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Interview

Star Trek | How the Next Generation Pinball Dodged Disaster to Become a Hit

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Star Trek: The Next Generation had many licensed products generating income for Paramount. Among the successes was the pinball table from Williams, created by legendary designer Steve Ritchie.

Steve was a Star Trek fan. “I was 16 when the series started. It ran on Saturday nights; I would stretch out on the family room carpet and never leave that position until it was over! Saturday night was Western night before Star Trek, so the early Star Trek episodes had a lot of Kirk and Spock fighting and shooting scenes to compete with Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Rifleman. I always loved sci-fi books and there were only a couple of sci-fi shows on TV at the time. I watched Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and Science Fiction Theater. Star Trek was a better and more welcome addition to our house. My whole family loved it.”

Liking the show did not make it easier to obtain the license. “Our first meeting with the folks at Paramount did not go well at all. What made it difficult was the fact that 3 women ran the licensing department at Paramount. They seemed to be of equal rank, and they were trying to outdo each other in an attempt to grab power. To our astonishment, they demanded that we NOT depict any weapons or physical violence, no firing of Phasers or Photon Torpedoes! They did not know about the Prime Directive, but we did, and we vowed that no shooting would take place except in certain battles (against the Borg) and only when Starfleet personnel were protecting themselves or Enterprise. They wouldn’t hear anything we said!” 

An advert for Bally’s 1979 Star Trek cabinet with its Motion Picture backglass. | Bally, 1979.

It would not have been the first Star Trek pinball, although Gottlieb’s Star Trek (1971) was unrelated to the show. Bally’s 1976 Star Ship featured artwork that looked like Enterprise. Bally launched Star Trek (based on the Original Series) in 1979. With the release of The Motion Picture, the backglass artwork (where the score is usually displayed) was changed to display movie uniforms and Deltan navigator Ilia (played by former Miss India, Persis Khambatta). Then in 1991, Data East released its 25th Anniversary table.

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Table Service

Steve had left that first meeting disappointed. “I had nothing to say after the meeting. We walked to the Paramount commissary and sat down for lunch. I remember feeling miserable and wondered to myself, ‘How could the licensing people have been so hypocritical!’ One of the licensing ladies said something to the effect that we should remember their demands for no violence, and I said, ‘I am not going to make a namby-pamby game’ and mentioned that we should find a different license. Paramount stood to get $100,000 upfront and a royalty for each game from Williams. It was expensive and valuable. We left the lot silently and got on a plane back to Chicago.”

Their savior was Roger Sharpe. His 1976 testimony proved pinball was a game of skill, the judge overturned New York’s pinball ban. By 1991 Roger was a consultant to Williams. “Roger was instrumental in repairing the situation. He waited a week, then called a VP at Paramount. His exact words were, ‘How can we salvage this deal?’ We learned that Paramount management was furious with the three licensing ladies, and they had had enough of their infighting. They knew nothing about the product. The ladies were replaced by a smart and nice woman named Suzy Domnick. She was wonderful to work with, understood that we would do nothing to hurt the franchise, and said that we could depict violence as was depicted in the show.” 

“On our next trip to Hollywood, we met Michael Okuda, Dan Curry, and Mike Westmore, and got a complete tour of the sound stages. We were shown so much cool stuff that it was mind-boggling. We watched a scene being shot with Gates McFadden in Sick Bay, stood on the Enterprise transporter, and walked onto the ship’s bridge set just as Patrick Stewart and the rest of the crew did! We also chatted with Kelsey Grammer and Kirsty Alley, both genuinely nice normal people.

“We ate at the commissary that day and Patrick Stewart sat down right behind me, speaking with his agent. That voice of his was electrifying. Paramount had a rule: Visitors were not to speak to actors unless we were spoken to. I don’t know what I would have said to him anyway!”

Steve Ritchie

Paramount was more helpful during production. Steve remembers, “They supplied lots of references, but did not insist on anything, really. We got to do what we needed to do to make a good pinball machine. Outside entities can’t control our designs, ever. We don’t try to make movies or TV shows because we don’t know-how. They can’t make good pinball machines because no outside entity knows how. They did have art approval rights but were neither strict nor difficult. It was smooth sailing after Paramount hired Suzy Domnick. We became respectful friends, and of course, enjoyed our joint success in the end.”

