Pingame Journal

Pingame Throwdown

Last updated on: 1/14/2015 12:59 PM 
Created on: 11/2/2016 2:22 PM 


My name is Mike Gaspar and I have been playing pinball in its home of Chicago since 1991 and refurbishing since 1996. While I'm proud of the work I have done in bringing WPC games back to the glory I remember from playing test games on location I have found myself too content to just enjoy playing games from other eras instead of fully appreciating their engineering and innovation. However I have since met Jackson Burger, a youth hailing from the Twin Cities who I am proud to be mentoring in this hobby. In order to make him a pinball elite of the Millennial Generation I have to make sure he becomes the best, which means I need to be the best, which means I need to learn from the best. My new mission: use my various travels to shows to meet enthusiasts who are masters at their own signature vintage of pinball machines and beat them at their own game of refurbishment. I may win, I may lose, but in the end a pinball machine will be brought back to life for others to enjoy for years to come. This is a Pin Game Throwdown.

In this throwdown, I am going to venture in to the world of 80's Stern machines, or Vintage Stern as I like to refer to them. My first encounter with this era is a Seawitch that was on display at a show in Kalamazoo, MI. Not only was the artwork captivating (chicks and skulls) but the drop target centered rules provided a unique and addicting playing experience. I paid closer attention to these games but as unique and artistic as they are, other titles I had played didn't captivate me the same way and I started to wander away from the 80's Sterns.

Back in issue #132 in one of my Road Crew articles I reported on the work of pinball collector Brian Bannon. At the 2008 Supershow in Herrin, Illionis Brian provided a number of games for free play including a Cheetah and a Galaxy. While most people were mesmerized by the Cheetah there was something about that Galaxy that stood out. Normally Galaxy is a simple game with not a lot of attention grabbing rules but in this particular game the play was fast, the playfield was smooth, the kickers and flippers were powerful and if you broke the 100,000K threshold in score you were having a great game. Brian contacted me after the story published to thank me for noticing and explained the amount of work and dedication that went into restoring that machine. Well Brian, two years later I still remember your work and at Pinball Expo 2010 I intend to bring a Vintage Stern that will play just as sweet as your Galaxy I remember.

In order to complete this throwdown I now need a Vintage Stern game to refurbish. Luckily I didn?t have to go too far from home. My CPM co-founder and road crew buddy Rob happens to be interested in 80s Stern and Bally games so he has some around including a challenging early Stern project. This one Stern has been stored in his garage for as long as I can remember and most likely hasn't been played long before that. It was a project game he picked up and had accumulated spare parts but with his constantly changing interest bringing this game back from the brink was never a priority. I lucked out in two ways because not only is he willing to let me work on this game, but it is also a title that I feel needs to be brought to a pinball show out of pure spite: Meteor.

In order to complete this throwdown here are the steps needed: swap the components from a bad playfield to a better playfield, use spare and replacement boards to create a working MPU and associated platform, clean the cabinet and replace or fix up parts, make sure every input and output device works, improve the way components are installed to increase reliability and finally, perform the tweaks I love to do to a game to give it that Wolffy feel. I also was very lucky in the fact that this was a friend's project that just stopped so along with the game came a box of new and like new parts including playfield plastics, dead bumper and thumper bumper components and probably the best investment for any Vintage Stern drop target game, a brand new set of 1, 2, 3, and Meteor targets.

In my travels I've come across many Meteors at various shows and even started the running joke that no pinball show is an official show unless there is a Meteor present. Why? For the longest time my experience with Meteor hasn't been a good one. Problems that plague this title are drop targets that fall down on their own, weak flippers and posts that are becoming detached from the playfield. I'm fortunate enough to have been in the game room of Scott out in PA who does a good job at keeping his collection of Vintage Stern's running. It is his Meteor which was the first I ever played that worked properly and showed me that the game can be fun. Now while that was years ago I recently came across a second at a Michigan pinball show that also played well enough to keep me coming back to play over and over again. While I had two good experiences I am constantly reminded of Meteors in which the ball never really felt wild and the various posts detached and rolled around the playfield bringing the game to an end. The worst offenders of post break away were the posts behind the M and E targets in the 6-drop target bank.

This project came with a second playfield that had minimal art damage and Rob even took time to make sure it was cleaned and buffed with wax 4 times. For a game built in 1979 this playfield had a great shine and I took it a step further to clean the underside and all the inserts. Before completing the swap though, I wanted to prevent as many of the top side posts as possible form working loose and becoming free during game play. That's why my first task was to convert all the wood screws to sheet metal screws secured to the underside of the playfield with t-nuts. The longer posts that served as supports for the playfield plastics required an update to Stern's old upside down carriage bolt trick. Once the playfield swap was complete I would need to relocate how a couple of lamp sockets were mounted and where the GI wires were run to avoid contact with metal that didn't exist before.

