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John Turon— Restoring the golden age of arcade video games

John Turon of Weapons Product Definition spends his free time restoring vintage pinball games to their old glory.
June 6, 2017
  • John Turon
“For me, the greatest satisfaction in restoring a machine is taking a game that is completely dead—one that hasn’t worked for years—and getting to the point where it fires up and my hands are the first to play it again. That’s really cool.”

Restoring the golden age of arcade video games

The golden age of arcade-based videogames began during the late 1970s with the release of Space Invaders, which was followed by juggernauts such as AsteroidsGalaxianPac-ManDefender, and various other games, some inspired by movies and television shows. By the late 1980s, the arcade craze diminished as home computers became sophisticated enough to handle basic videogames.

John Turon of the Weapons Product Definition group (W-11) grew up during the golden age of arcades filled with different types of pinball machines and the latest videogames. “I played many of these machines,” John recollects, “but as I grew older, I drifted away from the scene as other things took precedence, like career and kids.”

These days, John’s rekindled interest in such machines has led him to restoring them to their golden-age status. Restoring such machines is no easy task, as it takes more than knowledge of electronics and mechanics—such restoration often involves extensive research, craftsmanship, and an artistic touch. 

Bringing back the golden age

For years John had given little thought to pinball machines and videogames. While looking through some online advertising one day, John’s nostalgia got the better of him. I guess my interest in restoration started when—on a whim—I bought an old Mata Hari pinball machine off Craigslist,” says John. “The seller was upfront and said the machine wasn’t working, but I thought I could probably get it to work again. It wasn’t easy, and I learned a lot, but I did manage to get it to work again. That was the spark that led me online, where I discovered a whole community of people dedicated to the repair and restoration of not just pinball machines but of vintage arcade games as well.”

Pinball machines date back as far as the mid-1700s, when the French invented the spring launcher (the device used to launch a ball into play) and created a game inspired by bowling and billiards that they called Bagatelle. The first coin-operated pinball machine was invented in 1931 by Automatic Industries—it was known as a “Whiffle Board.” Created in 1977 by Bally Manufacturing, the Mata Hari pinball machine uses chimes for sound because the machines were manufactured before electronic sounds came into use. 

The art and science of restoration

John Turon stands in front of some pinball machines he has restored. Note the electronics board in the background, likely one of John’s latest restoration projects.

As John has found out, restoration is an involved process, one that often means that he must wear multiple hats.

“I have learned to tackle it all, not just the electronics and mechanics,” he says. “In many cases the colors on the pinball machines have faded, so I do lots of touch-up on the boards—this can be quite involved because I must match the colors precisely. When it comes to function, I take each pinball machine or arcade game completely apart, troubleshoot and repair what needs to be repaired in the mechanics and electronics, and then I reassemble and test it thoroughly. There are a lot of moving parts, so the testing can be quite involved. I call it testing; some would call it playing (laughs).”

Trained as a mechanical engineer, John finds that the biggest challenge he faces in restoring arcade machines is the electronics. “That’s a fun challenge,” he notes, “learning everything from how the power supply works to the intricacies of the microelectronics and how it all ties together. I now have learned enough that I can perform board-level repair, an essential skill since so many of these vintage circuit boards are no longer available.”

Personal favorites

Although John has affinity for all the games he restores, there are those he calls “keepers,” machines that he thoroughly enjoys playing and still keeps in his garage-turned-arcade.

Right now, as far as pinball machines are concerned, it would have to be the two-tiered Black Knight 2000,” he says. “It’s just a blast to play.”

When it comes to arcade videogames, John is also quick to answer with respect to a personal favorite: “It would have to be Asteroids, just because it’s the one I’ve played the most. I’ve restored four of those over the past 10 years. The game uses the old vector graphics, the use of polygons to represent images in computer graphics—pretty simple and easy to understand. It’s definitely a fun game to work on.”


John Turon works for the Weapons Product Definition group (W-11) and is currently on full-time assignment to the Gas Transfer Systems group (Q-7).


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Employee Spotlight articles are solely those of the featured employees and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Los Alamos National Laboratory.