Recently at the Museum of Pinball in Banning California was the Arcade Expo 3.0 and with hundreds of pinball and videogames to play there is a wide range of both rare and common games that the facility has. This year there was quite a special pinball machine that was there. Williams Rat Race was a prototype pinball machine from 1983 that there were only 10 units ever made and the game never went into production. While it was not uncommon that prototype of both pinball and videogame were made by companies it is extremely rare to see them not only then but to actually see one 34 years after it was made.
Here is a short video of the game play so you get the idea of how the machine works.
The game is in the same cabinet as the Joust pinball machine that came out the same year but that game went into a small production run of 402 units. What makes this game unique is the play of the game. It’s not really a pinball game nor is it a video game. It’s a bit of a hybrid machine that take the ball in the maze game an expands on it. This machine along with Joust were the only two player head to head pinball machines. In the case of Rat Race each player gets a set amount of time to collect as many points as possible then the controls switch to the second player and the game runs for a few minutes until the timer runs out and the player with the highest score wins. The game is able to be played in a one player mode that is simply not as fun as the two player mode.
The Rat Race they have at The Museum of Pinball is in beautiful shape and there is no damage to the playfield. While it appeared that some of the sensor might have been hit or miss with working it did seem to run pretty smoothly. The game went in and out of working during the event but was working most of the time.
There is a huge learning curve when you play the game and the difficulty is quite high. The joystick controller takes a good amount of control to slowly move the ball around the playfield. The first time you play it your ball will roll around the outer rim quite a bit till you get the hang of the controls. The one thing that I learned with moving the joystick is less is more. There are multiple mazes on the playfield and the ball will even sometimes jump out if you tilt the table too much. The one thing that makes the game really fun is that the competition factor when you play with another player. Between the beat the clock aspect of the game and trying to get a higher score than the other player adds to the excitement of the game.
After playing the game a few times and watching other people play the game I easily understood why the game never went into production. One thing that was very obvious was the maintainance on the tilting playfield could become a maintenance nightmare. The other is the steep learning curve might keep people from playing multiple games. I can see why they went with going into production of Joust over Rat Race simply because it was more like playing pinball than Rat Race was.
Rat Race is a very unique game and along with Joust and the 1982 Varkon pinball that was in a videogame cabinet, Williams was trying to reinvent the pinball machine. With the success of arcade video games that required much less maintenance and had bigger profits and less floor space than a pinball machine you understand why Williams was looking into alternative ideas for pinball. While neither Joust or Varkon were successful they each had outside the box ideas on what pinball could be.
If you are able to go to an event at The Museum of Pinball during one of their Arcade Expo events, I highly recommend playing Rat Race if it’s working. While it can be frustrating, it is also a unique experience that was never duplicated.