Classic Gaming Expo 2005

After the jam-packed 2003 show, Classic Gaming Expo tried to broaden both its audience and its variety of guests of honor by moving to California – literally right into the heart of Silicon Valley, where so many stories of the industry pioneers started. Sadly, I had to miss the 2004 Expo (which featured none other than Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak) due to financial concerns; I had just bought a house that year and taking a trip to California in the same 12-month period just wasn’t on. In 2005, though, I was able to swing the trip, and as always it was worth it.

The Hyatt in BurlingamePart museum, part lecture, part arcade and part flea market, Classic Gaming Expo is the king of retrogaming events. Just walking onto the show floor to be greeted by the sight of dozens of vintage (and working) arcade games, and vendors’ tables filled with hundreds of cartridges for various old-school systems, is enough to make any vintage gamer feel like a kid in a candy store.

For those of us interested in the history behind these games, CGE is a double treat, because this is where you’ll find the people who lived that history. This year’s guest speakers included founding Atari engineers Al Alcorn, Steve Bristow and Steve Mayer, Fairchild Channel F inventor Jerry Lawton, the Blue Sky Rangers (the collective of programmers who created the vast majority of the Intellivision games and now own the rights to continue marketing those games on such platforms as handhelds and cell phones), and the programmers who founded the first third-party game software companies, Activision and Imagic.

Another handy place to find history is in the CGE Museum. Packed wall-to-wall with rarities, unreleased prototypes, impossible-to-find promotional items and merchandise and tons of other things that truly earn the description “one of a kind,” the Museum is a trip down memory lane and into a world of things you’ve never seen before. This year, the Museum included Al Alcorn’s hand-wired Pong prototype, the same one that legendarily got its milk jug coin collection box jammed after only a few hours in a San Francisco bar called Andy Capp’s. While most of the Museum items are out in the open where you can inspect them up close (indeed, a guard at the door asked me to leave my bag with him or I couldn’t go in), the Pong prototype machine – a custom-made, bar-top cabinet containing hand-made controls, unique one-off circuitry, and a cheap B&W TV set – was, quite rightly, under glass. And why not? It’s the prototype of the very first successful arcade game, and the first arcade game made by Atari. It’s earned a place under glass.

And for those who come with a pocket full of quarters, or other currency, you could save those for the many vendors’ booths. I spent much of my time (and money) at Pack Rat Video Games, where Jarett not only cut me a great deal on a hard-to-find Atari Video Cube cartridge, but also demonstrated a new Odyssey2 homebrew called Mr. Roboto. This new game, by Planet Lander author Ted Szczypiorski, is essentially a new spin on the vintage computer game Archon, for one or two players, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun. I also spent plenty of time and dough at the 4Jays.com booth, where there were decent prices on shelves and shelves of boxed games for many systems. Their area was set up like aisles of a store, which certainly brought back more than a few memories of window shopping.

Messiah Entertainment was on hand to show off their new Generation NEX console, a hybrid machine that plays both NES cartridges and their Japanese Famicom counterparts (which, despite being essentially the same hardware, had completely different cartridge slot configurations). Despite taking pre-orders on the Generation NEX with the promise that one could pick up one’s order at CGE, they had only eight prototype consoles on hand; apparently the shipment of production models hadn’t made it past customs in time for the show. It’s an impressive, attractive and surprisingly tiny machine, compatible with either your favorite wired NES controllers or Messiah’s dandy wireless controllers. Even with the added delay, this is one piece of retrogaming gear that looks to be worth the wait.

To be fair, though, every show has its drawbacks, and CGE is no exception. I only had a few gripes with the show, but they seem fairly substantial. My biggest one had to do with the keynotes and panel discussions. These are really the heart of CGE, the one area where none of the other gaming conventions can compare. Past CGE keynote speakers have included Ralph Baer, Nolan Bushnell, Steve Wozak, Al Alcorn, Tim Skelly and many others – in a nutshell, a healthy majority of the major players in the American video and computer gaming industry. You don’t get an audience with these people every day, and you sure as hell don’t get to personally ask them questions or thank them for their contributions every day. So I find it more than a little annoying that people can’t silence their cell phones, pagers, or the free Dragon Boy games handed out to guests and attendees who stayed at the Hyatt. I know this was just a silly little convention for fans of old video games, not a world peace conference, but all the same…it’s outrageously rude. I found the sound of the little handheld Dragon Boy games to be the most enervating thing to hear during a keynote – if you’re going to sit in on a panel and play a game, quietly or otherwise, instead of listening to the folks whose work made that game possible…you’re wasting everyone’s time. I wouldn’t think that an announcement or a posted sign insisting on people shutting off games, pagers and phones would’ve been necessary, and I don’t blame the CGE organizers for not having one posted, because you’d think it wouldn’t be needed…but it looks like one is needed for the future.

