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For the love of pinball

The Pacific Pinball Expo this weekend is the place to be to check out the bells and bright lights of yesteryear's game machines.

At the Pacific Pinball Expo in San Rafael, players of all ages can try their hands at nearly 400 different pinball machines. The expo runs through the weekend at the Marin County Civic Center. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN RAFAEL, California--You might not think of pinball as an educational tool, but to some devotees of the age-old arcade favorite, that's exactly what they can be.

That's because pinball machines have been around for decades, and often have themes representative of the era in which they were built. And this weekend, visitors to the Pacific Pinball Expo here, an event billed as the "world's largest" pinball show, can see history on display in bright lights and enhanced with familiar bells and whistles, things like the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, the first man on the moon, contemporary music from the 1950s and much more.

At the expo, which opened Friday at the Marin County Civic Center here (admission is $25 for adults and $15 for kids 12 and under), visitors can see more than 350 machines from as early as the 1920s, and with names like "Wild West," "Quartette," "Dragonette, "4-Belles" and much more.

And the mission statement of the Pacific Pinball Museum, which is behind the expo, is as follows: "To inspire an interest in science, art and history through pinball and to preserve and promote this important part of American culture."

According to Larry Zartarian, a board member of the museum, and one of the lead organizers of the expo, spending some time with the hundreds of machines being shown here this weekend is a chance to visit with the themes and central characters of much of the last century. "If you're not careful," Zartarian said, "you'll learn something about history."

Whether that's true or not, the expo is a delight of loud bells, fast-moving pinballs, grins everywhere you look, and the amazing artistic flare of the experts who designed the machines.

And that's good, because, as Zartarian put it, "pinball has a kind of sordid past" and was once seen--because of its ties to gambling and the fact that most machines were kept in smoky pool halls and bars--as "the greatest road to downward mobility."

But today, collecting pinball machines has become something of a reputable pastime and, across the country, more and more people are putting together impressive collections. In that same vein, Zartarian and Pacific Pinball Museum founder Michael Schiess are hoping that their 650-plus machine museum--which may soon be moving to new space in San Francisco--can be seen as a bona fide educational institution.

"We want to be known as the Smithsonian of pinball museums," Zartarian said, adding that in the future, the institution will feature classrooms where people of all ages can learn how electricity works, how to repair pinball machines, and what happened when in the history of the games.

And that's important, the two say, because these days, it's a dying art. There is only one major manufacturer still operating, Stern Pinball. There used to be more than a dozen.

Despite that, Schiess and Zartarian said that it's not much of a problem to maintain the hundreds of machines in the museum's collection, largely because the parts involved are uncomplicated and are being reproduced by a series of vendors, some of whom are on hand at the expo, hawking their wares.

But back in the era when there were many pinball manufacturers, Zartarian explained, each company was turning out a new machine monthly. More impressive, he said that at one time, the pinball machine industry was more profitable than the movie business, a claim heard often today about the video games industry.

Compelling pinball play
With so many pinball machines having been on the market for so long, I wondered what it took to make a successful or compelling model. After all, as in any field, many of them surely failed miserably and quickly, even as others flourished and had people with coins filling their pockets lining up to play them.

Zartarian said that it boiled down to an artful marriage of design and playability, and games that were not too easy to beat, nor too hard to play. Ultimately, he added, it would come down to a dynamic where players would have established a pattern and a strategy for how to score well by the third or fourth ball--out of five--and would be "on the verge of a replay when you lose your last ball."

Among the several hundred pinball machines on display at the expo is this see-through model, modified from a normal machine by Pacific Pinball Museum founder Michael Schiess. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

For those pumping quarters--or dimes or pennies, depending on the era--into pinball machines, that "fine line," as Schiess put it, could be rewarding or frustrating. And expensive. But at the expo, no one needed any quarters--that is, after paying their $25 entry fee. Instead, the hundreds of machines on the premise could be started up simply with a push of a button, and everywhere you looked, there were people hunched over the machines, pounding away on flippers, trying to build a high score before losing their last ball.

On Friday, the hall wasn't too crowded, and while there were people of all ages and both genders, it was clear that the dominant demographic in the room was men over the age of 50. Schiess said that one of the fun things about the museum, and the expo, is watching the bonding that often happens between grandfathers and their grandsons while they play. And in contrast with what would probably happen if such a pair were to sit down in front of an Xbox, the elders often prevail at pinball.

"They can beat the pants off of the kids," Schiess said of the granddads. "You ain't going to see that with video games."

Wood rails go by the wayside
At the expo, the hundreds of machines are laid out mainly in a chronological fashion. That means you can walk down the rows of machines, passing through dozens of models from the 1940s and then move onto the '50s, the '60s and the '70s.

On a tour through the hall, Schiess pointed out some of the more important machines, including the "Humpty Dumpty," a machine built by one of the leading manufacturers, Gottleib, in 1947, that was the first-ever example of a pinball machine with flippers.

Schiess also pointed out the shift from when the machines had wood rails to when they began to be made with steel rails. That happened, he said, in part because the stainless steel cost less, but also because it was a way to protect the machines against people who would drill holes in them and feed wire through them in order to keep the balls from falling.

As our tour progressed, he also explained some of the main differences between American pinball machines and their European counterparts.

One was that while the earlier American models had only four score wheels and points were accumulated one at a time, the European versions often had up to six wheels in order for people to get much higher scores.

Baffle Ball, from 1931, was the first-ever pinball machine to be commercially successful. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

He said this was called "pinball points inflation" and was accomplished by essentially having two zeroes at the end of the score that never changed. The result was significantly higher scores, to the passerby at least.

These days, of course, pinball machines use LEDs for just about everything, including scoring. But before 1934, they didn't even use electricity. That changed when a machine maker named Harry Williams built a model called "Contact" that used electricity to power various parts. And while pinball had been in America since the American Revolution--when the French brought small machines over with them as they helped the colonists fight off the British--it was only in 1931 that the first commercially successful machine, one called "Baffle Ball," hit the market.

And that's one great thing about pinball machines: their names. All around the expo, players were deep into games of "Old Faithful," "Mermaid," "Grand Champion"--which refers to the champion bull that a group of buxom 4H members are proudly showing off in a stylish artistic rendering on the glass behind the machine--and many, many more.

And if you're in the San Rafael area this weekend, you could do worse to come on by, plunk down your money, and dig in for some serious pinball. And kids? Don't be surprised if grandpa kicks your butt.