Written by emo, published March 4th, 2011. 2 comment(s).
Data East’s Laser War-it’s the daddy!
I hadn’t laid eyes on a Laser War until the 2005 Pinball show at Birmingham (UK). It was a great show and I was like a kid in a sweet shot. Almost all my favourite dot matrix games were there waiting to be played but what I most enjoyed was taking time out and catch up with friends and playing a few games that I hadn’t played before. I’ll remember that show as the place I first played Nascar (Stern’s newest game at the time), along with Williams Space Station and Data East’s Laser War. The “oldies” were in superb condition and I was suitably impressed with both.
Space Station was in the main hall but Laser War was in a quiet corner in the entrance lobby away from the noise so I was able play undisturbed to get a good feel for the game. The more played it the more I liked it. I liked the rules, I liked the sounds, I liked the lightshow, in fact I liked almost everything about it and especially the reasonable price tag it had on it. By mid afternoon “the fever” had taken hold and I fought bravely against the urge to make an offer for the game. I lurked around the machine jealously watching as others played, secretly hoping they would not buy it. This was despite the fact I had come to the show determined not to buy another game. The games owner, Steve is a friend so around 3pm I dived in and made him an offer and after some brief negotiations we shook on it, suddenly I found myself the owner of LASER WAR!
Laser War was Data East’s first game back in 1987 so it has the rather cool production number of 01. As we now know Data East later became Sega, which in turn became Stern who are the only current mass producer of pinball machines. Game design is by a certain Mr Joe Kaminkow; artwork is by Margaret Hudson and Kevin O’connor and sounds by David Thiel.
Photographic backglasses were the in thing briefly in the late 80’s and this one is ultra cheesy. Itfeatures two curvaceous, Lycra clad space babes with lasers. They are duelling with an ugly bloke in a futuristic setting (the sex and violence combination always sells). Initially I wasn’t impressed with the back glass but it has grown on me and once play has commenced the glass comes alive due to the numerous flashers behind it. The dominant colour of the glass is a steely blue which goes well with the chrome effect speaker panel below and together they make the game look pretty neat.
The playfield is colourful with space themed cartoon art. Various figures appear on the playfield and plastics; usually they are blasting ray guns at one another.
Laser War has a fantastic light show for its age and can still outshine many more recent games. The semi translucent targets are a nice touch and catch and reflect the light in a most attractive way. In addition to the mentioned chrome speaker panel, it also has a silver coloured ramp (top left), chrome rails, plenty of flashers and red bumpers (Note: some games seem to have different coloured bumpers), which adds up to a great visual package that would be at home in any American diner. There is also a unique moulded toy laser. It doesn’t move but it does provide a continually changing light show and has a red bulb for a barrel, which flashes continuously.
The cabinet art is in the stencilled/three colour style of early 80’s games and features a “laser worrier” in action. The topper that appears on the game flyer was too expensive to produce so this never made it into production. Overall I get the feeling that Data East took a great deal of care with the looks of their first game.
Similar care was taken with the sounds. Laser war was the first production game to use stereo sound and a 2:1 sound system. This fact was advertised on a plaque in the middle of the speaker panel that has the words “Digital Stereo” on it. The music is very “electronic” which suits the theme and it changes nicely as you work your way through the various stages of the game. I don’t like the sound quality on some games of this age but Laser War’s sounds are excellent. Hitting certain shots or features triggers some amazing additional sounds that raise the tempo and excitement during the game. David Thiel gave me the following insight into its development:
“Back in the day when Gary Stern wanted to start a Williams pin-compatible pinball he approached a company in which I was a principal, Incredible Technologies. Gary needed a development group who had never done pinball before and we were it.
DE gave me the opportunity to design the soundboard. It had a Yamaha 2151 8 voice FM synthesizer, on OKI ADPCM compressed sample player and three 12 watt amplifiers.
In the late eighties EPROM was expensive so there was very little space for pre-recorded sounds. We reserved that space for voice (and one explosion). Everything else was synthesized on the Yamaha chip.
