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MODS: Startling! Shocking! Creature From the Unlit Speaker Panel!

As if Creature from the Black Lagoon owners didn’t have enough to concern them already–fading hologram, retrofitting pop bumper lights, expensive LCD screen mods, general difficultly in regular maintenance due to an overcrowded playfield–they have forever been plagued with the absence of, or difficulty with, a lit speaker panel. No other game lends itself quite like Creech does for a lit speaker panel; the car taillights, the moon, the UFO and the Starlight Drive-In all beg for lighting from third-party ingenuity. Many have tried to get this project off the ground, but there is no definitive “final form” for Creech owners to install. But there is hope…

There was some indication that the panel was going to be lit right out of the Williams factory back in 1992, but having no impact on the gameplay and bill of materials probably already astronomical, the idea was axed. Ever since collectors started putting these machines in our private homes, the chase was on to find a fully thought out and easy to work with solution to spice up the already busy area around the DMD. Options have been available, and some Creech games do exist with this mod in place. Some folks just went ahead and built their own controller board and mounted their own LEDs, while companies like Pinball Decals and Orbit Pinball have attempted to produce their own makeshift versions, which I’m sure work just fine, but are far from a definitive solution. The price of a Pinball Decals Inc. mod is prohibitive at $400USD. One could use that money to obtain a ColorDMD or a new hologram solution. Here is a video to the Pinball Decals Inc mod fully installed:

Price aside, there was hope for an end-all version. Pinbits–a company whose products quickly become the gold standard of mods soon after release due to their impeccable design and quality–promised a Creech panel mod. However, it has been marred in perpetual development for what seems to be ages. One of the hold ups for Pinbits was re-configuration due to the Classic Playfield Reproductions speaker panel they released in 2010. CPR released three versions of the panel; a true reproduction of the original, an enhanced version with lightblock masking that would work with panel illumination, and a deluxe edition that included the masking along with the added feature of chrome accents. The enhanced and deluxe editions are now sold out. The CPR website specifically notes that the panel was created with the Pinbits mod in mind. There is indication on the Pinbits website that the mod had to be adjusted to agree with differences in the CPR speaker panel plastic. That same page has not been updated for some time with the last entry promising “Design in February, Build in March”. Not sure if this was March 2012, 2013 or 2014; in any case the mod can be considered “past due” from the folks at Pinbits.

Any lighting mods that have arrived over the years have the extra annoyance of not being able to fit on the panel with a ColorDMD. The ColorDMD adds a fantastic new dimension to any of their featured games (Creech seems to be one of the best looking in my opinion) but owners were forced to choose between an intricately lit panel or the amazing coloured animations, as there was little room for both. Workarounds, in the form of spacers, do exist, but did not solve the problem outright. Thus, not only did Pinbits have to redesign what they had due to slight variations in the CPR light mask, they must also make sure their product will work for a collector who wants to run a ColorDMD in the panel. Oh, the problems of integrating modern technology with twenty year old pinball technology.

Creech owners were annoyed at the delay, to be sure, but would have been more up in arms if it wasn’t for PinballMikeD’s Creech Hologram mod that removed the under-playfield hologram altogether and replaced it with an interactive LCD screen. I would argue that this soothed the Creech fanbase, as the design was ingenious and added pop to an area that had been ignored for years. Those that were willing to tinker with panel lighting are the same people that would have an interest in replacing the hologram. A temporary massaging of a sore spot by another example of pin community ingenuity. However, the seed of DMD panel lighting had been planted and someone was going to have to step forward and reap the fertile soil.

With the Pinbits mod in infinite delay, and having some prior experience making light mods, Pinside user Jeff Thompson (thompso9) of Pittsburgh, PA saw a need and posted this about a year and a half ago:

So I just got a bunch of PM’s from RGP as a result of a bump of an old thread about the CFTBL speaker panel mods I made about a year ago. For those of you who aren’t aware of the mod, it is designed to work with the CPR repro speaker panel plastics with the light mask. It lights up the taillights of the cars, the moon, UFO, and chases the Starlight sign. I also offered a peel-and-stick vinyl light mask to be used with the original speaker panel plastic if someone didn’t want to spring for the new panel. I have a video of it in action that I’ll post once I find it again.
It seems there could be enough interest to do another run. I have had some people show interest in a version of this mod that had some lighting effects based on game triggers. So I am interested to know: a) are there are more people who want this mod, b) if there is interest, how much interest is there in a rev 2 mod that will have some lighting effects linked to gameplay, and c) if b, then what kind of effects are you interested in seeing?

Some questions about the mod were answered early on in this six page thread:

1) Can I use the original panel?
Yes, I have created a custom-cut vinyl peel-and-stick mask for using the original speaker panel for $15. The original is set up for backlighting but Bally/WMS applied the black adhesive mask on the back of the panel like they do on many games that completely blacked out the entire panel. This needs to be removed with Goo Gone (or similar) and some elbow grease. If you are willing to do this, then the $15 will save you the cost of the CPR repro panel. Mind you, the CPR panels are very nicely done and the premium version includes the mirrored car bumpers which looks really neat. FYI the video I posted is of my original panel with the light mask as I scratched the crap out of my CPR repro during the development process (there are lots of sharp things in my workshop).
2) What is included?
The panel itself is baltic birch plywood (not cheap MDF like the original), painted black and custom routed to contain the PCBs and other hardware from the original panel. You’ll need to transfer over all the metal parts, except t-nuts and display mounting screws, which are already installed, to the new panel. Speaker grilles are also included since the cutting of these is pretty intricate to create openings for the LEDS and i didn’t want people to be cursing as they accidentally cut too much off their originals, or cut them jagged and scratched the artwork on the panel, anyway you get the idea. There is a plug and pass-through connector that plugs onto one of the +5V connectors on the power driver board. That’s basically it. I will post the installation instructions for the kit when I get a chance so you can all see how it will go.

