Whac-A-Mole has been a mainstay of carnivals, midways, arcades, and pizza parlors for some four decades. But now, Aaron Fechter, who describes himself as the inventor of that game (the current copyright holders say otherwise), is feeling a bit like one of those unfortunate mechanical animals, having been beaten down rather harshly by the giant mallet of life. Fechter is also the avowed creator of the Rock-Afire Explosion, the all-animal animatronic rock band from Showbiz Pizza restaurants, winning him a permanent place in the hearts of 1980s kids. But today, as detailed in an intriguing story by Peter Rugg in Popular Mechanics, Fechter sorely needs to prove that there are indeed second acts in American lives. His problems began with a costly warehouse explosion in Orlando back in 2013, an accident that wiped out his bank account and antagonized a neighboring charity. In 2016, Aaron Fechter is pinning his hopes on a new arcade game of his own creation. ““It’s smart,” he says. “It’s something I think adults will enjoy. It’s a robotic brain, mechanical, not a computer. And it’s going to be relevant to the post-apocalyptic challenges I think we’re all expecting.”
Rugg’s story traces Fechter’s career all the way back to 1976, when he created what he says was the first practical, working model of the famous Whac-A-Mole game. Having been suckered by a gun-toting carnie, Fechter says, he received a miserable $2,000 for his troubles. The tale of woe, Rugg says, “resists fact checking,” and one interviewee describes it as “total bullshit.” But Fechter still wants to use his connection to Whac-A-Mole as he prepares to sell his new game at an Orlando amusements convention. Whac-A-Mole creator or not, Fechter’s biggest success as an inventor was the Rock-Afire Explosion. Unfortunately, the Showbiz Pizza chain faltered, and Fechter was unable to secure any Hollywood contracts for his animatronic menagerie. But the characters remained popular among nostalgic fans, including one who developed new software that allows some used versions of the robots to perform contemporary tunes. Fechter is not thrilled about that, to say the least. But his connection to the popular characters remains the ace in his sleeve, especially as he embarks upon a risky and possibly lucrative new business venture.