In the heart of downtown Sacramento, across from the historic Crest Theatre, step one flight down into the cavernous Coin-Op Game Room and you’ll find Joe Abate hard at work at a full-time job he never dreamed he’d have: “Manager of Arcade Operations” — or, more colloquially, pinball and video game repairman.

“It’s such a cool genre, what I do,” Abate, 45, says with a raspy voice. “I’m a tinkerer. I was the kid who liked to take stuff apart and see how it worked.”

Today, Abate gets to take stuff apart and repair it at the Coin-Op, an adults-only game room riding the wave of popular “arcade bars” that have popped up around the U.S. in the past decade.

His beloved hobby — and current career — has spanned the ebb and flow of the arcade world since the late ’70s. During his 45 years, Abate has played as many joysticks and pinball plungers as he could get his dexterous hands on. Today, he brings his lifelong love of those games, and his hard-won expertise in repairing them, to keeping the Coin-Op’s clientele happily racking up high scores.

Old-school entertainment. Photo: Twenty20

The Making of an Arcade Pro

It all started when a young Abate would hear his dad’s quarters plop onto a dresser. He’d ask for change, then camp out at his favorite arcades where he could while away a day for all of $10 — because back then, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, games were only a quarter a pop. His favorites? Dragon’s Lair (recently popularized by Netflix’s Stranger Things) and the all-time classic, Donkey Kong.

The funnest part of my job is troubleshooting. There’s no way it’s going to beat me. In almost 20 years of doing this, have I ever seen this issue? No, I haven’t, but I will reach out to other friends of mine, and we’ll put our heads together and figure it out. — Joe Abate, Coin-Op Game Room

Donkey Kong is still one of Abate’s favorite games because of the defining role it played in his career. In his late 20s, he searched for a Donkey Kong machine he could buy and finally found a broken one in a Pennysaver for around $100. Peering into the back of the busted game, he realized he had no idea how to get it running again.

“I learned that I knew nothing,” he recalls. “But it wasn’t going to beat me.”

Before internet forums, Abate found repair gurus through word of mouth, eventually getting in touch with an experienced operator who knew how to fix the game. This mentor introduced Abate to the tricks of the repair trade. After a few months, he finally fixed his Donkey Kong and was hooked. Abate began going on backroads journeys looking for discarded or neglected games to fix.

“The hunt was the coolest part,” he says.

Back then, he had to salvage parts from old games and source them through word of mouth for repairs. (Today, thanks to the rise of arcade bars, he sources pinball parts from Marco Specialties, Pinball Life and Pinbits, and video game parts from Arcadeshop Mike’s Arcade.)

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Abate attended arcade and pinball conferences and did repairs on the side for years. He finally landed his full-time job with Coin-Op in early 2015.

Playing Games on the Job

At the Coin-Op, Abate babysits more than 50 vintage video and pinball games, playing each one every day to make sure the quarter slots aren’t jammed. He stays true to his purist ethos by keeping the games at their original cost: just one quarter per play. He also tries to keep each game running on the manufacturer’s original equipment.

A selection of Coin-Op Game Room’s pinball lineup. Photo: Rebecca Huval

“I feel if it was running with an old tube-style TV, then you should learn how to fix the old tube-style TV,” he explains. His biggest challenges? Monitor repair and CRT displays. Though he’s still able to source parts, he wonders how many years he’ll be able to keep fixing the outdated cathode ray tubes before they give out.

Today, a South Park pinball game is giving him ghosting issues, and the board mysteriously works fine when placed into another machine. What might be frustrating to someone else is the part of the job Abate relishes.

“The funnest part of my job is troubleshooting,” he says. “There’s no way it’s going to beat me. In almost 20 years of doing this, have I ever seen this issue? No, I haven’t, but I will reach out to other friends of mine, and we’ll put our heads together and figure it out.”

It’s all worth it to see the resurgent popularity of pinball and arcade games as the younger generation learns about the retro entertainment from their parents. Even as these technologies reach obsolescence, Abate hopes to keep them going through a strong network of wise repair workers, keeping alive the knowledge that his own mentor passed on to him.

“I hope that for many years to come my knowledge can go into the next generation, and they can keep it running,” Abate says.

ABOUT Rebecca Huval

Avatar photoRebecca Huval writes about design and the many ways it intersects with our world, from tech to urban planning to food. As a journalist, her bylines have appeared in publications such as the AwlMother Jones and Communication Arts, where she served as managing editor.