Play the Silver Ball at Chicago Street Pinball

What:  Chicago Street Pinball Arcade

Where:  215 N. Chicago St., Joliet, IL (779) 279-8799

Friday and Saturday, 5pm-11pm
By appointment for private parties

Cost:  $5 one hour, $10 all night


Chicago Street Pinball in Joliet just opened this past July, and is currently open only limited hours on a bit of a trial run basis.

Don’t think that means they’re hanging by a thread, though, that I’ll lead you all the way out there for kickass vintage pinball only to find an empty storefront. The place was started by brothers Chris and Mark Czarnowski, part of The Steelman Group that owns three buildings in downtown Joliet. They’re hoping to be part of a downtown renaissance.   “[The Czarnowskis] are real go-getters and they have a really great vision,” Pam Owens, director of Joliet City Center Partnership, told the Joliet-based Herald News. “The guys doing our downtown plan are seeing the same thing. They are saying Joliet has a vibe. It’s not a white-bread community. A lot of towns have become very sterile, but Joliet has maintained its unique character.”

Joliet mayor Tom Giarrante agrees, telling the Herald News, “I think [the Czarnowskis] are ahead of the trend. I think they can see what’s happening downtown and they want to get in now before interest peaks. Once the transportation center [is there] and [with the addition of] the Joliet Junior College downtown, there’s no question that the cost of property and rentals will go up.” He’s referring to Joliet’s multi-modal transportation center set to be completed in 2015, a stop on the proposed high speed rail line from Chicago to St. Louis.

Brother Mark Czarnowski is the games half of the duo, who’s been collecting pinball games for years. He envisions Chicago Street Pinball as a part of the new “barcade” trend of arcades serving alcohol, such as HQ Beercade and Logan Arcade in Chicago. When I spoke to him, they were still working on getting a liquor license, although they did sell a few small snacks (soft drinks and bags of chips). There are plenty of nearby eats and bars a short walk from the place, in any event.

He also wants to expand their business with private event bookings as well as hosting pinball tournaments. According to a June 2, 2014 article in WIRED, membership in the International Flipper Pinball Association, an official sports league of the game, now exceeds 23,000, up from 500 in 2006. The Chicagoland area in particular is a pinball hub; the only company currently manufacturing pinball games is Stern Pinball in the suburb of Melrose Park, whose latest games include The Walking Dead and Metallica.

Playing pinball is certainly a more physically engaging experience than video games (although Chicago Street does have a small smattering of video games as well). “Really, pinball is a game of skill and chance,” says Courtney Balestier of WIRED. “Players say it’s about an 80:20 ratio on newer machines; older ones hew closer to 50:50, because [of the design of the games].”


The sign outside Chicago Street Pinball promises games from five decades, and that, they do deliver. I’m certainly no expert on the subject, but the differences in games by era are pretty obvious, from Travel Time with its old school scoreboard of individually flipping numbers, to gimmicky games like Earth Shaker that have a “shake” feature that’ll make you think you broke the thing if you don’t know what’s going on.

Maybe it’s heresy to say this of a pinball joint, but my favorite game there was one of the five or so video games. At least it was vintage? It was a 1982 game called Pengo, which kind of reminded me of Pac Man (I used to be really good at Pac Man after getting the little table top version for Christmas as a tyke). Pengo is similar to Pac Man in that you go through a maze while monsters chase you, except in this case you’re a cute penguin and the walls are made of individual blocks of ice you can throw at the monsters for points. I guess the Pac Man template had been so thoroughly burned into my brain that messing with its basic structural environment just seemed like such gleeful anarchy to me. I was the number one high scorer, too (er, there were no prior scores up. “It resets every time you unplug it,” one of the employees said).


Chicago Street Pinball was a great time, and you really can’t beat the price with their unlimited play, pay as you enter arrangement. Once the fall semester’s over, I’ll try to go back and plan my Pengo world domination. Charles and I had a great time in Joliet, grabbing a quick but delicious dinner beforehand just a couple doors down (that’ll get its own entry).


Star Worlds Arcade


Who:  Star Worlds Arcade

What:  Retro video games and pinball

Where:  1234 E. Lincoln Hwy. (Rte. 38), DeKalb, IL, (815) 787-4599

Hours of operation:
Tuesday-Thursday, 3pm-10pm
Friday, 3pm-11pm
Saturday 11am-11pm
Sunday 12noon-8pm

What’s New:
Fall FunFest 30th anniversary party October 4, 2014:
4pm photo shoot (free)
5pm-11pm – $25 includes all you can play video games and dinner

If you’re a gamer in the DeKalb area, chances are Star Worlds Arcade is no hidden gem but an old favorite.  You might have caught the 2011 documentary short  about the place (and if not, you can order it through the link).

