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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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FEATURED GAME: Williams ALGAR

Gorgar was unleashed onto unsuspecting pinball players in December 1979, and talked his way to major success, using all seven of the words in his programmed vocabulary. Trying to expand the family, Williams went for a sequel of sorts, introducing Gorgar’s larger, uglier, mute brother Algar in October 1980. The similarities are difficult to ignore–-the title font, the poorly drawn mythical title character, the “-gar” suffix. Unfortunately for Williams, the no-speech widebody game was met with little interest. Algar was a flop. Steve Ritchie is famously quoted as saying:

“Gor’s brother Al” is what we used to call Algar. The Gar family kind of died after that. I don’t remember [Black Knight] as having anything to do with Algar’s failure. BK was a narrow body and built on a different line than Algar. Algar didn’t earn money. I think Al was just a dud of a game. [Ipdb.org]

Algar reaches “ultra-rare” status with only 349 confirmed units produced. The game appeared at a time when Williams was in transition between System 6 and System 7 operating systems, and exists as a System 6A game. There is only one other machine in the 6A family, Alien Poker, and the system itself rode the fence between the 6 and 7 eras–using a System 6 board set with the System 7 influenced seven-digit displays. As referenced in the above quote, Algar had the dubious honour of being designed and released at the same time as Ritchie’s Black Knight. If operators were buying pinball machines from Williams, chances are, the money was going to the proven earner, Black Knight, and not the chunky Algar. This is only one excuse offered as to the failure of the game. Others can be spotted as well. Operators and players who appreciated Gorgar for its groundbreaking speech capabilities were probably underwhelmed with its “sequel”, which inexplicably contained no speech at all (according to Todd Tuckey of TNT Amusements it was a financial decision, as speech chips were very expensive at the time). In a field where each new game has to offer something bigger and better than the last, especially one linked so explicitly like its predecessor, Algar fails to raise the bar (it actually lowered it). Further, Tony Kraemer, designer of other low production wonders such as Varkon and Transporter: The Rescue, apparently took over the Algar design from Claude Fernandez when he left for Bally. Fernandez’s name was wiped clean from the official historical record, Kreamer gets the only design credit, and in hindsight, that’s not a bad thing for Fernandez given the game’s ultimate failure. Not to be an elitist, but neither Kreamer or Fernandez are a part of the upper echelon of pinball designers, and the disruption of a single vision carried through from design into production did not help Algar to become a success.

Enough excuses for poor “Al”. How does the game play? Well, pretty much like any other Williams game from the era. For a widebody, there is a good amount of side to side movement on the game–it uses its girth well. Four chunky roll-over lanes run across the top of the game to spell KONA, and are centred by a saucer which opens an outlane gate and gives an extra ball when lit. The game features lane changing via the flippers, first introduced earlier in 1980 by Firepower. A cool “River Styx” shot runs behind both sets of drop targets and returns the ball to the flippers via a one-way gate right through the left outlane a la Bally classics of the same period like Embryon and Vector. A third kicker on the right hand side also ramps up the side to side movement of the ball. The most unique feature of the playfield design is “The Chamber”, which houses three captive balls, each in a separate lane that will lock at the top of the lane when hit. Locking each ball within its lane gives big points. Resetting the balls back down to the bottom of the lane to start the process over again is achieved by hitting the upper left saucer. Points can be collected at that saucer as well depending on the number of times all six lower drop targets have been dropped. As a matter of fact, there are lots of points to be collected in the game, and many have to be collected by achieving more than one objective (achieve this, then collect the bonus points over here). All of the objectives are spelled out, in typical Constantino Mitchell fantasy font, on the playfield and plastics.

Sound, like many games of the era, plays like a “Williams Greatest Hits” package. It seems that all of these Williams games sound the same…so you can pick out clips from Solar Fire, Black Knight and Defender amongst the buzzes and bloops in Algar. Solid State sound was still in its infancy here, so I guess it cannot be faulted. Algar is one of those games with a constant drone of sound in the background that speeds up as objectives are achieved and points are scored, which annoys the hell out of many, but it sets a frantic mood as ball times reach epic proportions. The biggest knock on the sound, to beat a dead horse, is that speech was not included.

