Pinball Wizards Convention
Last updated on: 8/5/2011 5:07 PM
Created on: 3/21/2014 2:18 PM
It is early Friday morning, about 1:30 am, when RazerX and myself leave a third story loft overlooking downtown Chicago. This is the starting point for a 12-hour road trip to the Pinball Wizards Convention in Allentown Pennsylvania. With 12 hours ahead of us we planned on passing the time in 2 ways: checking on what pins are hidden in the highway service plazas and listening to a number of TopCast shows that we missed.
Now normally we don't check out as many service plazas on the way to our destination, mainly because we are looking forward to the big show, but we did manage to check out a few. The first plaza we stopped at was just across the Indiana border. From outside we could see the game room and almost missed the pin altogether thanks to the lack of back box GI. But hiding in the corner is one of the more beat up Getaway games left on location. It looks like it could have worked, just one of those games that need a little TLC. This is in contrast to another plaza, located further into middle of Ohio, where there was a brand new Pirates of the Caribbean set up. This game had to just be unboxed as we could not find any signs of ball trails anywhere. That or the game is simply not played but we figured if an operator took the time to invest in a new pinball machine for the location then people must be playing. There were a couple of high scores that were not the defaults so that was our glimmer of hope that pinball is still of interest to the general public.
The more interesting part of the road trip to Allentown was the two TopCast shows that we chose to listen to. I say interesting because as dumb luck would have it these 2 shows provided great foreshadowing of what we were to find waiting for us at the show. The first show featured Tim Arnold talking about the days he worked as an operator and how things are going at the pinball hall of fame. One of the things Tim mentioned was the conversion of playfield lamps from incandescent to LEDs. Not only did this start a debate amongst ourselves about the use of incandescent bulbs versus compact fluorescents but Tim left us with a quote that humored us: "LEDs live to be turned on and off."
Of greater importance though, was the show that featured game designer Steve Kordek. This show entertained us while we drove through the mountains of Pennsylvania. With Steve being in Pinball for as long as he has been it was like listening to a history book. Several things stood out such as the disappearing jet bumper on Cirqus Voltaire originally being used in SeaWolf, the bonus building features of Grand Prix and a rotating target used on 4 Roses. Now while neither RazerX nor myself could remember what this target was we did have to agree with Steve that the rules of today's games are slowly turning us back to older games. Of course for collectors like us that means we look at games from the 80s or sooner, for the casual player looking to waste some time at the bar, arcade, airport, or where ever, that is someone who will just walk away from pinball altogether.
We arrive at the hotel to fine we got one of the most incredible rooms the place has to offer. Which is good, cause 2 guys with one duffel bag each really need to spread out. The room also faced Dorney Park so in the mornings we could wake up with a few of the Talon roller coaster. It is now close to 3:00 pm local time, which is time to head off to the show. On the way we stop at Friendly's for lunch, well the ice cream desert is why we really stop there. After that we are driving up the road when we have to change lanes cause a guy is walking with his luggage in the middle of the street. I jokingly claim it has to be a pinball personality and then later discover it is none other than Koi Morris.
In the parking lot a line had started forming as everyone eagerly waited to purchase his or her admission packets. As we were heading to the end of the line we found our good friend Rick Swanson was saving a place for us. Rick informed me that my post on the debate of Black Rose versus Getaway: High Speed 2 had him rethinking his project Getaway he was working on. I pointed out that in recent history I have out grown playfields that offer 5 shots and a very linear rule set. While I had Getaway for the first year after being restored I enjoyed it, but over time it became easier to achieve red line mania instead of your standard multiball. Insert a flash back here of this years Kalamazoo show where I played Getaway head to head against two other Chicagoans and achieved Red Line mania with much ease. At this point I stated that I was done with Getaway for a while, hence why I didn't bother playing the location we found at that first rest stop.
Inside the show RazerX and I found ourselves being greeted by an old wood rail that goes by the name of SeaWolf. There, in all its glory, is the disappearing jet bumper that Steve Kordek talked about being reused in Cirqus Voltaire. The only difference, which was odd to see since I knew the newer game first, was how the jet bumper disappeared. On SeaWolf the raising and lowering of the jet bumper is done via motor control, thus it comes and goes at a slower speed than I am use to. What I found more interesting to see was a pinball game that didn't have a score display. Instead, the backglass contains numbers along the sides and bottoms and to figure out your score you would add up all three lit numbers.
