4 Things to Keep in Mind if You Want to Collect Old-School Arcade and Pinball Games

Classic arcade games are like a time machine back to a long gone era.
Classic arcade games are like a time machine back to a long gone era.

At one point in time, arcades full of blinking lights from video games and pinball machines were a major entertainment destination. While arcades still exist to a certain extent, they are not nearly as common as they once were, and they don't appeal to the same crowd that they once did. Kids and young adults who once eagerly plunked quarters into Pac-Man and Galaga machines are now hitting middle age or beyond, and while video games are more popular than ever, young people today are a lot more likely to be playing them in their homes than they are at an arcade. Pinball is much the same. Though they were once commonly found in arcades and other places frequented by young people, about the only place that pinball machines are found "in the wild" anymore is bars.

"Ghosts N Goblins" — also known as one of the hardest arcade games ever.EXPAND
"Ghosts N Goblins" — also known as one of the hardest arcade games ever.
Photo by Chris Lane

These types of games are decidedly retro nowadays, and seem primitive compared to console and computer video games. But they're just as fun and challenging as ever, and next to owning a vintage car, few things will allow a person to step back in time quite like playing old arcade games or a pinball machine. For some people, owning one of these throwbacks becomes a personal dream, and it's not all that hard to make happen. But that dream can quickly become a nightmare, or at least a lot more irritating than fun, if one doesn't proceed carefully. Here are a few things to keep in mind when entering the world of arcade game and pinball collecting.

Be prepared for a lot of this kind of thing if you move games around a lot.EXPAND
Be prepared for a lot of this kind of thing if you move games around a lot.

4. You Might Want to Hold Off If You Move Often.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but moving arcade games and pinball machines around is a huge pain in the ass. They weigh hundreds of pounds each, and are large objects that contain fragile components. Imagine having to move a large wardrobe or entertainment center that's still loaded down with stuff, and you'll get a good idea of how much fun it is to move vintage arcade games around. It's one of those jobs you only really want to have to do once, and if the circumstances of one's life mean that moves across town or between cities are going to be frequent, a person might want to hold off on buying a whole bunch of old arcade machines.

This cabinet currently has "Ghosts N Goblins" installed, but will eventually be converted to play many games. It was a solid and inexpensive cabinet that had already been altered.EXPAND
This cabinet currently has "Ghosts N Goblins" installed, but will eventually be converted to play many games. It was a solid and inexpensive cabinet that had already been altered.
Photo by Chris Lane

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3. Bargains Are Out There, But They Come With a Downside.

Like many things in life, having a lot of money negates many of the challenges of collecting video games. Chances are, a person with a bank account that mirrors Fort Knox doesn't have to worry about whether his old Kiss pinball machine will fit in the back of some friend's small truck when it's time to move a game. He just pays movers to do that for him. A person who is willing and able to buy a vintage game that's in nearly perfect condition or that has been masterfully restored won't have to worry about condition issues, as will someone who is bargain shopping for games on Craigslist. Old arcade video games vary in price considerably, with examples that have seen a lot of abuse selling for as little as $150, while one in mint condition might cost a person a couple of grand or more. Most games that are in good working condition and aren't too beat up occupy a price range between those two extremes, and potential buyers should educate themselves about the condition issues they might encounter with any "bargains" they find. More on that in a moment. Keep in mind that not all old arcade games are as highly valued as others, either. Popular models like Donkey Kong or Galaga will generally cost significantly more than ones with fewer fans, and as with most collectibles, there are a few true rarities that command much higher prices when they occasionally surface.

