A Mesa business offers patrons the chance to step back in time to play all the games they played in the ’80s, from “Pac-Man” and “Space Invaders” to “Galaga” and “Dragon’s Lair.”
StarFighters Arcade offers approximately 100 vintage video arcade games and 50 classic and modern pinball machines.
“We wanted to create a ‘megacade,’” said Mike Lovato, co-owner of StarFighters.
Customers as kids probably spent way more in quarters than the $11 entry fee that StarFighters charges for unlimited free play. Now they can swap those pockets of jingling coins for daily or monthly memberships that can be purchased at the door. Monthly memberships are $35.
Located at 4840 East Jasmine St. in Mesa, StarFighters Arcade is open Friday and Saturday evenings from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday afternoons from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m..
Lovato opened StarFighters Arcade in 2014 after collecting and restoring gaming machines for years.
“There really weren’t many arcades left here, so I thought that it would be a good idea to provide that for the Valley,” he said. “I wanted to open a truly vintage arcade that had old school games and even rare ones that you would normally only find in private collections and make them available for public play.”
StarFighters started with only five pinball machines, Lovato said. Now, the arcade is up to 50 – the largest selection in the state.
“It was a community effort to get everything in one place,” he said.
StarFighters’ current games were gathered from community members, online sellers and other collectors, Lovato said.
“This is the real deal,” he said. “We have all of the original dedicated equipment with all of the original boards and power supplies. Other arcades often have emulation systems where it looks the same but not really.
“There’s subtle differences in sound and even gameplay that most people won’t catch but still, we have all of the original equipment here designed and run the way that it was in the ’70s and ’80s.”
All the original vintage signs, albums and toys – including intact “Star Wars” guns – on display are a walk down memory lane that leaves people thinking, “I had that! I remember those.”
“We hear stories all the time,” said Kevin Curtis, co-owner and pin master of StarFighters. “People come in and always have a good memory behind a game.”
StarFighters sees gamers of all ages walk down its rows of flashing pinball machines and retro games, Lovato said. On average, 300 to 400 people come into the arcade over the three-day weekend.
Alcohol is not permitted on site, but gamers can enjoy StarFighters’ selection of soft drinks and candies, including some favorites from the ’80s.
The glowing yet dark sanctuary hosts monthly pinball tournaments that start promptly at 1 p.m. while doors open at 12:30 p.m. for sign-in and warmup. There is an $11 entry fee and food and soda
StarFighters’ next pinball tournament is Aug. 14. Their free kids pinball tournament for ages16 and under is held on the same Saturday but doors open at 10:30 a.m. and the tournament starts at 11 a.m.
“The group of people are so diverse,” said Curtis, who started StarFighters’ first pinball tournament in January 2017. “You’ve got every age and everyone gets along. It’s a good atmosphere and we have great prizes.”
Before StarFighters hosted pinball tournaments, players had to join private leagues or be invited to play, Curtis said.
He started hosting pinball tournaments at StarFighters to make them more inclusive and accessible for current gamers and future generations.
StarFighters’ monthly pinball tournaments have grown over the years. They started with about 25 people attending and their highest number was 79 people at a tournament, Curtis said.
The arcade also hosts monthly free car shows where all makes and models are welcome. The shows are held the last Sunday of every month, but has had a hiatus with the heat, Lovato said. He hopes to start it up again in the next month or so.
Lovato and Curtis have big plans for StarFighters’ future.
“We are maxed out for space and are looking for a larger location,” Lovato said. “We want to host bigger events in the future and have more games on the floor.”
As the arcade grows, other elements that fit the nostalgic theme would be tied in, such as showing vintage movies, Lovato said.
“We have punk concerts off and on,” he added. “A future location may have a concert stage set up to facilitate that better.”
The most exciting thing to expect from StarFighters is an annual pinball festival – a big one, Lovato and Curtis said.
“We are scouting locations large enough that it should attract national and international players,” Lovato said. “We want to put Mesa on the map as one of the meccas of pinball.”
The owners are looking for sponsors and hope to announce more information about the festival in the next few months.
“It would be a big deal for Mesa and the pinball community,” Lovato said.
The largest annual event pinball enthusiasts could attend was “Pinburgh” in Pittsburgh, Curtis said. Tickets are expensive yet Pinburgh would sell out a thousand in less than three minutes.
Pinburgh went under during the COVID-19 pandemic and no longer exists as of this year, so Curtis said there is a void in the pinball market that StarFighters hopes to fill.
What would set their festival apart is that it would be a charity event.
“Ours would be done to benefit three charities in the Valley,” Lovato said. “We’ve already gotten approval from Project Pinball, SARRC, and Phoenix Children’s Hospital to be the beneficiaries of the event.”
StarFighters is no stranger to giving back to the community.
Since StarFighters started hosting pinball tournaments, every December the arcade has held a charity event, Curtis said.
Last year was their most successful one where they sold 500 raffle tickets for a donated “Disco Fever” pinball machine. This allowed them to donate $3000 to the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center.
“This next step will help us do more for the Valley,” Lovato said.
For more information about StarFighters and updates on upcoming events go to starfightersarcade.com or follow them on Facebook.