I mentioned Constantino Mitchell above, and he’s the art guy for many of these early Williams solid state games, and uses a style that can be best described as “child with ballpoint pen accompanied by bold colour choice”. Much of his art, including work on Flash and big brother Gorgar, looks like it was lifted from the margins of lined paper belonging to a 1980s D-student who spent his days doodling fantasy scenes with a Bic instead of paying attention in third period Geography. I guess that was the audience pinball machines were built to attract, so maybe this art was high school-esque by design. Algar looks like a third-string Thundercat with fish scales, and a WWF championship belt wrapped around his waist. Much like Mitchell’s work on Solar Fire, it’s a mishmash of imagery with very little direction or a unifying theme.

Two Algars sold on the Montreal Arcade & Amusement Collectors Association (here and here) within the last couple of years, and I’m fairly sure they were not the same machine. Perhaps Canada got the LION’S share of the 349 games (Algar was half-lion, get it?). Both sold within the $800-$900CAD range. Heck, you get a lot of game for such a reasonable price, especially given its rare status. I got to play Algar at the Vintage Flipper World Showcase last weekend. It was my first chance to play it, and probably one of the few times outside of that venue I will get to. The machine has a commanding presence with its widebody frame and bright orange cabinet, and even though the art is just so-so, it works when you place the machine in the correct time period with other early Solid State offerings (which the VFW does, lining it up in a row with other Williams machines of the era). It is easy to realize why players balked at Algar upon its initial release, however, with a game as rare as this one, you’d be silly not to put a few games on it if you were able to find one.

 

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FEATURE: Stumbling into Solid State! Gottlieb System 1

Who among us has a deep appreciation for Gottlieb System 1 games? I mean, a real appreciation. A basement full of appreciation. Countless are the collectors who have a wide assortment of early Stern games, and I can name a few people in my circle of collectors who pride themselves on having multiple examples of Gottlieb wedgehead EMs amongst their prized pinball possessions. But where are all the Gottleib System 1s? The same could be asked about System 1’s big brother, the Gottlieb System 80, but with a strong representation from Black Hole and Haunted House in that operating system, their numbers are more robust and examples easier to find. The System 1 was trouble from its inception, and the Gottlieb Co. did itself no favours along the way to alleviate it. Once a mighty giant of the industry, the System 1 experiment was the first move in a convoluted series of events that knocked Gottlieb from its throne, and ultimately began its long, slow demise. History has not been kind to the System 1 platform, and those difficulties only quantified as time marched forward, and pinball machines marched from the confines of the arcade to the privacy of our homes.


With competition being fierce in the silver (maybe bronze?) age of pinball of the late 1970s, it is almost unfathomable that Gottlieb wholly fumbled the ball the way it did. History tells us that Gottlieb had issues in-house creating their own Solid State operating system, whereas the transition was much more seamless for competitors Bally and Stern, who, to make matters worse, “teamed up” to use common technology and parts. Gottlieb eventually contracted out the Solid State platform creation to an outside firm, which would completely handcuff Gottlieb–certainly more so than if the system was created by one of their own inside the friendly confines of the Chicago factory. It added more steps to the overall creation process and would inevitably cost the company more in the long run. Not to mention you would have to work on someone else’s schedule instead of being able to tighten the screws on your own in-house crew.

The System 1 boardset was designed in such a way that there were a finite number of board driven devices that were able to be included in the game. Thus, Gottlieb games from this era seem somewhat lacking in unique features and designers had a hefty challenge on their hands to work within in the limitations of the computer’s controlling ability. Transistors had to be mounted to the underside of the playfield to control any extra features that could not be controlled by the drivers.

