Thursday, November 10th. Twilight hours. Sam and I rolled into the Marriott Westchase Hotel on Briarpark Drive for the soft opening of the 20th (non-consecutive) Houston Arcade Expo. Not too far behind us (both physically and metaphorically) were the folks from TitanPinball.com, Todd Tuckey of TNT Amusements fame, and John Borg, noted pinball designer. Once we had our press passes sorted out, we got a feel for the vendor’s room and ran into the staff and volunteers setting up console and computer treasures: a Sharp X68000, a Capcom CPS3 Darksoft, a Taito F3, a Nintendo Switch running in “tate mode” (vertically aligned), a 3DO, Sega Saturn, a GBA HD Console, the Sega Genesis/CD/32X monstrosity, a modified PlayStation 1, a Nintendo 64 in full regalia and dozens of others. These displays were all courtesy of Texas Nerd House, Houstonian hardware wizard Anton Gale, Brian from The Guru Guys and other contributors.
After getting the lay of the land, we headed over to the main event room. TitanPinball began setting up their modified pinball tables behind us: Whirlwind, Attack from Mars (complete with a custom translite), and Rick and Morty. Folks from Stern and Marco were unboxing their 2022 games: Rush (based on the rock band) from earlier in the year, and two models of their James Bond 007 pinball: Dr. No and the more expensive, premium model, You Only Live Twice.
Pinball games at this year’s expo included Sega’s South Park (one of Sam’s favorites), Junkyard, Data East Simpsons, and Mystery Castle. We also saw Cirqus Voltaire, which was featured prominently in Blake Dumesnil’s promo art commissioned for the Expo. Those were just some of the 150+ pinball games that were on the floor and ready to go. This year’s show was a bit lighter on video games, with about sixty total arcade games, as opposed to the hundred or so from other years. Nonetheless, many arcade pillars like Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Simpsons, Rampage World Tour, Dance Dance Revolution and Razing Storm populated the show floor.
For their corner, the Game Preserve guys brought a DeLorean and a TARDIS to compliment their Back to the Future and Doctor Who pinball games. Sam and I met Jeff Frick (co-curator of HistoryofPinball.org); Mr. Frick gave us the rundown of 1930’s pin tables. This was enriching for our pinball education as it was our first time physically interacting with pin games from the Great Depression. Five hours flew by and we returned home.
On Friday morning, we cruised back into the heart of Houston and checked into our room at the Marriott. Our friends Saturn, Clover and Gaby joined us at high noon for some gaming goodness. Amongst our crew, the consensus was that the Premium Model of James Bond 007 was the best new pinball game of 2022. Ostensibly a general audience event, this year’s demographics seemed to skew slightly older, with many goers being in their forties or fifties.
Saturn and Clover gravitated towards the Sega Astro Cities for sale; they were loaded up with Super Street Fighter II: Turbo and Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike. Gaby gave modern and old school pinball the old college try. We also later caught up with Mushahi X (From The Musashi-X Chronicles) and Tsar Sparky. After a little bit of searching, we finally came across the new Multimorphic game: Weird Al’s Museum of Natural Hilarity. The parody musician’s game integrated physical pinball with LCD screens and rising scoops.
Wormhole Pinball—the phantom arcade—set up their booth with two banger games: Swords of Fury and the elusive Big Bang Bar from Capcom Pinball. An adult-themed pinball game, Big Bang Bar is centered around a bar in outer space complete with crude humor, foul language, a bouncer and an alien stripper. It never went into full production. Roughly fourteen to seventeen original units were produced before Capcom Coin-Op closed its doors. Players were recorded and broadcast on Wormhole’s YouTube page.
The media guests had arrived: John Borg and Tim Sexton monitored players trying out the new Stern games. Voice actor Tim Kitzrow and illustrator Paul Niemeyer, both of Midway fame, had adjacent booths. The talents made chit chat with convention-goers as they vended memorabilia from smash-hit games like NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat. Several pinball games that Kitzrow provided voice work for were at the Expo: Attack from Mars, Twilight Zone, Who Dunnit, Popeye Saves the Earth, Elvira: Scared Stiff, and more. Lance Guest and Catherine Mary Stewart of The Last Strarfighter fame met with fans, accompanied with a playable mockup of the fictional video game from the film.
