WOOD RIVER, Ill. – The resounding clatter of silver balls, flashing lights, and triumphant pings echoing through the air—these are the heartbeats of Atomic Pinball Arcade. Situated in downtown Wood River, this establishment isn’t just a gaming haven; it’s a testament to the enduring appeal of pinball, the excitement of competition, and the nostalgia of cherished memories. 

Evolution of Pinball: 

Contrary to pinball’s stereotype as a relic of the past, Charles Sanderson, the owner and visionary behind this unique establishment, sheds light on the game’s modern allure. 

“Older people come in, and they always ask about the older machines,” he said. “Those were fun when you were 13, but they’re not so fun at 53.” 

With intricate rule sets and dynamic challenges, pinball has transformed into a captivating blend of strategy and skill. 

“In the old days, it was about mastering a skill set and following a set of rules,” he explained. 

The past’s simple rules involved sequences of shots, often represented as ABC. Then, maybe a quick detour to D, E, and F, each with their own rewards. 

However, this approach has evolved dramatically. Modern games feature complex rules, like spelling ABC, then DEF, and even revisiting ABC. But it doesn’t stop there; complexity extends to FIG. J and beyond, all the way to Z. 

When players achieve this feat, they unlock the elusive “wizard mode.” In this phase, the game transforms, accommodating up to six balls simultaneously. Scores during this phase multiply by five, especially if players have accumulated advantages during regular play. 

Sanderson dismisses the notion that pinball is for an older generation, highlighting its popularity among a wide range of players, from 3-year-olds to those in their 90s.

A World War II veteran, aged 93, participated in a tournament six months ago, finishing 101st out of 112 participants. Impressively, he continued his competitive journey, joining a St. Louis tournament three months ago.

Additionally, the arcade witnesses talented five- and six-year-olds who, from their five-year-old beginnings, have developed into skilled players at the age of 10.

Tournament Dynamics: 

“Typically, the tournament size determines the structure. Let’s talk about the league. We have a league on Wednesday nights with about 60 players. For 10 weeks, 16 machines remain constant,” he explained. “The four games you play each night may differ, and you may move up or down the league, but during that ten-week session, you’re going to play one of those 16 games, probably three times each. You’ll face better or lesser players, but you’ll learn more about the games, and it really gets you in tune.” 

Participating is simple: pay the entry fee, and you’ll be grouped accordingly. Initially, groups are randomly selected. If you face a higher-ranked opponent, victory might be unlikely, but the system reshuffles for each round, allowing you to compete with similar skill-level players. Even after a string of defeats, you won’t always face elite players, ensuring a fun day for everyone.

Creating a Heartwarming Space

Sanderson aimed to create a space where people could relive classic games while building new memories.

“A few years ago, my wife let me buy my first pinball machine,” he said. “One turned into three, then five, and soon 60.”

The collection grew from 60 to 75 machines. Sanderson then met his business partner, who was an enthusiast who noticed missing games. Sanderson told his co-building owner that he did not have room to house more games in his current location and asked jokingly if the individual had money to help invest in a new building.

Sanderson was surprised when his now-business partner, a lawyer, agreed. “So, yeah, we owned the building together… [the business is] still CP pinball. We call the building atomic pinball.”

The Atomic Pinball Arcade transcends entertainment, embodying the timeless appeal of games that capture hearts across generations. In a tech-evolving world, it’s a reminder of enduring delights: the silver ball’s allure, competitive thrill, and timeless camaraderie.