Cave of Wonder
Pinball Pete's electronic antiques
by Kaleb Brown
From the March, 2018 issue
Ever since I was little, I wanted to visit an arcade. I've always had a fascination for things used before I was born in 1999--record players, Polaroids, and yes, arcades. While I'd never been to one, I'd read about them online and seen them in movies. I wanted to be surrounded by a slew of games and insert coin after coin to play again and again. Before I enrolled at the U-M, though, my closest encounters to arcades had been disappointing: either the same few Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution cabinets haphazardly tacked onto a laser tag venue, or a Chuck E. Cheese's filled to the brim with kid games.
I first heard of Pinball Pete's last year when I was at school for the summer term. Word was floating around that there was an arcade in Ann Arbor. One warm evening, I walked down South University and spotted Pinball Pete's pink awning. In the window were neon signs of pink elephants.
Inside, the glare of the setting sun gave way to the cool shade of the building. At street level, six arcade cabinets lined the wall. They were all 8-bit games, their primitive graphics making their age obvious. Finally, I was in the arcade that time forgot.
Another neon elephant guarded the stairway down to the basement. Its furrowed brow seemed like a humorous attempt to be intense, as if to say only the cool kids came down to Pinball Pete's. Near the impressive neon sign was an unimpressive printout warning that I was entering at my own risk and that the arcade was not responsible for any injuries. Maybe the elephant's intense aspect wasn't just a marketing ploy.
I could faintly hear the guitars of a classic rock radio station rising up the metal stairwell. Sporadic electronic bleeps and bloops chimed from deep within; another world awaited.
Descending into the refreshingly cool arcade, I was treated to a breathtaking sight. There were more games than I
could take in: pool tables, arcade cabinets, and many, many pinball machines. The sound was even more breathtaking. The classic rock on the radio was drowned out by countless machines all bleating at once. The chaotic chorus would sound horrible anywhere else, but here, it sounded lovely. It felt as though I had left the normal world behind and entered an extraordinary Cave of Wonder.
Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Pac-Man, Street Fighter, and many, many more--Pinball Pete's had it all. I walked around in a half daze, taking in something I thought was forever out of my reach. It was a feeling akin to stumbling across a family of dodo birds.
I grabbed my wallet and took out a slightly crumpled five-dollar bill. After several annoying rejections, the machine finally accepted it, spitting out quarters in exchange.
Despite the myriad of games I'd never played, I decided to start with one I was used to: Dance Dance Revolution Extreme. I've played it since childhood, and rhythmically stepping in time to the arrows on the screen never fails to bring me joy.
The game sucked me in, drowning out everything else. After I finished, I looked around. There were only four other people in the basement: an employee manning the prize counter, another fixing a game cabinet, a woman whose concentration and determination while playing pinball were awe-inspiring, and a man playing one of the other two Dance Dance Revolution machines. It felt like the arcade was my personal playground.
As I played, a few couples periodically entered, going straight for one of the two photo booths. At $3 per use, they were by far the most expensive machines at the arcade. I paid them no mind; I had a phone camera I could use for free, and I thought playing the games would make for better memories.
The employee at the prize counter told me he used to come to Pinball Pete's when he was an undergrad. He worked there now when the arcade was short-staffed because he loved it. The arcades that survive are special, he said, because "they're a community that has largely been destroyed by the Internet and home gaming."
A ten-year-old newspaper clipping behind the counter described the coolest arcades in America. Of the seven on the list, Pinball Pete's is one of only three left.
Pinball Pete's prides itself on its authenticity. All the machines are coin based rather than card based--the employee said that lets patrons know exactly how much money they're spending. I found that my own coins disappeared far too quickly. I soon discovered that Pinball Pete's required a surprising amount of planning. I needed to manage money among multiple games.
The employee was certainly spot-on about the community aspect. People of many shapes and sizes began trickling down into the Cave of Wonder as the sun set. Being underground, coupled with the fact that none of the dozen clocks displayed the same time, caused a very wonky perception. Hours felt like minutes. But as day gave way to night, I realized that it was time to leave.
For my last game, I decided to give Dance Dance Revolution another whirl and fed the machine four quarters. After my grueling dance session, the screen displayed my final score: B. I turned around to see a guy waiting behind me. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up.
[Originally published in March, 2018.]
On March 4, 2018, Ethel Johnson wrote:
Very well written excellent decription. I could actually see him playing the games.
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