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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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REVIEW: Pop Bumper Showdown, Part 1: BriteMods BriteCaps EVO

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Ah, the pop bumper. The ultimate ball randomizer. It was once the centerpiece of nearly every pinball table, but as technology changed and playfield layouts became more complex, the pop bumpers became somewhat of an intrusion, leftovers from a bygone era, and were tucked away in dark corners and hidden under elaborate ramps. Take Williams Demolition Man, for example. Not only was one pop bumper assembly completely removed from the layout, you’d be actually hard pressed to notice they exist at all, blocked from view by a series of ramps, wire forms and plastics. This is a far cry from the days when bumpers all but dominated the woodrail era games. Ask any pinball aficionado, though, and they’ll tell you that it ain’t a pinball machine unless there are pop bumpers on it! As the bumpers themselves moved to the periphery, it became obvious that the single light contained within the assembly itself wasn’t enough to draw attention to the unit. Faceted caps were employed in some instances, as in many modern Stern games, or covered up completely with molded plastics, as they were in Data East’s Simpsons and Williams’ White Water. However, for the most part, pinball companies old and new have resisted perfecting new lighting techniques for the pop bumper, and have stuck with the same old single bulb in a single socket.

The recent surge in enthusiasm for LED lighting has allowed aftermarket companies to offer up solutions for the tired looking, and somewhat forgotten, pop bumpers. Love them or hate them, LEDs are common place in today’s pinball landscape. So much, that every game that leaves Stern Pinball’s factory now comes with a full compliment of LEDs.  To move your old game into the 21st century, you could just remove the carbonized 555 incandescent that currently sits inside your pop bumper and replace it with one of countless LED designs on the market.  However, the minds at aftermarket lighting companies in the pinball landscape have dreamt up other designs that take lighting the pop bumper cap to the next level. In the next week or so, I’m going to try and wade through the sometimes confusing world of pop bumper lighting options, and weigh the pros and drawbacks of each solution. I’ve rounded up pop bumper lighting solutions from three of the biggest names in the hobby—Comet Pinball, CoinTaker and BriteMods—in an attempt to explore the different options out there. If you are a staunch supporter of incandescent bulbs, this series may not be for you. If you constantly strive to make your machine look its best, brightest and most colourful, I’ll try my best to help you make your pop bumpers really…um, pop.

Part 1: BriteMods BriteCaps EVO Series

When in doubt, start with the most expensive option, right? All kidding aside, BriteMods’ BriteCaps EVO pop bumper light has to be considered a front runner in the race to light your pops. It isn’t just a lightbulb, it’s an entire lighting solution. Available exclusively from go-to parts supplier Pinball Life, the BriteCaps EVO (which stands for Enhanced Visual Output) provides a visually pleasing experience while giving customers bang for their buck in extra features not available from the other aftermarket lighting companies. The BriteCaps EVO was born from BriteMods’ first foray into pop bumper lighting: the original BriteCap. The original design, which is still available from Pinball Life, was a unit consisting of 31-Surface Mounted Diode (SMD) lights mounted to both the top and bottom sides of a ring set inside a pop bumper cap. Since the unit came “pre-capped”, the end-user removed their old pop bumper cap and simply installed the new one with the BriteCap pre-installed in it. The BriteCap EVO takes the cap out of the equation and ups the LED count to an astounding 40 points of light: 24 SMDs on the topside available in a wide array of colours, 10 white SMDs on the bottom to illuminate the playfield, and 6 center SMDs that can be adjusted (via a switch) to always be on, or to react to the vibrations of the pop bumper. Your original pop bumper cap is used in the EVO application.

Background:

I had the opportunity to speak to Dan Rosen of BriteMods recently, and he was nice enough to fill us in on the company’s history and involvement in pop bumper modding:

“BiteMods has been around since 2013. I started designing and selling mods to folks on Pinside, but soon became overwhelmed by the response and needed a retail partner. Pinball Life was my immediate choice as partner, as they have a great reputation for quality products at fair prices, as well as exceptional service. I now sell exclusively through their web store. [Lighting pop bumpers] began with the original BriteCaps design and was simply an automotive accessory adapted for pinball. I wanted to design the ultimate pop bumper lighting from the ground up, and that’s what BriteCaps EVO represents.”

What You Get:

Each BriteCaps EVO unit comes individually boxed. Inside the box, you get the BriteCaps EVO itself, a set of installation instructions and two pop bumper screws that are longer than the traditional ones to account for the extra height the BriteCaps EVO adds to the bumper. The BriteCaps EVO is a single unit—it’s built like a tank—and has no wires or other external hangings. The unit has a brightness adjustment dial, that can be manipulated with a Phillips screwdriver to set the brightness to your liking. Pinball Life gives you the option of adding on pop bumper caps to your BriteCaps EVO order, but from what I can see, they are just standard Williams/Bally caps that are offered.

Price:

The BriteCaps EVO experience isn’t a cheap one. Each EVO unit will set you back $12.95USD. That puts a set of three at $38.85USD. It still comes in cheaper than its predecessor the original BriteCap, which retails for $14.95USD each for a standard cap, and $16.95USD for a jeweled cap.

Palate:

The BriteCaps EVO brand comes in red, blue, green, purple, orange, yellow, warm white and cool white. Note that this colour choice is for the 30 lights on the top of the EVO only, the bottom ten lights are white across all colour choices.

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Application & Installation:

The EVO will work in any Williams/Bally, Stern, Sega or Data East game that uses a standard pop bumper body. Standard, unfaceted, unjewelled caps seem to be suggested (and encouraged) by BriteMods and Pinball Life, as they are offered as an add-on to your EVO order. The unit itself is pretty much plug and play. With the machine off, remove the bumper cap and 555 bulb, choose your Flash React™ setting via the switch on the bottom of the unit, carefully insert the EVO into the bumper socket, and reattach the cap with the two screws provided.

Review:

I really like the construction of the EVO unit. The base that plugs into the socket has incredible substance. The most frustrating part of LEDing a game is dealing with those little wire connections on the plastic stem of the bulb assembly. They need to be wiggled, adjusted and bent in a very particular way so that a solid connection is made with the socket. Hoping that connection is sustained, and doesn’t mis-align during normal game play, is a worry as well. The EVO design completely eliminates all this fiddling around. The connection point plugs into the pop bumper socket with ease and gives a robust connection on the first attempt.

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Base connection points of the EVO versus the standard 555 LED/SMD bulb.

The side-fire positioning of the top SMDs make for a visually pleasing experience. The theory behind the side-fire mounting is that the light is directed outwards, rather than directly up toward the player. This achieves maximum light throw without burning the retinas of the player. I was able to colour match red EVOs to the red pop bumpers in both Williams Pin*Bot and Rollergames. I prefer the look of matching the colour of the EVO to the bumper cap, rather than letting the colour of the bumper cap do all the work with a white light beneath it. The latter gives a washed out feeling, while colour matching gives a much more full and rich result (as it does when colour matching an LED with a playfield insert).  The picture below of the EVOs installed in Pin*Bot may not illustrate this completely, but the middle bumper with red EVO emits a far truer red than the bottom bumper does with its warm white EVO. The BriteMods website suggests that the user may also consider replacing coloured bumper caps with clear ones, giving the chosen colour of EVO a clean palate to work with. I swapped in a clear cap momentarily for the test in Pin*Bot, but it was not a look I was fond of. The light was much too harsh on the eyes and less visually pleasing than colour matching with a red cap. Admittedly, my eyes have a hard time processing LED/SMD lighting, and when I wear my glasses to play, it just gets worse. I installed the red BriteCaps EVO with a red pop bumper cap on full brightness on both Pin*Bot and Rollergames, and never had an issue with the light being harsh or distracting (we can thank colour matching the cap with the SMD and the side-firing for that, I believe).

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Pin*Bot Application: Top bumper contains a standard 555 incandescent, middle bumper contains a red EVO with Flash React enabled, bottom bumper contains a warm white EVO with Flash React disabled.

The 10 bottom white SMDs do a great job of completely lighting up the pop bumper area. The results were stellar in Rollergames, a pinball machine notorious for leaving the rear half of the playfield ill-lit and hidden under black plastic coverings. The light cast by the bottom SMDs work to illuminate the once gloomy area and in doing so bring to life the art around it. It also worked to brighten up the playfield area beneath the mini-playfield on Pin*Bot, nicely catching the sheen of the freshly clear-coated playfield I had installed.

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Rollergames application: A set of red EVOs are installed. The photo captures how well the EVOs light up the surroundings, compared to the dim incandescent bulbs near the rollovers.

The six center SMD lights, armed with Flash React™ technology, are a neat little bonus you get with the BriteCaps EVO brand. Some may use this interactivity to help justify the expensive sticker price of the unit itself. On the bottom side of the EVO, there is a small toggle button. If left in its original position, it disables the trademarked feature and the six lights stay on with the other 24 top lights. If depressed, the lights will remain off until vibrations from the game (moreover, the pop bumpers) are detected, which will light the six center lights briefly. It makes for a neat light show when the ball gets bouncing around in the pop bumper nest. I would have liked to have seen more than just six of the thirty lights react to pop bumper hits, but I’m sure it walks a fine line—too many would have created unwanted strobe. I can’t help but think that there seems to be missed potential with the technology as it is employed here. However, Flash React™ is not a necessary feature that needed to be included, but makes for a nice interactive, customizable bonus and is a feature that may work to set EVO apart from its competitors.

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Flash React in action

One unavoidable downfall with the EVO is that it adds 5mm in height to your pop bumpers. The circumference of the EVO is just as big as the pop bumper cap itself, meaning the EVO will not nest inside the cap like an original BrightCap ring would have. It’s an unavoidable issue: the inner plastic lip of the pop bumper cap traditionally envelops the outer edge of the pop bumper body, however the EVO sits flush on top of the body, thus, the pop bumper cap may only rest flush on top of the EVO. A word of warning: be ready for frustrating clearance issues and making an endless amount of adjustments for any game with pop bumpers that have ramps, wireforms or mini playfields that rest on top of or near them. On test, Rollergames was able to handle the extra height of the EVO, however, Pin*Bot’s mini-playfield posed fit problems after EVO installation. I already had the thicker Classic Playfield Reproductions mini-playfield installed, and those extra 5mm really threw everything out of whack, even creating a ball hang-up on the mini-playfield where there was not one before. As stated above, each EVO is shipped with a set of longer pop bumper screws that take into account the extra height added, which is fantastic forethought, but short of grinding out that inner pop bumper lip with a Dremel, there is a high probability of fit issues in many modern games. BriteMods also warns of using the EVO in games where partially cut bumper caps are necessary (think Addams Family’s single sawed-off cap next to the side ramp).

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A warm white EVO installed in Pin*Bot

Bottom Line:

If you can justify spending the money, BriteMods’ BriteCaps EVO provides an excellent lighting solution and a quality product that will make the pop bumpers, and their surroundings, stand out. The build quality of the unit is truly exceptional. The first product reviewed in the series looks to be a front-runner for top of the class. That said, the extra interactivity provided by the Flash React™ is a fun and unique attribute to have, but the result of six small lights reacting in time with the firing of pop bumpers may not be enough for some to consider the feature “value added”.  The extra height is a major downfall in an otherwise fantastic product. Fit issues will prevent me from keeping the EVO in my Pin*Bot, but the extra splash of light and colour they add to Rollergames makes for a welcome change to the dull 555 lighting.

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Check back for Part Two in the series, where CoinTaker’s AfterBurner pop bumper lighting solution is tested and reviewed.

