Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Kool-Aid Man on the Atari 2600!

Oh yeahhhh ... is definitely NOT something you're going to say while playing this antiquated sack of shit. (And also, some stuff about a comic book from the early 1980s.)


By: Jimbo X
JimboXAmerican@gmail.com
@JimboX

Video game/consumer product tie-ins - sometimes colloquially referred to as "advergames" - are hardly anything new. In fact, the Atari 2600 was eat up with such games, including titles based on dog food, tooth paste and literally killing the word "Pepsi." Alas, as brass-balled exploitative as those games may have been, they pale in comparison to the utter shamelessness of Kool-Aid Man, a video game based on ... well, what the fuck do you think it would be based on

Granted, the idea of turning a recurring advertising character primarily known for flippantly causing massive property damage to spread the gospel of artificially flavored sugar water into a feature-length video game sounds a bit of a stretch, and the end product we got on the Atari 2600 certainly demonstrates that some ideas simply don't make for interactive virtual experiences. 

Now, do keep in mind that two Kool-Aid Man-branded games were released around the same time. The one on the Intellivision had far superior graphics and gameplay, as you commandeered some kids trying to collect all the accouterments to make Kool-Aid while avoiding these little gremlin motherfuckers who traipsed around the house like Michael Myers in that awesome Atari iteration of Halloween. Even better, once you finally DID collect all the Kool-Aid ingredients, you could summon Kool-Aid Man himself a'la Captain Planet to enter the fray and proceed to brutally murder said gremlin motherfuckers before advancing to the next stage. Man, that game was fuckin' awesome

Unfortunately, the Kool-Aid game we got on the 2600 was nowhere near as much fun. It's about as rudimentary of a video game as you can imagine, yet it's also frustrating as all fuck. And to top it off, the core gameplay is so minimalist that I'm starting to wonder if I can even stretch out my review beyond two paragraphs. Alas, we here at IIIA love us some challenges, and if we can get 1,000 words out there about this thing, we can assuredly churn out twice as many words on literally ANY other topic in the universe. 

So, uh, is it about gay pride or something?

After a cold opening that depicts the titular character (whose stature, interestingly, keeps fluctuating) crashing through a brick wall, the game begins proper. The gameplay is really, really simple. You play a mini pitcher of sugar water and there are multicolored "Thirsties" flying all over the place. Every two or three seconds, one of 'em will halt in their tracks, extend their penis-like proboscises into a pool of what I presume to be water and start slurping up the agua. If they suck it all up, it's game over - and to make the game THAT more difficult, the depleted water doesn't refill from stage to stage. So basically, every time they drop their cocks in the drink, you're supposed to bump into them, thus instantly killing their water-thieving asses. The catch is, if you touch any of the Thirsties when they're not drinking, your avatar will start flying uncontrollably across the screen like a Pong ball. This is made a billion times more aggravating because every time you hit another Thirstie while flying across the game space, the bouncing animation continues for another two or three seconds. And with all those motherfuckers speeding across the screen (like in Galaga, the fewer enemies there are on screen the faster they get) there are points in the game where you're basically going to get stuck in an infinite "bounce" loop because you keep getting pinballed by bad guys. And to say this is just mildly irritating is kinda' like saying taking a drink from Bill Cosby is just slightly dangerous to your butthole. 

NOW you motherfuckers are going to pay ... for like, three seconds, then it's back to not being able to do Jack Shit in this P.O.S. game.

Thankfully, the game is pretty liberal with its power-ups. Every 15 or so seconds a random letter (sometimes it's an "S," sometimes it's a "K," sometimes it's "W" - all allusions to the three primary ingredients of the product, sugar, water and Kool-Aid, I suppose) flies by and if you touch it your avatar will momentarily (as in, for about five seconds) get three times as big, develop facial features and - most importantly of all - become totally impervious to enemy attacks. Granted, you've got to be fast as a motherfucker to snatch the things up, and you better be one hell of a navigator, too, since the items usually blaze by virtually unavoidable clumpings of Thirsties. While the letter you pick up changes you a different color, your abilities (and the duration of those abilities) remain the same no matter what hue you are, which I guess could be taken as a coded message about racial harmony. Well, that, or the game designers were just lazy as fucking hell. Your call

Welcome to Kool-Aid purgatory. Pity-a-plenty for the whippersnapper that
can't figure out how to restart the game from here...

Your guess is as good as mine as to how long the game is or just how many stages are included. I got up to level four and just stopped giving a shit, so for all we know, maybe the game takes on some sort of radical genre shift beginning with stage five - like a snowboarding simulator, or maybe even a real-time military strategy theme. Alas, it's more than just a little bit likely that the game just loops on forever and forever until there's no more water left, at which point your avatar is thrust into a nightmarish, pitch black purgatory and you have to hit the reset button. So there's no way to technically die, but there's no way to technically win, either. So, uh, what's the point of playing the game again? Oh yeah, that's right - there isn't

I suppose, structurally, the gameplay is decent-ish. The controls are pretty responsive and if you have super autism and/or are easily entertained, you might be able to squeeze a half hour of entertainment out of the experience. But this thing is clearly not built for longevity, and what you've seen after five minutes of gameplay is literally all there is to it. Certainly there are worse 2600 games out there, but even compared to the bare bones nature of most games released on the console, this shit is just absurdly basic. It's pretty easy to see why this one was initially launched as a mail-in premium - anybody who paid cash money for this fucker got gypped worse than Enron shareholders.

Alright, is that 1,000 words yet? I don't even fucking know and I really don't even care at this point. I just spent an entire afternoon emulating a fucking Kool-Aid Man Atari game for a stupid comedy website, so literally anything else I could have been doing for the last two hours would be a step-up. That said, since we've got some virtual real estate to fill up, I'd like to turn your attention to the following:

...but wouldn't that kill the kids, too?

Yep, believe it or not, Marvel actually let the iconic spokes-jug have his own comic book series for awhile. From what I gathered from the Internet brain trust, The Adventures of Kool-Aid Man wasn't long for this world (Marvel only published three issues before giving the license to Archie Comics, who only published three or four more issues before yanking the plug on the title altogether), but it actually does serve as a CANONICAL backstory of sorts for the Atari 2600 game.

Eh, it's still better than Black Panther & The Crew, though.

Obviously catered for the elementary school set, there's not a whole lot of depth to the comic (a shocker, I know.) Regardless, it nonetheless introduces us to the Thirsties - basically, these fuzzy yellow motherfuckers from outer space who get their sexual jollies making people sweaty and miserable. Of course, their plans are really, really short-sighted - for example, instead of depleting the world's fresh water supply, they decide to spend their afternoons shutting down the snack bar at little league baseball games and, gasp, getting sunshine in people's eyes while they're up to bat! Still, there's something unsettling about the creatures gagging and bounding a food vendor, and something VERY unsettling about Kool-Aid Man returning the favor by tying up the Thirsties with a 30-foot-long sausage link. But it's still not as creepy as the part where the giant, anthropomorphic dishware WHISKS several children away to his top-secret Thirsties-surveillance headquarters...

So nobody's going to question how a sentient jug of sugar water is able to monitor literally EVERYBODY on the planet in real-time ... or why he feels the need to do so?

Well, don't say the people who made the comic didn't give you more background on the Kool-Aid Man's origin than we've gotten from the commercials, that's for damn sure. In the TV adverts he's just some red jug with a smiley face who causes massive property destruction to give children diabetes-causing beverages, but in this comic series? He's actually some sort of intergalactic policeman with a GLOBAL surveillance system watching all of humanity at all hours. So basically, he's like the George W. Bush Administration, in sugary packet form. If nothing else, you have to admire the extent to which the creators of the comic TRIED to expand the mascot's mythos. Really, they had carta blanche to work with, and the idea of turning the Kool-Aid Man into Marvel's equivalent of the Green Lantern isn't necessarily where I thought the product would be heading. So does that mean there's some universal force of multi-colored Kool-Aid People protecting the cosmos from Thirsties a'la those bounty hunters in Critters, and the only way they can pay for their galactic police state is through marketing artificially flavored fruit punch powders to children? Goddamn, this thing caused me to think way more than I thought it would.

You know what I'd like to do with an inflatable Kool-Aid Man? That's right - everything. Well, except for fuck him. Come on, now, that's just gross. 

Of course, it's still just a front for shameless Kool-Aid propaganda. There's a good eight pages in the middle dedicated to nothing but various branded merchandise and to be totally honest, this stuff is some grade-A kitsch I'd LOVE to have in my collection of all things "stupid outdated shit." I'd be ecstatic to possess a vintage Kool-Aid Man key chain, and I'd be envious as a motherfucker of anybody who had a tote bag with the words "beat the Thirsties" inscribed upon it. But to own an INFLATABLE KOOL-AID MAN like the one pictured above? Not only is that shit easily worth 45 proofs of purchase, I'd probably stab somebody to get one.


