CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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FEATURED GAME: Williams ROLLERGAMES

While researching where my games appeared within the Pinside Top 100/200/300 list, I was absolutely shocked to see that Rollergames was ranked #172 out of three hundred ranked games, which places it, solidly, in the bottom fifty percent, behind games such as Class of 1812, Grand Lizard, Bad Cats and Al’s Garage Band Goes on a World Tour. The Pinside Top 100 is not an exact science, but it does properly reflect the attitudes of players and collectors towards specific titles. Is anyone else surprised by this ranking? Am I blinded by the fact that I own the game and enjoy it thoroughly? Perhaps I’m doubly blinded because I was one of the twelve people that actually watched the Rollergames television show when it was first broadcast. But really, even the simple fact that the game was designed by Steve Ritchie should push it higher in the rankings than it currently resides, given the community’s wild devotion to anything Mr. Ritchie has a hand in. And how has the recent resurgence of the roller derby amongst the hipster crowd not helped push this game higher?  Its time to take a look, albeit a biased look, at Williams Rollergames.

Both Mr. Ritchie and Roger Sharpe have spoke of this game as a cautionary tale of licencing gone wrong. As the story goes, Mr. Sharpe had the option of picking up the licence for either American Gladiators or Rollergames when both shows premiered in 1989. Both seemed to take a cue from WWF wrestling, which was riding a wave of popularity with male audiences of all ages. Like WWF programming, American Gladiators and Rollergames were syndicated hour-long shows that filled the void on Saturday afternoons, between morning cartoons and dinnertime. The shows relied on muscle, speed, agility, intense competition and spandex costumes all set within an arena setting. Why Williams didn’t just licence the WWF for a game–the company that perfected this type of programming to begin with–is beyond me. Mr. Sharpe untimately went with Rollergames, and claims it was because he viewed the roller derby was a timeless American pseudo-sport due for a resurgence. He was right about it being an American institution–it has its roots as a competition sport all the way back to the 1920s and was an almost permanent fixture, alongside wrestling, on American television beginning in the 1950s. The derby’s popularity had waned as the 1980s rolled around, but Mr. Sharpe was betting that the resurgence of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation would pull the sport up by its skate-straps and back into the mainstream. It didn’t. Rollergames lasted only one season on American television, whereas the original incarnation of the American Gladiators enjoyed an eight year syndicated run and a host of merchandising opportunities that included action figures, lunch boxes and workout videos. Rollergames hangs its hazy legacy on a Konami arcade game and this Williams pinball machine.

The Rollergames figure eight track. Courtesy of rollerderby.be

The Rollergames television show hasn’t aged well, containing heaps of 90s style with very, very little substance to back it up. Each episode featured a roller derby match between two teams, taped in front of a live audience at the Super Roller Dome under the banner of WAR (World Alliance of Rollersports). The six teams were clearly divided between good and evil–the fan favourites being the LA Thunderbirds, the Rockers and the Hot Flash, and the heels consisting of the Violators, Bad Attitude and the Maniacs. Each team had both male and female membership, and each gender would compete against each other in a series of “jams”. Teams competed on a figure eight shaped track with one end being smaller and elevated. This style track is more common in the staged-for-teleivison derby, and differs from the oval flat-track more commonly used in the current derby resurgence. The raised end of the figure eight is known as “The Wall”, and two designated players, which Rollergames called “jetters”, hurl their bodies into the fourteen-foot ramp hoping for as much height as possible to score maximum points. A small ramp jump coming out of the Wall area scores more points and puts the jetters back into the round with the rest of the players. Passing players of the opposite team in the round scores even more points.

