BACK TO THE FUTURE
We all like to speculate on what the next big thing in pinball will be - to think about the way pinball can use technological advances to produce ever more complex and ingenious playfields devices, be it full motion video displays, multi-channel surround sound or multi-game systems.
But there's a significant movement in pinball which is heading in entirely the opposite direction. One that is looking back to the days before DMDs, mini-playfields and multiple multiballs. Pinball has long been described as "retro" but now even retro is getting retro as the interest in electromechanical and early solid-state games is on the rise.
When Herb Silvers of Fabulous Fantasies announced his plans to build a modern reproduction King Of Diamonds game, he demonstrated just how that increased interest and awareness could be converted into new products by cherry-picking from the vast range of games produced to tap into current hot themes.
Pinball News asked Herb if EM games are now becoming more popular amongst the collector community. He replied "Yes they are. A fully restored or mint original EM goes for about the same as a new game. Take Fireball for instance. I bought a new one in 1972 for $799.00, now they go for $3000-$4500. Not a bad investment. I cannot even keep a 60's Gottlieb in the store anymore. They go as fast as the are finished. The more the game has animation in it the faster it sells."
Herb plans to meet the demand by building a series of new games based on classic EM designs with King Of Diamonds being just the first. He told Pinball News: "The original idea came about five years ago at a pinball auction when myself, Rynee Bangarder, Pete Cooley, John Norris and myself were talking about the downfall of pinball. We felt the modern pinball no longer has some of the great skill shots of the past machines. We thought if you take the greats shots of the past and convert it to new technology how fun that would be. Our idea was born."
The choice of game to produce was the combination of those classic shots with a theme very much rooted in the present. "Our idea is to make a game just like the original except electronic, and to keep the price down for the consumer. As poker is the big thing now, King Of Diamonds would be the perfect game. It is one of the best games Gottlieb made in the '60s because of the playfield and backglass animation." Herb said.
The games will look authentic and, mechanically at least, will use many of the same parts as the original. He explained the design requirement for the games "That it is a exact reproduction of the original game including scoring reels and EM sounds and that it must allow for four player play. The game would also be easy to repair and parts would be available through dealers at any time. You can use about 70 per cent of the parts from the original. The playfield parts and the playfield itself is from the original game."
Initial pictures - such as the flyer above - showed the game in a Stern cabinet but production games will drop the black trim for a more authentic Gottlieb look. Herb told us: "We are now using a Gottlieb Style cabinet as things just would not work out with Stern. The King Of Diamonds game will have a Limited Edition Gold Edition first and then the regular ones will have the polished finish on them." Will the game have a classic style steel coin door? "The coin door will be decided in production."
So while the new games will look authentic, underneath the playfield and in the backbox, the '60s technology has been updated to make a simpler, more flexible control system. Herb said: "Since we are still in design and early production stage, what I can tell you is, it has separate boards for the CPU, Lamp & Driver and the sound board which has all the EM sounds and voices which we will soon be adding. There is a separate board and motors for the drop targets and reels."
In addition, LEDs will be used instead of incandescent lamps for the feature inserts while the score motors use optos to determine the correct positions. All of which will result in a simpler, more reliable control system while adding extra functionality over the original. "The board is a very simple system that can be repaired by any knowledgeable tech or hobbiest. But the greatest part of the game is the motor driven reels that return to the score of one of the 4 players."
To keep the cost of the game down, the playfields will be assembled in China. Any parts already available will be sent to China while those not currently available will be manufactured there for use in the game with some sent back to the US as spares to be sold by Steve Young's Pinball Resource.
The project has been authorised by Mondial's Robert Fesjian who owns the Gottlieb brand. Herb said: "He loves the idea and I thought it was very important to have both him and Steve Young in on the project. After all they are Gottlieb as far as I am concerned. Gottlieb LLC and Mondial will handle all foreign exports and will play a important role to make sure the final product will be up to Gottlieb standards."
Herb came up with the original idea and did the design work on the game but it's been a team effort. "Rynee did all the engineering and board design and John Norris did all the CAD work and flyer design. I have also 2 partners back east that will handle the manufacturing in China. Steve Young from Pinball Resource will handle all parts for all the Gottlieb Games and help with all Gottlieb artwork history."
The playfields will be screen printed but full printed mylars will also be produced. "We will screen and have decals and mylars available for change out in the future. The backglass will be screened to Lexan. That way breakage will not be a problem. It will come off with the front of the wedgehead. The playfield mylar is also reversed screened on the bottom with a laminated top. The plastics are made of Lexan also."
