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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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REVIEW: Pinitech’s UNO and TRADITIONAL LED Display Kits

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The games produced by Bally and Stern between the years of 1977 and 1984 were enormously popular with players when they first graced the arcades, and remain popular to this day. Given the sheer number of games originally produced during the 1977 to 1984 run by Bally and Stern, the survival rate is very high and there is a great demand for reproduction parts to keep these games running properly.  This is the second review in a continuing series where Credit Dot will examine some of the reproduction parts being manufactured, and how technological innovation is making Bally/Stern games look and play better than ever.

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Two weeks ago, I reviewed the Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit available from Pinitech that took your original, non-functioning Bally/Stern displays and converted them into fully functioning, LED equipped, low-voltage displays by removing old components and adding new new components to drive the 5 volt LED digits.  These kits, which require the end-user to provide donor boards and assemble the kits themselves, have been on the market for about a year and have taken countless out-gassed displays that were sitting on collectors’ shelves and put them back into operation at a fraction of the cost of a complete aftermarket plug-and-play display set.

I’m happy to share that Pinitech has again revolutionized the classic Bally/Stern display market by offering LED kits that do not require a donor set of displays to convert.  In addition to the revolutionary Retrofit kit, Pinitech has now launched two complete all-in-one display systems that can be sold to the end-user, in kit form, that look just as good, if not better, than any aftermarket display kit currently available: the TRADITIONAL 2-Board Full LED Display Kit and the UNO Single Board Full LED Display Kit.  Perhaps more importantly, like the Retrofit before them, their cost won’t break the bank.

THE PINITECH DISPLAY LINE-UP

I’ll begin by re-introducing the the Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit, but the full review can be found here.  Simply put, it requires a set of original donor boards.  If you have dead displays lying around and can handle removing components from the original board and adding new components that come with the kit, this is bar none the most economical, and perhaps best option for you.

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Now to introduce the new Pinitech releases.  The Traditional 2-Board Full LED Display Kit maintains the visual integrity of the original Bally/Stern display, giving the user a two board system—one onto which you will mount the electrical components, and one onto which you will mount the LED display digits.  The connection between the two boards is made by way of two male header pins on the display panel and two female header housings on the component board. This board uses the existing metal display bracket of your Bally/Stern game, and will slide in as an original display would.  Overall, it gives the same physical look as an original board, with all the benefits of a low voltage, high output display.

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The second new release is the Uno Single Board Full LED Display Kit. It takes all the components of the traditional two-board system, and arranges them onto a single upright board, display digits and all.  The display will then be affixed using the four mounting screws originally used to hold the metal display bracket to the backbox lamp board.  It will be “free floating” in the backboard cutout with the only points of contact being the aforementioned mounting screws.

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No matter what option you choose, assembly is required, unless you’ve pre-arranged with Pinitech to build it for you.  The two new kits open the level of entry to those with even a basic knowledge of soldering and board assembly.  The Retrofit required the user to de-solder components from original Bally/Stern boards.  Both the Traditional and UNO are a complete display system—no donor boards required, no components to remove, no chance of lifted traces.  With only simple soldering required, nearly anyone who can follow a set of written directions and has a temperature controlled soldering iron can obtain a great looking set of aftermarket LED displays using either Pinitech kit, and feel a sense of accomplishment when the task is complete.

PRICING AND OPTIONS

If the Retrofit kits were a steal at approximately $100USD per kit–the new Traditional and UNO kits are just as affordable considering it is an all-in-one solution.  The pricing matrix is as follows:

TRADITIONAL 2-BOARD KITS

  • 6-Digit Displays in AMBER – $129.95USD
  • 7-Digit Displays in AMBER – $134.95USD
  • 6-Digit Displays in BLUE – $134.95USD
  • 7-Digit Displays in BLUE – $139.95USD
  • 6-Digit Displays in WHITE – $139.95USD (Includes one colour filter choice)
  • 7-Digit Displays in WHITE – $144.95USD (Includes one colour filter choice)
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The contents of a single Traditional seven-digit amber display kit.

