This is the first of what I intend to be a series of “Retro Spotlight” interviews that focus on local collectors and industry alumni.
For the first foray into honing my interview skills, I had the pleasure of sitting down for a couple hours with brothers Jeremy & Matt Fleitz and business partner/Luigi impersonator extraordinaire, Joe Stith. These guys are the brainchild (and strong backs) behind the Louisville Arcade Expo and also own the Expo’s parent company, ArcadeRx.
The guys were very gracious to invite me over to their shop and allow me to ask those ‘hard-hitting’ retro questions that we all want answers to.
And they offered up free beer.
Between all the discussion and the shop tour, I was able to get my version of almost “20 questions” answered up..
1. What’s your classic gaming/retro background? What got you all interested in this hobby?
Jeremy: With Matt & I being brothers, our interests really are very much the same. We started with an Intellivision and are still BIG Intellivision fans.
Until someone can make a better console, we are going to stick to our guns.
We had the all standard and popular Intellivision games of the day, like “Lock ‘n Chase”, the Intellivoice module, etc. We weren’t really big into arcades and pinball at the time. We eventually started going to Chuck E’ Cheese and in due process begin playing some of the arcade games there. Matt was really more into the arcade games than I was. I always seemed to gravitate more towards pinball once introduced to it.
Our Grandfather started the pinball habit when he got his first machine. We played it quite a bit, but it was on a family trip to Florida where Matt, our Dad and I would play an Elvira pinball in the hotel every night of the trip. Our Father was an electronics engineer and was able to teach us quite a bit about electronics so that has come in real handy for the repair aspect of the hobby. Our Mother was a computer teacher, so between both sides of the family we were fortunate to get a good dose of skills.
Matt: Jeremy has always been really good at electronics. I remember the pinball machine that our Grandfather brought home and Jeremy was able to troubleshoot it and repair it, and that was when he was in the 7th or 8th grade. Once we got to high school then we were able to get a couple of pins and arcade machines of our own. We started with Battlezone and Commando on the arcade side.
Joe: I’m the youngest of four children, and because I grew up in the 80’s my background is pretty diverse. I got to go to arcades, play on consoles and experience computer gaming as well. When I was a little kid, my brothers had an Atari 2600 and a Commodore 64. In the mid-80’s I got into the NES and immediately wanted one. All of my friends had one and I loved it. I pleaded with my parents to get one for the family. Once they were convinced that it was “a good thing” and got us one, we hooked it up to the single 13” TV in the family room. At that point, I was hooked.
Fast forward a few years and my brother was headed to college and the Commodore 64 went along with him. My parents bought a Tandy 1000, and it then went to college with one of my other brothers and then a 286 PC came into the household and my gaming just grew out of having exposure to all of those consoles and computers while I was growing up.
2. Vids, Pins or both – and why?
Jeremy: Both, but I tend to favor the pins. Of the classic arcade games, though, I’ve always loved the vector games. I think they are so clean looking and beautiful. My favorite vector game is Star Castle and I’m lucky enough to have a project cabinet that I’m working on right now. I’m hoping to have it ready to play for the 2012 expo. I’ve always had an appreciation for pinballs and the mechanics inside of them.
Matt: Pinballs and then video games. I’ve helped Jeremy lug around a lot of pinballs over the years and have wound up with four machines of my own. Once you buy the first one, they just seem to multiply. I would love to have some classic arcade games, as well. They tend to need a lot more electronic board work so I tend to stick to the pinball machines, as they tend to need more mechanical and cosmetic repair.
Joe: I like playing pinball, but for me, I really love the vids. One of my all-time favorites video game is Street Fighter II. I used to play that with my friends and I remember playing it, Mortal Kombat and other fighters in our local arcade. I loved the social aspect of the video games and that’s what I tend to remember the most.
3. What’s your favorite vid, favorite pinball or favorite console game?
Jeremy: Game Plan Cylopes (pinball). I’m a Game Plan collector and I really admire Roger Sharpe’s work, as he was a designer for Game Plan, and this was the last pinball he designed for Game Plan. I really love the ‘monster mode’ at the end of the game, because it gives unlimited balls for 30 seconds so the winner can further ‘crush’ their opponent(s). It’s a lot of fun to play with a group of people.