We registered for our first Retro World Series, the gaming event run by Hal Hawkins. This was the first Retro World Series since Expo 2019. I participated in the F-Zero X event and won third place. Sparky took home the Capcom vs SNK2 Gold.
Saturday was another eventful day with several panels held in the Rose Garden room. Todd Tuckey espoused some wisdom about the risks of purchasing modern pinball and arcade games, Brett Weiss waxed lyrical about ColecoVision, the Stern crew (John Borg, Tim Sexton, Mike Vinikour) showed the prototype builds of Rush pinball and explained the logistical and legal challenges that went into developing the game. At the Midway panel, Kitzrow recounted getting involved in VO work for Williams pinball games and recording for NBA Jam. Niemeyer told anecdotes of his time providing art for Bally-Midway games like Satan’s Hollow and talked about the video game crash of 1983. Jeff Frick gave a slideshow presentation on 1930’s pinball games.
The music was absolutely crazy that night, with some convention guests taking to the stage to join in with the live performers. After a three-man game of Gottlieb’s Strikes ’n’ Spares, the hours of filming, writing and playing all took their toll on me. By midnight, I retreated to the hotel room, and Sam and Saturn gamed until dawn.
Sunday morning and further into midday, the staff, crew and exhibitors packed up as they announced the winners of the raffle. As they do every year, an award is given for best pinball display of the expo. Brad Blocker (a Dallas local) won for best restoration project with his touched up Data East Monday Night Football, and rightly so! The game felt good as new, and the updated sideart and great-feeling flippers breathed new life into a thirty-year-old game.
Sam snuck in one last Attack From Mars session, but one more mode into a full loop of the game, the power was cut and we were told to leave. That afternoon and evening we left Houston and drove into the western twilight.
Another successful expo! Thanks to Keith Christensen for making it possible, to the friends of the Software Agents YouTube channel, the Houston Area Arcade Group, and all of the media guests and exhibitors.
Brian Colin is one of the leading arcade game designers/producers/artists in the industry. He co-created colossal games like Rampage, Xenophobe and General Chaos. I’ve met him twice: once in 2018 and again in 2021. In 2021, on day two of that year’s Houston Arcade Expo, I attended a panel hosted by him, here’s what he had to say…
After studying illustration and filmmaking in college, the Chicago-area denizen was getting by on art gigs for local businesses such as bars. Brian heard Bally-Midway, one of the biggest arcade amusement companies in town was looking for game artists: sprite artists, who would design cabinet artwork and game concepts.
Brian worked on games like Discs of Tron and Kozmik Krooz’r. The first game he was credited as a designer for was for the sorcery-themed game Zwackery. Zwackery was the first Bally-Midway game to use their Motorola 68K-based hardware, plus some other custom parts. The game had high graphical capabilities for its day, but was not considered a success. Many Zwackery cabinets were converted into other Bally-Midway games.
In 1985, he designed the military-themed twin-stick game Sarge with Jeff Nauman acting as programmer. This is the first of many collaborations between Colin and Nauman, whose programming skills were described as “invaluable.”
A project the two were developing was “a game that had no wrong way to play”, and could work within the limitations of Midway MCR-III hardware. It started with the idea of players destroying buildings due to the fact that the background layers would only display full color fills or rectangles. The sprite for player characters would eventually become known as Ralph and George. Both have the same build; they were head swaps of each other. This project would later become Rampage.
George’s human form is based on Brian, and Lizzie’s head was based on Rachel Colin, Brian’s wife. Ralph was based on Jeff Nauman. Brian wrote the sales proposal for the game.
The Bally-Midway execs were not impressed with the game. They didn’t think it would sell and they were concerned with the fact that the players were basically villains destroying things and killing people. They did not like the fact that the characters were naked when they were defeated. Eventually, these bosses were fired and were replaced by a new set of execs that finally allowed the game to go to production. The new head of the company had an open door policy, Brian stated that he waited outside his office the next day as soon as it opened to present the Rampage proposal.