UNO SINGLE BOARD KITS

  • 6-Digit Displays in AMBER – $119.95USD
  • 7-Digit Displays in AMBER – $124.95USD
  • 6-Digit Displays in BLUE – $124.95USD
  • 7-Digit Displays in BLUE – $129.95USD
  • 6-Digit Displays in WHITE – $129.95USD (Includes one colour filter choice)
  • 7-Digit Displays in WHITE – $134.95USD (Includes one colour filter choice)
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The contents of a complete UNO six-digit white display kit with green filters.

Assuming you didn’t have a set of dead displays kicking around for a Retrofit conversion, you’d be looking at, at least, thirty or forty bucks to obtain a dead set to perform the Retrofit conversion upon.  If you have the dead displays on hand, and have the skill to de-solder parts and solder in new parts, the Retrofit may still be the way to go.  If you don’t have an outgassed set at the ready, the Traditional and UNO provide a great all-in-one kit that will cost less than any other option on the market today.  I discussed competitors’ pricing in the previous Retrofit article, but in a nutshell: Rottendog offers their amber plug-and-play display kits for $199USD, X-Pin offers their 6-digit amber display solution at $275USD, while Wolffpac Technologies offers an amber 6-digit DIY kit for $145USD.  It is interesting to note that Pinitech’s highest priced kit, the 7-digit TRADITIONAL in white with one colour filter option of your choice, is priced as much as the lowest-level kit from Wolffpac Technologies.

The amber kits are obviously the most economical of the Pinitech kits available, but to offer a white set with a free colour option at less than $150USD should be a real eye-opener.  With the Pinitech kits, your game can be customized with about a dozen different filter options, allowing you to colour match the displays to the overall scheme of your game, or go off of the prescribed colour chart and add a display that pops against the existing colour scheme of the game.  Gone are the days of picking between red, green or blue displays.  Pinitech offers magenta, yellow, purple and turquoise–which are just a few of the different options you can choose from to customize your game.

WHICH KIT WILL FIT YOUR NEEDS?

You can pretty much mix-and-match any of these display options and obtain a uniform look in your game, or collection of games as the case may be.  The obvious benefit to the Traditional and UNO display kits over the Retrofit was covered in the outset of the article: you don’t need donor boards and you don’t need to remove components. The kits contain everything you need to build yourself a complete display system for your game. This opens the door for more novice tinkerers to solder-and-go, without having to worry about lifted traces and the plethora of different board layouts that Bally and Stern used during the initial release of the games.

Time is also a factor here.  After building a few of the Traditional and UNO displays, I got my completion time down to about twenty minutes per individual display, versus the thirty-five it took to complete the Retrofit conversion.  Those extra fifteen minutes are accounted for in the Retrofit conversion by de-soldering components, and double-checking the placement of the new components, as the board layout on the original Bally/Stern PCBs is a bit confusing.  It seems those original boards went through more revisions than Carter had liver pills, so each original Bally/Stern display PCB will have components in different places.  The Traditional and UNO boards are designed with logic and elegance, similar components are arranged in a row, and there are far fewer points of solder in these builds than there are in a Retrofit conversion.

It should also be mentioned that the Traditional and UNO are true 5 volt driven displays by design, not a high voltage display converted for 5 volt operation like the Retrofit. There is no chance to send high voltage through the display at all as the male pin that supplies high voltage to the display has been designed out of these new display PCBs.  The Retrofit needed to have Pin 1 pulled to ensure high voltage was removed from the equation, and further, a rather unsightly jumper made from the high voltage line to the 5V line to bring power to the display.  If the conversion was done with care, it isn’t really a worry, but the threat is there until dealt with properly.  The Traditional and UNO have taken care of that threat through design.

There is an added benefit with the Traditional and UNO systems: brightness control. Pinitech proprietor Wayne Eggert factored a potentiometer into the design to subdue the display digits or blaze them bright, as the end user sees fit.  This is a valuable benefit, allowing the user to customize brightness to fit the overall look of the game, and becomes even more valuable when using the white digits to dial in the look of the digits through the filter choices.  Some of the darker colour filters like magenta or purple can require some added brightness to really make them pop.

