REVIEW OF THE YEAR
Welcome to our annual look back at the people, events and headlines from the past twelve months which helped shape pinball history and make 2015 such an important year.
After the excitement of announcements in 2013 from multiple hopefuls about their plans for machine production, 2014 saw several of them experience delays or missing deadlines. Surely 2015 would be the year when the people behind these projects, would finally reach the end of their journey. Wouldn't it?
As it turned out, for some the road ended with the successful release of their machines, while for others the ending was less happy.
But let’s start with things which were released in 2015, starting in January with a new board system for Stern Pinball.
At the EAG trade show in January, Stern unveiled their first game to use the new Spike control system.
Taking over from the SAM system which was introduced on World Poker Tour in 2006, Spike uses a small main controller board which links to a number of ‘node’ boards, each of which is responsible for a group of solenoids, LEDs and switches.
This simplifies the wiring, provides much more memory for game code, sounds, music and display animations, and is able to drive an LCD display as well as a dot-matrix one.
Despite employing new 3D animators, Stern has been slow to replace the traditional 128x32 dot-matrix display with an LCD. Smaller LCDs have appeared in a couple of the company’s titles – Whoa Nellie! and WWE Wrestlemania LE – but their main display hasn’t changed size or resolution since Lethal Weapon 3 back in 1992.
The John Trudeau-designed WWE Wrestlemania was the first game to use the Spike system.
Despite having a novelty player-controlled wrestling ring, the game didn’t prove to be a big seller, which probably wasn’t helped by Hulk Hogan’s well-publicised comments and subsequent erasure from all WWE records. The Hulkster was the lead wrestler on the LE model and his signature appeared on all 400 games. No premium model was produced.
Stern’s acquisition of the Kiss licence was revealed back in 2013, but it took until the summer of 2015 before the game went into production.
Designed by John Borg, the game was well-received and featured several throwbacks to the 1979 classic, including lavish artwork from the artist on the original Bally version, Kevin O’Connor, while Pinball Magazine devoted its third edition to Kiss pinball past and present.
Having toured US pinball shows over the past couple of years, Whoa Nellie! Big Juice Melons finally hit the big time as Stern put the Dennis Nordman and Greg Freres creation into production.
A series of small changes was needed to make it work as a mainstream product, but it managed to retain the charm and unique feel of the hand-built originals, even if the $6,499 price was $1,000 above the price of a regular Stern Pro model.
Game of Thrones made its debut in October, first with the Pro model and a couple of weeks later during Pinball Expo with the Limited Edition.
Based on the hit HBO series, Steve Ritchie’s latest creation featured his customary fast, flowing shots, with scoring opportunities as dazzling as the LED lighting. New code released over Christmas rebalanced both of these a little, while an earlier update added a ‘casual’ mode of play for novice players, making it the factory default on the Pro models.
Speaking of software updates, Stern has released a number of them over the past year, showing just how important the rules are to the overall enjoyment of a game.
When they were first released, neither The Walking Dead nor Star Trek felt entirely complete, but that changed following a number of software updates – 6 in 2015 for The Walking Dead and 5 for Star Trek – which added hugely to the strategy and depth of both games.
Now there are hopes Kiss and WWE Wrestlemania could be next in line to receive similar treatment.
Over at Jersey Jack Pinball they have been continuing to make The Wizard of Oz, while development work has focused on The Hobbit and Pat Lawlor’s design for their third game. But a new way to play The Wizard of Oz game that game added longevity.
However, they also found time to create the Pindemption software system which turns a The Wizard of Oz (and The Hobbit when that title is released) into a ticket-spitting time-limited redemption game.
JJP say that as a redemption game it greatly out-earns a non-redemption pinball, and are selling the Pindemption software and a suitable ticket dispenser through their online store.
Jersey Jack Pinball’s The Hobbit has had a tortuous year but is finally about to go into production.
After last year’s Pinball Expo where it received a somewhat less-than-rapturous reception, a number of changes were made to the playfield and the software which have seen great improvements in gameplay and made it much more fun.
At the end of 2015 sub-assemblies were being built at the JJP factory, with production of full games expected to start early in the new year.
In August Jersey Jack Pinball announced it had three new investors. Leonard Abess, Andrew Paul and Scott Flanders teamed up to inject capital into the company, enabling production of The Hobbit to begin, taking a ‘significant’ stake in the business in return.
Since Antonio Ortuño was first announced his project in March 2012, a number of setbacks has delayed production of Quetzal Pinball’s Captain Nemo machine. It looked like production would begin at the end of 2014, but that was pushed back again due to decal and trough issues.
However, those have now been overcome, the games are being manufactured and delivery to customers has begun.
Congratulations to Antonio on successfully creating and building the game, and we hope to be able to review one in the near future.