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Strictly Ball Zoom

Steve, often called ‘The King of Pinball,’ was a master of innovative ideas. The ‘phaser’ ball launcher, spaceship models, and artwork make a fantastic-looking table. Steve explains, “Many items were designed from scratch, and that’s true for every game I have ever made. The subterranean troughs and diverter system were worthy of a patent.” These are unseen by the player, rerouting the ball under the playfield.

“I also designed the Ferengi targets that scored and forced the ball downward into the playfield at the Neutral Zone, the Photon Torpedo cannon covers, the Borg ship, and its many contained functions, and lots of other components.”

Steve Ritchie

Steve had joined Atari as employee #50 in 1974, working in assembly before joining the pinball division. His first table became Airborne Avenger (1977) and was working on a licensed Superman table when Williams approached him. Moving to Chicago, Flash (1979) sold a massive 19,000 units. 1980 saw Firepower, featuring the first electronic multiball and Lane Change features. Black Knight introduced a two-level playing field and Magna-Save (a button activates a magnet, stopping the ball from draining if timed correctly.) Both were noteworthy for including speech. 1981’s Hyperball was followed by five years working on video games at his company King Video Design. Steve returned to pinball with 1986’s High Speed, followed by Black Knight 2000 and Rollergames (based on a cancelled TV show). Other titles included Getaway and F14 Tomcat, and he helped on Elvira and the Party Monsters when designer Dennis Nordman suffered a motorbike accident. The next hit was Terminator 2: Judgement Day, with the voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Steve Ritchie at California Extreme, 2009. | Photo by Michael Dunn, CC BY 4.0.

The Next Generation was part of Williams’ SuperPin “widebody” range, incorporating the DCS sound system and dot-matrix display. Launching the ball with the phaser, the display shows a shifting list of options; launching on Start Mission will activate the current mission indicated on Enterprise D’s saucer section. Completing the mission awards an Artifact. Asteroid requires hitting bumpers to destroy asteroids, Battle Simulation uses the Photon Torpedo launchers, and Q’s Challenge sees the omnipotent menace challenging you to make certain shots. Rescue requires saving people by hitting the center shot or lit ramp, and loading the shuttle or transporter. Search the Galaxy, Time Rift, and Wormhole all use the ramps (labeled as four galaxy Quadrants). Shuttle Simulation is Video Mode, weaving through caves on the dot-matrix display. Locking the ball three times leads to combat against the Borg, with the enemy “ship” firing the ball at the flippers.

Steve had a team to help. “I drew the game originally but worked with Dwight Sullivan, Greg Freres, Dan Forden, Scott Slomiany, and Carl Biaggi. Dwight, Greg, Dan, and I worked together to create the scripts, missions, actor’s speech, and music.” The speech is incredible, but Steve did not get to the cast recordings. “Dan Forden met and spoke to all of them as he directed the actors. The only actor who wouldn’t play along was Jonathan Frakes. He refused to take our stuff seriously and that’s why there is little of Riker’s speech that was usable material in the game. The others were great.

“Patrick Stewart improvised a bunch of statements that were great, and found and corrected an error in our script. He is a quick-witted master who can drop in and out of character with incredible focus. Brent Spiner, Michael Dorn, and LeVar Burton were also spectacular performers for us. John de Lancie was also great as Q, and a master of his character.” 

Steve Ritchie

The Pin is Dead

Steve provided speech for other tables – the Black Knight series, Firepower, and Space Shuttle – plus the announcer in High Impact Football and Shao Khan in early Mortal Kombat games. Steve also coined the name Mortal Kombat while the game was developed. Steve’s final Williams table was No Fear: Dangerous Sports (1995). He moved to Atari Games and back to video games. Founding Steve Ritchie Productions in 2002, his pinball designs for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Elvis (celebrating the 50th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s first studio recording), World Poker Tour (using the new S.A.M hardware), Avatar, and TV series 24 would be manufactured by Stern – but Steve and other employees were laid off in 2009. Pinball had been on a steady decline for years, selling fewer tables. 

