Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


NEWS: JJP’s Hobbit Playfield (a lament for hand-drawn artwork)

On the heels of Stern announcing their Vault Edition of Iron Man, Jersey Jack Pinball ponied up with the playfield art for their forthcoming Hobbit machine. Reviews within the community were mixed, as they tend to be. If you are okay with photographic collages, you’ll probably be okay with the look of this playfield. It attempts to follow the lead of grander and “epic-ness” set by Stern’s Lord of the Rings. In that respect, it’ll look good next to its predecessor. But, there is something off…maybe it’s the lack of originality. I’m looking at this in terms of art alone, not actual playfield mechanics, because frankly, there isn’t much there yet in terms of mechanics to dissect.

I’m kind of sad that Jersey Jack Pinball didn’t go outside the box on this one. I get it, it’s a licence. They were probably handcuffed by the studio to employ a certain style or a specific set of images. Yet, whatever happened to a time when a pinball company could put out a game like Demolition Man or Jurassic Park and uphold their end of the licence while having appropriated hand-drawn art? Maybe it’s just far easier now to get a graphic artist to cut and paste from production stills. Also, these photo paste-up playfields better serve the studio’s unified vision of the original film. Without sounding like an old man–“In the good ol’ days, sonny, we used to have hand-drawn art on our playfields…!”–-I really DO lament those bygone days. Sure, most of the art on the 1990s Data East games looked whispy and weak, but Williams/Bally/Midway had it down to a science with their robust black outlines and bold colour choices. Games used to stand alone as their own work, with a fresh take. Now, they are just pieces of merchandise that carry pre-approved production images–-the same ones that are sent out to toy companies, food manufacturers and the Bradford Exchange.

What the community wouldn’t give to have this Hobbit playfield carry “Tolkien-style” artwork, or at least one artist’s rendering of the film’s characters in that style. The literary roots of the franchise begs for a more refined, delicate approach. I’ve never read the Hobbit books, nor am I a fan of this brand of fantasy, but don’t hand drawn maps play a huge role in these kinds of books? There are maps on Jack’s playfield, but they are tucked away in the upper right and left orbits. I believe there are a whole host of artists who make their salt by drawing elves, dragons and wizards. However, time is not on Jersey Jack’s side, it never has been, and one can assume art approval would have ate up valuable manpower in an already tight production schedule, even if that was an approach the company wanted to take. Maybe cut-and-paste art was the way to go here, given time and budget: the path of least resistance. This game has to get out by the end of the year in time for the release of the third film in the series.

What makes this artwork choice for the Hobbit playfield even more curious, is that Stern, who perfected the cut-and-paste technique, has made a marked effort to move away from the approach with its recent releases. They tried to make up for past indiscretions by releasing a new version of AC/DC, removing all photographic art on the cabinet and translite and replacing it with images bearing the artist’s touch. Metallica was lauded for signalling a return to the “playfield artist”, thanks to the participation of Dirty Donny. Even Mustang tried to bestow artistic credibility upon itself by boasting the inclusion of artist/designer Camilo Pardo to the creative team. Stern is listening: we wanted original art, and we got it. It’ll be interesting to see if they are strong-armed back to their old ways with future releases, especially those with high profile film or television licences attached to them.

It boils down to this: the community wants something value added and something unique that doesn’t look like DVD packaging or a plastic collector’s cup from Burger King. The easiest way to inject value, yet probably the costliest, is through drawn art. Everything about a pinball machine is considered “art” these days–the mechanics, the toys, the electronics, the way the ball moves–but the actual art package of the machine is what injects heart and soul into an otherwise cold and commercial unit. This Hobbit playfield art doesn’t scream hear and soul, unfortunately. Its computer generated images are just one step away from the static electronics contained inside the backbox.

