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Cutesy to creepy, Pinball Hall of Fame’s novelty games are the not-so-hidden gems

“The low edge of the wow factor,” Tim Arnold says, is the sweet spot for Las Vegas’ Pinball Hall of Fame. The collection blasts the senses without the frills that would raise the rent and change the patina of this place. You could see it as a bizarro arcade, or you could see it as Arnold does—a memorial to a time when Americans made things. The games that draw tourists and collector shows to the Hall of Fame belong to him, even the oddities that don’t have ball flippers or 8-bit graphics.

“Before video games there were gun games, baseball games and all sorts of goofy driving games. Novelties,” Arnold says. “They were made for skating rinks, soda shops, bus stations, places where you’d go on a date. And the date would say, ‘Oh, how cute. Let’s play golf. It’s only a dime.’”

The mechanics are “about as un-computerish as you can get,” and the objectives are accordingly simplistic. But if we’ve learned anything from Angry Birds, it’s that basic fun is the most addicting. Keeping the novelties running requires Arnold to be an electrician, machinist, carpenter, engineer and magician. Systems and parts aren’t standard and often can’t be replaced, so these are singular puzzles when they break. That’s why their survival is so satisfying to Arnold, that and the knowledge that they’re almost impossible to find. Yet he welcomes people to play.

“A game like this is probably worth $15,000-$20,000 in this condition,” Arnold says of an imposing, lustrous, wood-encased hockey game called Goalee. “Every day that the public touches it, it gets a little more scratched and a little more dented. It’s like if you had a comic book collection and you let people touch it. Pretty soon it’s not pristine anymore. But that’s what we do because we’re exhibitors, we’re showmen. We’re what Vegas used to be about, which was putting on a show.”

You see that spirit in the variety on the floor, what Arnold calls “amusement anarchy.” He curates the phantom cars and chomping alligator heads. You decide what delights you.

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      Two Player Basketball

      Year: 1955

      Maker: Genco

      Details: Get past the Terminator 2 hands on the players (and the smell of off-gassing formaldehyde plastic inside the game), and you’ll get hooked on the thrill of flinging tiny basketballs into tiny nets for a cartoon crowd that never stops cheering.

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      Relax-a-lator

      Year: Late ’50s

      Maker: Some doctor in Detroit

      Details: Step on the platform and prepare to be Relax-A-Lated. As in, having your legs vibrated like hell to shake out toxins and restore your “pep.” Arnold has seen three of these in his entire life and bought two of them. “The guy wouldn’t sell me the third.”

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      The Safe

      Year: 1974

      Maker: Milwaukee Coin

      Details: “It’s a simple decade counter … a display here, a meter here and a buzzer. And you count up, and you count down.” If you feel your way to the safe’s combination, the door opens on anything from popcorn to geocached treasure to nothing.

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      Peppy the Musical Clown

      Year: 1956

      Maker: Williams

      Details: All clowns are evil. “This one especially, because he tells kids to start fires.” Make Peppy dance to The Jetsons theme song on a scrap of carpet from Arnold’s first arcade. You can’t really “win,” but your Facebook profile needs some of this creepy.

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      Crane

      Year: 1956

      Maker: Williams

      Details: Shovel as many lentils as you can into the silo. Why lentils? Because other dried legumes germinated. And the 96-year-old game designer said so. How much time do you have to stockpile? “Not enough to win, so it’s always a tease.”

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      Dunk n' Alien!

      Year: 1983

      Maker: ICE

      Details: It’s skee-ball, with a talking alien. Enough points and you’ll shut his green face by dunking him. Made for rowdy places like Chuck E. Cheese, he yells out stuff like “Yikes!” and “I’m ba-ack!” Does he have a name? “No,” says Arnold. “He’s just a smart-ass alien.”

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      Space Pilot

      Year: 1968

      Maker: Williams

      Details: If all you had to do was fly the space copter in mindless circles, this game would be cake, but you’re trying to hit wire-thin whiskers on perimeter posts at different elevations. Yes, that is a space pig in the background. No, it’s not original.

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      Golden Arm

      Year: 1963

      Maker: Midway

      Details: After bringing it back from mechanical death, Arnold let Rick’s Restorations work on the aesthetic. Take on the arm and find out if you’re a Banana Crusher, Piano Mover or O.K. As A Lover But Stay Away From Your Mother-In-Law.

    Pinball Hall of Fame 1610 E. Tropicana Ave., 597-2627. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 11 a.m.-midnight, pinballmuseum.org.

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