Another downfall, not tech related, would be the lack of licencing. Bally had the likes of Ann Margaret, Elton John, Bobby Orr, Evel Kinevel and the Six Million Dollar Man as a part of their pinball stable before Gottlieb even began to venture into viable licences. Their early System 1 games harken back to popular wedgehead themes that were recycled ad nauseam—generic sports, historical time periods, card games, and sci-fi absurdity. Moving forward into the 1980s, Bally kept it current and cool with the Harlem Globetrotters and the Rolling Stones, while Gottlieb used limited licencing, choosing to continue the EM tradition.  Thus, we were met with futuristic bucking broncos and girls with big hips in joker costumes.

To complicate issues, Gottlieb’s foray into Solid State coincided with their buy-out by the Columbia Pictures corporation. I’m sure the merger with the massive entertainment corporation based on opposite ends of the country (New York and LA–Chicago left in no-man’s land in the middle) only furthered Gottlieb’s lack of direction and corner cutting approach to building machines. It speaks volumes that the once iconic Gottlieb logo was slowly swallowed up by the image of the Columbia “rising torch”. It boggles my mind that Columbia, rich in potential music, television and film licences, waited as long as they did to push crossover licences onto Gottlieb pinball machines.  When they eventually did, it was nowhere the pace set by Bally. The bottom line here is that Gottlieb now had to march in line with a coastal, multi-faceted, entertainment-driven corporate agenda, rather than a corporate family philosophy that had been previously driven by one thing: making a profit by building great pinball machines.

Back on the tech side of things, Bally was able to go tits out and do a complete switch to a computerized operating system, whereas Gottlieb System 1s were a motley mix of both new Solid State technology and antiquated Electromechanical mechanisms (the best example of this would be the non-computer controlled, EM-style, switch-driven pop bumpers). Heck, Gottlieb was still towing the EM line a few games into SS production by making EM versions of the first five solid state games–Cleopatra, Sinbad, Joker Poker, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Dragon–albeit in limited numbers.  Perhaps this was done to burn off old stock, but more likely it was done to appease stubborn operators who refused to accept the half-assed System 1 OS. This should be another hint that Gottlieb was not fully confident in their Solid State operating system, even though the above mentioned games did sell well (9,000 games on average for that run of five).

There is certainly a leftover wedgehead “vibe” to these early System 1 games and for that reason you’d think they would be more popular with collectors as Gottlieb wedgeheads are top of the heap when it comes to Electromechanical style and substance. However, collectors and techs alike seem to steer away from this era of Solid State game due to various technical and mechanical issues that include, but are not limited to: 1) a hellish CPU mounted, fixed battery, that if not removed will obviously corrode and deteriorate the board and connections, 2) edge connectors, that are probably the only connection style more unreliable than the Williams IDC that everyone gripes about, 3) the nearly non-existent and difficult to navigate self test procedures, 4) grounding issues that were present right out of the factory, 5) availability of parts, and 6) cost of replacement parts.

I mention those last two as general umbrella “issues”. These machines, when restored, really have to be done for a love of the game, not for profit. Repair difficulty and tracking down pricy replacement parts make restoring a System 1 machine for resale (or a “I’ll get my money back if/when I sell it” scenario) absolutely cost prohibitive. If you are relying on the services of a pinball technician, this is one case where you should believe the tech when he says “The repairs are going to cost more than the machine is worth”. These games were released to the public in large numbers, by today’s standards, however you have to assume most found their way into the dumpster or scrap parts bin given the issues the system had.

I say “large numbers” above, but it is all relative…Gottlieb System 1 production numbers could be dismissed as minuscule compared to the massive production runs of Williams games from the same era. Gorgar, Flash, Black Knight and Firepower all eclipsed the 14,000 unit mark individually. Gottlieb released an impressive number of different titles per year (five in 1978, six in 1979) with respectable production runs, whereas Willaims seemed to craft one big hit (more often than not it was Steve Ritchie doing the crafting) and built it in prolific numbers…on a more reliable operating system at that. You can kind of follow the numbers here, and see how Williams carried pinball into the 1980s and 1990s while Gottlieb limped to their eventual demise. There seems to be an endless supply of Flash and Firepower units on Craigslist…the same cannot be said about Count-Down or Solar Ride. Operators perhaps didn’t have the patience or parts to prepare the Gottlieb games for the home market when their days of earning were through.

