Monday, July 4, 2016

Southern Fried Gameroom Expo 2016 BLOWOUT - Part One!

It's sheer, old-school, video game Valhalla. Couldn't make it to Atlanta for this year's festivities? Here's all the awesomeness you missed out on.


By: Jimbo X
@Jimbo__X

I feel sorry for kids today. Sure, they live in a digital consumer utopia that gives them virtually every sort of electronic luxury they could ever desire in one or two clicks or swipes of the finger, but amid all of that virtual hedonism, they are trapped in a world sans tactility. Everything is disembodied - their movies, their music, their favorite TV shows and their video games aren't tangible pieces of media, but rather specks of ones and zeroes hanging out in the abstract Internet "cloud." They have never known the sheer joy of owning media - to feel a CD case in their hands, to caress the back of a VHS box and to flip through the pages of a new video game manual. They are the first generation in history to grow up physically detached from their pop culture - an entire nation of youths utterly surrounded by "entertainment," but unable to hold it in their palms. 

Summarily, that's what makes the Southern Fried Gameroom Expo - an annual Atlanta celebration of all things retro gaming now in its third year of operations - such an amazing rite of summer (and if you're curious about what you missed out in 2015, here's a quick summary.) Arcades were such a huge part of my childhood and adolescence, and today, they simply no longer exist as concrete things. Yeah, I know there are a lot of trendy, nostalgia-driven "barcodes" popping up all over the place, but as cool as they are, they will never recapture the inimitable aura of what it was like to tour a real arcade circa 1993. 

The glaring lights of the skee ball ticket machine. The blaring music of Mortal Kombat and the sounds of shoes flying around inside the old After Burner unit. The scent of the Orange Julius stand 20 feet to your left. It all reeks of days gone by, the sort of pre-World Wide Web nostalgia that is virtually unexplainable to all those damned kids who have never known of a world sans the advent of Wi-Fi. 

As such, the SFGE represents a heartfelt ode to not only the consumer technologies of yore, but really, the entire post-Watergate American pop cultural spectrum. From the casually sexist pinball units of the Ford Administration to the grim and gritty, militarized video games of the 1980s to the "license fucking everything" copyright frenzy of the 1990s, the hallowed halls of the yearly expo - in a way - curate a good 40-plus years of the American psyche. Yes, the expo is certainly all about reliving the coin-op classics of yesteryear, but it's also about the observable, constantly changing dynamics of American consumption and culture. Sound like gleefully optimistic hyperbole? Just you wait, kiddos - it's time you got yourself a crash course in the history of the digital arts...


Satan's Hollow!

Bally Midway's Satan's Hollow is as good a starting point as any to being our whirlwind tour of the best SFGE 16 had to offer. It's the epitome of a hardcore retro gamer's game - to the "outside world" it remains a fairly obscure title, but for those in the know, it's only spoken about in hushed reverence to this very day. 


Considering the Dungeons and Dragons and heavy metal-spawned "Satanic Panic" engulfing the country in the early 1980s, it was a pretty brass balled move on Bally Midway's part to just come out and call the game "Satan's Hollow." Forget tact, forget subtlety and forget the ire of the Moral Majority, you just KNEW as soon as you grabbed a hold of that devil penis-looking control rod, you were in for a - pardon the pun - "hell" of a good time.


The game, which was exalted as the arcade game to end all arcade games in the ribald teen sex comedy Joysticks, plays a lot like Space Invaders, albeit with a much better graphical interface. Way back when, the game was notorious for its steep difficulty, and I can safely say that three decade later, it's still an insanely hard title. The effects are especially good for the timeframe - if you think the audiovisual blast of your spaceship getting blown up in Galaga is a testament to the quality of early '80s sound design, just wait until you get suicide bombed by a dragon in this sumbitch!


Radikal Bikers!

You know, events like SFGE '16 aren't just about trying to recapture your salad days and wallowing in the whimsy of yesteryear. They are also primo opportunities to experience older games that you never got around to way back when. Case in point? Atari's Radikal Bikers from 1998, which until I saw it on the expo show floor, I had never heard of before. 


