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Slots and Themes

Twenty years ago, slot themes from popular culture exploded. Few remain

By Frank Legato

When slot machines experienced their first real explosion in popularity in the 1980s, there were no familiar themes to the games. The vast majority of games back then were three-reel, single-line mechanical reel-spinners. Some of them had unique titles, but nothing within the game reflected a brand or theme. You pulled the handle, the reels went around, and you won or lost.

The first brands that actually related to the game play reflected special features of the games. Bally’s Blazing 7s had multiple winning “7” combinations. IGT’s Double Diamond had diamond- shaped wild symbols that doubled the jackpot.

It wasn’t until the release of IGT’s Wheel of Fortune in 1996 that slots began to reflect a theme from popular culture. The base games were those same Double Diamond or other popular themes. But the bonus wheel—accompanied by the “Wheel… of… Fortune!” audience chant from the TV game show—drew players like wildfire.

In the decade that followed, popular-culture themes were all the rage in the slot-machine business. The Beverly Hillbillies. Gilligan’s Island. MAS*H. Ghostbusters. Sex and the City.

All of these games drew from the shows or movies on which the theme was based, mostly by taking an element of the popular film or show and using it to form a bonus round. But few of the games listed above have survived, partly because after the novelty of the characters or sequences of the bonus events wore off, the bonuses were pretty much like bonuses of any other games.

Some popular culture themes, of course, have stood the test of time. Light & Wonder’s Monopoly franchise has milked the legendary board game for new iterations since it was first launched by the company’s legacy manufacturer WMS Gaming, and the company introduces a new iteration of this theme—which could be the perfect theme for a slot—just about every year.

The same can be said of the manufacturer’s Willy Wonka series of games. And just look at The Wizard of Oz. It seems there are more iterations of slot games mining the rich elements of the 1939 MGM classic than one can count.

Aristocrat’s The Walking Dead series is another that has continued to crank out new versions, each with creative new bonuses, year after year. The same can be said of that manufacturer’s Game of Thrones series, which has a version for just about every season of the fantasy show.

And of course, IGT’s Wheel of Fortune just wrapped up its 25th anniversary year as a slot theme, with no less than three new versions of the game introduced last year.

There are still new popular culture themes being launched that show promise of such longevity. Aristocrat’s take on Crazy Rich Asians could be a long-lasting game franchise. Everi’s Hot Stuff franchise will continue to mine the popular devil comic-book character.

However, by and large, the new games reflecting films, TV shows or other aspects of popular culture are the same franchises that have proven themselves to be popular. In other words, Wheel of Fortune, Willy Wonka and the other games highlighted above.

New takes on popular culture have all but dried up among today’s new slots. What has taken their place in the market are the most popular proprietary themes from each manufacturer. Aristocrat’s Buffalo game group has been arguably the most popular slot theme on any casino floor for years. Similar longevity has been seen by Light & Wonder’s Asian-themed 88 Fortunes game group.

Or IGT’s Cleopatra, or Stinkin’ Rich, or Lucky Larry’s Lobstermania. IGT, in fact, has been among the most successful slotmakers at revising and reviving glorious themes from its past, if only because of the wealth of titles that poured from the company in the early 2000s, when upward of 70 percent of the games sold in the U.S. were IGT themes. Most recently, the company has revived Top Dollar, a truly great slot theme that has survived for decades.

Top Dollar meticulously reproduces the exact game from the 1990s—a modern, electronic version of a game with a bonus that originally flashed lights behind bonuses presented as cash on a silk- screened glass top box. However, most new versions of the classic themes utilize the most popular game features of today’s slot floor.

Most have some version of the hold-and-re-spin game mechanic that first appeared in Aristocrat’s Lightning Link. Most have “cash-on-reels” symbols, each reflecting bonus amounts in the “what-you- see-is-what-you get” technique. Most have free-game bonuses. And, most combine two or more of these features.

But the winning themes survive, and they’re based not on popular culture, but on the genius of the game designers.

Some newer themes that show promise to last a long time include Rakin’ Bacon! from AGS, Cashnado from Everi, Pop’n Pays from Gaming Arts, Crazy Money from Incredible Technologies, Lucky Envelope from Konami… The list goes on.

But in the end, the slot theme has evolved into reviving what players have shown they love, and then reviving it again and again.

Players enjoy what is familiar to them. Slot-makers have responded.



Aristocrat Gaming recently took its slot offerings to a completely different venue. The slot manufacturer announced a partnership with Fremont Street Experience in April. The deal will see the six-block entertainment district located in historic downtown Las Vegas feature the company’s biggest game themes. A special video is now featured on Fremont’s 136,000-square-foot canopy.

“At Aristocrat, we go big for our customers and with invitations to play,” Aristocrat Americas President Tommy O’Brien said. “We bring the biggest brands, the best games, and the best cabinets together to create memorable gaming experiences unlike anything else in the industry. Now, we are bringing our most popular games to this larger-than-life format, and what better way to continue to tell that story than with the Fremont Street Experience.”

The launch features fan favorite characters entertaining players from the screen to the gaming floor, taking full advantage of the canopy’s 1,500-foot length. All videos end with an invitation to play the games at any of the eight Fremont casinos: Binion’s, California, Circa, the D, Four Queens, Fremont, Golden Gate and Golden Nugget.

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