As a casual gamer new to the area, I’d been meaning to check it out for some time.  I’d pass it often on its fairly isolated (though less than a mile east of NIU) stretch of Route 38, especially last summer as I headed back and forth to the city, slowly retrieving the last of the boxes from my old apartment.

I finally checked out Star Worlds with a new friend recently.  The arcade is on the small side, giving off a cozy basement feel.  Every inch of the place is filled with love for video games, with paraphernalia everywhere such as Pac Man drapes and board game versions of video games (who knew that was a thing?  Not me).  I didn’t feel uncomfortable or out of place as a woman and casual gamer (though, admittedly, my new friend yammered on about pinball like he was getting paid for it).


Pinball Wizards welcome

I spoke with Star Worlds owner Patrick O’Malley, who was so friendly and excited about the place you’d think he just opened it and could barely believe it.  In fact, they’re coming up on their 30th anniversary. Asking him what he did before Star Worlds, he said “Nothing; I was 12 years old.”  A native of Maple Park, IL (a further jog east down Route 38), he started collecting video games at a young age.  His house was the hangout for all his friends.  “Finally, my parents said, ‘Look, we love your friends, but get them out of here.’”  It wasn’t a business in a cute, air quote kind of way, but an officially licensed one (in his parents’ names ‘til he turned 16).


Owner Patrick O’Malley with new Japanese arrival Pop’n Music

You might wonder how a small niche business stays afloat in this day and age, and the answer is having fingers in many pies.  “In the arcade, we have 40 games, but overall we have over 600 machines now.  I supply other restaurants and bowling alleys and bars.  We do have a warehouse, because with that many machines, you know there’s stuff that’s gonna be coming in that you’re looking for parts for and stuff like that.”  Starting out in Maple Park, the business moved to DeKalb 10 years ago to be closer to the college town spots he supplies.


Wall to wall video love

Games are rotated near weekly, and he gets a particularly robust crop in the fall when summer attractions they supply such as Wisconsin Dells have closed for the season and head back to Route 38.  O’Malley also keeps repairs the games for Star Worlds as well as other locations.  “Oh yeah, I would never be in business if I had to pay someone to fix this stuff,” he said.  With all the crop rotation, a few old favorites can always be found there, however.  “The original Pac Man that my parents’ friends gave me as a graduation present when I opened the arcade when I was a kid, I keep that one there.  That Burger Time will never go anywhere, that’s my mom’s favorite game.  If I get rid of it, she’ll kill me.”

O’Malley said his current favorite games are the newer music based ones such as Dance Dance Revolution.  He was particularly excited about Pop’n Music, a Guitar Hero-esque Japanese game where you choose a song and hit the notes as they fall from the sky.  “We have the only one in Illinois.  Some of our friends actually had it imported; it took like three months to come over on the slow boat from Japan.”

Star Worlds’ 30th anniversary is actually January 11th, 2015 (it’s near my birthday, so I asked the specific date).  “It’s January, so we could have a blizzard going on [then],” O’Malley said, “so I’m having an event on October 4th at 4:00.  I’m trying to get as many people, like a flash mob, out in front of Star Worlds for a huge picture together.  There is no charge for that whatsoever.  What we’re doing to kind of give everyone a chance to have something cool for coming out is, when everyone checks into this picture they’ll get a coupon.  At the end, once this picture is taken and we’re done with it, we’re gonna draw one lucky winner and they’ll win a $200 birthday party at the arcade here.  Then at 5:00 we have the rest of our event, Star Worlds Fall FunFest.  That’s a $25 ticketed event that we only have a limited amount of space for.  Everything will be on free play that night for the guests along with dinner and tournaments.”  Party is sponsored by South Moon BBQ (where O’Malley also supplies games), Pita Pete’s, Billy Mitchell’s Hot Sauce, and Video Game Scoreboard.

Fall FunFest will also feature “special gaming celebrities,” including Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies, an organization that tracks video game world records.  O’Malley considers Walter Day a friend and mentor.  “He’s taught me a lot.  He has always just given me opportunities.  He kept on giving me opportunities and I was just like, ‘Okay, this is not what I planned,’ but I’m someone that, in 30 years of business, as in life, I look at it as, opportunities do only come across often once in life and if you don’t take them, I don’t want to be someone that’s gonna regret not taking an opportunity.”


Video game hall of fame!

Mr. Day was featured in the movie King of Kong:  A Fistful of Quarters.  Day’s current venture is a set of baseball card-type video game hall of fame cards, 18 of which are affiliated with Star Worlds.  Cards for three of Star Worlds’ high scorers will be unveiled at the FunFest.