I was briefly interrupted form checking out the older EM machines in this row when I saw a Chicago Pinball Mafia t-shirt on a teenager walking past me. What made this odd is this person isn't in our Chicago group yet he liked us enough to promote us. RazerX and I went up and asked him about it but the kid was so shy he just blushed and quickly walked away from us. I would still like to know who this kid is and have him mock up a shirt with our new logo.
At this point, I, Wolffy, am starting to wonder if I have played every late 80s game through 90s game there is. We came across a couple of games that RazerX had never played before and I told him they weren't much. The first is Pool Sharks. Has the pool theme been done to death? With the success of Eight Ball Deluxe you knew it was only a matter of time before an engineering brain share came up with the idea that while EBD was successful, it could have been even bigger if it had animated, talking shark figures on the game. They were wrong. RazerX learned first hand why Pool Sharks is in my "no need to play that one again" category. But it doesn't stop there. There was also a Back To The Future game there. I understand this one is a Data East masterpiece but it is just not that good.
So what games were good? If I am allowed to go Old School one of the first games that surprised me that I enjoyed is Space Time. This is an interesting little EM whose gimmick is a descending tunnel of rings. One ring is lit at a time and the lower the ring the greater its value. Targets on the playfield start the tunnel values cascading, other targets stop the tunnel and collect its value. I played this machine in both single player and two-player variety and found that this is an awesome game to play when competing. Space Odyssey is another game that peaked my interest as being a space themed EM, but I really wanted to like this game more than I did.
Jumping back into the 90s I had a chance to get more play time in on Junkyard. This is a pin that I could not stand on location but am slowly warming up to. If you remember when the Road Crew went to Herrin then you remember what happened with No Fear, the last game I truly hated on location, but no Junkyard was purchased at this time. While I like the game, there are a few things that scare me about it. First, it is a 5 shot game, the last 5 shot game I owned ended up having to go. Second, the price is too insane on this title. Junkyard is the perfect $500 game with its off the wall rules for starting modes and choppy speech calls. But for some reason people are willing to pay over $3,000 for it. For me there are a number of games I rather own that cost much less. So the fate of Junkyard, maybe I will like it more over time, maybe we will part ways again.
It would not be a real pinball show if RazerX and I did not stop by and have a chat with our good friend James Loftlin. First there is the minor business of buying ramps from him for our games. The most interesting aspect of this was the debate I had with RazerX over which ramp is better in Twilight Zone, smoked or clear. I am on the side of smoked as I have seen clear in a TZ and to me it didn't look anywhere near as awesome as the clear in The Addams Family did. RazerX decided to go in a different direction thinking the clear will provide a much better look for his game. Mine has the smoked installed and it looks awesome.
With that business out of the way it was time to get down to the real business, what is going on with Pinball Inc. James at first stated he would make a few more ramps and then go out of business, poking fun at the rumors that surfaced on RGP while he was vacationing in Australia. He assures us that while he visited Wayne the trip was pure vacation and Pinball Inc. is going to continue. James did pull up a picture so we now know what Mr. Pinball Australia looks like. So if Pinball Inc. is moving forward what new products can we expect? I asked James about the rumored Jump Ramp for No Fear of which his reply was "I will never make the Jump ramp for No Good Gophers." Great James, we put that rumor to rest, now how about No Fear? He assured me that not only is coming but it is next in line. Following No Fear are the two ramps for Whirlwind. At the show the clear plastic ramp flap (the piece that lowers so you can hit the skyway ramp instead of the saucer) was ready for sale. Finally, in what was the biggest surprise was his poll to us if we would be interested in the Insanity Falls ramp for White Water. Since both RazerX and I are White Water owners we put in 2 yes votes.
While checking out the other vendors that were there we came across a Star Trek: The Next Generation that was out fitted with two modifications. The first was LED replacement lamps for the GI and the controlled matrix lamps. For the controlled lamps the only thing that really looked bad was the blue tint added to the mission inserts. It appears white is still a bit of a problem even though I have seen many white LED lamps used on slot machines and store displays. Where LED lamps still have a problem is General Illumination. While LEDs are good at creating a bright object they still don't do a good job at throwing light around. This ties in nicely to that Tim Arnold statement in the TopCast. However while I am willing to convert my vehicles instrument panel to nice and bright LED lamps and I am still not willing to convert my pinball machines.