Now, however, there are options if you do wish to bring one of these games back to life. Steve Young at Pinball Resource will be a collector’s best friend if a complete restoration is what you wish to achieve, as he stocks unique signature items and other Gottlieb parts you will almost certainly need and won’t find anywhere else. However, Mr. Young’s antiquated octo-step payment system is a pain in the rear to traverse. New customers may be overwhelmed by the old school business practices, and would perhaps benefit by tagging their items onto orders of repeat customers. It is certainly not a click checkout/pay with PayPal scenario.

The entire System 1 boardset is readily available from aftermarket manufacturers like Rottendog and Ni-Wumpf, so you are covered if any backbox component is damaged beyond repair (at the applicable price, of course). A saviour for the entire System 1 OS has been around for a few years now, and his name is Pascal Janin. He has engineered his own version of System 1 replacement boards (and also System 80/80a/80b boards) that are more robust and reliable than the originals. They are affectionately known as “Pascal Boards”, after their creator, and are available directly from Janin’s FLIPPP! organization. The site claims that FLIPPP! makes no profit (!) from the sale of these boards, and that, quote, “Our only pleasure is to see games working back [sic] instead of being trashed because of no suitable boards”. Any one of Pascal’s System 1 boards will serve the complete line of System 1 games, as all information from the series of pinballs has been encapsulated into one board and is accessible through DIP switch settings. Janin also offers an all-in-one board option that replaces ALL backbox components (a combined CPU/Power Supply/Driver Board/Sound Board…fewer edge connectors! Pictured left.) However, it will set you back 235 Euro (that’s approximately $320USD at the time of writing) plus shipping from the EU. Individual boards are also available. To take the project a step further, Janin and Co. have programmed new rules for most of the games, including skill shots and general fixes for game exploits, giving these sometimes one dimensional games a breath of fresh air. All of these new rules can be toggled on and off with the flick of a DIP switch.

Just as Janin has designed not-for-profit boards for the troubled operating system in the interest of saving games, our friend Clay Harrell also seems bent on providing as much assistance as he can to collectors in order to save System 1 games from the scrap heap. As most will be aware, the majority of Clay’s repair guides for the more popular operating systems are not officially available from Clay himself and those that have been mirrored on the web are sorely incomplete. However, the System 1 repair guide is one of the last remaining complete guides available directly from Clay in an official capacity, and he has also posted a handful of YouTube videos showing oddities and helpful tips when working on the system. The main takeaway from the videos is that the games, while being generally shoddy in construction, are not any more difficult to fix than other Solid State games of the era…given the proper instruction.

I would not mind taking a crack at restoring one of these games myself, however their reputation of being bottomless money pits, accompanied by countless stories of collectors chasing ghosts in their machines, have me a bit worried, much like the majority of the collecting community. One overall saving grace is that the art on these games is superb. They are absolutely stunning to behold, as I stated when I reviewed a System 1 game, Cleopatra, earlier in the month. I think Totem holds claim to having one of the greatest art packages of this period, and even though Gottlieb was quite late to the party in the licencing arena, licences don’t get much better, for me, than Charlie’s Angles (even without Farrah). Sure Williams was doing volume during this era, but their art could not match that of Gottlieb workhorse Gordon Morison.  I was able to pick up a pair of “heavily enjoyed” System 1 playfields in Allentown, the aforementioned Totem and Charlie’s Angels…maybe I’ll just stick with cleaning those up and hanging them on my wall, rather than committing to the restoration of a machine that may be more trouble than its worth.

At the 2014 Allentown show, there were quite a few System 1 games on the free-play floor–Cleopatra, Pinball Pool avec Pascal Board, Buck Rogers,etc.  However, there were countless more outside in the flea market area in various states of disrepair, begging to be restored. Finding someone with the knowhow, patience and deep pockets to take on these games is a different story. Bless those that have tried to make the System 1 games more easy to work with through aftermarket parts production and detailed repair information, and let us not forget those that have rescued these games from the scrapheap–it is truly a labour of love for a series of Gottlieb pinballs that seemed to be doomed for failure from the very beginning.

Gottlieb System 1 Games (Year, Units Produced): Cleopatra (1977, 7,300), Sinbad (1978, 12,950), Joker Poker (1978, 9,280), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978, 9,950), Dragon (1978, 6,550), Charlie’s Angles (1978,7.950), Solar Ride (1979, 8,800), Count-Down (1979, 9,899), Pinball Pool (1979, 7,200), The Incredible Hulk (1979, 6,150), Totem (1979, 6,643), Genie (1979, 6,800), Buck Rogers (1980, 7,410), Roller Disco (1980, 2,400), Torch (1980, 3,880), Asteroid Annie and the Aliens (1980, 211).

Further Reading:

FLIPPP! – Pascal Board homepage
Pinrepair.com – Gottlieb System 1 Pinball Repair
Pinball Repair on YouTube – System 1 Oddities
Pinball Repair on YouTube – System 1 First Time Power-on Procedure
Rottendog – Product Homepage
Ni-Wumph – Homepage
Pinside – Home for the Gottlieb SYS1-SYS80B guys, Yep it’s a club

 


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FEATURED GAME: Williams FIRE!


I don’t have an affinity for Barry Oursler games. His oeuvre can be split into two distinct bodies of work: his early designs which all appear to echo one or two stand-by stock layouts, and his later designs which are too reliant on one feature or toy that make the games seem shallow and trite. For me, two games stand out as exceptions, Fire! in the former category and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the latter. BSD is currently the darling of collectors and tournament players alike and is enjoying a bit of a renaissance of sorts (meaning the price went up $1000). Maybe I don’t enjoy it because it IS beyond my skill level as a player, or perhaps the art package is just too wretch-inducing. Either way, it leaves me no choice but to take a closer look at Fire!

Fire! was released in August of 1987, and takes its theme from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. With nearly 8,000 units produced, the game was far from scarce, however, it is not a game that comes up often for sale in my area (maybe all the firemen have bought these up…firemen love being firemen and everything associated with fire history and fire prevention and being a fireman…just ask them). To put it into perspective, Williams made 8,100 units of Comet. I can’t go for three days without seeing someone trying to unload a Comet, so I guess once Fire! finds a home, they stay put. I mean, who doesn’t want a game in a poo brown cabinet to be the centre of their collection?

Legend says a cow (!) kicked over a lantern in a barn, and that’s what started the fire that burned for days and destroyed most of the city of Chicago. The game is a natural fit theme-wise, paying homage to the fire-fighting history of the city in which these great pinball machines were built. The theme stands out from other Williams/Data East machines being built at the time–-most being themed upon capitalistic Cold War paranoia (Millionaire, F-14 Tomcat, Secret Service) or Science Fiction in the pure sense of the genre (Pin*Bot, Laser War, Time Machine). You could almost picture olde tymey dudes with mutton chops and pork pie hats gathering around this amusement machine for a bit of merriment. Wait, those aren’t olde tymey dudes at all…just hipsters from Portland!

No pop bumpers in this game. Let’s get that out of the way. Purists have long complained that any game without pop bumpers isn’t a pinball machine at all. I think this just adds to the game’s overall flow and overarching theme, and helps to set it apart from the other games released at the time. Complete playfield symmetry is achieved here, each side of the playfield being a mirror image of the other, and can be read as a throwback to the simpler woodrail games of the 1940s and 1950s. There is also a post-up “hydrant” ball save which is seen on only a couple System 11 games of the era (moving towards a less expensive “lit” ball save instead).

