When pigs flew: The strange history of Capcom’s Big Bang Bar : Polygon
Here is a great post about the pinball company Capcom and the one of the most famous games to date that many people have never played, Big Bang Bar. From Capcom’s demise to Gene Cunningham reissuing of the game. The rise and fall of Big Bang Bar.
When I first heard the story, I thought it was an urban legend. Like Mikey’s stomach, infused with a deadly cocktail of Pop Rocks and Coca-Cola. Or Walt Disney’s frozen body awaiting a return to a perfect future world.
Always affable, nearly famous Todd Tuckey has a way of making anything sound like an urban legend when he talks. The owner of TNT Amusements achieved a sort of notoriety in Pennsylvania with his late-night, phlegmatic, never-ending ads for refurbished video game machines in the early 2000s. A fact he pointed out within minutes of getting on the phone with me.
I was working on a story about buying refurbed game machines and he was my source. After working through the particulars, Tuckey interrupted my wrap-up by asking if I wanted to hear a real story.
The tale he told, heard from the friend of a collector, was about a fabled pinball machine, a dream machine that was never manufactured, its design thought lost forever. But then in 2000, Tuckey said, a real estate magnate stumbled across a stash of design documents for the pinball table in the back of an old warehouse he had just purchased.
It was pure, blind luck, Tuckey said.
Lacking any experience in pinball, the story went, this guy who had never built a pinball machine, or any machine before, convinced a few hundred people to invest money in his attempt to recreate the pinball. And over the next five years, as hope for the machine faded and the money man disappeared, this collective of potential owners began to argue among themselves, buying and trading the rights to their owed machines.
They even had a shared motto about when they would see the machine or their money again: “When pigs fly.”
Then the inconceivable happened: Pigs flew. The machine, a collector’s item made from scattered parts and fueled by grit and dreams, was completed and shipped to the investors and was better than anyone imagined.
That was the story of Capcom’s Big Bang Bar pinball, or at least the one I heard that day back in 2007.
I later discovered that much of the yarn’s minutia was wrong. But it was not because its more unbelievable elements were crafted of pure fiction but rather because the drama and impossibility of the feat didn’t do the true story justice.
Big Bang Bar‘s creation is a story of pinball’s near death, of one man’s attempt to become a piece of pinball history, of bankruptcy, of obsession, of short-lived redemption and personal disaster.
Big Bang Bar was as much, maybe more, a product of Chicago as it was Capcom’s creation. To understand why, you need to understand how Chicago became the bedrock upon which pinball was built.
Although pinball traces its distant ancestry back to France during the reign of Louis XIV and the 1871 patent of the plunger by a British inventor named Montague Redgrave in Cincinnati, Ohio, the game’s heart and soul is deeply rooted in Chicago’s 1830s rise as a Midwest metropolis.
Coin-operated games using Redgrave’s plunger, known as bagatelle or billard japonais and similar to pachinko games, were already popular across the country in the early 1900s, but they hadn’t yet become a smash hit. At least not until 1931 when David Gottlieb started producing a game called Baffle Ball at his manufacturing plant located about 10 miles from the Chicago shores of Lake Michigan.
By the end of 1932, there were more than 100 pinball manufacturers in the U.S., most of them in Chicago, firmly solidifying the Windy City as the home to pinball.
By the ’70s, pinball machines looked much like they do today with plungers, flippers, bumpers, digital displays and a host of solid-state electronics controlling it all. The decade was even home to two pinball films: 1975’s Tommy and 1979’s “Tilt.”
But it was the golden age of arcades in the mid-80s, awash in the “I want my MTV” generation of parachute pants-wearing, Jackson-loving, quarter-popping teens, which set the stage for pinball’s greatest rise and a stark collapse into near oblivion.
The pinball industry first rocketed to the heights of culture-shaping popularity in the ’80s. Then, with the opening of the ’90s, that success staggered and began to teeter on the precipice of a financial freefall. And it was then that Capcom decided to build a studio devoted to pinball machines.
A number of people with first-hand knowledge of those early Capcom Coin-Op days said they still weren’t entirely sure why the Japanese-based company decided to invest in pinball. Several people told Polygon they were contacted by the company back in the ’90s for advice, and all of those people — highly placed in the world of pinball design and creation — told the company it was a bad idea.
But Capcom did it anyway and its effort lasted just 18 months.
“The guy who convinced Capcom to get into the pinball business didn’t really know what they didn’t know,” said George Gomez, who is currently the vice president of game development at Stern Pinball, but who at the time was designing pinball machines at Williams. “They didn’t understand the business.”