What is present isn’t that impressive. The cut-and-paste dragon on the middle of the playfield looks oddly out of place, as do the disembodied heads by the drop targets and inserts. There also seem to be too many shadowy images of scenes from the film scattered mid-playfield. The artist in charge is trying to tell too much of the epic story on the playfield. You guys have an LCD SCREEN IN THE BACKBOX for crying out loud! Let your most powerful mode of communication in the entire machine tell the story. A lit insert with a bit of text would suffice on the playfield as a place holder. Steve Ritchie, the king of in-your-face, over-the-top style, took a step back with the most recent Star Trek and allowed the art to be more subdued, leaving the playfield uncluttered and allowing the game’s yarn to unravel through physics, animations and programming. Once the toys and wire forms are included I’m sure the playfield will seem less offensive to the senses. I am, however, glad the playfield isn’t scattered with hundreds of inserts, like Jersey Jack’s Wizard of Oz. Different themes call for different approaches, and less inserts on the Hobbit was the right approach to take. I hope the inserts that are added work to fill out some of the colours in the game. Stern’s Lord of the Rings playfield is extremely colourful in artistic flourishes, whereas the Hobbit doesn’t stray far from muddy earth tones and hints of gold.

I suppose it is a difficult task to capture the events of nine cinematic hours of film in a single machine with the licensor’s gun to your head. But Stern somehow did it with Lord of the Rings, with less disembodied heads and way more colour. It still boggles my mind how Stern can change their artistic ways after all these years to the universal applause of the pinball community, while Jersey Jack Pinball chooses to rely upon the same old drag n’ drop principles of playfield art. Someone please call John Youssi or Mark Sprenger, their services are desperately needed.

Further Reading:
Pinside – Hobbit Artwork Revealed!
Fun With Bonus – Jersey Jack’s The Hobbit Playfield


NEWS: VAULT SPELL G-R-E-E-D, Stern Announces Iron Man Vault Edition

Does Stern’s PR department not do fact checking?  Do they not know that the words VAULT and GREED are forever connected in the world of pinball thanks to the Addams Family?  No matter…

Shortly after noon today, Stern announced they would be re-releasing Iron Man, in a special edition they call the “Iron Man Pro Vault Edition”, which, essentially, will feature LEDs instead of the original incandescent bulbs and improve the casts of the villain figurines on the playfield. No word on whether the game will feature artwork changes for the backglass or cabinet.

The impact seems minute at first glance: a company is remaking a product that was a dud when first released, but has since increased in popularity and a demand now exists for more. Anyone who has ever wanted an Iron Man, or even thought about owning an Iron Man, can now have a Vault Edition for a MSRP of $5495USD. This premise was first attempted, successfully, by Stern with multiple runs of Tron. However, the catchy “Vault” tag wasn’t used, rather, different translites indicated the different runs of the game. Stern and the pinball community at large are traversing a very different landscape now than we were back in 2012. In two short years, the market has become crowded with some excellent Stern releases with multiple models for each title, Jersey Jack’s games finally entering the market place, the actual realization of a few boutique titles like Predator and America’s Most Haunted, announcements of even more boutique titles like Wrath of Olympus and Full Throttle, and, of course, the Planetary Pinball remake of Medieval Madness. That final example is probably the catalyst for all of Stern’s recent re-envisionings like AC/DC’s Luci edition and this Iron Man redux.

I think Stern is well aware of the money, both real and imaginary, tied up in pre-orders. Whether the money is sitting in a manufacturer’s bank account in the form of a deposit or in the collector’s bank account in the form of earmarked money that will be going to a pre-ordered title, Stern wants it. Badly. If folks are willing to pay eight grand for a Medieval Madness, Stern is betting that folks would be willing to pay five (or less, retail) for an Iron Man. Sure, its apples and oranges in terms of theme but it’s the same basic idea: a fan layout old and cherished, in limited supply, made better, stronger and faster while maintaining the original spirit of the game. And with many of these pre-orders having refundable deposits, each new release by Stern has the potential to pull money away from a competitor’s project and add to their own bottom line. That’s a win-win if I ever heard one. Stern is gambling on the fact that we, as a community, are impatient and need instant satisfaction. Why wait six more months for a Medieval Madness? Why wait another six (hopefully) for The Hobbit? Why wait, well, who knows how many more, for one of John Popadiuk’s games? Just buy an Iron Man. We have lots and we have them now…no need to pre-order. Stern wants you to unlock your bank vault, and buy into their “Vault”.