The estimated cost of the game is $3000 with discounts available for multiple purchases. Games will be bought through the Fabulous Fantasies website and will be shipped from Los Angeles. Overseas buyers are catered for with RoHS compliance and 220/240V operation included. Settings are controlled by a series of DIP switches to control the number of balls (3 or 5) coin/freeplay and ticket dispenser options.
Herb said pre-orders have been very strong. "It is likely the Gold Editions will be sold out before they come out and many operators are interested in the games for their locations. We will have a large run on the first batch. They should go to production this summer with the games coming out a few months later."
Herbs experience of the increased demand for EM games is mirrored by Lucky Ju Ju owner Michael Schiess who operates his pinball gallery at Neptune Beach Amusement Museum in Alameda, California. "There are new people visiting the Ju Ju every weekend. We are getting a lot of interest not only at the Ju Ju, but in the press."
He says there are a number of reasons for the renewed appreciation of the games. "First, there are a lot of 35 to 60 year olds (men and women) who played these in the arcades of yesteryear and want to re-live a happy time in their lives. Second, there is the younger crowd who love the whole 'retro' thing; the artwork, the play, the very idea of pinball is new to a lot of them. Third, the cleanliness. Despite all the scantily clad big busted women in the art, compared to video games, pinball is squeaky clean. We get a lot of families visiting so they can have fun together, without the sex and violence. Fourth, the play. I have always preferred '60 to '70s machines. They are simple yet challenging. There are still places to play the new machines so why play an older one? Because it's fun! Many of our guests feel the new machines have too many gadgets, too much "blind activity" and strategies and rules that rival video games. Vintage machines are pretty straightforward and that has a big appeal."
Jim Dietrick of EM specialists Pinball Revival has found much the same. "I have noticed that there has been a sharp increase in the interest in the older games. Both solid state and EM, but particularly with EMs. I think this is due in part to diminished production and advancement in pinball technology and variety, but I believe it has more to do with nostalgia and the coming of age of a generation who grew up playing pinball and now has the disposable income to furnish a gameroom, or even just a corner of the garage, with a piece of their childhood."
Pinball Revival restores and repairs vintage pinball machines at their Novato, California facility and has seen prices rise in parallel with the increased interest. Jim told Pinball News: "The price increases are attributable to several factors. First, there are more and more 'average' (ie. not collectors) people buying games and are competing for a limited inventory of product with collectors. Also, with the passage of time, classically desirable/collectible games are becoming harder and harder to find, which I think ultimately causes collectors to turn their attention to the "second tier" of desirable games that are still available, this in turn creates competition for a wider variety of games, thus driving up the price of games in general. Also, there is a current wave of nostalgia, in general, for items and styles from pinball's 'golden era' which naturally raises the visibility of pinball itself, as it was such an iconic piece of americana for many years."
But while they agree on the demand and rise in popularity of EM games in the past few years, Michael and Jim are divided on whether a modern retro game is the way to fill the gap in the supply of vintage machines.
Michael Schiess told us: "I played the one at Herb's show in Las Vegas and I was impressed. I would have hoped to see real EM guts in an EM repro but I know the expense would kill that. That said, Herb's machine is a viable alternative. I would like to have one for the museum for it's historical and comparative value, but for the collection, I'd prefer the real one."
Jim Dietrick thinks the game falls between two stools. "I'm not sure there is a real market for that type of game. Purist collectors would not be satisfied with the reproduction as it does depart significantly in look and feel from the original, and I don't think it is compelling enough, at the price point, to compete with current solid state games to the average game buyer. I am just not sure the market exists. It seems it's trying to appease both the EM and SS camps and doesn't have adequate appeal for either."
But Herb is confident of the game's success and has planned the games to follow. "Kings & Queens will be next with my Muscle Car Café design after that and Rynee had a design for a game after Cactus Jack, so that will be also used. We have other games in mind like Crosstown and El Dorado."
He thinks King Of Diamonds could be the start of a revival for the Gottlieb brand and pinball's fortunes in general. " I hope this is the start to get this hobby back to were it belongs on the top of the amusement chain. My ultimate goal is to see Gottlieb out there again building games for the hobby and the operators at a reasonable price."
This summer will prove whether or not that dream can come true.
© Pinball News 2007