Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Pinball: The best bet in Vegas

Slot machine players are as superstitious as they come.

Anybody who plays the slots frequently will eventually determine which machine is lucky, which game is the best for bonus payouts and which machine or game never pays anything.

I've never been much of a slot machine player. Even with fancy bonus games and giant video boards that turn a slot machine into a miniature video game, I'm just not that interested.

My favorite machines to play in Vegas still take quarters, and they rarely pay anything back. But dollar for dollar, the best entertainment value I find in Las Vegas is a pinball machine, and I can find plenty of them in Las Vegas at the Pinball Hall of Fame.

I learned about the HOF the same way many others have, through an article extolling the jaw-dropping sight of dozens of pinball machines, ready to play, in one place. I don't remember where I saw the article, but it was prior to January 2007. Since that time there have been countless articles, blog posts and tips from me, and others, to check out the best bet in Vegas.

I was a typical '80s kid. When video games exploded, I was hooked. Sure, I spent money on comic books, baseball cards and candy, but plenty of my dollars went toward Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and the games that followed.

I didn't play a lot of pinball during my youth, but for some reason I was drawn to one of a handful of pinball machines at the mall arcade in the early to mid-80s: "Space Shuttle." That was the only pinball game that I'd play with any regularity.

Until college. I dabbled with a game at the video store in downtown River Falls, Wisconsin, during the late 1980s. I can't definitively say what the game was, but I'm pretty sure it was "High Speed." There was a modest fascination circa 1992-93 with "Cue Ball Wizard." It's a fun game, and was in a local bar that I'd stop in at during my final year of college.

My last dabbling with a specific pinball machine was circa 1994. As a young college graduate who commuted between Small Town, Wisconsin, and the Minneapolis suburbs every weekend, I'd stop at a truck stop along the freeway, which had a game room. I found "Tee'd Off" there, and I was hooked. So much so that nearly 20 years later I'd buy one of those machines.

I played my share of video games throughout my life, and never lost my love for those '80s classics. When I was in St. Louis in 1994 I visited some sort of arcade museum that had playable video games from the '80s. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. Little did I know that 20 years later we'd be seeing "barcades" paying homage to those same machines.

I enjoyed the sometimes simple home video games of the '80s and '90s as well. I'm not a modern video game player. I haven't bought a home video game system in more than 20 years, and I don't anticipate doing so in the next 20 years. My old systems have been sitting in a storage bin for years. I just don't have the time to enjoy them, especially since I spend too much time online obsessing about Vegas.

In 2007 I had no intention of becoming a devotee of pinball, but my natural curiosity for arcade machines of yesteryear changed my life during a January trip to Vegas.

I didn't typically rent a car back in those days, but I needed one for a portion of  that trip. Yes, needed it. (I suppose I could have paid for cabs to get where I needed to go, but I probably would have spent as much on cab fares as I did on the rental car. (Long story for another blog post.)

Since I had the rental car, I made a point to find my way to the first home of the HOF, since I had read about it recently and was naturally curious to see it for myself. I wasn't a huge pinball fan at the time, but that all changed when I stepped into that strip mall arcade and found 100 or more pinball machines crammed inside, along with a smattering of vintage video games. I didn't have a ton of time to spare that day, maybe 90 minutes, but playing pinball games from multiple eras, all at one place, was incredible. I don't exactly know why, but I was hooked.

Since then, every trip to Vegas has included a visit to the HOF, if not more than one. I play some of my old favorites, including "Tee'd Off," which is playable in my basement right now. And I play games I've rarely, if ever, plugged quarters into.

Yeah, I can find pinball machines all over the Minneapolis area, and I'll play pinball locally on a regular basis, but there's nothing like the HOF. You not only get a healthy variety of machines from different eras, you get a chance to play games that are rather rare and hard to find elsewhere around the country, even with online maps that tell you what bars and arcades have machines in your area.

Beyond the 200+ pinball machines in the HOF today, there are a couple dozen classic video games, and a variety of odd, quirky machines that you probably never knew existed. Some of these old gaming machines, such as an electro-mechanical poker machine, are simple, yet amazing to play. That quirky poker machine is from the '50s. It doesn't have a screen or a computer inside of it, and yet it knows how to assess the poker hand you've made from a bunch of bouncing balls that fall into the holes of the playfield. Simple, yet fun.

But yeah, the pinball machines are the primary reason I'm there.

So why is it I have this late-in-life fascination with pinball? I'm not entirely sure, but I have a pretty good idea.

I've always loved video games, and pinball is a similar concept. You're using skill to succeed at a game. A friend I met a couple of years after that 2007 Vegas trip, who owns several pinball machines, did a nice job of explaining the appeal of pinball to me. He noted that unlike a video game, where your game is bound by the limits of a programmed environment, there's a physical element to pinball that can't be programmed. Yes, the targets and playfield are designed, and there are rules to the game, but all the skill in the world can't overcome the fact that within the playfield of a pinball machine, you can make the same shot 99 times in a row, yet that 100th shot might not roll the same way, even when you think you'd hit the shot the exact same way.

That's not to say the game is random, but it definitely has an element to it that's not subjected to computer programming. Couple that with challenging shots, rule sets that provide bonuses, such as multi-ball play, to the game, colorful graphics and innovative designs elements, and suddenly you have a game that's far more compelling than your realized.

Because I play a mix of pinball machines I'm good at, and games I'm not, I will spend several dollars per visit. But I typically spend less than $10 during a two-hour visit to the HOF. Other than people watching, name a better source of entertainment that costs less than $5/hour in Vegas.

There's no jackpots to be won at the HOF, but I come away a winner every time I visit. For my money, it's the best bet in Vegas.

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