"Elvis? You're kidding, right?"
That must have been the reaction from many people when they heard about Stern's plans for a pinball game based on the king of rock and roll, and certainly it wasn't an obvious theme.
But pinball is all about "retro" according to Gary Stern, and retro is cool. It's a classic American icon, known the world over and fondly remembered from our youth. In that context, the idea of an Elvis pinball game begins to make more sense.
And so we have Stern's latest model based on the man, the music and the memories. It's a 4 ball game, designed by Steve Ritchie and art by Jerry Vanderstelt and Kevin O'Connor. The cabinet art is still quite dotted but somehow looks much better than before.
Talking of the artwork, the backbox translite is unusual in two ways. Firstly, the single fluorescent tube used to light the backglass usually results in a bright horizontal central strip and darker top and bottom edges. This artwork seems to have been designed to play to the lighting's weakness and you really don't notice the problem any more.
The second novelty is the inclusion of a holographic logo at the bottom left to identify it as an Elvis Presley Signature Product. That will make reprints tricky.
You will already have seen some of the playfield from our earlier reports but in this review we will look at the game's features, the rules and how the whole package fits together.
First though, before we begin our tour of the playfield, a note that this game is not the final production version.
Right, it's time to take the guided tour of the game.
Starting at the flippers, this game has the usual two here and another two further up the playfield which we'll come to later. The "Shoot Again" had become "Rock Again" and with this being a UK game, it is fitted with the UK All Skill extra posts above each outlane and between the flippers along with the extra flipper buttons to activate them. If you're outside the UK you won't see these. What you will see are the anti-biff bars behind each flipper to prevent bounce backs or death saves. Some Stern games have them and some don't. Ripley's didn't but Lord Of The Rings did.
Moving on, there is the usual single outlane and single inlane on each side. There's no kickback and no other provision to save a drained ball. If it goes down an outlane it's lost. Each inlane is fed by its respective ramp, so the left ramp directly feeds the left inlane and the right ramp, the right inlane. There are ways to change this but that's the way it usually works.
The outlanes score a 500K bonus if "Elvis has left the building" is lit. I think this is only available on the last ball of each game and then only if E-N-C-O-R-E has not been completed, but by that stage it should be a fairly meaningless score anyway. Also, you can see that the UK All-Skill outlane posts punch right through the wording. Whoops.
The inlanes are more useful. The left one is labeled "2X Screaming Fans" and makes the right ramp score double the usual number of fans, while the right one lights the left loop to set up a Blue Suede Shoes inner loop shot.
Above the flippers are inserts for the five main modes of the game - each one based on a famous Elvis song. Completing all five of these is one of the three key stages to reaching the finale wizard mode and we'll examine each of them in detail a little later.
Carrying on in a clockwise direction around the playfield we come to the E-L-V-I-S drop targets.
These work just the way drop targets should - they fall down just as easily when hit directly from the front as they do when hit by a ball dribbling out of the left loop above them. When all knocked down, they reset and light Gift of Elvis at the top saucer. The award is shown on the gift board above.
This is only partly successful because it is mounted at such an angle, and the writing is so small that players can't see what the awards are. Also, all the bulbs for the awards are the same colour so you will have to learn the order. If you want to start now it is (L-R) Flip Flip Dance Dance (the video mode), Gold Records (award records for bonus and collect points), The King of Rock & Roll (a frenzy-type mode), Light Extra Ball and E-N-C-O-R-E letter (which adds a letter to E-N-C-O-R-E).
The drop targets are also one of the skill shots from the shooter lane. The E-L-V-I-S lamps light one at a time and you have to hit the lit one when launching the ball, but it's a very tricky and dangerous shot because it would be all too easy to send the ball straight down the left outlane. The rollover lanes at the top are the other skill shot and much safer.
Just up from the drop targets is the entrance to the left loop, guarded by a spinner. The left loop goes all the way round the top of the playfield and either dumps the ball into the rollover lanes or sends it round to the right loop exit and the upper right flipper. The spinner is a good way to score lots of points in frenzy-type modes such as Hound Dog where all switches score and a good hit on the spinner can give up to a dozen spins. In normal play it awards 20 points per spin.
The left loop can be shot to collect a blue "top ten countdown"note, to collect "All" for "All Shook Up" mode, to light the inner loop to advance towards"Blue Suede Shoes" and it is one of the five shots required for Graceland mode indicated by the white arrow.
Next to the left loop is the left ramp. This is made from brushed steel and laser-cut with the word "Elvis" on one side and five musical quavers on the other. There are a couple of G.I. lamps behind to enhance the effect. The ramp leads to a 180° bend and the upper playfield. The bend very effectively slows down the ball as it passes the upper left flipper. If you don't flip, the ball passes the flipper and exits the upper playfield onto a gold wireform, across the left ramp and loop, under the Gifts of Elvis sign and down to the left inlane.
The left ramp can be lit for a blue note, "Shook" for "All Shook Up", and is one of the Graceland shots.
To the right of that ramp is the Hound Dog.
Hound Dog is much like the leaper frogs of Scared Stiff - i.e. you hit it with the ball and it jumps up. It's not as effective though and the dog doesn't jump up very high but you get the idea and it doesn't require a hard shot to register a hit.
Hitting the dog enough times to complete both inserts starts Hound Dog mode which is a timed frenzy mode and is explained in depth a little later in this review.
To the right of the Hound Dog and slightly up the playfield are two sets of standup targets.
The TCB (Taking Care of Business in a flash) three bank of standups are some of the most important targets in the game because when completed, they start a 20 second timer where all scoring is doubled. Again, the Scarf target can add more time to this.
Next to the TCB targets are the KING standups. Their main task is to relight the Scarf target, which is the red standup below them and it gives out semi-random awards. They're semi-random because they are steered to be useful in your current mode or state of play, so in multiball it will often add another ball, or in a timed mode it will extend the timer.
The KING targets are also featured in the King of Rock & Roll mode, one of the Gifts from Elvis.
Continuing across the playfield a little brings us to the game's real toy - Elvis himself.
This is no static Elvis, he moved forward and backwards, his legs move side-to-side and his arms move up and down to bring the microphone to his mouth.
Here's the view of Elvis you never see and shows how the movement is achieved through the two actuator wires.
To the right of the Elvis model is the Jailhouse Rock saucer.
This is the place to start Jailhouse Rock multiball, collect jackpots and super jackpots. Balls can enter here either directly from a lower flipper shot or it can roll out of the pop bumpers into the saucer, although this happen less often that you think.
Balls are always ejected to the front and fall nicely onto the lower right flipper for a drop catch or a bounce pass to the left flipper.
And to the right of the saucer is the right ramp. Laser cut like the left ramp, it feeds to the upper playfield, but it usually balls exit immediately and roll down another gold wireform to the right inlane. Shots here score one Screaming Fan unless they came through the left inlane in which case you score two fans. Fans form part of the bonus count and extra balls are awarded at 19 fans and 50 fans, although these numbers can vary.
Unusually, and pleasingly, when the display says "extra ball at 19" it really does mean it. The extra ball is awarded immediately you make the 19th ramp shot and not just lit for collection elsewhere.
The right ramp can also award a blue note, collect "Up" for "All Shook Up" and features in Graceland.
The penultimate major shot is the right loop. It's not really a loop shot because although it is the reverse of the left loop, there's a one-way gate at the top and a saucer, so the ball either enters the saucer or enters the rollover lanes and bumpers.
The right loop shot to the top saucer collects the lit Gift from Elvis, start Graceland, collect extra balls and specials, while the shot can also collect a blue note and is another Graceland shot.
Balls exiting the right loop can be flipped by the upper right flipper to the inner loop or if you're very careful, the Jailhouse Rock saucer. Yes, it can be done.
The inner loop is the final major shot and can only be made from the upper right flipper.
The loop is necessary to start Blue Suede Shoes mode but can also be lit for a blue note or for Graceland. It feeds into the left loop, so it ends up either looping round or sending the ball into the rollover lanes.
To help you make the inner loop, there is a magnet at the exit of the right loop to stop the ball briefly and allow you to line up the shot. In this software revision the magnet didn't always operate when you expected it to, but that may be made changed to make it more consistent eventually.
The game makes a big issue of the inner loop shot. It's often a Steve Ritchie trademark to have an important upper flipper loop so it's not surprising that it is clearly signposted through sounds effects and display animations. The only problem is - it's not all that important in this game. You need to make the shot a couple of times to start Blue Suede Shoes mode (and get the jackpots), collect blue notes and for Graceland but it gets a magnet to set it up, its own flipper, special quotes and its own style of display art (which looks more like T3 graphics). It's curious that the shot is given such undue prominence.