Staying in Europe, Heighway Pinball also successfully launched their first game, Full Throttle, in 2015 with an appearance at the EAG trade show in London and a launch party at the Pipeline bar.
New distributors have been announced in Austria, France, Sweden, Australia, USA and Canada, while two new backbox display options have been added to supplement the in-playfield LCD screen.
While reaction to the motorcycle racing theme has been mixed, reviews of the playfield layout and gameplay have been overwhelmingly positive.
While several reveals have shown various small aspects of Heighway Pinball’s second title - such as the cabinet or some of the proposed toys - there has not yet been a full showing of the playfield design, display animations or artwork from Alien Pinball. So while much development work is taking place behind-the-scenes, very little has been made public.
Meanwhile, game designer Barry Oursler announced his intention to move to South Wales to work at Heighway Pinball full time, although this was delayed by a health scare at the end of November from which he is still recuperating.
Another company happily manufacturing and shipping pinballs is Spooky Pinball in Benton, Wisconsin. In July they reached the half-way mark in their 150 machine run of America’s Most Haunted, all of which were pre-sold, and last week said they had shipped another eleven machines that week, so completion of the run cannot be too far away.
At the Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown in June, Charlie from Spooky Pinball announced that their second title would be based on the director, musician, performer, producer and screenwriter, Rob Zombie.
His Spookshow International game will feature ten full songs, a colour LED dot matrix display, custom artwork by Alex Horley, and custom toys from Back Alley Creations. The run is limited to 300 machines, all of which sold out very soon after it was announced.
As if they hadn’t been busy enough, Spooky Pinball are also building a new factory in Benton. The foundations have been laid and the structural frame is now being constructed, despite the onset of wintery weather.
The new factory will help with another project Spooky are undertaking – building Domino’s Pizza-themed pinballs for locating in select restaurants, or for customer or staff to buy. Eighty to ninety machines are currently ordered with unveiling of the first machine in June 2016 at the Domino’s World Wide Rally in Las Vegas.
Of course, Spooky Pinball was not the only one with their eyes on a new home.
In August Stern Pinball moved nine miles northwest from their well-established base in Melrose Park to a newly-refurbished 106,000 square foot building at 2001 Lunt Avenue in Elk Grove Village.
Their new home more than doubles the floor space and allows two full production lines to operate, giving extra capacity for small runs or contract manufacturing without impacting on the main production line. Contract manufacturing such as...
As if Stern, Jersey Jack, Heighway, Spooky and Quetzal all producing games was not enough, 2015 also saw Chicago Gaming return to pinball with their Medieval Madness Remake.
The game was manufactured by Stern Pinball for Chicago Gaming, who designed a new control and driver system. Large PCBs under the playfield provided the LED lighting, switch inputs, and drivers for the solenoids, with a small master controller PCB in the backbox.
When the remake was announced by Planetary Pinball’s Rick Bartlett in October 2013, it was anticipated the first units would ship in Q2 of 2014. In fact the game began shipping in March 2015, and games are still coming off the Stern production line at the end of 2015.
The name of the second classic machine to be remade was expected to be announced at Pinball Expo in October 2015, but this will now take place at the Texas Pinball Festival in March 2016.
2015 certainly was the year several previously-announced projects were finally built, but there was also another secret pin game project the existence of which was only revealed once games were fully designed, built and ready to purchase.
In April, Pinball News unveiled Day One Pinball's new Scoregasm Master game.
Based on PAMCO's Contact Master from 1934, this flipperless bagatelle-style game adds a modern twist to a classic simple-to-understand-but-difficult-to-master amusement machine.
Dutch Pinball’s plans to ship their first The Big Lebowski games before Christmas were derailed by the familiar problems of licensing rights and last-minute glitches.
This time the licensing problem related to the music, which Dutch Pinball believed they had fully licensed for the game, but it turned out they didn’t have the rights to use the original artists’ performances. So the music had to be rerecorded using different musicians and vocalists.
In addition, a number of manufacturing issues were thrown up when five pre-production The Big Lebowski machines were put through three days of intensive play at the Dutch Pinball Open in November. These issues needed to be addressed before the first sample games could be built.
Silver Castle Pinball are in the unusual position of not having announced a release date for their physical realisation of the Pro Pinball Timeshock! computer pinball game. Instead, they say they will release it when it is finished.
Silver Castle brought in game designer Dennis Nordman to help make the shots work in real life and have the best flow possible. Although this was absolutely necessary in order to get the game to play correctly, it has resulted in them having to re-engineer several areas and thus taken longer than expected.
A certain amount of re-engineering has taken place at Multimorphic too.
Although development of the Lexy Lightspeed: Escape From Earth game continues, the P3 hardware/software platform on which it runs should all be nailed down around now, allowing parts to be ordered and manufacturing samples made.
