Walking down the stairs of Pinball Pete’s from South University Street, the initial effect is sensory overload. Your eyes and ears are bombarded by a nonsensical medley of flashing neon lights, beeps, boops and animated voices.
When your vision begins to adjust, individual games stand out from the tightly packed collection – the white-water rafting simulator or the zombie apocalypse first-person shooter. Each one seemingly, or literally, beckoning to customers, “Play me! Play me!”
One staple of the arcade, though, doesn’t garner as much attention as its flashier neighbors. The arcade’s namesake games: the pinball machines.
As gamers battle ninja opponents, or watch a heavyset middle school boy play Dance Dance Revolution for the fifth time in a row, the pinball machines stand mostly untouched in discreet rows at the back of the arcade.
But for a devout few, the arcade is called Pinball Pete’s for more than just the sake of vague nostalgia and alliteration. They’re players of all ages whose devotion to pinball hearkens back to a time before Xbox. A time when Pinball Pete’s had four locations in downtown Ann Arbor. A time that was the golden era of pinball – the early 1990s.
Andrew Fischer, a 40-year-old Ann Arbor resident, came to Pinball Pete’s last Monday to play his favorite of the arcade’s 12 pinball machines, the one featuring Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
“If your play doesn’t last that long, she makes comments,” Fischer said of the game’s recorded commentary voiced by the provocatively mocking Elvira.
Fischer, who is a mechanical engineer, said he’s drawn to pinball for the physical action of the game. While he has a Playstation at home, he said he returns to Pinball Pete’s because digital games, including computer pinball, don’t have the mechanical element that requires a sense of physics to get the ball to do what you want in a pinball game.
“Most of them usually fail in the way the ball plays,” he said.
Over the decades since Pinball Pete’s opening, Fischer has witnessed the progression of arcade culture, as well as the rise and fall of pinball. Fischer recalls how a decade or two ago Pinball Pete’s had several times as much business as it does now and often held pinball tournaments. Also, Williams Manufacturing Company, the one-time leading pinball machine maker that has since suspended production, was on top of the game with its “Twilight Zone” and “The Addams Family” machines.
“There’s been a lull for years,” Fischer said. “Williams was making better and better games and they kind of stopped making them because of videogames.”
Tragic as the technological marginalization of pinball machine manufacturers might be, the real tragedy is the new generation of pinball enthusiasts who fell in love with a game in its death throes.
Brad Linden, a School of Education junior who collects and trades pinball machines, rediscovered his fascination for the game at Pinball Pete’s last year.
“I came back the next day and asked if they were hiring and they said, ‘No’,” Linden said. “But the day after that they called and asked me to work for them.”
Working at Pinball Pete’s, Linden learned how to repair pinball machines, which led him join an online community of pinball connoisseurs by purchasing and repairing broken-down machines to trade with other collectors.
“It’s a small group, but it’s a tight-knit group,” Linden said.
Linden currently owns machines featuring “Terminator 2” and “The Twilight Zone,” and a 1973 model called “Fun Fest.” The machines are showcased in the game room of the house owned by Linden’s fraternity, Sigma Phi.
Linden said he’s considering trading them all in, though, for the newest model on the market – a “Family Guy” machine introduced this year by Stern Pinball, the only pinball machine manufacturer still in business.
Before Linden began buying and selling pinball machines, fraternity members used the game room mostly for storage. But Linden’s hobby encouraged others to clean it up and transform it into an arcade that includes a pool table, air hockey, a multi-game arcade console and a lot of pinball.
Linden’s collection has also turned several of the fraternity’s members into pinball enthusiasts.
Engineering junior Adam Gienapp said he’s found a love of pinball machines he didn’t know he had until he lived with some. He takes advantage of Linden’s ever-changing collection as much as he can.
“I can thank Brad for that,” Gienapp said.
Like Fischer, Gienapp, another mechanical engineer, enjoys the physics of the game. The essence of the fun of pinball, Gienapp said, lies in the way that “sometimes the ball takes a weird bounce.”
Gienapp said now when he visits Pinball Pete’s he often finds himself only playing pinball. And while pinball may be underappreciated by the bulk of arcade-goers, Linden said the game continues to draw in players from all ages.
“A lot of times when I’m working I’m surprised at how often they’re played,” Linden said. “There’s a couple college kids I see who every now and then come in and play the ‘Lord of the Rings’ game. That’s their thing.”
Death throes or not, it seems the game’s small but devoted following will keep the pinball in Pinball Pete’s for some time yet.