Colin believes one of the reasons why the new bosses were won over is because they realized they could make three quarters off each game session.
Xenophobe, another three-player game developed by the partnership, is a pastiche of both Star Trek and Alien. It did very well initially but did not meet the success of Rampage.
Arch Rivals was conceived around the concept of a basketball game that had no fouls. Nauman came up with the idea on an airplane and wrote it down on an airline barf bag.
Arch Rivals happened during the Williams Electronics buyout of Bally-Midway. According to Brian, the success of Arch Rivals paid for the buyout. Bally-Midway was reincorporated as “Midway Games”, the “Bally” name was kept as a brand name for Williams pinball tables manufactured at Midway. Every single Bally-Midway software engineer and game designer was laid off during this transition except for Colin and Nauman.
Colin and Nauman left Midway in 1992 “on good terms.” Electronic Arts had been trying to recruit Brian for years. Brain liked the idea of having his own game studio, but didn’t want to leave Illinois. EA’s response was to offer capital to found his own game company: Game Refuge.
Game Refuge’s first game was General Chaos, a real time strategy game with dark humor. General Chaos was very successful for a third-party Sega Genesis game, it was the best selling non-Sega game for the platform in 1993.
Game Refuge would later return to Rampage with Rampage World Tour. World Tour featured 3D graphics and had the characters going on a rampage all over the world, eventually leading to a showdown on the Moon. For World Tour, the team was asked to put more Easter Eggs in the game and be cognizant of the fact that it would be ported to home platforms.
Game Refuge’s game development became largely focused on casino games and software for products like Merit Megatouch (a touchscreen-based gaming machine usually sold to bars and restaurants) because “that’s where the real money is.”
Brian reinforced that he doesn’t own anything (including source code) from the Bally-Midway days. Game Refuge currently develops with the Unity Game Engine and uses the C# language to program their games.
Look for him on the road!
In the last issue, we asked readers to write to us with their questions. Reader John was kind enough to send the following query:
“It seems like some of the earlier [pinball] machines differed from one another in that some would tilt easier than others. Was there a way that the tilt sensitivity could be adjusted? Also, was/is there a way that the game volume could be adjusted?”
Our writer AT Gonzalez responds:
“I’m not entirely sure if tilt sensitivity could be adjusted before the SS [solid state] era. In the Great Depression, they used something called a ‘pendulum switch.’ It’s tied to a plumb bob. If the bob gets moved around too much, the tilt goes off.
“Stern, Williams, Bally and Gottlieb had different tilt sensors per game from the late ’70’s till about 1990/1991ish. During the 1990’s, WPC Bally/Williams games use the same tilt sensors across the board.
“Stern unified their tilt sensors with their SPIKE system 1 and 2 games. These can be adjusted.
“Game volume can be adjusted in most SS era games and beyond. Sometimes the game audio is tied to a chip. Other times, the sound effects are telecodes interacting with wavetable synthesis. Physical sounds like bells, bumpers, knockers, reels, etc. cannot be adjusted.
Do you have a question for our writers? Send your questions and comments to njb@nantucket
Miller Burruss gave us a history of pinball in our first issue, now he’s back with a guide to arcade sticks: game controllers that bring the controls of an arcade cabinet to the home console or PC.
To any arcade enthusiast, the endgame of the hobby is to own a basement full of their favorite cabinets. However, many become dissuaded by the sheer expense of these games, many of which are out of production entirely. An option to consider while on a budget or saving for a dream setup is an arcade stick. Arcade sticks emulate an authentic arcade experience in the comfort of one’s home, using genuine buttons and levers from proper cabinets. To arcade hobbyists with massive game libraries or fighting game players accustomed to cabinets, the arcade stick presents unparalleled convenience.