I love how they tell you to charge more for the larger cups. As if anybody is dumb enough to charge people less for more of the same product!

The comic isn't limited to crappy superhero theatrics involving copious amounts of child endangerment and shameless product pimpage, though. Just like those McGruff the Crime Dog comics, the comic also has quite a few special activities, including a page showing you how to set up a Kool-Aid stand (hooray, capitalism!) and another one that gives you a secret language to decrypt in order to find a super special message about what position the Kool-Aid Man would hypothetically play in baseball (and for fuck's sake, if you can't figure the pun out automatically, do us all a favor and please KYS.) All in all, though, I think it's a sturdy enough language and I think we should adopt it as secret tongue to trade sensitive and inflammatory intel back and forth online - a
nything to keep all those damn from nosing around in our business, ain't that right?

"Joey _____ all his baseball cards." Aw, shit, that could literally be anything, you terrible clue-giving motherfuckers. 

It comes with a standard crossword puzzle, too, although I've got to say I think they're being just a tad too oblique with the clues here. For example, look at 2 Down:" _____ causes sickness that keeps you from playing ball." Well sweet fuck on a cracker, I can think of hundreds of diseases that could feasibly keep you off the baseball diamond. Is the answer "AIDS," or "herpes" or "Ebola?" 'Cause every one of them logically checks out. Let's see if any of the other clues are any easier. How about 4 down? "You need a ball and ____ to play." Well, this one's pretty easy, actually...

Well, that, or "dick," I suppose...

I mean, what else could it be? Speaking of fun and games, you have GOT to check out this "connect the dots" puzzle included in the first issue.

Well, if it excites a cross-eyed, retarded looking kid, you KNOW it's got to be something good!

Looks rather innocuous, no? Well, not when you actually complete the portrait. Needless to say, Kool-Aid Man's top secret message is - well, more than just a little concerning...

So does this mean Kool-Aid Man's working for Hydra now?

Well, if nothing else, I suppose it explains why that blonde and blue-eyed kid at the bottom of the page is so excited. Still, you have to second guess Marvel's decision to include Nazi propaganda in a comic book intended for elementary schoolers, and I'm sure it's something the manufacturers of Kool-Aid were none too pleased about. Or were they?

Now THAT is how you end a story ... very, very poorly.

There's a lot more I could say about this Kool-Aid Man comic. Indeed, the last two pages beseech me to dwell upon the following matters: 

- How is Kool-Aid Man able to burst through a spacecraft wall without the vacuum of space sucking him and everybody else into the vacant vastness of the cosmos? Furthermore, does Kool-Aid Man even need to breathe oxygen? Is he just entirely self-sustained by Kool-Aid? Can he reproduce, sexually? How did he learn English, and how is he able to talk without anything even remotely resembling vocal cords? 

- If Kool-Aid Man is impervious to thirst, does that mean he's technically immortal? And where did he get that jet pack? Come to think of it, where did he get the money for anything? That high-tech surveillance compound couldn't have come cheap. Is Tony Stark or Hydra bankrolling this motherfucker or something?

- Did they mean for the exploded Thirsties to look like minstrel show characters?

- Is it just me or does that scientist look LEGITIMATELY concerned that a sentient fruit punch bowl figured out the fundamentals of outer space rocket travel? And whatever happened to that kind of iffy in hindsight brand slogan "the one for kids?" Does Kool-Aid still have the patent, and at what point did they decide to abandon it so as to not alienate adult product purchasers? And for that matter, is it true that black people foster a peculiar fondness for said product, and if a white politician serves said product at a fundraiser for black supporters, is it really technically racist?

Eh, like I said earlier, this is just too much shit to wrap my head around at once. Instead, I'm just going to end this whole pointless spiel the only way that's sensible - with a whole bunch of old Kool-Aid commercials from way back when. Watch 'em and weep with nostalgia, kids!





Damn, anybody itching for a glass of Purplesaurus Rex or Sharkleberry Fin right about now? 'Cause I sure as hell am. Fuck, at this point, I'd even settle for some lukewarm Pink Swimmingo, if I really had to ...

Monday, July 24, 2017

Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo 2017 BLOWOUT (Part Two!)

Do you kids like pinball? Well, too bad, because I'm about to hit you with so much old-school pinball awesomeness you might actually die from silver-ball poisoning. 


By: Jimbo X
JimboXAmerican@gmail.com
@JimboX

I promised you more coverage of the 2017 Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo, and by golly, I'm going to give it to you. 

