Rediscovering the classic American game of pinball

CNET News.com's Kara Tsuboi visits the country's only pinball museum to learn about what makes the machines work.

Pinball ball
A pinball sits in a machine at the Lucky JuJu pinball museum and gallery in Alameda, Calif. Ninety-nine percent of the games in the collection are playable. James Martin/CNET News.com

If you haven't played pinball in a while, it's time to find a local arcade that still has a sense of history, fish out some quarters, and get ready for seriously good times. A few days ago, I rediscovered the fun at the Lucky JuJu pinball museum and gallery in Alameda, Calif.

The CNET News.com multimedia team paid a visit for a story and found ourselves in the middle of one of the largest and most diverse collections of machines around. An affable guy named Michael Schiess owns the machines, operates the space, and is a walking encyclopedia of the game, its history, and the mechanics involved in making the lights light up and the buzzers buzz.


To best illustrate the (pre-computer) technology in the game, Schiess painstakingly built a clear machine that he claims is the first of its kind in the world. It was modeled after the classic electromechanical game Surf Champ from 1976 due to the wide variety of features on the playfield. Once the ball is set loose and crosses sensors, rolls through gates, or lands in the right divots, the electromagnets go to work setting off the lights and noises that make playing pinball the fun that it is.

Schiess has more than 300 pinball machines in his possession, but due to space limitations, only a few dozen are actually on display. As a boy, Schiess was first attracted to pinball because of the comic book-like art on the machines. The colorful, creative, and stylized scenes on the backglasses are a true reflection of the eras. For example, a game from the 1930s shows off a futuristic version of a metropolis, while on machines from the 1970s, you're going to find lots of big-busted ladies in tight clothes (keep in mind the machines were designed to attract young boys).

The best part of Schiess' collection is that 99 percent of the games are playable (except some rare ones from the 1930s), and all of them are free.

We scheduled our visit on a quiet, weekday morning, but the gallery space is available to rent for private parties. I can only imagine the fun a dozen 10-year-olds could have there, amped up on sugary birthday cake and rounds of Adams Family, Fireball, and other classic titles. For that matter, the same goes for a dozen thirtysomethings, but switch out the birthday cake for some PBR in the can!

Points when lit
Michael Schiess, who owns the machines at the JuJu Museum, is a walking encyclopedia of the game and the mechanics involved in making the lights light up and the buzzers buzz. CNET News.com/James Martin
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