The company first got involved in pinball through a Chicago game studio known as GameStar in 1994, but by the summer of 1995, Capcom took over the operation and used it to established Capcom Coin-Op in Chicago.
“They had decided in Japan to do this, probably looking at Data East’s success in pinball,” Stern Pinball head Gary Stern said. “They hired a lot of Williams’ people. Whether they were unsuccessful because of their own practices or because the market had blipped and they missed the high point, I don’t know.”
Capcom’s step into the pinball world was complicated by the fact that it headhunted a core group of people from Williams. And in retaliation, Gomez said, Williams “basically sued everybody.” That meant that Capcom, worried about falling afoul of the flow of lawsuits over even the most straightforward of pinball designs used at Williams, had to essentially reinvent everything from the flipper to the bumper. That slowed the development process of Capcom’s initial tables and made the costs go through the roof, Gomez said.
“They had to turn on the money faucet, and they were spending a lot of money before they were going to get anything back,” he said.
While an established company like Williams could afford a misstep or two, Capcom Coin-Op, hemorrhaging cash from the get-go, had to make sure every one of its tables were hits.
“But nobody gets it right 100 percent of the time,” Gomez said. “Capcom closing didn’t surprise me. I saw the games they were making and how they were struggling to sell them. I knew it was just a matter of time.”
But before it shut its doors, the company managed to create something that would become nearly mythical in pinball collecting circles: Big Bang Bar.
And had it not been for Gene Cunningham, a Midwest octogenarian, warehouse mogul and skating rink owner who became obsessed with not just buying the hard-to-find table but recreating it, few outside the defunct company would have ever had a chance to play it.
Unfortunately, the effort cost Cunningham dearly.
After spending months trying to track down Gene Cunningham over the phone and computer, researching his life and trying to piece together how he found himself in possession of Capcom’s pinball rights and then seemingly lost not just those rights but everything, I decided it was time for a trip.
Flying into Chicago on a Friday, I spent an evening walking through the packed work floors of Stern Pinball, watching a dedicated team of men and women thread, strip and crimp bundles of wires, press colorful and waxed playfields with lights and assemble toys as they hand-constructed pinball tables.
It was a complicated process that required space, time, money, but most of all, experience.
Saturday morning, I woke early, hopped in a rental car and drove more than two hours to Bloomington. The trip down Interstate 55 is a journey from Midwest urbanity into the country’s heart of middle America, a trip past corn fields and wide-open spaces dotted with tiny towns, a straight-as-a-razer drive on two lanes that rarely requires a shift of the steering wheel.
Unanswered emails and phone calls made this a necessary trip to speak to Cunningham. But first, I wanted to check out the place where Cunningham first discovered pinball, the skating rink that he owned for decades before losing it to a bankruptcy sale.
The Bloomington, Ill. Skate ‘n’ Place is almost anachronistic, it so firmly grips to the ’80s.
Past the doughy-soft asphalt of the recently resurfaced parking lot and through the front door, visitors find the neon-meets-disco-ball lighting and urethane rollerboard flooring of a skating rink that seems plucked from 1984.
There’s the skate rental counter, dutifully guarded by a bored teenager flanked by interested, but not too interested, girls of his age on roller skates. There’s the seemingly always empty pro shop packed with pastel-colored roller skates mounted to a faux wood panel. Over in the back corner is a makeshift arcade, a cinder-blocked cubby packed with dated gaming machines, both video and pinball. And in the center of it all, huge in its presence, are the shiny wooden planks of the rink, lightly dotted with circling, smiling, occasionally giggling children and teens. The entire scene is bathed in the almost visible bass of overamplified music.
Occasionally the music is punctured with the sound of someone talking over an intercom, perhaps announcing something, but I really can’t make it out. Instead all I hear is a familiar patter and then, once more, the pure white noise of music.
Tim Overholser has the look of a man caring for an antique car or beloved pet as he first crouches down to examine a quarter-operated pool table and then stalks to the skate rental counter to make sure things are running smoothly. It’s clear that this is more than just a business to him.
Overholser wears a slightly faded, black polo shirt embroidered with the name of his place under a stylized picture of a roller skate and cluster of stars. The black and white ballcap tucked firmly down on his broad brow shares the same image.
When I ask him if we can talk about Gene Cunningham, a look passes over his face of slight irritation and concern for a moment before he tells me that we better go back to his office.
Cunningham opened the skating rink back in 1973 and it quickly became a hangout for local children. Overholser tells me he was eight when his mother started bringing him to the place. By the time he was 13, he says, he was a great skater and he started working for Cunningham, a man who steadily became a father figure to Overholser, a child of a single mom.
“I was a skate guard,” he says. “I worked the skate check counter, DJ. I’ve done pretty much everything here.”