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Credit Dot Pinball/BriteMods Contest!

Two BriteMods prize packages are up for grabs! The prizes were generously donated by Dan Rosen at BriteMods. The first randomly selected winner will receive a set of three BriteCaps EVO and a set of BriteMods BriteButtons flipper buttons. The second randomly selected winner will receive a set of BriteMods BriteButtons. To enter, simply send an e-mail to creditdotpinball@gmail.com with the word “EVO” in the subject line. One entry per person please. Two winners will be picked at random (using random.org). Contest closes July 1st, 2015 and winners will be announced shortly thereafter. Open to residents of the US and Canada only…I’d love to open it up, I can’t afford to ship stuff overseas!

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PEOPLE: Brett Davis from XPin

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For nearly five years, XPin has been the collector community’s choice for re-engineered replacement displays.  With a strict adherence to quality control and an eye for innovative design, Brett Davis has engineered a bevy of replacement parts for our beloved games.  With his newest innovation, 7Volution, he has also changed the way we play our games as well.  Credit Dot Pinball is pleased to present an interview Mr. Davis about his beginnings, innovations, business philosophies and new products.

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Credit Dot: How long has Xpin been in the pinball business?

Brett Davis: The XPin brand has been in existence since September of 2011, which is when the first distributors started to receive their product.  The actual http://www.xpinpinball.com website when live in January 2012.

CD: What were some of the first Xpin displays offered for sale?

BD: That’s a tough one.  Because of the product line, it only makes sense to offer all similar products at once, so it would be all of my Williams and Bally displays.  They were all released about the same time.  The Dot Matrix displays were released a little bit later.

CD: Is there a history between Xpin and Pinscore? There is some overlap in the products offered.

BD: There is some is some history between XPin and Pinscore.  I am the original designer of the Pinscore products.  When I chose to separate myself from Pinscore, the original Pinscore designs became the property of Marco Specialties because they owned the name Pinscore.  This forced me to re-engineer what I had done to make XPin.

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XPin’s XP-WMS10877 display kit, in blue, installed in the author’s Pin*Bot.

CD: What makes the XPin product a better choice for aftermarket displays as opposed to those of your competitors?

BD: There are a couple of reasons that XPin is a better choice for aftermarket replacements.  First, each product is a true re-engineering, or re-design of the original product.  I did a lot of research into the failings that occurred with the original designs.  I guess you can say it was a little forensic engineering.  I chose to avoid copying the original design because in doing so you just duplicate the problems that caused them to fail in the first place.  Second, technology today is so much more capable than it was 20-30 years ago.  The majority of failures that occur due to the circuit design can be eliminated with newer technology and different circuits.  Third, using modern manufacturing methods, reliability and cost can be controlled to make a quality product.  Obviously with exceptions to components and the circuit boards, all XPin products are manufactured here in the US.

CD: Can you share some of your best selling display kits at the moment?

BD: The XPin bestsellers are the Williams System 11 displays and the XP-DMD4096 (dot matrix) displays.

00-xpinint08CD: Can you tell me a little about your groundbreaking 7Volution display kit?

BD: Modern technology is what makes 7Volution possible.  Over the years people have hacked the game code, modified the MPU boards, added wires to the harness, all to make 7-digit scoring possible.  The problem is that once you choose to go down that mod path, it’s hard to go back.  Also, if you are not an experienced tech, making the mod is fairly daunting.  7Volution’s prime goal was to be a plug and play solution: no mods, no cut traces, no rom changes needed.  The heart of 7volution plugs into the MPU and watches the display data.  When it sees that the score boundary has been crossed, it jumps in and takes control and displays the new score…and then keeps track of it.  If it wasn’t for the processing power of new technology, 7Volution wouldn’t be possible.

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Pinside user bcrage88’s Paragon with 7Volution display kit installed. Vinyl filters were used to achieve the three colour effect.

CD: Where did the idea for integrating a seventh digit originate?

BD: 7Volution is an idea that came to me in 2008 or 2009 at the Northest Pinball show.  I took a Bally Six Million Dollar Man to the show with my (then) Pinscore display system in it.  A gentleman played the game and it was amazing the way he was playing.  While I was sitting there at my booth I saw this man roll the game 3 times!  Afterwards we talked about how all of these great classic Bally and Sterns would never keep the high scores if rolled.  This started me down the path…

CD: I find it really cool that Xpin customers can customize the look of their game by choosing the colour of their displays. Generally speaking, does one colour outsell the others?

BD: Surprisingly Orange is still the preferred color, at a rate of about two to one!

CD: I noticed a slight price difference between some of the colour choices, with blue being more expensive than the red and stock orange. Why is this?

BD: It is all about chemistry.  To manufacture blue or white, a different set of elements are required to get to those colors.  Elements for red, orange, and green are more readily available.  The elements used to create Blue and White generally cost two to three times more than the other colors, so they end up costing a few more dollars.

CD: Are all of your display products plug and play?

BD: Yes, everything is plug and play…with a caveat.  WPC games with dot matrix displays have an exception when it comes to the colors Blue and White.  There is an original design flaw in the dot matrix controllers.  Blue and White draw more current because the blue and white LED requires more current (it is that chemistry and element thing mentioned previously).  Realizing this I developed plug-in modules, my X-Bridge XP-WPC-HV and XP-WPC95-HV.  These boards compensate for the original board shortcomings.

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XPin’s versatile XP-WMS8345, that will replace the power supply in a staggering 51 different pinball games!

CD: Xpin is known for their replacement displays, but you carry a lot of other replacement boards as well. What is your best selling product in that area?

BD: The power supply arena is a big one.  My universal Williams power supply, XP-WMS8345, is my most popular.  It can be installed in every Williams Sys 3-11b that used either the Williams part number C-7999 or D-8345.  It also will work in all of the Data East games that used alpha numeric displays.  That is 51 different titles serviced by one board!

CD: What do you do to ensure your customers are receiving the best possible replacement parts for their games?

BD: Component selection is always a key in any redesign effort, along with an understanding as to what is expected by the end-user.  This of course is a major part of the product development, but the manufacturing of the product is just as important to maintain quality control.  Every product has a test fixture that is used–the fixture will test as much of the product as possible.
For example, the XPin dot matrix display has over 300 components on it.  Look at each individual trace on the board– if you laid them end to end, you would have about 300 feet of copper trace.  Over 2,000 holes are drilled into that board.  When you have that much happening, you do not skimp on testing.  Most boards go through at least 2 minutes of functional testing before they are released from production for packaging.  Every few months I do a random sample and put them on a test fixture for a couple of days.  There are a lot of great engineers capable of doing what I have done from the design side, but managing the production side is a whole different ball game, and if you have that down, you will end up with a great product.

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Pinside moderator gweempose’s Tron with a blue XPin DMD display installed. Absolutely stunning!

CD: When developing new products, be it a board or a display, what are some of the factors that are considered?

BD: Considerations for any product development come from my customers.  I give all suggestions consideration.  Some are actually quite doable, but then it comes down to how much will it cost to execute.  In turn, you also have to consider reasonable expectations for a retail price.  Also, when considering a new project, I look at how many games will it go into.  Take for example Williams’ Banzai Run.  That game’s display is completely unique.  It was never used in another game, but I still made it.  Why?  BR is a very collectable game.  I currently use the driver board in my XP-WMS10877 system.  I just needed the big board and connection mechanism.  I look at all of the designs this way.

CD: Are there any memorable design challenges that Xpin has overcome in updating PCB technology over the years?

BD: Each design has its own challenges.  I have three general requirements for each design:
1. Make it consume less power than the original design.  This is a very important requirement because these products oftentimes are going into old, tired machines where the electronics may not be up to original specs.
2. Make it plug ’n’ play.  Most of my customers tend not to be do-it-yourself hobbyists or knowledgeable about electronics.  They usually can disconnect a few cables, take out screws and then replace them all with a new board.  If they have to do much more than that then they will, more than likely, need to call a tech for help.
3. Make it as bullet-proof as I can.  More times than not, someone is replacing an original board with an XPin product because something caused the original board to fail.  If the time wasn’t taken to find the original failure, then the likelihood of continued failure is high, even after a board change.

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Pinside user Stretch7’s Alien Poker with Xpin’s XP-WMS8363 kit installed.

CD: What are some of the improvements that Xpin has made over the original designs by the big names in pinball?

BD: In the displays you see some of the best improvements.  Brightness control for display brightness, test buttons to illuminate all segments/dots.  Along with this is the low power aspect.  Lower power means less heat released by the older power supplies.

CD: How active is Xpin in the pinball community?

BD: I like to think I am very active.  I frequent Pinside quite often.  I sponsor tournaments when I can, such as the Retro Tournament at the Texas Pinball Festival.  They will actually have two classic Bally games that will be running my 7Volution Systems this year.  I am also scheduled to sit on the Pinball Developers Panel that will be at the Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show later this year.  All of it very exciting!

CD: In talking with customers, have you found that they are primarily buying new displays to replace inoperable ones or buying to just give their pinball a fresh look?

BD: Most of my customers make the choice because of a failure or an obvious pending failure.  Very few seem to be replacing the existing functional boards with my products just because it’s new.

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Pinside user PappyBoyington’s Stargazer looking phenomenal with XPin on board!

CD: Can you give the readers a preview as to some of the products Xpin will be releasing in the near future?

BD: Let’s see…I have begun work on the Williams Sys3-6 7volution system.  There is a lot of excitement there.  I am also working on Gottlieb and Zacaria display sets.  I have a few more items coming out but I waiting to announce those at Texas Pinball Festival.

CD: What are some thoughts about this new pinball “resurgence” we are all a part of? Do Xpin sales reflect the increased interest in the hobby?

BD: I think this is AWESOME!  I love talking to these innovators.  XPin is standing behind them 100%.  Spooky Pinball currently uses a green XPin for its America’s Most Haunted and I will be there for their next title, too.  I have also done preliminary work with other boutique pinball groups and I can only wish them well.  I have a lot to offer to them with my ability and manufacturing contacts so in the long run I hope to become a partner in their success.

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An XPin DMD display in green, appearing in an America’s Most Haunted near you!

CD: What games are currently in Xpin’s pinball lineup? What are some of your all-time favourite games?

BD: At the moment I only have 3 games: Mars God of War, Cyclone, and Silverball Mania.  I under some space constraints at the moment, but I have my own list of wants.  I just have to convince my wife of the “business need” to purchase them.

CD: Do you have any closing comments for readers in the pinball community?

BD: You will not find a greater bunch than this group.  I see this on the forums and when I meet them at the shows.  I am very privileged to be part of such a great hobby and be able to provide something back to this hobby.  Let’s keep on flipping!

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Mr. Davis can be reached at tech@xpinpinball.com, or you can visit XPin on the web.  Products can be ordered directly from the XPin website, or through one of XPin’s fine partners, such as K’s Arcade or Bay Area Amusements.  Look for Mr. Davis and XPin at this year’s Texas Pinball Festival March 27-29, 2015 and at the Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show June 5-7, 2015.


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FEATURE: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Michael Jackson and Pinball

It is surprising that no official Michael Jackson pinball machine exists.  His global celebrity and constant image reinvention lends itself nicely to a pingame.  Despite the lack of a licenced pinball bearing his image, the troubled pop icon’s relationship with this crazy hobby of ours runs deep. From being photographed with machines, to having a solid row of Sterns at his Neverland Ranch, Mr. Jackson certainly appears in the footnotes of pinball history. I originally intended this article to chronicle the somewhat bizarre eBay sale of a Data East pinball machine mocked up to promote a Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial (yes, you read that right: a pinball machine was made to promote a promotional advertisement), however, in doing some preliminary research, I realized that perhaps a brief exploration of Jackson’s connection to the pinball world would be beneficial to situate the one-off Data East “Pepsi Chase” machine into proper historical context.

