WHEEL OF FORTUNE
Hello and welcome to this first part of our in-depth review of Stern's new machine - Wheel Of Fortune.
As usual we'll split the review in two with this part looking at the playfield design and features, explaining how everything fits together and interacts. The second part will look at the rules and how the different elements of the game all combine to produce the finished product.
If you've been following the story so far you'll know Wheel Of Fortune is based on the long running and widely syndicated game show of the same name. While it is a very popular theme for slot machines in casinos, can that magic rub off on the pinball machine buyers and players?
While many recent machines keep to a restricted palette and stand out by their adherence to their licensor's branding colours, Wheel Of Fortune's initial impressions are of a riot of colour throwing the theme right in your face.
On the playfield alone there's reds, greens, blues, yellows, orange, purple, white, and it's all bright and vibrant. Almost garish. Like the logo on the sides and on the translite, it's big, brash and unashamedly loud.
The translite changed slightly during pre-production removing a second Pat Sajak from his host's position and reducing the size of the contestants in relation to the rest of the scene.
And talking about the contestants, here they are in close-up from an actual translite.
That's Lonnie Ropp on the left and Keith Johnson on the right with the mysterious Maria in the centre. Well, she is mysterious no more because she is actually called Alejandra and she too works at Stern, on the assembly line producing these machines. It is no co-incidence that the three are dressed in red, yellow and blue as we shall see a little later.
Returning to the cabinet art, the sides are a fairly simple rendering of the show's logo over a colour burst starfield.
The front is a variation on the theme utilising a single line version of the logo but carrying over the colours into the Stern logo on the coin door.
There are a couple of changes from previous games. The start button is raised slightly so it is nearer the lock bar. The reason for that is to fit in an opening for the ToPS tournament start button.
On this particular game it was missing for some reason but this is where it goes from now on rather than on the lock bar. It's a mixed blessing because although it was a total pain having to disconnect the tournament switch every time you wanted to remove the lock bar, for those locations which utilised it, it did put the tournament play option in plain view. Plus some total newbies thought it was the regular start button, inadvertently boosting the tournament pot and reducing play time.
So with the new higher position and an extra start button on the front, take care when automatically reaching to start a new game to make sure you're pressing the correct one.
As you can see, the quality of the printing and the routing isn't great but it's about standard for Stern machines these days.
The backbox images are also fairly simplistic, depicting two of the wedges from the wheel.
The significance of the $5000 wedge is that it is the largest single prize value on the wheel in the show. The significance of the $2500 wedge is that it isn't.
That covers the exterior of the machine so let's see what's inside the cabinet starting with the backbox.
No surprises here - just the two SAM boards and the fluorescent lamp. As this is a European machine it uses a PinLED dot matrix display and so it doesn't require the high voltage display driver board in the backbox.
The interior of the bottom cabinet also holds no surprises.
Inside the cabinet you will find the manual, the four balls, the tilt plumb bob, the price card, and a small number of spare lamps. Included with the game are a selection of key fobs and replacement drop target stickers.
The underside of the playfield shows the green PCB for the inlaid LED dot matrix display while the the other end has the solenoids for the three playfield bobble-head characters, the three pop bumpers, the three in-line drop targets and the two stop posts.
OK, so that shows us what's inside which means it's now time to examine the playing surface, the toys and the playfield features of Wheel Of Fortune.
You'll immediately notice some unusual variations from the norm and your attention will be drawn to the game's big toy - the wheel. But the busyness of the playfield artwork and inserts should also give you a hint that there's more to this game than just wildly shooting at targets.
We'll begin our tour of the playfield at the usual starting point down by the flippers and work our way clockwise, pointing out the various features and assemblies as we go.
Normally at this point we'd say something like "just the usual two flippers in the regular place" but with Wheel Of Fortune we're immediately looking at something very different.
For a start the flippers are further apart than normal to make space for the two drain lanes with the centre post and lane guide which divide them. Although Stern have fitted black rubber - which is usually less bouncy than white - there's plenty of bouncing going on in the flipper area. The centre post is far more reliable at saving the ball than the posts found in many other games, mainly because it is larger but also because there is more rubber to be found on both sides to help keep the ball in play.
Be careful though. It's all too easy to become reliant on the centre post and rubber rings to save the ball for you and just occasionally you'll be caught out as the ball sails cleanly down the drain without even touching the sides. It's also tempting to forget the large gap that appears under the flipper when it is raised.
On the plus side, it is possible to trap a ball that is heading for the outhole under one of the flippers - between it and the black rubber ring below. You can use this to prolong your multiball provided you can use all that springiness to play with just one flipper. There are other tricks you might be able to play here to keep the ball in play given a little careful nudging and a lenient tilt setting.
