The end of a gaming era is upon us. The Museum of Pinball in Banning, California, has closed its doors for good and is currently in the process of selling off every one of the massive collection’s pinball and arcade machines. As devastating as that news is for longtime fans of the massive vintage gaming venue, it’s also many people’s only chance to own some of the most rare and valuable games in history. And who wouldn’t want to spend thousands of dollars to build an arcade in their garage or basement?
Over the weekend of September 10-12, 2021, the Captain’s Auction Warehouse received huge bids for some of history’s greatest games going back more than 50 years, including well-known classics and others that only a select few had ever seen, much less played, since they originally debuted decades ago. The only place to play many of these items was at the Museum of Pinball (this link acts only as a memory of what once was), which has boasted more than 1,400 machines set to freeplay twice a year at each of their annual Arcade Expo and Pinball Madness events (but 1700 are estimated to be sold at auction). The rest of the year, it remained closed to the public, but available for event rental. Needless to say, with the pandemic shutting down all conventions and most gathering places for gaming geeks over the last year and a half, it became difficult for the owner to keep up with the expenses needed to maintain the museum with no one paying the flat entry fees a few times a year. So he made the tough decision to sell off a majority of his collection.
As you can see from my tribute video above (featuring a speed walking tour of the facility), the Museum of Pinball was massive. The last time I was there was October 2019. I thought I’d be back in 2020 to make a more comprehensive video. It never happened. So this is personal.
Twice a year, I made the 4 hour round trip from LA to play the games of my childhood NONSTOP for an entire weekend. There was food and craft beer. Sometimes there was a haunted house. Other times bands would play, even a guy who composed all of his music on a Gameboy Advance. I even enjoyed cake from a wedding reception from two people who had met while at one of the earliest Arcade Expos. It was an experience not to be missed and I almost never waited to play a game. Because if one was busy, there were only a thousand more I could try my hand at in the meantime. Over the years, I conquered Moon Patrol, Jurassic Park, Popeye, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, The Punisher, and took all the top spots on Junior Pac-Man, Bubbles, Pengo, Time Pilot, and Lock’n’Chase. When it came to pinball, my luck varied, but when the force was with me, I killed on the latest Stern Star Wars pinball and racked up high scores on The Big Lebowski, Judge Dredd (instant multiball!), Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, Pinbot, Haunted House, Guardians of the Galaxy, and my personal classic electro-mechanical favorite, Centigrade 37.
Feet were sore, fingers had to be bandaged, but no matter how much I played, I was ready to come back the next day and do it all again for as long as I could. And yet, I have to admit I almost took it for granted that it would always be there. While the COVID pandemic led to loss of so many businesses, I guess I always assumed that a building that sat closed for the majority of the year prior to a pandemic would be unaffected. But here we are. And it’s heartbreaking to see such an amazing collection broken up, even if each machine is likely going to a good number of apparently wealthy collectors and game lovers who will hopefully treat them well.
Now I say “wealthy” because, as we saw during the first week of this auction, these games sold for thousands of dollars each, from countless bidders sitting at the Museum of Pinball itself and online around the world. Beyond the fact that so many of these games were rare to begin with, they were all maintained by a top notch staff and kept in clean, working condition in ways that most have not over the years. Many were limited editions, some were signed by the designers, and, of course, some were simply a physical reminder of someone’s childhood, before Switches, Xboxes, and Playstations became the norm. And there is always a price you can put on something like that. The bids that came flying in proved it.
I watched most of the auction’s first weekend online and kept track of the biggest sellers in both the pinball and arcade machine categories. The numbers you see below are just the start. Some of the most iconic pieces in the collection are going on the auction block this weekend, September 24-26, and I suspect their final bids will blow these away. So if you’ve got an extra $10,000-$50,000 in your pocket and you love new or classic pinball and arcade games, you should probably register now at the official site and prepare for some frenzied bidding against some of the most dedicated arcade gaming fans in the world.
Here’s the top 5 best selling arcade games and top 5 best selling pinball machines for the first week of the auction. It’s likely that week 2 will blow these totals out of the water. Note that the links might not work for long after the auction concludes, so if you have any questions about the games, get to Googling or just ask about them in the comments.
