Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…

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NEWS: Allentown Pinfest 2014 In Review

Pinfest has drawn to a close for another year. We, as a group, rode the crest of excitement for 48 long hours–some more, some less–but now that it is over we have no choice but to begin the countdown until next year’s show. I ate my fill of pretzel wraps from the farmer’s market, met a few new friends whom I knew via avatar only, and I was lucky enough to bring home a project machine to keep me busy for the foreseeable future.

A group of us from the Toronto area started a convoy of vehicles down to Allentown early Thursday morning, in order to arrive by 3pm to set up the games that accompanied us. The show is not open to the public on Thursday, but the doors are open to anyone bringing a game to set up (between the hours of 1pm to 9pm). After checking in at the venue’s registration and the games for the group were set up to our satisfaction, I took it upon myself to help out some of the other folks at the show… by “play-testing” THEIR games. You know, just to make sure they were set up correctly for opening day. I played ‘til I had my fill, and it was a godsend to have any game in the entire room available to play with no lines or crowds to battle. If you are going to do Pinfest, I urge you to bring a game. Not only does it help the event, it is your ticket to a free preview of the show. After leaving the venue, I ate a sushi dinner with some of the other Canadian collectors and then proceeded to drink to excess. Not a good choice, seeing as it was an early morning the next day and I had a belly full of raw fish…but I made it…barely. The show hours this year were Friday Noon to 9pm and Saturday 9am to 8pm. $17 admission fee per day, per adult, with no weekend passes available. Bring a game and you get free admission for as long as the game remains in the free play area.

Game selection was pretty good as it always seems to be. Some machines of note were:

– Pinsider EABundy’s restored T2 that was purchased at last year’s show as a basket case for less than $50USD,
– a nicely restored Taxi that looked better than new,
– two Popeye Saves the Earths (!),
– a Banzai Run (which was part of the convoy from Canada),
– a Barb Wire,
– a gorgeous Black Knight 2000 in the vendor area,
– multiple Shadows,
– multiple Tales of the Arabian Nights,
– show organizer Ivan’s seldom-seen Bally Game Show, and,
– two, yes, two Bally Spectrums.

No Bugs Bunny Birthday Balls…the bar was set high after last year when three showed up. Also, I didn’t recall last year’s show being so heavy on Gottleib System 80 games; there were a ton this year…which ain’t a bad thing. They say the best System 80 game is someone else’s System 80 game anyway, because when it has issues, and they always have issues, you aren’t the one who has to repair it! Sadly, an Amazing Spiderman, which I would argue sports one of the most beautiful art packages of the 1980s, sat dark all weekend. I didn’t play too many DMD era games, I stuck with early Solid State, and, in an effort to expand my knowledge of games from the golden age of pinball, I put a lot of time on some lovingly restored EM s. Two electromechanical gems that stood were are a lightly used Golden Arrow with only 16,000 plays on it and the soccer-themed Team One. Both were a blast and both had me chasing specials all around the damn playfield. Jersey Jack was on hand with a few Wizard of Oz machines, including a Ruby Red edition, although I didn’t take the time to play any of them.

The boutiques were also there in the form of Wrath of Olympus and America’s Most Haunted. I had a couple of games on Riot Pinball’s Wrath, and I must say, this game is the real deal. Even as a prototype, the game felt solid and had unbelievable shot physics. I’m not even sure what I could compare it to…a bit Shadow-esque? The left orbit/upper right flipper/upper playfield ramp/upper playfield ramp flipper combo feels really, really good when executed seamlessly. The soundtrack is heavy, with driving guitars and instructive call-outs and really pulls it all together. Riot had photos of new toys they plan to include in the next prototype revision, and with a little spit and polish on the playfield art package this game looks like it will make some serious hay. I didn’t get a chance to have a single game on America’s Most Haunted. It was down. Every time I went by to try to play it. Lots of concerned folks looking at the little green board in the backbox while on cellular telephones (“Collect call for Ben Heck from Pinfest, will you accept the charges?”). I was looking forward to giving this game a fair shake, ever since Nate Shivers of the Coast2Coast Pinball podcast raved about it at the Midwest Gaming Classic. I was wondering what I was missing. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be.

