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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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FEATURE: Smaller Muscles and Fewer Wrestlers, The History and Production of Data East’s WWF Royal Rumble

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Everyone has a pinball machine theme that feels like it was selected just for them. And it usually occurs where your passion for pinball intersects with another interest or collecting passion. Car buffs have Corvette and Mustang. Members of the Kiss Army have made the 1979 Bally game the ultimate Kiss Kollectable. Star Wars fanatics have a few different machines to choose from. Me, I have WWF Royal Rumble. I have long been a fan of wrestling, since the World Wrestling Federation turned the regional sideshow into a multi-national sports entertainment powerhouse in the mid-1980s. As a kid, I couldn’t get enough of the larger-than-life characters and their over-the-top gimmicks. It was all about the costumes, the pageantry, and the story lines. By 1994, like many others, I was tuning out of the wrestling scene to focus on more pressing matters (girls), but Data East’s April release from that year still works to turn my nostalgic crank.

Instead of doing a full-blown review of the game, I’ve decided to use this forum to focus on how the art package and layout of the game situates itself within the greater context of pinball history, and moreover, wrestling history. Be prepared for a heavy dose of discussion about the characters in the game, the history surrounding the release and the climate of the wrestling industry when WWF Royal Rumble would have appeared in arcades across the globe.

The Royal Rumble pinball machine is based upon on the yearly WWF Pay-Per-View event held every January where thirty of the best superstars are invited to participate in a high-stakes, chaotic, over the top rope battle royal. Unlike traditional battle royals, the Royal Rumble introduces one 00-wwfproto03superstar to the ring every two minutes (or ninety seconds, depending on the year) and are charged with eliminating other competitors, friend or foe, by throwing them over the top rope to the arena floor. Putting aside the predetermined nature of wrestling, stamina and luck of the draw are key in a Royal Rumble event. The last man standing in the ring after all thirty have entered, is declared the winner, and given number one contendership for the WWF championship at the following Wrestlemania, which is without a doubt the biggest wrestling event in North America.

WWF Royal Rumble was released by Data East and design of the game is credited to both Tim Seckel and Joe Kaminkow. Mr. Seckel was the designer of just four other production games at Data East: Hook (1992), Last Action Hero (1993), The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (1993) and Maverick (1994). Mr. Kaminkow was the larger-than-life co-founder of Data East (along with current Stern Pinball boss Gary Stern) and reports from various sources say he was a very “hands-on” type of leader (who was a full-fledged designer in his own right, having started his design career at Williams in the early-1980s). I had the opportunity to talk to designer Tim Seckel about Mr. Kaminkow’s role as a co-desinger on Royal Rumble, as Kaminkow was often credited as co-designer of games from this period:

“Joe was my boss, and really my mentor in pinball design.  He always had an active role in everything that happened there.  I don’t remember specific elements of the design or gameplay [he created for Royal Rumble], but he was always throwing out new ideas, suggestions, game modes, or tweaks to a shot that helped polish and enhance the game.”

Royal Rumble features a widebody design, giving the player more playfield space to play upon and the designer more room to pack in playfield features and shots. Whether or not a widebody design enhances the overall gameplay experience (versus a standard playfield size) is one of personal preference. Some like the extra space, others think that it messes with ball trajectory and slows down overall gameplay.  Data East’s decision to run Royal Rumble as a widebody game was probably a knee-jerk reaction to emulate the success Williams was having with their Superpin line of widebody games. In the months prior to Royal Rumble’s release, Williams had released Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure and Star Trek: the Next Generation, which resulted in game sales just shy of 25,000 units combined. It is public record that Royal Rumble was originally designed with a traditional sized layout, only to be reconfigured to a widebody sometime during the design period. Mark this as the first of many design and artwork changes Royal Rumble went through before hitting the production line. Mr. Seckel remembers the change from a standard to widebody format:

“The game was pretty far along as a narrow body.  I recall we had a full art package complete with working prototypes.  Going from memory, I believe the reason we changed direction was because of a recent shift from our competition to go to a wider game.  It was great because it provided more space inside the cabinet for features like the upper ring, and the shots could be spread out.  The biggest challenge was probably time to market.  As I mentioned, making the game wider allowed me to add features in the design, which is always a fun challenge.”

