Growing Up With Garage Pinball

By djxealot

March 14, 2019

35 days ago

I saw a few of these stories around on the site and figured I'd add my own. Growing up, my father had this old Bally Playboy pinball machine in the garage. It was in generally poor shape. I was told later that it was a freebie he picked up from a company that routed pins in some of his stores (he was district manager for 7-11's parent company). They were just going to throw it in the dump after it broke down, since I guess it wasn't worth fixing, and so he offered to take it off their hands. He got it in working order, though it was still in generally poor shape (his fixes were mechanical/electrical, not cosmetic), and so he left it as a garage toy.

I don't know how many games I played on that thing, but certainly quite a few. It sat next to an old, equally run down Asteroids arcade cabinet that also still ran. This was in the early 90s when arcades were closing down, and though pinball enjoyed a brief resurgence (I'd drop quarters in any machine I saw in those days), they were soon harder to find on location, too. So the run-down, two-machine garage arcade was my hangout spot. Friends would come by, and there was fascination with these machines. I'm sure part of it was that this was a Playboy pinball machine - with all the attendant adolescent male attention that would be sure to garner. But partly, it was just different and cool. Who had pins and arcade cabinets in their garage?

Sure, like any kid growing up in the 80s and early 90s, I played a lot of PC games, and of course NES, SNES, and Genesis. But when I got bored of console and PC games, it was a refreshing change. But I grew up toward the end of the arcade era (born in '80). The dingy garage leftovers were more real to me than the busy arcades of the mid-80s, which were like half of a hazy dream.

Eventually we moved to the other side of the country, and the pinball machine and Asteroids arcade did not make the journey with us. Too much space, too heavy, and just not worth the effort to move them with us... they were sold off, and soon I was in college anyway.

Many years went by. I spent a long time playing PC games - console games had lost my interest after FF7, the last one I truly enjoyed for any length of time. But soon PC games grew somewhat stale too (I still play a few on rare occasion, though). I was hanging out with a friend one day, drinking beers, and he had a MAME cabinet he bought sitting in the corner next to a Gottlieb Super Mario Brothers pin. I played a few rounds on the machines, and it reminded me of growing up with the garage arcade. His little beer-cade mancave, or whatever you want to call it, put the idea in my head that there was no reason I couldn't do the same, if I wanted to.

Well, no reason aside from budget, anyway. He could afford a professional restored pin, and a NIB MAME cabinet ordered from someone else. I could not.

Soon after, I built my own MAME cabinet out of old computer parts, a tankstick, and a some plywood I had laying around. I wasn't as well-off as my friend, so it was basically homebrew with second-rate PC parts sitting in my old parts bins. Around the same time, I picked up a Demolition Man pinball machine that was in pretty poor shape, overall - but it was super cheap. Demo Man, incidentally, continues to be a great value buy if you can get past the somewhat poor art. Certainly it's a very fun machine to play.

I spent weeks going through that machine, fixing things and jury-rigging this or that to get it working. I had very little money at the time, so this was purely a labor of love. Some of the poor rigging I did included soldering two heavy paper clips together to make a wiregate, using alligator clips to solve certain power-related problems, using electrical tape to hold loose lamps on the PCBs, duct tape to hold together a subway ramp, and using a tiny bit of automotive touchup paint to carefully restore as much of the cabinet art as possible. I learned a lot about how pinball machines work from this. Many mistakes were made along the way - a few costly ones, too - but much was gained.

It was a lot of fun. I still have that Demolition Man many years later, and that homebrew MAME cabinet too (though I've since improved it greatly). Eventually I picked up a second pin (Avatar), and now a third (Deadpool), then swapped out Avatar and bought a JJP Pirates. And I built a RetroPie mini-arcade, too. Money isn't so tight like it was when I was younger, and so I am able to afford NIB pins now, and can afford to take better care of them - the last of the jury-rigged parts on my Demo Man have been replaced (except the duct taped metal subway ramp - I need a welder to fix that the right way), thankfully.

Folks come over and, while generally impressed with the machines, they seem to wonder if I'm a little bit crazy. Stuck in the past, maybe? Throwing money at a strange hobby? I don't know. But I enjoy them and if there's some nostalgia in it too, what of it? I didn't join Pinside until pretty recently, mainly because until the Barcade phenomenon hit, I wasn't even aware other people really shared much of a passion for this hobby. I just thought I was a little nuts (might still be true).

And now my kids are growing up, same as I did, with pinball machines and arcade machines around, though this time a little better maintained (I hope!). My son is obsessed with my JJP Pirates machine and plays it whenever he can, and while my daughter is too young to play yet, she loves to watch, wide-eyed. Maybe it goes around another generation.

Story photos

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33 days ago
Great story dj. I look forward to hearing what other tables end up in your new "garage"!
31 days ago
Excellent story. I need to finish my name cabinet.
30 days ago
Keep the inner children alive! That is how we never truly grow old friend :)
29 days ago
Good story. Being an 80's kid my self it was very relatable. Thanks for sharing.
25 days ago
Nice-pass it along to the next generation!
22 days ago
Your work is very good and I appreciate you and hopping for some more informative posts. thank you for sharing great information to us.
19 days ago
Enjoyable story, especially hearing about how you are reminiscing on your adolescence while making special moments with your children.
I also have a 4 yo son I am now playing pinball with and it is just one (of the many) amazing moments we have had together. Keep flipping!
17 days ago
Great Story.
17 days ago
Thx for this, well done.
4 days ago

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