Do you think Stern cares that the value of your original Iron Man just went down the toilet? Not a chance. They aren’t concerned what’s “good for pinball”. As far as they are concerned, they ARE pinball. Your old Iron Man is competition, just as a Williams Whirl Wind or a Data East Guns N’ Roses is “competition”. Competition in as much as it is a four hundred pound game taking up valuable space in your game room and valuable dollars in pinball assets. Stern needs both of those to stay in business. However, this may be a bit short sighted. If the secondary market dips enough, it will end up hurting new-in-box sales–nobody is going to want to put out five grand, only to have their investment sink to two-and-a-half grand when they try to sell the title in a year. It is a vicious cycle. It challenges Stern to include more “value added” features, and produce more “keepers”, however, your guess is as good as mine how many different titles, at thousands of dollars per pop, this community can sustain. We gotta run out of pinball money sometime, no? The operators can’t support Stern on their own.

I think this announcement will also create discussion about what other titles will re-enter “Vault” production. The Simpsons Pinball Party? Spider-Man? Both are candidates–they are titles that are always in demand in the secondary market and have held their value well. Could Stern venture back into the Data East catalogue? I’m actually at a loss as to what Data East games would be worth remaking…none come to mind…but something may click. It will be interesting to see how this all rolls out in the coming weeks, and leading up to the games actually hitting the market. Given Stern’s stinginess with production numbers, it will be a guessing game how many will actually be remade unless they announce a cap. Perhaps the losers in this whole situation, besides original Iron Man owners, are those that were waiting for the official announcement of Stern’s next game. Everything old is new again. Everything new must wait.

Further Reading:

Pinside – Stern is Re-Releasing IM

Stern Pinball – Iron Man Is Back!

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NEWS: The Stern Facebook Conspiracy (or is it?)

(Ed. Note: I wrote this up over the last couple of days about Stern’s Facebook exploits. And then, last night into this morning, we got three more cryptic posts to drive collectors even more batty. A text only reference to “Blood Majik” (since deleted), a close up of “Coming Soon” art which highlights an animated bum, and a blurry picture of a Comic-Con International logo. A new release is on the horizon, and methinks we are being toyed with…)

The desk jockey that runs Stern’s Facebook page shares a lot of links and images on Stern’s Facebook wall. Many of them relate to recent Stern releases. For example, a link to an Easter-themed Mustang Hot Wheels car was posted over the Easter holiday after the initial release of the Mustang pinball, and multiple links directing readers to information about Metallica’s “Through the Never” concert film were shared in support of their successful Metallica pin. Easy to see why these items are posted–the themes are part of the Stern family and it makes for good brand integration.

However, the pinball conspiracy theorists have a field day when the social media department posts links to stories and photos from franchises that appear to have absolutely nothing to do with pinball. Is it just a total coincidence that all of the subjects of the shared media would make decent pinball themes? Probably not. Recently, visitors were met with a story about the new Planet of the Apes film and a trailer to the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie. More titillating is when they post media related to an already rumoured pinball theme: a zombie playing a Metallica pinball machine (Feb8) or the Muppet version of one of those dreadful “Which Character Are You?” quizzes (Jan16). The zombie reference is an interesting one, as it follows a post that dates back to 2012 with an open-ended question on August 6 of that year: “Who are your favourite zombies?” These open-ended questions are another favourite of the social media team, and February 12, 2013 saw two appear back-to-back–“Who is your favourite Justice League character?” and “What is your favourite Angry Birds game?”

So, do these seemingly “random” posts serve as a crystal ball to foreshadow future themes? If you read nearly any pinball message board, they certainly do. Each Facebook share is met shortly thereafter with the obligatory “(FACEBOOK POST SUBJECT) IS THE NEXT STERN!!!” post. These threads are only second in absurdity to the ones that state: “I have a friend who has a friend who owns an amusement shop in Tulsa and he says the next Stern theme will be (INSERT THEME CASUALLY REFERENCED IN A FACEBOOK SHARE HERE)”. Sometimes you won’t even get “owns amusement shop in Tulsa,” it will be replaced with “close to an industry insider”. (Most times, this “insider” is the guy who wipes up the spilled beer from atop the pinball machines at the local barcade.)

Stern plays it pretty close to the chest in their theme development for the most part, and all of the posts, thus far, have turned out to be random shares of cool links that may interest Stern’s key demographic. Perhaps the PR department just likes adding fuel to the rumour fire. If history tells us anything, it is that Stern did not openly reference any of their last few themes with an allusion to them in the form of a Facebook post. They did not post pictures of classic cars or share links to the Chicago Auto Show before Mustang’s release–only after the announcement did we got a flood of Ford propaganda. Before prior releases, there was no close-up detail from the cover of “……And Justice For All”, no “Which AC/DC album are you?”–no teaser hints ever seem to be given. I mined the Stern Facebook page for a reference to Star Trek before the announcement of the machine, and I was stymied there, too.

