Since forming in 1973, AC/DC have cultivated a ton of albums, a good dozen iconic songs and a massive international fan base. Adapting this juggernaut of a brand into a new creative medium — such as, say, a pinball table — sounds like it should intimidate, but the prospect didn’t shake Steve Ritchie. “I'm never intimidated. I'm just not,” says the Senior Designer of the machines issued in early 2012 by the Melrose Park, Ill.-based Stern Pinball, Inc. “You have to respect [AC/DC's] work ethic. I think they work very hard at what they do, so I respect them, but intimidating? I just don't get intimidated. If people want to try to intimidate me, I feel like there's no reason to do that.”
If Ritchie began the games' development with even the slightest trepidation, that's had a decade to melt away as he's spent that long thinking about using the AC/DC license. The 62-year-old Ritchie, whose proficiency with table design has earned him the nickname “the King of Pinball,” has been active in gaming almost as long as AC/DC have been creating music. After starting at Atari, he moved onto WMS Gaming, Midway Games and Stern, also working in both video and redemption games. “I like to make pinball machines. It's kind of like torture actually,” he says, explaining how the carpentry and moving parts make designing a table more complicated than programming a video game. “I'm not suffering. I do love it, but it's not easy.”
Over his career, Ritchie has played key roles in turning several notable licenses into pinball — Superman, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Avatar — and talking to the designer indicates a special soft spot for a AC/DC, a band he calls “the lowest common denominator of rock 'n' roll” in most glowing terms. The snappy, blunt Ritchie suffers from Meniere's disease, making him hard of hearing, so this interview was conducted in unusual fashion: I sent him questions through AOL Instant Messenger, and he spoke responses into the phone.
(One brief but amusing aside: Ritchie also voiced Mortal Kombat announcer/villain Shao Kahn for several of the games in the 1990s, so if you ever hear a deep voice go “Finish him!” or “Fatality” in your head, you're almost certainly hearing Ritchie.)
Stern's AC/DC machines come in three separate versions — Let There Be Rock, Back in Black and Premium editions — making them the latest successors to the fruitful and relatively obscure tradition of rock 'n' roll pinball. Stretching back to at least 1970, this sub-genre has spawned games based on The Who, Elton John, Guns N' Roses, Ted Nugent, Kiss and several others. (Check out CT.com's retrospective of notable rock 'n' roll pins here.)
The AC/DC machines do a particularly strong job of capturing the band's imagery and feel. Three-dimensional objects on the tables include a motorized “Hell's Bell,” a ball-shooting cannon cribbed from the cover of For Those About to Rock We Salute You, a TNT detonator and a “Rock N' Roll Train” themed around one of the singles from 2008's Black Ice. At the rear of every playfield, a yellowed, vintage-looking jukebox panel lists 12 AC/DC songs — among others, “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “War Machine,” “Highway to Hell” and “Thunderstuck” — and each song signifies a different mode in the game. The machines also heavily use the band's signature lightning bolt and logo font, plus pictures of the band members. Red, orange and yellow are out in full force. Like AC/DC's music, these machines hit a specific tonal ground: The products are polished and refined, but there's also raw, playful touches at work.
Ritchie and his small team at Stern spent close to a year developing the machines. According to the designer, AC/DC's camp originally wanted $50,000 for Stern's use of “Back in Black” alone. The initial deal didn't materialize, but eventually, the sides hammered out an agreement. AC/DC members played no role in shaping the games, but management did provide Stern with lots of reference material from the archives. On his end, Ritchie paid special attention to the group's recent Black Ice World Tour and listened to a lot of their music during development. He relishes the idea of AC/DC's mass appeal, as the band's listener base marks “the broadest demographic I can think of for a music title.”
By contrast, pinball possesses much less reach nowadays. The affordability of increasingly high-grade technology to the home video game market has done a serious number on arcade games and pins alike. Stern is the only legit pinball manufacturer remaining in America — perhaps the world. (Ritchie briefly alludes to an upstart company working on a perpetually postponed pin without naming names.) “I like to say we're the only pinball manufacturer left, not the last,” Stern founder, CEO and chairman Gary Stern shot back in a 2010 interview with Vending Times. “Last sounds like we're getting out of the business, and we have no plans to do that.”
The company has shown serious interest in keeping rock 'n' roll pinball alive, too. 2012's AC/DC aside, Stern released Elvis in 2004 and The Rolling Stones in 2011. At one point in our conversation, Ritchie — a serious optimist about the future of his business — even considers the possibility of a machine dedicated to a certain contemporary superstar: “I wonder how Lady Gaga would take to pinball.”