The thing is, there's so much going on at the show that even what you see here is just a small portion of the event and its total ambiance. When you've got 500 pinball games, about 250 arcade games and 3,000 guests, there is a LOT to take in, and no one man can truly encapsulate the wonder and whimsy of the expo by his lonesome. 

We covered a ton of material in our first installment, but the amount of content here is positively backbreaking. I'm not entirely sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if this isn't the most bandwidth intensive article I've ever posted for IIIA - as in, we're talking 100-plus photographs. Yes, such may sound like overkill to the layfolks, but as a retro gaming historian, I consider such a monumental task to be an absolute curatorial necessity

While the first installment focused exclusively on arcade video game, part two-oh is going to focus exclusively on pinball units (with a brief detour halfway through, but trust me, these photos are worth deviating from the script.) I've never been one for pomp and/or circumstance, so let's cut the grandiloquent showmanship and get straight to the tables, why don't we? Yeah, I didn't surmise you'd have any problems at all with such directness ... 


The Amazing Spider-Man!

I'm not sure if I've already covered this Gottlieb unit before, but even if I have, this thing is just so beautiful that it's worth covering again


The artwork on this thing is just superb. It really does look like John Romita's work from the 1960s, and there are just so many allusions to the comic book littered all over the board. Pretty much everybody who was prominently featured during the early 1970s run is here, running the gamut from Aunt May and J. Jonah Jameson all the way to The Vulture and Black Widow. And I just love how the people central to Peter Parker's life are positioned towards the bottom of the unit, while all the super-villains reside up top. Yeah, it's a small gesture that can almost be written off as an after-thought, but man, what great symbolism (intended or unintentional) eh?


This is easily one of my ten favorite units ever. While there have been quite a few Spidey board over the years, this is without question the best. Not only does it have the finest artwork, the unit itself is just good, old-fashioned, no frills pinball fun. You can keep your high-definition video displays and super-duper-ultra-wizard modes - just give me the Kingpin punching a bumper and some web targets to hit and I am in hog heaven


Skateball!

Right off the bat, I have no idea what the fuck Skateball is supposed to be. A quick Google search reveals there was a video game series with the same name, but this unit obviously came out years before that. I don't even think there's a formal recreational act called "skateball," so that means somebody at Bally's literally said "hey, how about we make a pinball game about a dude with a mustache and a mullet who drives an A-Team van and goes surfing with his fine blonde bitch all the time?" and instead of firing him on the spot, the upper brass said "great idea, Steve, let's start production on Monday."


I'm not sure what the board's theme is supposed to be, but it sure looks gnarly. You've got Sonic waitresses delivering milkshakes and dudes doing headstands on surfboards and what I'm pretty sure is marijuana plants blossoming around the ball drain. So basically, they could've just retroactively called it "The Late 1970s: The Pinball Game."


It's a fun board, through and through. Gameplay-wise there are certainly more advanced offerings out there, but the aesthetics are just so ephemerally awesome. This thing is a beautiful piece of gloriously outmoded art, and I can't tell you how much good it does my heart to see such primo kitsch restored and beeping and buzzing like it was brand new. Sigh ... it almost brings a tear to my eye, really. 


U.S.A. Football!

Now here is one of the weirdest pinball games ever designed. Pinball has always been a competitive activity, but pray tell, have you ever seen a cabinet that was two-player only?


That's right, this Alvin G. & Co. production merges pinball and foosball into a one-of-a-kind arcade offering that, off the top of my head, has no comparative analogue anywhere in coin-op-dom. 


As you can see for yourself, the game has two sets of flippers at each end. The table itself is curved in a "U" shape in the middle and the objective, naturally, is to put the ball in the other person's drain. And there are bumpers and other obstacles all over the place, which makes directly plunging the rock in your opponent's flipper opening all sorts of difficult. If you look closely, you'll note that the game actually has six flippers, with each player getting an extra pinball-puncher in enemy territory. Fuck, you think these guys could've thrown in a ramp or two while they were at it?


Playing U.S.A. Football is a unique experience, to be sure, but I'm not exactly sure I would call it a fun one. It's a great concept in theory, but with so much crap littering the playing space the ball inevitably winds up remaining in one player's quadrant for an excess amount of time, leaving the other player with Jack Shit to do for upwards of half a minute. We'll give the guys that made it props for thinking outside the box, but at the end of the day, U.S.A. Football is hardly anything more than curiosity piece ... and one that you'll likely tire of in just a few minutes.


