Kansas City's pinball scene is coming out of the dark and into the... basement
Across the Kansas City metro, pinball machines are ringing to life again in arcades, bars and home basements — a burst of nostalgia made even more powerful by the pandemic.
Keri Wing stands over Laser Cue, an old-school pinball game, in the darkened basement of Solid State Pinball Supply. She’s in her element, deftly navigating a silver ball around the inter-galactic playing field.
“It’s very satisfying,” she says. “And it has a fun rules set and a funky layout.”
Laser Cue is one of many titles crammed into this arcade at 30th and Troost, where Wing works as a pinball technician.
But Wing is also a player — a great one, currently ranked 46th in the world, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association. And earlier this month, she was crowned the 2022 pinball champion of Kansas City.
For pinball wizards both casual and serious, there’s no shortage of places to congregate in the metro: Pizza West in Shawnee, the 403 Club in Kansas City, Kansas, and Main Street Pinballin Grain Valley, among others.
Like so many social activities, the pinball scene lost its momentum during the pandemic. But finally, these consoles are coming back to life, and Wing says the community is stronger than before.
“I get to see the growth, you know, based in quarters,” Wing says. “And so people are putting more quarters into games. So that tells me it's healthy, it's alive and well.”
The perfect game for the moment
Wing grew up in Kansas City’s pinball scene: Her father, Kevin, was a pinball repairman himself. “We always had pinball machines in the house,” Wing explains.
Kevin died shortly before the 2019 pinball championships, and now Kansas City’s trophy bears his name; soon, it will have Keri’s too.
“It’s an attractive thing, when you walk into a bar or restaurant and there’s a shiny pinball machine with flashing lights,” she says. “It attracts a lot of people. And for people like me, it’s, you know, nostalgic.”
The city’s largest public collection of consoles can be found at Solid State. Inside the former Wonder Bread factory, players can find two floors of machines, from Rick and Morty to the Walking Dead to a vintage “Top Gun” knockoff called “Gold Wings.”
Owner Nick Greenup, 40, started collecting pinball machines about 15 years ago. He had always played casually, mostly in Westport bars, but one day he found a machine just sitting in the trash. He fixed it up and sold it.
“I went for the stuff that nobody else wanted,” he says. “I wanted the weird stuff.”
Greenup began repairing machines and selling parts.
“We take everything off the top of the playfield. Clean it, wax it, put everything back. Make sure it all works good,” he says. “Then underneath, there’s tons of wires and parts. We make sure all that’s rebuilt and clean and working well.”
With his collection, Greenup began hosting tournaments, drawing competitors from around the region. He decided to finally open a full-sized arcade in 2020 — right before the pandemic hit.
He wasn’t sure if the business would survive. But the opposite happened.
Greenup saw people emerge with a renewed appreciation for arcades, and the sense of togetherness they offered. And pinball, with all its ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia, was the perfect game for the moment.
“It’s just something physical. It’s a really cool toy for all ages. You know, it hits all the key things,” he says. “It’s got the sound, the light shows. You got the physical buttons, and plungers, the moving balls.”
Lance Hinson is a co-owner at KingCade, which has one Mandalorian pinball game on the floor so far.
“A pinball machine is totally different in that it’s three dimensional,” he says. “The intricacy of it all. Making shots. The angles of the shot to make a shot. It can be very complex. And the rule sets on the new games are very deep.”
Hinson says pinball has adopted a lot of features from the video game industry, from Wi-Fi connectivity to high-definition screens.
Ultimately though, Hinson says pinball is a game of real-life variables.
“There’s tons of skill involved from controlling that ball,” he says. “You can’t master it like you can with Super Mario Bros.”
Recreating that nostalgic feeling
It’s not just the competitive scene that’s returned in Kansas City.
Greenup says the entire pinball economy is thriving — he can’t fix up machines fast enough to keep up with the demand.
Consoles get bought and sold online just minutes after being posted, he says.
“And if somebody posts a game that doesn’t know what it’s worth, it’s gone even faster,” Greenup says. “And before the first person gets there, they’ve gotten 20 calls saying, ‘I’ll give you more.’”
Some local collectors have over 100 machines in their houses.
“People getting a certain age that have the money to buy something like this for their home; people looking for something to do; been sick,” Greenup says. “They’re building out their basements, game rooms at their house; just trying to recreate that going-out-to-the-bar feeling.”
One such machine — a 14-year-old Shrek-themed console — lives in the basement of an Overland Park house, where repairman Chris Moore paid a visit earlier this month.
The homeowner, Brad Warner, bought the console from Costco and keeps it tucked in a brightly-lit alcove, next to University of Kansas memorabilia and a tabletop Pac Man game.
Moore eases off the machine’s glass cover and lifts up the wooden playing field to reveal a hidden tangle of wires, tiny motors and other electronics. He dons a headlamp to peer into the mess.
“There’s never a common repair. Every machine is different,” Moore says. “Every machine will test your abilities.”
Moore says he gets a lot of repair calls just before the holidays. Families remember their long-forgotten machines gathering dust in the basement, and want to fix them up to play with their kids — or their grandkids.
“People in their 40s grew up with arcade machines,” he says. “Our age group is kind of unique in that way, in that we grew up with all these machines. So people get nostalgic and they want a place to play them or they want one for their own home.”
Moore was a party DJ and a truck driver before starting his own business: Pinball Repair Service KC.
Decades after its heyday, Moore sees pinball still going strong. The few American manufacturersthat exist are pumping out new machines, and incorporating tech features borrowed from video games.
“It’s definitely, my opinion, one of the last pieces of Americana is pinball," Moore says. “It’s still American made.”
Moore solders a small wire in the playing field of the Shrek machine, fires it up and settles his hands over the flippers, as the game blares “All Star” by Smash Mouth.
“I love pinball,” he says. “I’m actually not that great at it.”
Moore loses a ball between the flippers, and Shrek’s voice retorts: “Ah, don’t let that wee thing bother you.”