Gimmicks for the players were almost mandatory to keep up with McMahon’s WWF: skaters were assigned nicknames like “The California Kid” and “Ice Box” and given finishing moves just like their wrestling brethren. Each team came complete with a manager, that either followed the rules or completely ignored them,

A member of the T-Birds hits the pit.

depending on the moral alliance of their team. The most ubiquitous manager had to be Skull, whose bald head and bearded visage graces the middle of the Rollergames playfield. Other “stars” of the figure eight track included the T-Bird twins, Jennifer and Kristine Van Galder, and “Stars and Stripes” Matt Bickham, all of whom are featured on the backglass of the pinball machine. Returning to the rules of Rollergames, ties after regulation time were decided via Sudden Death, featuring, get this, four live alligators. The gators would be paraded out, placed into “The Pit”, and to win the overtime bout, one team would have to throw a member of the opposite team into said pit. This, mixed with sporadic musical appearances by Warrant and Lita Ford, made for a show that SHOULD have been a hit…but sadly, was not. The production folded before the pinball machine prototypes were even released to test markets.

The game was released by Williams in June of 1990, sandwiched between the release of Whirl Wind and Diner, and ran on the System 11C boardset. Steve Ritchie headed up the design and it is another one of those Ritchie themes that oozes physicality, toughness and speed. The integration of the Rollergames theme into the mechanics of the pinball machine is absolutely fantastic. The aforementioned “Wall” and “Pit” features of the show make an appearance in the machine: the Wall is the side ramp and the Pit is a saucer with vertical up-kicker (VUK). Both of these features rely heavily on the upper right flipper. This flipper is used to send the ball up the Wall ramp, while the Pit kicker will propel the ball to a magnet (via wireform), which will grab the ball and perfectly tee up a shot up the Wall ramp. Once up the Wall ramp, the ball will be returned to one of the flippers via wireforms (which flipper depends on the velocity of the ball), or locked in a physical lock over the shooter lane if lock is lit. Lighting lock is simple: shoot for the bank of drop targets that say “MULTI-BALL” on them. Knock the entire bank down three times, lock three balls, and you get three-ball multiball with the jackpot shot being up the wall ramp. Locked balls carry over from game to game, which also means locked ball stealing in multi-player games is in full effect.  A neat programming feature will fire locked balls around the wireform and back into the physical lock during gameplay, which can be really confusing for the uninitiated.  At random intervals, about once per game depending on game length, a call-out states “It’s Sudden Death, go for the Wall!”. Each wall shot bags you a million points. The Pit magnet is lit constantly during Sudden Death (sadly, with no alligator imagery) so you can tee up shots for the Wall ramp jackpot with ease…but only if you can consistently shoot the Pit. During regular play, the magnet is lit at the start of the game. Remember to listen to the game, it will instruct you: “Don’t Flip…” when the VUK is firing the ball over to the magnet, and “…..FLIP!” when the magnet has caught the ball and the shot is teed up. Game settings can be adjusted to re-light the magnet with each new ball in play. The Pit also awards “RollerMotion” when lit, which is a series of random awards. The orbits are lit at the in-lanes for five seconds. Each orbit shot, after being lit, awards a Rollergames team. Lighting all six teams lights an extra ball, collected at a tight shot up beside the pop bumpers.

This game is classic Steve Ritchie, and by “classic Steve Ritchie” I mean that its basically a kicked up copy of High Speed. A cross-playfield shot from the plunger, banks of targets that sit perpendicular to the player, a left side kickback, a right hand side upper flipper, a side ramp that feeds back to either flipper, a “hideout” physical ball lock, and fast flowing orbits–the similarities between Rollergames and High Speed should be pretty obvious to the trained eye. Their flow and speed are pretty similar, however Rollergames plays a bit easier given that the magnet tees up shots up the side ramp and requires absolutely no skill to complete (beyond listening for the game to tell you when to “FLIP!”). High Speed also sets up shots for the upper flipper using a saucer with a side kick out, but skill and timing on the part of the player is still required to put the ball where it needs to go.