Data East programmer Orin Day also provided some details about the switch from narrow body to widebody in a quote found on the Internet Pinball Database:

“There was line art done for the narrow body playfield but there was never a screened playfield, just a whitewood, and I don’t think it was ever actually built up and playable.”

In an industry where the overall look of a game means just as much as the playability of a game, this appeared to be a change in cosmetics only. There may have been a perceived value in a larger, widebody game from casual players, perhaps attracting more attention because in the players’ minds, bigger equaled better–or bigger equaled more value for your quarters. The widebody trend in pinball failed to become an industry standard and petered out by the end of 1994. Williams only released a handful of other games in their Superpin line, and Data East called it quits on their supersized games after Guns n’ Roses, which followed Royal Rumble chronologically in their release schedule.

As a design footnote, it should be documented that Royal Rumble was set include three under-playfield magnets, the same style and positioning as those that appeared on Williams Addams Family. (Weird, right? Data East emulating Williams? Never!) The Internet Pinball Database shows a photo of the underside of a Royal Rumble playfield with three circular cutouts, the size of magnet cores, in the typical placement of underplayfield magnets in the area above the flippers. One can assume the magnets could have been activated during multiball or the “Pandemonium” mode to simulate the chaos and unpredictability of the Royal Rumble match. A few other Data East releases of the time included under-playfield magnets to disrupt ball travel, but perhaps it was decided that the shaker motor, that rumbles throughout the entire game with switch activation, provided enough sensory enhancement for the player.

If these design changes weren’t enough, WWF Royal Rumble was also saddled with some pretty unique artwork challenges that changed the overall feel and presence of the game, especially when viewed from the perspective of a die-hard wrestling fan. The artwork is credited to both Paul Faris and Markus Rothkranz. Mr. Rothkrantz, it is interesting to note as an aside, is now a self-proclaimed health expert and motivational speaker. He can also help you to achieve “epic love” (with the help of products available for purchase in his online store).

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Close-up of Dennis Nedry’s fingers, Jurassic Park playfield

The playfield features typical Data East playboard artwork of the period–whispy, shadowy, thin-linned art–of which I’m not really taken by. Such artwork style, in my opinion, appears sloppy, and detracts from the overall feel of the game. Other games that feature this style of artwork include Lethal Weapon 3 and Jurassic Park, the latter of which sums up my distaste for this sloppy style of playfield artwork in one image: Dennis Nedry’s fingers. The thin-lined, “realistic” style appeared to be an in-house preference of Data East, as it spans across different artists, and is a style that stands in direct contrast to the bold lines and cartoon-like feel of the artwork that Williams was applying to their playfields during the same period. Designer Tim Seckel was able to outline the roles of each artist in my discussions with him. Mr. Faris created the original prototype backglass artwork, playfield, plastics and cabinet, while Mr. Rothkrantz created the production backglass artwork only.

It is well known in the pinball community that Royal Rumble‘s production backglass differed greatly from the backglass first created for the game. The production translite looks almost anemic next to the prototype version, featuring fewer muscles and fewer wrestlers. The change to a more sparse backglass came at the behest of the WWF for two very distinct reasons.

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WWF Royal Rumble prototype translite

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WWF Royal Rumble production translite

First, the WWF was in the midst of a steroid scandal which began years before, set into public motion by an expose aired on the TV news magazine show Inside Edition. Apparently, WWF performers were being prescribed “vitamins” by one specific doctor, who was more than likely on the WWF’s unofficial payroll to keep their big names big in physical stature. By the time 1994 rolled around, current and former WWF employees, including Hulk Hogan himself, were summoned to take the stand in a very public federal investigation to answer to the widespread use of steroids and other foreign enhancement drugs within the company. (Hogan, under oath in 1994, stated that in his estimation, “75 to 80 percent, maybe more” of the WWF locker room were using some form of steroids.) With all of this bad press, the WWF made a distinct change in who they used as their main event talent. Gone were the chiseled, muscle-bound physiques of champions like the Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan. WWF owner Vince McMahon made a move to focus on the “little guys”–performers like Shawn Michaels and Bret “Hitman” Hart who didn’t have overtly muscular frames, but made up for it with in-ring ability and out-of-ring charisma. The 600-plus pound Yokozuna was also used as a WWF champion to throw the dogs off the steroid trail, because his frame was impressive for its girth, not its rippling, steroid-fueled muscle.

