Nestled in the small desert town of Banning, California, sits the Museum of Pinball, where there is housed over 1100 classic arcade and pinball machines, sadly open to the public only once a year for Arcade Expo (and once again in the fall for another event). But for those of us there ready to play, three days was just enough to play until we were as sore as any marathon runner.
Even in the heyday of arcade culture starting with pinball in the 70s (even though they go back much earlier than that) and video games in the 80s, you’d be hard pressed to find a single place filled with so many iconic games. With nearly a dozen different flavors of Pac-Man and pinball machines adorned with every major pop culture license you can possibly imagine (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, even Demolition Man among them), Arcade Expo 4.0 drew in gamers from around the country to bask in the blinking lights and cacophonic clatter for three days straight, from the morning and late into the night.
Considering the Saturday of the event was also St Patrick’s Day, there was a craft brewery on site serving arcade-inspired concoctions alongside the existing indoor bar to soothe the pain of standing hunched and sore over countless machines for more than 12 hours straight. And when people needed to take a break from the games, they could scarf down a variety of hot foods (Tetris Tots!), sing their hearts out in the karaoke area next to Johnny 5, watch bands play songs composed on their Nintendo DS’s at the outdoor stage, bid in a silent auction for vintage machines, or shop for rare gaming souvenirs and collectibles in the exhibitor area. And even though the arcade would shut down well after midnight the first two nights, some attendees never even left the grounds. Camping space was provided next door for those who didn’t (or couldn’t) get a hotel room nearby for the weekend.
Inside, there were high score competitions on rare games, hosted by legendary gamers giving away free goodies just for fun. Even pros like Billy Mitchell, who recently had garnered some controversy over how he achieved his historic high score on Donkey Kong was on site to recover his former glory, seated and surrounded by cameras pointed at machines clearly emblazoned with the words “NOT MAME”. But for most, this oddly cool weekend in the desert was made for casual, endless gaming until there were blisters on your fingers and your feet were sore. That’s the best part about Arcade Expo: no quarters needed! One weekend or daily admission fee gets you in the door and you don’t need to spend another quarter the rest of the time you’re there. Credits are loaded up in advance. All you have to do is press the Player button.
And beyond all of the vintage machines, the next generation of pinball gaming was on display just off the main floor. Mind-bending future classics like Houdini: Master of Mystery from American Pinball, and Pirates of the Caribbean, the Hobbit, and the Wizard of Oz from Jersey Jack Pinball incorporated the latest digital technology into their games. One Jersey Jack machine called “Dialed In” featured bluetooth connectivity and cameras that capture the face of the player and let you continue controlling the game even after you’ve stepped away via your own phone. Another company has done away with real balls and flippers altogether. PinballUSA has created a line of virtual pinball machines with 42″ and 47″ monitors where you’d normally find a traditional slanted table. They still have the same plungers and buttons you love, but when installed with dozens of branded Zen Pinball tables available for download through Steam, one machine becomes an entire arcade! With the ability to play realistic tables styled after Star Wars, Marvel, Jaws, Back to the Future, Aliens, Fallout, Doom, and dozens more new themes becoming available on a regular basis, there’s no end to the variety. The only drawback is the cost to own any of these items as a normal person are their prices, but these aren’t some rinky-dink toys. These are the real deal, often costing more than a used car and in the end worth more in the long run.
If you ever feel the urge to visit the California desert and play some games, you have maybe two chances a year to get your game on. In the fall, they hold Pinball Madness and hopefully next spring they’ll be hosting Arcade Expo 5.0. No dates are yet announced, but check their site in the months to come.