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MODS: Foiled Again! The White Water Topper Reproduction

You could easily file this next twisted tale of never-ending reproduction development in the same category as the Creature from the Black Lagoon speaker panel mod I wrote about earlier in the month. While the definitive Creech speaker panel is slowly making its way into the hands of collectors as you read this, the White Water reproduction topper foil is still surrounded by question marks and disappointment.

An original White Water topper is a sight to behold. I had seen the effect in arcades when I was younger, but I was still blown away when I bought my White Water and fired it up for the first time. To this day I’m still amazed at the ingenuity used to create a feature that was completely divorced from gameplay. It was purely a hook used to snag quarters from across a busy arcade. Like the Addams Family before it, the game title was featured on the topper alone, not on the backglass. This glowing topper also makes the game stand taller than all the rest in a lineup, mountainous even, which works well with the overall theme. Like many toppers of the era, quite a few were discarded, broken or stolen over their life in the arcade, so finding one with a complete assembly attached, no matter the condition, should be considered a bonus. I was lucky to get mine complete: with a relatively un-faded foil sticker, properly cascading lights and decent clear dome. However, many of the twenty-year-old assemblies have seen better days. The special bulbs used in the topper obviously generate heat, and the enclosed plastic dome hinders proper ventilation–so many of the white plastic backers are cracked and brittle, and the affixed waterfall foils bubbled, faded and stressed. The metallic sticker is a four-colour process on a heavy foil cardstock and embossed using a die, so that the sweeping lights reflect off of the stamped ridges, making the water and mist looks as if it is in constant motion. A bubbled or stressed sticker will interfere with this delicate effect. Further, UV rays have not been kind to the orange and blue hues, fading them to a muddy mess.

Great Lakes’ WH20 Topper Light PCB

Treasure Cove’s “masking” solution

I guess the good news first: if your topper is missing completely, you can get pretty close to replacing the entire assembly. The cascading lamp PCBs are available from the good folks at Great Lakes Modular for $30USD each (the game uses two). Keep in mind the bulb size for these lamps are the oddball 194s, not your standard 555s. A reproduction dome, the same one that is used by Fish Tales to house that damn flapping fish, is readily available from many sources, like Marco Specialties, for $69.00. Unfortunately, one piece of the puzzle is missing: the foil die-pressed sticker. The only solution offered to this point is available from Treasure Cove. Two versions are offered: a complete sticker printed on vinyl that lacks die pressing which does not reproduce the cascading effect at all, and a “cutout” version, also printed on vinyl, that would leave the original embossing exposed and would only cover up the faded colour artwork. This is by no means a definitive solution…but I guess it would look okay, and some have settled for it. If someone would come up with a true reproduction of the original effect on a foil sticker, there WOULD be a market for it. Word of a true reproduction surfaced on rec.games.pinball (RGP) in December 2011 via Daren Jacobs of Phoenix Arcade. Mr. Jacobs wrote:

“I have been in touch with the original artist Phillip Grear who says for sure the plates are gone for good. I take him at his word and didnt question them. New plates need to be made and he says he can do them but attached a very hefty price tag to them. There is also a relatively new process I’ve found through a company who says they can do this. Once we get a little further with this Ill get some samples from them. I also visited a company in PHX when I lived there that does this type of work and seen samples in person. But it was quite pricey to do. We want to target $200 and not go above it. That’s the goal.”

Response seemed fairly positive. Folks were willing to pre-order to cover costs, if necessary, and genuinely thought $200 was a fair price for the foil sticker. It would be up to the purchaser to obtain the white plastic support or reuse their old one. Having the original artist on board for consult and direction was a good sign. Rough numbers were bandied about, and it was stated that a cost-effective run would be in the area of 500 units and 250 would have to be sold to hit the break-even mark. 250 is a lot, however, there were a lot of sorry looking WH20 toppers out there with owners that wanted them looking their best. The die tooling would probably eat up the majority of start-up costs. James Loflin of Pinball Inc. posted in the thread and said he would help fund the costs of the project, which was met with, one can assume, off-board discussion between Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Loflin, however there was no sign that Mr. Loflin would be involved (Loflin will make his return later on in this story, so keep reading). Months passed, before Mr. Jacobs gave this update in March 2012:

“Made a little more progress and established a working relationship with the original foil artist Philip Grear who will be highly instrumental in getting this project done. At this point I’m stepping aside to let Rick [Bartlett, of Planetary Pinball/Bay Area Amusements] take it from here and get you all a sweet new topper. Just ask that you continue to be patient. I’m confident Rick will make you all pretty happy.”

Thus, the project was handed over to Mr. Bartlett. There is a gap that needs to be filled in here as to why. Funding? Licencing? General difficulty in getting this item manufactured? My money is on general difficulty. Regardless, it seemed the project was in Mr. Bartlett’s capable hands. The thread goes dead here after a few promises of progress. Then, in May of 2013, nearly a year and a half after the original suggestion of the project, a post appeared on Pinside announcing the White Water topper decal would be available from Twisted Pins, a relatively new pinball restoration online retailer. The post announced:

“Twisted Pins is pleased to announce that we have released a Whitewater foil topper that is approved and available under the PPS license. As you may know this topper has never been reproduced by anybody. Our topper decal is made the exact same way Williams made it. The topper is printed using a 4-color process over white and embossed artwork using .010 foil stock. These are not paper thin decals or printed by an inkjet printer or next generation technology.”

Screen cap from Twisted Pins’ web store

The original cost for the foil sticker with white plastic support was $179USD, or you could add the clear tub to the package for $219USD (prices have since increased). The foreshadowing should not be lost here: the project passed hands from Bartlett, a trusted retailer of quality repro parts, to an unproven player in the market with a shallow track record in large scale press production. Regardless, a pre-order schedule was included in this original announcement and folks started sending in their money. The printing and embossing work was done in Germany, as Twisted Pins claimed that nobody in the US could work with a die as large as this one. With hindsight being an author’s best friend, its very interesting to see so many participants in the Pinside thread asking to see a video of their first samples or early production pieces. Video was promised, but not offered. A photo surfaced of an original next to a Twisted Pins reproduction piece. One user, “ShaunoftheDead”, responded:

“It looks weird in the photos, the original seems more detailed, deeper embossed – the foil part. Be interesting to see if its just the way its been pictured, but I guess video will tell.. […] Surprised they announced/put it up for sale before a video…”

This post, read now, speaks volumes. The grand unveiling was to be at Pin-A-Go-Go 2013, however Twisted Pins were unable to fulfill the promise due to shipping logistics. Interested parties, those that had purchased and those that were waiting for further video evidence, were still waiting with baited breath. When the topper finally reached the hands of those that had pre-ordered, following the Pin-A-Go-Go-No-Show, the first signs of disappointment surfaced, led by user “Tortelvis”:

“Mine arrived today and I don’t see the same cascading water illusion like the original has.”

Many other “fail” reviews, and the above videos, followed. Quick on the recovery, Twisted Pins chimed in:

“We stand behind everything we sell. We will gladly exchange out the toppers at no cost for anybody who wishes when we get our next run done in 2 weeks. We currently are making a new die for the embossing that will allow for it to be much deeper. Should anybody wish to return it that is fine also.”

As an outsider, not having a horse in the race and reading this thread as it unfolded, it sure seems to me that Twisted Pins shipped a product that they knew did not accurately replicate the original. That isn’t good business. Especially not in a small hobby where trust is key and customers have an elephant’s memory. Twisted Pins claimed that if you used a shim under the white plastic support (in the form of a washer) the cascading effect would be more pronounced. Regardless, when the first batch arrived at Twisted Pins HQ and they tested the product, they most certainly should have been scrapped rather than shipped, or at least offered a video of its performance for their customers to decide if it was up to their standards. It’s great to have a customer friendly return policy, but how about being friendly to customers in the first place by not wasting their time by shipping them a product that does not live up to expectations.

Time marched on in the eight page Pinside post, up until the present day. James Loflin (see! I promised!) joined the conversation briefly in the thread. There now sits a series of blank posts where Mr. Loflin and Travis of Twisted Pins had a back and forth, presumably relating to Mr. Loflin’s non-involvement dating back to the Phoenix Arcade initiation. Every so often, Twisted Pins surfaces in the thread and offers that progress, albeit slow, is being made. They claim they have “too much money invested” in the project to let it fail–and I believe that–but how many failed die pressings does it take before you wash your hands of the entire project? Maybe someone else needs to take the reins. Maybe a different solution has to be implemented in the form of a digital display. The failure or unwillingness to follow through with topper reproduction by two other known and trusted commercial entities in the pinball community should speak volumes as to the difficulty of replicating the original.

