Lessons From An Atari Pinball Machine

Here at Flipperspiel Wunderland we have had a few Atari pinball machines on the floor and we recently added Middle Earth to our collection. Atari, famous of course for its video games, started making pinball machines in 1976 and stopped after producing only seven different models (not counting prototypes and one-off machines). Each machine was a wide-body game that had more playfield area than other standard pinball machines and gave the Atari games a unique look. The art for these games was largely created by George Opperman, who developed the Atari logo that is still used today. His style of art and the themes of these games will take you back to the Saturday morning cartoons of the late ’70s and will have you craving a bowl of your favorite sugar cereal; it's fun and a bit campy, but works well.

As an operator I tend to look at how well built the machines are and how easy they are to work on. From this perspective the Atari machines are amazing, innovative, and ahead of their time. Middle Earth, for example, has no leaf switches except on the flipper buttons; all other switches are sealed micro-switches that seem to last forever and never need adjustment. The wiring harness is attached to all the switches and coils with spade connectors that are easy to connect and disconnect. This would make changing switches and coils very easy and eliminates the need to solder while on location (with all the parts on hand, you could literally rebuild a flipper in 5 minutes flat!). The circuit boards are also very easy to access because they are located underneath the playfield and not in the backbox (except on Superman and Hercules). This means you do not need to be constantly lifting the playfield and opening and closing the backbox just to do some basic troubleshooting. It also means you do not need to access the pin from the sides to get the backbox open, so you are able to fully work on the machine in a smaller space. The manuals are some of the best I have ever seen and are clearly written, well organized, and very detailed (not to mention they are of better quality in terms of paper and binding).

So with good art, quality, innovative design, and high-tech features, why did Atari fail at pinball? I am sure there are many reasons and since I am not a historian nor do I have any inside information, I cannot say for certain; however I can offer my opinion on how these games play. I find Atari pinball machines to be quite frustrating. They are maddeningly slow (even when raked to a super-steep angle) and the games often seem to get in their own way. The playfields, while large, are sparse and just not very exciting. The audio is pretty much the same across each machine and is only one step above chimes in complexity of sound. Although it’s not always the best indicator of fun, it is worth noting that the average IPDB.org rating is a dismal 5.8/10 for these games. The better of the seven games are Superman and Space Riders, and Superman no doubt gets a boost for its theme. The bottom line here is that no amount of operability, quality, and innovation can make up for mediocre gameplay. Atari made a good effort to enter the market, but compared to early solid-state games put out by Williams, Bally, and even Gottlieb, the Ataris are just not that exciting.

We are living in a time when the popularity of pinball is ramping up again. New manufacturers are entering the market, new technologies are on display at the expos, and pinball is starting to pop up again on nearly every form of media from television and film to portable gaming. Machines are being released with all kinds of new features and technology; let's just hope the manufacturers remember that Atari had some “whiz-bang” features too, but it wasn't enough. It is easy to add novelty and tech to a design...far more challenging to add excitement and fun that keeps players coming back and pumping in dollar after dollar.

Come on down to Flipperspiel Wunderland and give Middle Earth a try. Maybe they couldn’t hold their own against the other machines of the day, but today the Ataris are a unique change from the standard pinball fare, and with such a limited number of Atari pinballs out there, getting to play one of these can be a rare experience.

 PHOTO CREDIT: STEVEN HOWEARTH -  POP CULTURE MAVEN

PHOTO CREDIT: STEVEN HOWEARTH - POP CULTURE MAVEN

 PHOTO CREDIT: STEVEN HOWEARTH -  POP CULTURE MAVEN

PHOTO CREDIT: STEVEN HOWEARTH - POP CULTURE MAVEN

A Little Love Goes A Long Way

From time to time I get asked to "shop out" a pinball machine for someone.  There are literally thousands of pinball machines out there that are suffering from neglect and would otherwise be amazing games to play if someone would just give them a little love.

What does it mean to "shop out" a game?  Well that depends on who you ask but I think most people agree that in general this means making sure the game is fully working, cleaning the playfield, replacing all the rubber and burned out lights and giving it a good once over.

At Flipperspiel Wunderland, when we refurbish a game in this manner it means stripping it down to the playfield by removing all the playfield posts, rubbers, ramps, plastics and any above playfield mechanical components.  Once the game is nekkid, we then give the playfield a good cleaning, waxing and repair any stripped out screw holes discovered while disassembling the machine.  All the removed parts are then cleaned and polished.  Replacements are ordered (if available) for any broken parts discovered and if necessary repairs are made.  Once everything is ready for reinstallation the posts go back on as well as new rubber and new lamps or LEDs.  Usually you find a few screws that are the wrong type or size and these are replaced with new ones of the correct function.

Once the game looks great it is then time for the major assemblies to be gone through and rebuilt as needed.  Of course the parts that take the most abuse and absolutely must be rebuilt are the flippers.  These coils are the most worn, the end of stroke switches are toast, and the flippers themselves are often cracked or chipped.  New coil stops, plungers, and plunger links will ensure that the flippers will have the correct amount of travel and no loose play.  Pop bumpers are next, at the very least these need a good cleaning and switch adjustment but often the pop bumper skirts are chipped and will need to be replaced to keep the action good.  Slingshot kickers require a small drop of oil at the hinge and new coil sleeves to maintain good action.  These switches are also often in need of adjustment.

Often ignored is the plunger.  I keep a special box with all my plunger rebuild parts ready to go to make replacement of these parts as easy as possible.  Common failures are broken (or just plain ugly) barrel springs, incorrect sized or worn out shooter springs, smashed rod tips that mushroom out and tear up plunger rubbers if not repaired, and the plunger sleeve is often dirty or worn.  These parts are not expensive and make a world of difference if replaced.  Sometimes the incorrect rod is installed too which can hang up on the playfield when lifting it out for maintenance and cause other problems.  We check the rod to make sure it is not bent and polish it up to make it operate smoothly.

Once the mechanical parts are working well and the playfield is clean then we go through the electronics and look for burned connectors, cold solder joints, toasted transistors or overheated resistors and make repairs as necessary.  While in the backbox it is important to remember to change the bulbs here too!  Finally, new pinballs are installed.  This whole process usually takes a minimum of 8 hours work when done correctly depending on the amount of neglect we are trying to undo.

After all these things are done we will have a game that plays great and looks good.  Even games that have large blemishes from heavy wear and tear can be made to look and play good again.  In fact once these things are done to the machine, the blemishes that once seemed impossible to ignore seem to disappear and become far less noticeable.

Here are some pictures of a Bally Eight Ball Deluxe we have been working on for a client.  Note the shine that can still be found on a worn playfield.  See what a difference between the old and rebuilt flipper mechanism and check out that shine on the rebuilt shooter rod.  From stiff and stubborn to loose and bouncy.  With regular cleanings and maintenance this game will play fast and fun for years to come. 

Don't neglect your machines! Invest the time to clean them keep them in top shape and you will enjoy them all the more.  If you have any questions, comments or tips about cleaning pinball machines please share them in the comments below.