This looked promising. Finally a version of the mod that would take into consideration all the trouble areas that have popped up, work with the existing CPR panels if you were able to get one and also work with the panel currently in your machine if a CPR version eluded your grasp. On top of that, the mod promised a dynamic light show during game play. A version was shipped by Mr. Thompson about six months after the original announcement, and folks seemed genuinely happy with it. There are a slew of people waiting for the next revision of the mod as well–wading through the “I’m in!” posts in the original thread to find actual information about the progress is a frustrating task. An upcoming revised version of the panel mod, which could end up being the ultimate definitive version, is still unshipped at the time of writing, but unlike the Pinbits mod, an end seems to be in sight. An update was given by Mr. Thompson three months back outlining the revisions and price:

I figure this is the best way to get word out that the latest run of CFTBL speaker panel LED kits is going to be available very soon. PCBs are on order now and parts are coming in for the new build.
Here are the changes/improvements in this latest revision:
1) All connectors encapsulated in the panel: ColorDMD and other mods should fit without interference now due to the fact that there is no wire harness connecting the LED boards together externally. Everything is done inside the cavities in the panel now and won’t even be visible from the back anymore (save the power entry connector).
2) Jumper-selectable taillight behavior: A jumper will configure whether the taillights are always on or dynamic.
3) Thinner PCBs: This will move the LED boards back from the bezel a bit and allow the light to spread out more to reduce pinpoint brightness issues.
As before the panel still supports game integration features that I have been dragging my feet on implementing. I have a PCB design that should do the trick and need to get that done after these ship.
Price is $149. I know this is a bit more than last time but costs never seem to go down anymore, everything costs more each time I do this. Shipping is generally via USPS Priority Mail for $15 anywhere in the contiguous US, but I do also ship elsewhere, at various rates.
Shipping will occur in groups as soon as I get the PCBs back from the assembler. This is the biggest unknown right now as this is not a huge job for them and they need to squeeze it in between other stuff. But things are on track and I want to make sure everyone knows that this next batch is definitely going to happen.

That isn’t a typo. $149USD for the painted wood panel with lighting installed, complete with a PCB, speaker grilles and room for a ColorDMD. Another $15 for a light mask if you don’t have the CPR panel. Plus $15 to ship it all. People were practically crawling over each other to give Mr. Thompson their PIN numbers. Joking aside, this looks to be the grand finale of a very long journey at a price and quality that certainly blows any version that currently exists right out of the water. I started writing this post a few days ago, then finally, last night, as if Mr. Thompson knew my essay needed a happy ending:

The wait is over! CFTBL panels are slated to start shipping this month! I’ll be notifying the first shipping group by email (or Pinside mail, whichever I happen to have on file) in the next 2 weeks. The emails will include payment instructions and a serial # to help me match up people with panels.
Here are some pics of a finished panel. You’ll see in the pictures below that there is a new component added to the design, a light block to prevent bleed from letter to letter over the Starlight sign. This, in my opinion, was needed because of the change over to the white circuit boards, and because the boards are now further back from the panel plastic. While this spreads the light out more and fights “hotspots” in the lighting, it does also give the light more opportunity to bleed over to neighboring areas where it doesn’t belong. With the addition of the light block the sign looks much more crisp during animation.
What’s really cool is the view from the inside of the panel – no wires save for the power connector! Everything is wide open for ColorDMD to lay down flat with no interference.
Thanks for your patience, everyone. This has been the biggest batch of panels yet and I’ve brought some other people into the process so we can get LED panels for some other titles out there as well. TZ is a likely next game but others have been discussed. Suggestions are welcome.

As far as I know, as a Creech owner, I’m on the list to get this mod. I’ll be watching my inbox feverishly. I don’t have the CPR Enhanced or Deluxe plastic panel, so I’m going the light mask/tape removal route. I shouldn’t count my chickens before they hatch through, from what I can decipher, I’m pretty far down the list (I hope I don’t get bumped). All signs point to a happy ending for this sordid, four year mod soap opera for everyone involved. However there will still be folks adding Creech machines to their collections in the future, and those people will be out in the cold, mod-less, unless Mr. Thompson decides to run another batch. For owners, was it worth going down this road in the first place? Spending money on inferior light mods that no longer cut the mustard? Buying speaker panels in anticipation of mod production? Belly aching about the various delays? I’ve only owned my Creech machine for five months or so, so I’m not as invested as some owners that have been waiting years…but I’ll make sure to follow up in a few months with an answer if and when I get my hands on one…

Further Reading:
Pinside – Interest/Advice on CFTBL Speaker Panel LED Mod Re-Run
Pinside – Update on CFTBL Light Mod
Classic Playfield Reproductions – Creature Backbox Speaker Panels Photo Gallery
Kansas Pinball – Creature from the Black Lagoon DMD Panel Mod Page
Pinball Decals Inc. – CFTBL Tail Light Mod
Pinbits – CFTBL Tail Light LED Kit
Pinball Mike D – CFTBL Hologram Mod