The main idea of Fire! is to “put out” fires (no kidding!) by hitting the stand-up target banks in front of the the various vacuum-formed buildings around the playfield. Two banks lie mid-playfield, while two dead end ramp shots flank a mini-area with two more target banks. A second set of kickers really get the ball moving in that closed off mini-area. Surrounding the dead-end ramp shots is an elevated horseshoe orbit with lifting ramps (a la the left Pin*Bot ramp) that lock balls on either side once an indicated fire is extinguished. Dead centre is your rescue shot, which is a ramp (with no guides) that lifts out of the playfield to help launch the ball through a “window”. This can serve as your last shot to start three-ball multiball and carries with it a 50,000 bonus. One million points are awarded if all fires are put out in multiball and the rescue shot is achieved.

To me, the game feels like it’s a martyoshka nesting doll in both layout and art package. There is a layering effect to the loops and ramps that pulls the playfield together quite nicely and symmetry is something we don’t often get in modern era pinball, so you should enjoy it where you can. Bill of materials on this game must have been quite something. In the days before Dennis Nordman arrived at Williams and became the undisputed king of vacuum-formed plastic, Oursler orchestrated quite the miniature diorama of 19th century Chicago under glass here. The amount of detail Mark Sprenger put into fleshing out the plastic buildings is phenomenal. With such intricate playfield art, its easy to overlook the spinning fire reel that turns below the playfield to give a burning effect that flickers through the windows of the buildings above. Sprenger also nailed the gold leaf and cobblestone look of the era on the playfield to really give it that pre-Capone Chicago feel, as well as creating an intricate maze of a darkened huddled mass of citizens cowering from the power of the fire. Sound package is ho-hum, nothing to write home about…olde tyme piano mixed with limited speech from muffled male voices (as was the style for many System 11 games at the time), but man, that bell atop the backbox really catches your attention when it rings. I was at the Allentown show last year, and you could hear that thing ringing out from anywhere in the venue.

Fire! plastic sets are currently available from Classic Playfields, and a repro playfield is currently in development by the CPR folks and available for pre-order. Repro plastic buildings, however, are a different story. These vacuum formed plastics are subject of a ton of wear and breakage with the physics of the playfield the way they are. Plenty of promises out there from companies “if there is enough interest”, but nothing as of yet has materialized. Not only would the plastic have to be vacuum formed, the art would also have to be reproduced as stickers to affix to them. I think this is something beyond what CPR or other repro company would be interested in doing (profit-wise), so it will be up to the ingenuity of the pinball community to find a work-around. Plenty of call must exist for these, as the production run on the machine was quite hefty.

There was also a “Champagne Edition” of Fire! released concurrently with the standard edition which was a classier version, probably for use in higher class bars, restaurants and atriums looking to cash in on the re-emergence of pinball as an arcade staple. The game came with a real wood veneer cabinet, gold rails/legs/lockdown bar and two extra spinning fire cylinders in the backbox, like the one below the playfield. Only about 300 were released.

This game is an anomaly not only in the oeuvre of Oursler, but also in the design and theme of what Williams and their contemporaries were coming out with at the time. Fire! can be viewed as the Eight Ball Deluxe of the System 11 era. When Bally was making a ton of sci-fi themed games and licencing everything under the sun, they came out with EBD to appeal to a very different demographic of pinball player and hit a home run. Fire! exists somewhat in the same way, just a tad less successful. For Fire!, they were shooting for a more refined demographic, and the production of a more refined looking machine in the “Champagne Edition” really hammers this point home. I mean, look at that Champagne flyer below. You could put the game in an atrium (SEE! I TOLD YOU!) surrounded by ferns and play the game IN YOUR DAMN TUXEDO! This game is so f*cking classy, right?? Anyhow, the standard edition is a beautifully executed machine, did I mention it came in a poo brown cabinet, with a straightforward ruleset much like the other games from the System 11 family. Go put out some fires and save Chicago.

Further Reading:

Classic Playfield Reproductions – Fire! Plastic Set Photo Gallery
Pinball.org – Fire! Rulesheet
AAARPinball – Fire! Restoration