Lots of shopping to be done as well. All the usual suspects like Cointaker, Mayfair Amusements, and Marco Specialties had their tables set up in the main building. Business looked to be swift…Rottendog had “Sold Out” posted on many of their boards (great show specials available from the Rottendog crew), and the boys at Pinball Inc. looked like they had a very bare ramp table near the end of Saturday (completely selling out of their ramp stock for Creature from the Black Lagoon and a few others). New vendor Rob Kahr had his WPC daughterboard for sale and business looked to be successful for the newbie as well. Out of doors, countless U-hauls and bread trucks displayed their discarded arcade wares at the outdoor swap meet. The weather cooperated nicely with sunshine and a cool breeze. One seller had what looked to be a Hurricane Katrina show special–an Iron Man and Rolling Stones which can be best described as mud-caked and water-damaged. EABundy came forward on Pinside and admitted that he bought the Rolling Stones, I’m sure to attempt to recreate the magic he was able to conjure up with the T2 restoration.

I bought one of my treasures out of the back of one of these trucks as well…a Williams Fire! (which was the last game I featured on this site before leaving for Allentown…weird how fate works). The game was missing the display board which was quickly remedied with a brand new gas-less display board from the good folks at Rottendog for $100. This Fire! was, in my opinion, cosmetically superior to nearly all of the Fire! machines I’ve seen or played in the past. With a little wheeling and dealing, the price was too good to pass up, and I felt the need to have this Fire! make the 5 hour journey back to Canada with me. While loading the game onto my dolly, I was honoured to be briefly interviewed by Todd Tuckey of TNT Amusements…perhaps I’ll make an appearance on Mr. Tuckey’s YouTube channel? The game is a project for sure. It now sits in the garage, as I have not yet had the time, or nerve, to attempt an initial boot up. There was, however, a brand new, complete Marco rubber ring kit stuffed inside the cabinet…that has to be a good sign, right? That poo brown cabinet I was ripping on just two days ago will, with a little elbow grease, be sitting in my basement collection in the very near future.

In all, the show was extremely well attended and had about 250 games for free play on the floor at its peak Friday afternoon. As the weekend wore on, that number dwindled, due to breakage and outright sales, but that is to be expected. There were a few bargains to be found. The $700 Bally Mousin’ Around didn’t last long, and I’m sure many didn’t even make it into the show from the parking lot. Anyhow, those who wanted popular fare (TAFs a-plenty, four I think), to old gems (two 60s Williams games, Friendship 7 and Heat Wave, are of note here), to the off-beat standards that show up year after year (I swear I played these same copies of Kings of Steel and Swords of Fury last year) would not be disappointed with what was on free play display at this year’s show. The Allentown Pinfest remains the undisputed king of grass roots, blue collar pinball shows. So who’s in for next year?

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PEOPLE: Guided Tours with Todd Tuckey

With over one million YouTube views and over 800 videos to choose from, Todd Tuckey of TNT Amusements has compiled one of the most prolific overviews of solid state era pinball games the internet has to offer. With an infectious smile and flair for low-budget (or no-budget) theatrics, Tuckey has turned himself into a pinball celebrity and finagled his way into negotiations with cable television networks to have a reality show based on the ups and downs of his Southampton, Pennsylvania amusement business. Living MUST be good for Mr. Tuckey. Perhaps the only way it could get better is if some in the pinball community would forgive him for throwing that Mario Andretti pinball machine off his roof back in 2008…

When I ’m looking for tombstone facts about a given game, I reference the Internet Pinball Database, which is a go-to for nearly all of us. However, I will not be alone when I make the statement that the IPDB photo galleries are unbelievably poor. Small file resolution and bi-/trisected playfield photos are only two of many inadequacies that fail to represent the overall look and feel of a given game. Luckily, we have Todd Tuckey-hosted grand video tour of nearly any solid state game you could ever imagine. His ever-changing cameraman follows along as he gives a brief overview of many playfield, cabinet and backbox, and wraps it up by having a “glass-off” game to highlight different toys, features and modes it has to offer. Tuckey is a numbers man, as he often adds how many of the featured game have passed through his shop for refurbishment (transaction price, however, is something that is not mentioned). All videos have a commercial-like feel to them, which is a throwback to the dated TNT infomercials he shot many years ago (minus the smarmy sales tactics and stiff business suit…Tuckey looks more comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans). The salesman in him, it appears, cannot be turned off…he talks up and raves about features in the most mundane of games. In the end, I guess all of these videos serve as commercials for TNT Amusements. Regardless, they now serve a wider purpose for those in the hobby looking for a visual overview of a pinball machine that they might not be able to experience otherwise.