One of the main benefits of the UNO system is that you can adjust the placement of the display left and right to center them in the backglass display window.  Before tightening down the screws when mounting the display, users can now play with the placement, adjusting as needed.

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An example of how the UNO will make use of the original bracket mounting holes

Many games from the Bally and Stern catalog suffered from misaligned displays, straight from the factory.  This was my experience with my Stern Catacomb.  The game came with aftermarket Rottendog displays installed, and the display shift was such that most of the last digit was completely obscured on the score displays, and the credit and ball count display difficult to read being blocked by the backglass art.  Using the UNO displays, I was able to make adjustments and slide the UNO over to the left so that all score numbers were visible.  This last number in the score was always a zero so it didn’t really matter much, but aesthetically, it was always bothersome.  The UNO corrected this completely.

Having the male connector pins on the same board as the display digits on the UNO is a difference traditionalists will need to get used to, but having physical displays shut inside of a backbox and behind a backglass should not turn too many stomachs as long as the displays perform as advertised (and they do).  As long as the male connector locking mechanism is positioned toward the bottom, away from the display digits, it will allow for a secure fit of the existing connector.  Having the locking tabs of the male connector facing upwards, as suggested in an early revision of the instructions make for a fit that is too snug for comfort, resulting in a bit of a struggle to get the connector to fit securely, and further, interferes with a few of the component through holes.  Having read a revision of the instructions released after my test build, I see that it has been changed to read that the locking tabs now be placed downwards to correct the issue.

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The UNO set installed in Catacomb, rear view.

Given the choice between the two new display options, I would give the advantage to the UNO.  The single board design results in a few less points of solder compared to the Traditional, without ever feeling as if the components are crammed onto the board or unmanageable when installing them.  The UNO is also the better value, saving you ten bucks across all options, no matter if your game is 6- or 7-digits, or which colour option you choose.  With functionality the same across both options, both looked and performed great in test, I’d go on the record as saying that the UNO is the clear choice.

The Traditional kit would be a great option for those that prefer to keep the original “90-degree” aesthetic of the original Bally/Stern board design.  It would also make sense to go the TRADITIONAL route if you were mixing and matching with Retrofit converted displays, as the physical look of the boards remains consistent across both options. Pinitech will sell individual display kits if you have a partial set of dead displays at your disposal, and want to fill in the blanks with Traiditional 2-board individual display kits.

AN INTERVIEW WITH PINITECH

As he did in my review of the Retrofit kit, Pinitech proprietor Wayne Eggert was nice enough to humour me with an interview about the creation and initial offering of the Traditional and UNO kits.  Over the past few years, I have corresponded with Mr. Eggert about many pinball related topics, and he’s always been well-reasoned and knowledgeable about many facets of this hobby, and moreover, has been very humble about the pinball inspired technology he creates.  It is plain to see from the following interview that he is proud to have brought the Traditional and UNO kits to market, providing collectors with a reasonably priced display solution that performs as well as advertised:

Credit Dot: When we last talked about the Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit, you shared that the research and development process of taking an old display and removing/adding components to give it LED functionality took about four to five months to complete.  What was the timeline for R&D of the Traditional UNO kits? Were you ahead of the curve having the knowledge of the Retrofit project in your back pocket?

Wayne Eggert: The majority of the final full kit design occurred in June/July 2017. Really though, these have been in-development since 2011 to some degree when I was first experimenting with LED display circuits.  I had wanted to create my own displays for Bally/Stern games, but at the time, prototyping was going to cost a small fortune and it was looking like even in modest volume, a DIY kit couldn’t come in much cheaper than the less-expensive plug-and-play aftermarket displays.  Instead, the project was scaled-down in size and turned into a diagnostic tool in 2013 that I called a “Bench LED Display”.  Still having this desire to create a full display, in 2016 I created the RETROFIT kits.  They were a monumental step forward, offering collectors a cheap way to create a full-scale display without the risk of a component board that might change several times during prototyping since the component board was already a “fixed design”.  The challenges and experience that the Retrofit project offered, and all of the prior years of projects and R&D, are ultimately what helped fast-track the development of these full displays you now see in 2017. 