Either, both or neither of the two drain lanes can be lit for Big Money which can be quite a nice consolation prize for losing the ball. Inevitably though, like Darth Vader, when only one lane is lit the ball is invariably drawn towards the dark side.
The plastic piece covering the drain lanes is printed left and right with the same pattern as the playfield which gives an effect somewhere between clever, confusing and annoying.
It's all brightly lit though, so you don't lose the ball because you can't see what's going on.
If the flipper area is unusual, we can surely expect a more regular inlane and outlane arrangement, can't we?
In a word, no. While Pat Lawlor might be famous for his dual inlanes, Dennis Nordman has opted for dual outlanes. Not in an attempt to rub salt in the wound as you might think, but to give players a lifeline and the opportunity to get our ball back.
The keys to grabbing this dangling carrot are the two Free Spin inserts and the small post with the black rubber ring on it. The Free Spin lamps can be lit by playfield features and if you manage to bounce the ball off the post and into a lit lane, you get a ball save as a new ball is autolaunched back into play. Sometimes you can get both lanes lit, sometimes only one and initially at least, neither are lit. There are equivalent lanes on the right side of the playfield too, so with all four lit, only the two centre drain lanes can take you out of the game.
You'll need these free spins because the ball does drain down the outlanes quite often, so it's important to get them lit as early and as often as possible. Once again, you'll marvel how often the ball cunningly avoids a lit Free Spin lane in preference for an unlit one.
The reason for the outlane drains can be at the inlane/outlane divider.
Once again there's plenty of rubber to keep the ball bouncing around until it hits the outer wooden wall which kills all the momentum and sends it off for a peaceful life in the trough.
The inlane is supposed to be lit for super bumpers on the right orbit shot but in all the games we played, we never saw it light up so perhaps that's something for a future feature. Or perhaps we just sucked. Either way, the left inlane is also the termination point for the left ramp, underneath which a small piece of mylar should protect the playfield from undue wear as the ball drops down into the inlane. The ramp itself looks a little more vulnerable though as despite having two mounting holes at the end, it is only supported at one point which could lead to premature breakage.
Above the left inlane and outlane, and underneath the left ramp, is the Wild Card lane.
Like the "Treasure" lanes in Pirates Of The Caribbean, the Wild Card is awarded if a ball rolls through the lane when it is qualified and the large purple Wild Card insert is lit. There is only one switch to detect the ball so direction is not important and when you make the shot you get a pseudo-random mystery award such as points, multipliers, lighting certain targets for you or a lit extra ball.
Unlike the Treasure feature in Pirates, the two targets in front of the lane do not relate to the Wild Card award. They, instead, are the first two letters needed to spell out M-U-L-T-I-B-A-L-L which unsurprisingly gets you ready to start multiball at the mini ramp.
The left loop can also be one of the Wheel Of Fortune Multiball jackpot shots when the red star insert is flashing. When collected, it extinguishes until all jackpots shots have been collected when it may be one of the shots to relight. In addition it can be a jackpot shot for one of the trip multiballs.
To the right of the left loop is the left ramp.
This loop harks back to the ramp shot on that other pinball game based on a TV quiz - albeit a fictional one - called The Bally Game Show, the backglass of which also featured a spinning coloured prize wheel.
The third of the three major left shots is perhaps the most important single shot in the game. It's the mini ramp ball lock.
The ball rolls up the mini ramp and over the edge into the metal enclosure from where it rolls out through a gap to the left. With an especially hard shot it is possible for the ball to hit the back wall and bounce out the front over the mini ramp, but it's not a common occurrence by any means. In fact as ball traps go, it's really quite effective, even if it looks a little utilitarian.
The enclosure looks like it sinks into the playfield but in fact the purple star pattern surrounding it is printed on a raised plastic piece and the enclosure sits flat on the playfield.
Although called a ball lock, no balls are really locked here. The ball is only held here temporarily before being released and there are no locks to build up in order to start multiball. The decal with the words "BALL LOCK" is not visible from the player's viewpoint and is presumably from a time before the light board, when it was considered sufficient to explain the purpose of the mini ramp.
As the ball exits the metal enclosure it is stopped by a white up-post while the display, sound and lighting effects are played.
When they are over, the post drops allowing the ball to continue rolling to the left, into the left loop lane and down to the left flipper.
Either side of the mini ramp ball entrance are two more green standup targets.
These spot the letters "L" and "T" towards completing M-U-L-T-I-B-A-L-L which lights it at the mini ramp.
Behind the mini-ramp ball lock are the game's three pop bumpers.