Matt: Star Trek:The Next Generation (pinball). I’m a big fan of Steve Richie and this was one that he designed. It has several great story modes and I remember playing this game back in the day and it just makes me happy. I’d love to have one of these in my personal collection.
Joe: My favorite would be an NES title called “Jackal”. It’s a Konami top-down vertical shooter. The game has an awesome soundtrack and is the very first game I ever got for my NES (other than the pack-in) and my Dad and I had a lot of fun playing it. I’ve played it so much that I can almost play it blind-folded. It’s fantastic.
4. What’s your take on modern console gaming vs. retro console gaming?
Jeremy: The social aspect of classic gaming is really what appeals to me. I love playing with people and seeing everyone have a good time. I also love the old game cabinets and pinball machines because the games had a ‘personality’ and I can appreciate the design, labor and commitment that each game needed to make it out the door. The mechanics and the physics of the classic games appeal to me as well. Look at what is going on in a pinball machine… and that’s only what you can see.
Matt: I don’t really have any modern games. I have nothing against them, but the old games were geared toward the spirit of the game itself. The game was played for a high score and then game had an end. The new games are so realistic that they lose something in the translation and are more like simulations than anything else. Part of the mystique of the old games were the cabinets and the artwork, and you just don’t see that level of ‘dedication to the game’ on the new consoles.
Joe: Back in the day, the developers really had to know how to write code. They worked in assembler and learned the guts of the console or processors or specific chips they were coding for and really did innovative things like Easter eggs, hidden game credits, etc. The developers had so few tools to work with and it is amazing to see what was produced given the technology they had to work with.
Consider the ROM size of your average classic arcade game and compare that to the DVD-sized games of today and I’m not convinced that what we have today is really better. Today, it just seems like the games have ‘gone corporate’ and it’s so blatantly about the money. The second issue I have with modern gaming is that the social aspect of the games has been taken to the Internet. Gone are the days where people really set side-by-side and play in person.
5. What’s your take on the emulation scene and how it relates to the retro hobby?
Jeremy: I actually tried to take our old Commando cabinet and turn it into a MAME cabinet. I used a PC, a J-PAC and hooked everything together and it was just a lackluster experience. It does help to preserve the games, but I definitely prefer the actual game hardware. I’ve also found YouTube to be a good resource for researching the older games as it is really easy to find the videos instead of going through the hassle of a MAME cabinet setup.
Matt: I much prefer the dedicated game. There’s something about the controls, the buttons and the artwork that makes the game what it is. I love the artwork and the colors of the dedicated games. Take a Nintendo cabinet for example – line all of the Nintendo different game cabinets up in a row and look at the different colors and sights and hear the different sounds and you really appreciate what Nintendo was going after. That’s just not possible with emulation.
Joe: I think that emulation is cool. It gives us all a chance to play the games that we would never otherwise get to play. It’s also good as a debugger and helps to preserve what would otherwise disappear. However, it will never be as good as the actual game or cartridge and it seems that people tend to think that it is, but emulation just isn’t the same as playing the actual game. To actually own the arcade machine is like owning art, whereas owning the ROMS is just owning a bunch of “1’s and 0’s”.
6. The retro scene has seen somewhat of a revival in the past few years. What do you attribute this to and what do you think about the long-term health of the retro lifestyle and hobby?
Jeremy: To me it is totally about the social aspect of the arcade games and the pinball machines. There’s just no way to replicate that experience. I think that more people are getting in tune to what was so gratifying years ago. I think that people are looking more for the social/arcade experience today and are finding that these old games are the way that it happened back then and the way to make it happen today.
Matt: People in their 30’s and 40’s today are the group that grew up with these games and are the ones that remember what the arcades in their heyday was all about. It’s really about reliving your childhood and many people don’t get a chance to do that on their own. These games represent the opportunity to go back to that time and see everything again just like when they were a kid.
Joe: I think that a lot of what we are seeing now is the result of “nerd culture” being more acceptable today. A lot of people – both young and old – are getting more into technology and these games represent the beginning of that. I’ve learned a lot about the different parts of this hobby that I just wasn’t exposed to before, and I think there’s so much to learn and people see that and like that.
7. Do you have a collection / game room at home? If so, please tell us about it.
Jeremy: My collection started back in high school with a couple of pins that Matt and I kept in our parents’ basement. We eventually grew the collection to six pinball machines and two arcade games (the Battlezone and Commando). That held us over until after I met my wife at college. She’s an electrical engineer and I am a computer engineer and she had a good idea that I was “kind” of into these machines, so I gave her a Williams PIN*BOT as her wedding present. We were even going to hold a PIN*BOT tournament at the wedding reception, but the game wound up having a few issues and we nixed the idea at the last minute.
