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‘Old-fashioned fun’ draws largest pinball crowd yet

Games and tournaments are blast from the past

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For three days each year, blinking pinball machines, old-school arcade games and sounds of bells, beeps and whistles fill the first floor of Denver Marriott South in Lone Tree.

Here is where players, collectors and families assemble to partake in the pastime of analog gaming.

“I think it’s a unique art form that is coming back,” said Dan Nikolich, who with his wife, Holly, founded Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown and Gameroom Expo. “It’s something that you get to touch and feel versus everything in the digital world.”

Nikolich, 38, used to fix vintage gaming systems as a teenager and purchased his first pinball machine after college. Holly has a background in marketing and public relations. Together the Highlands Ranch couple started a tradition that would bring life to a hobby that nearly died in 1999, when one of the largest manufacturers, WMS Industries, closed its pinball division.

The three-day tradition started 14 years ago with some 80 games and a couple hundred people. Held from June 8-11, this year’s event featured nearly 300 games and drew thousands of guests from across the west.

For many who came, pinball is more than leveraging a tiny ball through a glass box. It’s a skill, a challenge, an art to be mastered. It holds special memories from childhood for some. It’s a collector’s item for others.

Brandon Wheeler was 9 or 10 years old when he played his first pinball machine. Its theme was Jurassic Park, his favorite movie at the time. When he was 25, he purchased his first pinball machine — also Jurassic Park-themed. Since then, he has owned 30 machines and repaired 50 to 100.

“It starts with one and they multiply,” said Wheeler, 33, of Centennial, also a tournament director of the expo. “A lot of people see movies and then want to play the game.”

Pinball, which Wheeler describes as a sport, is making a comeback for a number of reasons: the gaming community is more inclusive, older generations are passing the hobby to their kids and grandkids, and more companies are producing games, he said.

“It’s a way for companies to license popular or nostalgic property,” said Wheeler.

At the expo, themes of machines ranged from Popeye the Sailor, a newspaper comic launched in 1919, to today’s hit HBO series Game of Thrones.

When her husband purchased an Addams Family pinball machine a year and a half ago, Snow Galvin was hooked. She’s captivated by the design of the machine — its animated graphics and hidden messages on the exterior and thousands of wires on the interior. The Denver resident now plays on a league and competes in tournaments.

“You can totally nerd out on this stuff,” said Galvin, 33, who sat on a women’s panel at the expo.

Sitting a few seats down from her was Helena Higgins, women’s world champion of pinball. Higgins, originally from Sweden but now living in Thornton, said she played competitive volleyball for years and always had a knack for ball sports. Pinball was big in Sweden in the 1990s, so she started playing and competing. In 2011, at a competition, she met a man from Thornton and last year the two married at 1up LoDo, a bar and arcade in downtown Denver.

“It’s beautiful and it challenges you,” Higgins said of pinball. “It’s fun to learn the rules and be able to master the game.”

Not everyone at the expo had a history with pinball. Some people accompanied a child or spouse to simply enjoy a day of games. After receiving a wristband in a hall of the hotel, attendees had access to a giant conference room and several smaller rooms lined with every type of game — from a wooden arcade game to a life-size Pac-Man displayed on a giant screen. Vendors nestled in the corners selling tech gadgets like fidget spinners and portable lights.

Deborah Hindman, of Littleton, was there for her husband, an avid participant of the hobby. The 43-year-old hopped from game to game. Wizard of Oz is her favorite.

Cinnamon Harold, of Denver, perched behind her 4-year-old son as he maneuvered a Spider Man machine.

Her reason for attending was simple:

“It’s just old-fashioned fun.”

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