TRAVERSE CITY — Jon Klinkel throttled back when he stepped to the black, bleeping Galaga game at the Coin Slot arcade last month.
He wished only to dominate the high score, not crush. Dominating is a two-hour game; crushing means more than seven hours on the same proverbial quarter, sliding your spaceship across the bottom of the screen, shooting and evading bomb-dropping insects.
Klinkel reaches the untouchable point — usually just under where the machine’s counter rolls back to zero — then moves on to the next arcade. High score on the Coin Slot’s “Galaga” is now a hair under a million points.
“I just played one game — I quit after 999,920 and let the ships die off ... It’s hard to stand for that long,” Klinkel said. “It’s just one of my goals to have the high score in any place I go.”
The 48-year-old Battle Creek is OG — an original gamer — who has watched his teen pastime get the video game equivalent of an extra life after game over.
“Kids discovered them again — ‘retro’ is what they call them,” Klinkel said of resurgent interest in games like his beloved “Galaga” and arcade culture. “You see arcades popping up all over the country, it’s a huge revival. They’re booming as much as the console industry.”
A Wednesday night at the Coin Slot makes the case as families, 40-somethings and teens cram into the East Front Street arcade to “Rampage” cities, save princesses and roll a ski-ball.
“There’s a huge range in age depending on the time of day,” said Scott Pierson, who owns Coin Slot with his wife Erica. “Families come in earlier, then it transitions at night. The pinball players are the last to go.”
Pierson is 32, younger than most of his arcade games. He started with a personal collection of games like “Centipede” before he “got the fever.”
Researchers pin the resurgence in arcade culture on people like him, and the current wave of nostalgia rolling through other aspects of American culture — like “Stranger Things” and Rollerblades.
“The interest was already there — we just wanted to prove that there was a market for it, and the demand for it is huge,” Pierson said of the business. “Every person who comes in the door has a connection to a particular game, like ‘oh, this one was at my dentist’s office.’”
Pinball is Dean Sparks’ jam. The barbecue restaurant owner is taking advantage of the slow season to work on his whizbang nearly every day the Coin Slot is open.
Sparks, 42, grew up outside of Grand Rapids, playing “The Addams Family” pinball after school at a putt-putt course arcade. He joined the workforce about the same time arcades started closing, and got too busy for pinball.
But the Coin Slot’s opening across the street from his restaurant brought it all back.
“That it’s in my backyard is a lot of fun,” Sparks said. “Some of the arcade games are a little nostalgic. Pinball is timeless.”
Today’s futuristic tales even get nostalgic treatment, like the Stephen Spielberg-directed film “Ready Player One,” which released this weekend. The movie, based on Ernest Cline’s novel of the same name, takes place beyond 2044 but the plot hinges on the outcomes of games like “Pac Man,” “Dungeons of Daggorath” and “Joust,” plus knowledge of Rush lyrics and “Blade Runner” references.
Klinkel is taking the arcade nostalgia wave to the next level — riding it to Santa Fe, New Mexico for an expense-paid trip to the Galaga World Championship, hosted by Meow Wolf art collective. After decades working as an accountant, singing in a rock band and raising three kids, Klinkel is duking it out in the 10-player pro division competition with prizes of $10,000, $5,000 and $2,500 awarded to the top three finishers.
Most of his competition is younger than him, he said. But his memory is longer — after all, he’s been playing Galaga ever since he was 12 when the grocery store in Albion installed a game cabinet in 1982.
“I think it’s really the fact that I got good at it ... if I hadn’t gotten so good at it, I would’ve stopped playing it,” Klinkel said.
“I actually feel like I have a shot. It’s the hand-eye coordination, and after playing it for so many years, you tend to get a feel for what you need to be. You don’t have to watch the ship.”