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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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OPINION: The Complications of Letting Go

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I’m very good at buying games. I’m getting better at restoring games. But I’m absolutely dreadful at selling or trading games. My gameroom is something akin to a black hole or Jame Gumb’s basement: the things that enter seldom leave.

This was all well and good when disposable income and space were both plentiful. Recently, however, the household (ie. my wife) has tightened the purse strings on frivolous expenses and the basement is reaching absolute critical mass. I’m at the point where furniture would need to be removed to add more games. The once-promised sitting room, housing just “a few” games, where guests could be comfortably entertained, is bordering on a full-fledged arcade with little room for socialization. The eleven games in my current collection eclipses the maximum of eight that my wife once asked me to observe. I am at the point now where one game must to go if another is to come in. And that poses a problem for me.

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My son, at ten months, “playing” Solar Fire in 2012.

I’m not sure how many are affected the same way: I have completely fabricated a personal attachment to each of the games in my gameroom and I have a very hard time letting go. Of the games that I purchased with my own hard-earned money, I’ve only ever been able to bring myself to sell or trade one of them. And trading that one game was tough. Heart-breaking, even. Much more so because it was my very first game that I purchased back in 1995, a Williams Solar Fire which I have written about here. I traded it to a good friend who appreciates early Solid State games from the dawn of the 80s more than I ever will. In return, I got a Pin*Bot which came with an uninstalled Classic Playfield Reproductions playfield. I seized the opportunity to flesh out my collection with a game I enjoy one hundred times more than Solar Fire, but still, packing up that Solar Fire for delivery made me sick to my stomach. I had grown with it. It was the game that started the adventure of building a pinball collection.

I understand that these things are inanimate objects–heaps of steel, plastic and wood–and any feeling or attachment I have for them is a construct of my own subconscious, but it doesn’t help ease the distress. I’ve got a whole laundry list of “important landmarks” I can attach to each of my games: the first game I got when my son was born, the first game I completely restored from the ground up, a copy of the game I played endlessly with my father at an arcade when I was growing up. I’ve manufactured reasons to horde these commercial oddities in an unhealthy fashion. I suppose others are affected to a greater extent: whereas I’m reluctant to let go of any one of my eleven fully working games, others have trouble letting go storage units full of games that aren’t even on legs! We’re listening to the same radio station, just consumed at different volumes, I guess.

There is also the fact that I covet the value of the bird-in-hand, as opposed to the two that may be in the bush. If I let go of my Addams Family, when will I ever be in a position to get another if the market continues to trend upward as it has over the past few years? To replace a game with another copy in the same (or better) condition at the price point I have originally acquired it would prove to be difficult. I’m more of a “stand pat” kind of guy rather than throwing caution to the wind, and that complicates things.

Collectors say it all the time: “You can’t keep’em all!”. And it’s true. Gameroom turnover keeps things fresh, and rejuvenates one’s interest in the hobby. But, I’ve come to love the little intricacies of my games, tinkering with them, making them “my own”, bringing them back to life. I probably enjoy twiddling about in the backbox or under the playfield just as much as I do playing the games. Don’t get me wrong, I probably average about twenty minutes a day in the gameroom actively flipping, however, working on games and playing them with any high level of expertise are two unique skill sets. For many like me, there is little overlap. I’m firmly in the “collector camp”, as my playing skills leave much to be desired. This is probably another reason for my unwillingness to let go: I’ve become heavily involved in making them perform at their absolute zenith rather than just playing the snot out of them with reckless abandon. I’m like a mad scientist who forbids the angry mob from harming the monster he created.

I promise, I’m not a freak.  I’m not sleeping under the machines or gently stroking them while whispering sweet nothings of how they’ll be waxed later in the week. My wife isn’t being supplanted with Pin*Bot. I just need to learn to let go. I need to suppress these manufactured emotional connections I have. They can’t all be keepers. All still water will get stagnant eventually.

White Water, reluctantly packed up and ready to leave.

White Water, reluctantly packed up and ready to leave.

So, two weeks ago, I overcame the manufactured odds and traded my second game. I had to let another escape, if only for my own sanity. I traded my White Water for a World Cup Soccer ‘94 and some cash. The White Water wasn’t collector quality–the cabinet was beat, however everything under the glass was really nice and it was solid as a rock for the three years I had owned it. I liked the game. One of Nordman’s best, for sure. Diverse gameplay, unique layout, fantastic art and perhaps the best music ever created for a pinball machine. But it wasn’t getting much play by anyone other than me. When guests would visit, White Water wasn’t given a second look. Even my three-year-old son, who indiscriminately, yet passionately, flips away on all the machines, gave the game the cold shoulder. On the other hand, I really wanted a World Cup Soccer. My collection was devoid of a John Popadiuk-designed game, and World Cup is the only one of his that can be had without breaking the bank. More importantly, my three-year-old son has played soccer since he could walk and has really taken to the sport–I thought he’d get a real kick out of the game (pun intended). A really, really nice one became available, and my potential trade partner wanted my White Water in return. I came close to pulling the plug at a few points during negotiations, but I finally cut the cord, folded up White Water with little fanfare and brought home a World Cup Soccer ‘94. (Not having moved a game OUT of the basement gameroom proved to be a blessing in disguise for all these years–turns out they are much more heavy and awkward to remove than they are to put in). A friend of mine says that with each game exiled, it only gets easier to see them leave. I hope he’s right.

Any regrets I had about the trade quickly eroded when I lifted the backbox on World Cup and my son, standing on his overturned milk-crate softly cooed: “Soccer ball pin ball…my favourite!” His eyes were like saucers and he was grinning from ear to ear as he took in everything from the cartoon dog Striker on the backglass to the rotating soccer ball on the playfield. During his first game he raised his hands in victory when he scored his first goal, only to have the ball immediately drain while he was celebrating as it was kicked back to the right flipper. On separate occasions, he excitedly tried to explain to a lady at the library and his long-time soccer coach about our new gameroom acquisition. Neither could understand him, as excitement turned him into a complete marble-mouth. I had to explain on his behalf. I then had to explain further that, yes, we did have a full-sized pinball machine in our basement, and, yes, we did have more than one.

The boy playing his new favourite game.  Made the trade worthwhile.

The boy playing his new favourite game. Made the trade worthwhile.

Only today am I struck by the irony: World Cup Soccer is the game my son now runs to first when we visit the gameroom, and he has even started to refer to it as “his” game. Thus, the kid is a chip off the old block when it comes to forming emotional attachments to pinball machines. Looks like we got another keeper on our hands and a potential problem when it comes time to get rid of World Cup Soccer. However, my emotional attachment here isn’t with the machine…clearly, it’s with my son. And that’s something that can’t be fabricated.

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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.)