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Arcade Fire

Pastime becomes passion project becomes Pinballz

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 6, 2012

Arcade Fire
Photo by John Anderson

Pinballz Arcade should not exist. Game arcades are a dead industry, swept aside by home gaming and console ports of Dance Dance Revolution. Conventional wisdom says no one wants to pump quarters into a table anymore. Watching steel balls fly around the playfield just isn't enough. If people want communal gaming, they'll play online or load up a party game. Opening a new arcade is just commercial suicide. So Pinballz, Austin's fashion-flouting arcade, should not exist. Yet it does.

There are crane grabs and Japanese pachinko machines. A supersized Hungry Hungry Hippos clunk-clunk-clunks away next to earthquake oddity Aftershock. Classic video games like Star Wars and Popeye nestle next to start-of-the-art shooters laden with motion sensors. But the heart of the business remains the pinball machine. Put them in chronological order and you would see an evolution in electronics: Multiple flippers, multiple playfields, elaborate sound chips, video screens. Over time, high scores rose from thousands into millions and multiballs became a tornado of metal spheres. Yet every table poses the same challenge. Owner Darren Spohn explained, "There is no restart, there is no 'Let me go back to my last save.' You put your money in and you're playing that machine. Eventually, it's gonna beat you. Your goal is how long can you beat it."

Pinballz is a working arcade, not a museum, but there is an undoubted sense of history in the six decades' worth of machines on display. TV and movie tie-ins chronicle blockbuster culture from The Twilight Zone to Avatar to unusual suspects like The Sopranos. Over on horror row, the Crypt Keeper cackles next to a pair of Elviras. One wall is dedicated to pool-themed games, and each reflects the moment they were designed. 1969's Target Pool is all clean-cut, teen-friendly, pre-acid Beach Boys fun, while a cut-price Fonz leers out of 1977's Eight Ball. Four years later, a honky-tonk rebel leans low over the table on Eight Ball Deluxe. Spohn called the arcade experience "a part of Americana. It can't just be a place for people to put coins in a slot." In an age of corporate playpens masquerading as classic gaming halls, Spohn said he wanted to resurrect "the classic arcade experience. I want people to drop coins in. I want to feel the drop. I want to feel the free game. If they win something, I want them to get a ticket out and take them to the counter."

Growing up on the East Coast, he spent his childhood summers on the Maryland shore. "I'd be a beach rat," he said, "and I'd live at the game room. They'd have the pool table, the pingpong table, and the early solid-state pinball machines." Years later, Spohn was married with kids and running three thriving tech businesses in Austin. He decided to reclaim a little slice of his childhood. He explained, "I always wanted to buy this 1978 Star Trek. I bid on eBay and I bought it." It came as part of a pair with another classic, Mata Hari, and the collection began. "I'm happy to be obsessive-compulsive in personality, and pretty soon I had to sit down at lunch with my wife [Mikki] and I'm like, 'Do you mind if I tell you something? I've got five pinball machines. The five became 10 became 15, and two years ago, Darren, Mikki and their teenage sons started restoring more cabinets and leasing them out. When the office lease for Spohn's other firms came up for renewal, he had a brainwave. "Why don't we just open up more space and put an arcade next to the businesses?"

In November 2010 – yes, as arcades across the nation were shuttering for good – the Spohns opened theirs at Research and Metric. "It was kicking history in the face," Spohn said. "I'd get machines from private sellers and auctions and they'd say, 'What are you doing?' 'Oh, we're opening an arcade.' 'Yeah, right.'" To make that possible, not to mention commercially viable, meant going big – 13,000 square feet big. "A lot of arcades are too small," he said. "They have too few games or they attract too few demographics, and here we pretty much cover the whole list."

Yet finding machines is a struggle. Many of the businesses' manufacturing giants – Bally, Data East, Gottleib, Williams – have disappeared. Only Stern stayed in the game, sticking to film and music tie-ins. The mechanical know-how of keeping machines running is a dying art, and that's a challenge because they were never meant to last: A few months in a bar or on the boardwalk getting slammed around by drunks and teens, and they were headed to the dump. Spohn explained, "Those little metal balls running around don't do fun things to the wood and plastic." Now he scours the Internet and auction sites for machines in working order – or at least fixer-uppers – and that's where the other half of the business comes in. A few blocks from the arcade, he has a warehouse/workshop where every junker and clunker is repaired, restored, polished, and primed, from lights to flippers. "Pinball machines are just like old cars," he said. "They always break, you can't find parts for them, and every one drives differently."

By contrast to the giddy bright lights and plink-ping-zip of the arcade, the warehouse is almost mournful. Row after row of dust-covered games, some with disemboweled wiring tumbling from open doors, others with cracked screens or missing buttons. Some will be repaired, restored, and sent out to play, while some will be sold to private collectors. Those beyond repair are cannibalized for spare parts, their playfields hung on the wall as the last vestige of a lost art. There's an air of sadness in Spohn's voice when he digs out a vintage and fragile driving game or a baroque but brilliant Italian video booth: Both are unique landmark machines, but neither earns enough money to win a place on the floor. Instead, Spohn was eagerly awaiting the delivery of Terminator: Salvation, a state-of-the-art shooter that will turn a profit in months rather than years. "It's all about ROI – return on investment," said Spohn. "You've got to make money on every foot of the floor."

For all his level-headed business sense, Spohn has a devotee's dedication to his machines, tweaking and improving them, adding colored LEDs to back glasses for a little more visual zing or polishing the playfield or just spending hours on maintenance. For a big-name game, there could still be thousands of machines still out there, with aftermarket firms still restoring spare parts. For a more obscure table, where the manufacturers only produced a few hundred units, every replacement coil and flipper must be handcrafted. Spohn has stockpiled as many spare parts, test kits, and manuals as he can find, but his biggest resource may be loyal pinball fans. "They want the sport to survive," Spohn said. It's a unique challenge – part engineering, part aesthetics – and it has created new skill sets. Some regulars volunteer in the warehouse, and one artist has even started re-creating the classic back glasses. "All the staff have a passion for it," Spohn said. "Not just the gaming, but the art itself.

Spohn still has ambitions. He plans to open more sites, but his biggest target is to set a personal record: to have the Top 100 rated machines of all time. He's getting close. So far, he said, "We have 48 of the top 50 and 80 of the Top 100." His aim is to have a sampling of every era and every style of play on the floor, from the slow-rolling vintage machines to the blindingly fast tempests of today. That variety is why Spohn is sure the lure of lights and flippers and hanging at the arcade will endure. He said, "We're coming full circle back around."

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