The pinball community is full of professional speculators, especially when trying to guess what Stern Pinball will do next. They are a company that, up until about two years ago, was horribly inefficient at sharing information with their customers and fans. Heck, they still refuse to share production numbers, which shows how secretive they are about their business. Secrets in the arcade world are historically ill-kept–thus we have Premier’s Monte Carlo and Williams’ Millionaire, both with roulette wheels, released in the same month in 1987, as well as Pinball Magic and Theatre of Magic hitting the marker almost concurrently in the 1990s. I don’t think there is much need for cloak and dagger anymore, with Stern being the undisputed king of the hill in the pinball business, but old habits die hard. And it feels like the social media team is having fun with red herrings.

Each link to an ALF episode guide or Anchorman 2 movie trailer immediately becomes fodder for a new pinball rumour. All this blind speculation must be good for Stern’s business, too. It gets people talking about the company—a company that, almost overnight, has some stiff competition to contend with in the pinball market. Spooky Pinball and Skit-B are boutique companies that don’t have to show they have indy-cool credibility, it is built-in. Maybe Stern is going out of their way to mine some sort of pop culture credibility. Sure a few people will be disappointed that a Muppets or Walking Dead pinball machine won’t be hitting the market anytime soon, but those are people who probably wouldn’t be happy with the layout, or art package, or code, or colour of the post rubbers if the theme somehow did get produced. With the inevitable community buzz about potential themes in Facebook comments and on message boards, you have an automatic focus group (albeit a very unfocussed focus group) containing the sort of people that keep you in business—folks who buy and/or play pinball machines. Of course you can’t please everyone, but you can get a general feeling of what will work, and what will be met with utter distain.

Credit Dot isn’t going to join the professional speculators. I’m no industry insider, and I don’t know anyone who owns an amusement company in small town America. We can, however, assume that the next theme will return to its “roots” after throwing us a curve ball with Mustang: the smart money is on a music or comic theme that hasn’t been referenced on their Facebook wall. However, they have NOT made reference to a lot of themes on Facebook, so the guessing remains wide open for the masses: Monty Python’s Flying Circus, ZZ Top, The Big Bang Theory and scrambled eggs. It is best not to join the speculators, as I’ll end up looking like a fool (well, more so) when the theme doesn’t pan out. But part of me wants to go directly to Pinside and post that I know for a fact that scrambled eggs will the theme of Stern’s next pinball machine…

(Another Ed. Note: Okay, f you want some wild speculation, I do have some. I referenced the Zombie/Justice League open-ended questions posted on August 6th 2012 in the above article, which I researched last week. When I went back to take a screengrab of the two questions back-to-back on their wall, Stern has apparently deleted the reference to Justice League between the time I saw it last week and today. The Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy posts were also scrubbed clean from their wall. Something is afoot…)

Further Reading:

Facebook – Stern Pinball Official Facebook Page


NEWS: Wheel of Fortune Code Update (kind of)

Wheel of Fortune was one of those games that got lost in the shuffle during the dawn of a challenging period for Stern, who was busy trying to stay afloat under the weight and pressure of being the only pinball manufacturer in town. The stars kind of aligned for Wheel of Fortune’s misfortune: unappealing theme, experimental gameplay, off-putting playfield bobbleheads and the fact that it was Dennis Nordman’s swan song with Stern. The game has its fans, but it was a flop when it was new and it has not fared well in the secondary market either–being relegated to D-Lists and the third page (currently #212) of the Pinside Top 100. It is also one of those games to famously bear the heavy cross of “unfinished code”, which seems to bother the community to no end.

Unfinished code is nothing new. Especially for Stern. They only recently, after an ugly organized uprising by the community, became more adept at releasing code updates in a more timely fashion. We can thank the especially weak code Metallica code (and Stern’s disinclination to update it for more than a year) for the community backlash to rear its head and make Stern revisit its code update policy. However, Wheel of Fortune stumbled out of the gate in October of 2007, selling very few units, so there was no incentive for the company to go back and round out the rules of the game. Sometime after Wheel rolled off of the assembly line and into the discount bin, Stern decided to bury the game entirely, including burying designer Dennis Nordman, not inviting him back to work on future releases. It was almost as if they were just trying to get the game off of the books entirely. It is no surprise the troubled game didn’t get its due in the programming department.

The game is totally playable without the completed code, and, surprisingly, has a deeper and more entertaining ruleset than other Stern games of the period (IJ4, CSI, 24). It is missing a wizard mode and various animations/callouts, but on a whole, the game is fun if you can get past the grandmotherly theme. It had long been rumoured that programmer Keith Johnson did further work on the code during his time with Stern, and thanks to further processing within the rumour mill, some lay claim that Johnson had in fact completed the code.

That brings us to a For Sale thread that appeared on Pinside yesterday, advertising a $4500USD Wheel of Fortune with low plays and something interesting going on with its code. Seller, Pinside user devlman, touted in the original ad:

“It also has v6.02 software…I don’t know the origin of this but have never seen it before. From looking at it in the editor software it has some additional messages and another feature adjustment mode as compared to the latest public Stern release (5.xx).”

Devlman stated the game came with this code, and the previous seller told him not to share the code publicly, which he complied with. People were interested–even if this 6.02 code contained only minor fixes or additions it would still breathe new life into a long ignored game. I’m sure Devlman received more than a few private messages asking to share the code even though he stated outright that he would not right in the original for sale thread. Nearly 24 hours after the post apepared, and after much discussion of where the code originated, original Wheel of Fortune programmer Keith Johnson (Pinside ID “pinball_keefer”) joined the discussion to set things straight:

“I wasn’t going to say anything but I’ve been bugged about this a little bit so here’s what the deal is.

I released a version of software, “6.00I” (for IFPA, I don’t remember what tournament it was for) or some such, that basically added some competition mode stuff (derandomized wild card and big spin). Those are the ONLY changes from 5.00 which is the last public release I did while at Stern. 6.00I was circulated a fair amount amongst tournament types, mostly those running tournaments. (I didn’t/don’t care.)

While doing crapwork on other games (like IJ4 and CSI) I had time to add some of the stuff I wanted to on WOF. Many bugs got fixed. Probably more speech. I gave a test version to 1 person that I trust unconditionally. I don’t remember what version I called it, but I don’t think it was 6.02. I don’t remember for sure, though. I’m not sure if he still has his WOF or not, but I doubt it’s this game.

As someone stated, the main gameplay change that is noticeable is that there are “mode goals.” The goal is simply to score x points before time runs out. If you get the goal, you won, great. The next mode, the goal would be higher. If you didn’t win, oh well, the next mode, the goal would be lower. Also, you could replay the mode you failed, at 2x points. If you failed the same mode twice, you could play it a 3rd time for 3x points. If you failed 3 times, the game gave up. Oh, also for each mode you won, you got a “winnings x” for that ball’s bonus.

IIRC there’s no logic for completing the wheel yet, but the reward was going to be something like 10M for each mode won on try #1, 5M for each on try #2, 2.5M for each on try #3, and 1M for failed modes. If by some unfathomable stroke of luck you completed every mode on the first try, you’d get a bonus to round up the total to 100M.

And that’s pretty much it. Oh yeah, puzzle solutions in attract mode, too. No one other than my tester and myself had seen the code until (I think) expo 2010. Trent wanted 6.0 for the expo tourney. For some unknown reason, I was contacted by Stern asking where 6.0 code was, 2 years after I had been laid off and several months after I had been left out to dry on a possible rehire. I said something to the effect of I have [no fucking idea], look on my computer. I guess instead of finding the 6.00I version that had been around for a couple of years, they decided to compile whatever I had done and left sitting on my computer (since I wasn’t allowed to check in any changes after getting the boot) and release that.

So, the existence of 6.02 is solely due to Stern, and not due to me. I still do not have a copy of 6.02; my game runs 5.00. I have no way of making or creating any version of WOF. Stern released it to Trent, and whatever happened after that is between Stern and everyone else, not me. Other than having done the work on it while I was still there, I have absolutely no connection to the released image of 6.02.

If anyone cares, no, [I don’t give a fuck] if 6.02 gets passed around or not. Maybe Stern does and maybe they don’t; you’d have to ask them.”

