A baby’s surprised laugh, a mother’s soothing lullaby, a rattlesnake’s blood-chilling call to back off, the pulse-quickening cacophony of ball hitting bumper in a vintage pinball machine ...
What, too much?
Maybe. But for men (and women) of a certain age who remember a time when PlayStations and Xboxes would have been considered fanciful voodoo, the carnival sounds and flashing lights of a pinball machine are audiovisual boarding passes to youthful summers past.
In Las Vegas, fans of classic pinball games will find both revelation and cause for celebration in an otherwise nondescript area between the casino and food court of the Riviera. There, they’ll find the Riviera annex of Las Vegas’ Pinball Hall of Fame and about 50 pinball machines, video games and penny arcade attractions awaiting 24/7 play by anyone with a quarter or two to burn.
Tim Arnold, founder of the Pinball Hall of Fame, says the games at the Riviera date from the mid-’60s on. Among the most striking games are the vintage mechanical pinball games that feature flipping score counters, rather than digital counters, and bear the lush art and idiosyncratic titles — “Bank Shot,” “PlayMates,” “Pro Pool,” “Hurdy Gurdy” — of their time.
Younger fans, or players who prefer newer technology, will see electronic pinball games, some of them based on TV series and movies — including “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” — while veterans of the late ’70s/early ’80s video game boom can relive moments of misspent youth by playing “Centipede,” “Frogger” or “Donkey Kong.”
The Riviera hall of fame is a satellite of the main Pinball Hall of Fame (www.pinballmuseum.org), 1610 E. Tropicana Ave., where visitors can play vintage pinball games from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
Arnold opened the original Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas in 2006. Two years ago, Arnold opened the Riviera location after a Riviera executive approached him about putting a few games there, too.
“They were specifically interested in old games because they wanted something unique, something fun in their hotel,” Arnold says.
Arnold pointed out that pinball machines weren’t likely to be “a maximum revenue thing. He said, ‘We’re not really interested in maximum revenue. We’re interested in making the hotel stand out with something different.’ ”
There are no admission charges at either the main hall of fame or the Riviera hall, and the only coin visitors will drop is the quarters they pump into the machines.
Granted, the Riviera is home to a mere fraction of the 250 or so games players can enjoy at the main hall of fame. But, Arnold says, tourists “who don’t want to hop a cab to go to the main location can just come here, and it’s 24 hours a day that they can play pinball.”
Sherry Seegert of Felton, Minn., who spent a summer afternoon testing her pinball skills at the Riviera with son Brady, says she and Brady made it a point to stop by after learning about the attraction on the Riviera’s website (http://rivierahotel.com/resort-amenities/pinball-hall-of-fame).
Brady, 13, is familiar with video game iterations of pinball but never had played on an real pinball machine. His verdict: “It doesn’t feel like the same thing. The noises are louder.”
But Sherry remembers playing pinball when she was younger. “I didn’t play all the time. Just when we were out,” she says. “I’m not that great. But it’s entertaining.”
Brady, meanwhile, was beginning to experience the unique sort of helpless frustration that comes when, fancy flipperwork and body English notwithstanding, the ball “either goes through the exit or straight down.”
That, Arnold notes later, is what distinguishes pinball from video games.
“The reason it’s called a GameBoy is because it’s a little boy’s game,” he says, making no effort to conceal his distaste. “It’s literally the same move — up, down, left, right, up, down, left, right, kick, punch, kick, punch, left, right, up, down. It’s stupid.
“Pinball, on the other hand, is real. It exists in the real world. The ball is absolutely unpredictable. You can’t memorize the pattern of a pinball machine and get through the same level. The ball could decide, ‘I’m going down the drain. Ha, ha. You lose.’ That’s frustrating, but, also, the mark of a good game is it’s challenging and you can’t beat it every time.”
Arnold operated game arcades in Michigan before retiring, moving to Las Vegas and creating the Pinball Hall of Fame to showcase and share his collection and to preserve the art form of the pinball machine.
“We’re actually kind of an odd duck as far as the way we run business,” he says. “It’s a nonprofit social club, and none of us gets paid, including myself.”
Arnold — who jokes that his own title is “director of stuff and things” — says he doesn’t track, and couldn’t care less about knowing, which of his machines are most popular among players (although he does concede that, at the Riviera, air hockey “pays the freight”). He doesn’t feature violent games or any other game that he doesn’t, for whatever reason, like.
What he does care about is keeping the games in good repair — a challenge, he adds, since the typical pinball game was built to last about five years and that some of his now are 20, 30 or even 50 years old — and making sure pinball lovers have a good time playing them.
“I’ve made very few compromises with the Pinball Hall of Fame,” Arnold says. “We put in a few video games because women and children play video games. Real men play pinball. Other than that, I could put in all kinds of stuff and make more money. I’m not going to do it because I simply don’t care.”
Oh, and there’s another idiosyncratic thing about the Pinball Hall of Fame, something that will take the sting out of wasting a quarter on a not-so-good round of “Vegas” or “PlayMates.”
According to Arnold, the money players at the Riviera and the main hall of fame pump into the games “all goes into a common checking account. We pay whatever expenses we have, and whatever we have left over goes to local charities.”
The Salvation Army of Southern Nevada is one of Arnold’s favorite charities. In 2011, the Pinball Hall of Fame’s donations to the Salvation Army included a year-end donation of $400,000, on top of about $100,000 that had been donated earlier in the year.
Leslee Rogers, The Salvation Army’s public relations officer, calls Arnold’s support of the organization cool and wonderful and amazing. Particularly neat, she adds, is that contributions — which Rogers says the Salvation Army uses mostly for infrastructure repairs and other projects that will result in long-term savings in future years — are raised “one quarter at a time.”
For Arnold, the Pinball Hall of Fame at the Riviera offers Las Vegas and its visitors “something unique and different on an avenue that tends to be the same.”
“I mean, there’s a lot of sameness on the Strip now,” he says, “and to have something this wild and something this quirky is way cool.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280.
Photo / BILL HUGHES/LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL