HendersonvillePete Zamplas

New year, new fun spot: Pinball museum has classic games


John French runs the museum-arcade at 538 N.Main St. in Hendersonville, which he opened on the day after Thanksgiving. More than 100 people dropped in on Saturday, as the year drew toward a frolicking close.

The $10 admission enables a person to play the 20 video games and 30 pinball machines for that entire day. A person can try unfamiliar machines without fear of quickly wasting money if not catching on. The price is five dollars less than the sister arcade, similarly-named Asheville Pinball Museum.

Appalachian Pinball Museum is at the edge of Downtown at Main and Sixth Avenue, on the east side of Main just before Sixth. It is on the lower level of of the six-story, former Skyland Hotel that opened in 1929 and has had condos. The second level housed Arts Council exhibits a decade back.

The arcade is in the lower level’s former 98-seat Skyland Arts Cinema, of over a decade ago. It is soundproofed with carpeted walls. It has also housed concerts, and plays.

An elevated area is in back of the arcade, where the stage and film screen were. Up there are the rare 1985 Empire Strikes Back (ESB) game, Battlezone (1980) tank combat, and Ms. Pacman which French noted are among patrons’ most popular games.

French relates to Baby Boomers and other pinball wizards’ youthful memories of arcade games. He started with pinball, and by age eight advanced to arcade games. He loved Battlezone, by Atari. Its single-line, wireframe/vector graphics gives a 3-D-like effect with geometric obstacles. The player’s tank engages enemy tanks and missiles.

He also liked Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair, both from ’83 which unveiled film-quality animation via a laserdisc.

ESB was Atari’s sequel to its vector graphics Star Wars cockpit game — one is the Asheville arcade. In both games, the player as hero Luke Skywalker shoots lasers at various villainous crafts and aliens. Racing and other cockpit games were a major craze, a generation ago. Instead, ESB has no cockpit but an upright “cocktail” cabinet with sheltering overhang.


‘Marjorie,’ from 1947, is the museum’s initial display and sits outside the arcade. Lacking flippers, it was a game of chance often with cash payouts. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Vector graphics uses two-dimensional polygon imagery, varying in shape, size and color.

Next to ESB, in the back corner, is Asteroids that Atari launched in 1979 with ground-breaking victor graphics. The space shooter’s swiveling triangular pointer shows where you are aiming. It illusionary 3-D effect, with enemy saucers and pesky asteroids approaching from many directions and at varying speeds. This impressed youths previously who first tried it. The object is to shoot down asteroids before they hit you, and blast saucers before counter-fire strikes This requires split-second decisions.

The multi-directional motion is a huge upgrade from another classic in the arcade, Space Invaders from a mere year earlier (1978). In that 8-bit game, the player’s space ship shoots at sideways-shuffling rows of oncoming enemy crafts. Those crafts’ speed get faster and faster, as more are shot down and the game progresses.

Another such progressive challenge in the local arcade is the Tekken martial arts fighting game, first out in ’94. The foe goes much slower in the first two 50-second rounds. If the player gets to round three, the opponent is much faster with attack moves.

For those wishing time to blink while playing, Ms. Pacman with with its maze is less dizzying. It has more plot twists than the original Pacman.

For now at least, people can briefly browse the machines as a museum guest without paying. French observes that many spot a machine they loved playing decades ago, pay to get a wristband to play it, and check out other games.

People were grinning coming back from Memory Lane on Saturday evening, when The Tribune visited. “Awesome!” is Stephanie Sinnott’s experience. She and Scott Beers visited Saturday. Ms. Pac Man is her favorite, from her youth.

Pinball machines in the arcade have themes of pop culture such as Star Wars, Stargate and Teenage Ninja Turtles films; Twilight Zone and Dr. Who TV shows, rock band Kiss, Harlem Globetrotters, and wrestler The Hulk from 1979 as an early celeb machine.

Bally’s (Pinball) Wizard and Capt. Fantastic (Elton John’s alter ego) pinball are side by side. French eyes adding the Tommy machine, with the lower layout hidden to compete as if blind a la The Who’s Tommy messiah character.

Phantom of the Opera, from 1990, is among pinball machines with catchy, vibrant back-glass artwork. The arcade’s newest pinball machine is Game of Thrones, based on the mega-popular sci-fi action TV series of mythical dark ages.

Many patrons harken to a modern, bubblier era — the Eighties and Nineties. Then, gaming technology boomed in arcades ahead of on home computers, game consoles and now smart phones with much smaller controls.

Teens in the arcade said as a change of pace, they enjoy the huge machines with large controls. In the first five weeks, French noticed many patrons wore apparel of nearby Hendersonville High School.

Three teens one day locked in on the very first game they saw — one of two rifle-shooting space-age games in the concession area. French said the trio played it 418 times in a row.

Hendersonvilles new Appalachian Pinball Museum  has more than 50 video games and pinball machines, including this 1962 baseball game.
Hendersonvilles new Appalachian Pinball Museum has more than 50 video games and pinball machines, including this 1962 baseball game. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Also catching on with youth is a 1962 World Series baseball pinball machine. Metal runners atop a circular grid move around bases, when the ball hits choice spots.

In fact, pinball is a bit like baseball in developing eye-hand coordination and timing. The ball rolling down is like an oncoming pitch. The player swings not a bat, but a flipper lever at the right time to smack the ball up and far around.

French expects jammed summers crowds, just as the arcade in Asheville has been and also in a video arcade decades ago in the Blue Ridge Mall. Recently, Appalachian Pinball Museum had more people than its 60-person capacity show up at once, soon after opening that day. In such times willing extras go on a waiting list, and are called or texted once there is room for them.

French requires those younger than 15 to be accompanied in the arcade by a supervising adult. Concessions are soft drinks and chips and crackers. Several see the place as a non-alcoholic hangout for youth and others.

The museum aspect is an aesthetic and historical bonus. The Sixth Avenue entrance goes through lobby doors into an open pinball museum area once used for receptions, and gingerbread house displays.

Four early or rare machines are there, for display only. The first is one of 1,200 “Marjorie” pinball machines Gottlieb made in Chicago in 1947 amidst earliest Vegas casino days. Coin-operated Marjorie lacked flippers, to keep the ball in play to rack up more points.

Thus, she was a pure game of chance — often with cash payouts, before banned as gambling, arcade worker Rob Cousineau noted. Gottlieb revolutionized pinball with flippers, in ’47. “Pinball” is derived from machines of the Thirties having many pins in board holes. Electronic sounds and scoring emerged in the mid-Seventies.

T.C. Di Bella is majority owner of Asheville Pinball Museum he began five years ago near Grove Arcade, and the new one in Hendersonville that part-owner French operates.

French is also master technician, a trained “mech-electrician” versed in circuitry. He calls vintage arcade machines “my crossword puzzles,” with their “relay logic” tougher to repair than modern digital circuits. He used to fix and resell arcade machines.

French has a Haunted House pinball game, at home in Arden. When 15, he moved from Boulder, Colo. to Cheboygan, Mich., and to this area over a decade ago.

Appalachian Pinball Museum is open 2-9 p.m. Wed.-Fri., noon-9 p.m. Saturdays, and 1-6 on Sundays and Mondays. Private group bookings are for 6-9 p.m. Sun.-Mon. Call French at 702-9277 for further information.

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