So the code in devlman’s game amounts to a unreleased version with a few extra features for a game long maligned for being incomplete. It is a very interesting revelation, even if the update doesn’t amount to very much in the grand scheme of things, nor does it fix some of the more glaring omissions from the 5.XX code. It is amazing that something like this exists in a community where nearly everyone is connected to someone in the industry, and nobody can keep their mouth shut (being in such a tight knit community is a blessing and a curse all at the same time). So I suppose the rumour can be put to bed: Keith Johnson didn’t complete the Wheel of Fortune code, but he did work on an updated version while he was at Stern. Short of someone going back and rewriting the code (a la Data East Star Wars), this will have to give Wheel owners hope for the time being. Hopefully this talk of updated WoF code forces Stern’s hand, and, as a gesture of good will and new-found dedication to code updates, they will release this in some official capacity through their website. It may not be much, but it will be an olive branch. Even if that olive branch still doesn’t have a wizard mode.

Further Reading:

Pinside – FS: HUO WOF 550 Plays Mint Condition (quotes above taken from this page)
Pinball News – Wheel of Fortune Review
Pinside – Tell Me About Wheel of Fortune
Stern Pinball – Wheel of Fortune (Check here for future code updates!  Ha!)


NEWS: Stern’s “Custom Dirty Donny Premium Edition” Metallica

I thought the idea of double dipping was outrageous when a studio revisited the DVD release of one of their films I had already purchased, and re-released it in an “Ultimate Edition” DVD package, jammed with new extra features, commentaries and bonus materials. And then Blu-Rays came along and then I had to buy them all a third time. I guess that’s a triple dip, technically. Regardless, this sort of double dipping is now a trend in pinball. That five grand pinball machine you bought two years ago? Yeah, if you are any sort of fan you are going to have to buy this spruced up edition with new art or different coloured trim. Or in the case of Stern’s Metallica, a set of custom painted plastic playfield toys…and not much else.

The announcement rolled out today on Stern’s Facebook page that there would be a “limited number” of what Stern calls a “Custom Dirty Donny Premium Edition”. From the mock-up, it looks like the buyer will get a signed Donny Premium translite, along with a series of hand-painted, hand-signed playfield plastic toys: the snake, the crosses, the hammer, and, of course, the Sparky bobblehead. I suppose this was a logical move–folks have been custom paining their Sparky toys since the release of the game and some even “contracted” Donny to do the painting. This follows a much larger trend started by Jersey Jack Pinball who announced the release of a Ruby Red Wizard of Oz machine, a year or so after the initial release of the game but not before all of the original orders for the game were fulfilled. Stern followed this trend with the “success” of the Luci edition of AC/DC, which reignited interest in the game by removing photos of old dudes and adding a drawing of devil woman with big “horns”. If there is any surprise here, it is that the Metallica translite and side art remains unchanged from the regular run of premium editions. You’d think Stern/Donny would go the extra mile to make this game stand apart from all the rest by changing up the art package a bit (I think a reason does exist for not changing the art, and I’ll discuss it below). I’ll admit, when I first got wind of the announcement, my focus was immediately on the backglass and cabinet art…to see if a cartoon woman with enormous breasts was added.

Early reports of price have the MSRP north of $8000USD. Yikes. Seeing as you could potentially sniff out a new in box Premium for around $6500USD, and probably a bit less on the HUO secondary market, I’m not seeing $1500+ of value added material in this special edition machine. Sure it’s cool and one-of-a-kind, but $8000+ is a bit rich for some painted toys.

Stern is inheriting virtually no extra cost or licencing anxiety here: as stated above there is no commitment or cost to producing/printing a new cabinet art package, and their relationship with Donny is on very good terms (the Facebook page showed Donny and Uncle Gary out for a power lunch or something a few months back, and Donny has also designed Stern swag that they sell in their online store). Even if they only sell twenty of these editions, its not like they have sunk any money into it. Worst case scenario: they ship twenty sets of toys to Donny, he paints them and signs them, ships them back and they slap them onto a Premium sitting in their warehouse and write “Custom Dirty Donny” on the outside of the box and ship it to the poor sap who just had to have the deluxe version.

