Flashes of multicolored lights and the assorted beeps and clangs of old arcade games float out of Plain City councilman Nick Kennedy’s basement.
The subterranean room is home to more than two dozen pinball machines. Kennedy and his son, Gregory, world pinball champions, regularly play and restore the machines.
“I’m a product of the ’80s,” Nick said. “Arcades were the thing.”
He played through college, “along with the regular antics,” he said with a grin. After college, he played in pinball leagues.
Today, Nick shares his love of pinball with his 11-year-old son.
“Once he got old enough, it became something I can do with him, without being selfish,” he said. “It’s a double standard — I don’t let him play video games, but he can come down here anytime he wants.”
The pair plays in a Columbus league — basically competing for high scores in Columbus-area basements that look much like Nick’s. They have also competed in tournaments, including state championship competitions in Ohio and Michigan and the world championships in nearby Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
For Gregory, the thrill of the game is in the skill.
“There’s a lack of luck,” he explained — experienced players know how to access the secret modes and start the quick rounds.
The software in the old pinball machines is surprisingly deep, Nick agreed. New players and experienced players can play at different levels.
The game is designed to reward big risks, he said. Easy shots around the ramps and back to the flippers score low; difficult shots at the corners score high, but the ball might be thrown around and shot back down the middle, between the two flippers.
It’s largely based on speed and angles — geometry and physics, Nick said.
And the game is making a comeback.
“A lot goes into pinball,” he said. “And obviously nostalgia plays a big part.”
Nick began collecting machines in 1998, with a piece that had a Twilight Zone theme. Pinball machines would pop up for sale at auctions as bars cleared them out for lack of use.
Those auctions dwindled as the generation that grew up in the arcade reached their 40s and had the disposable income to buy the old machines, he said. Today, the collectors find themselves selling back and forth as they seek to shake up their lineup.
“They represent something out of time,” he said. “A lot of the artwork is political statements. They’re a time capsule, so to speak.”
There are a couple of companies out there still making pinball machines, but it’s hard to find a machine in good shape without paying premium price. And it’s too expensive to find someone to fix it if you can’t do it yourself, Nick said.
“The days of the arcade are dead,” he said. “Restoration is part of the hobby.”
Every nut, screw, computer board comes out. New LED lights and plastics go back in. Some are sold, some are rotated into the collection.
“It’s a project for he and I to work on together in the winter,” Nick said.
Machine prices can range from $500 on the low end to $5,000 when restored, or even up to $20,000 depending on the collectability of the particular machine, be it the artwork or the game play.
Nick’s machines’ themes include vampires, aliens, zombies and rock bands.
The revitalization of pinball is also aided by new tech, Nick said — specifically an iPad pinball app that recreated actual arcade tables, piquing an interest among Gregory’s generation.
Gregory’s favorite of his father’s pinball machines sports a Hobbit theme — it’s the newest to the basement.
His favorite of his various medals and trophies is a jar mug he won for an undefeated run at the relatively new Level One Bar + Arcade in Columbus.
“I can show off while I drink out of it,” he said with a grin.
The duo is lucky to have leagues and tournaments, like the world championships, right in their backyard, Nick said.
“It’s fun to compete,” he said. “And despite how old you are, there’s no worry about pulling a hamstring.”
Reach Audrey Ingram at 740-852-1616, ext. 1615 or via Twitter @Audrey.MP.