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Mr. Faris’ Lost World backglass

This shift can also be seen within the changes to the backglass. Gone are the inhuman bodies of Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior on the prototype translite, replaced by a more anemic Hogan, a small-framed Bret “Hitman” Hart and a fully-clothed Undertaker. The Royal Rumble logo is taken from the top of the glass on the prototype, enlarged, and placed in the centre of the production translite to draw even more attention away from the wrestlers. Mr. Faris’ original prototype art harkens back to some of his work for Bally in the 1980s, as many of his games, like Centaur, Paragon and Lost World, featured overly buff, fantastic male bodies that the perceived male audience would want to emulate. Hogan’s jacked torso makes him look as if he just stepped out of the Lost World backglass and onto the Royal Rumble‘s. Designer Tim Seckel remembers the artistic changes this way:

“[…] The biggest challenge was selecting the wrestlers to really focus on, and then figuring out how to translate their signature moves in to the play of the game.  Probably the biggest challenge with that is “time”. In other words, wrestlers popularity changes over time so, whoever was ‘king’ at the time we started the project probably wasn’t ‘king’ when the game went to market.  I recall The Ultimate Warrior was champ early on, but later fell out of grace with [the] WWF and he was taken out of the final version of the game.”

“Originally Paul Faris did the entire art package for the narrow body game.  When we changed the game to a wide body it meant he would have a lot of art to change on the playfield and plastics, and not a lot of time to make changes to the backglass–we had to remove The Ultimate Warrior, and probably a few others that I don’t remember.   It was also at that time that we decided to focus on a fewer number of wrestlers on the backglass.  So we hired Markus Rothkranz to paint a new backglass. For the most part, art follows the layout, so I wasn’t really restricted by any changes to the layout because of the art, but on the flipside, the art was definitely affected by the layout changes!

If the steroid scandal wasn’t enough of a challenge for the WWF, they were experiencing a major turnover in talent. Media mogul Ted Turner had purchased the other major national wrestling brand, World Championship Wrestling. Mr. Turner fancied himself as being king of the “rasslin’ business”, and what better way to succeed than by emulating the WWF? And what better way to emulate the WWF than by buying all its talent. Herein lies the second reason why the prototype translite wouldn’t fly with WWF brass: the majority of the featured wrestlers were jumping ship to the competition. By mid-1994, of those featured on the prototype translite, the British Bulldog, Sid Vicious/Justice, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Ric Flair, Earthquake, Typhoon, the Nasty Boys, and the Big Boss Man had all left the WWF to sign more lucrative contracts with the WCW. Keeping up with the WWF roster in 1994 was about as hard as keeping up with other major league sports teams during free agency period. The production translite streamlined all of this, featuring WWF performers who were, more or less, mainstays in the company.

Hulk Hogan is a special case here. He appears as one of the main focal points of both the prototype and production translite. By April of 1994 when the Royal Rumble game was released, Hogan was still technically a WWF property. He was sitting out the rest of his WWF contract after not having wrestled for the company since August of 1993, focusing instead on his acting career (we all know how that turned out). His image, to this day, is literally the face of wrestling–he’s arguably the most identifiable wrestler to ever walk the earth. Even though not active on WWF programming, his image appears centred on the backglass for that reason. Those familiar with wrestling history will know that Hogan’s foray into acting was short lived, and less than a year after he vowed never to wrestle again, in June of 1994, he signed a massive contact with the WCW. It is likely Royal Rumble machines were still rolling off of Data East assembly lines with the new face of the rival company plastered on the backglass.


WWF Royal Rumble BY THE NUMBERS:

  • Number of units sold: 3,500
  • Number of featured superstars on the Royal Rumble Production translite: 6
  • Number of featured superstars on the Royal Rumble Prototype translite (including the Beverly Brothers): 24
  • Number of superstars on the Prototype translite that were not with the company by 1994 year end: 18 (75%)
  • Number of superstars on the Prototype translite that would be on the WCW payroll by 1994 year end: 11 (46%)
  • Number of superstars on the Prototype translite that are now deceased: 8 (33%)
  • Number of superstars on the Production translite that are now deceased: 2 (33%)
  • Number of WWF superstars that appear on the playfield only, and not on either translite: 12
  • Of those twelve, number of deceased playfield only superstars: 3 (25%)

 

