Flipper fun at Pinball PA and other places around Pittsburgh region
It’s just before 11 a.m. on a Saturday when Zakk Akin arrives at work. He makes his way through the dark, maze-like facility. The place is silent, save for the jangling of his key chain.
He flips a switch, creating a cacophony of buzzing, beeping, bells and robotic voices. Colorful, blinking lights illuminate the room like a fireworks display.
“I’ve been working here three years and that never gets old,” he said.
As the general manager of Pinball PA, an arcade, gaming museum and party center in Hopewell, Akin tends to more than 400 new and vintage pinball machines. Longtime collector Ed Beeler opened the gigantic space, located in a former Jo-Ann Fabrics in the Hopewell Shopping Center, in 2015 with help from Akin and his father, Chris Akin.
At 26, Zakk Akin has grown up in a high-tech world. Still, he remains fascinated by the evolution of arcade engineering.
“You can have the big, bombastic games showing movie footage an LCD screen, but I don’t think anything can really beat the sound of chimes on a 1970s pinball machine,” he said.
For $30, individuals can stay all day at Pinball PA. A family pass for up to four people is $50.
All of the games are set to free-play, so no coins are needed.
Justin Fortun regularly brings his 6-year-old daughter, Fara Fortun.
“This gives me a chance to show her the games I grew up with,” he said.
Fara is partial to Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda.” She’s also a pint-sized pinball wizard. Her eyes dart back and forth, following the silver ball that’s ricocheting around a glowing cabinet.
The folks at Pinball PA pride themselves on the painstaking care they give to each game.
That quality caught the eye of Donald Lee Rager, head of the art department for the Netflix show, “Mindhunter,” which films in and around Pittsburgh.
His crew borrowed about 20 machines to re-create a ‘70s-era arcade.
Local breweries are also leasing machines.
Chris Brunetti, owner of Helicon Brewing, put four games in his Oakdale facility last spring. That number has since grown to 25, including 11 limited edition releases.
“Beer is a very social thing,” he says. “Pinball is also very social. People come here with their friends, have a few pints and cheer each other on.”
There are even clubs dedicated to pinball.
At Pittsburgh Pinball Dojo in Bellevue, people can socialize with other enthusiasts as they hone their skills or compete in tournaments.
Located in a former karate dojo-turned-bowling alley on the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Balph Street, the upstairs space boasts 25 pinball machines and a pool table. As interior renovations continue, members hope to add at least another dozen games, including ‘70s-era electro-mechanicals and modern releases, and have room to support private parties and corporate team-building events.
The group held its first tournament in July and hosted the Pittsburgh Pinball League (PPL) throughout the fall. Skill-development sessions will be offered during the winter. When the dojo is open for business – Facebook is the best way to track the irregular hours – visitors can play for just $10.
Jake Kolojejchick, founded the club with Evan Bookbinder, Greg Galanter, Virginia Hendricks, Nick Jaquay, and Jon Replogle. He said all sorts of people are turning to pinball, from tech workers and blue-collar folks to kids and retirees.
Although pinball has historically been somewhat of a male-dominated pastime, more women are joining the fray. Kickback Pinball Café on Butler Street in Lawrenceville hosts a women’s-only league on Monday nights and area female players regularly qualify in the PPL A Division, often finishing at the top of local tournaments.
Kolojejchick is happy to see a resurgence in the sport, whether it has to do with nostalgia or advancements in gaming technology.
“In 2005, when I bought my first pinball machine, a friend said it might be collectible because it might be the last pinball machine ever produced,” he said. “Now, there are half a dozen companies developing and releasing new pinball machines.”
Kristy Locklin is a freelance writer.