A Mean Pinball
Thanks for tagging along with me on this tour of the Seattle Pinball Museum! You all have been a great group, and it’s been a real treat strolling through the history of the silver ball with you. We’ve seen some of the all-time classic machines during our walk, but before we conclude our little adventure, I thought I’d show you the flip side of those golden greats.
Time was, when a proposed pinball game wasn’t up to snuff, it would warrant no more response than a politely worded letter from the Rejection Department headed up by Don Francis Bally, the great-grand-nephew of the Godfather of Pinball, who suffered from an intolerance for sub-par machines, and also severe fructose malabsorption. But on rare occasions, a below-average board would not only get past the pitch phase, but actually end up in production. Usually recalled after consumer complaints, injuries, or class-action lawsuits, these machines became the rarest of collectors’ items, their extremely limited production run making them extremely valuable despite their lack of popularity. Make sure you keep to the center of the aisle, as some of these machines are highly dangerous and prone to spontaneous combustion.
Over on my left, you’ll see the first machine in the Pinball Hall of Shame, 1967’s MEAT THE BEETLES. Designed to cash in on the tail end of Beatlemania, this was rushed to production without having secured any of the proper licensing rights, resulting in a multi-million-dollar lawsuit from Capitol Records. The same haste resulted in a lack of availability of Beatles songs for the admittedly innovative recorded soundtrack that would sound off during bonus play, meaning the manufacturers had to make due with a selection of cut-rate covers by an upstate New York three-piece called “The Buffaleadles” as well as a handful of Herman’s Hermits tracks. Additionally, though the backbox featured a convincing replica of the infamous Yesterday and Today ‘butcher’ cover, licensees were encouraged to stock it with real meat, resulting in a repulsive odor and pest problems after a few weeks of play.
Now if you look to my left, you’ll see…oops, sorry, son, don’t touch, this one’s a real bastard…you’ll see 1973’s notorious 3-D CREATURE FEATURE. Billed as the world’s first three-dimensional pinball machine, it raised eyebrows from fans who asked if all pinball machines were not, in fact, three-dimensional already. The manufacturer explained that the machine was considered 3-D because of its lack of playfield glass, meaning the player could “interact” with the ball in unprecedented ways. Unfortunately, most of these ways involved grievous injuries, as the large number of ramps and spring-loaded holes resulted in 371 broken noses, 14 lost eyeballs, and a staggering number of taped-together eyeglasses. Players prone towards tilting particularly took it on the chin — quite literally — and the machine was made with subpar Namibian rubber on the bumpers, which was prone to breakage and left players across the country with serious welts and facial scarring.
One of the most beloved video games of the early 1980s, FROGGER did not make a successful transition to the world of pinball machines. 1983’s FROGGER: THE PINBALL GAME had the same graphic design, the same premise, and the same music as its arcade counterpart, and manufacturer Konami felt that its fidelity to the original would be its salvation. Instead, it turned out to be its damnation, as the pinball board featured an almost identical game-play to the video version as well. A series of dozens of slow-moving flippers would painstakingly creep across the playfield, gradually allowing the player to flick a green, frog-like pinball through a cluttered field of moving car-shaped bumpers. While there was some enjoyment to be had in eventually reaching the other end of the field and scoring generous points, the average of nine and a half hours it took to play a typical game was not considered worth it by most players.
Williams had a smash hit with its PINBOT machine, spawning a run of successful spin-offs, including THE MACHINE: BRIDE OF PINBOT and the casino-themed JACK*BOT. That luck reached its end in 1997 with the unimpressive debut of SON OF PINBOT. While keeping with the fantastic sci-fi themes of its predecessors, it let down fans of the franchise when it was revealed that the offspring of Pinbot and The Machine was simply an industrial mining robot; the sole feature of the playfield was a drop target reading “PROCESS ORE? Y/N”, and the player would receive one point for hitting it. In addition to the dull game-play, it was considered a poor value at 50 cents a game. Williams’ defense that sophisticated robotics were expensive to maintain was not met with an understanding reception.
Cashing in on the mid-1990s craze for movie-themed solid-state electronic pinball machines with original voices and flashy computerized displays, Midway followed up the wildly popular ADDAMS FAMILY game with 1992’s HOWARD’S END. Though based upon a critically acclaimed film that won multiple Oscars, players soundly rejected it. Common complaints were that the mournful score by composer Percy Grainger was “depressing”; the gameplay, based on the intricacies of the British social class system, was “incomprehensible”, and that the voice acting, which cost the company millions of dollars, was not effective, as players found Anthony Hopkins voicing subtle disapprobation and Emma Thompson gravely intoning “Yes, yes, well, that will have to do, then” unhelpful.
Similarly, the pricey but elaborately designed WWE: TABLETOP THUNDER was meant to capitalize on the mania for Vince McMahon’s hugely popular televised sports entertainment empire, but it, too, suffered from poorly planned fidelity, sketchy game-play, and McMahon’s own litigious nature. The playfield was well-designed, with lots of kinetic action, exciting graphics, and a realistic soundtrack with plenty of original voiceovers by real WWE superstars. However, players balked at the way the game simulated actual wrestling, with ‘heel turns’ resulting in in-play balls being confiscated and never returned, and the ‘Distracted Referee’ feature, where as many as a million earned points would simply not be recognized by the machine’s motherboard. The game was also constantly out of commission as the WWE chairman would constantly order recalls of the machine to delete the images and voices of wrestlers who had fallen out of favor with management or failed to renew their contracts.
Finally, our latest addition was a gamble that failed: the Koch-Brothers-funded MITT ROMNEY PRESIDENTIAL PINBALL FUN AMUSEMENT TOY was mass-produced based on a failed prediction of the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, and has now been donated en masse to impoverished pinballers in West Africa. It may be just as well, as many players in Sierra Leone and Liberia complain that the machine simply fails to recognize their pressing the flippers if their net worth is under $275,000 per year.