LAKEWOOD, NJ -- After more than two years of meticulous labor, The Wizard of Oz flipper game is making its final journey along the road of yellow bricks here at the Jersey Jack Pinball factory, where the assembly line is now running at full speed. The first production models of the eagerly awaited pinball machine will be crated and dispatched on March 13, according to the Jersey Jack chief executive.
Pinball veteran Jack Guarnieri announced on Jan. 1, 2011, that he was forming a company to build a fully functional commercial-grade pinball machine and that it would be ready to ship at the end of that year in time for the holiday buying season. Not only did The Wizard of Oz miss its Christmas 2011 target, but it also failed to launch in time for the 2012 holidays. But when you're building a pinball machine from the ground up, it seems most prospective buyers are willing to overlook a 14-month delay.
PHOTO: Jersey Jack Pinball's Jack Guarnieri and Drew Maniscalco show off The Wizard of Oz at the IAAPA Attractions Expo. The flipper game won an IAAPA Brass Ring award in coin-op product category.
The additional time could also aid a start-up manufacturer. About 1,500 games were preordered over the past two years, and the down payments for them helped to fund the $2 million venture. The first production run in March will be delivered to these faithful pinball aficionados, who are mostly collectors and hobbyists, and some will end up in the coin-op channel. The cost of a standard Oz machine is $7,000.
The pinball community rejoiced when it had several opportunities to see The Wizard of Oz in action at dozens of special events late last year. Additionally, 15 test games are now operating in the field. At iPlay America in Freehold, NJ, players dropped $347 into the new pinball machine between Dec. 28 and Jan. 3, Guarnieri reported. "That's better than most videogames," he told VT.
Because the test games are not equipped with the final circuit boards, the pinball machines are working at only 30% of full programming capacity. Jersey Jack developed a prototype board for its test games; it can also be temporarily installed into production models. The factory is expecting to receive its main boards by late February.
Jersey Jack licenses Williams Electronics parts, including flippers, from California's Planetary Pinball Supply (San Jose, CA). It makes soundboards in partnership with Massachusetts's Pinnovators. Cabinets and playfields are crafted by a woodworking company in Illinois, and from there those parts are sent to another company that adds the artwork.
Jersey Jack's machine is the first wide-body pinball game since the mid-1990s. The roomier playfield accommodates more mechanical widgets, which include a spinning house, winged monkey, melting witch and crystal ball video display. Supplanting the traditional static backglass art and dot matrix scoring display on the backbox is a 26" widescreen LCD that plays HD animation. LEDs light up the playfield.
"We took conventional pinball and paired with the technology of today," Guarnieri told VT. "Our pinball machine has lots of mechanical action, high-def animation and the power and reach of The Wizard of Oz license. We believe our game will draw new younger players."
The Wizard of Oz development team is led by Joe Balcer, who worked on Stern's South Park and Simpsons Pinball Party. Balcer also designed Apollo 13, Baywatch and Star Wars Trilogy, among other pin games. The team includes artist Jerry Vanderstelt, sound artist Chris Granner, modeling artist Matt Riesterer, programmer Keith Johnson, graphic designer Jean-Paul de Win and game designer Bryan Hansen. Drew Maniscalco is vice-president of development and Jim Thornton is project manager.
Guarnieri entered the coin-op amusement industry in 1975 when he took a part-time job repairing pinball machines on college campuses. He became a sought-after repairman and successful operator. Seeing an opportunity for marketing pinballs and other games during the Internet boom, he launched PinballSales.com, which now boasts 14,000 customers.
For Jersey Jack Pinball, more games are in the works. Development for a pinball adaptation of "The Hobbit" has already begun, and its 2014 release will coincide with the final movie in Peter Jackson's trilogy. Guarnieri says it'll take a year and half, and only half the money required for the WoZ game, to get off the ground.
Since 2001, the worldwide pinball market has been supplied by a single machine manufacturer, with the exception of a few European companies churning out a limited number of games. Chicago-based Stern Pinball
Inc. became the sole manufacturer and designer of pinball machines in 1999, following WMS Industries' shutdown of its Williams Electronics Games division, which had been the largest pinball manufacturer. Stern continues to produce about three titles a year.