Hello and welcome to this Pinball News In-Depth Review of Jersey Jack Pinball’s latest game, The Hobbit.
For most of our In-Depth Reviews we only have access to a machine for a short time – typically just one day – in order to photograph and understand the inner workings of all the key components. This time we have been given the opportunity to have our sample game at the Pinball News office for a full ten days, which has hopefully lead to some nicer pictures and a deeper understanding of how everything works.
So let’s get on with our review, but first a reminder that you can click on most pictures to open them in a larger version in a new window.
This Standard Edition game arrived at Pinball News HQ from the UK distributor for JJP, Pinball Heaven. It had previously been at a pinball show, but had been cleaned up and updated with the latest software and hardware fixes prior to its arrival here.
So we didn’t get to experience that unboxing moment, but pretty much everything else was like receiving a new-in-box game.
This edition of the game comes with silver legs fitted with extra-long leg levellers, allowing the back to be raised really high for a super-steep playfield angle. These legs mount onto metal plates on the four cabinet corners.
These leg plates help protect the cabinet artwork, although we found some visible evidence of damage already appearing after just a few re-fittings of the legs, so some softer plastic or felt protectors might be a good addition if they aren’t too thick for the leg bolts.
Round the back of the cabinet we find two slide rails with nylon sliders fitted. We also get a metal hatch secured with four bolts.
This hatch carries a decal warning about the dangers behind the plate, although in practice there wasn’t anything there which could give a nasty jolt, just a piece of foam packing material which we soon removed.
Next to the other slide rail is the game sticker bearing the serial number, model type, build date and other useful details.
After opening the coin door, we found replacement plastics and decals inside the cash box, as well as some souvenir plastics and a couple of price stickers – one for $1 a game and one for free play.
A centre post is fitted between the flippers, but if you want to take it out and make the game a bit harder the black plastic plug above will fill the resulting hole.
The game’s five balls were also in the cash box, alongside the backbox lock’s hex key and a metal plate with two bolts to cover the power connector on the back of the cabinet.
JJP’s games use the same backbox latch system used by Stern up to and including Metallica – a rotary latch operated by a large 90-degree hex key. The key is inserted into the latch and rotated 270-degrees clockwise to lock or anti-clockwise to unlock.
On the rear of the backbox is a large decal displaying dire warnings about how you should never transport the game with the backbox raised and other safety advice in a number of languages.
The manufacturing date is also shown, and the whole package is signed-off by Jack Guarnieri himself for good measure.
One thing absent from The Hobbit which was found of The Wizard of Oz is an audio jack to connect the game to an external sound system. There is still a connection available to do this, but it is now hidden inside the game and not brought out onto the back of the cabinet.
Like all current and recent JJP games, this Standard Edition model has cabinet decals for the artwork. Earlier The Wizard of Oz games featured direct printing to the cabinet, but this changed to decals mid-run and The Hobbit continues with that method.
Enhanced super-glossy decals are available as a paid upgrade, but the ones featured here are the regular matte-finish ones portraying all the main characters from the three movies. The Smaug Edition has different decal artwork depicting the eponymous dragon.
The front of the cabinet continues the design of the side art, with a cut-out for the coin door with spaces for the plunger and start button.
This game features a European-style single multi-coin mechanism which accepts various denomination coins. A US-style coin door with dual quarter slots would presumably require a different decal.
The backbox sides feature Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) with their respective swords Glamdring and Sting.
The backbox front is made of tempered glass, with the game title artwork and monitor frame screen printed with a white diffuse layer on top. The central part is clear and unprinted to display the image on the monitor mounted in the backbox.
That 27-inch monitor is an industrial chassis mounted on a MDF frame. The controls are brought out to the front on a remote panel, allowing the owner to adjust various parameters such as brightness, contrast and colour temperature.
Although the monitor is set to reasonable values by default, some minor improvement might be found by adjusting these when the game is in its intended environment.
A strip of LEDs is mounted above the monitor to illuminate the top of the backglass. These are cold white LEDs and so make the artwork look similarly cold.
We feel adding a pale yellow gel over the strip or replacing it with warm white LEDs might make the game look more a little more inviting. An equivalent tweak to the monitor’s colour temperature might also be appropriate so the colours of the artwork and the display match.
As with The Wizard of Oz, the top of the backbox is occupied by the speaker bar. The left and right front-facing speakers are located here, driven by the amplifier board in the base of the cabinet. The other backbox hardware is the knocker mechanism, which sits in the top left corner and produces a satisfying thwack when a free game is won.
There are not many cables running from the cabinet to the backbox. The monitor takes a DVI cable and a 12V power supply. The speakers take left and right audio feeds, while the knocker power and the LED strip supply complete the list.
Moving round to the front of the cabinet we come to the various controls for the player. The start button is the first of these, and it has a different design to the one found on The Wizard Of Oz. This one is more recessed and slightly larger than its predecessor.
On the right side of the coin door we have the 1/8th-inch (3.5mm) headphone jack and its corresponding volume controls.
The buttons to the right increase or decrease the headphones’ volume level which is shown by the column of LEDs on the left. The bottom button mutes the headphones’ sound completely. These controls are only for the headphones’ volume and don’t change the volume of the game’s internal speakers.
On the right we have the shooter rod and its housing. There’s nothing special about this. It’s a combination manual/automatic plunger, giving the opportunity for a skill shot (actually several skill shots) at the start of each ball and auto-launching balls for multiball or after a ball save.
Moving around the corner, The Hobbit has a single flipper button on each side of the cabinet – yellow on this game, but the colour might vary between different games and different models.
The Hobbit is quite a complicated game, and so two flipper buttons by themselves are not enough to activate all the features and make all the decisions required from the player. So there is another button mounted on the lock bar.
This is an illuminated push button with a surrounding decal. Like any decal we can expect it to wear over time or be peeled off by inquisitive youngsters. There’s no replacement decal in the goodie bag.
While we’re here, let’s start pulling the game apart to see how it works, starting with that lock bar.
It is actually the head of the screw in the bottom of the ring button which actuates the switch. That allows you to screw it further in or out to adjust the button’s sensitivity. It presses down on a microswitch mounted in the lock bar frame next to a multi-colour LED board.
Opening the coin door we find the usual coin mech with an LED illuminating the coin slot surround.
Anyone familiar with pinballs will know about the danger of removing the glass with the coin door open, and the long scratch down the length of the playfield glass which can result. This is even more of a problem when the glass is an expensive non-reflective widebody sheet, so there is a warning decal on the top surface of the coin door.
The game uses the same four-button menu system found of The Wizard of Oz; a system which will be immediately familiar to owners of most dot-matrix pinballs.
Just as with the Williams operating system, the ‘enter’ button takes you into the set-up and diagnostics menus, the ‘+’ and ‘-‘ buttons navigate through those menus, change the settings, or control the volume when not in the menus, while the ‘back’ button moves up a level within the menus or adds a service credit.
Above the menu buttons is the PCB for the Pinnovators headphones controls and jack.
This board connects to a Pinnovators amplifier board in the base of the cabinet using a RJ45 Ethernet-style cable. A three-way slide switch on the left side enables or disables the volume controls, or totally mutes the headphones output.
Because there are several possible combinations of coin mechs and bill acceptors in use around the world, for this European model there is an interface board mounted on the back of the coin door which accepts connections from the game’s driver board and connects them to whichever payment devices are installed.
The game can accept up to five different coin denominations from the mech, as well as a sixth input from a redemption ticket dispenser should one be fitted.
Inside the cabinet are two push switches which detect when the coin door is open and cut the 70V high power supply to the solenoids.
Opening the coin door also triggers an overlay message on the monitor telling you about the loss of power and providing instructions for using the menu system.
Jersey Jack Pinball games use the traditional latch to secure the lock bar, with the lock/release lever on the right side of the coin door frame.
