Inside the custom pinball machine, “This is Spinal Tap”

In the coming months, in addition to my regular chaotic addition of various repair, gameplay and maintenance videos, I’m going to be undertaking a new creative endeavor: making a custom pinball machine. As part of this process, I took a trip to the Texas Pinball Festival, paying close attention to what other people have done in this area. Here is a video of another enthusiast’s passion: a custom pinball machine themed after the movie, “This is Spinal Tap”. Here’s an impromptu video I shot while having a chat with the developers. I hope you enjoy it.

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Texas Pinball Festival 2019 – Video Walk Thru

Just back from the 2019 Texas pinball festival. Found some time to walk through early Friday evening to give you all a quick glimpse of the show. Pardon the crappy camera work but I wanted to post something quickly and as usual, no editing, but it should give you a nice feeling of what it was like to be there and the large selection of games and booths. Very big turn out. Over 400 games with a lot of new ones. I share some of my hilights after the video here.

  • Tons and tons of games from every age. There were pre-electricity games, as well as vintage woodrails, and lots of modern games.
  • It looks like there were more than a dozen Munsters Premium/LEs ordered/sold for the show. It was actually hard to find the “pro” version at the show, but I managed to find one and play both games. In the end I favored the “pro” version over the premium. The main difference (play-wise) being the mini-lower playfield, which I found to be more like a child’s toy than legitimate pinball. The fact that it had little ramps and can do multi-ball really didn’t do much for me, and looking at the price differential, it just seemed crazy to spend so much more for what really amounts to some extra gimmicky gameplay. If you want the game, IMO, get the pro.
  • Stern’s video animation on the latest game, Munsters is getting better and better. Framerate and animation quality is great. There’s all kinds of interesting indicators and stylized graphics that are very cool… although the details are so tiny on-screen for some of the minor displays (like little VU meters indicating jackpot and combo levels) that they’re not terribly useful. I wonder if most players will even notice? But still, looking good. Not so sure they’re as functional as I’d like them to be but Stern’s display tech is improving.
  • I found American Pinball’s “Houdini” game to be very gorgeous, but not all that fun to play. The flow was clunky; the game was very much stop and go, and floaty. It looks like they took Theater of Magic and tried to add a bunch of extra shots to it, that are too tight to be regularly hit. I like the idea of the theme, but the way things were presented, it didn’t get to me the way I would have liked. Creative use of playfield inserts and colors.. This company has great aesthetic design sensibilities, and a good bit of their technology is definitely solid and on the right track, but Houdini IMO isn’t it. The game had constant opto problems and was not properly working a good bit of the time. Techs were always tending to it and when I played it, the balls were being recognized in the game when they’d drain, so I got stuck in an endless loop of the same ball when the ball search kicked a new ball into play. This gave me enough time to “get over” the game. Too much stop and go. However…. the other game from American Pinball….
  • “Octoberfest” was a hit! It’s hard to believe such a fun, crazy playfield layout comes from such a newbie in the pinball manufacturing community, but I really enjoyed this game. It’s got a deep ruleset with a lot of fun things to hit, and the integration between the video screen and the gameplay works well. I do worry about these huuuuge ramps being un-hittable if the flippers become weak, but I had no trouble making most of the game’s shots, and it’s really rewarding unlocking the game’s main mulit-ball and watching a little roller-coaster of balls fly across the habitrails. If you get a chance to play Octoberfest, don’t miss it. Great game! But be prepared to shell out, as we say, “JJP/Stern LE money” for the American Pinball games. I think for this reason, money wise, there’s more bang for the buck, but if American Pinball could get their game prices down to the $5000-$5500 mark, they’d make a serious dent in the pinball market. The problem is, paying $7000+ for a pinball game means choosing between the two established leaders, one of which (JJP) really does give you a lot for that extra money. That’s a tough market to compete with. I’d like to see American Pinball put out a cheaper game of the same quality as Octoberfest.
