David Lee Wolper spends too much time in his basement.
The LED lights shining through glass cases illuminate the dark underbelly of his house. The only other light is from his workshop, where there are old circuit boards, switches and wires. It is quiet, until Wopler returns from his shift at UPS. He pulls back the plunger and brings the old machines to life.
He is surrounded by his private collection of pinball machines. This is Wolper’s sanctuary.
Wolper is just one member of The Long Island Arcade Club, where arcade enthusiasts go every month to play classic pinball and video games and talk about the hobby of arcade refurbishment.
For almost five years, Brendan Bailey, the founder of the club, has invited arcade game enthusiasts to his office once a month to share their hobby of refurbishing arcade games.
“They are pretty much just old computers,” Bailey said. “A computer runs a video game and a computer runs a pinball machine.”
Long Island boasts a strong retro gaming scene. The Arcade Club has 217 members and the Long Island Retro Gaming group on Facebook has 1,232 members. There is even a retro gaming expo held on Long Island every year.
Arcade refurbishing has increased in popularity, now that the kids who grew up with arcades have disposable incomes to make their own collections, Bailey said.
Other arcade enthusiasts believe that the basements of Long Island homes have a lot to do with arcade gaming’s popularity. Wolper believes that arcade refurbishment is popular on Long Island because homeowners have large basements that they can fill with these machines, he said.
“You don’t have to know electronics to repair the games,” Wolper said. “You don’t have to know why something does something, you just have to follow its trail of what could go wrong.”
When a machine leaves Wolper’s basement, it usually comes out better than it did in the factory.
Like in any computer, the main component of an arcade game is the motherboard where all the commands go, Wolper said. For example, when pushing the left button on a pinball machine, it sends a command to the motherboard that tells the computer to move the left flipper. When a pinball passes over a switch or sensor, it sends a message back to the motherboard that the pinball passed over that part of the field and gives the player points or unlocks game modes. Video game arcade machines work the same way, with the joystick and buttons inputting commands to tell the game what to do.
With nearly half a mile of wires and parts to activate different functions of the game, pinball machines are hard to fix. But Wolper uses the computer in the machine to find what’s broken. Behind the coin slot on the front of the machine are buttons that service the machine. When the buttons are pressed, they send commands to the machine to test switches and lights and point out the ones that are failing.
“They built these games with a pretty good level of quality, but there was no way to build something so complex without it breaking and needing repair,” Bailey said.
One of the most important aspects of an arcade machine is the artwork and design. CJ Saulle is a member of the arcade club who specializes in making the outer cabinets of the games look good. Replacing buttons and joysticks, sanding down wood, repainting the graphics, putting in new plastic moldings and rejuvenating the marquis signs are needed to fully complete a restoration.
The time, refurbishing cost and resale value of an arcade machine vary, said Harry Dods, a private arcade cabinet refurbisher. If the condition of the machine is poor, it will cost more time and money. The resale value varies because some games are more desirable than others. Bailey said that his “Baby Pac-Man” game, which is an arcade video game and pinball machine in one, is only worth $700 to $800. But Wolper’s “Champion Pub” pinball machine is on sale for $5,800 after he spent over a 100 hours fixing the game.
But even when the machines are fully restored and ready to be shown to the public, they are still prone to error.
“Even tonight, people coming into play these games later, something will break” Bailey said. “Something breaks every time that people play them.”