Despite that, she has supported my hobby and I’ve grown my personal collection over the years. I now collect Game Plan pinball machines and have 11 of the 12 titles they released. Of the pins that I have, Global Warfare is the rarest title. Game Plan released only 10 copies of that title. I’m still on the hunt for a Loch Ness Monster, however. There was only one of those produced, so getting it is going to be tough.
Matt: I was pretty much Jeremy’s “co-pilot” so the both of us would collect/travel/repair together. Just last year, I was able to get my very first pinball and have expanded it to four titles at this time. I don’t have a lot of room for the games at home, but will continue to grow the collection as resources allow.
Joe: I started collecting NES games in the early 90’s and stayed on the hunt for these titles through the entire decade. I was fortunate though, that during the early 2000’s I worked at a Babbages, and I had access to an order and delivery mechanism that would allow me to buy a lot of the titles that I needed to add to my collection.
So over the years, I was able to fill up my parent’s basement with NES carts, store displays, demo units, etc. It was great, as I was able to buy all of the store cast-offs and that merchandise has become pretty rare over the years. I was also able to attend several US Amusement Auctions and get some late 80’s/early 90’s arcade games. About that time, I met Jeremy at work and was able to move my collection into some of his storage space and my own personal storage units and I then went into collecting different console in earnest.
8. What’s the most inexpensive game you’ve ever bought and the most expensive game you’ve ever bought?
Jeremy: The best deal that I ever got was a Game Plan “Coney Island” for free. I was able to score it from another pinball guy who “hates” Game Plan pins and was able to take it off his hands for no money. The most expensive game that I have is “Global Warfare”. It was $1,500 because it is so rare.
Matt: The Battlezone and the Commando were probably our best deal. We found those games via the Bargain Mart advertisement paper and the games were listed as “amusement machines” that were free to a good home. The classified listing didn’t even have the names of the games in it, so we had to go there to find out exactly what was being given away.
I was fortunate that I had a big Ford F150 pickup available to us via my job, so Jeremy and I loaded up and went over to sellers house and loaded up the games. The Battlezone was in great shape and the Commando was actually a converted Route 66 machine. They were definitely a good deal. We got a lot of mileage out of them.
Joe: The best deal I have gotten so far is an Operation Wolf arcade game that I paid $10 for at auction. It had some issues (gun, etc.) that probably kept the price so low, but man – it was a great deal. One of my favorite arcade games – Heavy Barrel – was scored for $30 at auction as well. It worked perfectly, so it’s probably the best “deal” I’ve ever gotten so far. The most expensive title that I have is “Panzer Dragon Saga” for the Sega Saturn and paid $115 for it.
I do still have some of the more rare NES titles that I have had since I began collecting, but some of the NES demo/test titles like “Stadium Events” are still out of my reach… they go for way too much money.
9. What are your ‘grail’ titles?
Jeremy: At this point, I don’t know that I have one. I think it would be a pinball title, but I just can’t be for sure at this time. Things change, and I find myself wanting different titles at different times. Right now, I really want an Atari Tempest. It’s vector, it’s challenging and I think I would have fun with it for a long time.
Matt: As far as pinballs go, I’d love to get a Star Trek:The Next Generation. If I could find one of those I would be really, really happy. For the arcade titles, it would have to be Atari’s “Star Wars”. I love the game and don’t get tired of it. I play it a lot at Zanzabar and really enjoy it.
Joe: For me, it would probably be an M82 NES test unit. I’ve had the opportunity to get them in the past, but the money has always been the issue. It seems that they’ve popped up at inopportune times. They are very rare and usually command around $1,000 today. They have really went up in value. As far as an arcade title goes, I’d love to have a Widebody Mario Bros. cabinet.
10. What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of this hobby?
Jeremy: For me, I’ve always loved writing software and doing the board-level repair and the electronics. I write software for my profession and I really get into breaking the problems down and bringing the boards back to life. I think that’s the more rewarding part of the hobby for me… bringing the games back to life. I also really enjoy the artwork of the cabinets. I love to get the cabinets looking good and enjoying the ‘art’ of the machines. It’s almost lost today and these machines are like looking back into the past.
