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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…

FEATURE: Pinball in a Hall, the Strong Museum’s “Pinball Playfields”

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00-strong00 When my wife suggested a trip to the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, with our two kids, I was game. I had the inside track. I knew they had pinball machines there and she didn’t. Thus, my wife, who has been the subject of scammed trips in the past to the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas and Clay Harrell’s VFW Showcase in Brighton, MI, had walked right into this one. She logged onto the Museum’s website and said, “Oh, looks like they have a big pinball display going on”. I ambled over to the computer, and sure enough, a banner on their main page touted “Pinball Playfields”. It promised more pinball machines than the normally feature in the permanent collection and insight into the creation of the wooden decks that the silver ball rolls upon. It was going to be tough to ditch my wife and kids on a family trip at the Museum of Play to play pinball, but I was up for the challenge.

The Strong Museum is a really odd place. It is one of those museums that cropped up in the seventies and eighties which takes popular (low) culture subject matter and turns it into high culture by putting it into a museum. Where else would you find a Tickle Me Elmo doll, new in box, preserved behind glass and tagged with its official manufacture date? That said, the museum prides itself on its “hands-on” activities: craft stations, dress-up areas, a small-sized play restaurant and supermarket, console gaming stations, and so forth. The problem I found, is that I had no time to enjoy the vintage toys behind glass or the interactive displays because I was too busy running after my two-and-a-half year old, making sure he was sharing and taking turns with the billion other kids that were visiting on the afternoon we were there. I could have let my child run wild–there was plenty of that going on, to be sure– but as a responsible parent I followed a few meters behind my son, keeping an eye on him, as he tore running and laughing from exhibit-to-exhibit for six hours.  Visiting isn’t about the parents enjoying themselves. My wife was nice enough, however, to take sole guardianship of the kids as I explored the pinball display. And that’s where the story finally begins.

Keep in mind the information posted on their website:

“Play your way through more than 80 years of pinball history in this all-new exhibit at The Strong museum. Trace the evolution of the playfield—the surface where the ball ricochets through a maze of lights and obstacles to rack up points—from countertop games of the 1930s to sophisticated, electronic versions that remain popular today.

  • View pioneering pinball machines from The Strong’s collections including Ballyhoo (1932), Humpty Dumpty (1947), and Triple Action (1948).
  • Rack up the high-score on machines such as Vagabond (1962), FunHouse (1990), Monster Bash (1998), and Lord of the Rings (2003).
  • Wrap your arms around Hercules (1979), the world’s largest commercial pinball machine.
  • View unique artifacts, including playfield prototypes and sketches by pinball machine designers.
  • Design your own playfield and see if you have what it takes to be a pinball machine designer.

Playable machines in Pinball Playfields require purchased tokens. Money collected from the sale of tokens helps maintain these original artifacts.”

The Strong has two arcades, one “Boardwalk arcade” on the main floor with redemption games and vintage arcade offerings, and another on the second floor which focusses on gaming through the ages. The “special exhibit” about pinball playfields was in a transient hallway between one part of the museum and another. It was a weird place for these machines to be set up, given they could have carved out a space within one of the two existing arcade spaces to set up the display. While playing the games, with a wide stance one foot in front of the other, I was definitely in the way of passers-by, as this hallway is a main artery that connects two main parts of the museum. To be honest, it really reminded me of the Pinball Hall of Fame Annex at the Rivera Hotel and Casino: a bunch of games thrown into a hallway, and labelled an attraction. They had a couple artifacts on the wall for viewing: a George Gomez photograph with a couple of quotes, some original pre-production drawings and photos from the Gomez-designed Johnny Mnemonic and Monster Bash, an original High Speed whitewood and flyer, and a few written tidbits about the evolution of the playfield. Add to this two vintage wood rails and a bagatelle style game displayed for viewing only and a few random pinball flyers, and that was about it for the display. As an “exhibit”, it left a lot to be desired. But then again, I didn’t see many people reading the walls, most, like me, were playing the machines.

The machines were not on free play, however, required only one token to play. And five tokens were only a buck. Replays seemed to be set very low, and I matched a handful of times while playing as well. I played a lot on just a couple of bucks. And had enough left over to give to my son to aimlessly flip around on a few games at the end of the day. I was impressed at this, at first, but then I remembered that, as an adult, I was required to pay $13.50USD for entrance into the museum in the first place. Anyone over the age of two was required to pay this amount, thus I was on the hook for forty bucks for the entire family. But parking was free, which really blew my mind, so it’s a wash in the end.

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The author tilting Hercules.