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A Thriller-era Michael Jackson playing a Bally Space Invaders. A Bally Time Zone is in the background.

 

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Mr. Jackson as Peter Pan, airbrushed on the hood of Jackson’s Neverland golf cart.

Michael Jackson had a unique take on the idea of opulence: commissioned paintings of himself in nineteenth century royal garb, life-size superhero statues, animatronic robots, carnival rides, live animals (Bubbles the Chimp being the most famous) and, of course, arcade machines. These days, a pinball machine or stand-up video cabinet is probably the most normal thing you could own from that list, but in a time when having one (or multiples) in your home was a rarity, it was just one more reason to characterize the King of Pop as a weirdo. I’m no Jackson expert, but I assume his love for coin operated ephemera stemmed from his fascination with being young and refusal to let the feelings of childlike wonderment slip away. Some call it Peter Pan Syndrome. Mr. Jackson did nothing to help this persona characteristic, as it was reported that he himself leaked an untrue story that he was spending time in an oxygenated chamber to defy the effects of growing old.  As Jackson aged, the public perception of his obsession with being young became more troubling to comprehend…and then the allegations of child molestation surfaced.  His public image went from “obsessed with being a young child” to “obsessed with being WITH young children”, and it is a reputation that never really went away.  Michael Jackson’s is a story of a childhood lost to super-stardom, and he tried just about everything he could to recreate those lost feelings and memories. In the end, I guess that is what many of us from our generation are doing as well: trying to recapture, or somehow commoditize, those fleeting moments from our youth by amassing souvenirs of a bygone era.

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The Jackson 5, Michael in the middle, surrounded by a Bally Kick Off and Six Million Dollar Man.

Sentimentality aside, here are a couple of the more interesting pinball footnotes in Mr. Jackson’s oeuvre:

In the book Michael Jackson, Inc: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of a Billion Dollar Empire by Zack O’Malley Greenburg, there is one amusing anecdote retold about Jackson and a pinball machine. Luckily for you, the reader, you don’t have to plow through Greenburg’s book for one small reference. Washington Times reviewer Mike Musgrove does the hard work for us and mentions it in his review:

“Although he later became famous for his erratic behavior and million-dollar spending sprees, music executives who worked with Jackson from the beginning of his career turn up in Greenburg’s pages to declare that the young singer had a head for business. Jackson wrote notes in the margins of his contracts, recalls a former CBS records executive; Jackson made attentive comments in meetings, remembers another business associate. Unfortunately, the most memorable anecdotes that Greenburg unearthed tend to undermine his thesis –– such as the time Jackson called his lawyer in the middle of the night to complain about a broken pinball machine. Oh, Michael!”

Dollars to doughnuts a service call was made for the malfunctioning machine–I can’t see the King of Pop busting out the soldering iron and multi-meter to diagnose and replace a fried transistor.

Another interesting pinball footnote comes from the song “Liberian Girl”, which appeared on Mr. Jackson’s Bad album in 1987. Watch the interviewer try to ascribe feeling to Mr. Jackson’s authorship of the song, only to be shot down by the King of Pop himself, saying the inspiration came from his gameroom:

The video for “Liberian Girl”, which in all honesty was a throwaway song from the Bad album, featured Billy Dee Williams, Paula Abdul, Lou Diamond Phillips, John Travolta, Whoopi Goldberg, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Debbie Gibson, Steve Guttenberg and a host of other decades-past throwbacks (including Mr. Jackson’s chimp, Bubbles). Sadly, no pinball machines appear. The credits for this wandering, directionless, annoyingly self-reflexive piece run almost as long as the video itself, giving each “star” a still frame and text credit (Bubbles gets one too, just before Suzanne Somers). After listening to the song, any guesses as to which pinball machine Mr. Jackson was playing that inspired the beat?  (I’d guess either Williams Big Guns or Space Station, for the record…)

In 2008, Julien’s Auctions secured the right to liquidate Michael Jackson’s gameroom and other items from the Neverland Ranch, which had recently been foreclosed. All the items were removed from Mr. Jackson’s property and the original “arcade” space from the Ranch was recreated in a downtown Los Angeles building for public viewing. Shortly after securing the rights to sell, Mr. Jackson reneged on the agreement with the auction house, wanting instead to keep the items. Courts intervened, and a settlement was reached: in lieu of selling the items which had already been staged for auction, they would be displayed publicly, for a short time, in a museum-like exhibition entitled “The Collection of the King of Pop”. Thankfully, the people over at Pinsane.com have preserved a virtual walkthrough of the arcade collection. In looking over the items, I guess it is somewhat impressive, but I wouldn’t call it jaw-dropping.  The collection features a garden variety assortment of arcade games (curiously, no Moonwalker), and the pinball fare included the newest Stern titles of the time (Striker Xtreme, Austin Powers, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Terminator 3, and The Simpsons Pinball Party) along with two Williams Superpin classics (Star Trek: The Next Generation and Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure). It is interesting to note that Indiana Jones is the only pinball machine not powered on for the interactive tour. I’m unclear as to the status of the gameroom items after their public exhibition.  The King of Pop died just a few months after the exhibition’s closing and Julien’s continued to be the go-to source for estate liquidation. They famously sold the jacket he wore in the Thriller video for $1.8 million dollars in 2011.

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“Pinball Row” from Julien’s Los Angeles exhibit of Jackson’s arcade memorabilia.

Perhaps the oddest connection to the pinball world is the seemingly never-ending sale saga of a “Pepsi Chase” pinball machine cobbled together from a Data East Laser War machine.  All signs point to the machine first appearing in 1987 at the time of the release of Mr. Jackson’s aforementioned Bad album. Jackson was a long-time Pepsi pitchman. He most famously set his hair on fire at a mock concert filmed by Pepsi for a commercial–the torched tresses were due to ill-timed pyrotechnics. Despite a lawsuit that followed, Mr. Jackson and Pepsi continued their mutual promotion into the late eighties when a five-minute television commercial titled “Chase” was produced (or, over-produced, much like the music videos of the time: everyone thought they were an auteur no matter the medium).  The commercial featured tired action film tropes and a version of the song “Bad” with lyrics changed to suit the Pepsi brand.

At some point, someone took a Data East Laser War machine and repurposed it to create the one-off “Pepsi Chase” pinball machine. One can probably draw the conclusion that Data East had little to do with the machine’s re-theme, and was probably mocked up as a promotional piece by a third party. The re-theme kept the Laser War playfield unchanged, adding only new side art and a new backglass.  We do have a picture of Mr. Jackson playing the machine, and the haircuts of the people in the picture do look historically correct (which, for me, is a great indication of authenticity!) The game has floated in and out of the pinball community’s consciousness through marketplace sale advertisements over the past few years.  Curiously the Internet Pinball Database has no entry for the game, and little information exists other than the cached sale listings.  As I stated before, my gut tells me Data East had nothing to do with building the machine for Jackson or Pepsi, even though Data East is a company whose motto could have been “Licencing Everything”.  They were known for pricy one offs based upon existing machines—they most notably made two Aaron Spelling machines at his wife’s request and made a single unit for film producer Joel Silver.  Looking at pictures of the Spelling and Silver games, you can tell Data East did them in house as the art has all the spit and polish of a professionally assembled game.  Everything was themed: playfield, music, callouts, DMD animations, backglass and side art.  The “Pepsi Chase” machine is a little bit harder to peg due to very few pictures and incredibly faded artwork.  Data East was a new company at the time, Laser War was their first game.  Was the “Pepsi Chase” machine their first attempt at re-theming production games to kickstart extra income, or was this a private firm cobbling together a promotional piece to further the link between Mr. Jackson and Pepsi?  It is hard to tell.

The game first appeared in a California Craigslist ad in June 2010, which read:

“I am helping a friend sell a one of a kind pinball machine. We had an expert check on the validity of the claim. He looked for over 3 months for another machine like this and assured us that this was the only one of its kind EVER PRODUCED! Pepsi teamed with Michael Jackson for the famed faulty Pepsi ad in the late 80’s and as we all remember, Michael caught fire during the filming of one of the shoots. This machine was made to commemorate the joining of Michael Jackson and Pepsi. Michael Jackson originally wanted this machine, but my friend was able to get his hands on it. It initially was going to be shipped to Germany (all lettering is in German and coinage is based in the old german deutschemarc). This is the perfect piece for an avid pinball machine collector or the ULTIMATE MICHAEL JACKSON fan. All of the commentary during the game was done by none other than Michae Jackson himself. The machine recently underwent an overhaul. Springs and rubber were replaced during the service. My friend is only willing to entertain serious offers. Don’t waste our time with a lowball offer. If you want to search the internet to locate another, go ahead and try. This is the only one out there. Machine works great and can be turned on inside the locked area or you can use Deutcshmarcs.”

The three pictures above were included in this Craigslist ad.  The machine appears to be sun-faded and washed out, and may be a sign of the less-than-professional materials used to create the Jackson/Pepsi art.  The “selling for a friend” theme seems to be key in the Pepsi Chase machine history. The Craigslist ad incorrectly links the Chase commercial with the one in which Michael Jackson’s hair catches on fire: four years separates these events.  The listing says the machine was made to “commemorate the Joining of Michael Jackson and Pepsi”: they had already been partners for quite some time by the time that this game would have been made.  There is lots of verbal bravado using incorrect facts, which shows that the seller may not know all that much about the history of the game.  The seller also claims that the machine was made in the United States for export to the German market. The Craigslist ad also hints that custom speech was used to replace the original Laser War sound package. Some of the best pictures that do exist of this machine were originally included in this ad. From them, we can see the Laser War playfield looks to be in its original state.  Overall, the ad kind of smells fishy…but in the way all pinball ads smell fishy when written up by non-pinball enthusiasts: too much exuberance and salesmanship, leaving the pinball-attuned reader questioning the entire body of the work.

Pinball community mainstay “Pistol” Pete Haduch shared his e-mail correspondence with the same seller (at least it appears to be the same seller) on rec.games.pinball in May 2011.  The game’s owner writes:

“I have a friend who has a rare pinball machine. He was told it was a one of a kind. If you remember the Pepsi venture when they hired Michael Jackson on to push Pepsi (when Michaels hair caught on fire), they had some promo stuff with Michael and Pepsi stuff pictured together. Well, my friend has a pinball machine depicting Michael jumping off the back end of a Pepsi truck. The whole game has Michaels real voice as the actual voice over. Id like to know if you could put a value on this, or maybe know someone who can.  Thanks, Mike in California”

Pistol Pete’s response:

“Having never seen it really makes it tough to put a price on it. Photographs and video of the game would help, but your best bet is a local auction house for putting a value on the machine. The value could fall into several different categories: Pinball machine for a game player (probably the lowest), dedicated pinball collector, MJ memorabilia collector, pinball and MJ collector (best price). Being a one-of-a kind machine should also make it more valuable as long as it was produced by one of the major pinball companies such as Bally, Williams, Data East, Sega or Stern as replacement parts could still be available. If it was converted from a game to be used as a prop then it would most likely have a lower value than a game produced specifically for MJ by one of the major manufacturers.”