People turned to pinball emulation and simulations to get their fix; an early example being 1980’s Commodore 64 game Star Trek Pinball, created with Electronic Arts’ Pinball Construction Kit. An unlicensed TNG table was released for Visual Pinball, the leading pinball emulator. In 1998, Interplay and SCi released Star Trek Pinball for DOS, which was also Windows 95 compatible. This featured three tables themed around The Original Series, with voice samples. The first table, To Boldy Go, features a large image of William Shatner as Kirk surrounded by ladies. The second, Qapla,’ is Klingon-themed. Nemesis, the third table is unusually designed for two players, with ranks of targets to hit at the top; it is played to a score total or set number of games. Unfortunately, this received unfavorable reviews.

Farsight Studios was founded in 1998 and became famous for its console simulations. In 2012 the company created a new app across multiple platforms – The Pinball Arcade. Licensing tables from Stern and Williams, the attention to detail was impressive. Steve is a fan. “The artwork is wonderful, especially on the PS3 version. They have a great physics model that reproduces the ball’s motion, momentum, and mass excellently.”

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Take a (Starboard) Bow

Farsight’s 2012 Kickstarter campaign raised $50,000 to bring the TNG table to Pinball Arcade. This paid for a real table to be purchased, disassembled, and analyzed. Artwork was scanned, table components photographed and measured to turn into 3D models, and pathways and ball movement recorded. Backers got access to extras including a Klingon logo ball. Pinball Arcade tables had two distinct variations, standard, and Pro Mode. Pro Mode came with extra playing tips and access to Operator Mode, where settings could be adjusted. Tables had five Standard and five Wizard Goals, for in-game achievements – e.g., earning an Extra Ball. Sadly, the Williams license expired in 2018 so the TNG table is no longer available – meaning you will need a physical console copy or have purchased the app and table already to download it. 

The Star Trek: Vengeance table – based on the J.J. Abrams films and designed by Steve – was recreated for Pinball Arcade and is still available through Farsight’s Stern Pinball Arcade. This concentrates on Stern, Bally, and Data East tables for which Stern retains licenses. Ten tables are playable via the Gear VR headset. The layout of Vengeance shares similarities with TNG, featuring a starship model and multiple ramps. It adds multiple multiball modes and animations on its dot-matrix display.

Steve returned to Stern in 2011 with an AC/DC-themed table before creating Vengeance in 2013. Tables based on Game of Thrones (2015) and Star Wars (2017) were followed by the third Black Knight game, Sword of Rage. A Led Zeppelin table in 2020 was Steve’s last design for Stern before he switched to Jersey Jack Pinball. Sadly, Steve was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease in 2017 which has reduced his hearing.

The TNG table remains a memorable table, selling 11,000 units, and is highly sought after by collectors. Steve says, “We worked extremely hard to bring life and passion to a pinball machine that told stories and was exciting to play. It was 14 months of intense work for some of us. We were and are immensely proud of ST: TNG.” As with any Star Trek interview, there is one final question we must put to Steve Ritchie – Kirk or Picard?

“I like all the captains equally so far, and that includes Chris Pine. I also liked Avery Brooks and Kate Mulgrew.”

This article is based on a 2007 interview with Steve Ritchie. Small extracts from the interview were previously published in The Retro Guide to Star Trek, an article written by this author for gamesTM magazine and now out of print, but the full interview has never been published.


Testimonial Author Image

Andrew Fisher became a Star Trek fan after watching repeats of The Original Series in the 1980s, before falling in love with The Next Generation. A Commodore 64 user since 1985, he began writing in the 1990s for Commodore Force and Commodore Format, and since 2004 has been a regular contributor to Retro Gamer. He also contributed to recent books on retro gaming and old computers. His other sci-fi favorites include Farscape, Firefly, and Doctor Who.


Follow @merman1974 on Twitter and his YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/c/merman1974

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