Thankfully, for collectors, if you yearn to have a fully fleshed out WWF roster on your backglass, the ingenuity and drive of the secondary collector market has made it an attainable goal. Pinside member RDReynolds had the wherewithal to print up a version of the translite based on the original prototype photos. I have one of these installed in my machine, and it totally fits with the overall feel of the game. The quality of the translite is second to none—no cheap printing methods in this project. One drawback is that the source image used for the printing was a bit muddy, which makes for some very soft lines and an overall quicksand-like feel to the image depending on how it is backlit. Such quality is to be expected, as I’m sure the RDReynolds was using blown up images from photographs of the prototype, and not the original Faris source art to complete the project. Lighting the new prototype art with incandescent bulbs helps to make the image less harsh and hides the muddyness, as opposed to back-lighting it with more modern LED bulbs. Those interested in buying one for their game, or for their gameroom wall, should contact RDReynolds directly, as a few more remain from his final run (as of writing in August 2016). If nothing else, the artwork stands as a constant reminder of what the game could have, and should have, looked like.

The playfield does a decent job of featuring the core of the WWF talent of the period and integrating them into the gameplay. In order to achieve the main multiball, you must “collect” nine wrestlers, from the two main ramp shots and far right orbit. Second tier wrestlers are featured here, such as Crush, Tatanka and Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Along with their images on the playfield, their theme songs are featured when they are collected. It is interesting to note that Hulk Hogan appears nowhere on the playfield. The tag team wrestlers on the far right–the Stiener Brothers, the Bushwhackers and the Smoking Gunns–have little bearing on gameplay, and only appear as images on the playfield. However, the Gunns do provide a special hook for the extra ball DMD animation (“shoot” again, get it?) Razor Ramon and Mr. Perfect appear at the playfield outlanes, as afterthoughts, not included in any other aspects of rules or gameplay. It is also interesting to note that Crush appears as “Kona Crush” on the playfield art–his fun-loving, good-guy persona–but as his villainous, painted face, heel persona in the DMD animations. Trying to capture an accurate representation of the ever-changing WWF is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle, I guess. (I’d also like to nit pick that Mr. Fuji, who appears at the upper scoop as a lit insert for the extra ball, is a representation of the bowler hat/tuxedo Fuji from the 1980s, and that Fuji had been sporting a shaved head and kimono ever since he started to manage Yokozuna in 1992. It is an anachronism that will bother only the most devout WWF fans.)

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Royal Rumble playfield, courtesy of Pinside user “Buzz”.

Yet another change to the Royal Rumble art package came in the form of the cabinet art. The Pingame Journal unearthed a picture of a prototype cabinet that featured red, white and blue shooting stars and the images of Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and Randy Savage. This approach, much like the backglass, must have been scrapped due to superstar turnover and decreased focus on the muscle-bound bodies. The production cabinet is much more muted: a giant WWF Royal Rumble logo on a plain black background. Just like the translite change, the focus became the branding of the logo, rather than the performers themselves. The blue background of the translite is the only leftover from the overall blue feel of the prototype package.

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Pingame Journal’s photograph of the Royal Rumble prototype cabinet art as it appears on IPDB.org

I stated at the outset that WWF Royal Rumble is a snapshot of the WWF at a time when I wasn’t really interested in wrestling. What I wouldn’t give for this game to be made five years earlier, during WWF’s silver age in the late-1980s. Granted, it would have been a very different game and lacked a DMD display and immersive sound package, which are two of 00-wwfproto01the greatest features of the game as it was manufactured, as they had not been perfected in the earlier era. As it stands, I wasn’t really a fan of WWF’s sickeningly-sweet, family-friendly programming of 1994. The colourful personas of the 1980s were replaced with dull personas in colourful costumes in the early-1990s. One needn’t look further than Doink the Clown and Tatanka, two wrestlers predominantly featured in the Royal Rumble pinball machine. As the 1990s began, it was the dawn of a new era for wrestling fans: the curtain had been pulled back, and everyone could clearly see Vince McMahon in all his Oz-like glory, pulling the strings behind the scenes. The steroid scandal had a lot to do with that. As a result, Mr. McMahon wanted to be seen as the head of a wholesome, all-American entertainment company akin to Disney…or the American Gladiators. It wouldn’t be until much later in the 1990s that McMahon threw this approach out the window, and decided The Jerry Springer Show was the prototype to emulate—packing in all the sex, gore and violence that a smarter, more-self-aware audience could handle. It should come as no surprise that this is when I tuned back into wrestling–during the WWF’s, now WWE’s, “Attitude Era”.