Mr. Haduch did not receive any further correspondence or photos from the seller. Nothing more seems to come of this. There doesn’t seem to be a retelling of anyone in the pinball community going to see this machine. No high quality pictures. No videos of gameplay. Nothing.  A revised Craigslist ad for what appears to be the same machine, surfaces a bit later, titled “Pin Ball Machine- Michael Jackson (Covina)” and reads as follows:

“This Pin Ball Machine is a one-of-a kind Pin Ball (which was verified by Orange County Arcades). This 4-player machine was built by “Data East Pinball, Inc.” out of Chicago, Illinois in 1987 for when Michael Jackson filmed the “Pepsi” commercial. I was told it is a “re-export” from Germany (all verbage [sic] and coin mech’s are in the German Language). The digital stereo sound system has recorded voice modules that sound just like MJ when targets are hit. It is a “three ball” machine that features the game “Chase / Laser War” but all the art work was designed to feature MJ (back glass portrait and cabinet artwork). The artwork on both sides of the cabinet are slightly faded (very obvious showing MJ driving what appears to be a Laborghini Testarossa down a highway passing a “Pepsi Truck”). The artwork was designed by “Hudson Graphics of O’connor Associates, Inc. The design team was “Team #28”. The machine works well. I am moving so I must sell. You can own this highly collectable Pinball for a fraction of what it is worth and own a piece of Pop History! Sacrificing for $3,500. Ask for Mark: Days (626) 331-3011 Evenings (626) 484-0274.”

The game’s seller is now Mark, not Mike.  Again we have a reference to custom, non-Laser War speech/sound. The first appearance of artwork and design information is teased, but it turns out these names are taken from the unmolested Laser War playfield: (Margaret) Hudson and (Kevin) O’Connor did the Laser War art package, while Team #28 was the collective codename for Joe Kaminkow and company who did the Laser War design. There is still no reference to any markings, trademarks or signatures on the replaced side art or playfield. The ticket price of $3,500 isn’t totally insane, but the “sacrifice” prefix placed on it by the seller is a bit dramatic. The price, in my opinion, remains not totally out of the question for a one-off curiosity that Michael Jackson himself may have played.  But at this point, we are without physical proof that the game was played or owned by Mr. Jackson.

Fast forward to late last year when the same Pepsi Chase machine surfaced on eBay. Remember how I said the first Craigslist ad seemed kind of fishy, and the $3,500 price tag on the second was somewhat reasonable? Yeah, forget all that with this eBay listing. The location of the game has apparently moved from California to Louisville, Kentucky. And the price has appreciated nearly thirty times in value: to a staggering $100,000USD. Seller “hollywuud8” has a glowing 100% feedback record: the majority of Mr. Wuud’s 313 transactions he played the role of the buyer, having only been credited with four instances of seller feedback. The auction is currently live and has been so since just before Christmas 2014.  It inevitably does not sell and gets relisted every four days or so. Photos are again sparse: two general pictures of the game’s side art and backglass with a copy of the December 20, 2014 USA Today placed within the frame to prove the pictures are current.  We also get to see the photo of Michael Jackson actually playing the machine for the first time (the seller includes the photo twice for some reason).

The description of the machine from the ad is as follows:

“used. and everything that comes along with being used. some scratches on metal. 1 nick break in wood, small, top left corner. some bad fading on the sides, but can still make them out. and the pinball machine plays. and the playfield is good. we think it look’s supper. like some one took good care of it. we are giving the Michael Jackson pinball a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. it can be refurbished if some one want’s to have it done. will be like new. but hey, Michael Jackson played on this very pinball machine. Michael Jackson loved pinball and arcade machine’s. we think this is the pinball machine that got Michael Jackson to start collecting pinball and other arcade machines, and we also think this was the pinball machine he was playing when he came up with Liberian girl.”

The machine has seen better days, obviously. It is nice that the seller doesn’t pawn off the machine as a museum showpiece, giving it a mediocre five out of ten for overall quality. I would challenge the final deduction that this was the pinball machine Mr. Jackson was playing when he came up with Liberian Girl. The song would have long been in the can and completed for the Bad album by the time the Chase commercial was being filmed. Anyhow, what follows is the lengthy description from the body of the listing. Having been relisted over fifteen times at the time of writing, I’m sure plenty of questions have been asked of the seller. He has been generous enough to answer them as part of his product description:

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Michael Jackson was and is the king of pop. we loved him in Kentucky. this is from an a estate sale. from someone that loved Michael jackson so much, that they had to have this pinball machine. after all, pinball and arcade machine’s played a big part in Michael Jacksons life. this is from Michael Jacksons bad tour day’s. the pepsi commercial ” the chase” probably one of the longest commercial’s ever. only someone like Michael Jackson could pull that off.  this was made by pepsi ( can you imagine someone made you a pinball machine)  what a complement. and he owned it, and played it, and loved it. we have at least two of the picture’s showing Michael Jackson playing his pinball machine. if you are a Michael Jackson collector, or loved him. how could you not want this. and this is it. there weren’t any other Michael Jackson pinball machines made.

we are offering a choice for the high bidder. you can have the Michael Jackson pinball machine delivered the way it is to you. or you can have it restored by a  professional ( we will pay for this service out of the money we get for the Michael Jackson pinball machine, in other words, it is included in the bid. if you want this service. ) it will be gone over cosmetically and mechanical wise. the Michael Jackson pinball machine will be close to new as possible. just like when Michael Jackson himself, would play on it. and loved it. please note. this service might and probably will mean it will take awhile, could be weeks or month’s to get done. we wont know till it happens. also, any money’s we pay out of the auction money we get, for the restore of the Michael Jackson pinball machine will be nonrefundable.  here is how this work’s .we will ship off  ( we will pay the shipping to get it to the restoration place as part of the restoration ) the Michael Jackson pinball machine. WE have a place in mind, they are supposed to be one of the best. we wont say there name right now. they will then be able to tell us a time line. and get the restore work in progress. then after the work is complete, the Michael Jackson pinball machine  will be ready to be shipped to the lucky new owner.

will add more pictures later. and more information on the listing. as we get it.

here are some questions we got and the answers we gave about the Michael Jackson pinball machine.

meszar2 asked this question.

so the owner does not want to add additional pictures so what is the plan with the machine when it doesn’t sell? for pinball collectors condition is everything and she is trying to get a 100,000 for a machine that you cant see other than the very faded side of the machine!?!?! I did a google search on this machine and there are pictures out there from a craigs list post selling this machine or one like it back in 2010 so I am perplexed wont allow pictures of the game. one has to assume the game is in poor condition and the reason there aren’t any picture’s showing the true condition of the machine is that it will show just that! I know you just listed this machine for the owner so please don’t take my question negatively against you. it’s just a pinball machine like this has a lot of collectible value for a pinball collector. , just perplexed as to how the owner can expect some one to pay any dollar amount for a machine you cant see. good luck with the sale!!!

hi meszar2. you got to remember that this is a estate sale. all of these items very emotional to sale. the lady that owns this Michael Jackson pinball machine says the same about this machine that she says about the other arcade items machine’s she is selling. and that is she don’t care how long they take to sell. and for your google search, this is the same pinball machine. straight out of California. we know, because we are the one’s that bought it for the person or the estate as it is now. right off craigslist. the person that passed checked the story. and it was 150 percent legit. ( we went out on a limb, and recommend that this person buy it also, even before he checked the story.) we sent the money order. the person that sold the machine was great, and had taken good care of this machine. it got picked up. and delivered, with out a problem. and that is how is the Michael Jackson pinball machine got to Louisville Kentucky. to later be sold at an estate sale.

pinballwizardmitch asked this question.

hello, as a big huge pinball and big huge Michael Jackson fan, I am very interested in this auction, and think it is awesome you have this. can you post some detailed picture’s of the playfield and back glass thanks so much.

hi pinballwizardmitch. yes we can get more picture’s. remember this is a estate auction. we have to drive where the woman lives to get picture’s. we are doing this for free. on our own time. we can take picture’s of the out side of the machine , but with the play field the lady is trying to decide to put pictures up or not. on one hand, she thinks who ever buys it , wont want the picture’s of the play field all over the internet. but on the other, she knows . people want to see it. right now, she is not putting picture’s of the play field up. that’s what we got to respect. she make’s the decisions on these estate item’s we have been selling for her. and we just say yes mam or no mam. she sold the new old stock major havoc arcade kit to a collector in a country in Europe, I cant think of the country’s name right now. he was happy to get it. and quiet a few other arcade related items to other’s. and every one has been happy with them.

since_2010 asked this question

i’ll give you 3000 for it without any pictures. 10,000 if I can get a lot of photos of the playfield and under the cabinet.

hi since_2010. what a great offer. you see the value we knew was there. and that is great. after all, we aren’t just talking about a pinball machine. we are talking about the king of music, Michael Jackson. and this Michael Jackson pinball machine was one of the things he loved. we are going to have to decline your offer though. but, your question has helped us make what we think is a good decision. we at the winning bidders choice, like leave it as is, or have us ( meaning the lady that owns the Michael Jackson pinball machine, have it restored to as new as possible, as we can get any way’s by professional’s.) and this will involve having the part we pay out for restoration to be nonrefundable. this way, any one concerned about not being enough picture’s. or not being able to come by and see the Michael Jackson pinball machine in person. wont have to worry. it will be as close to new as we can get. ( and to any bidder’s. this will take some time to get done. could be week’s. or 3 or 4 month’s. really don’t know till it happens. )

since_2010 asked this question also.

is this machine available to view in person before I place a bid.

hi since_2010. the lady that owns the Michael Jackson pinball machine and or the other arcade machines that are for sale. doesn’t want anybody coming to where she lives. this is because of a violent burglary that happened. and she says she is sorry, because she knows people want to come and see them. but, she likes to feel safe in her home. she hopes everybody understands.

Yikes, where to start. First, I guess it is kind of nice that the seller will have the machine completely restored before shipping it—a service that is included in the hammer price. Maybe they should offer to have the game restored to its original condition…as a Data East Laser War. It is confirmed that this is the same machine from the California Craigslist advertisements.  I needn’t say that the price is outrageous, it goes without saying.  I will say that it is very convenient that the machine belongs to someone other than the seller.  And that the lady who owns the machine is afraid of visitors so viewing the machine is impossible.  And that she doesn’t care if it sells or not.  And that the seller is too busy to take more detailed photos.  And the seller’s grammar.  And.  And.  And.  We could go on for days here.  I’m sure the machine exists and that it currently resides in the greater Louisville area, but further to that, I’m calling baloney on many of the facts contained within.  Sure, there is a sucker born every minute, but a sucker big enough to outlay $100,000USD on a machine whose origin is completely unknown with only two detail deficient pictures of it attached in the listing?  I don’t think so.  If only this machine could get into the right hands, or be accessed by the right hands, to gain a bit more knowledge about it.

I don’t think the eBay auction for the Pepsi Chase machine bears too much more analysis.  The pinball community has already concluded that it is a seller trying to hook a whale with some questionable business practices.  I wanted to collect the verbiage used in the auction listing to preserve it, and place it alongside the other appearances on Craigslist.  Since little information exists, perhaps it would be helpful to gather what we know and put it all one place, no matter how ridiculous that information is.