There’s one final connection to mention which is accessible through the coin door, and that’s the PC’s USB socket. An extension cable brings this from the back of the cabinet round to the front so a USB flash memory stick with new game code can be plugged in.
The flash drive can also be used to backup game settings before a major update, and save audit reports.
OK, now it’s time to examine what is probably the most important part of the game, the playfield.
One thing you appreciate immediately is how much brighter the general illumination is on The Hobbit compared to The Wizard of Oz.
That’s because the system used on the previous game was inefficient at transferring light from the LEDs below the playfield to the top surface and radiating it. The new system is better at that, but the GI is also now all-white, which allows higher-brightness LEDs to be used.
We’ll look at that in a short while, but let’s start our tour of the play at the usual place – the flippers.
The Hobbit is a three-flippered game, having two bats in the usual place at the bottom of the playfield, and a third half-way up on the right-hand side. An earlier design of the game included a fourth half-way up on the left, but that was taken out and replaced with a slingshot some time ago.
All three are yellow bats with red rubbers – real rubbers, not the Superbands or Titan silicone variety. They also have the Jersey Jack Pinball logo embossed at the pivot point, although it’s not all that visible when the game is new and the flippers clean. Let a bit of dirt build up and…
There’s a post installed between the two lower flippers to help save ‘straight-down-the-middle’ balls or provide amusement for onlookers when the ball unexpectedly fails to bounce back into play.
The post features a nut-style base, allowing it to be unbolted and removed if required. If the post is taken out, the black plastic plug provided in the goodie bag can fill the resulting hole in the playfield.
Working around the playfield in a clockwise direction, we come to the left inlane and outlane.
The inlane feeds the ball back to the left flipper, passing over a ‘light mystery’ insert which tells you when the mystery standup target will be lit, ready for a semi-random award.
The lane guide is formed from two pairs of metal guides – one pair in the inlane and another pair in the outlane – with a green printed butyrate cover held aloft by a series of posts.
This is a good point to mention the general illumination (GI) and how it works.
Below the playfield are small single-colour (white) LED boards.
These shine their light upwards through holes in the playfield, but sitting on top of the LEDs are semi-opaque light tubes with domed tops which take the light and dissipate it across the playfield in all directions. The result is an even pattern of light spread around each light tube, without the danger of a stray ball hitting and damaging the LED, since the device remains safely below the playfield.
The LEDs used here are quite a pure white – neither cool nor warm – leaving the artwork to generate the colours.
That artwork is both on the butyrate and on the playfield. The butyrate features some text written in Dwarf runes.
A little research shows that the text spells ‘JPDeWin’ (the artwork’s designer) ‘was•here’. There’s an equivalent lane guide on the right where the runes spell out the words ‘Jersey•Jack•Pinball’. If you want to make your own runes or check what a rune says in English, you can use this handy rune generator.
Down on the playfield itself, the mandatory copyright notice is printed in the left outlane on the way down to the ball trough.
There are two inlanes and one outlane on either side.
The inner-most inlane is also the destination for the right ramp return as it travels down the left side of the playfield, as we shall see a little later.
Each of the inlanes either qualifies or activates one of the four pop-up beasts in the centre of the playfield. If the insert in the lane is not lit when the ball rolls over the switch, it then lights. If it is already lit, it causes the associated beast pop-up to rise. The left inlanes activate beasts on the right of the playfield, and vice-versa.
The left outlane is a little more complicated.
The ball can be deliberately diverted from the right ramp return into the left outlane at the start of a mode. If this happens, a white post pops up and traps the ball on the outlane switch.
The mode start animation then plays on the LCD monitor and the ball is launched back into play by a Wind Lance kickback plunger located inside the apron.
This Wind Lance kickback activation can be automatic for some modes, while for others there is a strength control shown on the monitor which allows the kickback shot to be aimed at specific drop targets on the right side of the playfield, or all the way up to the upper flipper. Pressing the ring button at the appropriate time chooses the indicated strength level and uses that to kick the ball back onto the playfield.
This feature was originally going to use a motorised cam at the top of the outer ball guide in order to change the angle of the lane and hence aim the ball. While it was nice to see some mechanical action, the fact that the same effect can be achieved just by varying the strength of the kickback coil’s power made that mechanism redundant.
The ball is also diverted to the outlane and kicked back during Smaug Multiball when all the other stages have been completed and Load Arrow is lit to fire the Black Arrow to (spoiler alert) finally kill Smaug. This is the most dramatic point of the game, as the playfield goes dark, all the balls drain and movie clips of Smaug’s death are shown on the monitor.
Because the left side of the kickback lane is now fixed in order to aim the ball at the appropriate part of the playfield, the outlane width adjustment is made with a post located between the outlane and the inlanes.
The adjuster has three positions, making the game harder the lower it is set.
The left slingshot is a simple affair on the Standard Edition model of The Hobbit.
Limited Edition models have an axe device attached to the slingshot’s kicker arm which performs a chopping motion with each kick, but the Standard Edition doesn’t have that and instead has a regular slingshot design, with two leaf switches, a normal kicker arm, a post at each corner and three general illumination LED light tubes.
It looks like the right ramp return wireform attaches to the top slingshot post (and indeed it could) but in fact it is held slightly away and secured on the inlane/outlane divider.
At the top of the left outlane or kickback lane is a pair of posts surrounded by a rubber ring, and immediately above that is the first of three drop target banks found on The Hobbit’s playfield.
Each bank spells out either E-L-F, D-W-A-R-F or M-A-N, and completing one of them qualifies a corresponding Elf, Dwarf or Man mode.
As with all three banks, each individual drop target can get raised or lowered under control of the game’s software. This provides a lot of shot combination option, something increased by the fact that behind almost all the drop targets is a yellow standup target.
Those standup targets not only provide a second sensor for each shot, they also mean shots to drop targets already down can be sensed and the appropriate reward or penalty awarded.
In front of each drop target is a multi-colour lit insert corresponding to one of the thirteen Dwarf characters in the movie trilogy. On the left is Gloin, Oin is in the middle, and Dwalin on the right.
Mounted above the E-L-F drop targets is the first of the game’s nine flashers – eight yellow ones on the playfield and one on the back panel.
These flashers are all single colour white LEDs driven by the Bus and GI Controller board mounted under the playfield. This board is designed to drive RGB multi-colour LEDs and so each flasher is treated as either the red, green or blue element of one output.
The next feature on the playfield is found just above the E-L-F drop target bank and it is the kicker we spoke about earlier as replacing the upper left flipper included in an earlier layout.
This is essentially the same as a slingshot mechanism, having the same two leaf switches, three posts and a kicker arm. However it also has a yellow flasher dome mounted on top which flashes when it fires.
Just above the kicker is the left entrance to the orbit lane which is the shot for Fili the Dwarf.
As with most of the main shots, the left orbit lane has two multi-colour inserts which indicate when the shot is lit for jackpots during one of the multiball modes, or is a required shot for the currently-running mode. Sometimes a shot will also be lit to show it should be avoided, and in the case of the orbit lanes the square insert can be lit green to show a ball lock is available.
The left orbit lane also includes one of the game’s two spinners.
Each spin of either spinner advances the company of Dwarves towards their ancestral home built deep within the mountain – Erebor.
The orbit lane travels around the top of the playfield, emerging at the same place on the opposite side, just above the upper flipper. As a result, balls shot up the right orbit lane entrance can exit at this left lane.
Along the way, though, the ball can be stopped at either of two locations thanks to a pair of electromagnets mounted below the playfield. We’ll look at how those work a little later.
On the right of the left orbit lane entrance we find the second bank of drop targets, and this time there are five of them.
These drops work a little differently to the E-L-F targets.
While the A-R-F targets represent Bifur, Bofur and Bombur and feature the yellow standup targets behind, the D and W drops guard a different type of feature.