The second product on display in this Star Trek game was a playfield plastic overlay. Basically it is a thin piece of plastic, cut so all the posts, ramps, and drop targets can work unobstructed, but is simply set on top of the playfield held in place by the various playfield components. This idea will not be causing any of the clear coat professionals out there to loose sleep. The obvious downside to this approach is the fact that the plastic does not lay flat on the playfield and causes the ball to take on bad, unnatural geometry. In several cases it made the game unplayable as the ball would roll in random directions as it returned to the flippers and would hang up on the cutout for the lock drop down target.
Illinois Pinball made the trip to sell parts directly to show attendees. Mixed in with some remaining NOS stock is the reproduction playfields, flippers, and other game specific parts. One item that caught my attention was a pig with wings hanging in the both with the letters "BBB" scribbled across the body. (At the time this article is being written BBB owners are currently picking up their games so I will refrain from any further "when pigs can fly%quot; comment.)
Of course there were some vendors selling games there and it would be wrong for the CPM Road Crew to not play test these gems. With my on going discussion of how I am trying to stay clear of 5-shot games, I figured I should spend some time on the 4-shot game that is Hurricane. RazerX and I had a head to head match and I successfully convinced him that yes, there is a jackpot in Hurricane. For some reason this particular machine was outfitted with one lightning flipper and despite my hatred for those still managed to put my initials in the game. If someone out there purchased a Hurricane that had MSG in the high scores table, you are the proud owner of the machine I am talking about.
There was a tournament area set up in the back. While I didn't find Rick Swanson competing I did find the RPG prodigy, Ethan Blonde, playing hard to earn a title. Also in the competition is Pinlicious himself and an old friend of mine Jason. Some of my playing styles come from watching him back in the early 90s. Those were fun days. However if you watch the two of us play today it doesn't look like we have any skills in common because mainly, I still suck.
Saturday morning is the best time to check out one of the best features of this show, the flea market. This year we were all treated to great weather, which made it a joy to go outside and check out what was for sale. We were also treated to a giant vibrator. I have a picture of this and trust me, the picture being worth 1000 words is all that is needed. The only down side to flea market is that only a few vendors have electricity to plug in their merchandise. We found a couple of Secret Service machines, and since this was the first time I have ever seen one, it is a downer that I didn't have a chance to flip a ball around a bit. Secret Service wasn't the only game that had multiple examples in the flea market. Gorgar was well represented. One of these games had a custom cabinet painted white with gold 70s style lettering.
Mike Pacak set up his booth and while it wasn't for sale he was proud to show of the Radical he picked up. Moving down from his row is the booth that gets the record for the fastest sale of the show, a faded Safe Cracker. I mean, it is a cute little game that wants to be a pinball when it grows up, but for me I just can not get past timed play. Safe Cracker wasn't alone in the faded department. One vendor was looking to unload an Indiana Jones into a happy home. RazerX and I had to joke about the presentation. One side was faded to a near solid white. Naturally you would want to set up this game so the setting sun can shine on the side that still has original color. Perhaps a more even fade will increase its value?
Speaking of games that fade I was amazed to find a No Fear in the vendor area that looked so original it had to be redecaled. RazerX however disagreed thinking this is a rare unfaded original example. Now on mine the flames go all the way to the bottom of the cabinet but this had a black edge, which seemed to be more evidence that this game was redecaled. RazerX continues to disagree pointing out that some games were like that originally. While we debated the game was quickly snatched up and moved into the show area. It wasn't set up though cause it would have been fun to play and see if the quality of the playfield matched this highly discussed cabinet.
With our debate about decals basically carted away it was time for the two of us to debate another topic. The game we found is Daisy May. While it wasn't in the best of shapes, covered in dirt and needed a good playfield rebuild, the buyer didn't even flitch at the $1600 price tag slapped on the game. The game wasn't plugged in so RazerX and I were debating how the flippers on this game actually worked. I thought the left flippers on each side worked on one button and the left and the right sided flippers flipped on the right flipper button. RazerX, of course, disagreed so he asked the seller what the correct answer. The man selling the game turned out to be a retired operator and shared with us that the original owner was his father also an operator. He also shared with us that in all the years that the game was in the family he never had a chance to play it. Thank goodness the EM machine expert, Clay Harrel was on hand to settle the debate. Turns out we were both wrong and the flippers do a crazy clamshell movement.