CD: Is there a concern of market confusion having three separate LED kits available for purchase at Pinitech?

WE: There was. That’s why I gave them all separate and unique names. The conversion kits are the “Pinitech RETROFIT” kits.  For full kits, the 2-board design is the “Pinitech TRADITIONAL” and the single-board is the “Pinitech UNO”.  I think between the names and descriptions on the product pages it should help avoid confusion.

CD: Having personally built and used each of the different kits, I can attest that the functionality and look from behind the backglass is identical across all kits.  What are some of the situations in which a collector would prefer one kit over the other?

WE: Some people will prefer the classic looking 2-board design no matter what, but some games will also require it. I have a Stern Black Beauty Shuffle Alley that has a ton of lamp surrounds next to the display brackets and even with heavy modification I don’t see the UNO design working there. That’s going to be more of an extreme case of clearance issues though. For many machines the UNO is going to work just fine and be the way to go with its lower cost, quicker assembly and ability to shift the displays left or right.

CD: The UNO and TRADITIONAL display kits are a bit more “builder-friendly”–you need not remove components from a donor board as you would with the Retrofit. Was one of the design considerations of the new kits to make the process more streamlined for the average collector?

WE: Yes. All new parts are included with the full kits, so anyone with basic soldering skills and equipment can easily assemble the displays.

CD: The Traditional and UNO kits have only been offered for about a month at this point–what is some of the feedback you’ve received from the early adopters of the  kits?

WE: I’ve heard many great comments.  Easy assembly.  They look great.  They function well.  Instructions are well done.  It’s a joy to be hearing these things because it means all the time spent refining them was worth it.

CD: The UNO itself is a streamlined and compact piece of technology—you essentially placed all the components that were originally on a traditional Bally/Stern PCB onto the surface area that was occupied by the traditional display glass.  How were you able to arrange all the components onto one simple board?

WE: Pure willpower I think. I was back-and-forth on doing a single PCB design or a 2-board design.  I couldn’t decide.  I knew there would be cost advantages to a single board, but I absolutely hated all the design concepts I had drawn.  It was too clunky and didn’t look like it belonged.  But I had this idea to shift the displays left or right and really liked that thought.  The single biggest turning point was deciding that I wasn’t going to pick just one style.  I was going to do BOTH–and they would look awesome when completed.  I just focused on that very positive thought and made it happen.  I absolutely love the single board design, it’s so slick looking that I’m even wanting to put it in games.  If you asked me a few months ago if I thought that would happen, I’d have had some serious doubts!

CD: Now that you’ve eliminated the need for a donor board, do you offer assembly services for the TRADITIONAL and UNO kits, for those who don’t have the time or skill to build them on their own?

WE: Yes, I’m offering fully assembled plug-and-play options on both of these displays.

CD: Having been a customer for over a year, I can attest that the packaging of your items has grown leaps and bounds, with the UNO and TRADITIONAL sets being shipped in an extremely neat, organized and professional manner. There is obviously “value added” in this sort of packaging?

WE: It makes it easier for the customers, as well as myself, to bag and box display sets individually.  I often imagine myself as the customer, opening up the box or reading through the instructions.  I put myself in my customer’s viewpoint and do what makes the most sense and avoids confusion.

CD: The digits you are using for these new kits are the same as the ones used in the Retrofit kits. Are you finding that collectors are appreciating the option of customizing their game using the white digits with the vast range of colour filters you have available?

WE: People like being able to customize their games, that’s been proven over and over.  Color displays in these Classic Bally/Stern games completely change the look of the games.  It updates them to something fresh & new.  Some people still have reservations on deviating from the standard plasma color, but once you convert one game to a different color and see how great it looks, it becomes addicting to try different colors in more games.  In short, the white digits have been a huge hit!

CD: You seem to have covered all the bases in the Bally/Stern display world, offering kits to convert original displays, and now, offering all-in-one kits. Is there anything left for you to tinker with in the Bally/Stern display realm?