Above: A Razer Panthera
Compared to traditional cabinets, arcade sticks require significantly less investment. At their most expensive, premium sticks such as the Qanba Dragon and Victrix Pro FS retail in the $250-$400 price range. These arcade sticks boast high quality parts, elaborate designs rich with features, and unique aesthetics compared to others on the market. In a slightly lower bracket, sticks like the Qanba Obsidian, Razer Panthera, and Madcatz TE2+ offer a $200 price point on average. Arcade sticks in this range have become staples of the fighting game community as they offer quality parts out of the box without the extra fluff of higher end products. Below the midrange sticks are budget choices like the Qanba Drone, Mayflash F500, and Hori Fighting Stick Mini which retail from $50-$150. While readily affordable, the most common shortcoming of budget sticks are their cheaper, proprietary parts. Budget sticks perform decently enough at the entry level but may require upgrades later down the line, whereas more expensive sticks come optimized straight away.
Above: A Qanba Drone
All arcade sticks, from the bargain bin to the top shelf juggernauts, may be customized to some degree. From the art underneath the plexiglass panel, the colors of every component, and even the internal circuitry, every minute detail is on the table for replacement. However, the most crucial elements to the performance of an arcade stick are its buttons and levers. Higher end sticks will normally come with Sanwa brand parts, the Japanese arcade standard. While Sanwa is a high quality brand, some prefer Seimitsu, Hori Hayabusa, or even Korean or American style parts for their distinct feel. Sanwa, Seimitsu, and Hori Hayabusa parts share a similar feel with minor differences in feedback and sensitivity. Korean and American parts are vastly different, and due to their form factor can be difficult to integrate without an entirely custom build. Korean parts have more resistance, take more force to operate, and are preferred among Tekken players for their precision. American parts appeal to the nostalgia of old school arcade cabinets and have their iconic, concave buttons. Aesthetically and in terms of performance, any arcade stick regardless of its initial price can be personally tailored to one’s needs with enough investment. So a major consideration when buying a stick is whether or not the intent is to customize.
Above: Buttons and levers for custom arcade sticks.
Arcade sticks are flexible in which gaming platforms they interface with. Modern arcade sticks are typically compatible with the PC and either PlayStation 4 or Nintendo Switch. Xbox compatibility is available, but slightly less common due to the PlayStation being more popular among fighting game players and the Switch hosting more retro titles. Certain arcade sticks, like the Mayflash F500, offer universal compatibility with all modern consoles. Retro console play is also an option with older, discontinued models of sticks on the secondhand market. Custom builds can achieve both results by installing the Brooks Universal Fighting Board or Retro Board respectively. Any manner of console compatibility can be achieved with the right arcade stick.
Above: The Mayflash F-500
From personal experience, the most well rounded arcade stick on the market is the Mayflash F500. With universal compatibility, budget pricing, and even a slightly more expensive model with Sanwa parts, this stick is difficult to go wrong with at the entry level, assuming the intent to customize. At a higher price point, the offerings appeal more to personal preference as the baseline quality is a guarantee. Whichever price range and product suits the consumer, an arcade stick is an incredible investment for any fighting game player or arcade hobbyist.
Above: Buffalo’s Hokus Pokus pinball machine (1975), as seen at his store Buffalo’s Last Stand in Cope, Colorado.
The death of pinball began with the advent of Pong. After Pong came the onslaught of Pac-Man, Centipede, Asteroids, and so many more.
No longer was coordination, reflexes, or geometry important, nor were the surprise of a dead rubber bumper or a weak flipper.
All that mattered now was a memory of what to expect, never changing from game to game. Consistency became the ‘norm’ to future generations of video players. To stimulate the player, new games were created with the same basic idea.
Lose a life? Start over. Weak? Get a medical fix and be as good as new.
With pinball, you lose the ball, costing another ball of the five alloted. Tilt? Lose the ball, if not the game. There is no tilt with video games.
To see the facial reaction of those under thirty, especially youngsters under sixteen, is to see what Christmas Day meant to many: how their faces light up seeing such an ‘oddity’ and getting to play it. The joy lasts long after the game is over.
