Free Play: Pinball in KC

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Pinball in KC. // Photo by Kelcie McKenney

Pinball machines hold some serious nostalgia. Maybe you remember a busted-ass Terminator 2: Judgment Day machine in the corner of a pizza joint. Maybe there were a few intimidating specimens lined up at the arcade in the mall. But it doesn’t have to be confined to memory.

Kansas City has a thriving pinball scene, whether you’re looking to collect, play casually, or truly dive in and compete in high-level tournaments—you just have to know where to look. 

Nick Greenup is the owner and pinball adoption specialist at Solid State Pinball Supply. This KCMO shop has a functioning arcade with dozens of pinball machines. They order parts, fix cabinets, and run tournaments throughout the year. Greenup describes the draw of pinball as unlike anything else.

“Pinball has elements of video games, gambling games, skill-based dexterity games, and a risk-reward element that hits just right,” he says. “Combine that with the nostalgia, the themes, the competitive aspect, and the intuitive ‘survival’ aspect… pinball has something for everyone.”

The arcade community is the central element that keeps Greenup and other notable locals coming back to the bumpers. “There are a ton of different personalities and walks of life who all come together and bond over their love of pinball,” he says.

“The pinball community in KC is full of the nicest people. I’m so happy to call many of them my friends,” says Artie Scholes, owner of the 403 Club. The bar in Strawberry Hill currently houses around 12 machines.

“I was immediately hooked after my first tournament. Growing up, I had always loved playing pinball with my dad, and I had such a good time finding a community of people with the same interest,” Keri Wing says. Wing is a pinball repair specialist through Solid State Pinball with Greenup, and she also travels to bars and homes to fix machines through her own company, Keri Wing Pinball. 

Wing is also a bit of a wide-scale celebrity in the pinball scene. As of this writing, she’s ranked in the top 50 of all pinball players worldwide, and she’s currently the no. 1 women’s player in the world.

Solid State Upstairs Jordan Baranowski

Solid State Pinball Supply. // Photo by Jordan Baranowski

Bumper Legacy

Though the origins of modern pinball date back much further, the first wave of machines that could really identify as “pinball” came out around 1950.

These contraptions are usually referred to as electromechanical (EM) machines—they’re easily identified by their scorekeeping reels, as opposed to digital displays, and those charming sounds: bells, buzzes, and chimes. Popular machines of this era include Heat Wave, Centigrade 37, and Kings & Queens.

The next evolution of pinball came around 1980, when solid state machines arrived on the scene. These machines used microchips and complex circuitry to help control events that were happening around the playfield, allowing much more elaborate designs.

This updated technology also allowed the introduction of music and voices, easier incorporation of ramps and layout elements, and made it a practical necessity for machines to include multiball modes. Firepower is widely credited as the first solid state machine to include multiball. Other examples of early solid state machines include Centaur, Flash Gordon, and Paragon.

Solid state machines soon incorporated dot-matrix screen displays, showcasing fun animation alongside the score during gameplay. Those have evolved on modern machines to LCD displays, allowing full video clips and other complex videos to play out during each ball.

Most modern machines draw from licensed properties. Movies and TV shows are popular (think Deadpool, Godzilla, Rick and Morty, and Stranger Things). Bands are also a fairly common pinball license—you can rock out to KISS, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, The Beatles, and more while you flip.

Pizza West Jordan Baranowski

Pizza West. // Photo by Jordan Baranowski

Wizard Mode

Think you have what it takes to climb the ranks and become a top player in the Kansas City community? 

“One of the key factors that draws people to pinball is how it has basically stayed unchanged for decades,” Greenup says. He explains that, while every machine has different strategies and layouts, it’s easy to grasp the basics. “You launch the ball, and you do whatever you can to not let it drain. That’s a very simple objective.” It’s an objective that’s stayed the same for nearly a century.

It can be daunting to try to figure out what’s happening on any given cabinet while you’re focusing on not allowing the ball to sneak past your flippers. At the most basic level, you want to do everything you can to keep the ball under control and shoot at flashing lights.

It sounds reductive, but pinball machines are pretty good at telling you what to do if you know what to look for. Flashing lights and audio cues are the game’s way of telling you where to aim.

But how do you keep the ball under control? That’s where practice comes in. Machines are designed to entice you to try high-risk shots, which can often send the ball caroming across the playfield if they aren’t hit well. Side-to-side ball movement is a killer in pinball, as it’s much harder to predict where the ball is headed and save it from draining. 

Wing recommends learning how to slow the ball down, and to practice aiming for the same ramp or other shot repeatedly. This will help you learn how the angle and speed of the flipper can change how the ball travels, and these skills can easily transfer between shots and different machines.

Once you’ve learned an element of control, there are all sorts of skills to master—nudging the game just enough to save a ball but not enough to tilt, which locks your flippers and ends your ball entirely.

Techniques with fancy-sounding names like “live catches”, “post transfers”, and “slap saves” get thrown around, and all have situational usability.

Wing says that taking the next step as a player involves being familiar enough with the machine and your own skills to know what to do and when to do it, often in a series of split-second decisions. “Lucky for us, practicing those skills is fun,” she says.

Both Wing and Greenup recommend watching YouTube channels like “PAPAPinball” and “DEAD FLIP,” or tuning into Twitch.tv tournament streams.