While the DE sound system was the first stereo system it was also the first system with a sub-woofer giving it 2.1 multi-channel output. The amps were much higher quality than the chips that Williams used so quality was higher in a number of dimensions.
There were a number of people used as voice talent. A professional was used for "Laser War" and a few other game directives. Elaine Ditton pres of IT did a scream. I did a couple of grunts.
I considered Williams as my main competition so I looked for a way to distinguish the Laser Way soundtrack in a positive way. Since the game was sequencing the music on the fly it was easy to change aspects of the music in ways that are difficult to do 20 years later. Tempo was independent of pitch so key changes and tempo changes were used to create tension and indicate progress.
The hardest thing to do with FM synthesis is to make a good snare drum. I spent days and days finding a way to make something that could provide a backbeat. I made a demo reel recently and I was happy to find that the music from Laser War holds up pretty well”.
Today I find the voice samples dated but the quality of the system is still very apparent. The music and additional sounds, for the most part, remain audible and distinct during play. In many ways I prefer sounds such as these to the digital perfection of modern games.
Playfield and Scoring.
*A note on game settings: I have my game on to hard and 3-ball. Easy settings make the game way to easy and multiball very to achieve.
A launched ball travels up the right of the playfield to the rollovers on a raised set of rails. This allows full use of the playfields width for other game features. It was a good move because as you will see, there is a lot crammed into the field.
The two flippers, slingshots and in and out-lanes are in the usual place. The inlanes light the laser kicker when lit and score 20k and outlanes score a special when lit. The left out-lane also contains the kickback. There is a single “Ion cannon” ramp in the top left with rails that deliver the ball back to the right flipper. The rails shoot the ball out in front of the right sling at speed rather than the typical modern trend of dropping it vertically into the in-lane.
A long shot up into the right hand corner travels up a lane with three star switches (star shaped rollover switches) that score 500 points each before feeding the 3 rollovers which each score 2K. Completing all 3 rollovers spells “war” and advances the X bonus up to a maximum of 5X. This is shown the usual way by lights just above the flippers. The ball drops from the rollovers into 3 bumpers which score a miserly 100 points per hit.
There are three sets of three colour-coded targets that score increasing cannon bonus values, starting from a minimum of 1k. The current value is recorded by a ring of lights in the centre of the playfield and as the score progresses it doubles each time a target is hit until it reaches its maximum of 16k. This bonus contributes to the “Ion Cannon Jackpot”. Completing a bank of similar coloured targets also scores 10k and lights the corresponding coloured saucer so that the ball can be locked for multiball. There is an additional star switch in the lanes leading to each saucer which scores an additional 3k.
The target banks and saucers are spread all around the playfield. The red and yellow saucer lanes are on either side of the ramp and both contain spinners that score 100 pts per spin, while the blue saucer lane, in the lower right has no spinner. Red targets are on the left with yellow ones top centre and blue lower left.
When balls are released from the red and blue saucers they roll back onto the main playfield. The yellow saucer ejects its ball into the rollover lane so potentially can score more points.
In summery there is lots to shoot but the playfield retains an open feel.
One of my main gripes about late 80’s pins is that there is little depth to some games, for example they may rely too heavily on multiball or hitting a ramp over and over again. There is no excuse for this in my opinion as many older games were far superior in this respect. Therefore one of the most pleasing aspects of Laser war is that despite revolving around multiball, your still encouraged to shoot features all around the field.
This has depth in that it is a tricky three-stage process. The colour coding of the targets and saucers now becomes an important part of the game.
Stage 1: You must light three targets of one colour, red, yellow or blue. You do this by hitting the flashing targets. One target of each colour flashes until collected. Once hit the next target will flash. Once you have collected/lit three of the same colour then you can lock the ball in the same coloured saucer.
Stage 2: Once a ball is locked then the music steps up a gear and you fire another ball into play. As soon as the 2nd ball goes through the rollovers the game counts down from 5 and then fires the first ball back into play. From now on locking balls becomes a timed feature and failure to lock both balls within a set time results in the game counting down and firing any locked balls back into play. Your aim is to lock both balls in two of the 3 available saucers before this happens. Loosing a ball means that you go back to the start and hitting targets again.
