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The Kansas City pinball scene comes out of the dark and into the… Basement | KCUR 89.3

Keri Wing stands in the dark basement of Solid State Pinball Supply over Laser Cue, an old-school pinball game. She is in her element, deftly navigating a silver orb across the intergalactic playfield.

“It’s very satisfying,” she says. “And it has fun rules and a funky layout.”

Laser Cue is one of many titles crammed into this arcade at 30th and Troost, where Wing works as a pinball technician.

But Wing is also a player – a great player who is currently ranked 46th in the world International Pinball Pinball Federation. And earlier this month she was crowned 2022 Pinball Champion of Kansas City.

For pinball wizards, casual or serious, there’s no shortage of places to congregate on the subway: Pizza West in Shawnee, the 403 club in Kansas City, Kansas and Main street pinball in the Grain Valley, among others.

Like so many social activities, the pinball scene lost momentum during the pandemic. But finally these consoles are coming back to life, and Wing says the community is stronger than before.

“I’m looking at growth, you know, based on quarters,” says Wing. “And so people are putting more quarters into games. So that tells me it’s healthy, it’s alive and well.”

A woman stands next to a pinball machine.  She is looking at the camera.  Behind her are many pinball machines lined up in two rows.

Carlo Moreno

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KCUR 89.3

Keri Wing, a pinball repair technician, won the Kansas City Pinball Championship earlier this month. She is now the 46th female player in the world, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association.

The perfect game for the moment

Wing grew up in the Kansas City pinball scene: her father Kevin was a pinball mechanic himself. “We always had pinball machines in the house,” explains Wing.

Kevin died just before the 2019 pinball championships and now the Kansas City trophy bears his name; soon there will also be keris.

“It’s an attractive thing when you walk into a bar or restaurant and there’s a shiny pinball machine with flashing lights,” she says. “It attracts a lot of people. And for people like me, it’s nostalgic.”

The city’s largest public console collection can be found at Solid State. In the former Wonder Bread factory, players will find two floors full of machines from Rick and Morty to The Walking Dead to an old Top Gun knockoff called the Gold Wings.

Owner Nick Greenup, 40, started collecting pinball machines about 15 years ago. He’d always played occasionally, mostly at Westport bars, but one day he found a machine just lying around in the trash. He fixed it and sold it.

“I chose the things that no one else wanted,” he says. “I wanted the weird stuff.”

Greenup started out repairing machines and selling parts.

“We take everything from the top of the pitch. Clean, wax, reset everything. Make sure everything is working well,” he says. “There are tons of wires and parts underneath. We make sure everything is rebuilt and clean and working well.”

A man leans against a pinball machine in a row of 12 other machines.  He is looking at the camera.

Carlo Moreno

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KCUR 89.3

Nick Greenup is the owner of Solid State Pinball Supply, where people can play on two floors of the former Wonder Bread factory, and they can also buy parts and have their machines repaired.

With his collection, Greenup began hosting tournaments, attracting participants from across the region. He decided to finally open a full-size arcade in 2020 — right before the pandemic hit.

He wasn’t sure if the business would survive. But the opposite happened.

Greenup saw people emerge with a new appreciation for arcades and the sense of togetherness they offered. And pinball, with all its 80’s and 90’s nostalgia, was the perfect game for the moment.

“It’s just something physical. It’s a really cool toy for all ages. You know, it hits all the important things,” he says. “It has the sound, the light shows. You have the physical knobs and pistons, the moving balls.

Lance Hinson is the co-owner of KingCade, which has one Mandalorian pinball game to date.

“A pinball machine is completely different because it’s three-dimensional,” he says. “The complexity of it all. make shots. The shooting angles to take a shot. It can be very complex. And the rule sets for the new games are very extensive.”

According to Hinson, pinball has inherited many features from the video game industry, from Wi-Fi connectivity to high-resolution screens.

A man in a red ball cap and dark shirt leans against the side of a pinball machine.  The name on the machine's control panel reads "Star Wars, Mandalorian."

Carlo Moreno

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KCUR 89.3

Lance Hinson, co-owner of KingCade at Oak Park Mall, has one pinball machine at this arcade but hopes to add more soon. He says the addition of HD screens, Wi-Fi capability, and improved licensing with popular movies and TV shows have increased the game’s popularity.

Ultimately, however, Hinson says pinball is a game with real variables.

“It takes a lot of skill to control that ball,” he says. “You can’t master it like you can with Super Mario Bros.”

Recreating that nostalgic feeling

It’s not just the competitive scene that has returned to Kansas City.

Greenup says the entire pinball economy thrives – he can’t fix machines fast enough to keep up with demand.

Consoles are being bought and sold online just minutes after they’re released, he says.

“And if someone posts a game that doesn’t know what it’s worth, it’s gone even faster,” says Greenup. “And before the first person gets there, they’ve received 20 calls saying, ‘I’ll give you more.'”

Some local collectors have over 100 machines in their homes.

“People of a certain age who have the money to buy something like this for their homes;. people looking for something to do; been sick,” says Greenup. “They are expanding their basements and playrooms in their house; I’m just trying to recreate that out-of-the-bar feel.”

One such machine – a 14-year-old Shrek console – sits in the basement of an Overland Park home, where mechanic Chris Moore paid a visit earlier this month.

The homeowner, Brad Warner, bought the console from Costco and keeps it in a brightly lit alcove next to University of Kansas memorabilia and a tabletop game of Pac Man.

Moore peels off the machine’s glass cover and lifts the wooden playfield to reveal a hidden tangle of wires, tiny motors and other electronics. He puts on a headlamp to peer into the mess.

“There is never a joint repair. Every machine is different,” says Moore. “Each machine will test your skills.”

A man stares intently at his left hand, where he uses a soldering iron to repair a connection in a mass of wires attached to the back of a pinball table.

Carlo Moreno

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KCUR 89.3

Chris Moore solders a connection on the back of a Shrek pinball table in an Overland Park basement on November 4, 2022.

Moore says he gets a lot of repair calls just before the holidays. Families remember their long-forgotten machines that are gathering dust in the basement and want to fix them so that their children – or their grandchildren – can play with them.

“People in their forties grew up playing slot machines,” he says. “Our age group is unique in that we grew up with all these machines. So people get nostalgic and want a place to play or they want one for their own home.”

Moore was a party DJ and truck driver before starting his own business: Pinball repair service KC.

Decades after its heyday, Moore sees pinball still going strong. The few American manufacturer that exist pump out new machines and incorporate technical features borrowed from video games.

“In my opinion, Flipper is definitely one of the last pieces of Americana,” says Moore. “It’s still American made.”

Moore solders a small wire into the Shrek machine’s playfield, lights it up, and wraps his hands over the fins while the game belts out Smash Mouth’s “All Star.”

“I love pinball,” he says. “I’m actually not that great at it.”

Moore loses a ball between his fins and Shrek’s voice replies, “Ah, don’t let that little thing bother you.”

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