Business Lifestyles

Plunge into nostalgia at two arcades heading to Aiken and Evans

(Featured photo: Ron Rice, a visitor to Aiken from Sugar Land, Texas, got a sneak preview of Radioactive Pinball Arcade in Aiken and is shown playing the Indiana Jones pinball machine. Ron Baxley Jr./Augusta Good News)

(Editor’s Note: The Columbia County Board of Commissioners approved Retro City at its Sept. 19, 2023 meeting and the arcade plans a Sept. 22 opening.)

Beeps, button clicks, springy pinball releases, synthesized music and flashing lights trigger many memories in retro-gamers, taking them into a virtual carnival of unique sounds and colors from arcades of the past.

Area residents will soon be able to experience these sensory-filled trips down memory lane at two retro arcades.

Robert Owens, owner of Retro City Arcade with his wife Kathleen in Evans, plays the 1980 first multi-level play-face pinball machine, “Black Knight”. Ron Baxley Jr./Augusta Good News

One of them, Radioactive Pinball Arcade, 113 Laurens St. SW #103 in downtown Aiken, has already sold out its grand opening event on Saturday, Aug. 26. The other, Retro City Arcade, 4446 Washington Rd. Suite 7 in Evans, is waiting to open in September because of a hearing related to a Columbia County ordinance.

Eric and Erin Edwards are opening Radioactive Pinball Arcade with many modern and vintage arcade games, including the 1949 Three Musketeers pinball game. The machine is just 26 years from being antique yet still works. It contains pins that light up and flippers but is just one level, unlike modern machines which have tunnels and upper levels at times.

“A couple from Aiken heard we were opening the business and basically just donated it to us,” Eric Edwards said.

Next, many retro-gamers remember the big Pac-Man craze of the 1980s which resulted in Pac-Man “sequels” being created with Ms. Pac-Man being as popular or more-so than her male predecessor.

Radioactive has Super Pac-Man, where Pac-Man turns gigantic with special power pellets, as well as the other two. In addition, it has many other classic games, including Centipede, Tron and Popeye

Among the pinball machines are some 1990s ones with extra motion features. One is called Fish Tales with something Edwards calls a topper, which allows the fish atop it to wiggle during play.

Eric Edwards of Radioactive Pinball Arcade in Aiken lifts up a Freddy Krueger garden figure from the floor. He had customized it to be a topper for the “The Nightmare on Elm Street” pinball machine, planning to affix it to the top of the machine. Ron Baxley Jr.,/Augusta Good News

He has customized toppers for modern machines to have retro themes. A modified modern Back to the Future pinball machine has a flux capacitor as the topper and a DeLorean inside which lights up when struck by the ball.

Edwards customized a Freddy Krueger figure intended for a yard as a topper for the modern The Nightmare on Elm Street pinball game.

Where some 90s’ games had advanced motion features, modern pinball machines play digital TV or movie scenes or display digital stills. As Eric Edwards played The Munsters, the pinball machine showed some of the latter.  

The arcade has drawn some early attention. 

On Tuesday, Aug. 15, Ron Rice, a visitor to Aiken from Sugar Land, Texas, saw Radioactive Pinball Arcade’s owner through the window and asked if he could come in several days before the soft opening. He was visiting his daughter, Marilyn Harris and her sons, Pierce Poole, 18, and Preston Poole, 16.

Eric Edwards allowed all of them to come in briefly for a preview but had to lock up shortly after. 

Rice played the Indiana Jones pinball game and a few others while his grandsons and daughter played the other pinball machines.

During play, Rice managed to put some balls toward the Ark of the Covenant. Edwards said enough balls get near the Ark, it opens up and a bunch of balls enter the playing field.

Radioactive isn’t the only arcade opening. Across the Savannah River in Evans, Retro City Arcade plans to open next month.

Robert and Kathleen Owens are one-time Virginians who owned pinball machines in their own home for 25 years. They plan on opening the Evans pinball joint as soon as they can. The date hinges on a Sept. 19 hearing in Columbia County related to an ordinance which equates arcades to gambling.

The ordinance, Sec. 22-11 states that “bona fide coin-operated amusement machines requiring some skill may be operated in the unincorporated area of the county under a license granted by the board of commissioners upon the terms and conditions provided in this article…”

Pinball was illegal in parts of the country at one time. According an article at the History Channel, it was perceived as gambling in the 1940s because people could win free plays. Also, then New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia believed it contributed to juvenile delinquency and that it stole lunch money from schoolchildren who inserted their coin into the machines.

Eric Edwards demonstrates the vintage 1949 working pinball game “Three Musketeers” at Radioactive Pinball Arcade, which he is opening with his wife Erin in Aiken. Ron Baxley Jr./Augusta Good News

In his current space, Owens said he hopes to have 16 or 17 pinball machines and at least 20 arcade machines. When he expands, he plans to knock down a wall into a space next door and will have room for more.

Retro City Arcade has several vintage pinball machines.

“We have the first talking pinball machine (created), Gorgar, from 1979,” Owens said.

They also have the first multi-level play-face pinball machine from 1980, Black Knight, and another pinball machine with voice and sound, the space-themed Blackout. Kathleen Owens demonstrated playing that one.  

In addition, they already had one arcade game in place based on the Die Hard film from the 1980s. Speaking of 80s nostalgia, one modern pinball game they have is Stranger Things, a game based on the retro-80s Netflix show. The show also depicts some of the characters in an 80s arcade.

Robert Owens, who has his own arcade nostalgia, demonstrated the game.  

“(Years ago), a friend of my family owned an arcade,” he said. 

He then demonstrated that by hitting the lab door depicted in the game enough times, it opens.

“When the door is up, it looks like the Hawkins lab. When the door comes down, the Demogorgon (a monster from the series) comes out,” Robert Owens said.

He demonstrated that you could then hit the Demogorgon with balls in the game.

Robert and Kathleen Owens also plan to have a birthday party room and will have LED projectors with stars and the Northern lights projected on the birthday room walls. They mentioned having skee-ball and basketball toss games as well as some driving games in keeping with the birthday fun for the kids.

Both establishments will charge a fee for continuous play and will have multi-cade machines with a lot of memory which will allow for the play of many arcade games beyond those in the physical cabinets. Full lists of their games can be found on their websites.

Correspondent Ron Baxley Jr. is a veteran journalist who has worked with multiple news organizations in his career. Subscribe to the Augusta Good News’ newsletter here.

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