In 1988, Overholser decided to buy the business from Cunningham and signed a contract that had him paying rent and giving money toward ownership, Overholser says.
Over the next five years, Overholser says he spent all of his time running the place, it became his life and the people who came to skate, his family. He even met his wife at the skate rink.
“I was working here at this skate check counter and she came up and inquired about wheels for her skates,” he tells me, smiling. “I went ahead and sold her a pair of wheels for her skates. She kept coming up every few minutes saying they needed adjustments. But they really didn’t. It was just her way of coming to talk to me, so that’s kind of how we met.”
While the skating rink was Overholser’s passion, he says, for Cunningham it was simply a business.
“The one thing about this place is I’m passionate about roller skating. I have kids who are passionate about roller skating. They are here when I open the door, every session,” he says. “I can see that passion in a kid a mile away. That was me. I was one of those kids, I was one of those kids who had to live here all the time. It was my second home. Sometimes it was my first home. The difference between me and Gene is he was just passionate about the money, the business.”
But after Overholser took over the skating rink, things between he and Cunningham began to break down. Cunningham, Overholser says, would drag his feet on repairs he was obligated to make and it was hurting the business. The relationship between the two, which had once been akin to father and son, became rocky and, eventually, Overholser says he couldn’t take it anymore.
“At the end of 1993, I walked away from it for over 21 years,” he says. He sold the business back to Cunningham at a loss, and Overholser says he was so disgusted in the entire affair he moved out of his hometown.
“At the time I just needed to get out of the area,” he says. “I thought about this place everyday.”
Then in 2014, Overholser started getting phone calls. It was the bank that owned the mortgage on the rink. The place had recently closed due to Cunningham running into financial trouble and declaring bankruptcy. The bank needed someone to come in and get the place up and running again, get the lights and heat on.
“I told them I’d walked away from it 21 years ago and, provided that nothing much had changed, I could probably come and help,” he says. “My wife and I came in that night. Within 30 seconds of walking in the door, I had everything turned on for them. Nothing had changed that much. We looked over the entire building and negotiations started at that point, and they said, ‘Would you be open to the idea [of buying the rink]?”
While neither he nor his wife had been thinking about buying a business, they both had a lot of history at the rink.
“It was more about saving it,” Overholser says. “We’d met here 30 years ago. Obviously we had a history here. There’s lots of memories here, not just for us but for all the kids and the adults who have grown up in this place since 1973.”
Overholser and his wife ended up buying the place, and the warehouse next door, at an auction and then spent nearly $150,000 and six weeks fixing up and modernizing the rink.
“I lived here night and day,” he says.
Overholser was a wealth of knowledge about Cunningham in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, but, he says, Cunningham didn’t really get into pinball until sometime after 1993, when Overholser sold the place back to him.
I thank Overholser, but before I can leave, he says there’s one more thing I should probably see.
The warehouse next to the skating rink is run down and falling apart. The wall facing the rink has been painted up with old cartoon characters, but everything else about the place looks dangerous it’s so rundown. Overholser walks me around to the front of the building and its two glass doors.
When Cunningham started to sink into bankruptcy, he started losing all of his warehouses, Overholser says. This derelict building became the final resting place of Cunningham’s pinball parts business. Illinois Pin Ball, he says.
Inside the front doors are signs of the warehouse’s last ties to Cunningham.
There’s an empty glass display case with remnants of pinball parts scattered across its glass top. Next to it stands an old Pac-Man machine and a Sega driving game. The only pinball machine in the place is a Flash table, its power cord wrapped around the backbox, a dusty circuit board resting on the playfield glass.
But that’s not what Overholser wants to show me. He takes me back into the depths of the building, into the dank darkness of the cement-floored warehouse. Up against a back wall stands an odd little construction, something obviously built by hand to serve some sort of specific purpose. It has a very low roof, perhaps seven feet off the ground. The rectangular box is missing one wall and the other is broken up by a series of metal squares, each maybe a foot across. Overholser smiles at me.
“Do you know what that is?”
I walk around it but can’t, for the life of me, figure it out.
“This is where they painted the Big Bang Bar cabinets,” he says.
Overholser walks me out to the parking lot, but instead of heading back to the rink he takes a few broad strides to the side of the road, right next to the entrance to the lot. He points down the highway to a road not too far off. The massive new sign for the skating rink slips quietly between ads as Overholser speaks.
“You see that house?” he says. “He’s just down that road. Maybe five minutes.”
I thank him, walk back to my rental car and prepare for the short ride to Cunningham’s house.
Read the entire story here :
Thanks to Polygon and Brian Crecente for the story and pics.