By Alex Rickert and Jim McCarthy
Photography by Barry Gaukel
Forget going out. If you have one of these rooms, the party’s coming to you.
While kids today might be glued to their PlayStations, there’s something timeless about an old-school arcade game. And among many other home-based activities, the pandemic saw an extreme resurgence for collectors who amass classic games in their homes.
“The market is booming right now,” said Dan McCarthy, older brother of Upper Keys Weekly editor Jim McCarthy and a noted arcade enthusiast. The elder McCarthy travels to various states to recover and restore old pinball machines. “Pinball has seen a huge resurgence.”
Such is the case for the Marathon-based Christensen family, who took the purchase of a Terminator 2 machine and quickly turned it into a full-blown game room underneath their house.
“When I was a teenager, my uncle had a pinball machine in his basement … I would sit on that thing and play, and I loved it,” said Rob Christensen. “I had some space under the house, and I thought it would be cool to get a pinball machine in here. … I got the T2 down there, the kids loved it, the wife loved it, I loved it. And I said, ‘You know what? I have room for another one.’”
He decided he had “room for another one” an additional 14 times, as the Christensens’ fully loaded arcade now boasts five pinball machines, nine video arcade games and a slot machine. The Terminator 2 pinball game is still his oldest and most nostalgic possession, but Christensen took delivery of his new crown jewel, a 2015 Star Wars Battle Pod video arcade system, just one day before this interview.
“I went down that rabbit hole bad,” he admitted. “One pinball turned into me being on the internet every night looking at Craigslist, eBay, wherever I found one.”
Despite the demand, the family plans on holding on to most of its games, especially as their children, Cannon and Maya, 8, get older. As one might expect, the room has become the perfect place for the foursome to relax together and enjoy the company of friends. “We’re down here almost every night, 20 or 30 minutes just playing games,” said Rob. “It’s fun to have the kids’ friends over here and provide a safe place for them to entertain themselves.”
If anyone can take credit for kick-starting the Christensens’ arcade explosion, it’s another Marathon local: All Keys Glass owner and operator Derek Schut. Upon learning that Schut had an arcade of his own through a mutual friend, Christensen took a trip to take a look shortly after buying his first machine.
“I’m Rob’s problem,” laughed Schut.
Along with his wife Elizabeth, Derek puts his own flavor on his arcade collection, pairing an enclosed game room with a homemade bar, a pool with built-in drink lounge, and firepit. His arsenal includes three 1960s slot machines, air hockey and shuffleboard tables, six video arcade games and three pinball machines.
Schut began amassing his machines after Hurricane Irma, when he was able to obtain his first pinball machine for free. His approach to collecting differs slightly from Christensen’s, as Derek frequently hunts for deals on machines that need service before doing the necessary research to repair and restore them himself. He sells, trades and switches out games as the opportunities arise to keep an ever-evolving collection.
For those looking to give their homes a dose of nostalgic gaming, Schut, Christensen and McCarthy all stressed the importance of having a contact in the industry who can help with sourcing, transport and repair of games – or the willingness and ability to become a self-motivated YouTube repairs expert. And while there are always deals to be had on systems that need repairs, the games are a serious financial investment. New pinball machines carry a price tag of $8,000 to $12,000, and while video-based games are usually cheaper, they’re nothing to sneeze at either – $500 to $3,000 or so, according to McCarthy.
To combat this, Christensen suggests starting off with a Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME) system, capable of running software for hundreds of classic games on a single system. But if his and Schut’s arcades are any indication, once the first game powers up at home, the floodgates open – with good reason.
“Don’t start buying arcades. It’s a horrible addiction,” says Schut with a smirk. “That’s probably what I ‘should’ say.”