WE: There’s a few things related to, but not directly involving, the display boards that I might work on at some point.  As for the displays themselves, I can’t be happier.  TWO display designs that each offer something uniquely different and live up to my own expectations of what a quality display should look and function like.  Now the fun part – shipping out the DIY kits or assembled displays and hearing feedback and excitement from people as they see, in person, how great the new displays make their games look. Customer feedback is truly one of the most rewarding parts of creating new products!

 

THE TRADITIONAL AND UNO BOTTOM LINE

To this point, I’ve built two Retrofit kits, one TRADITIONAL kit and about ten UNO kits, for myself and for others in my local community.  I can almost build these things in my sleep now.  Your mileage may vary depending on your skill set, but the learning curve isn’t steep.  Once you’re comfortable with Pinitech’s in-depth instructions and the board layout, assembly is a breeze.  The UNO seems pretty popular in my local community of classic Bally and Stern collectors, and it stands to be seen if my local community is a true representation of the pinball community as a whole.  I’ll gladly put my stamp of approval on the UNO kits.  The TRADITIONAL kits will work for people who prefer a more traditional look to their boards, or for games that can’t accommodate the mounting space the UNO requires (I believe this will be a problem that rarely occurs, however).  I can see these two new all-in-one kits muscling out their kin, the Retrofit, as the price difference between the two is negligible when paired off against the extra time, and skill, needed for the Retrofit conversion.  I’ve had experience with both Xpin and Rottendog displays in the past—the Pinitech displays look more native to the game, and their price just can’t be beat. I’m left to hope that Pinitech continues to innovate in the arena of aftermarket technology for classic Bally and Stern games, as well as beyond into other eras and manufacturers of classic solid state pinball machines.

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A completed set of the UNO display system

 

FURTHER READING

Pinitech – Pinitech Traditional Classic Bally/Stern LED Displays

Pinitech – Pinitech UNO (Single-PCB) Classic Bally/Stern LED Displays

Pinside – *NEW* DIY Kits or Assembled LED Displays for Classic Bally/Stern (Single PCB)

Credit Dot Pinball – REVIEW: Pinitech’s Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit

Techdose – LED Pinball Display For Early Bally/Stern Games

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PEOPLE: Greg Freres on his Early Bally Backglass Prints

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

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

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

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

CD: Are the prints limited in number?

GF: No, these prints are not limited.

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

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

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

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

CD: How have sales been so far?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fathom (1981), photo courtesy of Pinball Life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Greg Hildebrandt’s “Little Mermaid”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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


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NEWS: Stern Walks with the Dead, Pictures of the Walking Dead

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Well, they did it! They listened! Stern didn’t clutter up the playfield of their next release, the Walking Dead (correction AMC’s Walking Dead), with photoshopped pictures of the cast! The community spoke, and Stern listened. The Gameroom Junkies got the jump on everyone, including Stern themselves, and served up photos of the game’s final form for the hungry pinball masses earlier today. The photos showed a standard “Pro” version, and a fancier, thus more expensive, version. Fans hoping for art from the Walking Dead comic won’t be getting what they want, but they’ll get the next best thing: a playfield that doesn’t feature the floating heads of the Walking Dead cast.

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The top of the playfield takes on that grainy, unwashed burlap colour, reminiscent of an aged photograph or a chamomile tea stain on a white tablecloth. Of course, there is the requisite blood spattering here and there to “brighten up” the design. As your eyes make their way to the bottom of the playfield, you are met with a horde of zombies, shadowed in blue, “crowding” the player around the flippers. Placed on top of this art, white and red inserts with bold lettering really pop against the earthy tones. A series of weapons are on inserts between the flippers (items to collect, possibly), while provisions and numbers that look to represent allies are on others.

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Lifting ramp with zombie head on the money edition.