This old shooting game from the early '70s is a real trip back in time. Predating most video games, it uses other types of electronics to function. I got it for $300, but it cost more than $700 to transport from out of state. Something to keep in mind when buying online.EXPAND
This old shooting game from the early '70s is a real trip back in time. Predating most video games, it uses other types of electronics to function. I got it for $300, but it cost more than $700 to transport from out of state. Something to keep in mind when buying online.
Photo by Chris Lane

Pinball machines can cost anywhere from $100 all the way up to $20,000 or more. Unlike a lot of collectible items, older pinball games don't command as much as more recent machines do. There are a handful of older pinball machines that have a dedicated fan base and generally command high prices, but most made between the 1960s and 1980s aren't as valuable as some of the later games. In fact, many collectors feel that one of the biggest "golden ages" for pinball games was the 1990s. More advanced technology made it possible for games to use much more complex designs, which made their gameplay more fun than in earlier eras. it's possible to find many older pinball machines for well less than a grand, but a person who likes the newer games should be prepared to pay many times that. If someone is offering to sell an Addams Family pinball for $1,000, something fishy is going on, because it's not uncommon to see that game sell for $7,000-$10,000, or more.

Bargains are out there, but, you know, beware.

There's a whole lot of this kind of thing along the road to arcade bliss.EXPAND
There's a whole lot of this kind of thing along the road to arcade bliss.
Photo by Chris Lane

2. Be Prepared to Fix Stuff (or Pay Someone a Lot to Do It for You).

Vintage arcade and video games require maintenance in order to continue looking good and working properly. Most of these games saw a lot of wear and abuse when they were originally used commercially, and it's common to find really beat-up examples. Considering the environments these games were used in, it's not surprising to find them with gummed-up insides from having sodas spilled on them, names scratched into the sides, and other damage. A lot of the time, after games were no longer popular enough for commercial use, they got stored in areas that exposed them to the environment. Finding cabinets that are disintegrating or bulging from moisture is one of many signs that a game hasn't been cared for well. Even if the cabinet isn't full of dirt or falling apart, the cathode ray monitors are often burned in with a ghost image of the game, caused by countless hours of continual use. Sometimes the controls are on their last legs or the power supply is on its way out. Even under the best of circumstances, the electronic components of early video games are decades old now, and after 40 years, circuit boards have often more than reached their life expectancy.

But it's all worth it in the end.EXPAND
But it's all worth it in the end.
Photo by Chris Lane

Buying a restored game from a place like Houston's Joystix Classic Games and Pinball means most of these issues have been dealt with and corrected, but buying from individuals can be dicier. The good news is that, compared to modern electronic games, old-school arcade machines and pinball games are fairly simple to work on. That doesn't mean that the average person can dive in and repair damaged circuit boards or will be able to do a great restoration without acquiring certain tools and skill sets, but it's possible to learn how with a little dedication. The alternative is to be prepared to find someone who can work on your machines, and that can be difficult and expensive. When my Joust machine broke, a local service quoted me $300 an hour for an in-house repair. That's not a lot less than the machine cost me to begin with.

1. Community Is Important.

I'm fortunate to have a handful of friends who have an appreciation for classic arcade and pinball machines, and who also have the know-how to fix circuit boards and other game components. For the cost of supplies and a case of beer, I can generally get things repaired, but not everyone has friends like that. Luckily for them, there are lots of resources available to people who want to learn how to restore or keep their games going strong for years to come. Online forums like KLOV (killer list of video games) and many others allow individuals to learn how to keep their games functioning and looking good. YouTube is also an invaluable resource, with tons of information on servicing arcade games. There are also plenty of online resources for people who'd like to be able to play older arcade games without filling their entire house with real cabinets. Fortunately for them, there are lots of communities for learning how to use MAME (multiple arcade machine emulator) software, which allows a hobbyist to use a computer to play countless real arcade games from yesteryear. There are also multigame circuit boards available that will allow a person to play large numbers of games in the same arcade cabinet. At this point, the only thing limiting a dedicated retro gamer is his budget, time and how far he wants to go in pursuit of his love of old games.

Sure, I CAN play Tempest on my phone, but it's just not the same...EXPAND
Sure, I CAN play Tempest on my phone, but it's just not the same...
Photo by Chris Lane
People build all sorts of interesting custom controls to play older games.
People build all sorts of interesting custom controls to play older games.

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