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We got game: Chicago the capital of coin-op amusement industry for 80 years

A pinball machine is assembled at A.E.S. technology in Addison in 1976

A pinball machine is assembled at A.E.S. technology in Addison in 1976. | Sun-Times file photo

Whether furiously tapping away on a Mortal Kombat machine or going full-tilt on Star Wars pinball, chances are high that if you can put a quarter in it and play it, it’s Illinois-built.

Since at least 1930, when Gottlieb, a game company in West Humboldt Park, hit an unlikely commercial home run with a baseball-themed “pin board” game called Baffle Ball, Chicago has served as the unofficial capital of the coin-operated game manufacturing business. “The city is to pinball and coin-op video games as Detroit is to automobiles,” said Gary Stern, CEO of Stern Pinball Inc., a company that’s made electronic games in some form or another since 1977.

The difference, of course, is that cars and Detroit are already synonymous in the American imagination. After all, the Michigan metropolis’ nickname is “Motor City.”

But the public still tends to associate the Second City’s manufacturing with the old stockyards or the steel industry — not necessarily Ms. Pac Man.

Gary Stern, founder and president of Stern Pinball. | Sun-Times file photo

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“A lot of people don’t realize Chicago is the birthplace of this industry meant to separate people from their quarters. A lot of people think about Silicon Valley and games, but the manufacturing of pinball and a huge chunk of the video game industry all happened here,” says Eugene Jarvis, CEO of Raw Thrills Inc., a Skokie-based arcade game manufacturer.

Jarvis has seen much of this history firsthand. He began his career as a programmer for the Chicago-based pinball manufacturer Williams Electronics in the late 1970s and then traded his flippers for joysticks. He went on to create Defender, Robotron: 2084, Crusin’ USA and some of the biggest arcade hits of the ’80s at a time when they were mass-produced by the tens of thousands in Chicago and played in nearly every mall, amusement park and laundromat in America.

Then in the ’90s, Midway, a game maker on Chicago’s Northwest Side, had its big moment with quarter-munching hits like NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat — the bloody brawling game that prompted countless sequels, movie tie-ins, and eventually Senate hearings on game violence.

But as kids increasingly abandoned arcades for the comforts of playing powerful Nintendo and Playstation consoles in their own homes, the plug was pulled on Chicago’s arcade and pinball industry by the end of the ’90s. Many game manufacturers went bankrupt or were swallowed up by other companies — including Gottlieb, Midway, and Williams (though a home and mobile version of Mortal Kombat still is made in Chicago by a spin-off studio called Netherrealm Studios).

Workers assemble games at Stern Pinball. | Sun-Times file photo

It’s not quite game over for arcade machines and pinball, however. This decade, Gen X’ers and Millennials have returned to the games of their youth, even turning their misty-eyed nostalgia into arcade bars that serve both vintage video games and hop-heavy craft beer. That trend and a higher demand from collectors has been great news for Stern Pinball, which moved into a bigger 110,000-square-foot building in Elk Grove in 2015 and has increased the number of units it builds by 80 percent since then.

“There’s been a resurgence for pinball here and we’ve crossed the millennial divide,” Stern said. “Now we employ about 325 people and we’re proud to be American manufacturers.”

Stern also just pulled off a major licensing coup and is manufacturing the Beatles’ first-ever pinball game. They’re making only 1,964 units of the machine in honor of 1964, the year that Beatlemania first gripped the nation. Some industry sources say that it could become the most expensive pinball machine of all time.

Skokie arcade manufacturer Raw Thrills released a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game in 2018. | Facebook photo

Raw Thrills, which opened in 2001, has also reported a significant turnaround in sales since the dog days of the aughts. The company specializes in making machines that provide over-the-top sensory experiences that home gaming can’t match — racing games where players sit on a motorcycle replica and steer by leaning, shooting games that use plastic rifles and crossbow replicas, and massive LED displays.

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced it was making a new Halo game, and for the first time, gamers have to put down their Xbox controllers and get off the couch to play it. In Raw Thrills’ version of the first-person shooter, up to four players fire turret-mounted machine guns at enemies displayed on a 130-inch 4K definition screen.

“Raw Thrills is doing some really interesting stuff,” says Josh Tsui, who has worked in several Chicago video game studios and is releasing a full-length documentary about Midway’s glory days, called “Insert Coin,” in 2019. “The thing about Chicago is that there’s been so much flux with technology and the industry, but you still see some of the same familiar faces over and over again.”