I honestly don’t know if I had ever heard of this game before this weekend. I played a lot of games in a lot of arcades since the 80s, but I didn’t recall anything about it before seeing it go up for auction. Apparently, it was originally a game made for the old Vectrex home game system, but then got made into an arcade game as the home game system market died out in the early 80s. Beyond that, all I know is that it is very rare and it just slipped into the top 5 here by just $100. MORE INFO
Some of you might say, what’s the big deal? Paper Boy isn’t exactly a hard to find game, especially back in the 80s. But this one is special. I’ve played this one many times and couldn’t help but capture the collection of autographs from the creators of the game. It’s possible this is the only one in the world like this. I don’t know. But for whoever ended up with it, they’ve got a piece of video game history nobody else can lay claim to. MORE INFO
It’s one thing to stand in front of a classic arcade game to play it. It’s another to stand INSIDE the arcade game. While this is the lesser known Tron game made in relation to the 1982 movie of the same name, this one is easily the more stylish one. Playing this made you feel like you might have just stepped onto the Grid. Sorry, tall people, you might have a little problem taking on this challenge. MORE INFO
How would you like to own a game that was never released? Well, Tattoo Assassins is that game. And somebody out there now has it in their home. Believe it or not, this is a fighting game that was co-created by Bob Gale, the creator/writer of Back to the Future. It was meant to be Data East’s answer to the epic Mortal Kombat franchise sweeping dying arcades in the 90s. It has a number of controlversial kills (more than 2000 different ones!), some of which included nudity, an option to drop a Delorean on your opponent, and more. So there’s a reason you’ve probably never seen this game in an arcade, even if you’re as old as I am. Still, this is a collector’s item for anyone who needs to have a piece of anything even tangentially connected to Back to the Future. MORE INFO
While this is far from the oldest arcade game in the collection (released in 2014, mostly to Dave and Busters type arcades), it’s certainly one of the biggest. This Star Wars game puts the player in an enclosed cockpit style seat with a 180 degree view of the battle that unfolds in front of them, letting them blast their way from one end of the galaxy far, far away to the other. I first saw this on display at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim in 2015, but never got to play it, because the lines were so stinkin’ long. And sadly, whenever I saw it at the Museum of Pinball, I don’t think it was working. Here’s hoping that whoever spent $17,000 on it last week gets at least 17,000 plays out of it before they feel the need to sell it off. To me, preferably. I’ll trade my vintage Millennium Falcon for it. Call me. MORE INFO
While pinball rose to prominence in the 1960s and 70s, especially after no longer being outlawed (yes, that happened), it was the 90s that saw the biggest surge in pinball gaming. With advanced lighting, digital scoring, and loads of new features such as ramps, layered playfields, and endless moving parts, often tied into a licensed property, pinball machines evolved beyond their electro-mechanical roots (and what came before that didn’t even have flippers!). One of the pioneers in modern pinball gaming is Stern Pinball and they gobble up popular licenses to movies, TV shows, and iconic characters like Elvira faster than anyone else. House of Horrors is far from the first Elvira themed pinball machine, but it’s clearly its most advanced. Launched in 2019, just months before the pandemic hit, I think I only got one chance to play this popular machine. I mean, how could it not be popular? Horror, humor, and a curvy, beautiful woman plastered all over this limited edition table. Only 400 of these were made and even though it costs about $12,000 to buy one new, this one went for more than $14k. Pinball fanatics tend to snatch up these limited edition tables in pre-orders as soon as they’re announced, leaving the rest of the world to fight over the still stunning standard editions. MORE INFO
While you’d think this would have been a game made in the 1960s, based on the original Rod Serling hosted TV series, it took until 1993 for the Twilight Zone pinball machine to become a modern classic. Midway had a penchant for making tables that packed a lot of features into every nook and cranny under that glass. And this was one that took full advantage of the space (and time!). This machine was of many that played on nostaglia for classic television series and took a lot of liberties in its unique play elements as well. I’ve played this probably hundreds of times over the years and it never gets old. MORE INFO
The Museum of Pinball was the only place I had ever seen this game. And when it was working, I had the opportunity to play it only once. Based on one of my favorite arcade games, this cocktail table style pinball had you face off against another player on the other side of the table, but nobody had to play it upside down. Each of you had a play field that faced you, essentially cutting the table in half. You had to see it and play it to completely get the gist of the gameplay, but it was clearly one of a kind and a challenge on another level when it came to pinball. MORE INFO
Legend has it that there are only a few dozen of these 1979 pinball machines in existence. And there’s a reason for that. This isn’t your normal, every day pinball machine. This thing is an 8 foot long, 7 foot high monster from Atari and is considered one of the biggest mass-produced pinball machine ever made. When you stretch your arms out to reach the flipper buttons on each side, you must bounce a “pinball” the size of a cue ball from a pool table (because it is a cue ball) around the playfield. I played one of these in a Pennsylvania theme park back in the 80s and had never seen another like it until I got to the Museum of Pinball. Every time I went, I had to step up to Hercules for another play, like paying tribute to the god of pinball machines. MORE INFO
It’s strange to me that The Addams Family pinball machine sold for the most money as it seems to have always been the most commonly seen pinball machine anywhere I went. There’s probably still one in the car wash a block away from my place as I’m writing this. But from what its entry says on the auction site, this is a special collectors edition with gold accents, which makes it more valuable. I honestly played this exact machine dozens of times over the years and never noticed. Of course, I’m no expert in all things pinball, but I wish I had known just how special and rare of a table this was. I would have given it more respect. Still, it’s a Midway classic from 1992 in every way, and was instrumental in launching so many new style pinball machines into the mainstream that built its way into the resurgence I mentioned earlier. This one is as beautiful as the day it was released, which is probably why it was the only pinball machine at the auction to garner bids beyond $20,000. MORE INFO
Here’s a bonus for you. Have you ever seen Varkon – the combination arcade game and pinball machine in one? Made by Williams in 1982, it seemed to be the perfect time to bring pinball into the modern age of arcade gaming, by jamming a vertically mounted pinball playfield into an upright arcade cabinet that uses joysticks to control the flippers. And “lane change” buttons? Sure. Why not? When it was working, I attempted to play it a few times and failed miserably, but it was a unique experience. I mean, even if you’ve seen every other video game out there, when you see Varkon for the first time, it practically begs you to play it, just so you can make sense of it in your head. MORE INFO
Me playing Hercules
The sale is far from over!
The final items, including original arcade games in their original cabinets featuring every variation of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong will be sold off in what’s likely to be a ferocious bidding war, assuming anyone has money left at that point. Then there are pinball machines for The Mandalorian and Rick and Morty, both of which haven’t even been taken out of their crates yet. They’ll go up for sale in the final days of the auction, taking place online and in person at the Museum of Pinball September 24-26, 2021. If you’re a pinball or arcade game fanatic and you have lots of money to throw around, this is an event you cannot miss! You can even take home a wall of giant pinballs or a life-sized Donkey Kong statue that was used to greet guests as they arrived. All that will remain is the tears and broken hearts of everyone who played a big part in making the Museum of Pinball great and the thousands of pinball gaming fans that lined up year after year since 2013 to play the games they loved. Well, that and the weed growing facility that will be taking its place.