By James Currie
Pinball machines and music go together like peanut butter and jelly. The wooden cabinet roller ball game has been around since the 18th century, believe it or not, but the modern electric arcade style we’ve come to know and love really took flight in the 1930’s and blew up in the 1970’s as a mainstream source of entertainment. When the silver ball marketing guru’s figured out that branding pop culture and musical artists with the bar room revenue makers drew mega interest, they knew they had a hit combination that would last for decades. Chicago’s northwest side pinball wizards, Stern Pinball Inc, have been on that scene since the late 1990’s keeping the coffin-like cabinet machines alive and well, carving out a niche for themselves as the rock n’ roll pinball manufacture’s of the world creating hits from Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin, Metallica and more. Today, Stern revealed its latest creation with the Canadian rock band, RUSH.
At a one night only welcoming party at the Bottom Lounge, Stern Pinball, Inc set up shop for Chicago to be the first to see, hear and play their latest creation. Several RUSH pinball machines were set up in the upstairs private event room for all to play. In the collection was a mix of Pro and Premium versions (LE not present) of the RUSH pinball machines so you could really see and feel the difference between them. Also in the mix, a couple other Stern machines to showcase off their catalog and diversity in pinball creation with The Munsters and The Beatles also set to free play for all to enjoy all while listening to a mix of RUSH classic tunes.
The free, all ages event dubbed the, “Rush Rock n’ Roll Pinball Party”, was billed as not only a showcase, but also a tournament to see who could rack up the highest score during the 8 hour event. They also hosted Rush karaoke, gave out Rush prizes through raffles and had Stern celebrity autograph sessions with leaders and designers of the Chicago based pinball company.
I talked with Stern Pinball, Inc owner, Gary Stern, about how this came to be and what it took to add this to the legacy of now iconic pinball machines known around the world.
But first, a little about the game itself.
The RUSH pinball machine looks and sounds great. They’ve built it to include many aspects of RUSH themes throughout the game that includes visual graphics from various album cover artwork, 16 RUSH songs playing in the background throughout game play, videos playing on the LCD screen showing exclusive live concert clips and new visuals mixed with their graphic design creations, a mass of ramps to travers up and down the playfield and the centerpiece of the game being a time machine that can start up a multi-ball experience like no others. There are variations of this feature depending one which model you play, but basically, it’s a ramp that runs the ball through a custom sculpted electromagnetic field representing the bands time traveling prop they used on tour. One model has a Clockwork Angels clock that spins, lights up and moves based on points gained. It’s modeled after Neil Peart’s bass drum from that tour.
Playing the game was intense, dare I say a RUSH to play? It was fast with smooth play as the ball glides across the playfield with ease. Lot’s of stand up and drop down targets even one that reveals a special back wall target ball jail of sorts. Numerous stainless steel ramps (one with custom engraved RUSH name logo) kept the ball in play as it travels around the board. One of those ramp play feature is called the Dead End Vertical Upkicker. This propels pinballs up and additional wireform ramp return for even more action in the game play. Main power scoop and side scoop subway ball lock post systems capable of staging 2 pinballs between them. A couple bunkers centered on the playfield that would allow the ball to drop and release as well as multiball activation when combined with the time machine. There’s also a ramp diverter system in place that randomly transports the pinball to the bottom of the playfield landing at one side or the other of the flippers. The lights work in combination with the music, game play and special actions instigated from select targets. There’s even an option to add a top row of lights along the glass for even more of a concert, stage show experience called, Expression Lighting System Expansion with is beat matched to the music.
Not only does the game have RUSH songs, but custom recorded RUSH band members speech from Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee. Barenaked Ladies front man, Ed Robertson, who actually got the ball rolling on this project, lends his vocal talents as well. Their voice can be heard randomly throughout game play activated from select hits of targets and other motion activated devices.
Another feature built into all Stern Pinball machines (even retroactively) that really sets them aside from others, is something called, Insider Connected, think Xbox Live for pinball. This is an app that you sync with your smart phone that allows users to interact with the game and users around the world with keeping game play, sharing high scores and more no matter where you are.
The RUSH pinball machine was designed by Stern Pinball’s John Borg. A huge RUSH fan himself, was eager to create this all new legend for the arcade. He worked with Ed Robertson and Stern’s Director of Licensing and they set out to create the ultimate RUSH fan collectable machine. It’s an interactive RUSH concert in a box that you, the user control.
After playing the pinball and getting to know how it works and what was offered under the glass and behind the backboard, I was ready to learn the backstory on this beast. Tonight, owner Gary Stern was on hand and he gave me the scoop on this already highly sought after game.
ITLM James Currie: So Gary, how’d this come to be? Was this something you guys at Stern came up with? Did you approach RUSH?