The first of the game’s two vertical up-kickers (VUKs) lives behind the D and W drops.
Although the D and W drop targets prevent access to the drop target, only one really needs to be knocked down to allow the ball to pass. Because all the drops are directly-controlled, these targets can be automatically dropped when a shot to the VUK is required by a certain mode or feature.
The upkicker is the shot representing Balin the Dwarf. There is no standup target at the end of the lane behind the up-kicker’s hole, so the ball has to drop below the playfield and be sensed by the pair of optos just above the kicker before you get any kind of feedback about having made the shot.
The left VUK is a jackpot shot and a required shot in several of the modes. Along with its fellow upkicker on the right it is also one of the two shots needed to collect an extra ball when it is lit.
The VUK kicks the ball up and to the left, onto the right ramp return which ends up at the left inlane as we just saw.
Shooting the ball into the Balin hole is not the only way it can end up at the left VUK.
We mentioned earlier how there are two electromagnets on the orbit lane which can prevent the ball completing the circuit. The left-most of those comes into play when the orbit lane is lit to lock a ball.
When lock is lit, the left magnet grabs the ball for a short time to take away any momentum, and then releases it so it drops into a short lane which leads to a second hole and into the game’s subway system.
A plastic subway transports the ball from this entrance to either of the game’s two VUKs depending on which orbit entrance was used to reach the magnet. By default the ball would roll to the right VUK, but a solenoid can activate to send it to the left one instead.
We’ll see how that works later when we look at the underside of the playfield, but now would be a good time to look at the left and right ramp entrances and see how they interact with the star of the show – Smaug.
To the right of the D-W-A-R-F target bank is the left ramp. This forms part of a pair of ramps, the paths for which cross over rather like the two ramps in the boat in Fish Tales. Like Fish Tales, the left ramp sends the ball to the right and the right ramp sends it to the left, and also like Fish Tales, there is a captive ball between the two ramp entrances.
We’ll break from our usual ‘clockwise’ direction of travel for a moment and take a look at the right ramp first, which is also the shot to collect Bilbo Baggins.
This is a laser-cut brushed steel ramp with under-ramp multi-colour lighting for the ‘lock’ and ‘mode’ cut-outs. There is also a plant motif above and below the word cut-outs, and a pair of optos which sense a shot to the ramp entrance. A second opto pair a little further along confirms the shot was successful.
The right ramp can be lit to lock a ball for Smaug Multiball, or it can start one of the game’s 31 modes, or it can immediately send the ball back down the left ramp, or it can do none of those things and simply send the ball all the way along the ramp and down to the left inlane.
For a good part of its length, the right ramp sits above the left orbit lane and follows its path around the top left corner of the playfield. In doing this it passes behind the Smaug model.
As the star of both the movies and the game, Smaug is an elaborate and highly-detailed model who both turns and moves his mouth to speak in sync with his voice calls, and features internal red lighting to simulate his fiery breath.
Smaug is mostly buried beneath his pile of gold coins and trinkets, with only his head protruding. He normally has his head turned to the left so he can sleep behind a moulded plastic pillar, but when activated by locking a ball or starting multiball he awakens and turns to the right as his articulated jaw speaks one from his range of menacing threats to the player.
The red lighting inside his head glows as he speaks, while another light on the back panel adds a red wash to the whole area.
The texture of the gold coins extends from Smaug himself and covers all the surrounding plastics, including a sprinkle across the pillar behind which he normally rests.
The gold coins seem as though they might flake off and spill all over the playfield if not handled carefully, but they are in fact reassuringly firmly attached.
The green pillar above is more than just decoration, as it actually covers a ball diverter mechanism which – if lock is lit – will prevent the ball continuing along the right ramp and will instead send it to a ball lock area.
The Smaug lock area is a short branch from the right ramp with an electromagnet at the end which stops the diverted ball momentarily before releasing it to drop off the end.
When it drops off the ramp’s branch, the ball falls onto the playfield and into a short lane which leads to another hole. This hole is hidden behind the coin pile moulded plastic and D-W-A-R-F target bank, but it leads down to the left upkicker. Strictly speaking the ball enters the under-playfield subway, but it is so close to the end of the left subway branch that the ball has no option but to roll to the left VUK.
After its detour, the left VUK then kicks the ball up and onto the right ramp return wireform for its journey to the left inlane. There is no physical ball lock here, so all locks are virtual.
Talking of the right ramp return wireform, it too has a slightly convoluted design, so now is a good moment to take a more In-Depth look at how that works.
Once it passes the left VUK, the right ramp wireform effectively splits to create two different destinations for the ball. If it is un-diverted, the ball rolls down to the right-most of the two left inlanes. That’s the normal condition, but the ball can also be pushed off the right ramp and onto a side ramp which leads to the left outlane or kickback lane.
To see how this diversion is achieved we need to look a little further upstream and peek behind a metal shield.
The two wireforms run in parallel for a while, but the right one has a blade which can rise and knock a passing ball onto the left wireform, down to the kickback lane.
The diverter seems rather crude in the way it deflects the ball but it is surprisingly effective. We can’t recall a time it should have sent a ball to the kickback lane but failed to do so.
To prevent a fast-moving ball flying up in the air and possibly falling off the ramp, there is a metal deflector covering the diverter mechanism which keeps the ball confined and nicely under control.
OK, we’ve seen the right ramp, so let’s go back to the top and look at the left ramp.
Both ramps have the triangular and square multi-colour inserts in front, so they can both give jackpots and be lit to progress through the modes.
The left ramp, which collects Gandalf, is mainly concerned with qualifying and selecting those modes.
Like its companion, the left ramp features two laser-cut words backlit with multi-colour LEDs, two symbol motifs and a pair of optos to register a shot to the ramp.
Incidentally, search as we might we couldn’t find any reference for the motifs cut into either ramp. If you know their meaning or significance, please let us know through the comments section below.
Each of the Elf, Dwarf or Man modes relates to a scene in the movie which – more or less, but let’s not get into that – relates to the story in the book of The Hobbit.
When one of the three banks of drop targets is completed it qualifies some of the matching Elf, Dwarf or Man modes shown on the LCD screen. Each category has several modes with some requiring other shots such as the ramps or a VUK to be made too, so the word ‘Book’ lights when more than one mode is ready to be played. Shooting the left ramp with ‘Book’ lit allows the player to briefly use the flipper buttons to turn the pages of the book on the small LCD and change the next mode to be played.
Most of those modes are timed with a timer shown on the small LCD once the mode begins. ‘Time’ is lit blue when a mode starts, and a shot to the left ramp adds 10 seconds to the mode’s timer. It then turns purple and subsequent shots only add 3 seconds, which is barely more than the time it takes to shoot the ramp and get the ball back to the flipper.
The left ramp bends round to the right and sends the ball on a metal guide above the orbit lane which turns into a wireform as it winds its way over to the right side of the playfield.
We’ll pick up the left ramp’s path in a moment, but we still have some unfinished business between the two ramps in the shape of another diverter and a captive ball.
While both ramps lead to their respective metal guides above the orbit lane and ultimately lead to their return wireforms, there is another mechanism which can intervene to prevent this happening.
A metal blade hovers above the cross-over point between the two ramps. During certain modes the blade can drop causing any ball shot up one of the ramps to immediately return down the opposite ramp.
The solenoid activating the blade is mounted behind the game’s back panel. Because it only needs to move the relatively light blade it doesn’t need to be a particularly powerful coil.
There’s no obvious indication of when the diverter is activated apart from spotting that the diverter blade has lowered, which initially lead us to think our ramp shots were unsuccessful and being rejected for some reason. Only later did we realise the game had changed, the blade was down and the ramps were working differently.
Back down at the playfield level we find the game’s captive ball shot.