The Pat McMahon art package is absolutely stunning, and as I mentioned before, very true to the iconography of the television show. Many write the art off as “cheesy”, but it’s a product of its time, and it captures the nuances of the period nicely. The red girders that were omni-present in the Roller Dome are everywhere from the speaker panel to the physical ball lock to the playfield itself. The incorporation of the “characters” from the show in the package is great as well, and having Skull, with his trademark aviator shades and bullwhip, pointing to the magnet on the playfield is a nice touch. The television show was heavy on in-program advertising and it is a trend that continues in the pinball machine, with the logos of Pepsi, Mug Root Beer, Slice, ShareData, Thermos and GamePro Magazine appearing on the speaker panel and on the playfield. It’s a double edged sword: their appearance, while fascinating to see such commercial integration on a machine from this era, guarantees that Classic Playfield Reproductions, or any other source, will not be able to make reproduction playfields, as they would need to pay licencing fees to each of the entities that have logos present (with three of them belonging to PepsiCo). In true 1990s fashion there is plenty of neon, arrows, spandex and Saved By the Bell-esque confetti. The wireform ramps came coated in red, yellow and blue, but it seems some games were shipped with bare steel wireforms or a combination of coated and bare. The coated versions really add some pop to the game and add to the overall colourful flavour of the art package.

The sound package is where the game really wins over its devotees, or drives its detractors to the point of insanity. The main Rollergames theme (with the repeating lyrics “Rock, rock, rock n’ Rollergames…”) plays constantly throughout normal gameplay, and, admittedly, can wear pretty thin after playing for long periods. However, there are different music cues for Sudden Death, multiball lead-up, multiball, Jackpot and W-I-L-L-I-A-M-S bonus modes, which really works to add variety to the soundtrack. My favourite musical piece is the “Kick Butt” Jackpot remix, and needs to be heard to be appreciated (it’s a nice reward for achieving multiple jackpots). The call-outs are absolutely fantastic. There is both a female voice and a male voice that can be heard in the game, and I seriously doubt that the actual characters from the television show were used. However, if the male voice is not that of Skull himself, the voice actor definitely does a good job channelling the heel manager. Visitors always get a kick out of his call-outs when playing the game, from naming the teams when hitting an orbit (“BAD Attitude”) to his amazement when a jackpot has been collected (“UN-BE-LIEVABLE”). Even the incidental sounds when hitting a spinner, a target or a ramp totally fit with the overarching Rollergames vibe.

I touched on the problem with reproducing the playfield, however Rollergames owners can look forward to the possibility of Classic Playfield Reproductions reproducing the plastics for Rollergames in the near future.  A thread on Pinside confirmed they have a New Old Stock set in their possession to work with. As another side note, it seems that back when the game was released the steel diverter link that ran along the top of the Wall ramp was easily broken, thus hindering the movement of the diverter. This was such a problem that Williams released a service bulletin to operators making them aware of the issue. Early in 2014, Pinside user “jasonpaulbauer” went ahead and reproduced the troublesome link, using its original specifications, for owners strapped with the broken hardware. Pingenuity saves the day once again.

Rollergames does have a loyal following. It is constantly mentioned as a “value game” for those starting out in the hobby and its soundtrack gets mentioned in just about every discussion about “best pinball music”. Nate Shivers of Coast 2 Coast Pinball specifically mentioned that both its reputation and price were on the rise in a Going Up/Going Down segment this past winter, and a copy of Rollergames recently won Best In Show (Pinball) at the inaugural Southern Fried Gameroom Expo this past June. It is also one of those games, like Volley, that appears in unusual numbers here in Canada. Many prototype versions are floating around in the Canadian collector community, and can be identified by their Diamond Plate playfields and extra flashers. It seems that the Quebec distributor Laniel Automatic was at it again, importing large quantities of this game, perhaps at a special price seeing as the licence had completely tanked by the time the games were ready to go. The game in my collection came through the Laniel channel as it bears all the tell-tale markings. I can say without hesitation, that Rollergames is the machine non-pinball visitors gravitate towards when visiting my gameroom. The theme seems to draw them in and the simple rules keep objectives within reach. There is a glimmer of recognition in these visitors’ eyes, but most of them seem to recall Roller Jam, the roller derby reboot on TNN that ran on Friday nights the mid-nineties, rather than the actual Rollergames show. It doesn’t hinder their enjoyment of the game though, as they can still immerse themselves within the excessive neon hues of the 1990s while flipping around the playfield.