“When you’re inexperienced, watching good players without much context is hard to follow,” Greenup says. “But stream commentators and YouTube tutorials usually do a great job of explaining what a player is trying to do, or why they shoot their ball a certain way. Watching high-level play with an underlying explanation can really change how you approach a game of pinball.”

403 Club Jordan Baranowski

403 Club. // Photo by Jordan Baranowski

Novelty Play

If you’re just starting out in pinball, you’ll want a spot with a variety of well-maintained games. Pinball machines take a lot of abuse. It might not seem like a big deal, but imagine shooting at a dented basketball hoop. Here are the spots around Kansas City we recommend to get your flip on.

Solid State Pinball Supply 

1106 E 30th St, Kansas City, MO 64109

There are a few unique details that make Solid State one of our top spots. The payment system is one of them. Rather than dropping coins into the machine for each play, all of Solid State’s machines are set to free play, which allows you to, instead, pay by the hour.

This makes for a worthy practice environment, as you don’t have to worry about “wasting” a game by working on a technique or shot that you aren’t familiar with. It’s also located in the same building as The Combine, so you can pop over for a slice of pizza and a beer in between rounds.

Solid State Pinball Supply also has a range of machines from the 1960s to some of the most recent releases. Greenup and Wing are always tinkering away, providing expert upkeep. If you’re looking to purchase a machine or parts for personal use, Solid State is a great place to start. Greenup is in the routing business, and he knows where and what to look for.

403 Club 

614 Reynolds Ave, Kansas City, KS 66101 

Artie Scholes took over this Strawberry Hill favorite in 2011 and made it into one of the top metro spots for playing pinball. With its well-worn interior and cheap draft beers, it’s a dive bar in all the right ways. Better yet, 403 Club is also home to about a dozen perfectly maintained machines.

Scholes says that pinball players “vote with their quarters” on which machines stay on site—if one underperforms for a significant period, he rotates it out. Have a drink and watch the Royals while you get your pin on.

Pizza West and Knub’s Pub

5436 Roberts St. and 5386 Roberts St., Shawnee, KS 66226

Owned by brothers David and Cory Knubley, these Shawnee pinball spots are located just a few doors down from one another. The Knubleys have worked in the restaurant industry for decades, and both locations are family-friendly places to get your nosh on, watch sports, and earn a high score.

Pizza West and Knub’s Pub each have about 10 pinball machines that are maintained to showroom quality and regularly rotated. Like Solid State, they also try to highlight a variety of eras and styles in their machines. 

Up-Down KC

101 Southwest Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64108

Up-Down KC is a great place to get your feet wet when it comes to bumpers. They rotate through about 10 machines, but they aren’t confined to the silver ball. There are a number of coin-drop arcade games, skeeball ramps, pop-a-shots, and even a Nintendo 64 hooked up to a projector. There’s also a killer two-story patio overlooking the Crossroads Arts District.

Every game costs only one token, and you can buy pounds of them at the bar. Tokens are on special for 10 cents each all day Thursday. Games at Up-Down tend to take a lot more abuse and are maintained a lot less, but you certainly get your money’s worth.

Multiball Showdown

Once you’ve learned the basics of pinball, tournaments are one of the best ways to rapidly improve—plus, you get to watch the strategies of the top players in the area.

There are a few common tournament styles to look out for:

Matchplay: Players are split into random groups, and each person plays a single game on the same machine. Points are awarded to each player based on where they finish in the group once everyone’s game is complete. After a set number of rounds, there is a cut to the top four or eight players with the highest point total for the final few rounds.

Strikeout: Similar to matchplay, strikeout tournaments also split each player into random groups for each round. Instead of awarding points after each round, the lowest-scoring players of each group receive a strike. Three strikes and you’re knocked out of the tournament.

Pingolf: Players play the same “course” of machines, with each machine representing a hole in a round of golf. Every machine has a target score that players are trying to reach. The number of balls it takes per player to get to that point value becomes their score for that hole.

For example, if the target is 50 million points, and you break 50 million on your third ball, you would score a “3” on that machine. Like a game of golf, the lowest score at the end of the round is the winner.

There are other tournament styles out there, but these seem to be the most common. Most regular tournaments follow the matchplay or strikeout framework, and playing in a single tournament will earn a spot in the official ranking system of the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA), allowing you to keep track of your progress as you play in more tournaments and increase your ranking.

Players can search for officially-sanctioned tournaments on the IFPA’s website or talk to anyone in the pinball community to find them. There are a few monthly tournaments we can count on in Kansas City:

  • First Saturday every month at 403 Club at 5 p.m.
  • Second Sunday every month at Knub’s Pub at 2 p.m.
  • Third Saturday every month at Pizza West at 5 p.m.
  • Fourth Saturday every month at Solid State Pinball Supply at 2 p.m.

Most tournaments have a small entry fee (usually $5 in addition to the coin-drop for each machine). Prize money is paid out to the top finishers, and all skill levels are welcome.

End-of-ball Bonus

If you’re like a number of people who’ve been bitten by the pinball bug, you might have fond memories of a certain machine. Pinball Maps is a crowd-sourced app and website that allows players to search for specific games and locations.

Anyone looking to buy a machine for home or business use can contact Nick Greenup for his acquisition expertise. If he doesn’t already have that machine at Solid State Pinball Supply, or in storage, he’ll likely comb through his list of contacts to help obtain one from a reputable source.

There are tons of ways to get involved with the Kansas City pinball scene, and it’s welcoming to newcomers and salty veterans alike. 

Just don’t forget your quarters.

Categories: Culture