There is a static ball at the bottom of the lane, with a free-moving ball behind it which cannons off the static ball when it is hit and rolls up the lane to hit the blue standup target at the end. This is the only sensor in the lane, so any shot without enough power to move the ball all the way to the end and press on the standup won’t register. Actually, in the version of software we were testing there’s very little in the way of feedback even when the shot is made correctly. No doubt that will improve in later updates.
The lane features an image of the Key to the Side Door of the mountain, and a circular insert to indicate a hit on the target. The captive ball lane is another of the main shots to collect jackpots and move through modes, and it also adds Thorin the Dwarf as well as providing helper awards every five hits such as big points, playfield multiplier and lighting the extra ball. It’s positioned in a crowded area of the playfield, so the inserts and artwork for it are a little further down.
Next to the right ramp entrance is another blue standup target, only this one is circular and gives out mystery awards when lit.
The placing of this is similar to the Glinda target on The Wizard of Oz and its function is the same – to give out either random or targeted awards, depending on which modes are currently running. If you are in a timed mode, the first award may well be to add more time, and in a multiball it will probably add another ball to the mix if it possibly can, but the quality of the award can vary depending on the colour of the insert in front.
The mystery award is qualified by sending the ball through both left and right inlanes (in either order). Making one inlane will light the Light Mystery insert on the opposite side. Completing both will light the mystery insert blue, but if you shoot the lanes again it will turn orange, then purple and finally green. The blue awards are useful and include things such as adding bonus multipliers, relighting the kickback and adding an uncollected dwarf, but the higher level awards include a mode start bonus shot and lighting the Gollum ball save.
The lane to the right of the mystery standup is the Bag End shot (Bilbo’s home village) and it leads to the pop bumper area.
The Bag End lane has no specific sensor, so when a shot here is required it is sensed by a hit on the pop bumpers without a preceding shot to either orbit lane which would be needed to reach the pop bumpers from the top. Because this sensing wouldn’t work during multiball, this is not one of the major shots for jackpots or progression through most of the modes.
We’ve just talked about the pop bumpers, so that’s our next area to explore.
Getting to the pop bumpers either involves shooting the ball around one the orbit lane when it isn’t lit to lock a ball or during a mode which opts for complete orbits instead, or entering through the Bag End lane we’ve just seen.
If you take the orbit route, the right-hand electromagnet at the top of the lane will grab the ball and drop it through a one-way gate into the pops.
There are three ‘barrel’ pop bumpers arranged in the familiar equilateral triangular pattern, however some things about the pop bumpers are not so familiar.
For a start, there are three inserts under the watery playfield artwork to add some lighting effects to the area when the bumpers are active. There is also a leaf switch behind a white rubber ring on the right. When this is triggered it fires all three barrel pop bumpers in quick succession to help throw the ball around. This switch can be a little over-sensitive, so if you find all three bumpers are firing randomly then this switch might need adjusting.
Because this is a Standard Edition model it unfortunately lacks the barrel-style bumper caps found on the Limited Edition variants.
There are two possible exits from the bumpers. The first is the Bag End lane we saw earlier which sends the ball dangerously towards the centre of the main flippers. The second is a short lane at the bottom right of the pops area which leads into the right orbit lane.
If the ball exits through this right lane, it will roll down to the upper flipper and one of the D-W-A-R-F drop targets will light. Shooting this will ‘kick-over’ one of the barrels. Kicking-over enough barrels eventually lights extra ball at the upkickers.
Mounted above the pop bumpers is the game’s second LCD monitor.
This is a standard commercial 4.3-inch LCD panel with a native resolution of 480×272 pixels. It is connected to the PC motherboard in the cabinet as a second monitor output, using the VGA connection. It is actually mounted upside-down, so when the game boots you might see an inverted JJP logo displayed briefly.
The book monitor has a moulded plastic frame stuck to the front with the combination mounted on a metal bracket which bolts to the playfield either side of the right orbit lane.
The monitor is firmly mounted but when raising the playfield it is important to fully slide it out of the cabinet to the service position, otherwise the monitor and frame can get crushed when the playfield is pivoted into the upright position.
Although it has a relatively low resolution when compared to the main monitor’s 1920×1080 pixels, the book LCD still manages to show video clips from the movie in more-than-acceptable quality.
Returning to the playfield level, we’ll pick up with the next feature after the Bag End lane and that’s the right vertical up-kicker.
This VUK is the Radagast shot when made from the top of the playfield, but the ball can also arrive here from the orbit ball lock thanks to the subway which can send the ball to either VUK.
The Radagast shot unlocks a number of modes, progresses through some of these and other modes, scores jackpots and is the second shot needed to collect an extra ball when the ‘Ball’ insert is lit.
The VUK ejects the ball up and to the right, onto the left ramp’s return wireform. From there it rolls down to the left-most right inlane.
Just to the right of the VUK is the right entrance to the orbit lane.
This is the Kili the Dwarf shot, and as you can see it advances through modes and collects jackpots when lit. It is also a mode lock shot when the square insert glows green, while the spinner at the start of the lane advances you towards Erebor.
If neither magnet is activated, a shot to the left orbit entrance will continue around the lane and exit the orbit here, ready for a shot from the upper flipper.
The main shot from the upper flipper is to the D-W-A-R-F target bank and the left VUK. It’s possible to get the captive ball as well, and, less desirably, the left kicker which then has a tendency to kick the ball down the right outlane.
At the tip of the upper flipper is the last of the three banks of drop targets.
Like the E-L-F targets, each drop in the bank conceals a yellow standup target and also collects a different Dwarf. These are, from left to right, Nori, Dori and Ori. Dropping all three targets qualifies one of the modes, and in combination with other shots qualifies more modes.
All the drop targets feature letter decals, and with no printing on the playfield these are the only indication of what the targets spell. Consequently there is a spare set of decals in the goodie bag for when the originals inevitably wear out.
Unlike many games, when a new ball is kicked out it isn’t launched into the right orbit lane. Instead The Hobbit has its own shooter lane entry onto the playfield and this is found directly below the M-A-N target bank.
The ball is ejected from the ball trough beneath the playfield under the bottom apron, and kicked into the shooter lane.
Happily, at the top of the eject hole from the trough is a small steel flap which swings across the hole when the playfield is lifted to prevent all the balls falling out (as they do in most other games). We don’t know whether this idea is protected by a patent (it first appeared on WMS’s Pinball 2000 games so it probably is, most likely as discussed at length here), but if not it should be made mandatory on all new pinballs.
The game features a combined manual and automatic ball shooter. The manual shooter rod is used at the start of each new ball, but the auto-plunger takes over after a ball save or when balls are added for multiballs.
A decal on the shooter housing gives a plunge strength gauge – something which is actually useful in this game where a skill shot can need just the right strength of plunge.
The ball travels about 40% of the way up the side of the playfield before the shooter lane curves left, directing the ball onto the main playfield area.
There are four skill shot options available at the start of each new ball. These can be selected by the Ring button on the lock bar and involve four different areas of the playfield – the inlanes, the L-O-C-K rollovers, the E-L-F drop targets and the D-W-A-R-F drop targets.
So with four areas of the playfield to choose between and then trigger the required switches, you can see how getting the strength of the plunge right is important.
To the left of the shooter lane are the two right inlanes and the right outlane, and as with their counterparts on the left, there’s more to them than just simple lanes.
The right outlane has two features associated with it. The first is indicated by the Preciousss insert and gives you a chance to save the ball.
The Preciousss insert lights when a Gollum ball save is given as a Mystery award. It can be given as a random low-level award, or you can roll through the two inlanes several times to increase the level of the mystery award to its highest value which will guarantee a Gollum ball save is given on the next target hit.
However you get the Preciousss insert lit, if a ball drops down the outlane in single ball play, a strength meter similar to the left outlane kickback one appears on the main screen with a part of it highlighted. A strength indicator moves up and down and if you press the Ring button when it is in the highlighted area the ball is auto-launched back into play.