  • Special custom game “This is Spinal Tap” was featured at the show. I got a chance to chat with the owners/creators of the game and will be posting a video soon. Really interesting game design that is different from possibly anything else ever done – stay tuned for a post about that.
  • John Papadiuk’s failed venture “Magic Girl Pinball” appeared at the show, as an object d’art more than an actual pinball machine. It was oogle-worthy in terms of the sheer amount of stacked luminescent plastic was screwed to the playfield. From the very beginning of this project, I took a lot of shit from people on Pinside for having the audacity to ask whether JPop had the resources to actually deliver what he was promising? I was called a bunch of names and basically run off the site for my insolence. It remains one of the reasons I don’t have much presence there today, so I’m appropriately snarky when it comes to the remnants of this project being glorified in any way. It remains IMO, what it is: Not a pinball machine, but a monument to greed and gullibility. And it served it’s purpose at TPF, where it spent it’s time being catered to by multiple techs just trying to get it to “light up”.. never mind the fact that it was unplayable. It was as it always was: a stage prop. It was interesting to see it. There were some creative bits that I found worth noting, including these washer-like LED bezels that allowed wide down-lighting from above (although this was more likely a necessity than it was a creative creation, due to how stacked the playfield was – the ability to see what was actually happening or where the ball was going, seemed more challenging than the game’s other goals.
  • Spooky Pinball’s “Alice Cooper”-themed pinball machine was surprisingly fun to play! I have played some of their other titles and felt their games to have a bit of a hobbyist/amateur feel when it came to design, build quality and flow. But their latest offering I think is a very high quality game that looks as well as plays very nice. I’d say of all the new pinball machines I got a chance to sample at the show, this game was one of my favorites, second to Octoberfest.
  • Another new manufacturer I hadn’t heard of showed up with a pre-production game featuring artwork by Dirty Donny, called, “Cosmic Carnival.” Like many other boutique games, they have the design nailed down, but I’m not so sure about the gameplay or overall game/playfield design. The artwork is killer. But the playfield looks very simple, but in fairness I should not judge a came that is not yet in playable stage. What I found notable about this game is that rather than use the industry-standard P-Roc technology, they’ve chosen to create their own proprietary eletronic technology. When I asked why theirs was better than what everybody else was using, the reply I got was, “Well, this is what our engineering guy wanted to do.” ooooh kay. We’ll have to see if this game actually does see the light of day? I think it may have one of those upper echelon price points too, which I think may be risky for unproven manufacturers.
  • Speaking of unique engineering… a hidden gem at the show was Nick Baldridge’s “Multi-Bingo” emulation machine. After you stop asking yourself why would anybody want to emulate all 150+ American 25-hole, bingo-style games, and inquire about the actual process of doing so, it becomes a pretty amazing story. I wished I would have had a video camera running when I spoke with him about this game – i got a bunch of pictures but can’t really share with you the fascinating dialogue we had over how this game was built. Nick, basically wrote a set of Python classes, not to emulate bingo machine operation per se, but instead to emulate all the different types of relays and steppers that these machines have. He then re-created each bingo game by intimately analyzing the SCHEMATICS of each game and creating classes as modes tying all the code-based behavior of the individual relays. It’s a really amazing technical feat that most people can’t appreciate.
  • … more soon!


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“The Three Strikes” in pinball appraisal

You might think.. “Is the game working?” is the big critical issue when examining a pinball machine, but a recent trip to look at a game made me want to revisit what are the “three strikes” that make a game less desirable?

Today I had a great example of that.

I got a call from a guy who initially asked about needing pinball repair.

This is always a tough call… because, well, I’m not formally in the pinball repair business, and given the nature of these machines, how old they are, and how often and random they can fail, I don’t like putting myself in a position to charge somebody to fix something, and then offer any kind of warranty/guarantee that the machine will continue to work. It’s just not practical. I like to help people. I want to preserve the hobby, but I can’t go out and fix everybody’s broken game. But every once in awhile I’ll do a house call.