The pictures present what looks to be another modified fan layout, crammed tight with shots. The “busy” nature of the machine reminds me of many of designer John Borg’s other designs: think X-Men and Tron. Each orbit and ramp shot represents an important location in the Walking Dead series: the Center for Disease Control, the Tunnel, the Arena and the Barn. A fifth, of the same insert design, reads “Riot” beside the barn toy. An insert with the text “Welcome to Woodbury” also lies near the right kicker. It looks as if the game is going to remain very true to the show. Ramp shots head through the backboard, a la Party Zone and Black Rose, which widens the space the ball can travel, not limiting it to the constraints of the playfield.  We also get ROLLOVERS, they appear beside the barn!  Toys are present: a barn with doors that open to reveal a zombie head inside and a water-bloated zombie from the bottom of the well mid-playfield (reminiscent of an undead Wolverine) that leans back to reveal some sort of scoop. The more expensive model of the game looks to feature a firing crossbow that emerges from the apron, a lifting ramp with a zombie head underneath and even more Zombie heads in a Governor-style fish tank on the back board.

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Characters are relegated to the side art on the Pro edition. I performed my own little fist pump when I saw that Carl, the annoying-cum-brooding son on main character Rick, was not featured prominently anywhere. The bigger dollar version has a boarded-up crate-look, an approach similar to the Metallica pinball’s road case design. Neither version features main characters on the backglass, instead, they feature zombies. Kudos to someone at Stern or AMC for putting the zombies front and centre. One of the first comments after the photos hit Pinside inquired about the harshness of the AMC logo on the backglass and cabinet art. AMC, being a cable David versus the network Goliaths, have always marketed themselves with a heavy hand. It isn’t just Mad Men or the Walking Dead, its AMC’s Mad Men and AMC’s the Walking Dead. Getting name recognition for a cable station that only six years ago moved away from showing a steady diet of classic films pulled out of moth balls is pretty important to them. They have certainly done it on this piece of merchandise.

I’m not sure if I’m the first to notice this, but the game is a bit of a throwback to some of the features found on Williams’ Fire! Both feature earthy browns and yellows in the artwork, a lifting ramp, miniature buildings, and, the one that struck me first, “huddled masses” artwork shadowed in blue that lie between the flippers. I’m not arguing plagiarism, but as a Fire! owner, those were the similarities that popped out at me.  Besides, it wouldn’t be a Credit Dot post without a Fire! reference.

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Blue shadowed masses of Fire!, much like the zombie crowd on Sterns TWD.

In commentary that should shock no one, it is my opinion that this playfield, looking at the playfield art alone, looks head and shoulders above the art on Jersey Jack Pinball’s Hobbit. Those looking to put their money on style over substance, the definition of a pinball pre-order, would be hard pressed to choose the Hobbit over the Walking Dead. I like that Stern’s art team went the minimalist route again, much like they did on Star Trek, letting the inserts, and thus the light show, become the “art”.

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Those that were on “Stern Strike” until games were released with more complete code, or those that pledged not to buy another Stern game until they played it first, will find themselves frantically calling their distributor on photographs alone for this one. Already, many local collectors in my area have been freeing up money by selling games, in anticipation, after laying eyes on this series of visuals. Having John Borg designing and Lyman Sheats coding should also give potential buyers some faith.

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More money = more dismembered zombie heads.

The macabre theme really speaks to arcade and pinball aficionados for some reason. The Walking Dead stands to be a game that plays horror seriously, for probably the first time since Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Other machines of the macabre have went the campy route and added humour to soften the terror: Scared Stiff and Tales from the Crypt come to mind. Will the theme be too much of a gore-fest to appear in a family gameroom? If Funhouse’s Rudy had the power to scare children, perhaps dismembered zombie heads will, too. Stern has really buttered their bread on the adult side with this one, which is a bit of a departure for them as of late. Is it just me, or does anyone else remember Gary Stern pledging that there would be “no zombies” from Stern, as it was counter to the company’s overall stance that they make pinball machines for everyone?

Anyhow, Mr. Borg HAS been quoted on record as saying this is his best design ever, and it will only be a few short months before these games hit private collections and basements across North America so we can judge for ourselves.