I’ll admit that the gags and catch phrases Tuckey relies upon get old fast. If you watch more than a handful of videos, you are bound to hear one of the following more than once: Mr. Tuckey mouthing words or lyrics lifted from a bygone film or TV show, a reference to reflowing silver solder, Mr. Tuckey “accidentally” electrocuting himself, the camera man shaking the camera in a yes or no motion (and Tuckey chiding him about it), or employees yelling for their colleague “CURT!”. The last of which is more endearing than the others as it seems to be a shop-wide joke, with employees playfully mocking Tuckey’s delicate diction when calling for one of his most versatile employees who never seems to be within earshot. The rest of Tuckey’s corny jokes can be excused as he probably started out making all of his videos to entertain himself, something one does when there is a perceived limited audience watching. Now, however, the videos have entered into the lexicon of pinball reference. The playful and light nature of the videos should never cease, but perhaps some of the more over-used corny antics could be retired to the TNT Amusements Hall of Knee-Slappers.

Each week a handful of these videos that feature a different pinball or arcade machine are released regardless of whether or not the game has been featured in the past. The TNT crew works very hard to get these games ready for prime time, and its nice to see Tuckey call upon them personally to explain what they have done and the process they followed. It was a few months back that Tuckey announced that there was interest from a major cable channel to turn his amusement shop into the staged three-ring circus that is a reality show. I’m thinking there would be a market for it, as it would ride the wave of renewed interest in classic arcade and pinball machines that we are currently experiencing. And the way in which Tuckey has staged his workshop, introduced a stock set of “characters” from his payroll and encouraged witty banter on-camera shows that he knows the genre elements that make a reality show successful. If they can make a show about people who buy abandoned airline luggage, one based on an amusement machine company is a no-brainer (copyright laws permitting, right Rick Bartlett?)

It wasn’t overnight that Tuckey groomed himself for this type of success. A mining of the extensive YouTube feed will reveal that he has a Bachelor’s degree from Temple University in Communications and he was a classmate of Danny Tanner…I mean, Bob Saget. The feed also includes parts of a series recorded in the late 1980s entitled “Understanding Pinball”, which has to be one of the earliest examples of people putting the hobby on film for an in-depth strategical and technological discussion of the machines. It is a blast to see Tuckey twenty-five years younger (and a lot thinner) still doing what he does today–giving video tours of pinball machines.  The series is just Tuckey, a pinball machine, a camera and no frills whatsoever, but to think they were made before Funhouse was released really shows that Tuckey was one of the founding fathers of pinball video broadcasting.

Tuckey does get thrown under the bus a lot, but that is to be expected with anyone attempting to be a public figure in this hobby (ask Clay Harrell). There are petty complaints about restoration and sales practices, however the one stunt Tuckey is chided for, above all else, is for filming the destruction of four complete pinball machines–Street Fighter 2, Bad Girls, Mario Andretti, and Last Action Hero–along with various arcade games by throwing them from the roof of his TNT Amusements building. Collectors cried foul, and lamented that even the most blown out game should have a fate better than being destroyed in such a fashion. Tuckey explained that the games were not even fit for a wood chipper and any parts that could be salvaged were before they made their final plunge. The stunt worked, and got people from both inside and outside our community curious about what was happening on the TNT rooftop. The video has reigned in over 30,000 views on YouTube alone, far and away the most popular of any pinball related video TNT Amusements has posted.

TNT Amusements is in its 35th year serving arcade locations and home buyers alike. Many hobbyists may never buy from Tuckey in their years of collecting, preferring instead to buy from other hobbyists or fix up their own project machines, but the truth is, there is a market for retail pinball sales that is very much alive in a segment of casual collectors that may not be as dedicated to the silver ball as those that fire-polish their own plastic ramps or write a blogs about current pinball trends (hey!) but enjoy the game just as much as the rest of us. Tuckey’s video output has given something back to the pinball community, whether it be amusement, research or simply waiting for that delicate moment where Todd Tuckey pretends to electrocute himself on the high voltage section of an early solid-state Bally game.

Further Reading:
TNT Amusements – Official Website
TNT Amusements – YouTube Page

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NEWS: Coming up…PINFEST 2014, May 2-3, 2014

This year, I will be attending the Allentown Pinball Festival, affectionately known to Northeasterners as PINFEST, which will be held on May 2-3, 2014 at the Allentown Fairgrounds in, you guessed it, Allentown, PA.

 This will be my second year in a row attending. Last year it was part of a larger family road-trip with my wife and toddler, and I attended for the Saturday only. My wife dropped me off at the front doors when they opened, and I didn’t see her or the kid again until late afternoon when the doors closed and the unsold machines were being hauled out of the free play area. I think she went shoe shopping. Who cares. I was in glorious heaven for those few hours. A couple hundred games, tons of vendors, plenty of people with a common interest all packed into a musty display hall. I bypassed the latest offerings from Stern, the Wizard of Oz early production prototype and an Addams Family and went straight to the games that I went there to play. Glorious B-, C-, and D-list games that I had never played before! Skateball! Swords of Fury! Bone Busters! Fire! Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Ball! Three OTHER copies of Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Ball! (Seriously) Some I wanted to own! Others I never, ever wanted to play again! But I loved every minute of it. Pinball shows like this don’t exist where I’m from. Hell, location games don’t exist where I’m from, either. The pinhead friends I have only have high value titles and the newest releases that I’m “forced” to play when I visit their places. If nothing else, Pinfest gave me an appreciation for the games residing in the lower quarter of the Pinside rankings.

