Outside on Old Town Square on a glorious fall Saturday afternoon, kids play in the fountains, musicians strum their guitars, environmentalist speakers exhort their listeners to action, shoppers gaze through merchants’ windows and tourists take in the scene.
Take a steep flight of stairs down to a subterranean doorway, however, and it’s a different world.
Here at Pinball Jones, hallways are lined with brightly colored lights and images of the newest technology in gaming machines, their sounds blending into a delightful discordance as players rack up the points.
Pop-culture icons gaze out at the kids of all ages as they feed coins into the slots. Look, here’s Indiana Jones. Over there is Willy Wonka. Other machines sport images of Elvira and her Party Monsters, Star Wars characters, Jurassic Park dinosaurs, Spider-Man, the Simpsons and even the Sopranos. Older players recognize James Bond, Dirty Harry and the Twilight Zone.
Unless their parents tell them, youngsters might not realize that the game called “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is a tribute to the title of Elton John’s ninth studio album, released 48 years ago. But then Mom and Dad might be reliving their own childhoods with a game of Pong, Pac-Man or even air hockey.
Or they might be in the back room, where a row of ancient classic pinball machines beckon and a bar serves up a rotating selection of 12 local brews on tap, local craft ciders and cocktails or non-alcoholic sodas.
“We try to keep as many machines from different eras on the floor as we can,” said co-owner Aidan Lancaster from behind the bar. “They’re pumpin’ ‘em out these days. Several major manufacturers make them.”
The arcade opened 12 years ago, and Lancaster has worked there for seven.
“I’d say there’s more younger people involved now than there were when I started,” he said. “A lot of that might have to do with the fact that people who played pinball when they were young now have children of their own. Their parents bring them in, and then they get into it as they get older.”
The clientele changes depending on the time of day, he said. “There are a lot more families in the afternoon, and then people out for the evening.
“Our demographic is not necessarily college kids, and that’s intentional on my part because my capacity’s not very high, so I have to make sure that the people who are in here are going to be well-behaved and spending money.”
How does he control who comes in?
“By making things more expensive,” he said. “It’s not like I have any $2 beers down here.”
However, he added, “that’s always been the demographic as long as I’ve worked here. It’s been people who live in town, people visiting from out of town. Our main demographic is 29 to 50.”
Lancaster appreciates the memories the machines generate, even though they might not mean as much to him personally.
“I kind of missed the boat,” he said. “I’m 34. I had played them before, but it wasn’t part of what I grew up doing.”
He does remember a sort of taboo that was associated with them.
“A lot of the laws surrounding pinball machines were gambling laws until only recently,” he said. “I’m from Arkansas, and they still do have really hard-core gambling laws associated with these machines.”
The popularity of visiting a pinball palace has ebbed and flowed.
“It died off in the early 2000s, a lot, and I think that was because of the rise of video games at home,” Lancaster said. “But I think people came to understand that there’s not a good digital substitute for it. If you want to play pinball, you’ve got to play it on a physical table. There’s a lot of video-game versions of pinball, but it’s all about feeling the table.”
After all, getting a feel for the table is how Tommy Walker, the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” in The Who’s popular 1969 song and rock opera, became a “Pinball Wizard.”
“It’s definitely re-entered the cultural collective consciousness,” Lancaster said. “There’s been a lot of representations of pinball in the movies and media recently. It’s been interesting to see it. I think a lot of it has to do with ‘80s nostalgia,” such as that depicted in “Stranger Things,” the science fiction horror drama television series on Netflix that is set four decades ago in small-town Indiana.
“And the music and people’s nostalgia for the ‘80s whether or not they were alive during it,” Lancaster said. “There’s definitely a subculture that is gaining more and more recognition.”
Technology has even brought the interactivity of online games to pinball arcades.
“One of the major manufacturers, Stern, has been integrating achievement and experience points, so you kind of save your character as you go through the game,” Lancaster said. “The newest game it just released is Venom, which is part of the Marvel universe. If you log in through a QR code on the game, and then you play it, the stronger your character gets. There are online leaderboards, and you get achievements, and there’s a social media aspect to it. It saves it to your own personal account, so you could play anywhere you find the machine. Typically we have a leaderboard up that shows everybody’s high scores for the month from those games.”
Just like a bowling alley, Pinball Jones also hosts leagues and tournaments. It all adds up to a fun family escape, Lancaster said.
“We’ve gotten busier and busier every year.”