I know people talk about themes that were no-brainers in pinball’s hey-day all the time, but how in the hell did a Michael Jackson pinball machine proper not get produced in the late-80s or early-90s?  Slash, guitarist for Guns ‘n’ Roses and avid pinball enthusiast, used his celebrity sway to get Data East on board for a GnR pinball machine in 1994.  Jackson’s brand would have been ripe for a transition to the arcade world (and was, Sega released Moonwalker in 1989 to warm-ish reviews).  It would have been a fantastic, synergistic promotional tool for his worldwide brand (a fact that someone, somewhere picked up on when putting together the Pepsi Chase machine).  With Jackson’s apparent appreciation for the game of pinball and Data East’s love of licencing, I cannot fathom how this partnership didn’t happen.   Actually I can fathom it: by 1993 the sex abuse allegations against Jackson came to light, and really killed all chances of a game being produced whose main demographic would be young adults.  If someone really wants a Michael Jackson machine in their collection, they’ll have to spend $100,000USD to get one, or build one themselves.  I wonder what his high score was on Striker Xtreme?

Further Reading:

Pinsane.com – Julien’s Auctions Michael Jackson Memorabilia: Arcade Walkthrough

Julien’s Auctions – King of Pop, A Once in a Lifetime Public Exhibition

San Diego Pinball Club – Michael Jackson/Pepsi Pinball Machine

Montreal Arcade & Amusement Collectors Association – Michael Jackson Pinball

rec.games.pinball – Never knew about this pinball machine: Michael Jackson/Pepsi Pinball Machine

eBay – michael jackson 1987 chase pepsi arcade pinball machine. from the bad tour days.

Pinside – Michael Jackson Pinball Machine Resurfaces on eBay

Anthony King – Michael Jackson The Chase Pepsi Commercial


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PEOPLE: Drop Target’s Jon Chad & Alec Longstreth

In late July I raved about Drop Target Zine, the homebrew pinball magazine, illustrated, written and self-piblished by Jon Chad and Alec Longstreth. To celebrate the release of DTZ #6 earlier this afternoon, available through this link for a mere $5USD plus shipping, I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Chad and Mr. Longstreth a series of questions about their publication, their interests, and the hobby in general. I must say that these guys are absolutely sincere and genuine in their appreciation for pinball–it shows in this interview, but also reaches out and grabs you on each and every fantastically illustrated page of Drop Target. Every pinball enthusiast owes it to themselves to read every issue of this part-comic/part-magazine hybrid. The duo took time out to participate in a Credit Dot interview while the ink was drying on Issue #6…hopefully it wasn’t too much of a distraction!

Credit Dot: Did your appreciation for pinball begin when you were younger, or is it more of a recent phenomenon?

Alec Longstreth (ABL): I would have told you it was a recent thing, but a few years ago we were at Funspot in New Hampshire and I was going down their line of games, playing them all, when I had this weird sensation. I was playing Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Gottlieb, 1978) and all of the sounds and the playfield art felt eerily familiar. Suddenly I remembered that my orthodontist’s office had this machine on free play in his waiting room and I spent many an hour as a kid playing that game while I was waiting for my older sisters to get their braces off.

Jon Chad (JON): I didn’t have much of a connection with pinball as a kid. I remember playing an Indiana Jones (Williams, 1993) machine in a hotel when I was young and a Elvis (Stern, 2004) machine in a college student center. Both times I had a blast, but my lack of skill made for short games. I just didn’t play long enough to catch the bug.

CD: How did you guys first meet? What were your first impressions of each other?

JON: We owe our friendship to The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. In 2007, Alec was a summer workshop faculty member and I was an intern. A year later we both moved to White River Junction to work at CCS. Alec was a friendly, high energy guy who was really generous with his time.

ABL: Ha ha, yeah. I get pumped about stuff, and I could tell right off the bat that Jon was the same way. I remember a few months into our stint both living in White River Junction, we had to make a trip to IKEA to buy some new tables for CCS and we both just had a blast. Jon had never been to an IKEA before and it really felt like we were going on an adventure. He got pumped, and I fed off of that energy. And that mutual excitement is what I feel makes Drop Target really special. We try to infuse every article and illustration and comic with our positive enthusiasm for pinball.

CD: That enthusiasm really shines through in DTZ. Under what circumstances did you decide to self-publish a zine about pinball?

ABL: Jon and I were both teaching a summer workshop at CCS in 2010. At the end of the workshop, we had a picnic planned at the park, but it ended up raining that day. Thank goodness it did! On the fly, we decided to go hang out at a new pool hall that had recently opened up and in the back corner they had a Star Wars: Episode One (Pinball 2000) machine. We started playing it together and instantly got hooked. Jon and I have both been creating our own minicomics and zines for years. When we both got into pinball it was a natural impulse to take that enthusiasm and excitement and share it with everyone else through a zine.

Unassembled pages of DTZ#6, courtesy of Alex Longstreth.

CD: With pinball being a physical alternative to console and mobile gaming, and the zine being a tangible alternative to online storytelling and communication, it seems that both subject and medium usurp popular technology to some degree. Was this a consideration in creating DTZ?

JON: I played a lot of video games growing up, but the thing that makes pinball unique to me is the physicality of it. It’s a whole world under that glass! There are things that you can do with pinball that can’t be replicated in any kind of video game experience. Alec and I both share a passion for books in their physical form. When you’re holding an issue of a self-published book you’re touching something that the authors created, and there’s a connection there. Each pinball machine was actually touched by the workers on the factory line. They assembled it. It’s not the same thing with a video game.

CD: How hard is it to work with each other, being on opposite coasts?

ABL: Well, it’s a lot easier than it probably used to be! We take advantage of all that current cloud-based technology has to offer. We have a Google Docs spreadsheet for Drop Target with all seven issues laid out. We can both view and edit that document at the same time while we are on the phone. We also create a Dropbox folder with all of the current issue’s assets. When Jon uploads a new spot illustration or text document with his latest write-up out in Massachusetts, I get a little notification that it has been uploaded and I can check it out on my computer in California. It’s pretty amazing!

JON: That being said, we need to be together, and at the Center for Cartoon Studies to make the zines. The CCS lab has all kinds of screen printing equipment, photocopiers and industrial paper cutters that we use to produce Drop Target. Without access to that equipment Drop Target would not be financially feasible. Luckily, CCS asks us to come out once a year to teach a summer workshop or two, so our production schedule revolves around that. I know the fans wish issues came out faster, like when we were both in White River Junction, but we’d rather have one issue a year and know that it’s the best it could be!

CD: The comic style art is a big part of the zine. Are there any challenges to telling a story about pinball using the comic medium?

ABL: That’s really important to us. Our goal is to never have a two-page spread in any issue of DTZ that does not have some image on it. Jon and I are both image makers so we try to load every issue with as many comics and illustrations as possible. As for challenges…it’s hard drawing pinball machines! Jon is much better at technical drawing than I am – he makes it look easy – but I’m pretty sure it’s challenging for him as well.

JON: Definitely. A lot of the stories about pinball are really about the people playing pinball. We draw comics with people all the time, so that’s no problem. Drawing pinball machines – that’s the real monkey wrench!

ABL: Yeah, I specifically keep my DTZ drawings a little looser than my regular comics work, so that I’m not held fully accountable to the accuracy of something. If you get too tight than a single button out of place looks bad, but if you keep it loose you can be a little more willy-nilly.

CD: So what is the hardest part in illustrating a pinball machine?

JON: The proportions. Something’s always off. The height of the cabinet. The angle that the backbox tilts out, or the angle of the legs. You wouldn’t think it, but there’s almost no right angles in a pinball machine!

ABL: The backbox tilts out??? Wow, I guess you’re right, that never occurred to me! Ha ha, there you can see the difference between my drawings of pinball machines and Jon’s!

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Mr. Chad screen-printing DTZ#6 covers while the PAPA finals stream in the background, courtesy of Alec Longstreth.

CD: You mentioned earlier that you use the comic medium to tell the stories of personal pinball experiences, and in doing so, you end up illustrating yourselves a lot. How accurate is the portrayal of the cartoon “Jon” and “Alec” to the real Jon and Alec?

JON: Well, you do edit a bit in autobiographical comics, but I think our portrayals of ourselves and each other are pretty accurate. We do really get this excited about pinball!

ABL: For me it’s weird because I had this massive beard when we drew the first few issues and now I have a more “normal” beard. Sometimes when I meet DTZ readers in real life they are surprised that my big beard is gone.

JON: I have the opposite problem! I only draw hair on one side of my arms, but actually it goes all the way around. I am 50% harrier than I depict myself in my comics!

CD: Who are some of your artistic influences outside of the pinball world?

ABL: I think all of our artistic influences come from outside the world of pinball, because we only got into pinball later in life, as adults. We are both cartoonists, so mostly we were influenced by the comics we read while growing up. For me it was cartoonists like Carl Barks (Donald Duck, Scrooge McDuck), Bill Waterson (Calvin & Hobbes), and Hergé (The Adventures of Tintin).

JON: I agree. While I wouldn’t say that pinball art has influenced my drawings, I will say that the experience of playing pinball itself has definitely influenced some of our design decisions in putting together an issue of Drop Target. If you look at the cover images for Issues #1-6, they slowly take you through a game of pinball. Issue #1 has a plunger, issue #2 is the lanes at the top, issue #3 is the bumper pit, and so forth. I won’t tell you what’s going to be on the cover of our last issue, but let’s just say when you put all seven issues together, a full game of pinball will be represented. Also, each issue has an illustration on the back that is based on the “match” screen from whatever game is in our “Replay Review” article. Instead of the standard “20” score, we invert the numbers so that for issue #2 the match number is “02.” This is the last thing you see of the issue, the same way the match screen is the last thing you see when you play a game of pinball. KNOCK!

CD: In reading DTZ, you seem to capture the wonder, purity and idyllic nature of pinball: the thrill of chasing high scores, a night of playing with friends, the camaraderie of moving machines. How much does the medium you are using play into capturing this spirit of pinball?

ABL: Cartoonists have a term called “emenata” which are those sweat marks that fly off a character’s head when they are excited or stressed out or surprised. More generally, you can use aspects of drawing that don’t exist in the real world to help enhance a moment. So if I play a great game of pinball, in comics there will be little swirly lines coming out of my head. Or if Jon has to solder his first molex connector the background may fill up with a million wires to indicate how stressful that experience felt. Obviously, we feel like comics is the best storytelling medium out there, because we are both cartoonists. I think one of the big challenges of Drop Target for us has been to bring the same level of excitement and clarity to our writing. We both probably write about 10,000 words for each issue (that is a total guess, I don’t know the real number – it’s probably more!). Before we print an issue we have these long proofreading meetings where we argue about punctuation, capitalization and grammar. I think when we look back on DTZ as a project, that might be the area where we both grew the most, as writers.

CD: How good are you at playing the game itself? Who is the better player?

JON: Alec is the better player. 100% When I get to a game, I’m too taken with the spectacle to stop and read the rules. Going through and hitting shots and starting modes is just so exciting. Alec actually studies the rules on the card like a smart player before starting a game.

ABL: Okay, that might be the case, but I think if Jon is on fire, you can’t touch him. There is that zone and when Jon enters it, he’s going to be better than I am. He put up a 239 million score on that Star Wars: Episode One game that I could never touch (also, he was the Ramp Champ!) In DTZ we talk about Jon mastering his rage. He used to get really worked up, but now he has that totally under control and he can keep it cool during a game in a way that I can not. If I start doing well in a game, I get so nervous, I start shaking. I recently played in my first tournament in Oakland. It was double elimination (I think that’s what it was called?) you could only lose twice and then you were out of the tournament. I was a stressed out ball of nerves and I lost my first two games: one, two. I was out of there in fifteen minutes! But then at home, when I am on my lunch break I can play my Medieval Madness for an hour on one credit and get up into the hundreds of millions. That’s something I’ll have to work on if I want to continue to compete (which I don’t think I do!)

