Welcome to our annual round-up of the past 12 months in the world of pinball.
2008 has been another exciting year with four new games from Stern, a huge number of pinball shows and events around the world, some interesting new products and some familiar faces leaving the pinball business.
The year began with the release of Stern's Shrek - a re-themed Family Guy design from Pat Lawlor.
With Family Guy not selling in the expected quantities, Shrek provided a way to use up some of the stock of parts in a theme more suited to family locations or gamerooms put off by Family Guy's rather crude humour.
It wasn't long before Stern's next effort was on display at the Enada trade show in Rimini, Italy in March.
Indiana Jones featured an impressive Ark of the Covenant, a unique combined captive ball and scoop and some great lighting and sound effects in an attractive looking package from designer John Borg. However, the repetitive, uninspired and unfinished rules mixed with an overall lack of fun to leave us generally unimpressed.
By July we'd had moved on to the next Stern game, also based on one of the year's big blockbuster movies.
Batman, like Indy, was a sequel to an earlier film and an earlier pinball machine (or in Batman's case, two earlier machines). But the Batman of Christopher Nolan's movie was a very different character from the Burton and Schumacher versions, and the game was equally different from its Data East and Sega forebears. George Gomez produced a two flippered layout featuring a rotating Joker reveal, a tilting ramp and a ball suspended on the end of a crane. Once again though, it was the unfinished and simplistic rules which failed to realise the game's potential, leaving us frustrated at what could have been.
As the year ended, the fourth Stern game of 2008 rolled onto the production line.
CSI started off as a Pat Lawlor design but underwent a number of changes at Stern before the crime investigation-based machine started shipping. Although it was nowhere near as anticipated as Indy or Batman, we liked the depth of the three multiball modes and the skull mechanisms which brought back physical ball locks. For the third game in a row, the software - although nearly complete - failed to excite us or keep our interest beyond the multiball modes.
So 2008 must go down as the year incomplete software became the bugbear of new game releases. Indy received a number of updates to fill in some of the missing features but it remains disappointing, while Batman's four Bat Missions are all identical and the wizard mode is still just a points award. CSI also lacks a wizard mode at this time.
But these problems were symptoms of a larger problem at Stern, evinced by a number of staff lay-offs as the effects of the global downturn, price rises, exchange rate variations, the disappearance of coin-op arcades and higher material costs all combined in 2008. Pinball's relatively poor earnings and the steady decline in the number of arcades as players stay home for their entertainment made for a tough year for new sales.
In-house designers Dennis Nordman and John Borg were laid-off along with software programmers Keith Johnson and Dwight Sullivan. Sales and support head Joe Blackwell also left along with a number of others.
Gary Stern suggested he would use external designers for future games but we don't expect to see Pat Lawlor creating another game for Stern and Steve Ritchie - whose 24 game is first in line for 2009 - certainly seems to have burned his bridges with his post on rec.games.pinball. John Borg though did recently return to the company as a hybrid production manager/designer to complete the unfinished playfield designs and see them through to production so perhaps others will be coming back in the future too?
Despite numerous predictions of the company's imminent demise, Gary Stern appeared upbeat about the future and the reduced-size Stern Pinball seems to be able to keep going, for now at least. On a brighter note, there was some good news for collectors as version 2 of the Spider-Man code was released, adding missing features and graphics, confirming the game as probably the best of the recent Stern offerings.
If new machine sales are declining, the global interest in pinball amongst collectors and enthusiasts has boomed in 2008. The increased cost of travel may have curtailed some of that growth towards the end of the year but there are more and more shows, a much greater number of tournaments and internet discussion groups are buzzing with questions, comments and trades. Pinball News tracked 60 pinball shows or events in 2008 compared to 50 the previous year and many of those are adding more seminars, dinners or extra days to their schedule.
In the home collector market, prices have seen some small reduction but overall they have held steady despite the economic conditions, especially at the top end of the price range. Global exchange rate shifts have changed the economy of importing and exporting games though, with the strong Euro and reduced availability of machines making it less attractive to repatriate games from Europe.
For another year, none of the promised Crocodile Hunter, Medieval Madness or Cactus Canyon games have been produced by The Pinball Factory in Australia, while Illinois Pinball had to put their Capcom Kingpin project on hold due to insufficient interest from potential buyers.On a brighter note, the first run of King of Diamonds reproduction machines from Retro Pinball is slated for release later in 2009 with an inital 100 machines followed by further batches according to demand. These have been a long time coming - we have been reporting on this since the start of 2007 - so let's hope 2009 is the year they finally start rolling off the line.
If you can't get a new game, keeping your old game working starts to look more attractive. Pinball 2000 owners got excited by the potential of the Nucore replacement computer system, allowing faster, better graphics, easy use of LCD monitors, a jukebox mode and no reliance on outdated, custom hardware.
Although they initially thought there could go it alone, by October the team had decided to work on a deal with Illinois Pinball's Gene Cunningham with a provisional release in the spring of 2009.
Also in the spring, the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas could have a new, larger home after buying an 8400 square feet building on the same road but nearer the main strip. There is some work to convert the two existing stores into one and the current location will remain open while the work is carried out.
On that piece of good news, we'll wrap up this review of 2008. We hope you've enjoyed the Pinball News reports on the year's events. We've increased our coverage, added more and better quality audio and video to the site, added more options such as MP3 downloads and lower bandwidth reviews, added league or monthly tournament information and we've got more planned for 2009, so keep sending in those great ideas.
© Pinball News 2008