 

Further Reading:

Pinside – The Walking Dead Photos


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OPINION: Big League Chew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Williams’ NBA Fastbreak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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PEOPLE: Kristin from MEZELMODS

Albuquerque, New Mexico isn’t a hotbed of pinball by any stretch of the imagination. However, pinball is alive and well in the ABQ. The local group of enthusiasts, Duke City Pinball, is enjoying record numbers and the city can boast that it is home to both Don of the Pinball Podcast and the good people at Mezelmods. In less than one year Tim Mezel and Kristen Browning-Mezel (pronounced like the spotty disease) have been creating, making and selling pinball modifications that can be classified as “MUST HAVES” for the machines they are manufactured for. You probably know them best for their Metallica snake fangs and the “Donut Heaven” mod for High Speed II: The Getaway. I got a chance to ask the Mezel’s better half, Kristin, a few questions about how the company began, the mod creation process and Pinball Podcast Don’s frequent visits.

Tim and Kristin

Credit Dot: Can you give me an idea who makes up the Mezel Mods team?

Kristin Browning-Mezel: Our team is small but efficient. Tim is the entrepreneur and the founder of Mezelmods. He doesn’t rest until his latest mod idea is up and running. I’m the business operations person which includes everything from marketing, sales, customer service, inventory management and manufacturing. Don Walton [of Pinball Podcast fame] works in what I call Mezelmods West. He lives right around the corner and pours hours of his time into the electrical work behind most our mods. He’s also the brains behind the mods we’ve produced for Jersey Jack’s Wizard of Oz.

CD: How long have you been in business?

KBM: A whopping seven months! When I joined Tim in December he had just hit it big with the Metallica snake fangs. He was drowning in orders. Ever since, we’ve had consistently growing revenue.

CD: The “Donut Heaven” mod for The Getaway: High Speed 2 was another mod that helped put you on the map. Can you give me some insight as to what inspired the original build, and how it morphed into what it is today?

KBM: Tim got interested in pinball mods after purchasing the Getaway. He found the metal bracket above the ball launch distracting and ugly. After combing Pinside, he found others that felt the same way, and also the plans for a Donut Heaven café which was rumored to have been part of the original design for the game. His first effort to build Donut Heaven was less than sufficient. The materials available at the hobby shop just didn’t cut it. So, he decided to buy a 3D printer (technology he had coveted for some time) to build the mod. The feedback from Pinsiders was overwhelming and the rest, as they say, is history.

CD: Was the success of Donut Heaven that moment when you said to yourself “I can make a living from this!”?

KBM: I’m not sure we are convinced that we can make a living off of this yet! That being said, after Donut Heaven, Tim began to see many opportunities to mod Metallica. Those mods continue to be widely successful. As a result, we frequently talk about the possibility of growing the business into other aspects of pinball, and beyond into other niche hobby markets.

CD: How do you decide what mods get made?

KBM: We’ve had a few knock down drag outs over what to make, and what not to make. I want to make more for WOZ, whereas Tim says we are done. But in all honesty, Tim is the entrepreneur. He looks at the machine for places where something is missing or could use improvement. My involvement starts once a concept has been formulated and we are ready to start refining the idea.

CD: Tron and AC/DC top the list of Pinball’s Most Modded, having more mods available than any other game. Collectors really seem to love to mod their Stern games right out of the box: the mods you offer reflect this. Why does this trend exist?

KBM: The Stern business model lends itself to adding mods. The three tiered approach to releasing machines–Pro, Premium and Limited Edition models–means the lower two tiers quite often have lots of space for mods. Additionally, Stern seems to focus on what they are best at: building a great game around a popular theme. They have one or two centerpiece playfield ‘toys’ that are accentuated by colors and graphics. This leaves tons of room for modders to make interesting additions.

CD: After a mod is first made, how long, if at all, is it play tested in the machine it is made for?

KBM: Test time varies by mod. Some mods, drop targets for example, have to go through extensive testing, up to a month on multiple machines, prior to launch. Others simply need to be tried out for a few weeks.

CD: Quite a few of your products are dependent on 3D Printing technology. Can you give us some insight into what equipment you use?

KBM: We currently utilize a consumer grade printer by Makerbot and are in discussions to partner with a firm with more high-end, business printers. We want to be able to develop mods using technology that our Makerbot is not capable of producing.

CD: How many mods are too many mods in a pinball machine? Is there such thing as “over-modding”?