Matt: I really enjoy working on the games as a stress-reliever. It’s fun for me to focus on a game and bring it back to life and then play it. I also enjoy the social aspect of the hobby as well and hunting down games on Craigslist and hearing peoples’ stories as how they got the games and why they are selling them, etc.
Joe: Originally, I really loved to hunt down all of the rare/obscure console titles. There was a ‘treasure hunt’ aspect of working with friends to locate the games, getting them and then playing them to see what other collectors were talking about and why they were so highly sought after. I think that the ‘thrill of the chase’ made that part of the hobby very enjoyable and I had a great time doing that.
More recently, though, I enjoy the social aspects of the hobby and am now having more fun with the retro hobby today than I ever did as a kid. I really enjoy meeting new people and seeing what they like about the hobby. I’ve been exposed to more aspects of the retro hobby over the past few years, and it has really broadened my horizons. I love to talk to people and hear their collecting stories and what is important to them.I think that I enjoy that now even more so than playing the games sometimes.
The expo has helped a lot with all of this as well, as all three of us have made a lot of good friends.
11. Do any of you hold gaming titles (high score via Twin Galaxies, etc.)? Any plans on competing at any level? If so, on what game?
Jeremy: On the Intellivision, I had the unofficial record on Tron Deadly Discs. Back when I was a kid, I had a 1986 Guinness Book of World’s Records, and I remember beating the score listed and I took a picture of the screen and sent it to Guinness and remember them turning down my submission, due to them having rules around competing at sanctioned event locations, etc. I was bummed but I knew I had the score to prove it. If anyone out there doubts me, then take me on at the arcade expo!
Matt: Nothing. LOL.
(BT: Don’t worry Matt, you and I are in the same boat)
Joe: I’ve checked with Twin Galaxies a few times to see what scores are listed, as they hold rankings for EVERYTHING. I’ve beat the time trial on Mario Kart back in the day before the records were before I knew what Twin Galaxies was and I know for a fact that I’ve beat the record on the 100-meter dash using the Nintendo Power Pad.
12. What was the driving force behind organizing the Louisville Arcade Expo?
Jeremy: At the time, Joe and I worked together. We were talking about making a ‘barcade’ (this was before Zanzabar) and the more we talked about it the more of a challenge we knew it would be. So we talked about doing something a little different and the idea of an expo came up and we ran with it. We floated it to several of our friends and couldn’t get much of a commitment, so it wound up being just the three of us. Matt and I used to go to a lot of Pinball expos and thought that if we expanded it to arcades and consoles, etc. that we’d have a better reach.
Matt: Jeremy and I have been to the Chicago Pinball Expo on numerous occasions and we’ve been lucky enough to meet other industry/convention people and they have been very nice and really supportive of what we are doing. I think that by us branching out into all three retro disciplines (arcade, pinball & console) we are able to cater to a pretty diverse audience that winds up having a lot more in common with each other than they might realize.
Joe: We looked at some of the more ‘staple’ venues like the Midwest Gaming Classic, California Extreme and Funspot and thought that this type of event would be well-suited for Louisville, as the town seems to have a good retro heritage and really is open to this type of event. Many of the other hobby venues are so far away for most local people to get to on a regular basis, so we felt that this would suit the area well.
13. What are your long-term plans for the Expo?
Jeremy: We really didn’t know what the first year would be like. We spent a lot of time looking for a good venue and the Holiday Inn was really helpful and accommodating and helped to make the first year a success. Despite a few issues on the first day of the expo, we had everything we needed and things went well. In looking for more space, however, we knew we needed to find a more permanent home for the expo that would allow us to grow with capacity to support our need for additional space, power and security.
We want the expo to eventually be self-supportive and still provide what everyone loves and enjoys.
Matt: We had a lot more people attend the first expo than we thought would show up. Honestly, we thought it might be a showing of just our close friends and family and it would be a (very expensive) party. Because of the attendance being so good, we are able to grow it this year and hopefully give something back to everyone who made the first show such a success. We see a wide variety of people attending the show, and that’s a good thing.
We want to create a family-friendly event where the parents can show their kids what retro gaming is all about.