Featuring the Wheel Of Fortune branding, these are similar to the bumpers used in Spider-Man but use a larger diameter cap and the white LEDs used are more effective, producing a bright white glow when lit. The use of LEDs here is certainly useful since all three bumpers are either covered by a clear plastic shield or under the left ramp, making lamp replacement tricky.
Like Spider-Man, the LEDs do suffer from a small leakage current causing slight illumination when they are supposed to be off but that's only a minor problem.
More problematic is not being able to see what's happening in the pop bumpers. The lower bumper is obscured by the lamp board for the mini ramp ball lock, the upper left bumper is partly hidden by the left ramp and its hardware while the right bumper is hidden by the Lonnie doll.
The ball itself is also partly obscured by a raised purple plastic section. While the bumpers don't play an important part in most of the game, the ability to nudge the ball while in the bumpers to get those extra switch hits during a "frenzy" mode is made harder when you can't see what's happening.
One thing you'll definitely be able to see, though, is the contestants area.
These are the three contestants who are playing Wheel Of Fortune and the colours they wore in the backglass art are replicated here with their dolls. They are bobble-head dolls so their heads can move around and each doll is attached to a solenoid below the playfield which bounces them up and down at the start of the game and then again whenever they solve a puzzle.
In front of each contestant is a matching standup target and playfield insert.
The three inserts show when a contestant is currently in control of the game (flashing), is available to take over control (lit) or out of the game (unlit). Hitting a lit or flashing contestant's target will make them bounce briefly, gives them control and allows them to guess a letter in the puzzle.
We'll talk more about how the puzzles are solved and the prizes earned in the second part of this review when we cover the rules of the game, but they all tie in with the biggest toy - both physically and in terms of impact - in the game; the wheel.
Before we go any further lets just say this is a impressive piece of engineering. Yes, it's very simple in operation but the interaction with the sound effects and the LED illumination, when added to the software control creates a highly effective device which not only looks good, it performs a vital role in the game.
If you were worried it would be too expensive to have a real moving wheel and the effect might be simulated with moving lights then don't worry. The wheel does actually spin and it does so in a smooth way which synchronises well with the clicking sound effect. Plus there are different lighting effects both inside and around the outer edge.
There are three lit segments below the three coloured arrows (which relate to the colours of each contestant). These are the values added to that contestant's prize bank for each letter correctly guessed. After each guess, the wheel spins and the values change. The values are also used elsewhere in the game such as the scores for shots during bonus modes and as the value for the Big Money award at the drain lanes between the flippers.
The picture above from TheKorn shows how the three segments are illuminated with white LEDs and the red/yellow/blue arrows are lit by coloured LEDs at the top. There are also white LEDs at the bottom to allow the whole wheel to flash and a ring of red LEDs around the outer edge.
The main controller for the wheel's lighting is on the board rather than being separate, although there is a small driver on the underside of the playfield.
The motor itself directly drives the wheel and doesn't use any belt which could wear, stretch or break, making it one less thing to go wrong.
To the right of the three contestants is the centre ramp.
A small blue rubber wedge divides the centre ramp from the right ramp.
The awards themselves are certainly worth collecting early in the game.
The first drop target lights one of the free spin targets in the outlanes for a ball save. The second lights one of the two drain lanes between the flippers for a big money award while the third lights the Wild Card lane on the left side of the playfield for a random award.
Although they block the right ramp, the drop targets don't stop you collecting whatever award is available. A hit on one of the drops counts as a virtual ramp shot to ensure you don't miss out. But with the three drop targets down, shots can continue to another 180° vertical bend to land at the top of the right ramp, which runs down the right side of the playfield to the inlane.
The right ramp shot scores jackpots during Wheel Of Fortune Multiball whenever the red jackpot star inset is lit and collects the letter "U" towards completing B-O-N-U-S. It is therefore one of the high-scoring shots during some of the bonus wheel modes and collects jackpots during trip multiballs.
Both the right and the centre ramps are made out of a forked metal curve with the forks pressing into the playfield.
This has the advantages of allowing more light into the ramp area and also eliminates ball tracks found on the solid metal variety. They look a little flimsy but hopefully will prove up to the task without deforming or breaking.
There is a fifth green standup target to the right of the right ramp - collecting the letter "I" of M-U-L-T-I-B-A-L-L and separating it from the right loop lane.
It also collects the fifth letter for B-O-N-U-S and can be one of the shots for the bonus wheel modes when the "S" is flashing.
When the ball rolls down the right loop and back to the flippers it has the habit of hitting the top of the right slingshot so you need to be carefull it doesn't get diverted straight down one of the drain lanes between the flippers.