Another persistent problem during the keynotes had to do with the house audio system; either there was no amplification for those speaking, or there was too much, or the thing was cranked up to the point of creating annoying feedback. (I think Activision alumnus Alan Miller did something that everybody in the room secretly wanted to do when he reached over, during the Activision Vs. Imagic panel, and quietly unplugged the offending microphone that was creating most of the feedback.) I’m not sure what the answer to this problem is, short of appointing someone to be a full-time audio engineer for the keynotes, but it had the unfortunate side-effect of occasionally making things seem a little less than professional.

That said, there were also at least two of the alumni who didn’t make their scheduled appearance either, one of whom was going to be a solo speaker. While the guest speakers and other visiting industry pioneers aren’t paid for their attendance, it was a little disappointing to see this happen this year. I’m taking it for granted that these absences were an extenuating-circumstances sort of thing that couldn’t be avoided.

The announcement was made, mere days before this year’s Classic Gaming Expo, that the retrogaming hobby’s biggest gathering will be taking a one-year vacation before returning for a promised “tenth anniversary extravaganza” in 2007. Despite all the fun that I’ve had both years that I’ve attended CGE, maybe this is a good time to hit the pause button. And it probably isn’t a bad thing.

In the years since CGE became “big,” a lot of other shows have popped up. There are now retrogaming conventions in several states on an annual or nearly-annual basis all competing for – when it comes down to it – many of the same sponsors and attendees and guests of honor. When a lot of those sponsors are small, run-out-of-somebody’s-home businesses, not many of them can afford to hit a show in California, and then in Austin or Dallas, and then in Tulsa City, and then in Milwaukee, and then in Cincinnati, and then in Philadelphia. When more than one convention lands on the same date, in two cities across the country from each other, the hobby has reached not so much a saturation point as an overkill point. Turn every hot water tap in the house, and before long, you’ve got no hot water left in the tank. The past two years have been replete with tales of sponsors and vendors not reaching the break-even point on their expenses for their various trips, let alone turning any kind of profit, to say nothing of the people who are pouring their time and effort and not-inconsiderable amounts of money into organizing the shows.

In the past 12 months, I myself have run booths at two OKGE/OVGE shows, and attended CGE, and attended a smaller get-together or two with friends of mine in the hobby. Maybe, for a little while, the latter is what those of us in the hobby need to be reminded of – returning to the living room of yesteryear where a few friends would come over and crash on your couch, mess up your house, drink all your soft drinks and play all your games. There’s been a lot of emphasis placed on programming, releasing, selling and buying homebrew games in recent years, to the degree that even the hobbyist programmers turning out these marvels of microcode are being held to (or at least relentlessly reminded of) release dates, as if they’re some kind of major publisher. In short, there’s been a bit too much emphasis on turning the retrogaming hobby into Big Business.

And for all of that Big Business thinking, there’s been very little emphasis on keeping things viable by keeping up with the ever-changing definition of “retro.” Don’t get me wrong, I buy several homebrew games a year for the Atari 2600 and the Odyssey2, and I’m grateful for the brilliant programmers who continue to make new games for these systems and the vendors who continue to make them available in cartridge form. But the hobby is seeing a fresh influx of people who consider N64 and the original Playstation to be retro, and the hobby isn’t keeping up. Perhaps the reason that some of the vendors and the shows aren’t making money is because the “retro” demographic is changing and they aren’t.

As much as it may disappoint regular attendees for CGE to take a year off, it may be one of the best things for the hobby. And when it comes back, it’ll be just as much fun again, if not more.