I’m no business dude, but in my humble opinion, it would have been in Stern’s best financial interest to individually sell custom painted Donny figures and market them as the “ultimate customization mods”…instead of selling them as a part of an entire machine. Metallica owners would eat them up by the spoonful and demand more. Especially if you were shipped a random Donny customization–each piece with its own unique colour and detail–it would drive collectors nutty and I guarantee they would buy not only one of each custom painted toy but MULTIPLES of the SAME toy. Further, it would also inspire trading of these pieces within the community. Sort of like Dunny Bunnies or Simpsons Lego for pinball machines. You could have ultra-rare “chase” paintjobs, or hell, don’t make it random at all and just charge more money for the most popular or rarest designs. And owners of ALL Metallica machines, Pros, Premiums and Limited Editions, could participate and mod out their machine with a unique piece of Donny designed memorabilia. I’m not sure how busy of a guy Donny is, but it seems like this idea is right up his alley. Think of how much money they could charge for each piece of custom painted plastic. Compare that to the limited number of Custom Donny machines Stern thinks they are going to sell.  It may be an idea that opens up a disastrous financial wormhole for the future of pinball, but its yours for free Stern. Use it wisely.

Will there be buyers for this Custom Donny edition? Sure. There are always people that absolutely must have the scarce, limited or hard to come by. Will there be a mass dumping of regular edition Pros and Premiums by collectors in order to upgrade to this custom edition? Probably not. But be on the lookout for more of this Jersey Jack model of “revisiting games” late into production in the near future…I wonder what the Special Edition Premium version of Star Trek is going to look like…?

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MODS: A Trifecta of Transposing Translites

If you are adding a machine to your private collection, it goes without saying that you want it to look its very best. You can have a complete unbroken set of plastics, a quadruple clear coated playfield and a fresh sheet of Invisi-glass, but if Alec Baldwin’s icy stare is looking back at you from the backbox, nobody is going to notice any of that other stuff. There has been a recent trend for pinball fans to produce their own high quality replacement translites for machines that have otherwise questionable art choices. Again, this is the ingenuity of the community at work. These high quality works are not produced in art houses or fancy production companies, but rather on laptops in people’s homes. Well, one person’s home in particular.

The backglass for the once sleeper pinball machine The Shadow is almost universally panned by the pinball community as one of the worst to grace a machine since the Premier/Gottlieb photographic abominations of the mid-1980s. Necessity being the mother of invention, it was absolutely necessary for everyone to erase Alec Baldwin’s handsome face from the annals of pinball history.

Pinsider Aurich took it upon himself to create a brand new Shadow translite that looked better than the original and was of far better quality than any other alternate translites available on the market. Alternate homebrew Shadow translites existed before Aurich’s version, but none really cut the mustard in overall execution or print quality. For some reason, printing on large scale translucent plastic is tough for most sellers of aftermarket translites. Most are washed out, pixelated or just generally inferior. Aurich’s translite is a true work of art. It encapsulates the spirit of the 1930s Shadow serials and presents it in a straightforward, uncluttered manner. Further, to complete the package, a PETG speaker panel was manufactured and sold with the translite as a set. The new Aurich art matches the art deco feel of the playfield much better, in fact, than the original does. The general consensus from Pinsiders was that THIS version was the absolute definitive version. You can’t blame artist Doug Watson for the abomination that is the original. He was following the high-budget, high-concept, no-substance formula that gripped Hollywood in the mid-1990s, thus the original art is a good representation of those values. Also, I’m sure Williams/Bally/Midway was strong-armed by the production company to push Baldwin as a matinee idol, and what better way to do so than with a big ol’ Baldwin head front and centre. (As an aside, this was just one backglass in Doug Watson’s “Big Head Triliogy”, which also includes Terminator 2 and Demolition Man.)

As beautiful as the new art package looks, I’m torn as to whether I would display it on my Shadow machine, if I owned one. A lot of the drive I have in collecting and playing pinball is the connection it has to my youth and experiencing these machines in public spaces in their original forms. Hence, I have a lot of games that I remembered playing when I was younger, and no games that preceded that era or followed it (ie. no EMs, no early SS, no Sterns). Also, I’m not heavy into modding my machines, believing that a pinball machine is best left alone in order to accurately represent the time period from which is was released. I’ve actually taken out mods installed by previous owners after I have added them to my collection. Granted, I have not come across anything that needs modding quite like the Baldwin backglass does. The purist in me would like to think that I would keep the original on the game as historical document. It is far more interesting to keep it installed and preserve it as a snapshot of history…and to wonder how in God’s name someone at Williams/Bally/Midway AND the movie studio looked at it back in 1994 and said “Yup, nailed it!”. I say study/celebtate/comment/criticize the mistakes that have been made in history, don’t erase them.

