Vintage games are a shrinking share of the market for amusement operators. But some retro selections — Ms. Pac-Man and pinball chief among them — retain their appeal decade after decade, justifying space in FECs and taverns.
Ms. Pac-Man, that dot-chomping icon of the 1980s, “is the steadiest vintage game,” said Bob Thomas, longtime owner of Liberty Coin Inc. and Minnesota Pastime in Virginia, Minn. Pinball remains strong as well, although Thomas relies on vintage models; new ones, he explained, wouldn’t earn enough to offset the upfront expense. And during the pandemic, Thomas has done a brisk business unloading vintage pinball machines to home buyers. “It takes an awful lot of 50 cent plays to make what you sell them for — $2,000,” noted Thomas.
But Matt Zasmeta, owner of Hazelwood Corporation in North Aiken, Minn., recently invested in a few new pinball machines. Ms. Pac-Man also remains a vintage standby for the outfit, and Zasmeta also invested in multi-game machines that have been a hit. “We’ve had a really good year,” he reported. Despite the decline of gaming in taverns, which constitute a large share of his business, “business has rebounded really well” since the 2020 doldrums. Predictably enough, Zasmeta notices older players on the older games — what he calls the “parent” demographic, who remember the 1980s, when Ms. Pac-Man was the hot new thing.

“I think there’s more opportunity than ever. You have to find new places, equipment that fits today’s market. We’re a rural operation, with limited population, and we have to push to survive.”
– Bob Thomas, Liberty Coin, Virginia, Minn.

In Jacksonville, Gator Coin Machine Company Owner Kathey Manning said kids love to play Ms. Pac-Man, along with the cocktail table and the multicade with multiple games. “But when I say kids, I mean 50-year-old kids,” added Fanning with a chuckle. Actual children nowadays are harder to pry off their handheld devices, from laptops to cell phones. “It’s got to be something pretty amazing for them to put their money in a machine,” Fanning observed.
Race car games are perennially popular with Fanning’s clientele, which spans seven counties in North Florida. And pinball remains a favorite — “the older, the better.” These are some of the few retro games popular enough to redeem their higher maintenance costs, along with the hassle of finding parts for 40-year-old machines. “But people play the heck out of them,” said Fanning. “They just love it.”
Fanning said business has been strong in Florida, a state that limited pandemic restrictions. But its unique demographics can make revenue unpredictable. “Success with games is all about location, but it’s hard to tell where a particular machine will do well,” Fanning reflected. “Sometimes you put it in a high traffic location, and it doesn’t do anything. Other times, it’s in the middle of nowhere, and it does great.”
Jukeboxes are “where we make our money,” said Adam Koch, an owner of Bear Creek Music and Games in Indian Hills, Colo. He and his father, Co-Owner Charles, have found that newer games are better for the bottom line than retro amusements. “There’s more reliability and they earn better,” Koch explained.
The exceptions are, you guessed it, Ms. Pac-Man and 1990s-era pinball machines. “People love them,” Koch said. Throughout the company’s route, which has between 35 and 40 locations, his clientele for these games is a mix of older nostalgists and curious youngsters. “Pinball players are pinball players,” Koch explained. “Sometimes they’ll just look for the stuff they haven’t seen in a while.”
Berry Music and Vending Co. used to have a trove of vintage arcade amusements, like Donkey Kong and Asteroids. But a leak at its Tyler, Texas warehouse destroyed many of them. Owner Regan Wilson, whose father started the 55-year-old business, said most of those older games were too expensive to replace, and unlikely to justify the investment.
Today, the business has about 20 accounts, mostly small bars. Along with pool and billiards, vintage amusements like Ms. Pac-Man and Cruis’n World remain popular. But Wilson has seen demand for video games decline overall. “It’s hard to keep people entertained nowadays when they’ve got everything already on their phone,” he observed.
Wilson and his mother, Co-Owner Janet, have invested in new equipment since the pandemic. Business remains steady, as change comes slowly in their corner of rural East Texas. “The good ones are still good, the slow ones are still slow,” Wilson said. “I just hunker down and keep going to work.”
In Virginia, Minn., Liberty Coin Owner Bob Thomas said that despite challenges in the industry, his own business is up 10 percent since the pandemic started. “I think there’s more opportunity than ever,” he said. “You have to find new places, equipment that fits today’s market. We’re a rural operation, with limited population, and we have to push to survive.”
New crane and claw machines have been winners for Liberty Coin. Then there are the gambles that didn’t pay off, like the shuffle alleys Thomas renovated to attract old timers. “I thought it would be a novelty…and people remember them, but they didn’t really want to play them,” Thomas said ruefully. “But if you don’t gamble, you can’t win.”
That’s why Thomas takes a critical approach to vintage games. The durable favorites, like Ms. Pac-Man, can be consistent earners as they age into icon status. “But this industry is built on the latest and greatest, and I just don’t see that retro games are in high demand overall,” Thomas reflected. “My analogy would be, if you have a 1960 car, it looks pretty and it still runs. And inside, you’ll find all the comfort and convenience …of 1960.” 