The more times you collect the Gollum ball save in a game, the faster the indicator moves and the harder it is to win your ball back.
If Gollum is only any help during single ball play, during Multiball you can try to get Beorn’s help to escape near-certain death.
At the bottom of the right outlane, tucked away under the apron is a white rubber ring stretched between two posts.
Facing this is the red Beorn standup target.
The target’s position and orientation means it can only reliably be hit by a sufficiently fast ball shooting down the outlane with just the right amount of momentum to bounce off the rubber ring and hit the standup target. If the game has a liberal (or no) tilt then you might be able to nudge the game enough to encourage the ball to hit the target, but as this only applies during multiball, your attention might be elsewhere when the ball sneaks down the outlane.
If you do manage to hit the Beorn standup, another ball is auto-launched to replace the one you just lost. If all the other four balls are in play, the same ball is re-launched as soon as it is ready.
How likely the ball is to end up in the outlane is controlled in part by the outlane adjuster post positioned at the top of the lane.
Two posts with rings provide some bounciness above the outlane, but it is the adjustable post which gives some variance to the lane entrance’s width. It has three positions and is shipped in the middle of the three.
The two inlanes on the right either qualify or activate the Goblin and Spider pop-ups. As with the left side, if the insert is not lit when the ball rolls through a lane it will light, and if it is lit it will activate the appropriate beast pop-up.
The left ramp return ends above the left-most inlane and, like on the left side, the wireform is attached to the inlane/outlane divider, which in this case is just a single post.
The right slingshot is as plain and unexciting as the left one, without any adornments or special features.
From there we follow the path of the inlane and end up back at the flippers.
Mounted at four positions around the outer edge of the playfield are some spot-lamps.
These are not just to provide additional lighting to the central playfield area, they are also targeting the four beast pop-ups.
The four beasts are, clockwise from the flippers, Spider, Goblin, Orc and Warg and they all consist of a pop-up mechanism which is usually hidden below the playfield under a flap, but which rises to allow hits to be made before dropping down again.
Each beast has a corresponding custom-moulded face which is the normal part the ball strikes to register a hit, although it is also possible to register a hit from the back if the ball is moving fast enough. In addition, you can apparently use the Ring button with a ‘backstab’ to score two hits.
Each moulded face is mounted on a leaf switch, while the whole mechanism rides up and down on a carriage attached to a solenoid which pushes it up to raise the beast from under the playfield. It then latches in place in much the same way as a drop target.
A sprung flap sits above the carriage, with the spring ensuring the flap both sits tight on the playfield and also pivots up slightly at the front when the carriage is raised.
Another smaller solenoid is then used to push the carriage away from its latch so it can drop back below the playfield if the player fails to hit it within the time allowed.
The Spider and Warg pop-ups are quite close to the flippers and so especially dangerous if shot directly. The Goblin and Orc pop-ups sit directly in front of the left and right ramps respectively, making those shots difficult (although not impossible) to make if the beasts are activated.
It is possible for a ball to become trapped under the pop-up’s flap if it happens to be hitting the beast at the same moment the carriage drops. This tends to affect older The Hobbit games more (those produced before July 15, 2016) and an update kit is available free-of-charge for these games to help prevent this happening.
The update kit also includes improved springs for the drop targets and a mini-post with a rubber ring to make the right ramp return more reliable. Owners of these older games should contact Jersey Jack Pinball support for more details and to order the kit.
Sitting between the four beast pop-ups is a line of four illuminated rollover switches.
These L-O-C-K rollovers are used to light lock on the right ramp to advance towards starting Smaug Multiball. The multi-colour LEDs below the rollover buttons change colour as their corresponding switch is activated, and when all four have been rolled-over the word ‘LOCK’ lights on the right ramp. Depending on the difficulty setting it may be necessary to spell out L-O-C-K again to lock the second and third balls.
Locking three balls starts Smaug Multiball.
After playing Smaug Multiball it can become harder to light lock the next time, with the L-O-C-K rollovers needing to be completed two or more times to lock each ball.
Completing the L-O-C-K rollover switches also lights lock on either orbit lane to add a ball to the next book mode. This is a feature added with version 1.30 of the software and allows any book mode to become a multiball. Each completion of the rollovers before you start a mode lets you shoot the orbit lane to add another ball to build-up a 2, 3, 4 or 5 ball multiball, something which makes it somewhat easier to complete all the required shots for that mode in the time available.
The L-O-C-K rollovers are also one of the skill shots, with points awarded according to how many of the letters you can roll over from plunging the ball.
The final playfield feature is the progress grid which, despite the complexity of the game’s rules, is pretty minimal really.
The reason, of course, is that the main LCD monitor is used to convey much of the status information. So what we are left with as physical inserts are two Smaug lock indicators showing when your next lock will start Smaug Multiball, a shoot again one to show when you have an extra ball or when the ball saver is active, a Super X insert for increased playfield scoring, and four inserts relating to the mini- and final wizard modes.
Into The Fire, Barrel Escape and Battle of the Five Armies are mini-wizard modes which are played in sequence every time you collect the five pieces of the Arkenstone. A piece is awarded for starting Smaug Multiball, collecting all the Dwarfs, collecting all the beast pop-ups, completing one of the Elf, Dwarf or Man modes, and advancing all the way to Erebor.
Once all these have been achieved, shooting the lit VUK will start the lit mini-wizard mode.
At the time of writing with version 1.31 code being the latest, only the first two mini-wizard modes have been coded, so Battle of the Five Armies is not in the software yet, and neither is the main wizard mode which will require playing (and possibly completing) the three mini-wizard modes. This will presumably use the large over-printed insert just above the flippers to show when the mode is ready to play.
Behind the flippers is the metal bottom arch which is unusual in having a single large decal covering the top surface with no cut-out for an instruction card and only minimal space for pricing information.
There are two pricing cards included in the goodie bag as we saw at the start of this review. They are the same size as the game number decal, so one could fit there or on the opposite side.
So we’ve examined the outside of the cabinet, inside the coin door, all the playfield features and artwork, and taken a look inside the backbox. That must mean it’s time to lift the playfield and see what’s hiding in the bottom of the cabinet.
We’re pleased to report that The Hobbit comes with proper playfield slide support rails fitted to all models.
These slide rails provide three service positions – slightly slid out, fully slid out, and raised. There is no playfield prop arm to hold the playfield in a semi-raised position, but given the weight of the playfield and all the components mounted on it, this is probably a good thing.
In case you were wondering (and to save you from counting) the playfield is made from 9-ply wood.
You should be careful to only rest the playfield slide rails on the lock bar frame using the rubber feet, as otherwise the rail can rest on the shooter rod and could bend it.
After pulling the playfield fully out, we lifted it up to look inside the cabinet, safe in the knowledge that the balls won’t fall out of the trough.
The floor of the cabinet is dominated by the large metal case containing the computer and driver boards, but before we get to that we need to get some power to the game, and that means the main fuse and power switch.
The rocker switch to turn on power to the game is inside this box and accessed from under the cabinet in the traditional position at the front right corner. The main 1.25″ fuse for the game is mounted on top. The rating will vary according to the input voltage, being 10A/125V for a game on 110V/120V and 5A/250V for one running on 220V/240V.
The box contains a metal-oxide varistor connected across the live and neutral mains feeds. This is used to help alleviate any large voltage spikes which could occur from lightning strikes or other brief over-voltage fault conditions in the mains power. However this does mean that the varistor is live even if the game is switched off under the cabinet. Fires caused by catastrophic failure of a varistor have been documented many times, so it is always best to de-power the game at the power socket when it is not in use.
