STERN'S FIRST BIG
Article by Eddie Mole
Sam Stern was in the amusement machine business for over half a century. He was a successful operator way back in the 1930s, later bought half of Williams which he ran with Harry Williams, and was involved with various other gaming companies over the years, before taking over Chicago Coin with his son Gary, in 1976.
This company then became Stern Electronics Incorporated (SEI), which was the first pinball production company to bear the Stern name.
I didn’t play pinball in the 1970s or '80s, so was totally unaware of the existence of those early Stern pinball machines. But as my playing experiences grew, so did my interest in SEI, so it wasn’t long before my curiosity got the better of me and I began seeking them out.
I should say now that I have no insider Stern knowledge, or stories, or even comparisons with other pins from the same time period, so my views are purely retrospective and the information in this article is based on books, the internet, and from playing several of the games.
I already owned some early '80s Bally games such as Centaur and Xenon before I even saw a Stern game, and I liked them a lot. I enjoy picking off drop targets and practicing my nudging, skills which aren’t as important when playing many modern games.
I also love the artwork from that period, especially those outstanding backglasses by artists like Paul Farris, Greg Freres, Doug Watson and Kevin O’Connor.
Some of the Sterns are real beauties such as Big Game, Magic, Lightning, Flight 2000 and the “oh so sexy” Iron Maiden, Galaxy, Quicksilver and Cheetah.
So it wasn't surprising that when I started looking for more games - which looked good and featured drop targets - I found several Stern games on my wish list
The story goes that SEI competed strongly with Bally, Williams and Gottlieb for a share of the pinball market between 1976 and 1982, and produced some outstanding games which remain fun to play 30 years later. With games like Meteor, Quicksilver, Lightning and Seawitch, they developed a reputation for fast games. But this view is way too simplistic and doesn’t do justice to some of their most innovative designs.
Early Sterns shared many electrical parts with Ballys through a licensing agreement. The Bally games have since proved to be some of the most reliable from that period and this means Stern games also remain practical machines to own and play today, unlike some other makes which are best avoided by all but the most dedicated enthusiast or electronics wizard.
Stern, upon purchasing Chicago Coin, soon abandoned electro-mechanical designs in favour of solid-state technology, and produced their first solid-state machine called Pinball. This (and other early Stern games) was fairly basic, but it did have nice artwork - a feature which remained an SEI trait until they effectively ceased making pins in 1982.
Pinball (the game) was relatively successful and was produced in both EM and SS versions, while their next effort, Stingray, was produced solely as a solid state game and in greater numbers.
Stingray is very attractive and as much effort seemed to have been put into the playfield and plastics art as was given to the backglass. This is also true of other early Stern games such as Wildfire and Magic. These early SS pins were similar to the many EM games of the past, but Stern were already showing their willingness to experiment with the game Hot Hand, which had a rotating flipper near the top of the playfield.
Then in 1979 Stern's real market breakthrough came in the shape of a game called Meteor.
It was Meteor which showed Stern could match the other larger manufacturers when it came to pinball design, and for a brief time Stern was at the front of the development race.
Designed by Steve Kirk, it was one of the games which kick-started an innovative period in pinball design history, in which it became apparent how revolutionary solid-state technology would be.
Over at Williams they were producing mould-breaking machines such as Gorgar - the first talking pin - and Flash - the first game with continuous background sound - but Meteor’s contribution was great use of drop target memory. Meteor remembered target positions from ball to ball and from player to player to an extent never encountered before. It also had a fast flowing playfield, 3 rows of drop targets and hypnotic electronic sounds. This meant that Meteor made a big impression and with 8,326 games produced it was Stern's best-selling game ever.
Meteor was Sterns high point in terms of sales, but in terms of design there was much more to come from designers such as Harry Williams, Mike Kubin, Steve Kirk and Joe Joos Jr.
SEI had Sam Stern’s long-time friend and partner - and one of pinball’s greatest innovators - Harry Williams, on its design team. Harry was the founder of Williams Pinball and the man who, back in the 1930s, had introduced electricity and the tilt mechanism into pinball.
He hadn’t lost his touch, and designed some of Sterns most successful games such as Galaxy - of which 5,154 were made. Galaxy was made in 1980 - soon after Meteor - and was another space-themed success. The art work was stunning and featured a beautiful naked star babe, conveniently covered with well placed stars to avoid any need for censorship. As with Meteor the game play was fast, and it had an interesting playfield with a unique arch which directed the ball launch shot towards the flippers if not treated with respect.
Harry’s next effort - Big Game - was Stern's first game to use 7 digit scoring. It has some electronic jungle sounds, such as birds mixed in with various electronic bleeps. It also has jungle and big cat livery, with a gorgeous tiger on the backglass. The two main aims of this single ball game involve spelling B-I-G G-A-M-E with various rollover switches, and lighting all nine lights in each of the three bingo-style cards on the playfield. This was done by hitting drop targets numbered one to nine, while other shots such as the top bumper move scoring between cards. It was Stern's first wide body table and is a clever, surprisingly fast and enjoyable game.
Smart and fun as Big Game is, with production figures of only 2,700 it was a disappointment in terms of sales when compared to the 17,410 Firepowers produced around the same time.
Firepower was awesome, with multiball, speech and a superb playfield layout. Stern needed to respond, and Harry Williams’ next game - Flight 2000 - was a great effort.
Flight 2000 is another wide body game, has 3-ball multiball and was Stern's first talker. It makes good use of its wide playfield and has drop targets, bumpers, a spinner, rollover lanes and double in-lanes next to its two flippers.
