Fun facts and hidden inspiration in popular slots
By John Grochowski
In themes and game play, slot machines draw on diverse facets of our lives. Pop culture is bit of course, but items as ordinary as clocks and facts we think of as trivial play their parts in the slot experience.
Over the years the slots have taught me a few things, not necessarily from playing the games but from investigating what I’ve seen on the screen. There’s a curiosity factor at work, and you never know what you might find when you look things up.
FULL SPEED AHEAD
When Bally Technologies introduced its Titanic slots in 2013, it was filled with fun features that played off iconic moments in the 2013 movie that starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson.
In the movie, Dawson is adept at drawing. In the slot machine, there’s Sketch Bonus, where you try to pick matching sketches to collect bonus credits. In the good times in the movie, Dawson shouts, “I’m king of the world!” On the slot machine, that scene plays after a big win.
One small element caught my attention. The wheel used to select and launch bonus events was modeled after a ship device usually marked “slow,” “stop,” “full half,” and so on. It enables the bridge pilot to communicate to the engine room the desired speed.
I’d seen such devices dozens of times in movies and TV shows, and never thought to look up what it was called. This time I had to know.
For my fellow non-nautical folks, it’s called the engine order telegraph.
The popular Money Rain slot from Incredible Technologies has an unusual look that borrows from 1950s technology. It’s on video, but the look is as if each real symbol is a card hinged in the middle.
Instead of reels spinning to give you fresh symbols, the top of the card swings down on the hinge revealing a new half symbol at the top and the matching half symbol at the bottom – looking as if the new bottom half had been on the flip side of the former top half.
Such displays have been in use for decades, primarily at railroad stations and bus terminals. In fact, the developer of the game, Richard Ditton, was inspired by the clocks he used to watch as a boy at Union Station in Chicago.
On the old mechanical versions, the technology is called a “split flap display,” or sometimes “split flip.” Those of us who had digital clock at home before LED displays came in vogue had that same technology at work. The at-home, small versions were called “flip clocks.”
Split flaps are still in use around the world. In the United States, among the places they’re still active are the waiting area of the Atlantic City Rail Terminal, the second floor of Jacksonville (Florida) International Airport and the San Francisco Ferry Building.
I’m a bit of a science fiction buff, but I have to admit I didn’t see much of “Stargate SG-1” in its original run. I was aware of the series and the movie that inspired it, and the basic premise: A U.S. special operations team encounters aliens through use of the Stargate, an alien device that can transport people to Stargates on other planets.
Worlds collided in 2008 when Atronic introduced its Stargate SG-1 slot machines in both video and reel-stepper formats. They had a striking look, with a Stargate display on top for bonus events.
Atronic representatives who showed me the game made sure I knew “Stargate SG-1” was the longest-running science fiction television show in the United States. It ran 10 seasons starting in 1997. If pressed at the time, I’d have guessed the longest runner was one of the Star Treks – “Next Generation,” “Voyager” and “Deep Space Nine” each ran seven seasons – or an anthology such as “The Twilight Zone” (five seasons) or “The Outer Limits” (nine seasons if you include both the 1960s and 1990s versions).
“SG-1” since has been surpassed by “Supernatural,” which began its 11th season in October 2015. And the world champion S-F long-runner remains the U.K. favorite “Doctor Who,” with 26 seasons from 1963-89, a TV movie in 1996, and nine seasons and counting since a 2005 revival.
“Doctor Who” gave us a pinball machine in the 1980s, but no slots. So “Stargate SG-1” stands as the longest-running science fiction series with wagering appeal.
You could pick out any number of facts to remember from the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” slots Mikohn Gaming produced in the 1990s, or from the new Ripley slots American Gaming Systems introduced just a couple of years ago.
For me, one triggered a distant childhood memory. Ripley bonus rounds consisted of multiple choice trivia questions, and one asked how many insects produced substances humans use for food. The answer was one, the honeybee.
I wasn’t quite sure that was right. When I was very young, my mom used to ask me if she should buy bees’ honey or ants’ honey. No doubt she was joking, but also no doubt the joke was based in a fact. My parents are bright people who like bits of trivia and wordplay.
After the Mikohn game gave the answer as one, I just had to look up ant honey to see if this was a real thing and if people eat it. It turns out there are six species of honey ant, or honeypot ant that do produce a sweet substance. One species lives in the American Southwest and in Mexico. The substance they produce is edible, though it tastes more like molasses than honey. The ants don’t store it externally in honeycombs, like bees. Instead, they store it in their abdomens, and other ants can use it as a source of nourishment.
In Mexico, humans sometimes extract this ant honey to use in food and to ferment in beverages. However, worldwide it’s more common to get at the substance by eating the entire ant.
Given this question again on a slot machine, I’d still answer one because I’d want the bonus, but a little digging does find an alternative answer.
THE REEL DEAL
Many popular TV shows have their roots overseas, and that goes double for reality TV and primetime game shows. “Survivor” evolved from the Swedish “Expedition Robinson,” “American Idol” the British “Pop Idol” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” from the UK series of the same name, to name a few.
Mostly, I find out about them like anyone else, either by channel surfing or reading about them. “Deal or No Deal” was different. I actually learned of its existence through a slot machine, a little more than a year before the Howie Mandel-hosted show launched in the U.S.
Atronic was quick to negotiate a license to bring the idea to slot machines when the show became a hit in Europe. The beginnings were in the Netherlands, with a show called “Hunt for Millions.” “Deal or No Deal” translated into slot play seamlessly. Just as on TV, players choose suitcases to try to find the biggest bonuses while eliminating low-payers and weighing offers to sell the chosen case.
It worked so well the suitcase bonus was kept through a number of sequel game as Atronic was absorbed into Spielo, GTECH and now International Game Technology.
Americans knew none of that when Atronic introduced Deal or No Deal slots at Global Gaming Expo in the fall of 2004. What I saw then was a pretty cool bonus event while Atronic representatives passed on the information that it was based on a show that was a big hit in Europe and would be taking the U.S. by storm soon. They had it right.
Everything changes across decades, even something seemingly as constant as Monopoly. In board game sets, the wooden houses and hotels of my youth gave way to plastic versions. Specialty sets have been marketed with theme-related property names are used instead of the traditional Atlantic City names such as Boardwalk, Ventnor and Marvin Gardens.
There’s a Las Vegas edition where you can buy Caesars Palace or Bellagio, a Chicago edition where Boardwalk and Park Place become the Magnificent Mile and State Street, and even a Star Trek edition where Chance and Community Chest cards are replaced by Star Fleet Orders and Captain’s Log.
One enduring Monopoly symbol has been the dapper old gent with his top hat, monocle and big white mustache. When WMS rolled out its second round of Monopoly slots in 1999, I took note of the game logo, white lettering on a red background, complete with a picture of Rich Uncle Pennybags.
I was quickly corrected. The WMS rep who was showing me the game informed me that Hasbro, which had acquired original game distributor Parker Brothers along with Tonka in 1991, was now calling the character Mr. Monopoly.
The Rich Uncle Pennybags name was so ingrained from my Monopoly-playing youth that I had to look it up. Sure enough, in 1999, the character was renamed Mr. Monopoly. Just between you and me, I still call him Pennybags when away from my keyboard.