Get Your Game On at new Special When Lit: Pinball Electro-cade

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David Johnston (left) and Aaron Atkins stand by the machine that started it all: Johnston got “Odds and Evens” from his uncle when he was 7 years old, which got him hooked on playing pinball machines. Barbara Sherman/Tigard Life
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A new business called Special When Lit: Pinball Electro-cade just opened in the King City Plaza. (The phrase “Special When Lit” on pinball games allows a player to earn a free ball or extra game after completing different objectives in the game.)

Walking into the Special When Lit: Pinball Electro-cade, which occupies part of the former McCann’s space, is like stepping back in time, with the dozens of games based on old movies and television shows, popular characters and periods in history.

The proprietors of the arcade are David Johnston and Aaron Atkins, lifelong friends who spent their childhoods and teen years playing pinball and arcade games, and even though they have responsible day jobs, they are as excited as kids to be opening their dream business.

“What happened was, my uncle was fresh out of college and in his first teaching job in Baker City when he bought a pinball machine from a local distributor,” Johnston said. “After a year, he started teaching in Newberg but couldn’t play his pinball machine with its loud chimes in his apartment.

“That game was ‘Odds and Evens,’ and I got it when I was 7 years old. I have played hundreds of games on that machine. That’s what started it all.

“When we got old enough, we started riding our bikes around Forest Grove and collected cans and bottles to get money for arcade games. When we got older, we would go into Portland on the weekends.”

The fun Johnston and Atkins had playing pinball games stayed with them through the decades, but it took them more than a decade to create a business. “By 2012 to 2014, there weren’t many pinball arcades around, and that started us thinking about doing this,” said Atkins, and Johnston added, “In 2020 we started forming an LLC and were still at the beginning stages during Covid. We planned what space we would need in addition to the games and came up with a business model.”

Atkins continued, “This space in the former McCann’s is 3,000 square feet and has room to do everything, and we decided on it. We have the kitchen, a big bar and eating area, bathrooms, and room for the games. Eventually, we will have the Oregon Lottery in a room at the back.”

They leased the space and started renovations in November 2022, with Atkins noting, “We’re pretty pleased with how it came together. We had an architectural company do the concept art, and it’s really cool the way it turned out.”

There are 44 pinball machines plus 16 arcade games, with themes to suit everyone’s imagination: “World Cup” (sports), “Black Rose” (pirates), “Flash Gordon” (space), “Black Knight” (Medieval), “Twilight Zone” (television shows), and “Indiana Jones” (movies). Then there are games based on “Beatlemania,” “Rolling Stones” and “KISS.”

“We have games you can’t find anywhere else in the Portland area,” said Atkins, and Johnston added, “A lot of the ones we bought are ones we liked or played as we were getting older. We balanced those with ones that are pretty popular. Basically, you are playing to earn a high score or just have fun.”

Johnston and Atkins met in the first grade in Forest Grove, where they grew up, and were at each other’s weddings and together for the births of their children. And they both settled in Sherwood. “We’ve known each other for 43 years,” Johnston said.

Johnston works in sales in the grocery industry, and Atkins is an accountant and was CFO for a dairy manufacturing company for 16 years before switching to the construction industry seven years ago.

“When we were kids in Forest Grove, we would get money for tokens,” Atkins said. “We wanted to create an atmosphere here for people to feel like they are kids again and living a carefree time of their youth.”

Pinheads might get hungry or thirsty while playing, so beer and wine and soft drinks are available along with a “pretty full food menu,” Johnston said. The wide-ranging, reasonably priced choices include appetizers; entrees including pizza, sandwiches and chicken quesadillas; dessert; draft beer, wine, energy drinks, soft drinks, coffee and multiple choices of canned and bottled beverages.

Johnston and Atkins don’t plan to run a fun business without having some fun themselves. “We love to play,” Atkins said, and Johnston added, “There will definitely be some game-playing, and of course, we had to ‘research’ all the games we acquired.”

No minors are allowed in the bar area, but people of all ages are welcome during all business hours to come and play at this family-friendly business.

Special When Lit is located at 15685 S.W. 116th Ave., King City; for more information, visit special-when-lit.com or call (971) 384-2109. The hours are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from noon to midnight; and Sunday from noon to 10 p.m.

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