Darren Spohn and his wife Mikki opened Pinballz in 2010 and have provided Austin with its pinball fix ever since. Spohn has run tech and IT companies in town for 15 years, but his love for pinball machines began long before that.
“I asked my wife ‘Do you mind if I get a pinball machine?’ and she said ‘Oh, that’s fine,’” Spohn said. “I bought it and I said ‘Well, I actually bought two,’ and then like a week later we’re out at lunch, and I said ‘Hey, I’ve got to tell you — I have seven of these now,’ and it just kind of blossomed from there.”
What began as a personal collection has now grown to more than 100 pinball machines and a cadre of old-school video and ticket-rewarding games.
“We really felt that the town needed something different like that,” Spohn said. “It needed a kind of cool, ‘Cheers bar’ approach to running one of those. And we figured we’d give it a shot, and we opened it three years ago, and it’s been very successful.”
Pinballz is family-oriented during the day, but when the sun goes down, the atmosphere gets downright adult. Gamers stay late into the night on weekends, which may or may not be aided by the casual BYOB policy for those 21 and older.
A specialized arcade such as Pinballz did not exist in Austin outside of giant family entertainment centers.
With more than 200 games, the biggest challenge facing the arcade is simply keeping everything running, from AC/DC pinball to Dance Dance Revolution and from the classic Skeeball to a custom-built big screen Street Fighter.
“We have over 100 games and things go constantly wrong on those,” Spohn said. “We don’t charge a lot of money for our games, so it’s a challenge with what we charge to keep everything running at 95 percent or higher.”
William “Billy” Renquen has worked on these games since the arcade opened. A certified master auto-mechanic by trade, Renquen keeps the flippers flipping at Pinballz in addition to running his own auto-shop.
“When we first opened three years ago, they were running maybe 60-70 percent, and I was fixing five to seven games a day,” Renquen said. “It took me about a year to catch up and have all of them running at once.”
Machines go down daily at Pinballz, and it’s up to Renquen and his team to get them back up.
“The machines are high maintenance,” Renquen said. “They vibrate a lot. There’s a lot of movement going on, so they fail pretty constantly — some more than others. You just work as fast as you can and as hard as you can … It’s a pride thing for me to keep them all running.”
Pinballz harkens to the early days of arcade gaming. It’s not merely the games that bring back nostalgia for an era the college generation missed.
“To us it’s rewarding that we brought in a place like that — that really ramps up Austin,” Spohn said. “It’s that really cool feeling that we brought something unique to Austin.”