Confession: I am not a gamer.
I mean, I’ve played games in arcades. I’ve played pinball machines in the local Four Thieves bar when I was growing up (don’t worry, it was small town Nebraska and the family-friendly bar was also the only place in town that served food). We even had an Atari when I was a kid (Space Invaders Rock!), but that pretty much was the peak of my gaming experience. I flirted with various handheld games over the years – and definitely spent too much time playing Tetris. However, my recent gaming experiences have been with my nephew at the holidays where he basically challenges me to play video games just so he can see how badly he can beat me.
I’m definitely a casual gamer, but even I was hooked on the excitement of the lights and sounds of The Pinball Hall of Fame Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada. Sitting down with Tim Arnold, founder of the museum, allows us to peek behind-the-scenes and experience what it takes to keep this type of museum open.
This museum is unique for a couple of reasons:
- It features pinball machines from every decade starting in 1933 when pinball machines were a small, countertop game played with marbles to the modern pinball machines known today.
- You can actually play every single machine in the museum. Set up like an arcade, the 250+ machines on display have been fully restored and you can play every single one of them for either a quarter or fifty cents.
Tim rescues pinball machines and always restores them with the “designer’s intent” in mind. As Tim puts it, “We’ve got a strict set of rules here about designer’s intent and also the flavor of the game when we’re rebuilding a game. I could make all the old games just as powerful as the new games and make it really thrilling and make the ball go fast, but we don’t do that because that was not the designer’s intent and it’s not the original flavor of the game.” That craftsmanship and attention to the spirit of the games really highlights the authenticity of every machine in the museum.
1933 Jigsaw Pinball Game – the “original” pinball game was a countertop game found in bars. The main board would have metal pins and balls (hence the name “pinball”). The goal is to shoot the balls into the pockets. You add up your score and either win definitely adult prizes like a free beer, cigar or money. This game is how the entire pinball industry started. Who would have thought that this simple game in 1933 would grow into the $80 million industry it is today?
Video Simulation of Pinball Game – because this is a museum, there are all types of pinball machines on display. This video simulation pinball game proves the point – as Tim states in the episode, he keeps one video pinball machine on display, “just to remind people how bad video games are.”
Bowling Game – this game used to be in every bar in America. According to Tim, instead of going home after work and watching your big screen TV, you would go to the bar and play your friends on a bowling machine.
Joker Ball – the game that every video poker machine in the world is based on. The original “random number generator” is the rubber balls, which bounce around and determine which cards you get. They made 200 of these machines in 1959 – only two are still known to exist. An incredibly rare machine that you can still play at the museum.
5th Inning Baseball Game – similar in design to a traditional bowling game, this game is housed in a solid oak cabinet and features baseball instead of bowling. Listen to the episode to find out about “the one that got away” and how a collector’s ex-wife strong-armed Tim into buying this game.
SEGA Basketball Game – one of the very first games produced by the Japanese video game manufacturer was an arcade basketball game wth an actual court and a rubber ball. Whoever punches their number in first makes the ball go in that direction.
“Wedge-Head” Pinball Machine Design – a sub-genre of pinball machine design are “wedge-head” machines versus the standard, square head. The head is shaped like a wedge – wider at the top and tapering down towards the bottom – so you can put them in a row and still have room to touch the sides without getting too close.
2-Player Games versus Single-Player Games – 2-player games require the game to re-set every time the players change, so you have basically a one-ball game that you’re playing three or five times. On single-player games, you have five balls to get through an amazing series of quests to get to the prize at the end. Single-player games are more sought after by collectors than 2-player games.
Back Glass Artistic Styles – the back glass art of a pinball machine are truly works of art by themselves, and can also provide valuable clues about the machine itself.
First, you can pretty much date a game based on the clothing and hair styles of the artwork.
- 1970s machines show people with long shaggy hair.
- In the ‘50s, the men wore hats and the women’s dresses were below their knees.
- During the 1960s, the women all had miniskirts.
- And any game from the 1980s pretty much has aliens on it as influenced by the Star Wars movies.
Second, the images on the back glass are created by multiple layers of ink silkscreened on the glass – up to 12 different colors in many cases. In addition, the ink had to be transparent enough for the light to shine through the design, so that usually means the ink isn’t that durable and can easily be damaged. If you look closely, on some machines you can see the design starting to flake off.