CD: Do you have a personal collection of machines? If so, what do you have?

JON: Alec has his Medieval Madness and I used to have a Jurassic Park (Data East, 1993) and a Arena (Premier, 1987). Both machines treated me well, but I had to downsize when I moved from White River Junction to Northhampton, MA. I loved Jurassic Park and I took good care of it, so it was an easy sell. The Arena was well loved, but I hadn’t put as much work into it. I secretly want one of those pinball cocktail tables. I figure it would be a good compromise between me having a pinball machine and my roommates not going ballistic.

CD: I’m no zine expert: how crowded is the pinball zine scene?

ABL: One of the most exciting things, when we started getting into pinball was finding out that there had been a pinball zine during the ’90s zine boom, called Multiball. It was a really successful zine; the print runs were up in the tens of thousands in its heyday. We were able to contact the original authors and interview them for our first issue, which felt like passing the “pinball zine torch” from them to us.

JON: Later, we found out that there are still a couple other pinball zines, like Skillshot in Seattle, which has more than twenty issues! Even more exciting, we sometimes get some new pinball zines that people send us, which they were inspired to create because they read Drop Target. That feels really good.

ABL: Yeah, Drop Target ends with issue seven, so we’re excited to see if some other pinball zines will pop up in our place. It’s cool to think we can pass that torch to someone else.

CD: How many copies are in a first pressing run of Drop Target?

JON: We’re shooting for 400, but because there is screen printing involved, we have to account for spoilage. I actually screen print 500 covers, but usually about 50 don’t make it, because they are off-center or they just don’t print right. So even though the official print run number is 400, it’s more like 450.

CD: Does DTZ have an international following? What are some of the places your zine has shipped?

ABL: All over the place! Australia! France! Germany! Lots of people in Canada! A few in South America. There are pinball fans all over the world. One of the great things about our collaboration, is that Jon is a master screen printer, and I hate screen printing. So Jon does all of that stuff – it’s important to him. To make an equal division of labor, I take on all of the shipping. I usually have a few issues of my minicomic Phase 7 in print at any given time, so I’m always making trips to the post office, and I have the necessary shipping materials on hand at all times (packing tape, envelopes, a Stamps.com account, etc.).

CD: Once a first pressing sell out, a second run is released without the colour gatefold or screen-printed cover. Are these limited in number as well?

ABL: No. I just get those made with a local printer in California in small batches of about fifty copies. When we run out, I print more.

CD: Who assembles the magazine? How many man hours go into the assembly process?

JON: It’s funny you should ask! We’ve been doing that all week! It probably takes about 40 hours of production work to lay out the zine, proofread it, screen-print the covers, print up all the assets, fold the color center spreads, collate all of the assets and then fold and staple 400+ copies of the zines. That number does not include all the time it takes for us to write and draw all of the articles.

00-dtint04CD: This month brings Issue #6 of DTZ…can we get a sneak peek at the contents and features?

ABL: Each issue has a theme, and this time around it’s the Design issue. Jon got to actually go to the Stern factory and interview some of the very talented designers who work there. Our buddy Ryan Claytor also contributed another great interview with a well-known pinball artist. Then we’ve got our usual bevy of articles reviewing various books and movies about pinball, and locations to play pinball. The dream machines for this issue are: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which I designed, a Giant-Robo machine that Jon made and our center spread artist this issue is by a cartoonist pal of ours named Gabby Schulz (AKA Ken Dahl). His is Big Mushroom Hunter and it looks amazing in full color.

CD: With Issue #6 available now, how many issues do you foresee in the entire DTZ run? You teased earlier that 7 issues would make the run complete.

ABL: Right from the beginning we envisioned that Drop Target would run for seven issues. It’s great that so many people are into our zine, but for us this is a side project. We see comics as our real work. As the number of issues of DTZ stacks up, it takes more and more of our time (reprinting old issues, sending out orders, etc.) so I think we are both looking forward to wrapping it up.

JON: Yeah, we’ve started talking about the eventual Drop Target Omnibus edition. We won’t be able to have all of the bells and whistles that we can with a handmade zine in the final collection, but we’re going to make sure it’ll be a special book. It’s going to be over 500 pages, and we’ll load it up with a bunch of extra pinball art and comics from various other projects we have worked on over the years, so that hopefully it’ll be its own thing.

CD: What is your favorite issue of Drop Target? To make the question a bit more heavy, if one issue had to go into a time capsule and represent the entire run, which issue would it be?

ABL: I feel like the Moves issue is our strongest issue. The theme really holds together with all the content and that Aaron Renier center spread of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is so killer. It’s our most popular issue, because I think it gives a lot of new players an entry point to learn how to play pinball better.

CD: My favorite feature of DTZ is “Dream Machines”. Can you outline the creative process as to how you come up with these fictional tables and their rules?

JON: For me, it starts with picking a property or a piece of media from my childhood that I really love. Then I superimpose that over a current pinball machine that I really like. By the time it goes from my brain to the paper it’s its own beast. I try to work in lots of details and then flesh out the ruleset. When I was a kid, I was super passionate about action figures and as a result, my playfields tend to have a lot of toys.

ABL: Yeah, sometimes I feel bad because I base all of my designs on other machines. I’ve used Scared Stiff, Fire!, The Tommy’s Who, and this issue I’m using the Williams Indiana Jones. I’m assuming that pinball people pick up on this immediately. I hope people see that mini-playfield in the upper left hand corner and go, “Oh cool – he based it off Indiana Jones!” I don’t mean any disrespect to the designers that created those machines, although I’ve also never specifically noted which game I’m referencing. I’m just not as good at drawing this stuff as Jon. He can pull all that perspective and stuff out of thin air – I have to base my drawing on something else, or I’ll never get anywhere.

CD: Of all the dream machines that have appeared in DTZ, which is the one table which you’d like to see produced by a pinball company?

JON: I feel like Ryan Claytor’s Groo the Wanderer dream machine was the real deal. The theme is tied to every toy and feature, the board is interesting, and the ruleset is great! The playfulness in that machine is so well matched to pinball. Also, I just love Groo!

CD: With Harry Potter making a recurring appearance in the Dream Machine feature each issue, are you as surprised as I am that the theme was never perused for a pinball machine?

ABL: I actually saw a George Gomez panel at the Pacific Pinball Expo and he said that they tried to get the rights for a Harry Potter machine, but J.K. Rowling wouldn’t have it. I guess she didn’t like the idea that she would have no control over where her characters would be seen, like a pinball machine in a bar. I’m kind of glad they never did it. It would have been photoshopped together with the actors from the movies, and the movies are a candle compared to brilliant sunlight of the books. It also means that I get to have a bunch of fun drawing a new one for every issue! I’m going to do Deathly Hallows as a pinball 2000 machine in issue seven. It’s going to be so much fun.

CD: For those not familiar with self-publishing, and drawing on your experiences with DTZ and other projects, what are some of the challenges that exist for the self-publisher?

JON: Distribution. Traditional publishing is tapped into a big system of promotion and and a network of shipping companies, where as we are just two dudes living in our respective apartments!

ABL: Yeah, that’s a huge topic. I think it’s okay though. Part of the fun of DTZ is that it’s a personal connection. It’s something made by two dudes, not some promoted piece of media being handed down by some huge corporation. You make a deeper personal connection with
your readers.

CD: What other non-pinball related projects do you have on the go?

JON: Alec and I have a plethora of comics projects on the burners. Right now, I started working on this really eclectic book that combines a lot of different pieces of media together to tell a single story. There’s newspaper, audio, magazine, and online components. I’m also working on a sci fi graphic novel that is essentially a love letter to anime and saturday morning cartoons. The story is told in a really amorphous, episodic way.

ABL: I just recently self-published my first graphic novel, Basewood. It’s a 216-page fantasy adventure story. Then, my buddy Andy Hentz and I made a rock opera reinterpretation of the story, called Songs From the Basewood. I’m also always working on the next issue of Phase 7. Right now I’m finishing up a three-issue arc all about my favorite band Weezer.

CD: The two of you have done work for the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association and for Stern Pinball. How did these affiliations come about?

ABL: Well, before Jon and I started blogging for Stern Pinball, we were sending them comp copies of every issue. We love what they do, and what they bring to pinball. They got in touch with us, and offered us a place on their website to post images/comics/etc. It was a lot of fun for, but between that, DTZ, teaching, and our other comics, we were burning the candle at ten ends.

JON: Ha ha, the PAPA thing is a funny story. I caught this bug that was going around the school a couple years ago, and was totally out of commission. That night, I was in fever dream mode; totally sick and out of my mind. In the middle of the night, I rolled over and composed this really enthusiastic email to Bowen Kerins telling him how much I love his tutorial videos, and that I would love to help out or participate with PAPA, if I could. The next morning I got up, seen that I had sent the email and freaked! I assumed that Bowen would think I was a huge nerd. Not the case! He got back to me later that day with an enthusiastic reply, and put me in touch with Mark Steinman. The art I’ve gotten to do with them has been some of my favorite.

CD: What pingames are currently holding your attention?

JON: There’s a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! in a bar a block or two from me, and I’ve been clocking a lot of games on that machine! But I’m really excited to see the new Hobbit game, because I love the Hobbit so gosh darn much.

ABL: I currently live about five blocks from the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, CA. My wife and I bought a couples subscription so I can go in there as much as I want for a year. I’ve been playing a bunch of El Dorado (the old one with all the drop targets) and in the lead up to DTZ #6 I was playing a lot of Indiana Jones, to learn that playfield. Also, Free Gold Watch in San Francisco just got a Star Wars: Episode One pinball machine, so I make it over there when I can. That’s still my favorite game.

The authors/artists admiring their work hot of the press, courtesy of Alec Longstreth.

CD: Being artists yourselves, what are some of the pinball art packages that impress you the most?

JON: One of the other machines that I found in Northampton, MA is a Monster Bash. I’m really impressed at how the different aesthetics and colors associated with each monster are melded together into one design. Also, who doesn’t love that back glass!?

ABL: I have stared at my Medieval Madness playfield for untold countless hours but I am still always finding new things on there. I love it! Really, I feel like every hand-drawn machine is a beautiful work of art. From the side cabinet art, to the backboxes to the playfield – there is so much there to enjoy.

CD: Of the great pinball artists that have worked in the field over the years, who are your favourites?

JON: I would say I know more John Youssi games than any other artist. I’m getting to the point where I can tell if a machine is by him, without looking it up.

ABL: I gotta plead ignorance here. I know there are important pinball artists, like Python Anghelo, but I couldn’t tell you what one of his playfields looked like. I guess I gotta start doing more research on who made all the art on these great games.

CD: In the last fifteen years or so, there was a trend that moved pinball playfield art away from artistic renderings by an artist to a reliance on “photoshopped” artwork. However, the art on both Stern’s Metallica and Skit-B’s Predator appear to be a throwback to the days of “original art”: is this a trend you hope will continue in future pinball releases, or is it a non-issue?

JON: We both absolutely, 100% hope that hand-drawn art will make a comeback! It’s not like the skills and techniques have been lost, and I think that the recent, very positive reception of Metallica proves that the community has an interest in hand-drawn art.

CD: Have you been surprised at the reception of Drop Target Zine in the pinball community?

