John Grochowski, Gaming Guru

Slot machines have come a long way since Charles Fey’s three-reel Liberty Bell of 1895, and there’s been many milestones passed on the journey to modern slots. Last week, I looked at a few of the most significant — the Liberty Bell, Money Honey and its coin hopper, the rapid-hit progressive Blazing 7s, and the virtual reel.

Let’s continue the journey with stops at more of the most important slot innovations.

Wheel of Gold: One of the most creative companies ever seen among slot manufacturers was Anchor Gaming, since aborbed by IGT. Anchor’s Randy Adams had been at Universal and was one of the forces behind the stepper motor. At Anchor, he strived to put extra fun in the games with bonus events in the top box.

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One of the most popular was Wheel of Gold, a sensation when it was released in the mind-1990s. A tower with a vertical wheel was fixed atop Bally slant top slot machines. When a Wheel of Gold symbol signaled a spin of the bonus wheel a tone sounded — and nearby players stopped in their tracks. Everyone wanted to watch that spin and see how big the bonus would be.

IGT knew a winner when it saw one, and moved to license the wheel from Anchor. It also negotiated a license to use sound and images from the TV game show “Wheel of Fortune,” and a megahit was born.

Game Maker: Not just a milestone, the Bally Game Maker is a cornerstone for the slot machine industry. When it came to casinos in 1994, it was the first machine to bring multiple games and a touch screen to a single unit. Players could switch from game to game, sampling video slots, blackjack and poker games.

That ability to choose among multiple games, and play by touching a screen, makes the Game Maker one of the most important stops on our trek.

Reel ’Em In: The game that turned Americans on to the possibilities of five-reel video slots with bonus rounds was WMS Gaming’s original Reel ’Em In. The bonus round was simple — the video screen changed to a scene of fishermen in boats, and the player touched the screen to select one to drop a line in the water. After a frenzy of splashing water, the angler would reel in the catch — the bigger the fish, the bigger the bonus.

Simple enough, but still popular today. Still, its biggest impact was to show Americans would accept slot machines on video in a big way. Video slots already were popular in Australia and the Pacific Rim when Reel ’Em In debuted in 1997. Americans were focused on the three-reel stepper slots. Reel ’Em In showed we’d try something a little different.

Top Gun: We’re in an age of innovation, and any number of machines could be chosen to represent the modern era. But Top Gun is a milestone that has other manufacturers imitating its basic components. It comes with a special chair for motion effects, and with Bose speakers in the back for 3-D sound. In Top Gun’s bonus round, you have the sound and feel of flying a jet fighter as you shoot down bonus awards.

WMS has used the equipment to create very different sensory experiences, as in the megahit Wizard of Oz games. IGT and Bally now have their own chairs for special effects and sound. Top Gun is a milestone, and a first step that has launched a whole new journey.

Gambling author and columnist John Grochowski’s weekly newspaper column began at the Chicago Sun-Times and is now syndicated nationally. He also regularly makes TV and radio appearances about gambling. His column appears weekly.

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