There is also a service outlet next to the fuse holder, although you will need to remove a warning sticker to access it. While this is fine to power a soldering iron or inspection lamp in the US, the US-style socket is generally-speaking pretty useless in Europe. Still, it’s better than nothing and can be used to provide a permanent supply to low-power mods.
Above the power switch box is the shooter rod and behind that the right flipper button.
Because The Hobbit has two flippers on the right side, the flipper button activates a two-stage leaf switch, powering the lower right flipper first so a ball can be trapped there while the upper flipper is flipped.
By contrast, the left flipper button only operates one flipper and has a simpler leaf switch.
Next to the left flipper button is the game’s tilt bob assembly.
It’s a standard and pretty minimal tilt mechanism which looks like it could do with a little alignment to perfectly centre the tilt bob within the outer ring.
Another copy of the model type and serial number sticker first seen on the back is found inside the cabinet, next to the tilt bob.
And so onto that large metal box which takes up so much space at the bottom of the cabinet. To see what it contains we took the lid off. This involves removing two knurled-knob thumb screws on the left side (arrowed in red below) and then pulling two rubberised locking handles (arrowed in green) up and away from the box.
The lid then lifts off using the built-in handle to reveal the contents.
Don’t forget about the lid though, as the carries a useful sticker detailing how to remove the snap-on connectors on the LED boards under the playfield.
Like any good engineer, let’s start looking at the contents of the box with the input, working through to the output.
The primary input has to be power, and the components in the metal box get their power from three different sources.
First we have a standard ATX 460W PC switching power supply located at the front right of the box.
This provides high current +/-12V and +5V DC supplies for the monitors, the input/output board, the PC motherboard, backbox lighting, coin mechs, optos, the sound board and much more, as well as a +3.3V DC supply for the CPU and a +24V DC feed to the sound board.
But the game needs quite a few more voltages in order to operate, and two of these come from the smaller metal box in front of the PC supply.
This takes in +12V DC and +5VDC and regulates them down to +7.5V and +4V for the GI LED lighting and RGB LEDs respectively.
But we’re still missing any kind of high power for the solenoids and motors, and to get that we have to leave the metal box for a moment and take a look further back in the cabinet for something a little more old-fashioned.
A transformer may well be more ‘old-fashioned’ than a switching power supply but it’s still much better at providing a highly-resilient feed capable of handling large and sudden changes in current draw, such as when a whole bunch of high-power solenoids fire simultaneously.
The transformer connects directly to the mains power through the fuse in the switch box and outputs 48V and 18V – both in AC naturally. These voltages go into the metal box where they are regulated and smoothed by the I/O board into 70V, 20V and 12V DC for high-power solenoids, low-power solenoids, motors and extra game lighting.
So those are the voltages used by the game: +70V, +24V, +20V, +/-12V, +7.5V, +5V, +4V and +3.3V, all in DC.
Where do they go?
Most importantly, the +12V, -12V, +5V and +3.3V go to the PC motherboard located in the back right of the metal box.
This is an MSI H81M-P33 mini-ATX board which includes on-board graphics capability providing DVI and VGA outputs which, as we have seen, are respectively used to drive the 27″ backbox monitor and the 4.3″ book monitor.
Two 4GB sticks of DDR3 memory are installed, and the whole thing boots its Linux operating system from a Sandisk U110 SSD positioned on the right wall of the metal box next to the ATX power supply.
The SSD was originally specified as 32GB but if it hasn’t already happened then this small size of SSD is going to become difficult to obtain, so it will probably increase in size. Not that that is going to help game owners much, as those installed 32GB SSDs will limit how large any future additional assets can grow.
The back panel of the motherboard hosts a number of connections. The DVI and VGA feeds to the two monitors connect here, as do the USB connections to the input/output board and playfield, and the audio out. There is also a game-unique dongle which identifies the type of model to the software so certain in-game features and displays are unlocked or hidden. The dongle also tells the software whether the Pindemption ticket redemption system has been purchased and should be available for selection. Purchasing the Pindemption system after buying the game requires a change of USB dongle to enable the new feature.
Positioned between the ATX PSU and the motherboard is the sound board from Pinnovators.
The PC motherboard already provides multi-channel sound, so why the need for a sound board?
Well, for a start the motherboard only outputs line-level or headphones-level audio which is nowhere-near powerful enough to drive speakers. So the sound board amplifies this to a suitable level and sends it to the backbox and cabinet speakers. But it also manages the headphones audio feed and the volume control buttons mounted on the coin door, along with the LED volume indicators.
The pink jack socket takes the audio from the PC motherboard, while the green socket provides an (unused) additional auxiliary output on the back of the metal box which can be used to plug into a home or location sound system. It is this green aux output which is missing from the back of the cabinet.
The Ethernet connection is the link with the coin door jack and controls, with the three RCA/phono jacks sending the amplified audio to the two backbox speakers and the cabinet speaker through more connectors on the back of the metal box.
The Pinnovators board needs 24V DC and this comes from the ATX switching supply – the only device in the game using this voltage.
The final item inside the metal box deals with most of the switch and A/C voltage inputs, and the outputs to the solenoids and the many LEDs, and so it’s called the input/output or I/O board, and it runs almost the entire length of the box.
The bottom section of the board handles the games many switches. There is a mix of dedicated switches for things such as the menu buttons, the coin mech, the tilt bob and the flipper switches, and a switch matrix for playfield sensors.
The matrix contains 16 columns and 8 rows for a maximum of 128 switches, although only 73 are actually used in The Hobbit of which 29 are optos.
The central section of the I/O board contains the drivers for the solenoids and motors.
The high power and low power solenoids and the motors are driven by IRL540 MOSFETs which in turn are driven through buffers from a pair of PIC microcontrollers.
In order to get those high power, low power and motor voltages, the top part of the board takes the 48V and 18V AC feeds from the transformer, and rectifies and smooths them into +70V, +20V and +12V unregulated DC.
This also where you will find most of the game’s fuses and the ones most likely to blow if a fault develops on the playfield. In fact there are sixteen different fuses on the I/O board – fourteen here in the power section and two blade-types at the bottom for the board logic – all with LED indicators to show their condition.
All the connections onto the I/O board come from more connectors on the back panel of the metal box, allowing the box to be disconnected and removed fairly easily if necessary.
As you can see there’s a lot of cabling at the back of the cabinet, barely leaving enough room for the final major component in the base – the cabinet speaker.
The WX85X 8-inch, 300W, 4-ohm subwoofer speaker is made by Pyramid and is part of their Originals range. It connects to the top RCA/phono jack on the back of the metal box.
The mains power for the whole game enters the cabinet through a filtered IEC inlet mounted on a small metal box so that the exterior plug is recessed and can be covered with the black metal plate we found in the coin box.
The filter helps prevent electromagnetic interference from the game exiting down the power cable and also assists with any electrically-noisy mains power outlet into which the machine might be plugged.
That’s what we find in the bottom of the cabinet. This Standard Edition doesn’t come with a shaker motor, although one can be added as an after-market purchase if you want and it is supported in the software.
So now let’s look at the underside of the playfield, and if you thought the cabinet was packed and full of cables…
As you can see (we encourage you to look at the high-resolution versions of these images to see the most detail), there is a serious amount of hardware hanging off that sheet of nine-ply. Most dominant are the four beast pop-ups and the three drop target banks.
These are substantial assemblies designed to withstand the repeated pop-ups, hits and drops they will no doubt have to endure.
The three banks of drop targets are no less thorough in their construction, with the individual solenoids to raise each target at the bottom and the knock-down solenoids mounted next to the playfield.
Adjuster screws next to the solenoids allow each target to be raised or lowered to ensure it sits level with the top of the playfield when it drops and doesn’t create a ball trap. Meanwhile, springs on the back of each target ensures it drops quickly and cleanly when struck.
These springs were modified after production began, with new, stronger springs included in the update kit we spoke about earlier.