(As an aside, I realize that my unbridled enthusiasm for such games is based on the fact that I got to play them a handful of times before walking away from them…it would be a very different story if I were forced to buy a Bugs Bunny machine to put in my own collection…if that were the case, I would be less ecstatic than that previous paragraph would lead you to believe.)

This year, it all changes. I have exchanged the wife and child in favour of real life pinball enthusiasts! Sure, it was fun exploring the bustling metropolis of greater Allentown with my wife, but this will be a different kid of fun. Beer drinking (probably to excess), pinball playing in the hotel rooms, cigar smoking, cursing, and shooting the breeze about missed pinball opportunities and future plans.

I would love for the Allentown show to have speakers or notable attendees (pin designers, artists, etc.) like the Chicago Expo or the Texas Pinball Festival. The closest thing Pinfest gets is Todd Tuckey from TNT Amusements. But I have a feeling that “celebrity” guests would take away from the grassroots feel of the show. There is a definite focus on playing and exchanging pinball machines at this show. Its just a bunch of guys and girls getting together in a working class town to play some big time pinball. Pinfest’s charm is in the unpretentious “olde tyme” county fair feel it captures, complete with farmers market across the road and parking lot swap meet out back. (Speaking of the farmer’s market, I will be eating multiple buffalo chicken pretzel wraps served by genuine Amish girls at the market. Pinfest or not, if you happen to be in Allentown, and the fairgrounds market is open, you must stop and consume mass quantities of these pretzel wraps.)

I am not set on bringing a game home, or buying for the sake of buying. However, I feel the itch…there is going to be a Williams/Bally System 11 game with my name on it. I have front runners and hopes of what I’d like it to be, but I have nothing arranged or written in stone. I already have the majority of my grail games (ie. the EXPENSIVE ones, TAF, CFTBL, etc.) in my collection already…its time to add a title (or two) that is under appreciated and overlooked. What better place to do it than at the Allentown Pinfest…where working-class C-list games are king and four copies of Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Ball on the free play floor is the norm!

Further Reading:

Pinfest 2014 – Official Site
Pittsburgh Tendo Review – Allentown Fairgrounds Farmer’s Market

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If you ever wanted the excitement of the code-breaking board game Mastermind in a pinball cabinet, and who hasn’t, Spectrum is the game for you.

This classic Bally from August 1982 has striking art from Margaret Hudson, whose work I really don’t much care for overall, but she does a magnificent job here. Besides the art, it’s what the machine lacks that stands out the most–it doesn’t have a shooter lane or outlanes. The ball launches via the right flipper, a modification so confusing that the Squak & Talk voice in the game instructs you how to launch your ball (using valuable speech memory). Failing that, the game just gets tired of waiting and auto launches the ball after a set period of inactivity. Oh, and there are no slingshot kickers either. Designer Claude Fernandez really tried to break the mould with this one.

The game is difficult. Really difficult. Not only do you have to accustom yourself with the drastic changes in the machine, you’re aim has to be dead on–game progression and scoring is determined by hitting saucers followed by knocking down complete banks of targets and completely avoiding the other banks. Kind of like a more confusing Volley EM. The rules are so confusing, in fact, let’s just let Todd Tuckey of TNT Amusements describe them…

I’m really drawn to the way that locking a ball immediately kicks a different ball out of a saucer to the flipper. As Tuckey explains, the inside of the game is packed with boards and extra relays to control nearly 80 playfield insert lamps (!) as well as flashing GI and backbox lamps.

Estimates have less than 1,000 of these games made, and nearly half of them when straight to the junkyard. I think a game like this was too radically different to catch on with casual players. Imagine a cowboy in a shitkicker bar who honed his skills playing the more straight forward and understandably themed Eight Ball Deluxe trying to figure out how to play a Spectrum. I see it as one of those early-80s pinball games that tried too hard to harness the complexity of a video game, which were dominating at the arcades at the time. It would be a great game to have in a large collection…as it would be difficult to master, and it would definitely stand out as a unique oddity. On top of that, it would be pretty to look at. But with a very small number surviving, you’ll need a little luck and great timing to find one.

Further Reading:

Spectrum Rulesheet –
Bally Spectrum – IPDB
Mastermind (board game) – Wikipedia