Ben Kuchera

The Pinball Hall of Fame is the greatest place on Earth

The Pinball Hall of Fame is the greatest place on Earth

The Pinball Hall of Fame can be found in a squat, ugly building located at 1610 E. Tropicana, Las Vegas. The structure can be found by looking for the plain sign that's situated like the world's saddest palm tree in the empty lot next door. There is no charge to get in. A pile of mechanical detritus and tools lies near the back of the room. There are a few stools where you can sit and play. Popcorn costs a quarter out of the machine. The machine to your left vends a surprisingly diverse selection of sodas and drinks. On the surface it looks like a forgotten, rundown thing. Through a certain set of eyes, this is the best place on Earth.

There is no rational reason for this place to exist

The Pinball Hall of Fame thumbs its nose at most of the ways modern arcades and attractions make money. The games cost between a quarter and a dollar to play. You don't get more quarters by cashing in large bills. You don't slide a plastic card into a slot to play. There are no redemption games, and the floor is empty of those tickets children trade in for vampire teeth and candy. People who come in do so for one reason: To play pinball. The sound of bells and the thud of bumpers fills the air. There was a man leaning over the Playboy table listening to headphones connected to what looked like a Sony Walkman. I wanted to look out into the parking lot to see if his van had a Megadeth image airbrushed on the side, but I decided it was better not knowing. There is no possible way this place is profitable, and in fact it's run by a non-profit organization that uses the facilities to help raise money for the Salvation Army. Much, if not all, of what goes on at the Hall of Fame is a labor of love. “The minute we start becoming professional, it's all gonna be about the dollars and it's not gonna be about the games. I mean like the kind of things we do to maintain these games - we change the rubber rings more often than we have to. We replace light bulbs the minute they burn out,” Tim Arnold, a veteran of 80s era arcades, was quoted as saying on the official page. “That doesn't make any economic sense. If we were professional, we'd let things slide a little. There's no real economic reason for this to exist, or capitalism would've already built it.” A few writers and I spent hours at the Hall of Fame during the D.I.C.E. Summit and, although I felt guilty that I wasn't working, it felt like I had gone back to the source for a deep drink of the good stuff. If you've ever watched Tron and wondered what the energy they drink tastes like, I can tell you that it tastes like a soda at the Pinball Hall of Fame. There was no hipster posturing there, as everyone was too busy having fun to try to look cool. There was no demographic theme I could see: players came in all ages, and they were all hunched over machines with a smile on their collective face. It's impossible to put a $20 bill into the change machine and not have pure joy fall out. We played the Q-bert table, complete with flippers that were situated in a weird “X” configuration. The right button caused the top right flipper and bottom left flipper to activate, and vice versa. We played The Pinball Circus, one of two prototypes of a vertical pinball machine. You can play both the Star Wars and Revenge from Mars pinball 2000 tables. What's amazing is that these rare or interesting machines were presented with no fanfare. These are not toys kept in the box. They are out on the floor for anyone to come in and try. Handwritten notes explain the significance of each machine; these could be read while you wait for your turn to play. There are also mechanical games and novelties to play. One machine rapidly vibrates as you stand on it, and it's said to relax your feet. Another machine shows a sort of flipbook of the Dempsey vs. Carpentier fight of 1921. I stuck my iPhone up to the visor to give you a sense of how the mechanism worked. That may have been one of the weirder forms of piracy of which I've taken part.

It's good this place exists

I hope whatever magic allows the Pinball Hall of Fame to stay in business continues for as long as possible. It's not a place set up to be commercial or profitable, and in fact the funkiness of the room and the nature of the environment may scare of people who used to modern arcades such as Dave and Busters. This isn't a museum where everything is safely behind glass, untouchable and pristine. You can play almost everything you can see. You can find out which of the old novelty mechanical games on display are fun. Kyle Orland from Ars Technica and I had a long conversation about the older machines with wider fields and gentler slopes. The pacing of the game was completely different. It wasn't a technical nor academic conversation, because at any point we could put a quarter in a machine to see how it felt. We left after a few hours, but if you're ever near the strip this is a place you must visit. The return on investment is greater than most forms of gambling. “Wall to wall machines, but machines that deliver fun, something that a lot of people come to Vegas for, and don't get,” the official page states. “Pinball is a welcome antidote to the gambling thrall that rules the town. Look at the zombies playing slot machines. Are they really having fun? Fun is mandatory at the Pinball Hall of Fame, and it's something you'll leave with, unlike what a slot machine delivers. Look at people playing at the PHoF; they're cheering, jumping up and down, laughing. They're having fun.” Amen.