Dallas Needs a Pinball Arcade

Visitors to the Texas Pinball Festival in Frisco could play over 350 pinball tables.
Visitors to the Texas Pinball Festival in Frisco could play over 350 pinball tables.
Kenneth Everette Pritchard

All types of people showed up for the three-day Texas Pinball Festival this month. The young and old, male and female, pierced and khaki-ed all came to Frisco to play more than 350 tables.

The games spanned the history of pinball, starting with the first flipper games of the '50s. Kids weaned on Xboxes and Netflix played at early electronic pinball tables of the '70s. And older players got to experience new tables like Jersey Jack's The Wizard of Oz- themed machine, which has LED lights and three levels of play. It's downright beautiful.

Many of us grew up imagining the future would look like something out of The Jetsons. And really, that wasn’t far off. (So, a Roomba isn’t quite the same as Rosie the Robot Maid, but it's close.) What we didn’t predict was that once all of the gadgets arrived, embracing their opposite – the clunky, inefficient ways of the past — would start to become a more exciting prospect.

How else can we explain the renewed appeal of vinyl and, more recently, cassette tapes, in a world where Spotify also exists? Instant gratification has plenty to recommend it, but there's also a certain kind of ennui that comes with having five seasons of a show to binge. Activities like pinball demand some focus and effort, starting with hunting for a specific table to play. Because they force you to engage, they can be much more rewarding. A real ball is more unpredictable than the computer algorithms most video games rely on.

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Many assumed pinball had peaked and was headed for swift extinction after the '90s. In the early 2000's only one manufacturer, Stern, was left. But in the last five years, pinball has resurged in a backlash against more sophisticated technology. Now, new companies are forming to make pinball games. 

Cities with hipper reputations than Dallas have already built their own temples to pinball. In Austin, Pinballz has 30 to 100 games at any given time, and San Francisco also has a pinball mecca, Free Gold Watch. At both places you can join leagues.  

Despite the success of Texas Pinball Festival, which drew enthusiasts from across the country — including representatives from Pinballz, Free Gold Watch, Stern, Jersey Jack and artists who design for the games — Dallas hasn't fully jumped on the trend. Right now the best places to play in the area are Free Play in Richardson (1730 E. Beltline Road) and NickelRama, which is further east on the same road in Garland (1238 Belt Line Road).

At Free Play, a $10 entry fee grants you unlimited access to a bunch of arcade games as well as a few pinball tables, and there's beer and food, too. NickelRama has the largest selection of tables in one spot, but beware that it has a bit of a Chuck E. Cheese feel on weekends. You'll pay $3.25 to get in and then buy a bucket of nickels to use in the machines (most of the pinball tables cost 20 cents). Some movie theaters and bars have a pinball table or two on site, and if you want to know which tables those are and where, you can use this map to find them. 

But the festival showed that there's plenty of room and enthusiasm to support Dallas' first adult-friendly, pinball-oriented arcade. It's not like the city hasn't eagerly embraced lots of other nostalgic trends. We have a slew of great record stores, a cassette label funded by a city grant, Vice Palace Tapes, and plenty of hip restaurants where you'll find menus full of dressed-up versions of comforting classics. Turning back the clock on recreation is the next logical step. And why stop with pinball? Let's also see more adult skate nights at the roller rink, and a drive-in movie closer than Ennis, while we're at it. We're all a bit tired of living out The Jetsons; let's fix that with a dash of The Flintstones. 


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