ABL: I wouldn’t say surprised. Zines often cater to niche interests and Drop Target is no different. I will say that we are both very grateful that the pinball community has gotten behind the project and supported it. For us, the more interesting aspect is that we mostly exhibit at comics shows, so we have actually turned a lot of cartoonists and comics fans on to pinball. It’s fun to be outside the usual audience and to bring more diversity to the pinball community.

CD: I think you are totally correct in saying that the pinball community has wholly embraced Drop Target Zine. Do you have any closing thoughts or comments to your readers?

JON: Thank you so much for these outstanding questions! And thanks to the pinball community for sharing in our love and enthusiasm for pinball. Even though we’re coming up on the seventh and final Drop Target issue, pinball will continue to be a part of our lives for the rest of our lives!

—-

Issue #6 of Drop Target and all other back issues are available through the official DTZ blog.  Other projects by Mr. Chad and Mr. Longstreth can be found by visiting their respective websites below and by following them on twitter at @jon_chad and @AlecLongstreth.

Further Reading:
Alec-Longstreth.com – Official Website
The Fizzmont Institute of Rad Science – Jon Chad’s Official Website


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FEATURE: Roger Sharpe’s “Pinball!”

I responded to an ad on Kijiji (the Canadian version of Craigslist) that advertised a “Pinball Machine” book. I clicked through the ad to find it was a copy of Roger Sharpe’s 1977 landmark coffee table book entitled “Pinball!” with photos by James Hamilton. The ad claimed the book came with the original dust jacket and that it was a first edition. Further, the ad went on to state that the book was signed by the author. Included was a photo of the inside end paper–scrawled in felt-tip pen it read “Best Wishes, Roger Sharpe”. The seller was asking $40. I immediately sent over a message and by Tuesday afternoon I had arranged a weekend pickup. Mr. Sharpe’s book is difficult to find on the secondary market, a signed first edition in good condition with dust jacket intact even more so. As an example, Amazon lists about five of them from their third-party sellers, and the cheapest one, which is also a signed first edition, will run you $250USD+$3.99USD shipping (this was on Amazon.ca. Quick! Amazon.com has one for $45.00USD+$3.99 shipping!). I have always wanted the book, however, I was not willing to pay the astronomical prices the book commands. I wasn’t looking forward to the Saturday morning drive to the other side of Toronto to pick it up, but I would have been silly to balk at the chance of owning it for $40CAD.

For someone like me, who admittedly is more comfortable talking about and working on games from the Solid State era, the contents of this book are foreign territory. Mr. Sharpe chronicles the emergence of pinball as a national pastime from its pre-war roots as modernized bagatelles, up to the colourful, noisy, non-licenced Electromechanical machines we recognize as a pinball machine. As stated in the introduction, the book was released in 1977, so the most recent games that are photographed are the Bally releases Captain Fantastic and Night Rider, however the text does briefly reference games that rode the crest of Solid State technology, like Evel Knievel and The Atarians. It is almost unbelievable that Sharpe chose this moment in time to release his book, as it bisects the EM and Solid State eras perfectly. Sharpe and Co. tie a bow around the manufacturing, playing, operating and legislating of pinball machines before the dawn of circuit boards and LCD displays.

Much of Mr. Sharpe’s writing early in the book is flowery and dramatic, which isn’t much my taste, but was probably influenced by the subject matter. I get it: he was trying to put feeling and emotion into the static workings of a mechanical machine. He is, in essence, trying to show that the machines are dynamic, almost alive when controlled by the player. Mr. Sharpe gets over-zealous in the text about playing a Bally Old Chicago, describing each ball in elaborate detail. This is a zeal that has waned and faded within the pinball community over the years, perhaps lost to a more jaded generation such as ours, who are now more focussed on resale values and the number of after-market mods in our prized machines. Some lines are very quotable, if not written specifically for entertainment value alone:

“Playing pinball is like making love: It demands the complete concentration and total emotional involvement of the player. Nothing else will do.”

Python Anghelo put that line of thought into circulation, but it looks as though Mr. Sharpe minted it in this book. I would disagree, however. I’m not totally sold on the similarities between sex and pinball. However, my wife may find a comparison between the two…given my reputation for “short ball times”…

A large part of the book is dedicated to chronicling the history of the game, which, now, can be taken for granted, as we can piece together our own history using various sources on the web. However, nothing of its kind would have been available in the 1970s and Mr. Sharpe’s documentation of pinball history and culture brought legitimacy to a pastime that had always been thought of as residing on the lowest rung of the cultural ladder, and thus, had its history discounted and ignored. Giants of the industry, Sam Stern, Harry Williams and David Gottlieb are given their due in hearty helpings. Mr. Sharpe gives little significance to his own efforts of helping break through the legislative barriers in New York City, which can now be viewed as an incredible pinball landmark. It’s a good thing that everyone who has since interviewed Sharpe has made him chronicle, in detail, the experience, thus we have an accurate play by play of what happened that day in April 1976. The book only provides only one photo of Mayor LaGuardia’s “public busting” of pinballs in 1941, which seems to be too few for such an important event.

But Mr. Sharpe paints a beautiful picture of the pingame back in 1977. Let these words wash over you:

“Pinball games are no longer relegated to rundown arcades and shabby taverns. Carpeted, well-lighted game rooms, college student unions, suburban shopping malls, airports, department stores, and a new generation of family amusement centers–these are the places where contemporary pinball wizards can be found.”

Ah, to live in a time where pinball seemed to exist everywhere. Currently, the shopping mall arcade is all but dead, and you’d be lucky to see a pinball machine worth dropping quarters into at a family amusement center anymore. One can argue that pinball has come full circle, and has reclaimed its original home in the “shabby tavern”, which is now affectionately dubbed the “dive bar”.

Mr. Sharpe’s apparent vision for the book was that of situating pinball as a global phenomenon and he does so with panache. We are treated to gorgeous photos of long extinct bars, coffee houses and arcades from across Europe by photographer James Hamilton, each photo expertly capturing a slice of pinball life. Sharpe’s text adopts long-standing stereotypes of European countries and applies them to pinball culture. Sharpe paints a picture of the “rigid”, community-oriented German, the emotional “individualist” Italian, the “subdued” and “loyal” Brit and the “cool and detached” Frenchman. The Spaniards are given particular attention for their love of fast games with a steep pitch and their outright government-imposed ban of American-made machines. Both of these factors led to the Spanish re-working American machines to their own liking and adopting a prolific pinball manufacturing industry of their own. Sharpe couldn’t resist referencing stereotypical Spanish swordplay to punctuate the section:

“The players seem to slash at the speeding ball, like swordsman duelling with a deadly opponent.”

The book is also ahead of the curve in many instances. Mr. Sharpe references the machines as “work(s) of art”, at a time when they were pegged as little more than money-making amusement machines. There is also the “bold” proclamation that the arrival of video games and Solid State technology would change the face of the pinball forever, and I think we can all agree that it did, and to an extent that eclipsed what Mr. Sharpe had in mind. He then calls for a pinball “olympiad” where all the great players would converge and compete–an objective that Mr. Sharpe would later help establish through the creation of the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA), which in turn would pave the way for competition-based organizations such as the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA). Further, Mr. Sharpe dedicates space to describing how someone would go about examining and buying a game for use in a home environment. I’m not sure if Mr. Sharpe foresaw the movement, en masse, of pinball machines into basements across North America nearly four decades later, but he foreshadowed it quite nicely. Sharpe’s advice for buying a machine remains eerily true for the modern-day buyer:

“If you are thinking of buying a pinball game for your own home or apartment, however, be careful–especially if you are not dealing with an established firm […]. Examine the machine thoroughly before you buy it. Try it out. Then try it again. If there are problems, find out how they can be fixed, and ask whether the game is guaranteed or not. Service is important, too. […] Your choice of games is of course a personal decision, but I recommend picking a machine that will continue to be challenging and exciting every time it’s played.”

It’s as if Mr. Sharp was warning buyers about deceptive sellers decades before Craigslist even existed, and concludes by suggesting the buyer select a “deep” game long before the term “deep” became an overused buzzword in this community.

The book, as a whole, has worth in both its word and its photographs. It is a snapshot of a snapshot of history: we can look back upon how Mr. Sharpe looked back upon pinball. Sadly, Mr. Sharpe has not revisited the coffee table book format to bring the story of pinball into the Solid State era and beyond. The idea of a follow-up book is another popular question Sharpe has to field in nearly every interview. His answer is, most often, that it would be a immense undertaking to execute correctly, an undertaking that he cannot tackle at this time in his life. This is a man who has worked hard in the industry for countless years, and I’m sure he’d like nothing more than to rest, play pinball and enjoy the company of his grandchildren, rather than trek across the world compiling information for another book. In any case, it’s a different time now. If the pinball revival hits full stride and the machines become front and centre in popular culture once again, Mr. Sharpe (or perhaps his sons, Josh or Zack) may be able to capture the spirit of the original book. Otherwise, he’d be writing about, and photographing private basement arcades across North America, which is not the overall vibe Pinball! attempted to capture. (I believe there is a market for a picture book about private pinball arcades though…a huge untapped market.) Until such a time when Mr. Sharpe decides to put pen to paper again, we will have to make due with the similarly titled book “Pinball” by Argentinean photographer Santiago Ciuffo. My copy is in the mail, and I’m excited to see how his book stacks up against Mr. Sharpe’s beautifully crafted love letter to the game we all know and enjoy.


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PEOPLE: Nate Shivers of Coast 2 Coast Pinball

In roughly one year, Nate Shivers become a very public figure at the forefront of this growing niche hobby. Host of the prolific Coast 2 Coast Pinball podcast, Mr. Shivers ignored the “One A Month, And Only If We Feel Like It” schedule of most pinball podcasts, and decided to record when news broke and when his schedule allowed…which turned out to be quite frequently. At his peak, he records three 45-minute shows per week. At publishing, Shivers is just sixteen episodes shy of an even hundred, and has done so in just about 52 weeks. You do the math. Based in San Diego, California, Shivers is a travelling guitar salesman (sounds like a job your grandpa should’ve had) and uses his frequent travel to hit pinball hot spots across the country, like Modern Pinball in NYC and the Silver Ball Museum in Asbury Park, and attend high status pinball shows, like the Midwest Gaming Classic and the Texas Pinball Festival. He has scored interviews with nearly every boutique manufacturer in the industry and even Gary Stern himself, but the heart of his show lies in the one-man opinion/commentary format the show usually follows. No matter, you can expect Mr. Shivers to consistently deliver a show with interesting content and high production values, whether he is recording from the comfort of his San Diego home or from a hotel in Syracuse, NY. He has a lot to say about pinball, and it seems we, the community, are eager to listen. I was lucky enough to be able to exchange e-mail correspondence with Nate earlier in the week, and conduct a brief interview with him. Credit Dot: Coast 2 Coast Pinball isn’t your first foray into the podcast arena. You have alluded to it on past episodes, but what is your history with the medium?

Nate Shivers: I had a podcast in the early to mid 2000’s called ‘The Tin Can’ with a friend of mine. I was living in the Baltimore area, and he was in Texas. It was just a general topic/comedy type show that we started out of boredom. We did a weekly episode on and off for a couple years. I also did college radio at Arizona State, so I have always been drawn to the radio/podcast world.

CD: I’m assuming Clay Harrell’s TOPcast was a big influence?

NS: I have listened to every TOP episode. I love hearing the history of the hobby from the designers. The early shows are not as compelling to me, as they really go down the rabbit hole of tech/repair which is not my forte, but I love that they were doing the show LIVE, and taking calls. You have to have an amazing amount of knowledge to field tech questions on the fly and actually be able to answer them right away. Clay is amazing like that.

