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UK Mike (miner2049er)

The Bi-Weekly British Backtrack – Disco Fever Pinball Restoration 01

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I really should stop listening to people sometimes, especially when they suggest that I need to add something to my minimalist home arcade, and even more so when that something is a pinball machine.

Yes, this is going to be about my next adventure in arcade machine repair, and in particular about the 1978 Williams System 3 pinball machine, Disco Fever, but first how did I come to own it?

I’d never really been a huge pinball fan because I’d always been much more into video games, and from my point of view a pinball machine just occupied the space that could have been used by two video games, so why were they in the arcade at all? I’m not the only person to see pinball machines in that light either, it’s a debate that’s every bit as relevant as the Commodore 64 / ZX Spectrum or SEGA Mega Drive / Super Nintendo debates, and it still goes on today long after the hey days of both Pinball and Video Arcades are gone.

In recent years I’d been playing emulated pinball on my MAME cab and also playing some great compendiums like the Pinball Hall Of Fame collections of both Gottlieb and Williams tables on PSP and the Wii, and also the Microsoft Pinball Arcade game on PC, all of which are fine to a point, but nothing like the real thing. You don’t really get any impression of the physical aspects of pinball like the nudging of the machine itself and the effect that has on the ball, even though you can use controls to nudge in these games, it is nothing like the real thing.

So with the decision made to find a machine I went about it the best way, by steering clear of ebay and its overpriced “L@@K RARE!” offerings. By far the best way to pick up a sensibly priced machine, and usually one that will need some TLC is by signing up to a forum or a pinball group. Luckily for me, one came up very quickly, a Gottlieb Jungle, EM machine, but for one reason or another I ended up not getting that, and instead I picked up the Williams Disco Fever from 1978, a System 3 machine.

So what is all this EM and System 3 business? Well, basically pinball, like anything else, went through several evolutions in its lifespan, originally evolving from outdoor games like Bowls and Croquet which in turn gave rise to indoor games such as billiards around the 15th Century. Pinball tables however bear a striking resemblance to Bagatelle tables which themselves date back to 1777 when a party was thrown in honour of King Louis XVI and his wife at the Château de Bagatelle. The highlight of the party was a new table game where players used a cue to shoot ivory balls up an inclined play field. The table game was dubbed Bagatelle by the King's brother and soon swept through France before becoming popular in America when French Soldiers fighting the British in the American Revolutionary War took their tables with them. Bagatelle became so popular in America that a political cartoon from 1863 shows President Abraham Lincoln playing a tabletop bagatelle game.

Naturally the cue gave way to the traditional plunger, and in 1931 David Gottlieb's Baffle Ball became the first overnight hit of the coin-operated era and it originally sold for $17.50. The cost to play was a penny and that got you five balls. The games could be found in many drugstores and taverns and were so popular that the owner could often make back the cost of the game in a matter of days. Baffle Ball sold over 50,000 units and established Gottlieb as the first major manufacturer of pinball machines. Presumably this is where the actual name came from, with the table being a wood base with metal nails or “pins” in it to form rings where the ball would come to rest, different rings of pins being worth different points values.

Soon tables began to use electrical components, and in particular electro-mechanical components to change the players score as they hit various targets around the table and those targets themselves would become electro mechanically controlled, but things really began to take off in 1947 when the flipper was invented and first featured on the 1947 Gottlieb table Humpty Dumpty, and not just 2 flippers but 6 in total. The EM or Electro Mechanical, era had truly arrived and stayed with us until we moved into the Solid State era where the moving parts in the back box and under the playfield of the EM machines gave way to transistors and micro chips of various kinds. There were still the usual flippers and flipper coils to fire them, but the control methods behind the scenes for them had changed, and the scores were now done with LED Displays rather than physical reels.

The next real era is dubbed the DMD era, DMD being an abbreviation for Dot Matrix Display, and these were used for scoring as well as later being used as a part of the game itself with some games having the playing interacting with the Dot Matrix Display and hitting a flipper button at the right time in much the same way as they would in a video game.

Video games and pinball fought out a somewhat inevitable battle with pinball being the loser for the most part, and most pinball companies going out of business, but the 1990s saw somewhat of a comeback when some new manufacturers entered the fray such as Capcom Pinball. This era was one of the digital age with the DMD games and big TV and Movie licenses such as Indiana Jones, Star Trek and the record selling Bally/Williams game The Addams Family hitting an all-time modern sales record of 20,270 machines.

By 1997 there were only two companies left, Williams and Sega Pinball, who later sold their pinball division to Gary Stern (President of Sega Pinball at the time) who called his new company Stern Pinball. Stern Pinball is the only current manufacturer of pinball machines, though recently a new start up called Jersey Jack Pinball have employed a lot of the well known game designers and programmers and are currently working on their first machine, a licensed game based on The Wizard Of Oz.

With this being my first machine I wasn’t really too fussy about what it was and from which era as long as it wasn’t too technical for a beginner to get in there and repair, and that was a big question before I bought machine. With my arcade cab, it is running MAME on a PC, so if it breaks, I’ve fitted everything there is inside the cab myself so I know what it all is and what it all does. Had it been a machine I had refurbished and brought back to life and restored, then it would have been a different matter and a much steeper learning curve. That learning curve going from a video game to a pinball machine is much steeper again I think as there is much more to it and therefore much more to go wrong. If it broke or indeed wasn’t working when I got it, would I be able to fix it?

Deciding that the answer was a definitive “perhaps” I bought one.

Disco Fever was produced by Williams in June of 1978 and they made around 6,000 of them. The game, and the name, bear a striking resemblance to the film Saturday Night Fever but presumably for licensing reasons it isn’t officially based on the movie but the artwork is immediately indicative of the movie right down to the lady in red and the man in the white suit pointing upwards on the dance floor. The table was designed by Tony Kramer with art work by Christian Marche (who apparently had the movie poster in front of him) and it was the fourth Solid State game produced by Williams and the second to feature electronic sound.

As the name System 3 would suggest, this game was built around the 3rd generation of the Williams hardware and software system that managed and controlled the games. There is a ton of help out there online if you know exactly what you are looking for so you need to know what your game is and what runs it.

Williams System 1 was basically a prototype machine made from a converted EM game called Grand Prix in 1976 and only one or two of them were made. System 2 was again a conversion of an EM game, this time Aztec, again in 1976 and less than ten were produced. System 3 came around in 1977 and the games that used it were Hot Tip (also available as an EM game), Lucky Seven, World Cup, Contact and Disco Fever. Williams had as many as 10 different evolutions based around the same system, and a game with a long run such as Flash was initially a System 4 game but was still in production when System 6 was being used and some of them shipped as System 6 games, though no known games were based on System 5. System 6 also ran the other game with curved flipper, Time Warp in 1979 as well as the first ever talking pinball machine, Gorgar. In fact all Williams Solid State games from the 1977 Hot Tip to the 1984 Star Light shared the same basic board design, and that is the boards that I had to fix.

Tune in next time to see how that goes....

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