Speaking of the flippers, you may have realised we're well on our way back to them and have only spelled out M-U-L-T-I from M-U-L-T-I-B-A-L-L. That's because the final four letters are all grouped together in one target bank on the right side of the playfield, below the right loop entrance.
These four, like the previous five, light up when hit and contribute towards completing the sequence. They are quite easy to collect without trying so it's best to just let them complete themselves unless you specifically need to start multiball immediately. When all nine are lit, the mini ramp ball lock is lit for multiball.
And so we move back down the right side of the playfield to the inlane and outlanes.
Before we get to them, you may notice in the picture above the spot lamp mounted on the slingshot. There's one on the other side too and while you might think they're pointing at the contestants or the ball lock, in practice they are there only to brighten up the central area of the playfield since all other general illumination is some distance away. Their effect may appear insignificant but in fact do contribute to evening out the lighting levels across the playfield.
Back to the plot and the right inlane is the termination point for the right ramp, but like the left one it has an extra award available when lit, this time called called Super Loops.
This is for shots made to the left loop immediately after rolling through the right inlane, either directly or from the right ramp. As with Super Bumpers on the other side, there appeared to be no evidence of this function working in this version of the software but it will doubtless appear in a subsequent update.
As with the left side, there are two free spin lanes in the right outlane to give you the chance to get a ball save.
There was a slight preference for the lower lane on our test machine but no more than you'd expect. Attempts to change the ball's mind from the inevitable and get it to head for the lit lane instead of the unlit one were largely futile.
To the right of the the area above is the shooter lane.
When a ball is sat in the shooter lane, there are three possible ways to get it into play.
Plunge weakly and the ball will pass through a one-way gate and join the right ramp to roll into the right inlane as you can see below.
Shoot too strongly and the ball will head to the back of the playfield, disappear behind the wheel and fall into the pop bumpers.
.But the third and most potentially lucrative is to go for the Toss Up skill shot. This involves sending the ball round the clear plastic post at the top of the shooter lane, through the switch gate and back down the lane to join the right ramp.
Now we'll turn our attention to the central area of the playfield because there are some important features spread across the playing surface.
Starting at the top and working our way down we come first to the prize bank.
As letters are guessed by the contestants they score the values shown on the wheel for that player. Sometimes the wheel will spin offer an extra ball, a trip or a mystery award which, if scored, is placed in that contestant's prize bank ready for collection when the puzzle is solved by them.
The prize bank on the playfield shows the goodies each contestant has amassed. It is by no means guaranteed though, as a Bankrupt wedge will wipe out the prize bank for the unfortunate contestant who receives it. So if an extra ball shows up here you should try to get that contestant to solve the puzzle as soon as possible.
Next we find the bonus wheel.
When the B-O-N-U-S letters have all been collected, the bonus wheel segments light up in a spinning pattern and the mini ramp ball lock is lit to start a bonus mode. The wheel lamps cycle too quickly to make the choice of mode anything other than luck. The currently running mode is flashing, the completed modes are solidly lit and the unplayed modes are unlit.
To the right of the bonus wheel is the wizard bonus status display.
Each time you complete the bonus wheel, collect a super jackpot and solve four puzzles you add a number to the wizard bonus display. When you do those things four times you collect your wizard bonus and these playfield inserts show your progress towards the big pay-off.
The final area is directly above the flippers and includes a number of different features.
At the top we have the round indicator. This shows the number of rounds you have completed and if you are playing a round whose number is flashing, it is a prize puzzle round and you get an extra bonus when you solve it.
Below that is the second display. This 35 x 5 LED matrix is made up from five 7 x 5 displays joined together and is used to give additional information to the player. It's usefulness is dubious since it is located in an area you rarely spend time looking at plus its size limits the number of characters that can be displayed and you're unlikely to have time to wait for it to scroll the full message. It may yet come into its own but at the moment it really only plays a very minor role in the game and can largely be ignored.
Below the display are two inserts to indicate double scoring after a successful ramp shot (or quadruple scoring after shooting both ramps in succession) but on this version of software they were never seen to light.
Finally, with the unusual flipper arrangement, there's no room for a shoot again insert right between them, so it moves up and to the right to live here.
And that concludes the first part of the in-depth review and our look at the Wheel of Fortune cabinet, hardware and playfield design.
In our second part we'll cover the rules of the game, examine the dot matrix animations, the music, the sound and lighting effects and we'll wrap it all up together and deliver our verdict on the whole package.
That's to come shortly but in the meantime, here's the shooter lane music played by the game when you press the start button, before you plunge the ball.
Get the Flash Player to hear this clip.