Surely, you've played Sega's Crazy Taxi before, right? Well, this game has pretty much the same premise, except in many respects, it does an even better job. The controls couldn't be any simpler; using the very Paperboy-esque steering peripheral (in case you are wondering, the accelerator is under one of the handlebars), you navigate your pizza delivery person across a pretty expansive facsimile of a city, complete with all sorts of wacky shortcuts and death defying stunts that would get Domino's sued out of existence. 


This is a really, really fun throwback to the heyday of Smash Mouth and the N64. The graphics are a bit blocky, but the level design is very good, the courses are jam-packed with surprises and controls are about as fluid as you'll find in any arcade offering with a gimmicky controller. After doing some Internet sleuthing, I learned that there was indeed a port of the game to the original Playstation - if just for the sake of hearing that "I'm the PIZZA M-A-A-A-N" song again, methinks I may need to start scouring the piles of jewel cases at the nearby thrift shops for an errant copy...


Assault!

Here's another game - this one, from 1988 - that I'd never heard of before. Outside of having an incredibly generic name (which also lends itself to some unfortunate vandalism opportunities), pretty much all I had to go on before my cherry-poppin' play was the tank plastered on the headboard. OK, so maybe it's a bright, pastel-colored vehicular themed shoot-em-up a'la Jackal, right? 


WRONG. Actually, it's a pretty mundane top-down maze blaster set either in the dark, dank vacuum of space or in a really, really poor-lit rock quarry. As you can see from the control set-up, movement meant memorizing a ridiculously counter-intuitive scheme that had you pushing the levers in all sorts of weird combinations just to simply spin your fuckin' space tank 45 degrees to the left. Yeah, that sounds pretty crappy, but just you wait...


...as fate would have it, one of the damn clutches was broken, or short-wired, or something. That means that I could only move my little space tank thingy around-and-around in circles, just hoping that I would bump into some sort of obstacle that would allow me get myself out of corners or harm's way. Shit, considering how boring the game looked with BOTH controls functional, I can't even begin to tell you how much unfun this thing was with one working joystick. (Hint: it sucked, a lot.) 


The Real Ghostbusters!

Oh yes, Data East's 1987 arcade game based on the hyper-popular Ghostbusters cartoon. This thing was basically a machine that printed money back in the day; arguably the most popular license in all of contemporary pop culture, a three-player co-op mode, the promise of Slimer and pals on the artwork decorating the sides of the video screen - what could possibly go wrong here?


Well, while The Real Ghostbusters isn't a terrible game per se - indeed, it can actually be pretty fun, pending you have enough quarters and at least two other people as gung-ho about the prospects of playing it as yourself - it's certainly more than a little disappointing. For starters, you don't actually play as Ray, Peter, Egon or Winston - instead, you play as these generic, color-coded dudes who are mere palette swaps of each other. Furthermore, the top-down gameplay is a little wonky thanks to the stiff controls, and the backdrops are unforgivably lifeless for a game that came out in 1987. 


It's not a total waste, though. Once you get the ghostbusting mechanics down - you have to shoot your enemies first then suck them up with your "B-fire" attack or else they keep attacking you - it reveals itself as a moderately better than average clear-the-screen blast-a-thon requiring just a little bit more grey matter and teamwork than contemporaries like Commando and Ikari Warriors. Keep your eyes, peeled, folks - we will be revisiting this one very, very soon


Smash TV!

Oh, shit, Smash TV! Although I've always preferred the unsung follow-up Total Carnage and Capcom's sublime Mercs, there's no way anyone can deny the excellence of this double-joysticked-kill-a-thon. I mean, it's practically The Running Man: the video game, and who could ever think that's not fucking amazing? 


For those of you not in the know, Smash TV was a game that employed the Robotron/Geometry Wars gameplay and control setup, but made it even more awesome by a.) filling it with more absurd, military weapon-spawned violence than the entirety of Chuck Norris' filmography and b.) including about 450 million references to cheesy-ass action movies from the 1980s. Somewhere in there, there might be some sort of Robocop-like commentary on American militarism, our penchant for violent entertainment and our shared consumerist religion, but mostly? This game is about making shit explode and robots die. And frequently


Smash TV holds up a lot better than I thought it would. That's probably because my memories of the game were tainted by all the lame home console ports, which in addition to being pale graphical representations of the arcade original, also employed absolutely retarded control schemes. Believe it or not, they actually wanted you to play this game on your Nintendo holding two controllers vertically, with one directional pad used for moving your character and the other controlling your directional fire. And if that sounds like a really uncomfortable and clumsy way to play an NES game ... you, sir or madame, would be correct


And then, there was this kind of ephemera. Although back in the day I'm sure the number listed above put you in contact with a representative of Williams who would've liked nothing more than to take down your credit card information for an overpriced t-shirt, want to take a wild guess what the digits above connect you to, circa July 2016? Unless you are a fan of automated messages asking you to take a survey about having individuals over the age of 50 living in your house, it's nothing too exciting.

GAME BREAK!

Of course, the Southern Fried Gameroom Expo isn't just about old-school arcade games. As a holistic celebration of all things antediluvian and low-culture, there was plenty of other weird-o consumer technology culture ephemera sprinkled all over the place ... as well as all sorts of other bizarre bric-a-brac from days long gone by. Let's take a short detour, why don't we? 


You a fan of old school console video gaming? Well, if you are reading this website and/or are alive and human, you better. Among the mesmerizing odes to the home-based video games of old was this bizarre tri-console set-up, which had an NES, N64 and first-wave Xbox hooked up and playing all sorts of horror/absurd violence video games across several CRT screens (oh, and if you don't know what game is taking place on the far right, for shame, for shame for shame.) Wondering what the Xbox was being used for? Well, whoever set up the table was using it as a makeshift MAME machine, which - fittingly enough - was hooked up to a facsimile of an old school arcade cabinet so patrons could play nearly-forgotten stuff like the old Aliens coin-op as God intended. 


There was also an entire room filled with nothing but old-school, playable consoles. While the selections were sometimes a bit of a head scratcher (to showcase the Virtua Boy and 32X, they picked Teleroboxer and Corpse Killer), you really couldn't quibble over others. I mean, shit, what game does a better job of showing the timeless, pick-up-and-play, competitive goodness of the NES than fuckin' Tecmo Bowl


Then there's this bad boy. I vividly recall buying a Jaguar in 1996 for just $20 at Kay-Bee Toys, and although I only owned two games for the unit, those were some pretty rad games. One was Tempest 2000, which was a great, trippy shooter that was sort of like Rez a half decade in advance, and the other? My, my, it just so happened to be Alien vs. Predator


Yes, the huge honking Jaguar controller came with peelable labels for each game. Actually, Alien vs. Predator came with THREE, one each for the Alien, Predator and space marine characters. (And before you ask, I have no idea what the hell the anime thing is or what it's doing there.) 


And fellas, let me tell you, this game still holds up insanely well. Forget GoldenEye, this was the first proprietary shooter on any home console worth a damn; it was spooky, it was atmospheric and the controls were way, way better than they had any right to be considering the limitations of the controller. I spent the fifth-grade playing the shit out of this little sucker, and my nostalgic recollections, for once, didn't blind me from reality: this game ruled back then, and it still rules some 20 years later. 


Let's say you wanted to get away from the ones-and-zeroes based entertainment. If such as the case, you had plenty of old knicknacks and tchotchkes to rummage through. These old-ass Toy Biz X-Men action figures definitely reverberated with me - I'm pretty sure I had all of these suckers in my collection at one point or another during my childhood. Although for the life of me, I just don't recall my Weapon X doll coming with the little helmet accessory. Hmm ... the Mandela Effect confirmed? 


And if you like board games, well, your bases are covered quite well. It's weird seeing the combination of more recent nostalgia (the Lost and 24 products) side-by-side with relics from the 1990s and 1980s. Then again, sometimes, the past and the future do seem to merge almost too perfectly ...


...as in the case of this Donald Trump board game, apparently based on his best-selling tome The Art of the Deal from the late 1980s. Had the merchant not wanted $65 for the fucker, I probably would've picked it up. 


Then there were the cosplayers. While most of the guests were gobsmacked by the green-haired gal running around in bright purple spandex, the most intriguing costumed guest at this year's show to me was this cardboard "transmorpher," who at one point scared the living dog shit out of an elementary schooler who thought it was a real arcade cabinet. It was the funniest thing I've ever seen in my life, even if it was probably the origin point for when the kid goes on a shooting rampage when he's 20. (Oh, and apparently, it has some kind of connection to the Netflix cult hit Kung Fury, which I promise I will get around to watching it at some point.)


And of course, this being the summer of Ghostbusters, it was hardly a shock too find the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man among this year's attendees. And as a side note: a god goddamn, is the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man a whole lot more terrifying than I remember him. 


Lunar Rescue!

All right, back to the arcade games! Right 'chere, we've got outselves Lunar Rescue from Taito, which - fundamentally - is the arcade version of The Martian


Now this one has some interesting elements. Each level has two components: first, you've got to land your craft on the alien terrain, which is pretty hard, because there is all sorts of shit cluttering the screen and trying to kill you. That's a difficult task, to be sure, but it's still easier than the second objective of each level, which is to fire up your rocket ship and make your way back up to the mother craft, which is flying all over the screen like a Chihuahua having a seizure. Oh, and while you are trying to reach the craft, there are enemies everywhere, trying to kill you deader than Elvis. 


This was another one of those games I had never heard of until the expo. I'm a pretty big fan of anything Taito does, so it wasn't too surprising that I found this one to be pretty enjoyable. Really, this is the kind of game that embodies everything great about the old school titles; it's structurally simple, it's mechanically difficult and my goodness, is it addictive as electric crack rock. Lunar Rescue will beat you mercilessly, and as with all of the classics from the media's Golden Age, you'll love every second of getting your ass kicked. 


Tempest!

Now this is an old-school offering that deserves way more reverence than it retroactively receives. Not only is this sweet-ass vector-graphics shooter just as much fun as it was back in the heyday of muscle shirts and parachute pants, the passage of time may have made the game even more awesome. 


While a lot of video games from way back when don't particularly hold up all that well today, Tempest doesn't feel all that dated at all. I mean, sure the visuals are certainly old-school through and through, but the gameplay still feels crisp and smooth. It's a deeply engaging game with one of the greatest "hooks" of the pre-Mario days, and if you've never played it, you're really missing out on something tremendous. 


Tempest really is a unique game. Whereas other space shooters from the era stuck you with 180 degrees of movement, this one allowed you a full 360 degrees of shooting action, thanks to the ingenious "pinwheel" playing field. The later levels get really trippy, with some stages getting so fast, frenetic and flashy they probably qualify as electronics-induced acid trips. This is truly an old-school classic that you experience more than you play - few arcade games from the era are truly deserving of the descriptor "timeless," but Tempest is without question one of the precious few worthy of the adjective. 


Journey

This is a game I've heard about for years, but it wasn't until this year's expo that I finally got my hands on it. Yes, it's an arcade game based on the undisputed kings of puss-rock, and it's every bit as bizarre as you'd imagine something like this to be. 


The game is sort of a weird merger of Mega Man and Wario Ware. Each band member - who is basically just a black and white mugshot superimposed on a generic avatar - has their own special level, with various stages. For example, for the bass player's stage, you have to navigate your way down a cavern filled with insta-kill stalactites and stalacmites all over the damn place, and for the lead singer's stage, you have to run through all of these sentient, electrified guard rails that are trying to eat you. Shockingly, the core gameplay isn't that bad - in fact, Journey is actually a pretty entertaining little mini-game compilation, all things taken into consideration.  


And yes, the game does indeed include digitized versions of all your favorite Journey tunes, which I assure you suck just as much in MIDI form as they do with actual instruments. Sigh ... if only somebody would've made an Iron Maiden themed SHMUP, no?


Space Firebird!

As a hardcore Sega fan, you've really got to hit me with some obscure shit for me to say "huh, I didn't know that existed." Well, SFGE 16, you've accomplished just such a feat: enter Space Firebird, a little mini cabinet that looks and plays like something out of the arcade in Dawn of the Dead


Space Firebird is pretty much your dime (err, quarter) a dozen space shooter, albeit with a few mechanical quirks. For one thing, your joystick only moves horizontally, and the arc of your spaceship is curved (which means you pivot on a "U" shaped axis.) You also get a shield function, but it doesn't really add that much to the gameplay, to be frank. 


It's a very, very routine Galaxan clone, but it does have a very, VERY interesting backstory. Believe it or not, the game was actually designed by Shigeru Miyamoto, making this a Nintendo R&D developed title published under the Sega umbrella! But uh, it still kinda sucks, though, so I wouldn't get too excited. 


Foodfight!

Foodfight is a really great "catch as catch can" title that combines two of my favorite things in the whole, wide world: retro gaming and eating a shit-ton of calories. Even better? This version is one of the special cocktail table top iterations of the game, which means you could technically enjoy a huge honking burrito or slice of deep dish while you play it!


The premise of the game is absurdly simple, yet very addictive. You play a guy who runs around stealing food while being pursued by chefs. Instead of a timer, per se, you instead have an ice cream cone somewhere on the playing field. It's constantly melting, and if it drips down to the waffle base, it's game over. Yes, it's a little too easy, but it's still a remarkably fun diversion. An Xbox Live remake with state-of-the-art graphics would be the coolest shit ever - imagine, Metal Gear Solid, only with WAY more watermelons scattered over the game space!


Congo Bongo!

So Congo Bongo is Sega's shameless, shameless attempt to "ape" the success of Donkey Kong. While the game doesn't quite reach that lofty level, it still does enough cool things on its own to merit a few remarks. 


For starters, the design of the arcade cabinet is just marvelous. This is the kind of ambiance that really puts old school coin-op gaming over the top; it's not just the gameplay itself, it is the way the gameplay is packaged as a comprehensive consumer experience. Go ahead, tell me you wouldn't want that color scheme for an Instagram photo border. 


As you can see, the game tries really hard to recapture the success of Nintendo's much more famous and beloved gorilla-chasing platformer. Whereas Donkey Kong was centered around fairly two-dimensional playing fields, Congo Bongo instead takes the quasi-3D Q*Bert approach, creating the illusion of depth as you navigate your way around miscellaneous canyons, jungles and ravines. Making things harder, in addition tot he constant barrage of coconut death, you also have to avoid a steady stream of scurrying simians, all the while timing it just right so you can make that pivotal, death-defying jump from cliff to cliff. The controls take awhile to get down, but if you can handle the pinpoint precision the game enforces, you'll find this one to be a shockingly competent little knockoff. 


Crystal Castles!

...and we wrap up our tour of the video game nostalgia overdose with this rather fitting oddity from Atari. Just gawping at it, you can tell the exploits of Bentley Bear were hardly anything more than the company's attempt to capitalize on Pac-Man Fever. And while the game remains little more than a slightly-better-than-average escape-the-maze ripoff, it does have a few interesting components. 


For example, the track ball. It never dawned on me just how ingenious of a mechanic this is for a Pac-Man style game. I mean, what game requires a greater degree of precision turning than one where the entire point of the game is to evade enemies as quickly as possible? Alas, Crystal Castles takes what seems like a brilliant improvement and turns it into a nearly game-breaking miscue; here, the track ball is so sensitive that it's nearly impossible to control our avatar without him crashing headlong into some sort of foe or barrier. And the fact that he runs at the speed of a jaguar high on PCP definitely does not help things, whatsoever. 


Sure, Crystal Castles isn't the best video game ever made, but it's still a blast to get your hands on it. In fact, you can pretty much say the same thing about every game on the SFGE '16 show floor. Good, bad, great or an absolute train wreck, pure vintage video game nostalgia is a sweet nectar in all its incarnations. Even as nothing more than throwbacks to the low-culture of two, three and sometimes four decades ago, these are the games that served as the bedrock of an entire industry, the launching pad for not only interactive media, but in many ways, the entire high-tech consumer technology super-state (remember, before the NES came along, the most advanced tech in most people's homes were kitchen appliances.) For better or for worse, the adventures of old Bentley Bear here represent the beginning of the point of no return for humanity. The information revolution began not with the Internet and the proliferation of Web-assisted commerce, but through that first vital transaction between man, machine and multimedia delivery: call it a "coin slot,"  if you will, but I prefer labeling machines like Crystal Castles as the first toll booths towards our always online future. 


But just you wait! While we might be done reviewing and reflecting on all of the classic arcade and console games on display at this year's event, we're just halfway through reminiscing on the ancient wares on display at the Southern Fried Gameroom Expo. Keep your eyes open, folks - we'll be coming back 'atcha with more nostalgic, coin-op coverage in just a few days - this time, with an emphasis on so many fuckin' pinball games you'll probably try to shove a quarter into your flash drive slot while reading about it. 

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