Every pinball machine is a better version of the activity it’s based on, with the only exceptions being sex, food and sleep.
At the Seattle Pinball Museum, you can flip balls in over 50 machines to your callused fingers’ content since you pay a flat rate of $15 to get in. (No quarters are required). Located in the International District/Chinatown since 2010, it’s one of the best places in the city to play hooky from life.
The museum traces the evolution of pinball beginning in the 1960s, skipping over all the pinball history that stretches back to the late 1700s. That’s fortunate because way back then, machines didn’t have flippers or lights and were terribly boring.
Not that the machines from the ’60s are a geyser of thrills, but they’re fun to play. Enjoy swing dancing? Then check out Swing Along from 1963, which I didn’t actually play because I don’t dance under any circumstances.
Buckaroo, from 1965, flips bumpers that cause a mechanical horse to repeatedly kick a cowboy in some weird pinball version of the Milgram experiment. One of the oldest machines is a 1960 Texan. You can tell the machine’s old because it has little slots in the sides for players to put their cigarettes. I don’t smoke so I put my licorice there.
As you play machines built in the ‘70s, ‘80s and later, you may notice the flippers getting bigger, making the ball much easier to hit. It’s just one more example of the decline of Western civilization. Bigger flippers, bigger theater seats, texting while driving — everything’s connected. (I could be wrong).
Nearly all types of more advanced human endeavor are represented in pinball form. You can shoot hoops in NBA Fastbreak (My shot kept getting rejected!); strum a guitar as Guns & Roses or the Rolling Stones; or run a junkyard in Junkyard, which requires you to save a man being chased by a dog by…killing the dog. (I couldn’t stop crying). Want to experience a natural disaster without the sheer terror? The Earthshaker machine actually vibrates and Whirlwind has a fan built in to simulate the not-so-gentle breeze of a deadly tornado.
The museum even has a machine called Expressway that simulates driving on a highway. I like the concept. There should be other pinball machines that replicate basic activities, like tying your shoes, spreading butter on toast and making small talk with the cute cashier in a used bookstore.
Every pinball machine has a “fun rating” from the Internet Pinball Database, so when you’re playing, oh, Flash Gordon, which has an IPDB rating of 7.9 (out of 10), you should be having exactly 7.9 units of fun. That said, what’s the most entertaining thing in the pinball museum? The dog. He’s an adorable golden retriever named Cash and I give him a 9.7. At one point I was playing pinball with one hand and petting the dog with the other, all while eating Skittles in some kind of adolescent nirvana. My life has been all downhill in the weeks since.
The most original machine is Black Hole, a 1981 creation that actually features two playfields—one on a second level underneath darkened glass, just like a real black hole. It’s way more entertaining than Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.” You travel through the lip of the event horizon into the unknown, even getting a chance to play with multiple balls on both levels. When I finally finished the game, my friends and family in the real world were long dead but I had only aged a few hours. Still, it was worth it.
The $15 entry cost ($20 if you want in and out privileges) may put some people off since it’s rare to play $15 worth of pinball. But look at it this way: When you go to a buffet, you eat infinitely more than normal because the food is there and it enables your inherent gluttony. I played every machine in the museum because they were there and I’m irresponsible with my time. The cost works out well in that sense.
What is irksome is how quickly I lost balls and got “Game Over.” I walked in with fantasies of photographers crowding around my machine because of my incredible, record-breaking playing and I left knowing that I’d lost about $78 worth of balls in a mere few hours.
Why did I play so badly?
You see, when one merely needs to press a button to play again instead of pumping in quarters, the fear of losing your ball diminishes and you play carelessly. So, while the museum offers an endlessly amusing tour through the American pinball landscape, it ultimately teaches you to be a failure.
But I think that about everything.