Third, the artwork can tell you the type of location where the machine would have been installed. Games destined for bars and pool halls with adults as the audience would be more “suggestive” (i.e., scantily-clad women). While games destined for the roller rink or family-friendly arcades would have happy clowns.
Jumbo Flipper – as manufacturers tried to differentiate their games, there were experimental ideas about machine design. One of them was the Jumbo Flipper, which was a game with 6 inch flippers that are much longer than the normal 3 inch flippers. The longer flippers were only used on this one game because, as Tim states, “it’s a horrible game to play,” but it’s in the museum because it’s a part of pinball history and people want to see it.
Modern Game Design – one section of the museum is dedicated to modern pinball machines. You can definitely tell the difference between the modern games and the older games. Modern games have more flashing lights, ramps and two or three levels of play. Also, definitely more movie-themed games.
Lady Robin Hood Game – manufactured by Gottlieb, this is the very first game that had flippers, which revolutionized how pinball was played. It was 1948 and pinball factories had stopped making games during the war and were producing parts for the military. After the war, Gottlieb made three or four of the same games they were making before the war, but they were not that exciting for the market. So then one day they decided to put some bats or flippers in the game and give the player some control. That was the start of flipper pinball.
Look closely at the flippers in the Robin Hood game. In the very first game with flippers, there was a total of six bats/flippers — three up each side — to propel the ball back up to the top of the game. It didn’t occur to Gottlieb until two years later to turn them around and put the flippers at the bottom.
Goalee Game – manufactured by Chicago Coin, the company decided to go all out on this game. With a solid oak cabinet, ornate hand controls, and a spectator mirror, this one game cost as much as a car when it was produced in 1945.
Crane Game (1950s) – along with pinball machines, arcades would have other games. The crane in this “bean digger” game is actually on off-the-shelf toy. Your job is to pick up the beans, put them in the hopper, and try to get a higher score. Listen to the episode and hear how Tim responds to toy collectors wanting to buy just the crane in this machine.
Helicopter Game (1968) – another game found in arcades, this Helicopter game is a perfect example of how Tim has to find workarounds in order to restore games to playable condition. To find a motor that would work to propel the helicopter, Tim had to buy a slot car motor and re-engineer the back of the helicopter to make the motor fit.
Star Trek Game – here was my “nostalgia lock-up” moment. Huge Star Trek fan — I totally remember this game where you could sit in the cockpit like you are Captain Kirk and play the game. I even remember the game buttons on the side of the chair. Yes, it’s true, I was so cool as a kid.
Game History Cards – initially when you walk into the museum, it feels like you’re walking into a really large arcade. However, look closer. On each machine you’ll find a handwritten history card including details like the name of the designer, the name of the artist, year of the game, manufacturer, the factory number of the machine, what makes this machine unique — just fantastic details and little tidbits of history about each machine. If nothing else, visit the museum just to read the surprising and personal details Tim includes on every card.
Shooting Game – this 2-player gun game caused quite a stir with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms when it was introduced. Want the full story? Then listen to the episode to find out what the controversy was all about.
Bring a bag of quarters and get ready to play because you can spend hours at the Pinball Hall of Fame Museum playing machines that are so unique because you can literally play your way through the history of an entire industry.
Trust me, even if you weren’t a huge pinball player, I guarantee there will be some machine in this place that will make you do the “nostalgia lock-up” just like I did and bring up a long-forgotten memory of fun. So the next time you’re in Las Vegas, skip the strip and head on over to the Pinball Hall of Fame Museum and support this incredible museum tilting at windmills one quarter at a time.
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Pinball Hall of Fame Museum website
Gottlieb – based in Chicago, Illinois, Gottlieb was a pinball manufacturer of many machines found in the museum.
Stern – outside of a few small boutique companies, Stern is the only large-scale manufacturer still producing pinball machines today.
Pinball Wizard by The Who – you know you can’t help but think of this song. So here’s a link to listen just to make sure it gets stuck in your head.
Want more Pinball? Then you’ve got to listen to this episode of Zach Sharpe, the World Greatest Pinball Player of 2017 (yes, it’s an actual competition) featured on The Jeff Rubin Jeff Rubin Show. If you’re looking for another podcast to listen to, then I highly recommend subscribing to The Jeff Rubin Jeff Rubin Show. It’s full of interviews with quirky, odd, and geeky people – absolutely fantastic!