Despite the size and complexity of the I/O board in the bottom of the cabinet, much of the control for the RGB LEDs is handled by smaller controller boards under the playfield.
There are several types of LED insert boards under the playfield, from individual single-colour boards for GI lighting to single, double or triple RGB LED boards.
There is also a Bus and GI controller board (B.A.G. board) which connects to the PC in the cabinet and both drives the GI LEDs and provides two Ultra-Fast Mode (UFM) I2C data buses – only one of which is used – and one Fast Mode (FM) I2C bus which link to the other controller boards under the playfield.
The RGB inserts are on the Ultra-Fast Mode bus, since they do a lot of colour-changing fading effects and needs fast updates to produce smooth transitions.
The Smaug jaw assembly is driven by a separate controller board mounted above the playfield inside the Smaug head model. It has its own micro-controller for the mouth motor, while the motor which rotates the whole assembly is below the playfield.
These motors are all low-power devices. For more high-power items we need to look at the magnets in the orbit lane and the flippers.
That brings us to the end of this look under the playfield and our tour of The Hobbit’s hardware.
When we received the game it was pre-installed with the latest 1.30P (prototype) software. However, during the time it was in our grubby hands a new version of software was released, so we took the opportunity to check out the upgrade process.
JJP’s software updates come in two flavours – full and delta. A full update is a large file of quite a few gigabytes. It contains everything needed to run the game but takes a little more work to install. The more common update type is the delta which only contains the changes from the last full install file. These can be very small if they are right after a full install, growing in size as more and more new features, fixes and assets are added.
This update was a delta, taking us from version 1.30P to 1.31.
We first downloaded the new code from the Jersey Jack Pinball website, unzipped it and put it on a USB flash drive which we plugged into the USB socket inside the coin door.
Then it was into the game’s menu system by using the four buttons inside the coin door.
After finding the update option in Utilities, we hit ‘Enter’ and waited as it found the new software and began installing it.
Then came a nerve-wracking moment where the monitor went black and everything seemed to have stopped.
But just as we were starting to think we had bricked the game, it rebooted and a quick check of the menu showed the new code was up and running.
While we’re in the menu system, now would be a good time to take a quick look at how it works.
We covered it in our The Wizard of Oz In-Depth Review and not a huge amount has changed in the basic way it operates. Going into the menu gives the three options for the full menu, to change the game difficulty, or to install certain settings presets.
Naturally we want the full menu, and selecting that removes the original three options to give us a full range of choices, starting in the tests menu.
Most test options are self-explanatory, with the coil tests working just like the Williams system with ‘stop’, ‘repeat’ and ‘cycle’ options to test individual coils or all of them in sequence. The tests are improved over the Williams ones though, with more information presented on the LCD monitor to help diagnose any issues.
The range of system settings you can adjust is rather daunting and goes on for page after page on the monitor.
In another improvement over the WMS system, if an adjustment is not available due to another setting elsewhere it is shown as greyed-out rather than missing altogether, like the timed game settings above when the game type is set to a certain number of balls. At least that way you know the setting exists and needs to be unlocked. The explanatory text field on the right will probably tell you how to gain access to it.
Fine-tuning of how the game plays is also available thanks to the coil settings menu. Generally-speaking, coil power timings are kept away from the user/operator due to the possibility of over-driving the coils and hence over-heating them.
As far as we can recall, detailed coil power adjustments were first introduced with The Lord of the Rings to try to address problems with the flippers. Data East and Sega games had more general coil strength settings, but LOTR gave much finer control.
JJP games have strength controls for individual coils, although any temptation to turn everything up to ’11’ is tempered first by the fact that ’11’ is actually quite a low setting, and then by the big warning message when you enter this part of the menu.
We don’t need to go through all the tests, adjustments and audits available, but rest assured just about every plunge, flip, nudge, and shot is recorded in granular detail.
So what do we think of the game? Is it any good?
Although The Hobbit’s software is not yet finished, there’s plenty in there to see where it’s going and form an opinion of its execution, while the rest of what makes up the game is most certainly complete.
So let’s do this like our older In-Depth Reviews, section by section.
In a word – ‘Yes’. The cabinet and backbox art is excellent. The Smaug Edition is certainly all about the star and that’s exactly what you want if that’s the model you chose. The Standard and LE models have an excellent montage of the characters from the three movies tastefully arranged in such a way that the two sides portray very different aspects of the story.
The only real reservation we have is how the non-Smaug versions are just that – totally devoid of any Smaug references or imagery, which seems an omission in an otherwise lavishly detailed cabinet art package. The cinematic reveal of Smaug’s appearance was embargoed until the release of the second movie, but that was some time before the first The Hobbit machines rolled off the production line. He’s on the playfield, of course, but should probably have some presence on the cabinet too.
We did also mention how the backglass image is lit with cold-white LEDs which give the game a cold and detached appearance, when the artwork has a richness which is held back by the lighting.
The playfield artwork eventually came together after an earlier revision was not well received. In contrast to the backglass, the cold feel of that original mountain-scape art has been replaced by an fiercely attacking Smaug – we do get to see him here at least – with the resultant flaming reds and yellow being the dominant hues in the lower part of the playfield.
The upper half is still blue, but in this context that contrast reflects the contrasts within the movies, from the watery escape at Rivendell and their boat rides to Esgaroth and on to the Lonely Mountain, to their fiery showdown with Smaug.
We haven’t shown a great deal of the animations and frames on the 27″ LCD monitor, and that’s mainly because this review would be almost twice the length it is if we did. So we will talk about the display animations instead.
You would think having free access to three movies’-worth of assets would provide plenty of high-resolution material which would look amazing on the large full-HD monitor. And indeed it does, but simply playing clips from the movie in a complex game like The Hobbit is not that helpful by itself, even if you overlay the scores and other basic information a player would need.
In fact, nearly all the display animations on the main monitor were made just for the game, and it’s a testament to their quality that they look like they could have come from the movies. It’s only at key moments in the storyline – such as <spoiler alert> the killing of Smaug – that clean movie clips are used. Otherwise they are framed within windows as part of the status display, composited into other display animations or shown on the smaller book display.
A game like The Hobbit has a challenge to face when designing an informational display for the player, and it’s very different to the one faced by Stern with their dot-matrix display.
The Hobbit has a large, high-resolution, full-colour display which can be used to convey a mass of information, but the challenge is not to show all the information you can. It’s to show the least you can comfortably get away with.
Stern games have had to do that by using playfield inserts to guide the player and then to change the display completely every time a major event takes place, such as a jackpot being collected or a new mode starting.
The Hobbit – much like The Wizard of Oz – allows multiple features to run concurrently, and shows the status of them all in different parts of the large display. Once you get used to the game that’s a great benefit since you’re not relying on the game to show you the single piece of information you want at any particular time.
But the flip-side of that is how all that information can be overwhelming to the casual player. They don’t know where to look to see the result of their actions with the ball and the flippers. They complete the L-O-C-K rollovers and the whole display doesn’t dedicate itself to telling them how lock is now lit. The information is there, but it’s relatively small and easily overlooked.
That would be our main criticism in what is a beautifully-detailed design – more full-screen (with score/ball/player overlays), high-impact animations to give more feedback to the player when they do something important. There are some which do just that – extra ball, free game and ball lock, but the ball is trapped during these events. There needs to be more like these which grab the player’s attention while the ball is still in play and directs them to where the latest event is reflected in the overall status display.
Maybe that’s part of the polish which will be added as the game’s code nears completion. Let’s hope so.
That said, all the displays and animations are first-class and are perfectly in keeping with the look and feel of the movies and the rest of the game.
SOUNDS & MUSIC
While we thoroughly enjoyed the many different music tracks used throughout the game – and indeed would have liked them to be more up front at times – the effects and voice calls appeared to be one of the areas most in need of additional assets or tweaks in the next software update.