Joe: We did get pretty lucky with the local media. The Courier Journal did a big write-up on us, as well as WDRB41 (local Fox affiliate), who did a morning show segment on us. We did no traditional advertising and was able to hit the numbers based on word-of-mouth. Between that and the support of our friends, we were able to justify growing the show this year, and we hope we can continue to make additional investments year-over-year.
14. What is ArcadeRX?
Jeremy: At this point in time, it is primarily the umbrella LLC for the arcade expo.
Matt: We also wanted to provide an avenue for helping people fix their games, and we figured that having a formalized company would help us help others. A good example of this is that the company helps to lend legitimacy to the entire event. Without the collectors and volunteers bringing their games and donating their time, we would have nothing to expo with, so we run into a situation where the venues want to deal with a formalized company, and for insurance purposes, etc. we have to do our part in putting together a legal entity that can cover the insurance required for the event, expenses, etc.
This way, we can demonstrate a commitment to the community and to the people who help to make the show a success.
Joe: We also needed a way to handle all of the expenses and time required to put on the show. There’s a huge amount of time involved in getting the show ready for the public each year, and we incur a lot of expenses in getting the show to that point, and having a formalized company is the best way to make that burden fair on everyone involved.
15. What is your volunteer/contributor network like?
Jeremy: We have a core group of friends (some local) that lent a HUGE amount of support for the first expo. We hope that they continue to offer up the same level of support, because a lot of what you saw at the expo by way of arcade and pinball machines were from these local collections. We had several games show up from out of state, as well, and we were really shocked (but in a good way) that people would drive from states away to bring a game to the expo.
Matt: In fact, we had a couple of guys drive a Donkey Kong cocktail – in the back of their car – from Michigan. We can’t thank everyone enough. In fact, those guys from Michigan stayed all three days of the expo and played a lot – it was cool that they had the fun that they did and felt it was worth the time involved.
Outside of games “just showing up”, we wanted to make everything as easy on the game contributors as possible. We were in a situation where we were going to put on the expo – regardless of game numbers – and we needed to increase the titles offered, so we even went so far as to go out to the collectors houses and pick the games up. We had access to a moving truck with a lift gate and that was a big help to everyone involved. As you can imagine, that is a *tremendous* amount of work, and it took us a lot of man hours – in a short amount of time – to get everything on location and set up and then tore back down afterwards in order to make things go as smoothly as they did.
We also had to be really careful of the items we were moving as well. For anyone who has been in this hobby for any length of time, they know all about the issues that can arise when you move the games…. these things just don’t like to be tossed around – regardless of being a pinball or video game. So, we had to do a lot of packing, securing and minor repair once the games were on location.
All of this takes a lot of time, and we cannot expect the hotel to give us the space for weeks and weeks ahead of time, so there’s a significant amount of work to do right before the show opens up. I think most everyone at the expo realizes and appreciates that.
Joe: We even moved a DDR (Dance Dance Revolution). It took all of us to move that out of that collectors house. The base was heavy – probably over 500lbs. But – if we didn’t take projects like that on, then we wouldn’t have the titles that everyone expects to see. Matt also helped a lot of the people who ‘just showed up’ with a game on a given day of the expo. He was instrumental in getting everyone situated, the game in a row with power, etc. and making sure all the paperwork and details were ironed out. I handled a lot of the console contributors in the same fashion and tried to make sure the areas were secured and that people moved in and out in a good pace.
In short – without the collectors contributing their games for the public to see and play, there is no expo. We don’t have all of that stuff sitting in our own basements.
16. What do your spouses/significant others/kids think about your involvement in this hobby?
Jeremy: I’m lucky in that my wife is an electrical engineer so she ‘gets’ my involvement in a hobby like this. She helped out by working the ticket/registration counter at the expo last year and she said she had a good time doing it.
Matt: My wife is incredibly supportive. I don’t think that any of us could participate in the hobby to the level that we do without their support. My wife loves to play the games, so that helps out quite a bit.
Joe: I’m not married at this time, but my girlfriend is very supportive as well. In fact she has made a lot of the graphics for the expo and the website, so she’s had a hand in what everyone sees, and I think that’s really cool, as well.
17. What’s your favorite arcade/pinball documentary and why?
Matt: “King of Kong” for me.
Joe: I really liked “King of Kong”. I also got to meet several of the people in “Special When Lit” at the Chicago Pinball Expo, and they were really nice.
18. Steve Weibe or Billy Mitchell?
All: Steve Weibe.