BRISTOL, Tenn. — Since the day I was born — or pretty close anyway — I’ve had some type of video game controller in my hand.
The classic, one-button joystick of the Atari 2600, the rectangular game pad of the NES or the ergonomically correct Xbox controller. I’ve gripped them all. I’ve even been known to sling a few across the room from time to time.
And I’ve always been an arcade guy. I literally grew up in the dark recesses of the Gold Mine and Aladdin’s Castle, mastering such classics as Time Pilot, Mortal Kombat 2, and Battlezone to name a few.
But what I never really got into was pinball. I just couldn’t grasp the excitement in my formative years. All that changed, though, with the opening of Player’s arcade in the old Kingsport Mall in the ’90s.
It was there I fell in love with pinball.
The consoles of the 1990s ushered in the end of the traditional arcade. Once places of video game nirvana, arcades transitioned to well-lit spaces full of crane machines, ticket redemption counters and overpriced spider rings.
Pinball games were collateral damage with the death of the traditional arcade. By the end of the 20th century, a number of pinball companies simply went out of business, and as the years went by you’d be hard-pressed to find a pinball machine anywhere.
What were once common sights in arcades, movie theaters and grocery stores, pinball machines just couldn’t be found. So imagine my jubilation when I got wind of an arcade in Bristol, Tenn., that recently opened, one that specialized in pinball and offered a bunch of classic arcade and console games.
The place is called Flip Side Retro Arcade and Museum. It’s located at 1375 Volunteer Parkway and is open seven days a week. You pay one flat fee per day and play all the pinball you want. When I walked in, I felt like I was traveling back in time to a simpler age of dark rooms full of blinking lights and hypnotic sounds.
Owners Jackie Rhodes and Jeremy O’Neal, both of Bristol, Tenn., came up with the idea of opening an arcade around the middle of October. Six weeks later — Dec. 1 to be exact — Flip Side opened for business.
The two men had been pinball and video game collectors for years, but they didn’t know each other. Jackie saw on a collectors’ website that Jeremy was local, so he reached out to him and the two met at Jeremy’s church, talking pinball for a good two hours.
“(Jeremy) would come over to my house and play and I would pack my family up and we’d go to his house,” Jackie said.
Eventually, the two men had an idea.
“Let’s get all this stuff out of the house and share it with the community,” Jackie said.
“Why hoard it and collect it when you can reintroduce it to people who have forgotten or never seen it before?” Jeremy said.
I could not agree more.
All of the games in Flip Side are from the personal collections of Jackie and Jeremy. As I walked through the two-room arcade, I saw plenty of pinball classics such as Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Funhouse.
And there are some I’ve never seen before: the Wizard of Oz, the Hobbit and a 1955 Wonderland machine, one of only a handful left in the world.
“The first thing we wanted to do was put it out there and see if people would come,” Jackie said. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response.”
News of Flip Side is spreading mainly by word of mouth and on social media, with new people coming through the door every day.
Since both men have day jobs — Jackie in insurance and Jeremy in pharmaceuticals — the arcade is open in the evenings during the week, but earlier on the weekends. Though this means long days, neither one is complaining. They do get to hang out in an arcade and play games once in a while.
“We had homes full of games we’d play ourselves. Not only was it getting out of hand. We knew we needed to share these games with the world,” Jeremy said.
Hopefully, the world will be grateful. I know I am.
Matthew Lane covers Kingsport government for the Times News.