The final two challenges to learning how vintage Sterns were constructed would be to go through the wire harness by hand looking for loose soldier joints and possible tears in the insulation where I didn't want a short to occur. In the end there were plenty of lamps and switches I needed to re-soldier and just as many wires that needed some electrical tape added to prevent future problems. The other fun experience was replacing the drop targets which required me to learn how to disassemble then reassemble some of the largest drop target assemblies I have ever seen. It was here that I found some reset coils appeared heat damaged causing me to raid Rob's junk bin to find some better coils to install. The 6-drop target bank proved to be more difficult then I had hoped. There were numerous adjustments that I had to make so that when the bank reset, all 6 targets remained in the up position. This is important to preserving the difficulty of the rules because the software has no logic for a failed bank reset.

Here is the part when I bring Rob back to Wolffy's den to deliver the cabinet and back box from the garage. It came complete with a known working boardset since Rob was nice enough to pretest the boards in addition to the leaves and other debris that entered the game from where it was stored on some windy fall day. We set up the cabinet, backbox and installed the playfield and the moment of truth was here: will the playfield that was never powered up that I just rebuilt come to life? After the game completed its boot up sequence, the answer was yes. The Meteor that was locked away for no less than six years is now showing signs of life.

Now comes the fun part. With Jackson performing his first thorough shop job of a WPC game, it was time for me to get everything working on Meteor for play testing. Since I played close attention to the GI when I converted the mounting screws, all those lamps worked and I had a nice bright playfield. I could move on to the second step of making sure all the feature lamps worked. Again, my prep work paid off as all that was required was a number of bulb changes. All the coils worked properly once the 1 Amp fuse mounted to the playfield was replaced. What blew the fuse many years ago? The coin lock out coil on the coin door that was hacked and no longer properly wired. The biggest challenge was the switches. The right sling shot switch was stuck closed, a roll over switch would not register and the right outlane switch was completely dead. Luckily I had all the parts that were left over from the second playfield so I was able to wire up switches that I know would work before soldiering them into their final position. Now as I am yelling that I finally understand why so many Meteors I have played in the past didn't work, I have Jackson reminding me that for all the griping I have done I was now "that guy" who was bringing a Meteor to a show.

With confirmation that all the lights are illuminating, the switches are registering and the coils are firing I feel comfortable enough to install the playfield plastics and bumper caps while I finish off some clean up work to the cabinet. Given the age and how long the game has been stored I'm impressed with how easy the head and the cabinet cleaned up. All that is left is a little play testing and tweaking. With the game assembled Jackson commented "Nice! That looks awesome; I'm surprised a game that old can look that good." So with the kid who has only seen modern Sterns impressed its time to hit the show to see what pinball enthusiast and Vintage Stern collectors think.

The nice thing about Meteor is how light the game is compared to the WPC heavyweights I'm use to. Setting the game up myself in the exhibit hall was painless. I had to perform just a couple of test games to make sure everything is right. Jackson then put some time on the game to check it out although I believe he hoping to be the first person to break something. Satisfied that the game survived transport without issue, I was ready to turn it over the show attendees.

It didn't take long for the game to start getting attention from other players. Almost instantly there were compliments on how the game looked including how the colors were non-faded. Some people who were also Meteor owners were over heard stating how it plays like the one they have at home. There were also plenty of people going head to head in multiplayer for some good old pinball competition. However the surprise that stands out in my mind was finding legendary game designer Wayne Neyens putting in some play time.

Finally the moment of truth had arrived; it was time to present Meteor to the collector himself, Brian Bannon. After giving a look over the playfield condition he tried out the game play. While playing the game he appeared as if we was enjoying himself and then knowing he was the motivation for this project asked to poke around under the playfield. I then opened up the machine for him to inspect up close. Examining the underside he liked my idea of locking in screws to the height needed for the taller star posts and secure them to the playfield. Overall he seemed very impressed and this is looking like I accomplished my mission.

He complimented me on the overall look of the game and was amazed by the amount of work I did to make sure it was rock solid. His only real concern was with the flippers and how I like to set them for the more modern WPC games. Although I set these particular flippers so that the drop targets would be sweep able, I can understand how someone more familiar with how Sterns are set up would want them to be set more specific to style of the machine. While I can give him that my flipper set up may not be the most ideal the important opinion he offered came in reviewing the game play: it plays nice.

Judging by the 724 plays it received during Expo, I would say the crowd agreed. So while the game didn't turn out perfect, overall it seemed to be a success. I making this project a success I need to thank my supporting cast and fellow road crew. First I need to thank Brian for the inspiration and being a good sport to participate in this personal challenge of mine. I also need to thank Rob for letting me raid his garage and supply rooms as well as the additional help he lended in educating me on how these Stern games are suppose to work. Next I need to thank Jackson?s mom Lisa for transporting him across state lines to participate in person. Finally, thanks go out to Jackson for being one of the coolest and most fun kids to mentor.

So for those of you who are pinball enthusiast, keep doing what you are doing. If you see the CPM Road Crew of me, Rob or Jackson enjoying your game, take pride. But ask yourself this: are you ready for a Pin Game Throwdown?


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