In this case, the guy, as his New Year’s resolution was to clear out space from his house, and the game in question was an old game I fondly remember playing as a child, so I was willing to take a look and see what he might want to take it off his hands.. This is a scenario where the “three strikes”, in combination with other issues, made me not make an offer, and leave the game for someone else and another day.

Here’s the game in question…

1975 Williams Pat Hand (4 player version of “Satin Doll”)

When appraising the value of a pinball machine, I like to look at the various elements and go for the “three strikes” rule.

On top of everything is the over-arching question of, “Is it complete?” Are all the parts there? That’s almost a pre-cursor, because if the game is incomplete, the other stuff may not matter as much — it depends upon what’s missing.

Assuming the game is complete, then, “Has it been messed with by un-trained hands?” Is it working, or basically working minus time and use-based problems? It’s one thing if something breaks because of wear. It’s another thing if something stops working because your cat or your 6 year old got in the cabinet and started fiddling with things. The latter scenario can significantly affect the value.

Assuming all that is good, let’s get to the traditional trinity: playfield, backglass, cabinet.

Playfield: You want a game that does not have significant playfield wear. The main perpetrator of this is corroded/rusted balls that are left in the machine. I’ve done articles before elaborating on the damage this can do.  You also want to look at the inserts.  Are they flat or curved?  Are all of them there?  In this case, there was an actual insert missing.  It’s not necessarily impossible to replace a missing insert.  There are still sources for some of these, but there’s always a chance it’s an odd shape and unobtainium.  But even if it isn’t, this is another set of steps you have to go through to make the game minimally playable.  Most people will examine playfield rubbers, but they really don’t matter.  You will always want to replace rubber on a regular basis – it shouldn’t affect the value of the game.  On this game there was wear down to the wood in at least 5-6 spots, in addition to the common areas around pop bumpers.  Strike one.

Backglass: With backglasses, the key is how well they were maintained? Are they flaking and de-laminating? The artwork on these vintage machines is a primary portion of their value. If there’s significant flaking of the backglass, this is not something easily repaired. It will severely affect the value of the machine.  If you’re looking at a game, such as the one in the picture, one thing to note is that there’s not many lights lit up in the head, so the actual condition of the backglass, how much it really is flaking, isn’t apparent when it’s mostly lit from the front.  Not only was there cracking and crazing, but it looked like the back had been painted in some spots.  It wasn’t the worst I’d seen, but I’d consider the backglass to be strike two.  

Cabinet: It’s all too easy, unfortunately, for a layperson, or quick flipper to re-paint a cabinet.  It doesn’t take much effort to just slap some white paint on the cabinet and make the game look much nicer at first glance, but it really does mess with the integrity of the game as a piece of history.  The original stenciled designs, as remedial as they were, make up part of the unique artwork of the game.  Also these cabinets were rarely painted in solid colors.  They had flecks of off-color speckled into the paint.  There’s a distinctive style of pinball cabinet paint.  I’ve seen many cabinets painted over… it might look better aesthetically to a layperson, but it really tarnishes the value of the game in the eyes of collectors and enthusiasts.

In this case, all three of these things were issues. I passed on making an offer.

There’s also another lesson to learn here.. if you look at the picture I posted, aside from the cabinet repaint, you can’t see the other issues, but there actually is significantly playfield wear, and significant flaking of the backglass (with lights out in many portions that don’t illuminate the flaws in the backglass). The owner had an inflated idea of what the game was worth. I didn’t want to argue with him. It is unfortunate such complicated, hand-assembled items don’t command the prices people expect, but that’s just the way things are. Someone may pay a premium for their first game, but this isn’t my first rodeo so I left this for someone else.

This isn’t to say the game isn’t worth what the owner wanted.  To the right person, especially someone who may be getting their first pinball machine, this could be a special item they’d spend lots of time restoring, just like I did with my first game.  

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