Gary Stern: Well it was kind of a mutual thing. Ed Robertson of the band Barenaked Ladies was already a pinball fan as well as a RUSH fan. He worked with our marketing team and said there was a need and hi interest in getting this made. Through his initial outreach we worked with RUSH’s licensing division and ultimately RUSH band members Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee on the project. They were very interested and the ball kept rolling along until we got this (points to the RUSH pinball machine in front of us).
ITLM JC: What does this pinball offer besides the name and theme obviously different than ones you’ve already created for other rock bands?
GS: This one’s got a lot. It was a major investment of time, collaboration and design that took 14 months to create. A couple of the big things this game has that makes it unique are the way multiball plays, the time machine electro magnetic feature, clock (on select models), ball drops and all the custom artwork we made for it which includes not only the graphics, but the videos and animation that are displayed on the LCD screen. The lights on this machine are synced with the game play where it follows the song tracks, ball movement and special plays set throughout the actual game play.
ITLM JC: I love the artwork. The centerpiece image of the band as they were in the late 70’s and the iconic star man logo, really set this off as a work of RUSH. The images of owl’s, red cars and other album artwork to match song titles just works. You can spend hours just looking at all the details designed into this cabinet. Let alone the live video’s and animation on the screen.
GS: Yeah, we really put a lot of time into the details working with the band, fans of the band and management to getting things just right. The band themselves decided on the music that was going to be used in this game. They decided on 16 tracks. They also provided us with rare live concert clips that appear throughout the game play.
ITLM JC: What was one of the most difficult things to get into the game? And what was one of the most integral things that needed to be there?
GS: Hum, well, the ramps are always a challenge in any game but really it’s the interaction of all elements timing that is most difficult. Trying to line up the lights, sounds and special features along a timeline is essential to game play. I’m not on the design end so I can’t speak on most of what went into the making of this game but one of the most crucial things we knew from the beginning was the time machine and clock features. They are hand sculpted models after the bands own props and instruments from their tours.
ITLM JC: Yeah, once you play the game, it becomes pretty obvious it’s a central part to this pinball machine. The multiball feature is insane. Really pushes the game play to another level.
GS: Yes, it was an important one for us and the band to see work. Again, I can’t speak on all the details of the game design but that was one that needed to be there.
ITLM JC: So are you a RUSH fan yourself? Is there a song that you wanted to see (hear) make it to the game?
GS: Well, I’m a little older (77) and while I appreciate the band and their music, I didn’t really follow it. I know some of the hits of course.
ITLM JC: Understandable. There’s a lot of great music out there. Everyone has their own favorites and tastes, or just casual music listeners. And that’s ok.
I see there are 3 different version of the game available. This is a regular thing with Stern designs for all their pinball releases right?
ITLM JC: Yes, well for newer pop culture and music ones for sure. We offer a Pro, Premium and Limited Edition. Each with something a little different. The LE having it all of course having it all like the clock and the time machine, but the time machine is a little different where as the ramp moves up and down to the approach of the ball capture and some other details.
ITLM JC: I noticed that. And it seemed to play a little faster on one verses another.
GS: Well that could be because of how these were set up for this event. A fast game play for the tournament.
ITLM JC: I understand these RUSH pinball machines are newly released to the public today, but are they available for purchase yet? And if so where can you buy them?
GS: Yes the are actually sold out at the moment. The LE anyway. But they are available for order through our website and are shipped around the world. You can find our pinball machines as far away as Singapore.
GS: Side note: Partnering with RUSH, we created a musical pinball experience that every fan will want to explore. Incredible music, memorable toys, unique mechanical pinball action, and custom speech will make players feel like they are on tour with the band. In memory of Neil Peart, we have also decided to support the Neil Peart Research Award sponsored by the Glioblastoma Foundation as it researches cures for this deadly brain cancer.
Disclaimer: I’m a RUSH fan, so this was a no brainer to come see and experience in person, but I’m also a pinball fan. I’ve played my share of pinball machines starting from the late 70’s through today while actually owning some myself. And let me just say, there are some real dogs out there. (I’m looking at you Elton John Pinball Machine 1976). They may have a big name tied to them but just not fun or interesting to play. Especially when you play for a long period of time. The RUSH pinball machine is not one of those. This is exciting and fresh in design and play even when compared to newer games on the market. It’s an immersive, fast moving, but still controllable game. It’s the kind of pinball you don’t mind actually playing with other players. You can lean back, enjoy the artwork, visuals, concert clips and tap your toe to the beat. It’s like a mini RUSH concert happening right in front of you that you are in control of. My 9 year old daughter Maisey came with me on this assignment as she’s a music and pinball fan. She’s played many pinball machines in her (long) life and agrees, this is one we need to bring home. What else do you need, it’s Maisey Approved!
RUSH pinball machine prices as follows:
Pro: MSRP $6,899
Premium: MSRP $8,999
LE: MSRP $11,099
For more on the Stern RUSH pinball machine, click here
Songs in the game are vast spread throughout the bands history and include: