Craig Snelling learned how to repair arcade games out of necessity.
It was the summer of 1984 and he was 14 years old, living with his parents in Glendale, Calif., when his favorite game, Mario Bros., broke.
The video game scene already had exploded with the introduction of the Commodore 64 home computer and Atari console, but the science behind the games was a mystery to most. Repair manuals were rare. Google didn't exist.
That didn't matter to Snelling. He wanted to play.
“So I locked myself in the garage and figured it out,” he said.
Soon, Snelling had accumulated a couple machines in his garage. A friend suggested he sell them. He did and has been ever since.
Today, the 42-year-old lifelong gamer owns Billiards 'N More, an arcade repair shop, game room and store with two locations in Las Vegas and plenty of business.
"The hobby is huge," Snelling said the day before heading to Hawaii for a weeklong vacation, his first in more than 20 years. He always feared going crazy being away from the office too long.
Snelling likes his job. He makes good money, too.
He earns enough repairing and selling arcade games to employ 14 workers and pay $3,000 a month for commercials on the CW network. He stars in one, sinking an eight ball in the corner pocket of a pool table.
Despite the prevalence of console and smartphone gaming, there's still strong local demand for retro pinball machines and arcade games.
There's the Pinball Hall of Fame on East Tropicana Avenue and a small arcade at the Riviera, where the Pinball Hall of Fame once stood. The Cosmopolitan’s Secret Pizza houses two pinball machines and an arcade game, which Snelling supplied.
Then there's Insert Coin(s), the "barcade" on East Fremont Street. Snelling sold the bar's owner, Chris LaPorte, more than 40 machines from his personal collection for more than $30,000.
Snelling still has plenty of machines left over. He keeps them in storage units around the valley but a small collection fills an 800-square-foot game room in his 1,600-square-foot Henderson home. The room is outfitted with pinball machines, arcade cabinets, big-screen TVs and beanbag chairs. It is a favorite spot for Snelling's 16-year-old son, a Call of Duty enthusiast.
Snelling's customers are mostly collectors who know what they're looking for before they call. Sometimes, however, a customer comes in looking for a billiards table and ends up taking home a pinball machine.
The shop's titles include Rocky and Bullwinkle, the Addams Family, the Sopranos, Star Wars, Attack from Mars and Jurassic Park. Prices range from $1,600 to $13,000.
Snelling recently sold a Monster Bash pinball machine populated by the Wolfman, Frankenstein and Dracula for $12,900. His Attack From Mars game, which pits players against aliens trying to take over the world, goes for $12,000. A Twilight Zone machine, one of the most popular in the pinball community, runs $8,000.
"It's a roller coaster," Snelling said of the arcade business. "There will be three days when you don't sell anything, and then you have a $40,000 week."
Snelling makes a good portion of his profits doing repairs and modifications.
Most of his machines have been updated with new graphics and LED bulbs. Original pinball machines used yellow incandescent bulbs under their boards, leaving their features flat.
For $500 in parts and labor, Snelling cracks open the machines and installs colored LEDs. If there are water graphics in the game, Snelling installs blue lights to make the features pop. Green lights go under trees and grass, red under red images.
The Attack from Mars machine, one of Snelling's favorites, originally had gray spaceships. Snelling made them pink and added blinking red eyes to the game's four-armed aliens.
"Modding is huge," Snelling said. "Why would you want to keep it original? I don't know. It looks 10 times better."
Installing LEDs takes about five hours. Because the machines are so heavy and difficult to move, Snelling often goes to clients’ homes and works there. Other common repairs include replacing burned connecters and changing out flippers.
Snelling's toolbox isn't very big. He relies primarily on two pieces of equipment: a multimeter that checks voltage and a circuit scope that monitors computer chips.
And while Snelling admits he’ll always be a gamer, he said his favorite part of the job is the reaction he gets to a job well done.
“Some people almost get teary-eyed: ‘Oh my God, I never thought it would work again,’" he said. "It’s a feel-good moment.”
Snelling can relate. It’s the same feeling he got in 1984, when he finally heard again the music from his Mario Bros. game.