The P3 is more than just one game though, so Multimorphic are inviting potential designers of games for the platform to join their forums and sign up for their development kit.
There hasn’t been much news from Mike at Homepin, but they have been producing video games from their factory in China and work is continuing on producing parts for their first pinball, Thunderbirds Are Go.
Thunderbirds Are Go was originally planned to be released alongside the TV reboot of the Thunderbirds series with the same name in April 2015. That first series ran until June, but a second series has been commissioned for screening in 2016 and 2017.
The Circus Maximus team are also continuing development work on their Python's Pinball Circus game with the promise that it'll be done when it's done. They brought their latest first prototype to Pinball Expo in October for everyone to play and see how the initial engineering work had moved on since 2014.
This game is the first proof-of-concept prototype. It will be followed by a second, incorporating all the changes and new features the team want to add to make the game more fun to play.
In March it was our unhappy duty to report how, despite assurances to the contrary, the rumours about the vaildity of the Predator licence were in fact correct. Skit-B's Predator Pinball project was not - and never had been - licensed by Fox, the owners of the Predator intellectual property.
Despite attempts to salvage something from the collapse of the project, it doesn't look as though Predator Pinball can be saved in its current form, and the whole concept of a Predator pinball has such toxic associations at present it will be some time before the theme could be revived.
Meanwhile, buyers are pursuing legal action to try to recover some or all of their money.
Needless to say, Skit-B's second game, Experts of Dangerous, has been sidelined too.
It was in April 2015 that John Popadiuk finally admitted there was insufficient money for his Zidware company to build any of the three pinball machines it had been offering for sale and taking payments on, and that there were no complete prototypes for any of them.
Buyers were offered a take-it-or-leave-it deal on Magic Girl which would take another two years, while the other titles could take another five or more years. More money would need to be paid too, and the whole project would be transferred to a new company with John acting as a consultant. There were no refunds offered, and agreement denied buyers the right to sue for their money back.
Not surprisingly few people were convinced, and when the nearest thing to a Magic Girl prototype was taken to the NW Pinball and Arcade Show in June, it became apparant there was a lot more work needed to make it feesible to build.
The deal soon collapsed and litigation began to try to recover some of the funds. Right now that legal action is ongoing, and there are no immediate prospects of any of the games being made or refunds issued.
2015 was a huge year for ColorDMD releases, with the number of titles now supported doubling in the past twelve months thanks to new releases for AC/DC, The Avengers, The Flintstones, High Speed 2: The Getaway, Iron Man, Johnny Mnemonic, Metallica, Monopoly, No Good Gofers, Popeye, Roadshow, The Shadow, The Simpsons Pinball Party, South Park and World Poker Tour.
Video seemed to be a big growth area in 2015, with the number of pinball podcasts being matched (or exceeded) by the number of vodcasts or live streams.
Increases in processing power and image quality, the reduction in price of equipment, and the availability of free web streaming services such as Twitch and YouTube means it's never been easier to set up your own live stream.
Pinball News added a new Video selection to our front page to showcase the many live (and archived) video streams available, as well as link to upcoming live events. If you know about any live streams not yet on our list, please let us know and we'll look at adding them.
Mods Go Legit
Pinball mods have been around for years, but in the past twelve months pinball manufacturers have become increasingly aware how lucrative the market can be and have set up their own online stores.
Jersey Jack Pinball now sells alternative decals, playfield protectors, the Pindemption redemption system, a topper, ticket dispenser and T-shirt.
Stern Pinball also got in on the mods business through their Stern Store. Along with branded clothing, the store sells some replacement shooter rods, toppers, side armour, shaker motors and Kiss playfield amplifier toys.
Heighway Pinball's online store sells two backbox display mods - a 10" screen which is identical to the playfield one, and a full-width 27" display - while Spooky Pinball sells LED upgrades and plastic protector sets for America's Most Haunted.
You've seen all the contenders, now here's your chance to vote for your favourite new release from 2015. The winner will be awarded the title Pinball News Best Game Of 2015.
Last year's favourite game was Star Trek with 37% of the votes, just ahead of The Wizard of Oz on 36%. Who's going to be top in 2015? Cast your vote now - it only takes two clicks.
For a bit of fun, why not share which upcoming pinball you are most excited about playing? We've listed the ones we think will be made either in 2016 or maybe 2017, but you can also vote for one we may have overlooked by using the Other selection.
In 2014, the most anticipated game was The Big Lebowski. Did it manage to maintain that excitement through 2015?
We all wish you a very happy 2016. Let's make it the best year for pinball ever.
And finally... what were your abiding pinball memories which made 2015 special? What games did you enjoy playing or owning? Which shows did you attend? Which tournaments did you enter? Which new pinball friends did you make? Share your thoughts with us in the box below.
© Pinball News 2016