High Speed!

This is one of the seminal pinball games of the 1980s. In fact, it's one of the few physical arcade staples to actually get the NES treatment ... albeit, this version is without the flying tumbleweeds that eats your balls or the little oil drop thingy that makes your flippers disintegrate.


There's not a whole lot to say about this one. The table layout is about as close to perfect as you'll find in a unit from the era, and the labyrinth of ramps actually fits the theme of the coin-op instead of coming off as excessive. That, and the artwork is just gorgeous - wouldn't you just love to take the glass off and use it as giant playset for your G.I. Joe toys?


The game inspired a sequel in the 1990s called The Getaway, which - warning, an aside is coming up - I'm almost wholeheartedly convinced was ripped off for the Charlie Sheen/Krisy Swanson crime caper The Chase. Hey, the pinball sequel did come out a full two years before that particular film - and its backglass even manages to portend that movie's grand finale!


Batman '66!

This is one of those "modern" pinball units that are pretty much meant to be collector's only items ... as evident by this particular board's preposterous $9,000 asking price (and if you think that's absurd, the super-duper limited edition is priced at a mind-breaking $15,000!)


In case you couldn't figure it out, this Stern unit is based on the old Adam West TV show (and, eerily enough, the dude died the same day I attended this year's expo.) Cesar Romero's Joker, Frank Gorshin's The Riddler and Burgess Meredith's Penguin are all represented on the board, although I'm wondering why they went with the Julie Newmar Catwoman instead of the Eartha Kitt version. Oh wait, I know the answer - racism, probably.


Anyhoo, it's a fun game. The visuals are bright and colorful and the high definition video board definitely adds a lot to the experience. And take a real close gander at the bottom of the screen there - they actually included mug shots of George Sanders' Mr. Freeze and Maurice Evans' The Puzzler! I take it that means you have to buy the mega-hyper-collector's edition to see Marsha, Queen of Diamonds or Colonel Gumm, though...


Police Force!

Unbeknownst to me, this is apparently one of the most beloved boards of the '80s among hardcore pinball enthusiasts. Well, my ignorant ass had never even heard of it until the event, and my first thought was pretty much the same as yours - holy fuck, did Zootopia rip this thing off or what?


So yeah, it's basically a furry-themed cops and robbers game. You've got alligators with bazookas, sharks carrying around (presumably stolen) money bags in their fins and this one little police car toy that zooms up and down every time you hit a ramp shot. All in all, it's a really well-put-together board ... even if it's anthro-theme does come off as just a bit creepy the longer you stare at the backglass artwork.


And while we're on the subject of Police Force, who's up for some obscure trivia? According to pinball designer and expo guest Roger Sharpe, this game was originally meant to have an entirely different theme. That plan? The tie-in pinball game for 1989's Batman!


Firepower!

For whatever reason, I've always dug artwork like this. Everything is just so silver and shiny, and nothing says "fuck me, it's the '80s" quite like all that reddish-pink strewn about everywhere. 


To the best of my knowledge, Firepower isn't based on any sort of preexisting license, but the table artwork is so detailed that you'd swear it was. I have no idea how you would describe the geometric design of the giant sphere that takes up half the playing space, but it just looks so cool and postmodern. It's like a giant disco ball painted by Matisse. Come to think of it, the eighties pretty much were a disco ball painted by Matisse, only with AIDS and crack cocaine thrown in for good measure.


I'm sure Firepower has some sort of convoluted rule set, but like 99.9 percent of pinball players, I don't give a fuck about anything the designers want me to do, I'm just in it to hit bumpers and nail ramp shot after ramp shot. Everybody always talks about Grand Theft Auto being the pioneer of so-called "sandbox gaming," but that's pretty much been the case with pinball games since day one. That said, I am curious what you have to do to reach "20" on the game ... which, even if it isn't, I'm going to go on ahead and guess is "whack that big-headed motherfucker right there 28 times in a row while holding one testicle in your free hand."


Outer Space!

Sci-fi-themed tables are a dime a dozen in '60s and '70s pinball, so what does Gottlieb's Outer Space do to distinguish itself from the genre herd? Well, as it turns out ... not a whole lot. 


Talk about "minimalism," eh, kids? This basic board is about as simplistic as it gets. A couple of bumpers up top, a few target nodes and no ramps to speak of whatsoever. Even better, the bottom half of the board is almost entirely devoid of artwork. Two different shades of orange, converging with green near the flippers? Simplistic is one thing, but totally abstract is just the zenith of lazy, you shiftless German shmucks, you. 


