The Legend of Zelda Pinball Machine

The Legend of Zelda Pinball Machine-

Back in the early 1990s, I had just completed the (full-sized) pinball Super Mario Bros, and was told that the Nintendo license for that game (and the smaller redemption game Mario Mushroom World that Ray Tanzer designed) also included one more game. I was asked to choose from Nintendo’s library and chose The Legend of Zelda as my next design.

Our management agreed and let me begin on the project. I spent many hours playing the video game on the Nintendo console and began to create a playfield and game rules for this theme. I was really excited and enthusiastic about making a great pinball game and put a lot of time and effort into the design.

We weren’t given a lot of time to design our games at Gottlieb, when compared to the other pinball companies. We usually got 12 to 15 weeks, while the other companies design teams usually got 12 to 15 months. This meant that we had to develop our games in parallel rather than serial. Many aspects were created simultaneously at the same time. For example, the artwork was done, while the software was being written, while the mechanical parts were being fabricated. Everything would come together at the end, and sometimes I didn’t see a completed game until the first day that the game was going down the line.

So in other words, we were forced to live with or modify mistakes with only what we had on hand. Also, once a game was shipped, no software updates were allowed, so if we found that the game rules were out of balance, we had to live with that rather than make a correction and release a software update. Many times, we weren’t given enough time to play the games enough to discover any player exploits until it was too late to make any changes. It was frustrating for me as a designer to see that the other companies would allow software updates while Gottlieb did not.

Now with that said, let’s get back to Zelda, keeping the Gottlieb development cycle in-mind. I was several weeks into the project, having completed the playfield layout and game rules. It was time to bring the development team and take things to the next step. Then suddenly, management called a meeting to inform us that they had just secured a new license for a new TV show, American Gladiators. The problem was that this license was had a short time window, and we had to come out with the game soon. The decision by management was made to change Zelda to American Gladiators.

I modified the game rules and kept the same playfield layout. Then, about 7 or 8 weeks into the project, another meeting was called and we were told that the American Gladiators license had fallen through and we needed to change the theme again, but we only had 4 weeks until the game was going into production. It was way too late to change the game back to Zelda, and we decided to keep the exact same game rules and change the art to Gladiators.

Gladiators is the game that should have been “The Legend of Zelda”. Maybe someday, I’ll finally be able to design that pinball machine.

5 responses

  1. Hi Jon,

    It is very enlightening to read your comments about Gottlieb®’s work and support environment. That explains why they NEVER responded to my ground upgrades letter in 1986 publsihed in Playmeter® and Replay® and never sent anything out to distributors about that serious inherent design problem.

    I imagine Gottlieb® was ruled by the pencil pushers by then, it is amazing that they could still produce good pinballs – which was all due to you and other designers @ Gottlieb® that actually gave a damn.


    John :-#)#

  2. There were a few of us who really cared about making great games, while there was the majority who just saw the product as a commodity, that may have well been washing machines.

    The Zelda decision was made long before The Legend of Zelda because a well known game, or classic game it is today. It was very frustrating to be given such short development times and we really never had the opportunity to polish our games, like Williams/Bally could do.

    I still hope to design The Legend of Zelda someday, but since I’m not working at SPI or JJP, one of their designers will probably got that project.


  3. Hey Jon,

    I’d like to talk to you more about the Zelda machine for a story for Please drop me a line! I’ve recently finished restoring an SMB machine, too. It’s a personal favorite. Some really clever modes in that game that capture the “feel” of Super Mario Bros. circa 1990.


    • Sorry it took so long to reply. The moderator feature didn’t inform me that I had comments pending. To answer your question, we never got to the art stage on Zelda. I did have some original art (sketches, etc.) when Gottlieb closed for other titles, but all was lost after I lost my job at Stern Pinball.

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