Arcade Holy Grail: The Pinball Circus

In terms of their design and construction build, pinball machines have fundamentally remained the same throughout the years. I’m guessing that if you picture the phrase ‘pinball machine’ in your mind, we all create the same basic image. There’s been advances over the years of course – the most fundamental being the appearance of electronic components, PCBs and microchips in the 80s. This moved pinball away from the clunky nature of electromechanical design, and opened up the possibilities of entertaining players with new toys, ramps, sound effects, speech and multi-level play fields. The 80s and 90s saw what is regarded as the Golden Age of pinball, with designers stretching their creativity to give the player more to do and a bigger bang for their buck.

But ultimately, pinball is pinball – and this remains true to this day. The licences, artwork, rule sets and playfield layouts might differ from table to table, but at its core, pinball is a constant. Put simply, you have a large playfield flat in front of you, two flippers to keep the ball in play and make shots, and a vertical backglass.

But back in 1993, Midway Manufacturing Company (then a subsidiary of Williams – famous for its pinball and video game releases) wanted to completely change players’ perceptions of what pinball should be. The challenge was to totally rethink that standard ‘table’ layout, and try something new.

midway

This mammoth task (and a healthy budget of $1.5 million) was given to designer Python Anghelo on account of his stellar design work on tables up to that point. Angelo was responsible for some of the greatest legendary pinball tables releases, including Bad Cats, Big Guns, Comet, Cyclone, Pin-Bot and Taxi. We’ve looked at some of Anghelo’s ground-breaking work here on the blog before.

Starting with a blank sheet of paper, Anghelo got to work, and let his imagination run riot. He worked on the premise of changing the traditional flat play axis of pinball, and literally turned it on its head. Rather than having a horizontal playfield stretching out in front of the player, why not have one that plays vertically as well? Working to that idea, The Pinball Circus was developed.

Pinball Circus Front
As you can see, The Pinball Circus bears little resemblance to a traditional pinball table. Looks more like a video arcade game. Note the traditional flipper button still visible on the right

The game is played on a series of levels – and getting to each level brings bigger rewards, but doing so presents an increasing amount of risk and difficulty. The player starts on the lower playfield, where the aim is to deliver the ball to the second level via a ramp to the centre left area. The second level is made up of a series of metal rings with a single flipper – here the player has to fire the ball up another ramp towards an elephant’s trunk (of all things). If the shot is successfully made, the elephant raises its head, rolling the ball to a third level, and here another key shot can be made to a magnetic ball lifter, which raises the ball to the goal area – a clown’s playfield. Using two small flippers, the player drops three targets to reveal a jackpot behind. Once the jackpot is scored, the ball is returned to the first lower playfield to try again.

The Pinball Circus US Patent
The Pinball Circus’ US Patent. You can view the whole document here

Based on Anghelo’s designs, just two finished cabinets were produced. All the artwork, software, playfield features and rule sets were complete – the game was done. As was usual, the game would follow a testing process to gather feedback from players out in the marketplace. One cabinet was placed on field test at an arcade in Chicago, and the other was shipped to European distributor NOVA for simultaneous overseas testing.

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Another shot of the cabinet design. Fully complete and ready to ramp up production. or so Midway thought….

Midway were confident that they had broken the mould with The Pinball Circus, and were offering something genuinely different – a machine that would disrupt the pinball market and breathe new life into the arcade scene that was becoming saturated with pinball tables of varying quality and success.

But the reports from the field tests that came back were somewhat surprising. Both machines earned no more income than standard tables of that time. What’s more, NOVA pointed out to Midway that they and the operators they supplied would not be prepared to pay the additional expected costs for the machine, if, based on the results of the field testing, additional income was not going to happen. On a purely commercial basis, this of course made perfect sense.

As a result of the feedback, NOVA sent their machine back to Midway, the machine placed out in Chicago was picked up and returned to base, and both cabinets were parked in a back room at the factory.

As disappointing as it was to the team who worked on the groundbreaking table, it was decided that no further tables should be built, and the project was scrapped indefinitely.

Lenny Esposito
The game’s elephant feature (photo: Lenny Esposito)

To the outside pinball world, the table was now regarded as being lost forever. An expensive folly that never came to fruition. Rumours of its existence swirled around the pinball community for years, questions were asked, enquiries were made, but not much information was forthcoming.

Fast forward to 1999, and Williams quits the pinball industry. Clearing out the old building, the two machines were unearthed, and both were taken home by senior executives of Williams. Steve Kordek was one of those people, and after being asked about the machine many times, he got together with former Williams designer Larry DeMar, and they decided to do something about it.

Up to this point, the game was ‘unobtainium’ – no pictures existed and no one really fully knew what was different about this fabled pinball table, or if any tables were still around.

But you can now view, touch and even play the machine, as one has been housed at a pinball museum in America. Larry and Steve made things happen, and agreed to have one of The Pinball Circus machines shipped to Nevada and placed in the custody of the team at The Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.

I had an opportunity to play the table back in March this year, and I can tell you it’s an amazing game!

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The cabinet has a video game style marquee
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This shot shows all three playfield areas
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Here you can see the complex ramp system, used to steer the ball to the top of the play area towards the jackpot guarded by the clown character at the top
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And here’s the final ‘clown’ playfield. Note the two small flippers and the three drop targets inside the clown’s mouth

It really is a lot of fun to play and I’m surprised it never went into production. It’s a great example of the dichotomy of pinball design – the result of creative genius, sadly never coming to fruition because of simple commercial expectations. The numbers simply didn’t add up at the time. Whilst it’s a shame the game isn’t more ubiquitous, to be able to get hands on with this Holy Grail of pinball is a real treat.

There are a few videos of the machine being played on YouTube – here’s one of them:

It’s a lovely, quirky piece of arcade history, and ironically is great fun. If you’re ever in the Las Vegas area, drop in and give The Pinball Circus table a go.

Thanks for reading this week.

Tony

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. ringadingding says:

    dang, i went to the pinball museum in Vegas a year or two ago, and i didn’t know about this. what an amazing story! now i need to go back so i can play it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. neil1637 says:

    What an interesting article. The cab looks like a crazy mash up between a Zoltar Fortune Teller machine and a Tomy Kongman ball bearing game from the eighties.
    I wonder how it might be received today. I personally think it looks amazing and easily capable of teasing some change from my tight pockets!

    Like

  3. I was there in March as well, Tony. The PBHOF is a must hit in Vegas and Pinball Circus demands some of your time when you visit. Truly a unique and wickedly cool experience. Have you heard of this project??

    https://thisweekinpinball.com/pythons-pinball-circus-updates-secret-second-new-title/

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nitzan says:

    I was there just last week, and it still plays great. Two big takeaways from my play:

    1. Game rules felt a bit simplistic even though they were completed. I found the right ramp shot in the lower playfield, which feeds back to the right flipper, to be easily repeatable and reaping a ton of points in no time towards a replay. The effort of reaching up to the clown and actually getting past the teeth should’ve been a lot more rewarding points-wise.

    2. The clown playfield is the only section in the machine where the flippers do not have any rubber on them. Is that purposeful, do we know? I also could not figure out if there was any multiball in this machine, but I got a cool video mode on the electric giraffe when it took the ball up to the clown.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. hurraybanana says:

    Great article Tony, i wonder if some ideas from this made it into the vertical playfield in banzai run?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. TomTom says:

    When I read the title of your post, for a second, I thought you had managed to actually get your own Pinball Circus!

    Liked by 1 person

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