanced. It is a Jim Patla design, he of Silverball Mania and Centaur fame. Kiss is more Silverball Mania speed (they both rely on spelling quite a bit), and is no where near as complex as Centaur. The game is about as simple as they come, with just one hook: spell KISS. Over and over and over again. This must have been a planned occurrence. The Kiss theme would probably draw people in, specifically the very young, who were not overly familiar with playing pinball. The game’s simplicity would work to hook them. There is a Kiss “matrix”, that spells out K-I-S-S four times on circular inserts, that lies in the middle of the playfield to track your progress of spelling the band’s name. Letters can be gained through the roll-over lanes at the top arch and at four red stand-up targets located around the playfield. Roll through that centre lane at the top arch I mentioned earlier and you will light one entire row of K-I-S-S letters. Also, knocking down all four drop targets on the left side will score you a KISS line. You really have to get the ball through that centre roll-over lane though: not only will it get you a full KISS line, it will open the return lane on the right and light the spinners for extra points. If you can light the entire four-by-four KISS matrix once it will award a super bonus. A second time awards the colossal bonus and the chance at a special. A third time lights another special only. Specials and extra balls can be awarded through the right bank of A-B-C-D targets. Pretty standard fare.

The game sports a Bally AS-2518-35 MPU, which was Bally’s go-to unit from about 1977 until they moved to the ever troublesome 6803 operating system under the Bally/Midway banner. With a little elbow grease and some well documented modifications, the -35 MPU can be solid, and if not, you can always get yourself any one of a handful of after market replacements. The Internet Pinball Database page for the game has a quote from a Bally employee claiming that the game had originally contained speech in prototype versions, which would have preceded Gorgar, the first game with speech, by about a year-and-a-half. The sound package contains all the beeps and bloops of the era, with the extra bonus of having a few lame bars of “Rock and Roll All Night” play when you start a game, and an almost unrecognizable electronic mess of the “Shout It Out Loud” chorus at game over. They should have sunk their money into speech. Foreign markets received a different backglass than the North American market at the request of the Germans: the two trademark lightning bolt “S” letters in the Kiss name were changed to generic lettering (reminiscent of sports jersey lettering), as it too closely resembled the “SS” logo of the Nazi police. Germans have the right to be a little sensitive about Nazi connotations, I suppose, but it just goes to show how much influence the European distributors had over American pinball manufacturers. Add this change to a list which includes, but is not limited to, an alternate backglass for Special Force and the introduction of Williams lightning flippers.

As a Kiss fan, the only reason I don’t own this game is that they demand insane money on the secondary market. They made an absolute ton of these games, a run of 17,000 confirmed units, but the problem is condition. The game did so well on location, for so many years, that the original playfields are absolutely blown out to the bare wood (especially around the centre Kiss matrix) and the cabinets beat to hell and back. Reproduction playfields are available, but sinking that kind of money into such a one dimensional game is something few collectors are willing to do–unless the machine holds some sort of sentimental value or they happen to be a Kiss fanatic. Reproduction pop bumper caps are also out there, and they are probably the coolest to ever grace a machine: each one bearing the visage of one of the members of the band.

With Stern’s Kiss machine on the horizon, you’d think that this table would be trending up in price, but at its current value, that would be difficult. Be prepared to pay $3000USD and up for a decent version, more for something completely restored. I can’t see prices that high trending further upwards, but stranger things have happened. How can a game from this era command such an insane price? The reality is, you are paying for the Kiss branding and nothing more. Without some sort of intimate connection to this game, my guess is that most pinball collectors would rather have a Funhouse, Terminator 2 or Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in their lineup for that kind of dough.

Bally’s Kiss is the kind of game that you’ll be able to get out of your system if you play it for a half-hour at a buddy’s place, the Vintage Flipper World museum, or the Pinball Hall of Fame. Nothing ground breaking, but it is worth the experience. Imagine walking up to this game as an 11-year-old Kiss fan with a pocket full of quarters. You’d be in total awe. Just like the band, this machine has style to spare, but very little substance to make it worthwhile. And as a Kiss fan, it pains me to say that.

