Tech

The Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame astounds us with a huge, rare collection

LAS VEGAS—When we weren't pounding the pavement at last week's overloaded CES trade show, we at Ars Technica took whatever opportunity we could to nerd out in uniquely Vegas style. That didn't mean dumping our spare quarters into a Lord of the Rings-themed slot machine; it meant hitching a ride to the Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame.

This collection of roughly 260 working pinball, electromechanical, and video games has been open to the public for over a decade, with its 2006 opening followed by a size-boosting relocation in 2009 to a venue two miles down Tropicana Avenue. It arguably includes the most varied and valuable open-every-day collection of pinball and pinball-like games in the United States, if not the world—but you'd never know it by simply passing the building.

  • Inside this concrete slab hides the biggest collection of the rarest pinball and electromechanical games ever made. Sam Machkovech
  • This was taken by standing on a chair in one corner of the venue. You can get a sense of the machine variety here: mostly pinball and electromechanical, with about one-fifth of the space dedicated to video games. Sam Machkovech
  • This is probably the best representation of the dim lighting in the room. Sam Machkovech
  • Follow the rules. Sam Machkovech
  • The rarest machine in the house by far, Midway's Pinball Circus. Only two were ever made. Sam Machkovech
  • We chose not to reproduce most of the information cards so you would have more to read should you visit the venue. But we had to post a few. This one's crucial.
  • The VPHoF's oldest pinball machine is from the 1920s. "These things used to be outlawed!" our guide reminded us.
  • That old machine sits next to arguably the collection's highest-tech virtual pinball machine.
  • An average dive into an older machine. Start with the full, beautifully restored machine.
  • Then look closer at the Atlantis pin's general body and layout.
  • Then zoom in on its information card. You'll possibly need to squint.
  • Nearly one third of the room is dedicated to this '50s and '60s era of pins.
  • A few Elton John-based machines were in the house.
  • We did the best we could with the room's weird lighting, in terms of imbalances thanks to inlaid lights in the machines.
  • Abra-ca-dabra! It sure was a different era when Gottlieb made so many pins.
  • Imagine if this game's designers pulled off a mechanical way to arrange dominoes like shown in the art. Even so, it's a striking design as drawn.
  • Rockin'.
  • I'm still floored by how the bouncy balls inside that Hi-Score Pool pin worked in action.
  • A closer look.
  • The collection's more modern machines flank the wall near the entrance.
  • It's impossible to get a photo that makes Black Hole look as good as it does in real life. Its black-on-black-on-black style has an incredible glow and effect.
  • More of Gottlieb's best era.
  • A collection so bustling, Creature Of The Black Lagoon gets crowded out.
  • Not to be confused with Peppy the Clown, who appears in the second gallery.
  • KISS returned with a modern pin via Stern; this is not that version.
  • Street Fighter II: The Video Game: The Pinball Game.
  • This probably cost less to produce than the related film.
  • No shortage of sci-fi-themed pins at the VPHOF.
  • Not every day you run into the phrase Goldeneye 007 flanked by a big Sega logo. This came before Nintendo and Rare's N64 classic.
  • I can think of two Elvira-themed pinball games from the 1980s, including this one.
  • One row had a space theme.
  • Another angle of those two pins, with ST:TNG flanking.
  • Continuing the space-license theme.
  • A zoom on that Spider-man machine.
  • This rare Q-bert machine is a treat.
  • Great ramps and action.
  • Not many of these exist.
  • And even fewer of its Goin' Nuts spinoff exist. Like, only 10.
  • It's hard to tell from the photo, but this Flintstones cab is gargantuan. About as big as a typical arcade-hall basketball game.
  • Giant flippers.
  • More Flintstones info.
  • Vegas, baby.
  • In case the full pinball table didn't make it clear, this is a pinball game. Hold that pinball, Freddy.
  • Nightmare's game board.
  • For a short spell, a few games capitalized on the popularity of Caddyshack by including old white dudes, golf, and pesky gophers. None of them officially mentioned Caddyshack.

The warehouse's nondescript exterior only stands out thanks to a shopping-center marker and a single yellow sign above its front door. Walk in, and you may very well wonder if it's technically open, considering the full room is unlit and there's nobody acting as a greeter, taking a cover charge, or explaining how the venue works.

But what this room lacks in glitz or presentation, it makes up for in sheer pinball fandom. Every machine includes an index card covered in misspelled, chicken-scratch handwriting, with all kinds of details about a particular game's general-interest trivia and minutia about the VPHoF's edition in particular. (A few information cards appear in the above and below galleries.) The venue's staff, meanwhile, keeps busy. Rather than work the door, they typically manage ongoing machine repairs and game swaps, as the venue frequently swaps its roughly 260 playable games out from a nearby warehouse with another 800-plus machines. Newer pinball games, along with the VPHoF's rarest and most popular classics, are the inventory-swap exceptions, enjoying near-permanent status in the playable collection.

  • Let's start this "electromechanical" gallery—meaning, games outside the pinball realm—with the delightful and weird Skid Row. Sam Machkovech
  • An explainer. The HOF also had an Ice Cold Beer machine, which is similar in style but quite different in mechanics.
  • Need some two-player pinball in your life? The incredible and rare Challenger has you covered. Roughly 100 were produced. The table tilts depending on how well your side does.
  • Chicago Coin's Slap Shot is also a fine two-player game, but it cannot be mistaken for pinball. This is straight-up versus hockey.
  • I appreciate this placement of the colorful, oddball clown machine next to the sex tester. Get a double dose of scary stuff, kids.
  • The collection includes quite a few gun games.
  • Plenty of bowling-launcher games, too.
  • Though, really, none of the bowling-styled games top this beast.
  • Another angle.
  • And you better believe the HOF has its share of baseball-like games.
  • Batter up!
  • The wind-up, and the pitch.
  • Baseball, arm wrestling, basketball.
  • In the center is Bally's Target-Roll, a sort of roulette- and craps-like target-shooting game.
  • If this were working, you'd aim the rotation and angle of this ship as it spins around, trying to contact the other metal rods nearby.
  • This isn't straight-up pinball; you're actually managing the movement of cars around a track while playing, and you're going for laps, not score.
  • Shoot-'n-race. We had to wait for the video game era before someone combined these concepts.
  • "Shoot this rifle!" "No, shoot this rifle!"
  • Goalee is essentially a one-on-one hockey game. "One can play," but it's really like playing Pong against yourself.
  • We spent less time cataloging the video games on site, but we had to make room for this sit-down Star Trek cab.
  • Same can be said for this rarely-seen Nintendo duo of versus light-gun games.
  • We actually didn't notice that the display was upside down until reviewing these photos. How odd.

"As machines go off to that big arcade in heaven, they lose their value," a staffer told us while showing us around the collection. This is only made more complicated by the lack of new replacement parts existing for a lot of machines, the staffer added. "If the tech dies, the [game in question] either winds up in the Smithsonian or our backyard."

VPHoF prices its games individually at 25 or 50 cents a play—hence, why it houses so many change-making machines, including a block of four side-by-side. That's it for cost; visitors don't have to pay a cover fee on top. These coin-catch mechanisms are specifically used, instead of being set to free-to-play, as part of the preservation process, in fact. "If the games aren't played, they will say, 'fuck you,' because they dry out, and they get corroded," the staffer told Ars. "They need to be played."

Thus, while VPHoF, a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit, will gladly accept donations to maintain operation and repair costs, the owners and operators say they're actually more interested in visitors coming to the place and going hands-on with the collection. If the above galleries (split into pinball, first, and electromechanical, second) aren't hint enough, please accept our assurance that the venue is absolutely worth the detour during a Vegas trip, roughly eight minutes' drive from McCarran Airport.

Listing image by Sam Machkovech

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