Hardbody!

Now this is the kind of game you couldn't even dream of making these days. No license, no fantasy concept, just a bunch of muscular broads with huge hair showing off their tit-tays, tummies and ass cheeks. You try this today and the odds of being hit with some kind of sexual harassment suit is about 115 percent. Which sort of begs the question - how come nobody was offended by this shit back in the '80s, but today it's enough to cause Tumblrinas conniption fits?


I guess you'd call this a "fitness" theme, or at the very least some kind of "gym rat" aesthetic. It does a pretty good job of capturing the whole "working out" craze of the late 1980s, right down to the the spandex one-pieces - again, reinforcing the notion that these games aren't just throwaway pieces of junks, but legitimate works of art dedicated to capturing and immortalizing the days that once were. 


I'm not sure, but this thing was probably inspired by the immortal 1985 documentary Pumping Iron II: The Women. And since Hardbody came out two years after that movie was released, I think it's safe to go on ahead and assume the similarities between the two properties probably aren't merely coincidental. But that's not the only reason this game is historically noteworthy, though...


...it was also one of the first pinball games to have multiple stages. You see, as soon as you shoot the ball out, it first goes through a raised platform near the top of the screen, which comes with its own set of flippers and ball drain. This is a motif that's been re-used time and time again, but few games that incorporated the hook have ever felt as smooth and natural as Hardbody. And to think, some of you unenlightened plebs thought the only thing this game had going for it was shameless T and A! 


Dixieland!

This was one of the older pinball games on the show floor ... which is saying something, since I've seen a few pre-World War II units at previous expos.


I'm not entirely sure how I would describe this theme. Apparently, it's about a big band performing a concert, or surreptitiously planning to lynch their only two black members after the show or something. Regardless, the artwork is really nice and, despite the simplistic playing field, it actually does offer up a surprising amount of challenge.


It's pretty amazing to think stuff like this got made back in the day. In today's "everything's gotta' be fantasy licensed crap" milieu, a fun, simple game like Dixieland doesn't stand a shot of ever getting manufactured. And it's a pity, too - a high-end upgrade with a full motion HD video display would make for such an awesome sequel.&


The Pabst Can Crusher!

Here's another of those "neo-retro" pinball units. I'm not sure who made it, but considering the extent of the product placement, one would simply assume that it's got the official blessing of Pabst Blue Ribbon - I take it that means American Spirit cigarettes backed out at the last second. 


The theme is pretty straight-forward. Apparently, there's some band with a shag wagon called Crusher and they're all a bunch of alcoholics and they play music out in the bogs and all these nasty hoochies are totally into it and they probably do psychotropic mushrooms, too. So yeah, I guess you could unofficially call this "Drive Invasion: The Pinball Game" and not really have to change anything about the artwork.


It's an alright game, but nothing more. The board is probably a bit too basic and the overall design looks like something you'd see on the side of a Mellow Mushroom building. The sound design was pretty cruddy, too, which is a shame - some old stuff by Black Lips would've made the perfect soundtrack for the experience


Your mileage may vary on the appeal of the game. If you're a hipster piece of shit heartlessly co-opting white poverty as a fashion statement, you'll probably think it's a hoot, but everybody else will likely get bored out of their skulls by the time they rack up their third ball. We'll give 'em credit for securing one of the weirdest sponsorships in pinball history, but that's just about the only praise we can sing concerning this 'un. 


The Legend of Zelda protoype!

There are always a bunch of homebrew tables at the show, and this year was no different. One of the more interesting ones was this almost certainly unauthorized silver ball adaptation of the beloved/overrated Nintendo cash cow, which looked to be about, I don't know, 2, possibly 3 percent complete.


The thing is still a work in progress (no shit,) but it looks promising ... well, about as promising as something like this can look, I suppose. The bigger question, though? Will this thing get finished before or after that one Spaceballs table that's been popping up at the show for the last few years? I'm not a betting man, but considering the snail's pace on the latter, methinks we'll be bumping buzzers and bumpers in Hyrule LONG before we'll be blasting ramp shots at Pizza the Hut.



Super Mario Mushroom World!

This is the first time I've ever seen this one out in the wild, so, naturally, it was out of order all day. But such is life, ain't it? 


This Gottlieb unit is about half the size of most pinball games. And the artwork clearly harkens more to Super Mario Bros. 3 than Super Mario World, as evident by the inclusion of the frog suit and the raccoon leaf power-ups. All the Koopa Kids are accounted for and there's even a few callouts to the world 2 "desert" map, including those goddamn chained-up chompers that are such a pain in the ass to avoid. For fuck's sake, they even drew a warp whistle on the table, which is worth so many attention-to-detail points. Man, if only they would have gone full retard and made a pinball game modeled after The Wizard, too; their corporate offices would still be getting Christmas cards from me to this day.


Genesis!

Goddamn, you have to love that backglass art. The faded colors make it look even more like a weird porno from the mid-1980s, and I'm yay close to getting a print of this damn thing hung over my living room sofa.


The game's gimmick (and no, it has nothing to do with Sega, Phil Collins or the Old Testament) revolves around its insanely difficult ramp shots. Without question, the ramps in this one are among the hardest I've ever seen on a board, and the fact that they look like giant, translucent pink Fallopian tubes makes it even better.


This is the only pinball game I've ever played where the construction material is the most aggravating thing about the board. Take a look at the ramp - it's made out of a what appears to be hard rubbery plastic. You know what happens when you try to send a metal ball up one of those things? That's right, the friction stops it and the ball all of a sudden changes trajectory and starts sliding down the ramp. To make a ramp shot in this one, you have to absolutely knock the shit out of the ball; as in, enough to conceivably shatter the glass OVER the fucking board itself. Needless to say, I can only fathom the pains this unit must've given arcade operators back in the day...


Mars: God of War!

Now, is it supposed to remind me of Flash Gordon? Well, even if it wasn't meant to, it totally does


Yeah, I can't think of too much to say about this Gottlieb offering. The board design is pretty cool, especially because it offers you four flippers instead of just two. The artwork, though, is pretty drab, and every time I look at the ball drain, I can't help bu think "now why in the fuck is the Ottawa Senators mascot just hanging out down there?"


Still, I've heard from more than one hardcore pinball purist that this is actually a classic table. I'm guessing that probably has something to do with its insanely convoluted rule set and the fact you can score a bazillion points if you follow the instructions. But for those of us with milder forms of autism? Eh, it's just a pretty good game and absolutely nothing more.

GAME BREAK!


Alright, time to take a momentary break from all of this pinball stuff to take a look at some of the other elements of the expo. As always, the console gaming room was back in full swing, complete with an appearance by the Atari XEGS!


For those of you out of the loop, the XEGS (also known as the XE) was released in 1987 to compete with the NES. Somehow, Atari managed to get Super Mario Bros. on there, alongside about 30 other titles that sold about as well as Klan memorabilia at a Black Lives Matter rally. You know, as bone-headed as Sega may have been, I think it's pretty safe to say Atari's hardware decisions were even worse. I mean, shit, why would they have released anything that would've cannibalized the 7800's market share - especially a system that's only true drawing power was the ability to play ten-year-old 2600 titles? 


And there's our old buddy the Intellivision, just sitting there looking like a telephone that hasn't been plugged in since at least 1987. For some reason, there aren't that many games on the platform that can be easily emulated online - not that playing the games would be any easier with that fucking monstrosity of a controller, though.


So is it safe to say CRT-TV/VCR combos have officially stopped being plain old outdated shit and have now become bona fide retro technology worthy of collection and preservation? Eh, probably not, but they're certainly getting there. Give it another five or ten years and these things will be legitimate antiques, I assure you. Well, that, or the base of most landfill mounds. One or the other, really. 


You know, we really need an official name for the trifecta of early '90s Sega home consoles. I've heard a couple of people refer to it as the "final form," but I'd like to nominate the "Ultrazord" as the official nomenclature. I mean, on Power Rangers that shit was cobbled together from three different machines, too - and they even kinda look the same, if you squint and use your imagination a little.


These multicade units were all over the place, and of course, nobody was playing them. I mean, you can emulate shit whenever you want, so why come to a retro video game expo and MAME like a motherfucker? 


That said, I really can't complain about the taste of the people who set these things up. Of all the classic arcade games they could've used for their demo, what did they pick? SNK'S Windjammers, which has long been one of my favorite Neo Geo offerings. In fact, I'd feel pretty confident calling it my 21st favorite Neo Geo game ever, so you KNOW it's in really good company there. 


There was another MAME multicade that had, no joke, THOUSANDS of emulated games on it. The SHMUP section alone had about 300 different games, including a few (like Chimera Beast) that never received an official U.S. release. You know, I really have to look into investing in one of these things. Can you imagine how great it must be waking up every Saturday morning, brewing up a cup of coffee and hitting a rousing game of In The Hunt an hour or two before college football starts? Fuck, man, that's my dream, and I'm actually starting to cry a little bit just fantasizing about it.