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NEWS: KISS Alive! In pinball form…

When Stern released AC/DC, I was bummed that it wasn’t a KISS machine. The band absolutely lends itself to a Stern-produced Ritchie-designed pinball. The old Bally KISS was a smashing success (17,000 units), granted it was released at the pinnacle of both KISS and pinball’s popularity. That KISS game plays like an absolute bag of garbage, but the art package on it is killer.

So here we are in 2014, and we now have another KISS “machine” that doesn’t play AT ALL, and again, the art package is killer. So killer, in fact, that I would argue the art on this Zidware/Popadiuk KISS mock-up blows away any art on a pinball machine released in the past twenty years.

I’m a pretty big fan of the band. I’m amazed that they still remain somewhat culturally relevant. Like AC/DC and the Stones, its all in the marketing of the name. In my area, KISS has filled full-size arenas and outdoor parks four the last five years in a row. It is downright difficult to get a good seat at a reasonable price. They are ironically popular with the hipster crowd, which boggles my mind as hipster morals run almost counter to the Gene Simmons capitalist model. But, for the most part, it’s the die-hard fans that grew up with the band that keep their pockets lined. Members of the KISS Army (myself included) have grown up and now have disposable income to spend on ultimate backstage pass experiences and all the crap with a KISS logo on it. If all goes well, a KISS pinball machine may be one of those pieces of crap!

So the story goes: Popadiuk and a friend played in a KISS cover band in their younger days, and both enjoyed pinball so much that they vowed to someday make a KISS pin themselves. Despite many irons in the fire already (RAZA, Magic Girl, Alice in Wonderland) and with Popadiuk’s friend terminally ill, he decided to mock up a non-working foamcore model with a complete art package that he unveiled at the Midwest Gaming Classic in Wisconsin a week ago. The game has no ramps and is pretty simplistic in its layout, which lead many to believe that this the first step in a much larger journey. It is unclear if the mock up was built to honour an obligation to a sick friend, to take to Gene Simmons for a blessing to build on a larger scale, or both.

Any negotiations with Simmons will be an uphill battle. He ain’t in it for the fine art package or build quality–he’s only interested in bottom line profit. Nate Shivers from Coast2Coast Pinball mentioned that a guitar company he worked for was in negotiations with Simmons to build a replica of his signature bass guitar, but they quickly deteriorated as it was clear Simmons was solely a profit monger and thus difficult to work with. This is Simmons’ M.O., and he’s very candid about it. I think if I busted my ass for forty years wearing full face makeup and ten-inch platform boots maybe I’d just want the payday, too.

If this machine is going to be produced, it really needs to be Stern at the helm, not a small scale, quality driven, boutique manufacturer like Zidware. Stern is better suited to build a KISS machine…they have an entire department dedicated to hammering out the profit margins with the KISS marketing juggernaut. Stern also has a proven track record with other successful music themed pins under their belt. Zidware has…well…cool plans to build three different machines and a hunk of foam that looks really cool with some KISS art pasted to it. And if Stern makes it, we will be able to bring the machine home within the year, and not have to wait three just to see sketches of the backbox side art.

In the end, I really hope Popadiuk finds a way to make this happen as the machine is absolutely breathtaking.  I would be the first in line shaking my fistful of money a la the Fry “Shut up and take my money” meme.  I guess Uncle Gene will be happy as long as the checks don’t bounce, but would the price be too high for Popadiuk to build on a boutique budget?

Further Reading/Listening:
Coast2Coast Pinball – Episode 76 “Midwest Gaming Classic Day 1 or Wisconsin Gets Spooky”
Pinside – JPOP’s KISS prototype game at MGC
Pinball Revolution – Kiss pinball by Zidware!