But again, I think of how horribly executed that original art is compared to how WONDERFULLY executed Aurich’s art is. I guess it’s a good thing I don’t own a Shadow so I don’t have to make this kind of executive decision.

Aurich wasn’t done yet. Next he tackled Stern’s AC/DC art package…setting his sights on a shirtless old rock and roll star (the Premium edition). For his new version, Aurich took the route of so many eBay alternate translites that came before..he just added boobs.

So here we have a hellish female bearing the name of Helen, complete with come hither eyes, a large chest and erect nipples. Again, his package included extras to pull the package together, including a decal to cover up the sneering Angus Young face on the Pro playfield where the lower playfield resides on the more expensive editions. I personally have a few acquaintances who went bonkers over this translite and bought it without question based on the quality of Aurich’s Shadow work, only to have their wives say “Nope…not in this house!” upon its buxom arrival. It’s not family friendly, for sure. It would work in, say, frat houses and biker bars, but not in a family environment (many Pinsiders agree–the first comment from Jodester says: “This looks cool Aurich! My wife would never let me put it on my AC/DC though…”). What really sends me over the edge is that Aurich had requests in the original thread to make Helen topless. Really? Different strokes, I suppose. Almost concurrently with Aurich’s Helen production, Stern revamped the AC/DC game themselves and offered a “Luci” edition…with…you guessed it, no band members and multiple pairs of cartoon boobs. Aurich claims he didn’t make his Helen translite to mimic Stern’s lead. And I believe him. It doesn’t surprise me that two separate entities decided to add boobs to a translite to generate sales from middle-aged men.

The final occurance in the recent translite trifecta is more in line with historical detail. Pinsider RDReynolds, with the help of Aurich, retouched and cleaned up a poor quality reproduction of a Data East WWF Royal Rumble prototype translite and offered it up for sale to the community.

Pinball history maintains that the prototype was mocked up by either Paul Faris or Markus Rothkranz and submitted for use on test machines, yet was pulled before production due to several wrestlers on the prototype leaving the company before the release and to tone down the super-ripped bodies of the wrestlers (there was a steroid scandal just surfacing in the WWF at the time of the game’s development, and Vince McMahon didn’t want any undue attention brought upon it). Technically, boobs were added to this translite too…but they belong to Miss Elizabeth and she was class all the way so it’s a wash. I’m more comfortable giving thumbs way up to this translite as it’s not considered “alternate”…its considered a repro prototype. Upon first glance, it doesn’t appear to be drastically different from the original other than the fact that there are more wrestlers on it–it has the same art style and primary colours as the original, so it’s a seamless replacement. And the best part is that it was made to be there in the first place!

These three examples of backbox “pingenuity” are beautifully executed, of a high quality befitting of the high standards in the pinball community, and are almost universally accepted as being superior to the original art on the three machines. If Aurich choses to expand his portfolio, I’m sure there will be collectors ready to buy in. But like all projects lately, one must tread lightly in the copyright jungle. Aurich made sure to leave all copyrighted logos and images off of his translites (Midway/Bally logos, AC/DC logo) as to not infringe on any intellectual properties. However, if he were to take on, say, Demolition Man or Wheel of Fortune, he’d undoubtably have to contend with licenced likenesses, logos and trademarks in order to make the work flow with the rest of the machine. Will a pinball company just hire this guy already?

As of April 21st, there was another small run of Shadow translite packages available at $175USD shipping within the US included. Both the ACDC Helen and WWF Royal Rumble are in standby mode, and may be run again if demand warrants. Pricing for a Helen package was $125USD plus extras, and WWF Royal Rumble stand-alone translite was $75. Add a message to the thread if you are interested in getting in on a future run.  Links to the original Pinside threads are below.

Further Reading:

Pinside – The Shadow – New original translite
Pinside – AC/DC: New original translite, meet Helen!
Pinside – WWF Royal Rumble Prototype Trans