All this said, I’m still amazed at Rolelrgames’ lowly rank on Pinside. Sure, it’s a System 11 game, and isn’t afforded untouchable royalty status like the WPC era games that followed it just a year-and-a-half later, but for me, it is the complete package of entertaining gameplay and a well integrated theme. Perhaps what hurts the game is that it is strapped with both a theme that isn’t ingrained into the collective imagination of our generation and a fairly shallow System 11 ruleset (according to more seasoned players). Not to mention its near complete mimicking of the High Speed design. High Speed is one of those watershed games that is rightly labelled as “important” by the community. If someone wanted a kicked up version of High Speed, they’d probably rather buy a High Speed 2: The Getaway, and not a Rollergames. I’m not arguing for the game to be listed in the top fifty or anything, but I think it does deserve to fall within the #120 thru #150 range. I guess there are very few people, like me, who want their rock, rock, rock…’n’ Rollergames.

Further Reading:

Pinside – Top 100, Page 2 
Internet Pinball Database – Rollergames
Pinside – CPR Needs Rollergames Plastic Set NOS in Order to Remake Them
Pinside – Roller Games Divertor [sic] Drive Link Reproduction
YouTube – Rollergames Alligator Sudden Death Overtime
YouTube – Rockers vs. Violators (full game)

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FEATURE: Game Plan and the Mike Bossy Scoring Machine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The author, his son, and the legend

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

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


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FEATURE: Santiago Ciuffo’s PINBALL

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Roger Sharpe’s landmark publication “Pinball!” and wondered aloud if the recent Pinball Magazine publication of Santiago Ciuffo’s book “Pinball” would serve as a companion piece to Sharpe’s book or run in a completely different direction. I’m happy to report, it does both.

The goods arrived from the Netherlands, packaged superbly in reinforced cardboard. The mail carriers would’ve had to work extra hard to inflict damage upon it. The cover price of €30.95 (plus shipping from Europe) is admittedly quite rich, but you are getting a professionally printed, tightly bound hardcover coffee table book in return. Typically, photography books such as this tend to skew on the expensive side, so perspective is everything here. If you have ordered an issue of Pinball Magazine from their site, you are already familiar with the costly cover price, but also the suburb product Jonathan Joosten and the Pinball Magazine staff have to offer. My hat is off to Mr. Joosten, for without his dedication to the project and securing the international rights to publish this book, it probably would not have seen the light of day outside its native Argentina. Packaged with Ciuffo’s book is a supplement under the Pinball Magazine banner that features an interview with the photographer (in 12 languages) and contains photos that are exclusive to the supplement and not found in the bound publication. As a bonus to early adopters, the first five hundred books ordered also include a set of ten postcards featuring exquisite photos from Ciuffo’s image bank. This postcard set is absolutely suitable for framing, as the quality is akin to something you’d find in a museum gift shop. My book came with a set of these postcards, so as of writing, we are still within the “first five hundred” quota.

Whereas Roger Sharpe and photographer James Hamilton presented pinball as a global phenomenon (and it needed to be presented that way, as nobody had bothered to organize the game in such a historical framework prior), Mr. Ciuffo presents pinball as a national phenomenon in his home country of Argentina. For North Americans, and many Europeans, this is a unique and fresh look at the game, both historically and culturally. Mr. Sharpe punctuated Mr. Hamilton’s photos with an outpouring of love for the game; Mr. Ciuffo lets his pictures do the majority of the talking. Other than a brief introduction and a few end notes, the book is packed with nearly 200 pages of incredible pinball photography.

