Thursday, July 2, 2015

The 2015 Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo! (PART ONE)

It was pure, unadulterated video game Valhalla. Hope you're ready for retro sensory overload, folks! 


For the last few years, the big "Atlanta thing" that I've looked forward to has been something called "Drive-Invasion." I've written about it extensively in the past, but for the uninitiated? It's a Labor Day event held at the local drive-in, where obscure-but-not-that-obscure bands come in and play, people try to sell you crappy, unlicensed homemade goods and hippie-dippie vegeterian entrepreneurs hock gourmet tofu dogs. Oh, and it also entails an all-night B-movie marathon, with the original 35mm prints of such illustrious classics as "Emperor of the North Pole," "HOTS," and of course, "The Last Starfighter."

Alas, all good things must come to an end, I suppose. After the Starlight Six was bought out by some devil-worshiping conglomerate out west, the old-school projectors got replaced by all-digital ones and a whole bunch of stupid policies (like not opening the gates until 10 minutes before showtime and banning grills) got enacted. Last year's event didn't even take place at the drive-in; instead, it was held in the parking lot of Turner Field, which made actually watching the movies next to impossible since the pavement wasn't elevated. Unless something is winged together at the last second, it doesn't look like there's going to be a Drive-Invasion anywhere this September -- quite a pity, considering the event has been going strong for close to 15 years.

As the old saying goes, however, God never closes a door without opening a window. My beloved celebration of all things white trash may be a thing of the past now, but this summer, I was introduced to what very well could be my NEW favorite annual Atlanta event.


The inaugural Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo was held last year. Apparently, the publicity department wasn't that well-staffed, since even a hardcore metro retro video game fanatic like me never heard about it. The masterminds behind the event got the ball rolling early this year, and I wound up getting an e-mail about the second-annual shindig a couple of months in advance.

The premise behind the expo is pretty simple. It's a celebration of all things old-school gaming, from retro coin-ops to pinball units to classic home consoles. Although I was impressed by the itinerary listed on their website, it really wasn't until I stepped foot inside the Marriott (this year's venue) that ALL of it hit me at once.

Simply put, this thing was about as close to a vision of heaven as I have ever seen; any religion out there that promises me THIS as an eternal afterlife has my complete allegiance. The three-day event transformed the conference center into a gigantic arcade buffet. Basically, you paid your fees up front and then, you were given access to hundreds of old-school arcade and pinball units, which were all set to free-play mode. Folks, when I was eight-years-old, I actually had dreams about this -- seeing it in person was almost enough to trigger a serotonin shock.

Alas, it was much more than just old-school arcade nostalgia. There were guest-speakers galore, a ton of documentary screenings, live tournaments, a console exhibit and, of course, the option of buying a ton of really weird trinkets and doodads. Since there was so much to talk about, I'm having to break my overview into two separate articles. While the next one will explicitly address the pinball side of the event, this one will focus primarily on the traditional video game component. Needless to say, there is an absolute TON of stuff to plow through -- my apologies in advance, dial-up users.

ROBOCOP!


Considering my adulation and adoration for all things "Robocop," it makes sense that my first play of the day went to the 1988 Data East coin-op. The unit itself was really a piece of unheralded modern art, with tons of stills from the movie plastered all over the cabinet. And the opening cinematic even had a pixel-ized version of Alex Murphy's death at the hands of Red Foreman and his nefarious gang of multicultural cretins!


As far as the gameplay goes, it's very satisfying. You start off just walking down the street, punching the shit out of an endless stream of bad guys who explode upon merely touching you. Then, you get the handgun power-up and this game turns into "Contra"-lite. The game sticks to the movie plot fairly well, and I loved how there was a bit of a delay when you hit the shoot button -- it made the whole experience a whole lot more strategic than your average run and gun offering. Seeing as how at least one other "Robocop" arcade game was released, methinks I might just have to cover Robo's coin-op exploits more in-depth for a future IIIA article...

JOUST 2: SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST!


