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Pinball History: Popeye Saves The Earth, The Beginning of the End for Williams Pinball?

I'm a big fan of history. When I read, I almost always read non-fiction historical books. It's fascinating to see how events of the past shaped the future. We've been talking a lot about pinball rumors and what games are coming out in the future here lately, but this morning I thought that I would take a look back into the past.


Flash back to 1994. Williams pinball was on a roll. It was coming off of several strong selling pinball machines, kicking off with The Addams Family and its massive 20,000 unit plus production run. The momentum from that title carried Williams Industries for its next several releases, through Star Trek: The Next Generation. Then boom, Williams ran smack into a brick wall in the form of its next title Popeye Saves the Earth.


Popeye has almost become a legend in the pinball hobby for how universally despised the game is. Why is that? Was the game really that bad? Well, today we are going to hear an explanation from someone who was actually there at the time.


Back before Facebook Groups and Pinside, hobbiests used to talk about pinball in message boards and groups on places like Google. Someone recently shared a link on Pinside to a post in one of those groups from back in 2010. The post purports to be an e-mail correspondence that someone had with the iconic pinball designer Steve Ritchie about why Popeye pinball is so hated.


Some Popeye Facts and My Opinions and Recollections:


Barry Oursler designed the game, but it was Python's theme, includingthe weird euphorics-influenced eco-connection. Python was not, and never will be a game designer. He will SAY anything, truthful or not. This is not to say that he didn't come upwith many good ideas for the games he worked on, but he never drewanything more than sketches except when doing the artwork for theplayfield, back glass and plastics. A pinball designer makes a fullscale drawing of his games with all components shown. He does thefitting of components and at least some of the mechanicalengineering. A pinball designer chases down and looks after every component and mechanism on his game. He deals with a BOM, management,and other members on the team. Barry was the designer of Popeye.


The game designer was not always the team leader of the pinball teamsat W/B/M. If another member of a team was more suited to carrying thevision and dealing with other members, then he would take the reinswith the designer's permission. Barry liked to let others on his teamlead things. Steve Kordek, Chris Granner and Python were probablythe most influential on Barry's teams to my recollection.


Popeye was the game that followed ST:TNG. Popeye didn't make money onthe street. The theme was stinky and the geometry was funky, chunkyand clunky. No real players liked the hidden shots and generally poorvisibility that allowed function to follow form. Its hard-to-playupper playfield didn't win it any friends. Graphics and art were justnasty, and speech, sounds, script and music were less than stellar.Popeye was expensive to build and carried hefty tooling and mold coststhat were never amortized. Williams lost money on Popeye, something that hadn't happened for many many years prior.


The real reason that Popeye is/was universally despised was that all of the Williams/Bally/Midway distributors were signed up to takeminimum amounts of every run of machines we manufactured. They were not upset when they had to buy minimum quantities of ST:TNGs and othertitles, but they were very angry that they had to take a minimum # of Popeye machines. To make matters worse, Willy raised the price of Popeye! The theme was ridiculous. Who cares about Popeye? Popeye was nothing in Europe (our second through fourth ranked markets) evenwhen it was fresh. Not one distributor cared for the license. We whowere in charge should have stopped the game, because we all knew that it was a steaming pile well before it was released. There were politics involved, and I seem to recall that we couldn't get anything on the line quickly enough if we did not release Popeye to production.


The distributors were screaming and making threats of lawsuits anddumping Willy as a represented manufacturer. Eventually Williams cancelled the minimums clause in their contracts with distribs. Popeye had a very bad stigma attached to it for a long time which, of course, was played up by our competitors. Some people say Popeye was "the beginning of the end" of pinball at Williams. It was hard to sell large runs of games after Popeye. The failure of pinball cannot beblamed on Popeye, but it sure didn't help our business.


I do not agree that less people like wide bodies than regular width games. They were harder to design because of the slightly larger spans of time required for the ball to get to the targets. The worst wide body width was Stellar Wars/Superman/Pokerino. Until I/we moved the flippers and slings into the same familiar location as a narrowbody, they were really horrible in my mind. Some designers went crazy with more flippers and more drain space between them! The outer orbitshots were actually miserable to make because the ball was so far downthe flipper end in order to hit them. The ball doesn't carrying muchspeed or power at that angle. The widest games are the ones that I never want to make again. The Superpin width was/is much better. I can design in at least one more shot in a Superpin width, and more and larger toys can be utilized.


I do have to admit that my favorite playfield size to play and create within is the standard 20-1/4" X 46" I would like to make a longer (48") game someday, but it is not a high priority.


I don't enjoy dumping on others games, but don't try to tell me that Popeye was a good game. If you enjoy playing it, that's certainly your prerogative. Most Williams engineering/management folks don't want to think about Popeye. It was an awful time in Williams history."



Many pinball machines were produced after Popeye so it clearly wasn't the complete death blow to industry that many make it out to be, but it very well could have hastened the demise of pinball by souring many operators on buying as many games as they had in the past. fascinating stuff.






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1 Comment


nick smith
nick smith
Dec 03, 2023

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