Curtis the Cougar, Axl, Slash and Me
Insights into the Making of a Classic Rock & Roll Pinball Machine
An Interview with John Borg
Editor’s Note: I wrote this a few years ago for the late, great GameRoom Magazine. This however is the first time the interview has been featured anywhere completely unedited. Enjoy!
There have been a few pinball machines with a rock music theme throughout pinball history: 1970’s games such as Wizard, Ted Nugent, Rolling Stones, and Captain Fantastic immediately come to mind.
However, my sweet spot for pinball machines rests in the 1990’s. I like the deeper rules, fancier toys, enhanced sound packages, and the dot matrix display. During this era, very few music-related games were produced.
There is one special game of note that was released by Data East in 1994. The game is Guns N’ Roses (GnR). This also is a special game as it is the last game released under the Data East name (Maverick was the last game made by Data East, but it was released as a Sega game).
It is also one of only two wide-bodied games that Data East ever produced (the other being WWF Royal Rumble.)
Knowing that GnR was going to be the next game for me, I started watching related items on eBay. I happened to notice a prototype gun handle for sale. I knew that often the gun grips can be missing or damaged, so it seemed like a good item to buy.
I was somewhat surprised to win the auction so cheaply. Sure the grips are not that different from the regular ones –- but this was a certified ONE OF A KIND item.
It turned out that the person who sold them to me was none other than the designer of the game, John Borg. How cool is that? John was extremely friendly and even signed his name on the grips for me.
We got to chatting about the game later on as I purchased a few other GnR parts from John. At the time, I was working with GameRoom Magazine to redevelop their website, so it seemed natural to ask John if he would be interested in an interview.
Well, here it is…
So how did you get in the business of designing pinball machines?
I interviewed at Premier Gottlieb in 1986. I started working as a Mechanical Engineer/ Draftsman. The first game I worked on was a John Trudeau game titled Victory and then started on a new game Diamond Lady with Jon Norris.
At that time the staff of game engineer consisted of three designers, three Mechanical Engineers, four Programmers, two sound engineers, two artists and one technical illustrator. Gil Pollack (President), Adolf Sietz Jr., and Mike Vrettos would oversee operations.
I designed a device that was in Jon Norris 1988/1989 game Lights Camera Action. This device turned over a section of the playfield to set up a particular shot. In its normal position it had a ramp that took the ball to an upper playfield. I received my first patent for the device.
A lot of the speech in the Premier Gottlieb games was all in house talent. My voice was used in Lights Camera Action.
Working with Trudeau, Norris and Tanzer was a great learning experience for me.
In 1990 I moved to Data East Pinball.
Did you consider working in other fields or was getting a job working on pinball machines your primary objective?
I originally intended on designing injection molds for producing plastic piece parts. I was looking for a drafting position when I met the folks at Premier Technology.
While I was in the lobby area waiting for my interview, I noticed that Premier was a pinball manufacturing company. I was a player and I was very interested in designing my own machine someday.
What is your favorite of all of the pinball machines you designed? Why?
The original design started out as a dinosaur game that was to be called Cadillac’s and Dinosaurs and later became Jurassic Park. It had a dinosaur that bent over and picked up the ball in its mouth. It turned and dropped the ball in a hole as multiple balls were being shot into play.
As we found out more about the upcoming Jurassic Park movie, Joe K decided that he wanted the theme and asked me to convert my dinosaur into something else.
Data East had a license for Star Wars and I was glad to take it. I changed a lot of the playfield including changing the dinosaur to a Death Star. I wanted another toy on the playfield and started drawing the R2D2 mechanism for the upper left corner of the game.
The playfield had good geometry and nice toys and a great art package by Marcus. Neil F did a great job programming. Jack and Kurt produced some of the greatest dot matrix work ever on a pin.
So did Slash really have input in the design of GnR?
Yes he did. I believe I have a doodle sketch he had drawn as we were talking about the game design. Slash is a pin collector too. He has about 20 machines.
So how much did Slash contribute to the design effort? I had heard that he came up with the ‘G’ and ‘R’ ramp design, but later heard this was actually your idea.
Slash had a lot of input on the game. He suggested things that the band members liked to do. Gilby Clark loved motorcycles. I came up with the idea for the video mode “GILBY RIDES”. Lyman sheets did an excellent job programming it. It was very cool. It was reused in the Harley Davidson game.
Slash said it was always hard to get everyone on stage. That turned into the right shot “ADD BAND MEMBERS”. Get all band members on stage to start multiball. The original layout had a ball lock in the wire ramp that fed into the top lanes.
I designed the playfield and many of the rules. Joe K asked me to convert the original design to a wide body. I decided to put a rose shooter on the left and Joe suggested the snake pit ramp. I then added the trap door in the “G” ramp to deposit the ball into the snake pit ramp.
Lonnie Ropp produced the game program.
GnR art was designed by myself and Joe K. Joe K had a great art staff and a great eye for pinball art. The prototype backglass was my favorite. I have one of the three. I also know that one was destroyed during a move. The owner asked to purchase mine.
I believe the original painting was purchased by someone in California for $10,000.
I liked the proto composition the best. It was more photo-realistic, but was recreated because many thought the proto was too dark. The production model was more cartoon like.
You said there were some interesting stories about the making of the Guns N’ Roses pin. What are some that come to mind?
After the big earthquake in 1993, I went to Slash’s house in L.A. He showed me his pinball collection and his snake collection. He also had a cougar about 8 months old. His name was Curtis. He was as friendly as your average house cat. He was much larger than a house cat. A little bigger than a German Shepherd.
I was petting him and he laid down and rolled over on his back. I squatted down and rubbed his belly. Big mistake!
He reached up with his front paw and got it around my neck and had me on my back in a split second.
Next thing I noticed was him on top with his jaws around my neck. I was very calm and didn’t panic or try to get him off.
He was playing with me. Slash yelled at him, “get off Curtis!” He then released me and I got up.
I figured if he bit down it would have been a fast death. I did pet him more later, but didn’t squat down to rub his belly again.
Note: never rub a cougar’s belly!
I have a bottle of Jack Daniels that we all shared when he was in Chicago meeting with us to go over the game layout.
I find it funny that the Mystery Award is gained by shooting at the Axl Hole. Was someone making an underhanded comment there about Axl’s mental status?
(The) Axl hole mystery had nothing to do with his mental status. He was “Mr. Impossible” at the speech session. I was very nervous meeting him and he wanted nothing to do with the project.
Sound producer Mike Clink had to edit tapes before giving them to me.
Axl kicked us all out off the sound stage and after 4 hours produced not much at all. Since Guns’ broke up he has produced nothing ether.
A great talent wasted in my opinion. I would like to use some colorful four letter words to describe him, but I’m bigger than that.
How about this? He couldn’t shine Robert Plant’s shoes. Please print that for me.
Pardon off Axl, Love John.
Have you noticed the surge in demand and value with GnR machines in the recent months? It seems to be the hot game on RGP (rec.games.pinball) lately with several people looking to buy the game. Sales on eBay have gone for big dollars too.
It’s a very fun game to play. I wish I had more than three months to work on it! If I had the Williams designers’ schedule of a year or more, it would have been a better game.
I was designer and mechanical engineer on almost all my projects. Most designers in the industry had more support around them. I had Joe K, Gary S, Joe Balcer and Joe Blackwell and they are all the greatest.
We made a lot of great games at Data East/Sega.
A friend of mine mentioned owning a game with headphone jacks installed. He said this appeared to be a factory install and not someone’s hack job. Apparently there were two jacks and when in use, all sound from the speakers was turned off. What is the story there?
Seems like a neat idea. We did make some games with head phone jacks. Not too many though.
Mike Toler, Electrical Engineer even made a few sip and puff games for handicapped people. It was very cool to see someone with no use of arms and legs to be able to enjoy playing.
I recall that Slash did the music on a future Data East game. Was this due to your influence somehow?
Slash was a big pinball fan and collector. He approached us with the GnR game license.
Gary and Joe asked him to do the Viper music and he was at the game show that year with us.
He signed autographs at the booth too. Slash was a great guy and great to work with.
Slash and Axl are like night and day—Axl being night, of course.
What is the most difficult game you worked on and why?
Last Action Hero. Originally the Last Action Hero game layout was Tales from the Crypt. The game had a coffin and a small molded crypt keeper head with a moving jaw. Ed Cebula designed the original layout.
Later the game theme changed and Tim Seckel changed the coffin into the theater from the Last Action Hero movie. The theater had a motorized up down target under it. It was located about where the center spinner is in the production game.
The object was to shoot the target collect the ticket and enter the theater. The crane mechanism that I designed turned and fed balls into the theater to determine how many balls would be released at multiball start.
Later the theater assembly was deleted and the crane was redesigned to transfer balls to a holding area on the left side of the game. Everyone in the company had a part in design and redesign.
After all of that four games needed to be at the movie premier in California. We were out of time. Two were near finished and two half finished.
The truck was in the dock waiting for the games. The cabinets were filled with parts and tools and were shipped.
Engineering finished building the games in California in 95 degree-plus heat and no air conditioning.
We made the premiere and had a great time.
I showed the game to Fred McRae. He played Arnold’s commanding officer in the movie. He was the character that yelled at Arnold and smoke came out of his ears. His image was on the spinner in the middle of the game. He really got a kick out of that!
Do you own any pinball machines, and what are some of your favorite pinball machines?
- Prototype Apollo 13 with spinning moon and earth.
- Prototype Tales from the Crypt
- Star Wars
- Stern: Flight2000
- Williams: High Speed, Funhouse, and Terminator
- Data East: Apollo13, Star Wars
- Gottlieb: HotShots (1988), Victory (1987)
You worked on a ton of great games. What game are you most proud of?
Star Wars and Apollo 13
What game do you wish you could go back and make changes to?
Lost in Space. I had a mechanism idea where the robot collected balls for multiball.
Thanks so much John for all of your time and great insights into the making of a classic rock & roll pinball machine.