Below the upper right flipper is the exit of the shooter lane which has a switch but it seemed to be used to register balls falling back into the lane. There's nothing to stop balls doing this and it seemed to happen fairly regularly. The game software sensibly allows you to make another skill shot attempt unless you are in multiball in which case the ball is relaunched automatically.
Just below the shooter lane exit is the blue note standup. This is the only target that even comes close to being a sucker shot and when hit, it spots one of the lit blue note inserts. It turns off when collected but can be relit by shooting the left ramp.
Let's scoot up to the top of the playfield to complete our tour.
The big feature up here is the clear upper playfield and Heartbreak Hotel. You get here by shooting up the left ramp. The ball passes the upper left flipper and you get the chance to shoot at two standup targets and the Heartbreak Hotel door. The number of shots varies but you hit these targets and the hotel's door opens to reveal a lock area below. The door works just like the garage door in The Simpsons Pinball Party, lifting up to allow the ball to pass underneath to the lock.
Balls from the right ramp pass straight across the upper playfield in front of the hotel without offering you any chance to deflect it unless your game has a very lax tilt setting. There are three exits from the upper playfield for the ball to take; one is below the flipper leading to the left inlane, one (behind Elvis in the picture above) leads to the right inlane and it is just about possible to shoot back down the right ramp. The left ramp isn't possible because of the 180° brake at the top.
Despite the prominent rubber rings the ball doesn't bounce around too much and it's harder to control the ball than you would think. The lock shot takes some serous practice to master and it's not easy to make during a frenzied multiball.
The whole upper playfield area is very nicely designed and its transparency genuinely achieves the goal of providing more playing area without masking the main playfield below. You can see all the action all the time .
So what is underneath?
At the very top is the saucer. This is the one reached from the right loop to award Gifts, extra balls et al. The ball is ejected from here into the three adjacent rollover lanes and just below the saucer is the one-way gate to stop weaker right loop shots continuing all the way round. On this game there was an unusual ball hang-up where it became stuck between the saucer and the gate. It seemed impossible - it couldn't be reproduced by hand - and a ball search cleared it.
Those rollover lanes are themed like radio transmitter masts for WLVS - all Elvis, all the time. Completing them increases the bonus multiplier which appeared to max out at 8X. The ball rolls through the lanes into the three pop bumpers which are quite good at kicking it back through the lanes making it quite easy to build up that bonus multiplier.
The rollover lanes are also the other skill shot, though there's no indication of that fact on the display or on the playfield which is a bad omission. It's a two level skill shot - one of the lanes is flashing and you can change which one with the flipper buttons. Plunging the ball through that without having to change it with the flipper buttons gives you a "Hands Free Skill Shot" worth twice the value of a steered skill shot. The steered value starts at 250K points and increases 50K each time it is collected. As mentioned before, any ball falling back into the shooter lane in single ball play relights the skill shot.
And so to those pop bumpers.
It's true that they are partially obscured by Elvis and the Jailhouse Rock sign, but there's not much you can do to influence the ball at this point anyway, so it's no great hardship. There are three exits from the bumpers; to the left through between the TCB and KING standups, to the right into the right loop lane or at the bottom into the Jailhouse Rock saucer.
The bumpers have another feature which adds interest to the game.
They're not earth shattering awards but they're nice little helpers which provide interest in an area of the game you can usually ignore.
That's it for the actual playfield but we're not finished with game features yet. The backboard still has some goodies for us.
E-N-C-O-R-E is an adaptation of an old idea where you can earn some time after the game would otherwise be over to score some more points and boost your score. If you complete E-N-C-O-R-E during your game, you get 30 seconds of a 4-ball multiball to score what you can and earn those extra points.
Now, that's all very well, but what about if you had an extra ball lit when you drained? Can you collect it in E-N-C-O-R-E?
Certainly in this software revision it was possible to collect an extra ball in E-N-C-O-R-E and continue the game as usual after the 30 seconds of multiball. Whether that is intentional or will be removed we will wait to see but it does rather contradict the point of the mode if it's not the conclusion of the game.
To the bottom right of E-N-C-O-R-E is a flasher to show when TCB double scoring is active. It's a useful reminder that's easy to overlook but it saves you having to look at the DMD to see whether the timer has run out or not.
So that concludes our look around the Elvis playfield.
This in-depth game review is already long enough, so we'll conclude it with a look at the rules and our conclusions about the game in the second part which you can read by clicking here.
© Pinball News 2004