Twisted Pins has recently announced they are going to start making ramps, beginning with the Taxi “Spinout” ramp. There is a lot of call for this particular ramp, however, to say that Twisted Pins has damaged their reputation in the White Water topper disaster is an absolute understatement. I sincerely hope they get everything sorted out, and a viable foil topper reproduction can enter the marketplace. Many have received refunds for their toppers, while others have kept them, waiting and hoping for a replacement to be sent. Either way, I’m afraid this story doesn’t have a happy ending just yet…

(Note: Twisted Pins was contacted through their contact email address AND through the “Contact Us” form on their website on May 15 2014, but no one bothered to reply. I clearly stated my intentions for this article, to chronicle the history of the WH20 topper with as little muck-raking as possible. I also included a timeframe as to when I was going to post it. They were either unwilling or unable to respond.)

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TECH: WPC Resets, the bane of our existance!

If you own a WPC game, its almost a given that you have experienced a reset problem at one time or another. My most recent experience with this annoyance was with my White Water. I had “5X the Fun” running and had just started multiball. Big points were coming my way. Sure enough, with coils firing and flippers flipping, the machine’s power supply collapsed under its own weight, and I experienced the dreaded reset. I hung my head and softly cursed, knowing I had a long journey of troubleshooting ahead of me.

To dumb it down a bit, a reset occurs when the +5 volt power supply, which runs the “brains” of the machine, diverts from an acceptable range of voltage. This normally happens when the flippers are fired, stressing the +5 volt line and causing a dip in voltage. To protect the brains of the pinball machine, a watchdog chip was inserted in line with the +5 volts. When this chip recognizes a flux in power that doesn’t agree with the +5 volts range it should normally be getting, the game automatically restarts, thus easing the load. The flipper stress on the +5 volts is caused by a weak link upstream in the chain…and its a very long chain with a lot of elements that could be out of order. In the end, the watchdog chip congratulates itself on a job well done…however, it turns into a vicious cycle of resets and much weeping and swearing will commence on the part of you the owner.

With my reset issue, I luckily had Clay’s WPC repair guide and PinWiki as references, not to mention helpful colleagues over on Pinball Revolution. I guess the first advisable thing to do is not panic. Do not immediately assume the worst. For those who like to jump to conclusions, there is a stigma that these resets are caused by components located at BR2/C5. To quote PinWiki on their introduction to fixing reset problems:

“A long time ago……in a pinball galaxy far, far away…a kindly fellow was playing a nice game of pinball, hitting all the shots, and earning multiball after multiball. Just as he was about to beat the game’s high score to date, the WPC game MPU reset. “Not-A-Finga” he yelled in some ancient, dead, language. A visitor, from the neighboring planetary system noted that, “I once fixed that by replacing BR2 and C5”. And lo…the mantra was born. Fortunately, through advances in both our knowledge of these game systems, and the application of clearer thinking, we’ve come to realize that leaping to the “solution” of replacing components before doing real testing is not advisable. Most pinball owners do not possess the skill, experience, and tools that would allow them to work on circuit boards without damaging an expensive, and sometimes irreplaceable board.”

After troubleshooting with PinWiki (highly recommended) and my multimeter, I was able to determine that it was a simple connector issue between the power driver board and the CPU.  A relief indeed! Reseating the connector fixed the problem temporarily, however the pins and connectors were swapped out to fix the solution long-term. If I had taken the board out and blindly replaced the BR2/C5 as the mantra above states, the issue probably would have been “fixed”, not because I swapped out the above components but because the connectors would have been reseated in the board removal process. The resets would have resurfaced and I’d be right back at square one.

Without a doubt, resets are an absolute pain in the ass. With so many novices joining the hobby, myself included to a certain extent, everyone is looking for a one-step, easy solution that requires less work than removing boards and intricate soldering. No easy solution does exist, resets occur for thousands of different reasons. However, a piece of technology is now on the market that appears to ease the burden on that overtaxed +5 volt power supply and has become the reset elixir for many hobbyists. This product is called the WPC MPU Power Fix Daughterboard and has sprung from the mind of Rob Kahr.  Its introduction has not come without criticism. I had the opprotunity to speak with Mr. Kahr about his new product, the “power” it harnesses, and what it can do for the community through an email interview and can be found in a post appearing later this evening.

Further Reading:
PinWiki – WPC Game Resets
WPC MPU Power Fix Board – kahr.us