Stage 3: You now have 2 balls locked in saucers. You fire a 3rd ball into play and the music steps up yet another gear. This time locked balls are fired back into play almost immediately accompanied by “fire red, fire yellow” etc. The main aim now is to hit the ramp for a jackpot while a crowd shouts, “shoot the ion cannon, shoot the ion cannon” in a totally camp and pathetic way. Success will send the game wild and with 3 balls bouncing around you do (at last) reach the upper limit of the sound system, plus you gain a bucket load of points in the process.
Saucer and Ramp awards (Extra Ball/1000k and Hold Bonus)
These awards can be lit either by hitting the ramp three times in succession (great sounds again!) or hitting all 3 saucers. Each saucer hit lights an arrow to indicate which has been hit. It is possible to stack awards but this rarely happens in practice. Hitting the ramp collects all that is lit.
When you start a game the game greets you with “welcome warrior” and it begins playing a tune. Other voice quotes are as follows:
When a new ball is fired-“Energizing”
Saucer lit-“Return to red base” (could be any colour)
Timed ball locking quote for multiball-“5-4-3-2-1-fire red” (could be any colour)
Multiball-“Fire red, fire yellow, fire blue”.
Various screams and grunts including “aaaah” and “ooooh”.
Jackpot shot-“Shoot the ion cannon”
Last ball-“Last Ball, good luck!”
Ball drain-“Damn, I’m hit!”
End of game features:
The bonus count after a good game (or ball) is worthy of a mention. The sounds roar at an ever-heightening pitch and the lights circulate at an increasing speed until the count has finished.
The games final action is also memorable because it is sooooo cheesy. It uses synthesized musical phrases to accompany the following words that appear in the alpha numeric displays “return to base, return to base, your fight’n a laser war”. This also happens in the attract mode. A reminder that from a player’s point of view pinball is all about having fun!
I always work towards the multiball sequence but on the way I also try and light extra balls by shooting the three saucers or by getting 3 ramps. Extra balls are always useful!
When in multiball try shooting balls up the yellow lane to help slow things down. This releases the ball into the rollovers and bumpers and you also score via the yellow spinner but remember though that you can only lock one ball up there at a time.
I also try hitting all 3 saucers or ramps to light extra ball in multiball.
One of Laser wars strengths is that it is an instinctive game with loads to shoot at so don’t be afraid to try various strategies.
Data East got a lot of things right with Laser War such as the playfield design, solid rules, great illumination and sound system and good build quality. I find Laser War fun to play 20 years on, even if the theme is pretty heavy on the cheese. It can be difficult to put your finger on why a game package works but with Laser War I think an additional attraction is the high levels on interactivity between the player and the resulting sound and light show. For example hit the ball harder through the spinner and you get a longer and louder sounds or hit the slings and you get flashing explosions taking place in the backglass.
Orin Day developed software for many of the later Data East’s games, along with more recent Sega and Stern games and sums up Laser War nicely.
Laser War was a pretty entertaining game, and a very good effort
considering it was the first Data East game - one could say that it's the
grandfather of the Sega line and the great grandfather of the new Stern
line, if it hadn't succeeded none would have followed.
multiball with ball relocking is certainly interesting, it's certainly
has a little in common with what is done on the new Stern Playboy. In
terms of collecting the early Data East product I'd say that Laser War and
Time Machine are both "keepers" when found in good condition.
War as collectible as High Speed? Well, maybe not from a pure
play standpoint, but it will always have some intrinsic value as DE's
You never hear much talk of Laser War and it receives the briefest of mentions in most pinball books but yet when ever I mention the game to people it gets nods of approval. Maybe its time it took its rightful place in pinball history as Data East’s first game and the first game to have stereo and 2:1 sound or am I just getting too serious?
“Re-turn to base, re-turn to base, your fight-n a las-er war”.
Awwe forget it!
Eddie Mole 2006
With special thanks to David Thiel and Orin Day.
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