Talking machines were still rare in 1980 and Flight 2000’s robotic synthesised speech sounded perfect for its space travel theme. Stern introduced speech ahead of Bally, who produced the amazing Xenon (an all time personal favourite of mine) a couple of months later.
Flight 2000 has an attractive - and what was then unique - method of capturing and releasing balls, and shuffled them around into columns.
The combination of attractive art and Harry Williams' innovative design skills proved a good combination, so Flight 2000 sales rocketed (excuse the pun) to 6,300 units.
Flight 2000 is still widely regarded as one of Stern's most memorable and finest games.
Harry’s innovative designs continued with a timed shot/feature on Split Second, and the game Cue, which has a playfield full of bumpers and looked more like a game from the '40s than the '80s. Cue also had reversed flippers that sent the ball up the outside of the playfield, rather than the centre.
Later Stern games seemed to be being produced in ever smaller numbers and Cue is very rare as only six games were ever manufactured.
Nine Ball was Steve Kirk's next- and much anticipated - game after Meteor. It had a fast, open playfield with 15 drop targets, wacky sounds and 3 ball play. Typically, the artwork was imaginative and features a magician zapping a pool ball rather than the more traditional pool player practicing his craft.
Unfortunately this promising game was plagued with software faults and received over 60 rom revisions without fully resolving its problems. This no doubt did Stern's reputation no favours at a time when pinball was under pressure from the upsurge in the video game market.
Joe Joes Jr. proved that, like Harry Williams, he was an innovative designer. His games included the visually stunning Quicksilver, Cheetah and Lightning. Lightning was Sterns first of three double-level games (the others being Iron Maiden and Split Second), and is often thought of as Stern's answer to Black Knight.
Their playfields have many similarities but those who play Lightning soon realise that it has its own unique features.
It is themed on the legends of Norse gods, it talks, and it has 3-ball multiball and a countdown/bonus time feature. Never common, it is a rare find today, but it is a superbly challenging and fast double-level game.
Catacomb was next, and on paper it had it all; great art, a voice, multiball, a nice playfield layout and an animated bagatelle backglass feature. Despite this, Catacomb didn’t stand out from the crowd, sold poorly, and is now another rarity.
SEI were struggling, and it seemed that Joe Joos was the only person left designing pins at Stern. His next game Viper had a turret in the centre of its playfield with stand up targets around it. The turret was capable of holding a ball and slowly rotates once a ball was captured. The ball can then be shot out at any part of the playfield as the turret turns. All very original and clever but sadly by all accounts it didn’t play as good as it looked so again it failed to sell in significant numbers.
The art work on Viper was done by an artist called Parker. His art also decorates Iron Maiden. Both games look stunning so it’s a great pity that Parker’s graphics didn’t appear on more pin tables.
Dragon Fist came next, another rare but also much more conservative game. If you manage to find a working Dragon Fist or Viper it’s a very rare find.
Falling sales were having their effect by late 1981, as a number of games appeared not to be fully developed before going into production. The software faults on Nine Ball have already been mentioned, but there were other examples too.
Split Second never did get any background sounds and Iron Maiden never got to speak as planned.
Stern games still used the original synthesized speech chip that had sounded good in sci-fi and fantasy games like Flight 2000 and Lightning, but just didn’t sound quite right in a circus theme game such as Split Second or the beautiful Freefall.
At this point you could have reasonably predicted that SEI would just wind down, call it a day and disappear from pinball production, but someone must have decided that something radical was needed to buck their declining sales trends. The result was that Joe Joos Jr designed, what in retrospect is one of the most amazing games ever made, Orbitor 1.
Playing Orbitor is a unique pinball experience. It’s a wide body and the playfield is made of one big bowed piece of transparent plastic that covers a replica lunar landscape, complete with lumps bumps and craters. This is lit from below by a tube light. Feature lamps shine in craters while two centrally placed spinning bumpers send the ball careering all over the place.
The combination of the curved playfield and the spinning ball make for an interesting game. You can forget your usual style of play as you must continually compensate for the path the ball will take over the curved surface. You must also remember to flip if the ball rolls behind the flippers and let it back through into the main playfield before it drains. Once played it will not be forgotten.
Sadly, although much admired, Orbitor was just too different to catch on, and it remained a novelty game with only 889 made.
That was effectively the end of SEI’s pinball production, apart from a prototype called Lazerlord in 1984, which was the same year in which Sam Stern died.
This, as we know, was not the end of the Stern name’s association with pinball, as Gary Stern continued to be involved in the game through a series of companies such as Pinstar, Data East, Sega and currently Stern, who are the only current large volume producers of pinball.
I remember getting an initial impression that Stern machines were inferior to those of Bally, but that’s not been my experience, as I have found them well-built and reliable.
It’s strange how false rumours get around in pin circles. Another I heard was that Seawitch was Stern's answer to Bally's Fathom, even though it turns out that Seawitch was produced first and is nothing like Fathom to play.
The only awkward problems 30 years on, are that their backglasses seem to be more fragile than Bally’s, and that it’s now difficult to find a replacement speech chip if you need one.
You only have to play a few of these classic games to realise that SEI produced some very good machines, which in retrospect should come as no surprise when you think of the production team involved.
Finding working Sterns to play is difficult here in the UK but there is still interest in Stern games from both players and collectors alike - especially in the US.
Playmeter magazine said in a 1979 review of Meteor “hats off to Stern for a really great effort” and I think the same could be said for SEI, and their contribution to the game of pinball in the early '80s.
Credits: Internet Pinball Database, Marco Rossignoli: The Complete Pinball Book & Pinball Memories. Playmeter magazine: 1979 Meteor review.
Note: A version of this article was first published in the UK Pinball Wizard magazine.
© Pinball News 2011