Now here's a game I never even knew existed. To be fair, I was never a huge fan of the original "Joust," but I could at least enjoy the absurdity of the concept: you run around riding an ostrich inside a volcano, bumping into shit over and over again. It's weird, but it worked; you know, sort of like the 1980s, in general.


"Joust 2," complete with its Darwinian subtitle, really ups the ante. The levels are larger, the gameplay is more intense and there a ton more enemies onscreen than int he original. That, and the game comes complete with a "transform" button, which, alike the Sega classic "Altered Beast," allows you to transform your ostrich jockey into a griffin rider. I didn't get past the first stage, so I am not sure if the game lets you mutate your ostrich into other forms -- alas, I really enjoyed this one, and plan on hitting it up on the emulators when I get some downtime.

NARC!


FUCKING NARC! The immortal late 1980s arcade classic that taught us there is only one solution to America's crippling substance abuse problem -- a rocket launcher to the face. 


Since I've already covered the watered-down NES port, there's really not much to address here. Of course, the arcade version was WAY more violent than the home console iteration, and had a lot more drug references that Nintendo decided to cut out, despite the fact the game is the most insane anti-drug use propaganda this side of "Reefer Madness." It's just good old-fashioned, mindless violence in the vein of "Total Carnage" and "Smash TV" -- in short, everything that made growing up in George H.W.'s America so awesome to begin with. 

FIX IT FELIX!


That's right, fellas ... there was a REAL-LIFE, full-sized, functional Fix It Felix cabinet at the show!


For those of you with no taste, this is the meta-video-game from 2012's "Wreck It Ralph," which is easily one of the best animated movies to come out in the last 15 years. The machine itself is stylized after the old "Donkey Kong" cabinet artwork, and it looks absolutely beautiful.



As for the game itself? It's very straight-forward, old-school fun. Ralph smashes windows and chucks bricks at you, and its up to you to repair all of the busted panes. Like the absolute best of the old school arcade offerings, this one is simplistic, challenging and addictive as all hell. Had "Fix It Felix" been a real game in the heyday of the arcade, it no doubt would have become a classic on par with heavy hitters such as "Pac-Man" and "Frogger." Now, if only we could get these same guys to make us a "Sugar Rush" unit, no?

MAD PLANETS!


Before the show, I had never heard of "Mad Planets." Sorry, but as a Millennial, anything before the NES might as well be scrawled on papyrus in unreadable hieroglyphics.


Well, this 1983 Gottlieb release really demonstrated the inherent awesomeness of the expo. Not only was it a festival to celebrate nostalgic Gen Y musings, it was also a way for us whippersnappers to enjoy the technological wonders from before our respective times. The same way we "discovered" our dad's vinyl copy of "Dark Side of the Moon" and had our minds blown when we were middle-schoolers, getting our hands on an old-school gem like "Mad Planets" represents a similar brain-rattling blast from the past.


They just don't make them like this anymore. With the dual joystick and dial turning apparatus, "Mad Planets" is a title that's technologically impossible to replicate on an emulator. Sure, you can probably find a way to configure your keyboard so you can play it, but is it the same experience as literally twisting the control knob and wiggling the pilot stick like a madman to evade sentient (and homicidal) supergiants and kamikaze moons? I think not.


This one game exemplifies everything that makes old-school gaming awesome. The machine itself gives you such an idiosyncratic experience, while the gameplay -- although conceptually simple -- provides such an engrossing, challenging and addictive good time. Don't let the visuals fool you, this thing is INTENSE, and the music? Dear lord, it's downright astounding. One day, I am going to own a home of my own ... and if that home doesn't include a "Mad Planets" arcade machine somewhere, I know I have faltered hard in life. 

STAR WARS!


We all know how I feel about "Star Wars" as a media franchise, but to be fair, I never really spent that much time with the video games. I wasn't really impressed by the SNES games, and anything from the N64 onward? No experiences with those whatsoever.


That said, I am a HUGE fan of the first Atari arcade game, which -- thematically and visually -- is really more of an interactive "2001" than anything else. The vector graphics are just gorgeous, and zipping your way through the galaxy with your dual blaster set-up? Like going really, really fast while Whitesnake is blaring on the radio, it just feels so goddamn good. Thirty-plus years later, I assure you the force is still strong with this one. 

