That morning, Gar Nelson – an electrical engineer who left a job at We Energies to open the arcade in a Menomonee Falls strip mall in 2017 – turned up early to wax the tables, making them as “fast” and punishing as possible. Sure enough, players fell by the wayside, shaking their heads, silver ball after silver ball slipping through their flippers. This was real, old-school pinball.
The final match went down on the robot-themed Pin-Bot table first released in 1986. Jonathan Maske, a lean man with a thick goatee and Converse tennis shoes, shook hands with and squared off against Anton Wycklendt, whose Pac-Man shirt left his tattooed arms mostly bare. The Pin-Bot swatted down both men on the first ball, and they tried to regain their footing on the second. Maske opened the robot’s mouth and rolled in a shot, racking up points. Wycklendt lost control at the last moment and shook the machine violently with his hands, risking a tilt penalty in a final attempt to avoid the certain drop. In the end, Maske took home the (real) trophy.
Local pinball gurus say interest in the pastime’s competitive side has taken off in the past five years, rising alongside renewed interest in retro video games. The Garcade has one of the few large collections in the state that’s playable by the public; most are held privately or loaned out in small numbers. A certain Tom in Appleton is said to have more than 40 machines, and an Eric in Neenah more than 30. Milwaukee resident Jim Radovich hosts an officially sanctioned league at his house once a month. Inside, he’s collected more than two dozen well-maintained pinball machines, from Indiana Jones and X-Men tables in his basement to the high-tech Houdini in his living room. “I like the games that are more difficult to get to the end of,” he says.
Where to play
Bars around the city
You’ve got two categories here: arcade-oriented newcomers such as Up-Down MKE (615 E. Brady St.) and 1983 Arcade Bar (1110 N. Old World Third St.), and older mainstays like Veggas Pub (2479 N. Fratney St.) and Finks (1875 N. Humboldt Blvd.) both of which have several tables each. Just don’t forget to bring quarters.
N85 W15920 Appleton Ave., Menomonee Falls
Gar Nelson’s collection has 1980s-era machines in spades, all in excellent condition. The family-friendly Garcade is also the only completely non-alcoholic establishment on this list.
2801 S. Fifth Ct.
This fun-for-the-kids place on the South Side has stepped up its pinball game in recent years and become a serious destination for adults.