There’s an old saying: “If you want to get ahead, get a hat.”
It works for the Pope, it works for the Queen, and it works for the beardy guys in ZZ Top. In fact short of prancing around stark-bollock naked it’s fair to say that there are few better ways of attracting attention to yourself and showing that you mean business than by putting a fancy titfer on your bonce.
What works for people rarely works for pinball machines, but this case is an exception: pinball manufacturers clocked fairly early on that if you want to make your new machine stand out from the cloud then a good way is to put a hat on it. Or a topper, which is basically a hat for a pinball machine.
Back in the 60s the boys at Gottlieb offered some generic toppers for their games, but it wasn’t till the 80s when game specific toppers started appearing on the scene: Gottlieb’s 1981 Black Hole had a pretty basic board that announced “A NEW EXPERIENCE IN SPACE Gottlieb BLACK HOLE.” Williams’ 19884 Space Shuttle had something similar: a board reading “Williams SPACE SHUTTLE “HOT NEW PINBALL!””
Enough to make these games stand out from other machines? Perhaps, but you’d have to think that the socking great space shuttle on Space Shuttle’s playfield or the rotating disc backglass and reversed lower playfield on Black Hole would do more than a cheesy sign on top would have done. Let’s face it: they may have been leading edge at the time, but these two toppers were the equivalent of a plain black baseball cap.
So what makes a good factory topper?
If you want a hat to stand out then it helps to have flashing lights. Or rotating beacons. That’s certainly true with toppers too, and that’s what made Williams 1986 classic High Speed’s topper so brilliant. You’re getting chased by the Old Bill, and the topper is a police car’s flashing red beacon lighting up the whole room and pointing you out as a pinball gangsta. Who can help but rubberneck?
It’s all about the beacons
Williams clearly figured out pretty quickly that a flashing light on top a pinball machine is a Good Thing, and if one is good then more has got to be better. Makes sense.
That thinking was put in to practice on F14 Tomcat, released the following year, which had not one but three rotating beacons as a topper.
There’s only one problem with this. It may be an epic three-beaconed flashing topper thang, but it doesn’t really tie in with the theme in the way that the red beacon on High Speed does perfectly. Why would three police cars be chasing an F14 Tomcat? Answer that.
Perhaps it’s best not to overthink the F14 topper, but let’s just say that a really great topper should probably tie in with the theme of the pinball machine it’s adorning rather better. And that’s exactly what’s so excellent about the topper on Williams’ 1988 Taxi.
Firstly, it mimics the taxi signs that cabbies stick on top of their cars out in the real world to turn a bog standard automobile into a bone fide taxi. Only in this case it turns a bog standard pinball machine into a bone fide Taxi.
And secondly, and rather splendidly, it turns out that the proper name for a taxi sign that a cabbie puts on the roof of his car is a taxi topper. Ha!
Combined with bell and the flashing lights, the Taxi taxi topper topper – for that’s what it is and should henceforth be referred to as – makes Taxi unmissable, and a candidate for best pinball topper ever. The game isn’t half bad either.
Blast from the past
But let’s not fleece the benny just yet. There’s plenty more factory toppers where that came from that draw your peepers and tie in with the theme to boot. Like for example the topper on Whirlwind.
This 1990 Williams machine promises to let you “Feel The Power Of The Wind!” and the topper comes in the form of a fan that – at appropriate points in the game – smites you with a massive blast of wind that knocks you and everyone in the vicinity right out of their shoes and sends them flying across the room.
Except that it doesn’t. It’s a great idea for a topper, but in reality you’d need a small aero engine mounted on the backbox to really do the theme justice. Whirlwind’s puny little fan wafts a nice breeze past your mug which is nice in a hot arcade on a summer’s day but hardly lives up to its promise.
There are other toppers that don’t quite work, like The Addams Family’s mansion topper which has a cloud, a chimney, a window, a weird aerial contraption but no roof. It’s nice, but it doesn’t really do anything.
But let’s concentrate on two toppers that do stuff really well. Excellent toppers that make any machine that lacks one seem incomplete, but augments those machines that do have them and turns them into uber-pinball machines: masters of the arcade/games room and all that they survey.
We’re talking, of course, about the two finest factory toppers ever made. And the first of these is the breathtaking, relatively rare and often missing White Water topper.
If you’ve ever seen a White Water machine without its topper it’s a pretty sorry sight: an unremarkable blue cabinet, and a translite with a large raft on it, but no sign of the name of the machine. And it’s a not uncommon sight: many White Water machines seem to have lost their toppers over the last twenty odd years, either because they’ve been destroyed, or they’ve been half-inched by some unspeakable pignut.
But resplendent with the original topper a White Water is a different kettle of fish entirely. The machine stands tall and proud, with the illuminated topper displaying the game’s name on a cliff face.
But what’s special is that flickering lights and a special foil surface on the image provide the amazing illusion of water surging over the cliff down a huge falls and gushing out from in between the letters of the game’s name, frothing and foaming angrily in a maelstrom at the bottom.
(How the moving waterfall effect was made is one of the great mysteries of the pinball world. Apparently some chap walked in off the street into Williams’ offices and said he had the technology to produce the illusion of motion on a foil sticker with nothing more than lights flashing in a chase pattern to make it work.
Twenty years later and no-one can remember who he was or what company he worked for. Somehow this individual (or his company) managed to create the necessary patterns in the foil to make the water come to life, yet today no-one has successfully reproduced the patterns by copying an existing topper let alone create the patterns from scratch.)
Note: An Idaho-based company called Twisted Pins attempted to make replica foils two years ago but the results failed to generate the same moving water illusion.When Pavlov Pinball contacted the company a few days ago boss Travis Brawley said that a new, working batch were ready and would be available by the end of May 2015. To date his predictions about the availability of the toppers have not been entirely accurate so when/if they become available remains to be seen.
The perfect topper
But there’s one topper that tops even the mighty White Water topper, and that’s the flappy fish mounted on the top of Fish Tales. It looks like a fish displayed in a trophy cabinet, but it’s also tied in perfectly with the game play.
Catch a fish in the game and the topper fish will flap to let you know. Its thrashing is so violent that it also works in the same way as a shaker motor, moving the game so you feel, as well as see and hear, the thrashing monster fish you’re battling with in the game. (Until you neighbours insist you disconnect the damn thing because it’s waking them up in the next door house, but that’s a story for another day.)
As far as attracting attention to the game, which ultimately is the point of a topper, nothing beats it. How can you sit in a barcade and not notice the machine with the fish flapping around above the backbox, and the incessant din it makes while it does so?
So for all those reasons, Pavlov Pinball awards the Fish Tales fish topper the title of Pavlov Pinball Greatest Factory Pinball Topper Ever. Good show.
Silver medal: White Water
Bronze medal: Taxi
Runners up: Rotating beacon toppers on High Speed, HS2, F14 Tomcat, Lethal Weapon 3 etc. (and Roadshow aftermarket topper from pinballtoppers.com)
Honourable mention: Whirlwind