RAMPAGE!


Who doesn't love "Rampage?" It's definitely the best non-authorized "Godzilla" game ever, and any title that lets you beat up the infrastructure in Cleveland is A-OK in my book.


I've always been a much bigger fan of the "World Tour" update from the late 1990s, but this one still has a certain charm. The most interesting thing about this particular unit, however, was how you had to play it.


Apparently, there was some sort of internal malfunction with the start-button wiring, so to turn the unit on you actually had to reach underneath the cabinet and spark two cords together. That's right ... for the first and possibly only time in my life, I felt what it was like to HOTWIRE an arcade game. That alone was worth the $15 admission price, I tell you what. 

GORF!


"Gorf" began life as a "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" game, but along the way, Midway lost the rights. Even without the license, however, it's still a pretty fun game.


Simply put, "Gorf" is a glorified "Space Invaders" rip-off. However, as far as "Space Invaders" rip-offs are concerned, it's actually one of the better ones. In fact, I think I actually prefer this one to its obvious inspiration.


For one thing, I've always dug "Gorf's" electrical-static protection dome more than those dumb-looking huts in "Space Invaders." Furthermore, the sound effects are WAY cooler, and come on! You get to navigate your little shooter fellow with a four-way-directional clutch!


It's not the deepest game in the world, but when the core gameplay is this much fun, does it really have to be? And oh yeah, in case you were wondering? It stands for "galactic orbiting robot force," eerily portending Reagans' national defense policy by nearly half a decade

DRAGON'S LAIR!


I can only imagine the aneurysms "Dragon's Lair" had to have caused when it was first released. Thanks to the magic of laser-disc technology, this game gave players Don Bluth animated movie-quality visuals at a time when the most cutting-edge graphics were in "Ms. Pac-Man." In terms of sheer aesthetics, it would be like going from the Playstation4 to the Playstation8 tomorrow morning.


The gameplay, admittedly, hasn't aged all that well. Alas, this version is nowhere near as clunky as the mangled NES port, and even now, few games have really outdone "Dragon's Lairs" take on quick-time-events, save perhaps a few heavy-hitters like "Shenmue" and "Resident Evil 4." 


You know, I have to wonder why laser-disc-driven arcade games of the like were never more popular. "Dragon's Lair" may not have rivaled "Galaga" in terms of sheer gameplay, but it nonetheless gave gamers an extraordinary experience, which was a good decade ahead of the curve. Plus, Princess Daphne is way hotter than Princess Peach, anyway. 

GAME BREAK!
Random Stuff You Could Buy at the Expo!


Let's say you just didn't want to play some games at the expo, you wanted to literally take them home with you. Well, you were in luck, muchacho, since there was a ton of old-school hardware and software on sale. Por exemple; one dude was selling vintage, backlit arcade headers. If he would have had one of "Beast Busters," I would've bought that sumbitch in a heartbeat.


When I said you could literally take the games home with you, I wasn't lying. A ton of CPU components were on sale, including the guts of arcade classics like "Zaxxon" and "Asteroids."


And if that wasn't enough? They even had a few circuit boards on sale, too. If you're tech-savvy enough, you could have walked out of the expo with all the hardware necessary to build your own "Pac-Man" unit in one Wal-Mart bag. And with a backlit header, too, if you were lucky!

TOOBIN'!


I've always liked the idea of "Toobin'." It's basically a racing game, only instead of taking control of a vehicle, you're floating downstream in an inner-tube. Oh, and sometimes, people throw fish hooks at you, but that's OK, because you can reply by chucking soda cans at your adversaries.


Admittedly, the control set-up here is a little convoluted. Wouldn't it just have been a billion time easier to use a trackball instead? Even a standard analog joystick seems like ti would have controlled easier than this abstruse five-button set-up.


Still, it's a fun game, once you get the mechanics down. To me, this one seems like it would have a ton of potential as an Xbox Live remake -- I mean, shit, if we're going to get "Shenmue III," isn't it about time we got "Toobin' 2," as well?

ARCH RIVALS!


The NES and Genesis ports are dogshit compared to the arcade original. I had totally forgotten how much fun this game is ... as well as how good I am at it. I probably could've hustled some dudes at the show and made enough to buy a hot dog pizza on the way home ... which is PRECISELY my strategy heading into 2016's shindig.


"Arch Rivals" was really "NBA Jam" before "NBA Jam," only sans the pro basketball license and TONS more absurd violence and satire. Plus, it's the only sports game I can think of that allows you "pants" an opponent. That ensures this thing's inclusion at the Smithsonian someday, all by itself.


The grimy control deck just made the game all the more enjoyable -- with all of the dirt and gunk on it, it really DOES resemble a high school gymnasium floor. And attention, modern day game-designers: instead of burying players in an avalanche of needless controls, take a cue from "Arch Rivals," You see that? All you need to make a fun, immersive experience is a control stick and a button reading "punch." THAT IS LITERALLY ALL YOU NEED TO MAKE A GREAT VIDEO GAME, GUYS.

JUNGLE KING!


This is actually a pretty rare machine. Originally released by Taito in 1982, "Jungle King" was a brazen rip-off of Tarzan, going as far as to feature the iconic Johnny Weisumulle "yell" from the movies! Unfortunately, the fine folks at Taito didn't have the license to Tarzan, and were hit with a lawsuit by the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs. 


As a result, the game was retooled into "Jungle Hunt," with the Tarzan doppelganger replaced by a generic explorer fellow. Needless to say, catching a glimpse of a working model of the original game was quite the pleasant surprise.


Gameplay-wise, it's a pretty interesting blend of jungle vine swinging action (which, in a way, makes it a sort of rhythm-action precursor) and standard dodge-and-kill linear action. It's also hard as a motherfucker, complete with some "underwater" sequences that rival the first NES "Ninja Turtles" game in terms of sheer difficulty/frustration. 

DELUXE SPACE INVADERS!


You know what's better than normal "Space Invaders?" Super-sized "Space Invaders" on a rear-mount projection screen!


It's a little difficult to describe the technology here, but I will do my best to explain it to the layfolk. The video screen is actually laying horizontal beneath the player's field-of-vision, with a refracting glass posting the mirror image of the gameplay on a 2D diorama. As such, it sorta-kinda-but-not-really gives you the illusion of a three-dimensional gaming experience. But yeah, like I said, not really.


So, basically, yes, it IS the same game as the original, only inside a larger unit. In front of a crappy blue matte painting, with this weird solar flare effect going on in the background. Thankfully, the core gameplay is still as solid and fun as ever, even if the idea here was WAY better in concept than execution.

MISSILE COMMAND!


Believe it or not, this was the first time I ever played an arcade version of "Missile Command," and yeah, it really beats the shit out of the console versions. It also demonstrates what made pre-NES gaming so awesome; with simplistic (yet demanding) gameplay and a really intricate hardware set-up, you really feel like you're experiencing something special when you crank this sucker up.


For those of you who have never gotten your hands on this beast, it's pretty easy to explain. You have a trackball and three buttons, which correspond to three different missile silos on screen. Basically, you use the trackball to determine a spot on screen you will launch a missile at, and from there, you just press the silo launch button. Sounds simple, right? Well, not so much, since a billion (presumably) Soviet warheads are coming at you from every direction. Additionally, there's a timed delay when you launch a missile, so you actually have to launch your attacks a few seconds in advance for them to connect. That makes for an incredibly riveting -- and surprisingly cerebral -- challenge that you just don't get out of most modern games.


The unconventional control set-up really immerses you in the experience. Although I'm sure the technology the guys at NORAD use is a bit more cutting edge, you nonetheless feel a heightened sense of urgency and realism when you're having to hunt and peck for launch buttons. And you have got to fucking love that intense, almost overbearing sense of nuclear paranoia that just OOZES out of the cabinet.


Forget your basic "game over" screen ... if you lose in "Missile Command," all of humanity is eradicated by atomic death. Outside of smoking crack with Max Headroom, nothing could possibly be any more eighties than that

VANGUARD!


Back in the pre-Nintendo days, it was often hard to distinguish yourself from other games. As such, many developers decided to take tried-and-true concepts and then add one fresh variable to the mix to make their game stand out. In that mold, "Vanguard" is pretty much your standard horizontally scrolling shooter (a'la "Gradius") but it comes with a very unique twist.


For one thing, the game employs a novel "barrier" charging mechanic. Basically, you just fly your spaceship through this checkpoint thingy and it turns your vehicle into an electro-death-pod that fries everything it touches. Of course, the juice only lasts for a few moments, then you become a highly vulnerable spaceship again, forced to blast away at enemies like in competing genre offerings. 


However, there's one more variable there; instead of only being able to shoot forward, there are four face buttons on the control deck, allowing you to shoot up, down, in front and behind you -- which means you can pretty much blast through the game mashing all four buttons, transforming your ship into an intergalactic Blanka. Talk about thinking outside the box, huh?

GAME BREAK!
THE HOME CONSOLE ROOM!


If 100 plus vintage arcade and pinball units just wasn't enough for you, there was also a classic home console exhibit, too. All of the expected stuff -- your NES, your SNES and your Genesis offerings -- was on display, but there were also a few obscurer pieces of hardware on display as well.


If I am not mistaken, this is the first time I have ever seen a 3DO in the flesh. I have no clue what game is featured here, however; anybody want to give me a heads-up?


The Magnavox Oddyssey2 was also showcased, with its killer app "Pick-Axe Pete!" which from what I collected, was some sort of weird "Donkey Kong"/"Pac-Man" hybrid.




And you can't have a discussion of anachronistic hardware without the Virtual Boy, can you? The featured title was "Mario Clash," which was basically just a rehash of the original "Mario. Bros" arcade game. Only in NWO Wolfpack colors.


And repping the 2600? Why, none other than "River Raid," plastered on the screen of a historically authentic CRT television!


And lastly, we come to quite possibly the most underappreciated home console ever, the TurboGrafx-16. The game featured, "Keith Courage in Alpha Zones," is certainly a good game, but you mean to tell me you picked that one over the 45 million awesome SHMUPS on the platform? Had "Blazing Lasers" or "Soldier Blade" been inside the unit, I may not have bothered playing anything else that day. 

GALAXIAN!


Hey, remember earlier when I was talking about game developers in the early '80s  having a hard time coming up with original ideas? Well, not only that, but as apparent by the existence of "Galaxian," they had a hard time coming up with original titles, too.


Despite the game's almost lawsuit-worthy resemblance to "Galaga," (which is understandable, seeing as how both games were made by the same developer) the game itself is really more of a "Space Invaders" rip-off than anything. Actually, the game is really nothing more than the visuals of "Galaga" imported into "Space Invaders," now that I think about it.


But you know what? Despite its uncreative premise, it's still fun as hell. And isn't that what games are supposed to be about, anyway?

TAPPER!


You know, "Tapper" is really an ingenious idea for a video game. As far as I'm concerned, it's right up there with "Paperboy" as weird-ass game ideas that shouldn't work, but somehow totally do. 


The gameplay couldn't be any simpler. You pull one lever to pour and serve drinks, and you use the directional pad to move up and down rows. Of course, with scores and scores of rowdy drunks to placate, that simplistic set-up soon gives way to some seriously demanding gameplay.


On an unrelated note, I've always found it hilarious how some home console ports bowdlerized the game into Root Beer Tapper. Shit, did people really think the Budweiser insignia would be enough to turn middle-schoolers into alcoholics? Well ... Nancy Reagan WAS in the White House at the time, so yeah, maybe they really did

GAUNTLET 2!


Good old "Gauntlet." Four players, tons of rooms, and a WHOLE lot of hacking and slashing, way before hacking and slashing was its own genre of gaming. 


That said, I've always wondered why any one would be incentivized to play as the elf or the wizard, when the label on the control deck pretty much tells you upfront they suck. Usually, the two guys stuck playing as them lost a bet or owed somebody ... you know, sort of like whoever was forced to play as the Dazzler in that old Konami "X-Men" game.


Sigh...kids today, with their "Call of Duty" and their "Halo." They will never know the simplistic joy of actually standing side-by-side with your buddies in an epic quest to conquer the machine itself. Old-school treats like "Gauntlet 2" may be things of the past, but for my money (which is mostly quarters)? This was about as fun as multiplayer gaming has ever been. Pity a plenty for those of you who never got to live through it, and had to come to this show to experience it for the first time. 

AND NOW FOR SOME COMPLETELY RANDOM IMAGES TAKEN FROM THE EXPO!


The expo wasn't just about old-school games, however. In fact, quite a few contemporary arcade cabinets were on display, including this massive "Pac-Man Battle Royale" unit. Essentially, it's a gigantic version of the old Gamecube game "Pac-Man Vs." -- how in the world could anybody be opposed to that?


There weren't a ton of light-gun games at the expo, but considering their ubiquity at movie theaters, sports bars and department stores nowadays, that's quite understandable. A giant "Time Crisis 3" unit, however, was on display ... frankly, I was too busy playing Elvira-themed pinball machines to really notice it, though.


Hey, remember those old "PlayChoice" machines that let you play old-school NES games with an arcade set-up? Well, several variations of that were featured at the show, including this fairly rare "split-screen cabinet." It's a cool unit, no doubt, but you kinda' have to wonder about the software choices. Sure, "Super Mario Bros." is about as iconic as it gets, but picking "Mighty Bomb Jack" over "Tecmo Bowl" or "Blades of Steel?" For shame.


There was also a smaller "PlayChoice" unit on the grounds. This one was about the size of a standard television monitor, and greatly resembled the old desktop computers of yore. I've never actually seen one of these units before, so I was greatly intrigued ... even if those micro-joysticks looked about as accommodating as oven mitts with the palms cut out of them. 


And there were even some celebrities on-hand at the event, including "The King of Kong" star and fellow hot sauce enthusiast Billy Mitchell! Despite his less than sterling depiction in the aforementioned documentary, he was actually a fairly amiable guy. And he even showed me how to dominate at "Pac-Man." No, seriously.


There were a ton of table-top arcade units at the event, but none cooler than this special cocktail cabinet that emulated both old-school arcade and console classics. And if the appeal of playing "Sonic the Hedgehog" on a coffee table wasn't enough for you...


...how does the prospect of playing "Sonic the Hedgehog 2" on an "X-Men: The Arcade Game" sized set-up sound to you?


There's not a whole lot to say about "Frogger" at this point, but I really loved the header artwork. Never in a million years would I have ever imagined "Frogger" being a noeconservative businessman rushing to a boardroom meeting, but now? It's literally all I think about, morning, noon and night.


Oddly enough, some of the most prolific and popular arcade games from the early '90s -- such as "Street Fighter II," "Mortal Kombat 3" and "The Simpsons" -- had the shortest lines. That's not to say nobody likes these games, of course -- it's just that we wanted to get our collective hands on some more obscure fare, I take it.


But yeah, if you wanted to hop in a four-player "Turtles in Time" melee, as God intended? You certainly had more than a few opportunities.


And perhaps epitomizing the appeal of the expo as a whole? There were so many games on display that even a retro dweeb like me had never heard of before, like this old-school Atari "Road Runner" game. Sure, it wasn't all that fun, but who cares? It was a new experience with old-school appeal, which is like, the best fucking thing in the world, by a considerable margin. 


WHEW! That was an absolute ton of material to cover. But you know what? We're actually only halfway through, amigos. That's right: in part two, we're going to turn our attention to the scores of old-school pinball machines at the event -- and the selection there might just have been even MORE impressive than its already impressive line-up of arcade games. 

Gather up your tokens, folks; we're just getting warmed up...