Pinball is not forgiving, no guarantees of winning or ‘doing better the next time.’ Only another attempt that may be worse than the last time.
Gone are the bus depots, now it’s Uber and Lyft, so depots with pinball no longer exist, no longer needed to entertain bored travelers. Also gone are greasy spoons with pinball, replaced by a new greasy spoon: In ’n’ Out Burgers.
Video pinball is nothing more than a poor attempt at the real game; it’s still a video game.
The speed of the ball never changes, flippers always work, bumpers don’t wear out; there is no challenge.
To stand looking at the play area, feel the flippers with your fingers, focused on ‘the action’ is a sensation not possible with videos.
Long live ‘the machine’, long live pinball!
399 Main St., Lyons, CO 80540
Spring Season: Thursdays at 7:30 PM, May 4th through July 13th.
Tournaments on the second Saturday of each month at 3 PM. $10 entry fee, first-timers play free.
Women’s Tournaments on the third Saturday of each month at 3 PM. $5 entry fee, first-timers play free.
For more information, visit lyonsclassicpinball.com.
600 S. Center St., Reno, NV 89501
Reno MatchPlay Pinball Tournament: April 22nd, 2023. Registration opens at 11:30 AM, tournament starts at 12 Noon. Registration is $10, with cash prizes for the top four places. Limited to the first forty people registered on the day of the event.
“Pin-Brawl” Tournaments every Tuesday. Registration starts at 5 PM, tournament starts at 6:30 PM. $5 admission, with cash prizes for the top four places. Registration is limited to the first forty people to register the day of the event.
For more information, visit renopinball.com
Before there was Bubble Bobble (that’s Bust-a-Move here in the USA), there was Chack’n Pop. Yes, without Chack’n’s platforming quest to save his girlfriend’s displaced hearts, Bubble Bobble may not even exist.
Newcoming writer Leland is going to take you on a wild ride through this early game from Taito, from its origins in the Tôdai’s Microcomputer Club, to its unexpected longevity as the company’s unofficial mascot.
Nicholas Bernhard is the editor of Quarter Up. He is the developer of the Nantucket E-Books platform, and the Shanty markup language. He may be reached at njb@
Originally from Pennsylvania, A.T. Gonzalez began his video game journey as a toddler playing Super NES. This opened up a whole new dimension of artistic expression for him. He began collecting games as a hobby a few years later down the line. His favorite game franchises are Mega Man, Mario, Metroid, Castlevania, F-Zero, Devil May Cry, Metal Gear, and plenty of others!
Currently based in Southeast Texas, he writes, makes short films, does studio photography, voice-over work, and audio production in his spare time.
Miller Burruss, or “SaturnPM”, is a writer, streamer, and videographer partnered with Software Agents TV.
Buffalo is our resident color-commentator at Quarter Up, covering the places where life and pinball intersect. After spending most of his life in the San Joaquin Valley of California, he moved to Cope, Colorado on the eastern plains. There, he runs Buffalo’s Last Stand, where you can find all things bison-related, and eastern Colorado’s finest bookstore. He also bakes a mean cookie.
In 2023, his novel Tales of a Metal Fisherman, filled with adventures in the life of a hard-living repo man, was published by Nantucket E-Books. A sample of the book may be read by clicking here, or you may order the e-book and/or paperback at nantucketebooks.com/metalfisherman-order.
Kris Vaswig is a Colorado-based photographer. His work may be seen at vaswig.com.
This issue of Quarter Up is © 2023 Nantucket E-Books, LLC. Copyright for the articles contained in this newsletter is reserved by their respective authors.
Cover art is © 2023 Nantucket E-Books, LLC.
TEXT © Nantucket E-Books LLC for newsletterDOWNLOAD ENTIRE E-BOOK
This e-reader was developed by Nicholas Bernhard, © 2020 - 2023 Nantucket E-Books™ LLC. Nantucket E-Books™ is built on free software, which means it respects the freedom of the writers and readers using it. For more information, check out the software license page, the Help page, or e-mail me at njb@nan