The written word is not needed for the most part. The games themselves tell the story. I would surmise that the target audience of this book will already be familiar with the majority of the games photographed, which reduces the need for descriptions or footnotes. During the three language introduction, Mr. Ciuffo teases the reader by including black and white images of the games we love. Page after page is devoid of colour, until your visual sense is overwhelmed with the bright colours of a Bally bingo game called Variety. From there on out, the colours and visual textures of the machines in their natural environment are on full display. Many of the machines are worn, beaten or otherwise blown out. Other photographers would have balked at the chance to photograph a severely cracked and worn Gottlieb Charlie’s Angles backglass, but Mr. Ciuffo did not. To me, this is the book’s most gorgeous photo, and conveys, without words, the Argentinean aura of pinball that Mr. Ciuffo was trying to capture. In a hobby where collectors are obsessed with the terms “completely restored” and “collector’s quality”, it is refreshing to see that well-loved and well-used games are getting their due. Mr. Ciuffo would probably have a hard time tracking down expertly restored games to photograph on Argentinean soil (compared to their abundance in America), but something tells me that wasn’t what the photographer was after anyhow. There is also a fantastic photo of a completely blown out Stern Nine Ball playfield, worn to the wood, that is unrecognizable save for the mylar’d portions of paint in front of the vertical drop targets.

Most of the games photographed are from the 1960s through the early-1980s (historical factors are discussed in the intro to the book as to why these games are prevalent), with a few of the earlier bingo-style pin games thrown in for good measure. Late solid state games do make cameo appearances though–I spotted a Fish Tales, a Hurricane and a Lethal Weapon 3 in the background of some photos, but they are surely not the focus here. Half the fun is picking out the games lurking in the shadows, whether they be complete or in parts. Many photos capture the less-than-perfect machines in their natural Argentinean environment, packed into storage sheds or piled high in humid warehouses waiting for a former operator to part them out. The games are not the only focus, though. One fantastic two-page spread shows members of a Buenos Aires pinball club huddled around a topless Medieval Madness, talking repair strategy, while meat roasts on a nearby outdoor grill. This photo, in conjunction with the aforementioned Angels backglass and Nine Ball playfield, capture the current state of the hobby in Argentina–passion for the game fuelled by a kinship that exists between fellow collectors, while simultaneously existing within less than perfect, sometimes downright ugly, collecting conditions. We North Americans take a lot for granted, as these pictures portray, however pinball comradery appears to be universal (and is probably stronger under trying and challenging circumstances).

Hopefully this book is met with success. It really deserves it. And hopefully more books follow in the same vein. We have all seen these games before at shows or in our own private collections, but when was the last time you looked at, I mean really looked at, the playfield art of a Gottlieb Roller Disco? Mr. Ciuffo included a two-page spread of a detail close-up, with its almost blinding pinks, oranges and purples, and it highlights the absolute beauty of Gordon Morison’s original artwork. The success of this book will probably foretell the possibility of future projects, but this book really begs for other photographers to capture the games and players in their own nation, and create a pictorial history of their own country. I mean, how does a coffee table book of pinball photography, from special pinball events and notable private collections around the United States, not exist yet? Someone needs to quit their day job and get on this! Gene X. Hwang, are you reading this? Jonathan Joosten, can you please make it happen? However, it will not be an easy task, as Mr. Ciuffo has set the bar quite high under an optimal set of cultural circumstances. The photographer can be absolutely proud of what he has accomplished and bestowed upon the pinball community.

If you are still reading this, I believe it is time for you to head over to Pinball Magazine’s webstore site and order Santiago Ciuffo’s book for yourself…if you have the funds at your disposal. The price, again, is the only stumbling block, however, a project like this cannot be successful if done on the cheap. The book is museum quality, and the quality of the contents cannot be beat. Mr. Ciuffo’s book will be placed next to my copy of the Sharpe/Hamilton tome on my gameroom bookshelf–a higher honour cannot be bestowed. I will be taking it out frequently and letting my mind wander off to a musty, humid old Argentinean warehouse where an old man has Stern and Bally pins stacked to the rafters…

 

 


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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.