But what is pinball if not good clean, American entertainment and a chance to use your imagination?  In 1994, it was a match made in heaven. It featured all the sights and sounds of the World Wrestling Federation, with very little actual wrestling. Very few DMD animations focus on hand-to-hand combat, save for a pathetic grappling video mode, cartoonish punching associated with pop-bumper hits and an interactive chair bashing mode. The majority of the “wrestling” is implied, and is drawn from the kinetics of the ball and a knowledge of the sport. In the art package, there isn’t one instance of two wrestlers engaged in a wrestling contest making physical contact—the images of the Big Boss Man and Bret Hart performing wrestling moves on opponents were erased from the final version of the translite (along with the muscles and three-quarters of the 1993 WWF roster). The player is presented the “idea” of wrestling, and is asked to fill in the blanks on their own. Despite all their downfalls, the roster was given a chance to let their personas be the centre of the action.

Considering the artistic strife the game suffered during development, the overall art package represents this disappointing time in the WWF quite admirably. One complaint I do have about overall gameplay is the lack of incorporating the wrestlers’ signature moves. We get a reference to Yokozuna’s banzai drop, but Bret Hart’s sharpshooter, Undertaker’s tombstone piledriver, Razor Ramon’s razor’s edge and Hawksaw Jim Duggan’s two-by-four are nowhere to be to be found. These could have easily been incorporated into modes, animations or artistic splashes around the playfield just as the banzai had. The chaotic nature of the Royal Rumble match comes off beautifully within the game—a countdown by the fans results in adding a ball into play during multiball (in effect adding another wrestler into the match just as the Rumble is known for), and locking a ball on the upper playfield during Pandemonum does the same in the featured special scoring mode. The upper ring may appear to be an under-utilized design choice to layman players, but if used properly to increase jackpots and multipliers, it can be a valuable little area of the playfield. Lets face it, a wrestling game without an actual “ring” isn’t much of a wrestling pinball game.

00-wwfproto07Stern’s 2015 release of Wrestlemania, and limited edition version Legends of Wrestlemania, shared the same sentiment of the need for a ring, however, their use of the upper ring feature detracts from overall gameplay, whereas Royal Rumble‘s works to compliment it. And while we are on the topic, and without diving too deep into contrasting the two games (that will make for a fully fleshed out article of its own), the Legends of Wrestlemania game could have done so much more to appease collectors and players who are avid wrestling fans by fully incorporating 80s and 90s legends into the art package and gameplay, but totally missed the mark by playing it safe, instead representing the bygone era on the cabinet art alone.

I’m not sure I’m fully sold on Data East games from this era, as they seemed to be trying too hard to emulate their Bally/Midway/Williams trailblazing brethren. It’s a cross that 1990s Data East games had to bear during the era in which they were released, and now to a greater extent in the discerning collectors market of today. However, as the prices rise on the coveted Williams titles, these Data East games become more desirable as “value games”. WWF Royal Rumble seems to be one of those games, providing a whole lot of game that incorporates the theme wholeheartedly at a fraction of the price of some of the top tier Williams/Bally/Midway DMD titles. It is a shame the Data East library only includes two widebody titles, as that is one thing the company seemed to do very well. For my money, Royal Rumble and Guns n’ Roses are the two best playing, and best looking, games of their DMD era. I only own one Data East title, and that’s WWF Royal Rumble...and I’m glad that both theme and gameplay gelled with me in order to make it a keeper in my collection.

Further Reading:

Internet Pinball Database – WWF Royal Rumble

Hulk Hogan’s Testimony from the WWF’s 1994 Steroid Trial

Vice.com – The Forgotten Steroid Trial That Almost Brought Down Vince McMahon

Pinside – Back in Stock: WWF Royal Rumble Prototype Trans

Pinside – WWF Royal Rumble Club

Markus Rothkranz – MarkusRothkranz.com

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PEOPLE: Greg Freres on his Early Bally Backglass Prints

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

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

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

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

CD: Are the prints limited in number?

GF: No, these prints are not limited.

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

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

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

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

CD: How have sales been so far?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fathom (1981), photo courtesy of Pinball Life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Greg Hildebrandt’s “Little Mermaid”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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