The lineup of games to play within the main floor exhibit were: Gottlieb Incredible Hulk, Atari Superman, Williams Scorpion, Atari Hercules, Black Knight, Banzai Run, Funhouse, Cirqus Voltaire, Monster Bash, Lord of the Rings, Wizard of Oz and Stern’s Star Trek Pro. All games appeared to be in decent condition, but all had a credit dot (free advertising for this blog!). The only major issues were that WoZ was scoring with each press of the flipper button, and Hercules had a lame left flipper spring that wouldn’t return the massive bat to its rest position. Luckily, it made drop catches easy to execute, given the sheer weight of the massive ball, returning the flipper to its rest position before a well timed flip sent the ball back up the playfield. It was my first time playing Hercules in any capacity, and it was a real blast. Like many have said before me, it’s a game that everyone needs to play once, but nobody needs to own. It was bigger than I thought it would be. However, I was still able to tilt the behemoth with a couple of ill-advised nudges. The Cirqus Voltaire was in tip-top shape, as was the Monster Bash. The vintage superhero games played well too, but seemed like they were an afterthought. It really felt like they were moved from the Marvel/DC superhero exhibit that was literally fifty meters away in an attempt to bulk up this rag-tag pinball exhibit and add age to its lineup.  The advertising write-up touts that you can play through the ages…as long as those ages are 1980 thru present day.  I guess Gottlieb wedgeheads aren’t a part of Strong’s truncated pinball history.

00-strong09Upstairs in the arcade exhibit is where you will find more machines, again requiring only one token per play. As you walk into the area, a bank of four games greets you: Gottlieb Haunted House, Williams Indiana Jones, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Stern Avengers. A display further in attempts to recreate the crowded feel of a 1980s arcade, and there you’ll find a Gottlieb Spiderman, High Speed, Tron LE, and Transformers. The High Speed was eating tokens, displaying 30 credits at the time I approached it, but refused to start a game. All other games were in great condition, especially the Haunted House. It was the nicest example I’ve ever played, granted, I’ve only played maybe four different copies of it in the past. I heard an Addams Family exists at the Strong, but I could not locate it. Out for service perhaps, or maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough?

Overall, I’m impressed at the condition of the games and their slight cost to play, if not a little disappointed that the pinball exhibit didn’t present more unique artifacts, a wider breadth of games, or give proper space for the games to be displayed. They certainly have a fantastic lineup of pingames in the collection from one of the greatest pinball eras spread out in two different areas, but gaps exist in their history. Perhaps putting all games in one dedicated exhibit area would make the display more powerful. However, you’d be shooting yourself in the foot: patrons, especially those with small children, could easily skip over it and move on to something more “kid-friendly” (a parent looks at a museum map: “Pinball? Who plays that anymore? Let’s go to the Berenstain Bears area.”) Having ten-plus machines on a major thoroughfare in the museum gets pinball seen by the greatest number of people possible and hopefully, parents and children alike choose to stop and drop a couple of tokens.

00-strong04

The author’s two-and-a-half year old son putting some serious leg english on the Hulk.

Given that pinball is a slightly dead medium, you are likely to find credits on these games: racked up by unknowing players via replay or match, or through the sheer kindness of strangers walking away from them leaving behind accumulated credits. I left a few that I earned on Cirqus Voltaire and Funhouse for someone to take advantage of. My wife said she was surprised the games were not on free play, however, I’m sure it prevents exuberant toddlers from starting four games, launching one ball, and then walking away. As for my son’s experience, he was immediately drawn to Funhouse, as we own one and he has dubbed it his favourite, and the Incredible Hulk, as he has underwear with the Hulk’s green visage on them. One person playing next to us was surprised that my son had the patience and ability (albeit very limited ability) to keep the ball alive and play out an entire game. I explained that we had a basement full of games at home for him to practice on, to which the person became even more surprised. Even though we are in a “pinball resurgence”, we are still entrenched in a very, very niche hobby.

Kudos to the Strong for a valiant attempt at spotlighting pinball as one form of play with this current exhibit. Their scope is a bit misleading however: the “history” of the playfield is certainly skewed towards the 80s and 90s, and their “unique artifacts” amounted to little more than someone could easily acquire on eBay or through Pinside if they knew who to ask. I didn’t even spot the “design your own playfield” area, unless it was the row of tables with construction paper and markers twenty meters away in the atrium. They should have just labelled the exhibit “Look! Functioning Pinball Machines in this Hallway!”, as that is what it amounted to, and I’m sure people would have been equally impressed. The Strong does boast a fantastic selection of games, but the collection is only available for play if admission to the museum is paid. Honestly, you can only really enjoy the museum’s games without being impeded by your own children, and I’m not sure how comfortable a single grown adult would be paying admission to a museum geared towards children/families just to play pinball amongst hyperactive four-year-olds making crowns out of construction paper and pretending to shop at a kid-sized grocery store. If you visit with your kids, like I did, you are obligated to spend time doing things that they are interested in, and chances are, their interests won’t lie in the pinball exhibit for very long. The exhibit is a positive for pinball’s exposure to a younger audience, however seasoned pinheads will find a wider breadth of machines and a more extensive collection of artifacts in some of the better private collections across the US and Canada. I got to play pinball at a privately-funded museum on a family trip, so I can’t complain that much, but I still left wholly underwhelmed by unfilled potential.

The Strong National Museum of play is located at One Manhattan Square in downtown Rochester, NY.  The museum is open Monday-Thursday 10am-5pm, Friday-Saturday 10am-8pm, and Sunday Noon-5pm.  The Pinball Playfields exhibit runs through September 7th, 2014.

Further Reading:

The Strong National Museum of Play – Pinball Playfields

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