Fantasy Women of Pinball: Fathom (Bally, 1981)

For an explanation of this series and my Ranking System read here.

I’ve mentioned that something that really gets me stoked for a pinball machine is one that tries to tell a story, or make your actions/score part of an event that means something. And when it comes to setting up a pinball machine’s story, few ad flyers I’ve looked at so far have done it better than the one for Bally‘s 1981 table, Fathom.

Here’s the wonderful front;

The front page of my ad flyer for pinball machine Fathom. Copyright 1981 Bally Manufacturing Corporation. Story by Greg Freres, Art by Kevin O'Connor

And the much more sterile back;

The back page of my ad flyer for pinball machine Fathom. Copyright 1981 Bally Manufacturing Corporation.

I don’t think there’s much I need say about how much I love the front. The illustrations are nicely done. The story – a search-and-rescue – is established quickly, along with rumors of mermaids and nymphs. Danger is immediately brought forth. A mermaid’s tail brushes by the corner of the last panel. Oh, and there’s a woman in a bikini in every image.

Pretty much pure win for me. Especially since none of the comic’s art appears anywhere on the table – it is exclusive to the flyer, and it speaks a lot for Bally‘s dedication to it.

On the flip side of the ad we find the last panel of the comic, which explains that somehow, through playing the pinball machine Fathom, we will learn the fate of everyone.

It is a damn good thing the flyer got all that great story telling and exposition out on the front with some amazing art, because the back of the flyer is very dry – and almost clinical!

The text reads like a pinball manual; the inline drop targets can be activated by remote control; lanes advance the bonuses from one to three advances; et cetera. Okay, maybe it isn’t entirely written like that, and some tantalizing details (multi-ball, capture saucers, and references to running out of air) keep the text fun and themed, but overall it is certainly written for more for an arcade owner or hardcore pinball aficionado.

Which is fine. The ad is trying to sell the machine to at least one of those demographics, after all. But as a casual player I find myself zoning out with some of the description.

Despite my opinion of the text, we do get some good shots of the table on the flyer’s back; an angled shot of the full table and an overhead of the playfield.

The angled shot reveals the table’s name down the side with a mermaid’s tail poking up. I can’t really see the sides of the backglass but it looks to be decorated with a monochrome (male?) diver. The backglass looks nicely painted, with our doomed diver struggling against two mermaids.

And these aren’t Ariel; spiny fins run down their backs, long serpentine tales extend past the bump of their asses, and fins run up their arms to clawed and webbed hands. Their long hair, caught in the flow of the sea, is often used to cover their presumably human bosoms (or else why obscure them at all?).

Because these mermaids are not demure dainty things waiting for a good Christian man to rob them of their tails during religious conversion, but instead sleek underwater killing machines that rule the ocean depths, they are all very worthy of being Fantasy Women of Pinball. The art doesn’t skimp on their design – there are no cheap sashes or collar-like bits of tail to obscure the transition from woman to fish; many blooms of scales amidst white skin are quite visible. While the backglass displays the most highly detailed depiction of two mermaids, the playfield has some great examples.

In general the playfield makes great use of the underwater theme. At the back of the table is our bikini gal, perched in the boat and looking down for her missing man. As we descend we find ourselves amdist darker water and deadlier denizens; even a shark and barracuda in mid-playfield don’t impose the type of danger surrounding the mermaids hovering just above the flippers. I love how select lights and pins cover one mermaid’s womanly chest. Although only four mermaids appear on the playfield, they are well drawn and could not be mistaken for anything but what they are.

The playfield itself is mostly open, with a few ramps and a cave kept to the back. Normally I’d bemoan such simplicity, but a third flipper and a bonus path way in the rear keeps the potential gameplay looking pretty active. Although I would love to have some closer images of some of the table’s features, I have to say the flyer’s two pictures and the technical-yet-thorough text does a great job of helping one realize all the table has to offer.

Ultimately, this flyer has made me want to…

Play – And only by the very skin of a mermaid’s pointy teeth am I not listing this as Buy. I love the third flipper and I have faith that the table could be some real fun, but the modern pinballer in me wants more stuff on the board. I know “stuff” doesn’t mean “good gameplay” and I am certain it would only take one quarter for me to switch to Buy. But I am not reviewing the table, I am reviewing how the flyer makes me think about the table. Perhaps if the rear page text had been less technical sounding and concentrated on how much fun “spearing the center 1-2-3 drop” is I’d have upgraded to Buy.

But don’t think that, in my opinion, overall this isn’t an excellent advertisement. Original art? Check. Sexy females, both human and fantasy? Check. Story? Check. A great look at the table? Check.

This was a fantastically designed flyer for what looks like a great pinball table. And I can’t wait to Play it. I just hope I don’t sink my balls and quarters as quickly as that poor diver went down.

But then again, if you have to go, pressed against the full bosom of a mermaid isn’t on my list of worse ways…

Next time we take a break from pinball and hit up the (and the Arcade) portion of the series, with a look at 80s digital arcade gaming!


  1. This is another game I’ve played — it used to be at my regular location.

    I’m a little surprised the flyer doesn’t mention that Fathom has a speech chip, which was still a new feature in 1981. Unfortunately, you don’t get to hear the mermaids or sea nymphs — it only has a male voice, which, during the game, is mainly telling you that your air is about to run out. (So it’s really an “omniscient narrator,” rather than being the voice of the scuba diver.)

    I was looking up more info on the game just now, and here’s an interesting piece of trivia: Greg Freres, credited with the story on the comic on the flyer, did the artwork on the machine itself. (And I’d say what that comic could have really used is a letterer.)

    • Interesting…looks like some good art on there, too! Maybe the voice work was so new for the machine they didn’t know if it would be ready for sale when they printed the flyers?


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