KBM: To mod or not to mod; that is the question. Some keep their machines pristine. Others come close to creating their own little version of pinball hoarding with trinkets everywhere. Modding is a matter of personal preference. We believe that the best mods are those that could have been included pre-market. They are obvious gaps: a snake without fangs, a dark area in the playfield, a trinket that was planned but cut from the final design. Those types of mods sell like crazy. While we sell trinkets or add-ons to the game, personally, we don’t like to over do it.

CD: What are your thoughts about Stern’s announcement of the “Custom Dirty Donny Premium Edition” of Metallica? This is basically a “modded” machine straight from the factory! Is it worth the enormous price tag for what you get?

KBM: There are pinball fanatics who are also music fanatics who will no doubt pick up this game. Collectors may also be interested in this game because Metallica is likely going to end up on the majority of collectors’ top ten lists. It is a great game. Combine that with custom artwork and it is likely worth it to the right person. While it is a hefty price tag, the custom painting looks fantastic. Bottom line, this is a niche machine for a very specific audience.

CD: A game such as Funhouse has very little available, mod-wise. It stands out because it was a high production game with a theme that lends itself to adding “theme park” augmentations. What makes a game like Funhouse “immune” to modding?

KBM: Our biggest limiter to modding new machines such as Funhouse is accessibility to the machine. Tim’s creative genius comes from hours of play and staring at the playfield. While having Don’s machines just down the street has helped, nothing replaces having the pin at home. Maybe we will open an arcade so we have access to more machines!

CD: Can you give us a sneak peak on what new products do you have on the horizon?

KBM: The Wizard of Oz State Fair mod is just about to be released thanks to Don’s hard work. We are also working on a pretty cool backbox addition for AC/DC. One of our customers is testing a Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Idol mod which is just about ready for prime time, too. Our next machine to work with is World Cup Soccer ‘94! Expecting great things from that one!

CD: How active are you in the social aspect of the hobby?

KBM: We are very active…social butterflies in social media, as it were! Pinside is our go-to place to get feedback on new mods and to find out what customers might want to see next. We are slowly, but steadily, growing our fan base on Facebook and Twitter. Come check us out! Like our page! Follow us! [Ed. note: links can be found at the conclusion of the interview.]

CD: What is your best selling mod to date?

KBM: Hands down our Metallica snake fangs. They have sold like gangbusters. This is likely due to what I mentioned previously about the best types of mods. If we had the chance, we would have loved to have manufactured these for Stern pre-market. Virtually everyone agrees: the Metallica snake needs its fangs!

CD: What games are in the Mezel gameroom currently?

KBM: We currently have eight games occupying a good bit of our front room and garage. The three games in the front room are primarily being modded–Metallica, AC/DC and High Speed 2. In the garage we have Johnny Mnemonic, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Star Wars, Revenge From Mars and a currently non-functional World Cup Soccer ‘94. Have we mentioned the cobbler has no shoes? My WCS94 has been down since the business started!

CD: What is the pinball scene like in Albuquerque?

KBM: Small. And we’d love to change that. One of our business ideas is an arcade/restaurant in the 505’s downtown area. We know there are folks out there who play, we just don’t have a ‘go-to’ place here in town. We do have a group of enthusiasts organized under the Duke City Pinball banner.

CD: With Don from the Pinball Podcast being a neighbour, I imagine he comes over to “borrow a cup of sugar” quite a bit and ends up in your gameroom…

KBM: Pre-Mezelmods, Don and Tim did quite a bit of pinball visiting. Now that we are running full tilt (no pun intended) most of our get-togethers are business related. We talk about the best gauge of wire, what kind of Molex connectors we need, and the best type of LEDs. OK…we maybe talk a little pinball in between, but we hardly have a chance to play together!

CD: Any closing thoughts for the modest group of readers out there?

KBM: We love getting ideas from fellow players. If you have an idea for one of your machines please get in touch with us. We love partnering with customers on a new mod!

You can visit Mezelmods at http://www.mezelmods.com. The Mezel’s run a blog, and can be found on Facebook and can be found on Twitter by following @MezelMods.

 


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FEATURED GAME: Bally KISS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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