The Pinball Wizard

I wrote this for a city life website. Given the interest @jeff seem to had in Pinball Wizard Arcade, I thought I'd post it here. Enjoy!

Local pizza shops and roast beef take-out establishments used to provide a wonderful shelter for kids like me. It wasn’t for the food, though. It was the arcade games. Growing up on some fairly seedy streets in Lynn, I met most of my friends in these sorts of places. We’d gather around the newest Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter machine and take on whoever had the biggest winning streak. We did this for the pure escapism. None of us were worried about school or curfews or any of that nonsense you need to worry about in your early teens. Our parents knew where we all were. While it was a competitive environment, there was a sense of camaraderie. Nobody could instantly look up how to play the game; we had to learn through each other, bouncing off third-hand information and wasting dozens of quarters in the process. Sadly, our consoles at home started outperforming the once astounding arcade cabinets. Actual arcades like Goodtimes Emporium have been shut down, and every year places like Salem Willows and Hampton Beach seem to lose more and more machines. I often wax nostalgic about this with my friends, especially those who had similar experiences growing up.

A few weekends ago, I heard a radio ad for the Pinball Wizard Arcade in Pelham, New Hampshire. I wondered if this would provide the portal into my fairly misspent youth I’d been looking for. I brought it up to my friend one boring Saturday afternoon on a complete whim, and we decided to give it a try. After all, the only other major arcade anywhere near us is Funspot, which is a good hour drive, and even longer with traffic. Pinball Wizard is located just around forty minutes away, and was pretty easy to spot. It’s surrounded by a Suppa’s Pizza (as made famous on the campuses of UMass Lowell), Chunky’s Cinema Pub and a Dunkin Donuts. In short, the very sight of it makes you think of how easily you could waste away an entire night.

As I walked into the Pinball Wizard Arcade, an overwhelming arrangement of conflicting sounds hit my ears while lights flickered and flashed all around in a symphony of chaotic luminescence. This may sound terrifying to some, but to me, it felt like home. Pool tables and a few broken pinball machines put to the side for maintenance decorated the entrance, along with the customary token machines. A sign above the glass cases of prizes you can get from winning tickets advertised 100 tokens for 20 dollars — a fantastic deal considering the majority of classic machines there only cost one token to play. While the rest of the real estate was dark (as any arcade should be) it was also probably the cleanest arcade I’ve ever been in. It was refreshing to not see tons of dust or grease around rows and rows of machines.

True to its name, the borders of the arcade were tightly packed with pinball machines, all in perfect (and if not, at least almost perfect) condition. Classics among pinball enthusiasts such as F-14 Tomcat and Black Knight were present, along with more contemporary favorites like the recently released Family Guy and Tron machines. While I tried my hand at a few of these games, I saw a small group of kids in UMass college garb gather around a slightly older man achieving a particularly high score on the Pin Bot machine, excited to see a possible record being broken and being careful not to break the player’s concentration. It’s something you rarely see anymore in these days of online gaming. While I never get that kind of crowd around me, it was fun to play all the machines that I hadn’t seen since my childhood.

Those not into pinball needn’t worry, as the arcade also has an additional 166 non-pinball games. Everything you would expect to be there — such as Galaga, Asteroids and various versions of Pac-Man — stood alongside more obscure games like Mappy and Phoenix. I was particularly happy to play as much Tapper as possible. Two whole rows of fighting games give people like me flashbacks to the aforementioned pizza parlors. A close match in Capcom vs SNK 2 ended in a customary nod and “good game” uttered between me and another player around my age. Pinball Wizard doesn’t stray away from modern games, either. The new Namco game Pac-Man Battle Royale, a hyper, four-player day-glow variant of Pac-Man is prominently featured on flat screen TVs around the arcade floor. Everyone there seemed to be a bit new, but hopefully regulars will start appearing to keep the place thriving.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Pinball Wizard is just how well their machines run. The buttons still click, the joysticks never get stuck, and there were no glitchy or broken games to be seen. The level of care given to the games is downright heartwarming to someone like me, who thought they were all but extinct. The only thing missing from Pinball Wizard Arcade right now is more people. Take the trip, bring 20 bucks and transport yourself back to the simpler days of high scores, winning streaks and social gaming without any Internet needed.

2 Comments
2 Comments
Posted by Nickieroonie
Posted by Rmack

@nickieroonie: Hah, I've played the Hercules machine before as well. I remember thinking it was really lame when I was a kid, not knowing anything about it.

That mix is awesome, by the way. Though, I don't know if anything will ever top this: