Retro Pinball Fun Amps Up around Grand Rapids
Add pinball to your list of old-time fun, game lovers.
West Michigan just got a new outlet for throwback fans: Pinball Land in downtown Rockford at 114 Courtland St is now open.
Why Open a Pinball Business?
Pinball Land is the natural next step for owner Ryan Thompson:
Growing up, I loved going to arcades with my family, especially to play pinball. I was – and still am – fascinated by the unique combination of art, engineering and game play that pinball features.
I’ve been collecting pinball (machines) for almost 10 years and felt it was time to ‘set them free’ in their natural habitat – a real arcade. All of the pinball machines are from my personal collection. I wanted to share my love of pinball and arcades with as many people as possible.
Pinball was something my home computers and video game systems could never replicate, and despite the advances in technology and smartphones, that still holds true today.
What it’s Like at Pinball Land
If you visit, you’ll find multiple – up to 12 – pinball machines set to freeplay. You can play as long as you’d like on as many machines as you please after purchasing a wristband that lets you play all the games inside, all day long. I’m glad I didn’t have to put quarters in for each game I played – the plays go quick when you’re as bad as I am!
Another bonus: You can come and go as you please, making Pinball Land an extension of your day in Rockford.
Another thing to note: Pinball Land is for all-ages. However, some kids younger than 6 might have a hard time understanding how to play pinball and kids under 4 feet tall will have difficulty seeing the playfield.
Looking for Deals?
Pinball Land offers Monday & Tuesday specials.
Monday is Momday, where mom plays for free with the purchase of a child’s admission.
Tuesdays are $2 off for everyone.
More Places to Find Pinball in Grand Rapids – West Michigan
Pinball is riding the retro resurgence train right now.
The Pyramid Scheme just announced that they’re open for all ages open play on Saturdays from 1 – 8 pm. Bring your quarters!
RLM hosts monthly (3rd Saturday of the month) all ages $10 tournaments at their 4318 Plainfield location. All machines are set to free play during these events and you’re going to get in about 8 rounds of play.
Finally, this pinball map is a great way to find bars and other locations outfitted with pinball. Be sure to pay attention to the time stamp of the latest update – some of the locations have old info and probably can’t be trusted to be up-to-date.
A Little Pinball Backstory – and the GR People Who’ve Kept it Alive
Pinball was officially invented in Ohio in 1871 but didn’t become popular til the Depression when cheap entertainment was in high demand. Automatic, coin-operated pinball machines debuted in 1931 and spread throughout the U.S.
Crazy enough, pinball was illegal from about 1940 – 1976 because many machines were rigged to spit out cash, a feature that the government saw as gambling. It took a courtroom battle to overturn the ban and convince people that pinball was a game of skill rather than a game of chance.
It was bad timing for pinball, though. Video games ultimately took pinball out of the mainstream. Now, most actual pinball machines are collector’s items.
Where would GR Pinball be Without Rodney Minch and His Friends?
We’re lucky that several local collectors willingly opened up their collections for others to play twenty years ago.
Longtime local pinball collector John Kirby reflects:
A few of us in the West MI area started collecting games around the same time.
Our pinball collecting has created long time friends with similar interests. (We started doing) meetups from auctions, (going to the) pinball expo in Chicago, attending Pinball at the Zoo in Kalamazoo (Kevin Ketchum’s creation), and throwing pinball parties at homes of fellow collectors.
According to John, collecting pinball machines twenty years ago required enthusiasts to pool their information because digital resources were not yet created.
John Kirby’s Personal Game Room
The passion for pinball amongst this small group of collectors was contagious – pretty soon more people were buying machines, hosting parties, and living the pinball life. And finally, in 2012 another local pinball enthusiast, Rodney Minch, took his love for the game and started the GR Pinball league.
With the league in place, pinball’s prominence in Grand Rapids reached a new level. The opening of Pinball Land in Rockford is the latest in West Michigan’s pinball resurgence.
Rise of the Grand Rapids Pinball League
Rodney Minch, a fixture in the GR pinball community, started collecting pinballs in the late 90’s and amassed such a collection that at one point in time he had machines in all parts of his house, including his bedroom.
This was at a time when local barcardes and arcades didn’t exist (remember, they were wiped out by home gaming consoles.)
Rodney perked up when, about 13 years ago, he caught wind that Mark Sellers, owner of the new bar Stella’s, would be bringing in pinball machines. His response? “Hey, I’ll fix these for free beer.”
Sellers asked if he was serious – and he was – and a relationship formed that exists to this day.
Stella’s was the first barcade in Grand Rapids.
Fast-forward a decade, and you’ll find Rodney still servicing Stella’s arcade games and single pinball machine. He’s also transitioned to making his living off of buying, selling, and maintaining the gaming contraptions via his business RLM Amusements and running the Grand Rapids Pinball League.
photo credit: Katy Batdorff
So You’re Saying There’s Competitive Pinball in GR?
Yes, Grand Rapids has a Pinball League. It’s been around since 2012 when Rodney started it up and they play twice a month on the 24 machines at The Pyramid Scheme. (Stella’s is currently down to one pinball game.)
Their numbers have ranged from 36 – 80 people over the years but one thing remains constant: the good people who play pinball. Rodney maintains that the people in the Pinball League are good-natured even while competitive.
We’ve got a wide variety of people out there from first-timers to people like me that have been playing 30 years.
For anyone wanting to start playing, join a pinball league. A lot of people feel intimidated at first but the best thing to do is just do it. We’re laid back. It’s all in good fun. – Rodney Minch
I was surprised to learn that pinball competition is organized on the national level – and that Michigan has many players, some of them ranked nationally.
Terms to know:
IFPA: International Flipper Pinball Association
PAPA: Professional & Amateur Pinball Association
Belles & Chimes: International Pinball Club for Women – there is a GR Chapter
When you play in the GR Pinball League (which anyone age 21+ can join at anytime – if you’re not of age, reach out to Rodney and he’ll talk to you about your options) you’re entered into the IFPA.
The IFPA, in turn, hosts state championships for the top players in the state (Michigan sends 24 players to State Championships rather than the typical 16 because we’re a superstate – a state with a high number of pinball players!) Indeed, Andy Rosa from Flint is considered to be one of the top pinball players in the world, according to IFPA.
For those wanting to up their pinball game, PAPA puts out pinball tutorials on specific games and how to play them.
State Championships are, interestingly enough, usually held on an individual’s personal private collection. There aren’t many large public collections of pinball games suitable for this type of competition, but many collectors across the state have aquired a large number of pinball machines. For example, Mike Schudel of Kalamazoo hosted the first State Championships on the 40+ pristine pinball machines in his care.
GR Pinball Leage Details
Join at any time.
They play on the 1st and 3rd Wednesdays of each month at 7 pm (arrive 10 minutes early to get signed in) at The Pyramid Scheme. 68 Commerce Ave SW, Grand Rapids, MI 49503.
Ages 21+ unless other prior arrangements have been made.
Bring quarters or use their change machine – you pay per machine you play, either 50 or 75 cents per game.
What if You Want to Rent or Buy a Pinball Machine?
If you’ve been bitten by the bug or just want to see what it’s like to have pinball in your home, you’ve got options.
As mentioned above, RLM Amusements helps people buy and sell pinball machines, as well as other arcade games. Contact Rodney at (616) 350-4088 or reach out on Facebook for info.
If you’re looking to bring pinball to your next event or just have a game in your basement for a few months – GR Pinball offers pinball machine rentals – just contact them for details. (616) 735-3599.
Thanks, Pinball Folks
Interviewing people for this story was a pleasure. There is so much excitement and energy in this culture that it really is contagious. I can’t wait to get back and play again myself.