Steven Van Splinter Jr. is a classic arcade game enthusiast who remembers playing them at campgrounds.
In September 2014, Van Splinter bought an old arcade game for himself online. But since he couldn’t afford one that worked, his came with a built-in project — he had to learn how to repair it.
“If I wanted to play them, I had to fix them,” Van Splinter said.
Eventually he got that first game working, which led him to buy more. And more.
“I just buy them from whoever has them. I pull them out of basements and get them from old (arcade) operators,” Van Splinter said. “The ones I’ve been getting have been sitting for 10, 20, 30, 40 years.”
And as he bought more classic arcade and pinball games, he got more experience bringing the games back to life. Because he had to.
“Pretty much all of them, they haven’t been played or used in a long time. It never seems like people sell their working games,” he said.
The collection, which includes both arcade and pinball games, kept growing, filling the garage and basement of his parents’ house in Shillington, where he lives.
Last year, along with his fiancee, Mallorey Reese, he had a business idea when their stockpile passed 80 games.
“We had all the games, pretty much already, to start an arcade,” he said.
Now, Van Splinter and Reese are on the cusp of seeing that idea come to fruition with their Gameseum, an arcade slated to open early this spring in Ephrata.
Featuring classic arcade games and pinball machines, Gameseum is taking a roughly 3,000-square-foot space behind Royer’s Pharmacy. The space can accommodate at least 40 games. The others will be added if there’s room, or rotated in to keep the offerings fresh, he said.
“A lot of these have sat for decades waiting, and it’s a miracle they didn’t get thrown away,” he said. “Now they get their second coming.”
Nostalgic and fun
Most of the arcade games at the Gameseum will be from the 1980s, with pinball machines from the 1960s and 1970s. Among the titles are “Donkey Kong,” “Pac-Man,” “Galaxian,” “Mortal Kombat,” “Asteroids,” “Golden Axe” and “Track & Field.”
“We try to get the ones that please everybody, then we try to throw in the obscure ones,” he said.
Van Splinter said he is especially excited about the pinball machines, which will make up about half of the collection. He said they are an experience that can’t be duplicated on a modern gaming system.
“They’re harder to find, they’re more expensive and they’re harder to fix,” he said.
The 20-year-old Van Splinter, who discovered arcade games long after their heyday, said he thinks the pinball machines and old arcade games still hold their entertainment value.
“These games are still very very fun, even nostalgia aside. Even the ’60s pinball machines, they’re similar to what people play on their iPhones and Androids,” he said. “They hold their own without nostalgia, and when you add that, it gets even better.”
At Gameseum, instead of inserting a quarter to play, customers will pay $10 for an hour of unlimited play, or $25 for the whole day.
In addition to eliminating something else that can break, Van Splinter said doing away with the coins will free up customers to play more.
“This way people can get good at the games and start reaching the end levels, the stuff they’ve never seen,” he said. “Probably no one knows the third level of ‘Donkey Kong,’ which is going to be possible now.”
Making something from nothing
Over the years, Van Splinter estimates, he has spent less than $10,000 on his collection, which he thinks could now be worth around $60,000.
That added value gives him some extra comfort about the new venture, even though he said he is loathe to sell any of his games. Instead, he got a loan for an undisclosed amount from a family member to help him get things underway.
Working on other people’s games has also funded part of his dream, but Van Splinter said he’ll stop doing that once the Gameseum opens since it can be a complicated process.
“It’s one of the few businesses where not everything can be fixed, and people don’t like that,” he said. “Battery acid is a big problem. Lots of games use batteries, and if they sit a long time the acid corrodes them; you can’t really fix that kind of stuff.”
In his experience, it can sometimes take a while to get a game in working order. He has spent 40 hours bringing a game back to life. And time is not the only obstacle.
“Sometimes parts don’t pop up. But then they do, and you can continue on a project,” he said. “Some of them you’ve got to piece together part by part.”
For example, he got a $150 “Donkey Kong” cabinet and some of the other necessary parts from Virginia.
“It’s one of those games that the price (of the complete, functional game) exceeds the (total value of the) parts just because of how desirable it is,” he said. “So by using all my knowledge and putting it together myself, I’m able to not only have (a “Donkey Kong”) I know will work, but also for a cheaper price.”
Van Splinter said that adding value like that, over and over again, to broken games enabled him to make the Gameseum possible.
“I pretty much made this from nothing,” he said.