I have a confession to make — I’m terrible at pinball. Somehow, I’ve just never gotten the hang of it. (Funnily enough, one of the very first pieces I wrote for Fanbyte was about pinball.) I have a hard enough time keeping the ball in the air, much less hitting trick shots or ramps. But I was in Las Vegas for a couple of days for a work trip and looking for interesting spots off the strip to hit up while I was in town, and Fanbyte Podcast Producer Jordan Mallory suggested I visit the Pinball Hall of Fame. I’m glad I did, because it’s a treasure trove of video game and pinball history.
The Pinball Hall of Fame goes back to the early 70s, when owner Tim Arnold — just 16 at the time — bought a table and started operating it out of his garage. By 1976, he was running a full-on arcade called Pinball Pete’s in Michigan. In 1990, he sold his share in the arcade to his brother and retired to Vegas, bringing his massive collection of nearly 1000 machines with him. Throughout the 90s, Arnold restored his collection and set up several hundred of them for play in an L-shaped building called “The Shed” he built next to his tennis court.
Eventually, the collection outgrew the space and Arnold moved it into a spot on Tropicana Avenue in 2006. A few years later, the collection moved again, down the street. And then, in 2021, Arnold and the Las Vegas Pinball Collectors Club moved into their current location, a gigantic structure custom-built to house the massive collection.
There’s no admission fee to get into the Hall of Fame, which is located just past the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign on Las Vegas Boulevard. The Pinball Hall of Fame’s own signage dwarfs that more recognizable image, though, and it’s impossible to miss. There’s a gigantic, casino-esque sign off the road, and the building itself is emblazoned in huge, sans-serif red text that simply reads “PINBALL.”
Inside, the building seems like a convention hall or warehouse. It’s a gigantic, cavernous space constructed out of steel and concrete, specially built to keep the machines temperature-controlled in the Nevada heat. Pinball and arcade machines stretch out from one end of the vast open space to the other, loosely organized by era. The all-time classics are here: The Addams Family, Fireball, The Twilight Zone, and so on. But there are also machines that even the most die-hard pinball lovers are unlikely to have encountered before, including some seriously weird and rare stuff. The collection includes an oversized Flintstones machine with reversed flippers modeled after caveman clubs and a ball the size of a chicken egg, a home game version of a Transformers machine that never saw retail release, and one of only two existing instances of The Pinball Circus, one of the most elaborate tables ever conceived and built.
I’d previously been to the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, which is much more of a traditional curated experience, leading visitors through the history of pinball. The Pinball Hall of Fame feels a lot more like a convention center, with families, old heads, and tourists wandering the aisles. Hand-written notes attached to each machine provide a little context, but the focus is on getting your hands on the tables. The machines take quarters, but the money they bring in doesn’t go to Arnold or the staff, who are volunteers. Instead, the Pinball Hall of Fame is run as a non-profit, with proceeds donated to non-denominational charities — a decision that dates back to Arnold’s first pinball parties after he moved to Vegas.
Despite the name, the Pinball Hall of Fame isn’t all pinball, either. The collection includes a number of arcade machines, as well as coin-operated novelties like love testers, coin stampers, and crane games. I got to play the 70s Sega Star Trek Strategic Operations Simulator arcade game, with its custom-built cockpit cabinet, a Mario Bros. machine, and an original Budweiser-branded Tapper, one of my favorite games of all time.
With regards to pinball, it was fun to revisit some of the tables I remember playing in movie theatres and mall arcades when I was a kid — the aforementioned The Addams Family, for example — but I had the most fun with the older mechanical machines. There’s just something about the sights and sounds of a 70s machine, with a physical score counter ticking up and the distinctive bells and chimes of the targets, that hits different. Even though I can barely keep a ball going for over a minute, I had a blast playing tables like 4 Square and Canada Dry. Yes, there was a pinball machine based on a soda brand. There was a pinball machine based on everything!
The Pinball Hall of Fame has tables based on Austin Powers, Wheel of Fortune, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the band Kiss, Doctor Who, Buck Rogers, Family Guy, Shrek, Street Fighter II, the WWF Royal Rumble, Goldeneye 007, Waterworld, South Park, and many, many more.
These machines aren’t just different skins of the same core mechanics, either. While it’s true that pinball tables share a number of basic features like flippers, bumpers, and ramps, some of them can get really out there. Consider the Joust machine that has two players playing opposite one another, or the Jigsaw machine from the 1933 World’s Fair, before pinball even had flippers. Or take a look at Black Hole (unrelated to the beautifully weird 1979 film), which has another whole playfield beneath the main one and visible through a window in the “floor” of the table.
Ambling around through the hangar-like space with my little plastic cup full of quarters, every turn down an aisle felt magical, revealing some new surprise. If I hadn’t had somewhere to be later in the day, I could have spent hours at the Pinball Hall of Fame. While buying a hat and a ring made by manager Beth Kane from worn-out pinball machine coils, she pointed out owner Tim Arnold checking on machines and chatting with volunteers. He’s got to be in his late 70s at this point, but he had a swiftness in his step that belied his age. Maybe pinball keeps you young — or maybe it’s just doing what you love and getting to share that love with so many other people.