CD: Are there any other figures inside or outside of the hobby that influenced what you were trying to do with Coast2Coast?

NS: The show is called “Coast 2 Coast Pinball” as a tip of the hat to Coast 2 Coast AM which was hosted for years by Art Bell and now by Greg Noory. It is a syndicated radio show that I grew up listening to late at night on AM radio when my family would go on road trips or I would travel with my dad. The show focuses on the paranormal, extraterrestrial life, and other “strange” topics, and I just love it. Art Bell was my favorite, and I loved his rapport with his listeners.

CD: I’m not an expert in this area by any means, but what is your hardware/software setup like for recording?

NS: More basic than most think… I use Reaper as the software, and either a nice condenser mic or a headset type mic when I am travelling. A little post editing with compression, eq, and reverb… That’s about it.

CD: I have chosen to “write”, while you have chosen to “record”. What are the similarities/ differences advantages/disadvantages between the two opinion mediums?

NS: I can just run my mouth for hours on end… It flows very easy. When I write, I tend to go back and edit over and over, which slows me down. I love podcasts as I can multitask with them… I can drive and listen, work on a pinball machine and listen, etc. I don’t have tons of time to just sit and read right now. I think writing may stand the test of time a bit better. When you do a podcast, you can easily date yourself.

CD: In the show, you refer to your “notes”. Are these pen and paper notes in a notebook? What are the advantages to using this medium to shape your thoughts?

NS: I have this college ruled composition notebook that acts as my “notes” for C2C. The first 40-50 episodes each have two full pages of notes… tons of writing, mostly hard to even read… but I wanted to be super prepared. As the show has started to cover more news, and my travels, I have leaned on the notebook a lot less. I still write the episode number on top of a new page every time, but some pages are totally blank, as I don’t need notes to talk about things as they are happening. Some episodes, especially when I go deep into a production year or a specific game are just wall to wall ink… as I need all the info right there.

CD: Start to finish, how long does it take you to produce one 45-minute episode?

NS: Notes can pile up for a day or a week… just random thoughts or bullet points I want to remember to touch on. Then I can bang out and episode from my first mic check to the upload of the podcast in about 2 hours. Sometimes I will spend longer on some dumb comedy attempt for the end of a show than it took to record the whole show. I thought it was very important from the start that the recording/editing process be as turn-key as possible, that way I could do shows really whenever I had something to cover.

CD: You introduced your podcast into an already crowded field, with shows like the Pinball Podcast and Spooky Pinball dominating the landscape. Were the formats of existing podcasts influential in the approach you took? What sets Coast2Coast apart from the rest?

NS: All I knew for sure when I started episode 1, was that I wanted a show that was shorter than what was out there, and that could be done multiple times a week. I personally don’t mind the long formats that others use on a monthly basis, but I knew I couldn’t do a 2+ hour show more than a few times a month, and it wouldn’t be as likely that someone would listen to a complete show if it was really long. I also wanted to cover news, happenings, and events as they happened, and not a monthly overview, which also just felt better in a 45 minute show. Some weeks I have done 3 shows, sometimes one show in 10 days. Not having a co-host or anyone else adding content has made that possible. I also worry sometimes that people will just get sick of one dude talking and talking and talking about the same stuff all the time… but so far, so good.

CD: There seems to be a real camaraderie between pinball podcasters. Is there a competitive spirit between you guys or is it all hugs and rainbows as it appears?

NS: I think everyone wants a bigger, more exciting pinball universe. So in that regard, I think it behooves all of us doing a podcast or a website or a blog to support each other and help our listeners find the other people adding content to the pinball hobby. I am sure there is a bit of a competitive vibe here and there… Anyone who keeps a show going for more than a few months, must want to be good, and do better work each time out, so you naturally listen to others and compare a bit. Luckily, it’s only pinball, and we are all just doing this for the fun of it, and nobody’s livelihood depends on their podcast.

CD: How much of a fanboy were you when you got to talk to industry heavyweights Gary Stern and John Popadiuk?

NS: Hmm. I respect these guys a ton. I appreciate their work immensely, but having worked in the guitar business for all these years, and meeting some of my childhood heroes in a work setting has really mellowed me out on the “fanboy” front. Gary Stern reminds me of Hartley Peavey the owner of Peavey Electronics… very similar in personality and demeanor. He is a businessman. The designers are much more like artists or musicians, and when you meet a guy who ends up being a really NICE guy, or seems to still be excited about the whole thing, like a Popaduik, or a Steve Ritchie, it really makes you feel good about pinball in general.

Nate with some legendary pinball designers at this year’s MGC.

CD: With such high volume output, trying not to burn out or get sour on the hobby must be a real challenge. How do you combat that?

NS: It is such a source of joy and fun for me. I am a huge music/guitar guy at heart, but I have worked in that industry for the past 17 years! I wouldn’t say I have burnt out or soured on guitars, but I certainly don’t go visit music stores when on vacation! Pinball is still mysterious and exciting. I meet guys who are selling their collections off because they bought everything they wanted and it just doesn’t have the “shine” like it used to. I am in no danger of that. When I travel and see a machine lit up waiting to be played I still get into it. There are always games to try and buy.. games to fix up, and thankfully new games being designed and released! This hobby is filled with 99% good people, and that makes it very easy to stay motivated to contribute.

CD: What are the challenges in balancing work and home life with your high output podcast?

NS: Sometimes I just have to tell Theresa, “Doing a show tonight”… She gets it. She knows it is a creative outlet for me. I have played in bands since I was 12, and don’t now… So I need this show! Work is the tough one. We have times in the year when I am just slammed all day long, stay late in the office and getting ready for a road trip, and just don’t have the energy to record… But I get out on that road trip, and the quiet, sometimes lonely hotel room provides a fantastic place to get a new episode going.

CD: Your wife Theresa makes frequent appearances on the show, and is met with tons of positive feedback. Why is Theresa such a popular component of the show?

NS: Obviously this is a male heavy hobby. Many of us have tried with varying degrees of success to get the women in our lives into pinball. Theresa loves it… and she is a total performer and knows how to play a great role on the show. She is funny, smart, and gorgeous… so that all helps. I have had more than one email about how jealous a guy is that I have a girl in my life like Theresa who embraces pinball and enjoys it too.

CD: I had the idea a to do a “Pinball Wives” interview series. Perhaps we could glean more information about ourselves and our “collecting disease” if we talked to hobby outsiders that have to put up with it every day of their lives. What do you think?

NS: Maybe… I am so lucky in that regard. I am scared to hear what other women might say about us grown men and out big expensive toys…

CD: On the heels of a rather nasty, and completely unwarranted, post on Pinside by a classless troll looking to incite a war of words with you, can you share a few thoughts or feelings about being a public figure in this niche hobby, and the challenges/opportunities that it brings? I guess you have become one of those “pinball celebrities” I was asking about earlier?

NS: Loved it. For anyone to spend that much energy and effort to try and bring me down… I must have struck a nerve somehow. Likely it is jealousy, or insecurity on someone’s part that they themselves aren’t happy with where their life is right now, which is pretty sad, but I would rather incite a troll here or there than be totally ignored. Now, if someone ever said that to my face, you know, not behind the great protective curtain of Internet anonymity… we would have a situation. It has been a bit of a trip to have people just walk up to me at shows or arcades and know so much about me, but that is part of the experience of a long term listener to any thing like a podcast or a radio show… You get to know the person behind the mic. I feel the same way with certain authors, fellow podcasters, etc… I think people quickly realize how boring I am, and we just play some pinball.

CD: Speaking of Pinside, how active are you on the forum? It is an extremely helpful tool to connect the community but can also be a frustrating experience due to a handful of unsavoury characters. What are your thoughts?

NS: Yeah, the Internet is full of people looking for attention… I don’t take much notice. A guy like Lloyd the Great does more good in one day than any troll can do in a month, so it all works out. Donate to Pinside!

CD: Your “catalogue” of recordings may seem daunting to someone who has never listened before. Other than picking the newest episode and working back, can you share a few episodes that would serve as a good “jumping off” point for new listeners?

NS: I am the guy who goes back and starts at the beginning of podcasts when they are monthly or even weekly, but 80+ episodes is a ton! So I guess it depends on what you want… I think you can check out the BLOG on coast2coastpinball.com and look for tidbits that are interesting. The interviews will be sort of “evergreen”… So: Episode 38 “An Evening With Brendan Bailey or Attack of Junkyard Cats” Episode 40 “An Evening with Scott Gullicks or To the Top of Olympus” Episode 46 “Evening with Ben Heck or America’s Coast Haunted” Episode 56 “An Evening with Josh Sharpe” Episode 83 “An Evening with Clay Harrell”

CD: What are your favourite episodes that you have recorded thus far?

NS: I like the Texas Pinball Festival, the Midwest Gaming Classic, and then probably the Twilight Zone special of Episode 50 and the stuff on the Medieval Madness remake. I have never gone back and listened to an entire show myself, but those were the episodes I liked doing the most.

CD: Can you share some listener stats? How many average downloads per day do you get? What was your most downloaded episode?

NS: It’s a funny thing… The show has 3 main avenues for listeners… Direct from my podcast host, which I can track, Stitcher Radio, which I can track, and then the big unknown factor is Itunes… More people tell me that they listen on Itunes than the other two platforms… and I can’t track podcast plays/downloads on Itunes… so the total listener-ship is likely bigger than I realize. The Josh Sharpe interview was the most downloaded until the Midwest Gaming Classic shows. Looks like the interview with Clay Harrell will be the most downloaded if it isn’t already.

CD: What are your thoughts on the future of the hobby? Where will we be in five or ten years?

NS: I see it continuing to grow. A lot of people who grew up loving pinball, like myself are now settling down, buying houses, making better money and remembering their love of the game. Prices on older games seem to be normalizing a bit, and the new games coming out of late are excellent. Better local clubs and groups are going to help drive the location aspect, and obviously the “Barcade” scene is hot now. I don’t see pinball getting back to the levels of the two or three golden ages we have seen, but as more games move to the home buyer, I think that is okay.

CD: It is well documented that Twilight Zone is your desert island game, so I can’t ask the typical “favourite game” question. In that case, maybe you could share a few games you have never played that really interest you.

NS: I have played just about all the A and B list games, and I always seem to have one or two haunting my thoughts. Champion Pub is a game I want to own. I have a deeper love for Circus Voltaire now than ever before… As far as games I have actually never played…. Congo and Pinball Magic are the only two games in the Pinside top 100 that I cannot remember playing. So, that would be cool to do. Also, Big Bang Bar is sort of a thorn in my side, but I have a chance to play one coming up this summer!

CD: To close out the questions, are there any future plans you can share about the direction of Coast2Coast Pinball?

NS: More video. I would like to do a monthly Video show… sort of what PAPA is doing with their Road Show, but with my pace and vibe. I have other ideas for live shows, call in shows, etc… but time is always the problem. I would expect to be near 150 shows by the end of 2014… There are some interviews I have loosely lined up, and will probably get too this year. I hope to get to more and more pinball shows and expos. Hopefully I can keep getting better at the podcast, maybe expand the videos, and get a little bit more interesting website going. I have always wanted Coast 2 Coast Pinball to be my commentary on the hobby for the guys who love the game and spend their money owning/playing pinball.

Catch Mr. Shivers doing his podcast thing over at Coast 2 Coast Pinball  and be on the lookout for him at pinball venues and conventions across the continent!