Across the bay from San Francisco, on Alameda Island, there is a museum dedicated solely to the fast-paced, coin-operated, heart-stopping, glass-covered game of pinball. Lining the walls of the Pacific Pinball Museum are dozens of pinball machines, with some dating all the way back to the 1870s. Each machine serves as a sort of pop-culture time capsule, with technologies and aesthetics hearkening back to the era in which it was made.
And the best part—almost all of the machines are set to “Free Play.”
As I played my way through the museum on a recent visit, I began to notice the amazing details and styles that each machine had to offer. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights:
Ballyhoo: This machine from 1932 was one of the older machines on display. Notice the lack of Flippers, which weren’t used on pinball machines until 1947. The color and type (both on the playing surface and in the instructions) were eye-catching.
Beat Time (left): 1967 – A funny homage to The Beatles, this machine features The Bootles, whose mop-tops and lefty bassist are unmistakable! I really enjoyed the stylization in the illustration of Ron, Saul, Rango, and Jorge.
Flying Chariots (right): 1963 – The four-horse chariot reminded me of Ben Hur for some reason, but I was particularly drawn to the title treatment and typography on the scoreboard.
Detail shot of Sing Along, an Add-A-Ball machine from 1967 that awarded free balls to extend play as opposed to free games. I particularly liked the numerals and type on the scoring bumpers.
Crossroads: 1952 – The bright colors, illustration, and typography kept me in front of this machine for a few games.
2001: 1971 – With the art giving a speculative look at life in 2001, this machine was extremely challenging due to the wide gap between the flippers. The bold and geometric patterns were very appealing.
EM Visible Freedom: Based on a machine from 1976, this rare machine is one of two clear machines that allow players to have a look at the engineering “under the hood” of pinball machines.
Surf Champ Visible: The second of the clear machines, this one was fascinating because they had the machine in full color in another room of the museum. See below for a comparison!
Surf Champ: And here’s the same machine in full-color.
And finally, a few more of my favorite machines from the tour:
In a world where video game consoles are as powerful as ever, and where smartphone gaming is business-as-usual, there was something extremely satisfying about stepping up to a machine and hitting “START”. And despite pinball’s simplicity when compared to modern video games, it was still wildly entertaining and extremely addicting. I can only hope that there will always be a place in entertainment for the bright lights, colorful illustrations, and fast-paced action of pinball.
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