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A little Willis history uncovered

I’m a big fan of Willis artwork and consider myself to be an arcade history buff too. Unfortunately because of collector attitude towards most things Willis, these two subjects rarely meet. I would like to change that just a little. A recent eBay win has shed some light on the history of Willis and that companies place in arcade history. While this information may be known to some of the die hard collectors out there, it was new information to me. My enlightenment started with this little piece of documentation:

willis catalog

A true piece of 80’s cheese, for sure, but if you can get past the airbrushed silkscreen fantasy cover, you will find a few nuggets of classic arcade history.

The first paragraph talks about turning visual ideas into bottom line profits using the Willis illustrators and color psychology as a way to create compelling game art. What? I thought Willis just made those bad replacement overlays? Nope. The images on the inside cover clearly show artwork done for some of the major manufacturers of the day. Assuming Willis used the images as a sort of portfolio of past work, then Phoenix, Carnival, Spectar, Targ and Eagle art packages were all cranked out by Willis. Oh, but there is more.

The next paragraph talks about, “Willis pioneered the reverse-printed, pressure-sensitive, polycarbonate control panel for video games.” Whoa. Now Webster describes pioneer as, “to originate or take part in the development of”. So are we to assume that Willis helped turn around an industry practice of printing on metal control panels (think berzerk, gorf, asteroids, etc) and introduced the industry to a whole new way of thinking? Or were they perhaps just at the right place and time and picked up on the idea from others in the business? They were located in San Jose CA, so it is possible that they were influenced by Atari or the printer doing the work for Atari. I can only speculate without more data at my disposal and sadly much of what is known about Willis seems to be lost to the ages.

The back cover of the brochure highlights some of the comments Willis received from clients such as, Gemlin, U.S. Billiards, Centuri, Exidy and International Game Technology or IGT. So Willis did more than just crank out replacement overlays, they had a hand in the creative development of some true 80’s classic games. Think twice next time you come across that cheesy Willis cpo. Even the cheese has a place in arcade history.

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