Now a flee market just would not be a flee market if it didn't have a Ticket Tac Toe. But we were in luck, as one was there so it turned out that yes, it was a true flea market. As I am checking out the booth where Ticket Tac Toe is I get a text message from non other than Cameron Silver, reminding me that he was back home, in line, waiting to ride his favorite coaster on opening day. Not to be out done, RazerX and I took a break from the show to go to Dorney Park. However before we could take off we had to pick up a playfield for another Mafia member. The playfield game in an old beat up cabinet so out in the parking lot, under the hot sun, we are parting out an old cabinet.
If you are looking for a break or want to send the family to an amusement park while you check out the show than Dorney Park fills the bill nicely. Cameron personally recommends checking out his "laser" however Steel Force provides a much longer ride time. "Laser" does rock as it has the traditional circular loops and the old school lap bars. If you need a break from rides be sure to check out the chili cheese fries. Then go over to the arcade, realize that there are no pinball machines in it, and drown your sorrows over some Turkey Hill ice cream.
This does mark the first time that we have "Rides of the show". RazerX nominates Talon: The Grip of Fear (or No Fear if you are talking to Cameron.) This inverted coaster is non stop speed as it twist, dips and inverts from the first drop all the way to the break run. It is a good ride, and it was neat to wake up every morning staring at it from my hotel room, but I think another ride topped it. Hydra: The Revenge gets my nomination for Ride of the Show. There is no way to describe as it is just a blast from the beginning. Before the lift you are treated to a surprise. All I can say is: "Don't Flip! 3... 2... 1... Flip!" Not only is this ride fun but the logo would make an awesome backglass for an old school EM or early Solid State pin.
After a fun day at the park we had to stop for Margaritas (it was Cinco-de-Mayo after all) and then off to a party at a local collector's house. The first game I played there was Attack From Mars and did amazingly well. I was starting to feel bad because I was getting close to knocking off his Grand Champion score on my first game. His game played that well that I was just in the zone. After putting up high score #1 I turned my attention to something else. In his collection he had an NBA: Fastbreak. So I played a couple of games just flipping the ball around getting a feel for the shot and watching stuff happened. And then, I realized what the rules to this game are. So I had to play some more now actually trying to do well and was surprising myself that after all these years of not liking the game, I was having fun. RazerX had to jump in and after explaining the rules to him we came to the conclusion that it was a fun game to compete on.
Sunday was the day in which we take one last stroll around making sure we didn't miss anything the previous days. Anywhere in the hall you could run into one of the many Black Rose machines that were at the show. All of them were faded, all of them were broken. But we did make sure to check out the Jackbot and the original version, Pinbot. Even though they are the same game I think I have to give the nod to Pinbot, plus it is space themed so that helps. We did check out some other games we normally don't get to play. These included Big Hurt, World Challenge Soccer, and some Mario game that sucked so bad I can't even remember the title of it. It just makes you wonder, in the 90s did Gottleib ever look at the competition, even once? What about just a peak? We did find another NBA: Fastbreak so we had to compete some more. It was still fun even though it was a different machine and not so late at night. Could this mean the game isn't as bad as everyone says it is?
Finally it was time to head home. Along the way we found a brand new, out of the box Family Guy at an Ohio Service Center. I can finally say that I have played a family guy. I can also finally say that the game really, really not my style. It is weird that as I am getting more and more into pinball I am finding that I am getting more and more into the simpler style of game play. The first two times that I played Stewie Pinball I completed all the characters. What follows gives the vibe that it is suppose to be this awesome intro like Lost In The Zone was however what I was given was an encyclopedia of instructions that in no way can be comprehended. RazerX was having better games than I but neither of us could figure out how we starting a series of multiballs. It was just the perfect example of the theme all weekend that simpler is better.
The rest of the drive home gave us time to declare our games of the show. RazerX found his game of the show right away. Seawolf, the first machine by the door, the first machine that we played, made a big impact on him. The disappearing jet bumper on a wood rail game, the overall condition of the game, the animated submarine diving on the back glass, all were qualities that made this game stand out. I also found a game that drew me in, was fun to play as a single player and played even better to compete on. The game that left an impression on me is NBA: Fastbreak and I am going to spite popular opinion and make this my game of the show. Until this weekend I could not stand the game, now I have rediscovered it for the first time.
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