Quoted from NicoVolta:
Whoa... I was at a pinball party this evening and Xerico just informed me about this thread... "You didn't hear about it?"
Hi DEN. What you've got there is, in my *opinion*, the most desirable EM of them all. Both in terms of play and collectability (collectibility?). The main reason why....?
The guy was a WIZARD of innovation from the start of his career and never quit. His first game was Williams King Pin in 1962... a novel game with four flippers in an unusual layout w/center kicker. King Pin is (rightly) considered one of the very best of the "reverse wedgeheads" from that era along with River Boat, which he also designed. Other innovations followed:
1964 - Stop N' Go with reverse flippers and unique stop/go scoring
1966 - 8-Ball - 2-player middle-pop game
1966 - A-Go-Go - first game with roulette captive ball spinner (which he invented)
1967 - Magic City - 1-player middle-pop game
1968 - Cue-T/Miss-O - 1-player middle-pop games w/AAB variant
1970 - Jive Time w/huge backbox spinner
1971 - Doodle Bug w/innovative captive ball scoring and nonstop action
1972 - Spanish Eyes - First middle-pop game w/3" flippers
1972 - Fan-Tas-Tic - First 4-player middle-pop game
1973 - Travel Time - unique time-based play
1974 - Norm Clark modifies some Bow and Arrow machines with a new little thing called "solid state technology"
...as well as having designed many beloved games in-between such as Apollo, Pit Stop, Klondike, Gulfstream, etc.
If you look at pinball history, you will see that every middle-pop game since the woodrail era (with the exception of Safari which doesn't have a full-strength bumper) was designed by Norm Clark. Essentially, he is responsible for bringing back middle-pop games and making them fun again. Norm Clark is, without question, THE middle-pop guy.
Knowing this... we continue...
In 1975, Norm Clark joined Bally as head of the design department. The next game in production was for the American bicentennial celebration in 1976... hence "Freedom". The IPDB states that Freedom was "designed by George Christian under the guidance of Norm Clark". However, if you look at the actual layout of the Freedom prototype you will notice that...
...it is a middle-pop game.
...it has flipper drains and an identical stance to Spanish Eyes.
...it has a central spinner randomizing feature similar to Fan-Tas-Tic/Jive Time.
...George Christian, at the time, was a new hire with no previous experience.
The evidence rather strongly indicates the Freedom prototype is predominantly a Norm Clark design. But how much was designed by George? How much by Norm? Let's explore a bit further.
At the time, Bally was on a hot streak with a hot new designer: Greg Kmiec. He was hard at work in the next room and had recently designed the first blockbuster pinball machine with over 10,000 produced: Wizard! Followed by another huge hit: Bow and Arrow. Around the time Norm and George joined the team... Kmiec was busy working on his next big hit: Old Chicago.
Now, if you look at Old Chicago's layout, it has a spinner in the upper left... same location as Freedom. And a row of five drop targets on the side... also similar to Freedom. It could be that just as entertainment design houses tend to move in waves (as with movies and music), so too with pinball. And thus, the legacy of Norm Clark and his fondness for middle-pops, combined with the "new Bally house energy" contributed by Kmiec... all came together at just right time.
For his part, George might have placed the three asymmetrical pops which seems to be the only consistently identifiable element in his designs. But it's hard to know for sure. I think he was still learning the ropes. Freedom looks an awful lot like Fan-Tas-Tic and doesn't resemble anything else George went on to design. If anything, Freedom is closer Kmiec's general style... reference Old Chicago, Captain Fantastic, especially Night Rider which was designed around the same time.
OK... let's move on. Of Norm's middle-pop games, the Freedom prototype is the only one to utilize Bally hardware. Which, at the time, was hitting the sweet spot. The Wizard!-era delivered huge backglasses, DC rectification, that sexy curved top rail, and an overall style which would eventually lead to the blockbuster "Class of '81" golden era. The chimes also sounded a helluva lot better than Williams.
BUT THERE BE TROUBLE!
As we know, only 100 Freedom prototypes were ever built. Primarily because European distributors didn't "get" the middle-pop thing. They demanded a redesign... and Bally caved in order to sell more units. Which essentially destroyed its fundamental figure-8 geometry and wide shot stance (not to mention the unpredictable fun of the middle-pop).
Isn't it ironic that a game named "Freedom" of all things, with an over-the-top American theme, gets shut down by fussy Europeans from which Americans came in the first place? I imagine a snooty Frenchman in a beret... "zis meedle-pop bumper... tut tut... no no no... zees will not do at all. Not at all. Just make eet like all ze others. Do eet now... or you... and your MEEDLE-POP BUMPER... can sweem back to America."
LOL and thus here we are today.
A lot of rare games and prototypes were made in low quantities because they weren't very good, but this one is definitely an exception. It really is that special. The Freedom prototype is Norm's last, and best, middle-pop game... deployed on the best, and last, Bally EM platform... in its original unmolested form... having escaped with its "Freedom" intact... with a touch of Kmiec's "house energy" in full swing... and is the single best-playing EM I have ever found. The layout is wide, fast, and fun and will teach you new flipper skills in the process. Enough that I think every serious player or collector should have at least one middle-pop in their stable (Fan-Tas-Tic would be the obvious alternative since it offers a similar layout and relatively high production count... can still be had affordably).
Frankly, I'd like to see a company offer Freedom conversions for non-prototypes. Seems doable. Playfield airbrushing, a few new holes, an extra pop mech... why not?
So, DEN... if you are not an EM-guy... if you don't enjoy disassembling steppers and relays and rebuilding things by hand... if you don't plan to give this special game a head-to-toe restoration... I suggest passing it on to someone who will do so and put it in front of people who will play it and be entertained by its history. Who knows, since yours is in Europe, maybe that very game was the one which set everyone off? :p
And yes, I'd also very much like to own it and restore it.
Love the outspoken sanity. What a well-written, educational, and entertaining read.