Killing Smaug (whoops, retrospective spoiler alert) resulted in total silence as he plummeted to earth and crashed to his eventual death. No music and no effects. Many of the targets are also in need of audible feedback to confirm they have been successfully hit, while the availability of certain awards is not suitably flagged-up to the player with an alerting sound effect or voice call.
There also some reuse of quotes, with seemingly the same “Super Jackpot” clip also being used for “Super Jackpot… is lit”, leading the player to wonder if Gandalf is telling them they just collected the Super Jackpot, or if will shortly hear the rest of his quote to find out they merely lit it. There also needs to be more variations of commonly-heard quotes. Gandalf saying “…and into the fire” in such an exaggerated way for the start of the mini-wizard mode of the same name, for instance, started to grate a little after hearing it multiple times.
Those are our bugbears, but let them not detract from the high-quality audio coming out of the game through the impressive amplifier and speakers combination. Having both an independent headphone jack with its own controls and a line-out for an external sound system or live stream is very welcome, covering all the bases except maybe bluetooth headsets.
Comparing The Hobbit side-by-side with The Wizard of Oz (WOZ) they are like night and day – almost literally. The general illumination level in The Hobbit is a huge improvement, and the monochromatic nature of the GI never proves to be a problem.
The over-use of multi-coloured inserts in WOZ has been tamed and brought much more under control for Hobbit. That’s not to say multiple colours aren’t used throughout the game to indicate various states and awards, but sometimes less is more and the colours selected here are more to set the mood of the gameplay than to show off the game’s capabilities.
The colours of the inserts follow the action, spreading out from Smaug in flame colours as he tries to toast you (and not in the good way) at the start of his multiball, or turning blue when you need to ride the river during Barrel Escape.
This is much more how multi-coloured inserts should be used, rather than either being, at one end of the scale, simple indicators of shots, or at the other looking like an explosion in a paint factory.
The redesign of the lighting boards seems to have produced a far-more reliable system than the original WOZ design, putting it on a par with any other company’s RGB lighting for failure rates and building a solid platform for JJP’s future games.
However, we can’t leave this section without one bugbear, and it concerns over-exuberant light show effects, and in particular extra balls and free games. These sometimes take place while one or more balls are still in play, and can flash all the LEDs on and off for an extended period, making it almost impossible to see what’s going on if the game is in a darkened room. JJP are far from unique in this, but many times we heard the cry of, “stop flashing all the ****ing lights“, so some tempering of these effects might result in an equivalent tempering of the language used.
The playfield layout is deceptive, not appearing at first glance to have much to shoot for in the centre.
Of course, once those beast pop-ups appear and start blocking your shots, or take you into Beast Frenzy multiball, the playfield become rather busier and the shots harder to make.
Compared to another widebody game such as WOZ it’s much more open, that’s true, but maybe WOZ tried to pack more features in at the expense of losing some of the flow and the feel of a widebody game. The Hobbit traps the ball less and builds up the speed more, which is fitting as WOZ is an older-style game for an older-style movie.
This has been an unusual game development process thanks to JJP’s decision to publicly reveal features and assemblies in a piecemeal way over a period of many months.
The result of that was a double-edged sword, where interest in the game was maintained through that period with speculation and excitement about how certain devices would work., but that was coupled with the evolution of these features which, in some cases, would show they were either unnecessary or just plain didn’t work reliably, leading to disappointment from buyers.
Such are the problems of developing a game in the glare of the public spotlight – something JJP have probably wisely avoided for their third game.
But from that process we know there was originally going to be a fourth flipper, how the Bag End lane was once a target bank, that the top of the kickback lane was to have a motorised cam to aim the ball, how there was to be a standup target in the left outlane as well as the right, and that the Smaug model was going to interact with the ball as it circled him on a wireform.
While those changes almost certainly made sense and are not at all unusual during game development, we are left wondering what Smaug might have been able to do with the ball had the original plan worked out.
Any game with more than 30 modes can’t be accused of skimping on the rules, and there’s no doubt that The Hobbit brings a lot to the gameplay party.
Although there’s no mention of the final wizard mode, here are the rules in graphic form thanks to the manual for The Hobbit.
Let us state straight away that we are big fans of much of programmer Keith Johnson’s earlier work, and love his previous collaboration with The Hobbit designer Joe Balcer with The Simpsons’ Pinball Party. That game gives you multiple ways to progress through the rules, with different areas all being enjoyable in their own right but also combining to lead you to the Super Duper Mega Extreme Wizard Mode.
There are certainly some similarities between The Simpsons and The Hobbit as far as rules but the balance is very different, not allowing you to concentrate on any one area to progress. Instead you need to complete challenges in several different areas to complete your Arkenstone.
There are also lots of really nice hidden rules for various features, such as charging up the mystery target, the progressive awards given by the captive ball, the super jets levels, the various features from the Ring button, and more.
The only problem here is that many of these features and awards are exactly that… hidden. Better communication to the player is needed, not only about what the next award will be but also what they can look forward to further down the line if they just buy that one extra credit and play that little bit better.
For the experienced and dedicate player, they can find that out in various way or eventually work it out for themselves, but to the casual player there are few immediately obvious goals beyond Smaug Multiball, especially when faced with more than 30 modes which they will never dream of completing. It seems like a very steep learning curve, even though getting to the mini-wizard modes is not actually as difficult as it might at first appear. If Gandalf told you “That’s the first piece collected, now get to Erebor” or whatever is the feature closest to completion is it would help guide the player through the game more.
Those mini-wizard modes are as complex as you would expect (and hope), with each one consisting of multiple stages followed by victory laps for completing them. On reflection we think we prefer this to a simpler, more obvious approach which can quickly get old. It fits better with the movie’s theme where having completed one challenge you are thrown straight into another, and another, and are constantly battling to stay alive.
We’ve yet to see how the third mini-wizard or the final modes work, but it’s a safe bet they won’t be the cop-out ‘everything is lit for jackpots’ type of modes.
The individually-controlled drop targets are a big part of both the feature set and the bill of materials. They are used well, but somehow don’t feel as compelling as they should be.
We think that’s because the staging and choreography doesn’t put enough emphasis on them through lighting, display and audio cues when they are performing their tricks. Those should be the moments your attention is grabbed by dramatic sounds and lighting effects, and you are distracted from whatever you were previously working towards. However, despite the mechanical noise they make it’s all too easy to not notice what the drop targets are up to until it’s too late to collect the award they were offering.
We’re being overly critical here of course because the vast majority of the coding for The Hobbit is very competently done, and we do appreciate the work which goes into the light shows, choreography, the syncing of video, speech and animatronics, and all the other features players take for granted. And that’s without having to code for a new lighting system and further development of the underlying operating system.
It does however bring into focus what a huge task coding for a modern game like The Hobbit is, and how it is has moved way beyond being a one-man job.
As this In-Depth Review draws to a close we’ll end by summarising our findings for the game as we reviewed it in numerical form.
These ratings look at each aspect of The Hobbit in its current state of development and compare it to the best examples of that element we have seen. If a game ever gets a 10 then it, in our opinion, has beaten every other game ever and set the new standard for that feature with no obvious deficiencies. Consequently, getting a 10 is pretty unusual. In this new format we have placed the scores at the bottom of this page.
If you jumped straight here, please go back and read the full review to see why we rated things as we did and see whether you agree with us and if you would put the same significance on certain features as we did.Don’t worry if these numbers don’t match your own personal opinions. They’re only that – personal opinions – and we’re bound to give different weightings to the various features.
Finally, a big thank you to Phil Palmer at Pinball Heaven for his assistance and loan of The Hobbit which made this review possible.
With that we end this In-Depth Review. Thank you for reading it and we hope you enjoyed it. We’ll be back soon with another in-depth review.