There was this one dude at the show hawking a whole hell of a bunch of designer slot machines. The attention to detail on these things were just amazing, and I can easily see collectors going batshit for something like the Batman-branded unit above. Of course, it don't actually spit coins at you if you win, so it's going to lose a couple of neat-o points on that particular infraction ...


Hey, speaking of vendors, the folks who were selling all sorts of old-school board games were back, and pretty much their entire inventory from last year - including that one Weapon X action figure and the vintage, boxed copy of The Art of the Deal board game, whose price has obviously spiked in the wake of recent events - were on sale once more. I can't say I was too enamored of their wares, but I am curious as to what that one Jerry Springer board game is like. VERY, very curious, actually.


Not that it's really surprising or anything, but I did spot a pretty high quotient of cosplayers this year - certainly far more than I'd seen at any previous expo. While this year's event was depressingly devoid of any green-haired Samus Arans running around with half their coochies hanging out (which I can firmly attest was a thing that happened in '16), it did have some pretty interesting characters pop up, perhaps none as noteworthy as this giant inflatable dinosaur that I'm pretty sure was commandeered by a 12-year-old Hispanic child. Hey, if someone is willing to wear a full body plastic suit in Atlanta - in the middle of the freaking summer - they at least deserve a passing mention, don't they?


See, I wasn't bullshitting you about wrestling being a thing at this year's show. In case you're wondering, all of these make-believe gladiators in tighty-whities are from a promotion called Atlanta Wrestling Entertainment, and judging by the vociferousness of all the fat, white punk girls near the ring ropes, they've apparently garnered something of a dedicated hipster piece of shit following. The in-ring action was better than you'd expect, but good lord, I couldn't believe how small these guys were. I'm barely 5'11 but I towered over half the roster; they might not have a career in WWE, but I'm pretty sure there's a midget fed out there somewhere that would leave to feature their flippity-floppity nonsense for at least a couple of nickels a night, aren't there?


And before we hop back into the pinball action, I present to thee this shit right here. You know, I could easily post this image to CringeAnarchy on Reddit and probably get a thousand or so upvotes, but I'm not gonna' do it. Let's face it - if you CHOOSE to drive around with pedo-hentai porn on your vehicle, you probably lost the organelle responsible for "shame" a looooong time ago. Regardless: kids, if this ride pulls into your neighborhood, DO NOT accept any Pokeballs they try to give you and alert your parents immediately.


The Addams Family!

Yeah, I know it's weird that it took me three of these damn expos to get around to covering this one, but surely, this unit needs no introduction, does it? By some metrics it's still the best-selling pinball game of all-time, and this thing was just about the most ubiquitous cabinet of the 1990s. If your local bowling alley, movie theater or Walmart didn't have this one up-front, you must've been living in a third world country or something. 


So much has been written about The Addams Family that I'm not quite sure what I can add. A lot of pinball purists consider it one of the greatest boards ever, if not the absolute greatest. While I've always thought it was a dandy game, I've never thought of it as being that good, personally. In fact, if I made a list of my top 20 pinball games of the 1990s, I'm not even sure it'd make the cut. Of course, that doesn't make it a bad game or anything like that - just something I think that's good, but maybe not as good as so many hardcore pin-heads have made it out to be.


An aside, I know, but every time I see this game I'm reminded of another coin-op - that one "game" featuring Uncle Fester with a light bulb in his mouth that required you to hold on to two metal bars and "survive" a series of increasingly violent electrical shocks. Now when are we going to be seeing THAT one at the expo, guys?


Revenge From Mars in 3D!

This is one of two games released under the infamous "Pinball 2000" banner that eventually led to Midway's exit from the pinball manufacturing business. And unlike that other Pinball 2000 offering, Revenge From Mars is actually really, really fun, and a sad reminder of where the pinball industry could've gone had all the big name developers not cut bait at the turn of the century.


Even without the whole video screen hullabaloo (more on that in just a bit), this is still a downright dandy little table. The artwork is just peachy, giving us a Mars Attacks! ripoff that actually looks way better than Mars Attacks! And you have to dig that throwback, refreshingly uncluttered playing space - as evident here, sometimes, less is definitely more when it comes to excellent pinball design.


So, yeah, that video screen. It's positioned right above the top of the playing space, and like that old deluxe version of Space Invaders, everything you do on the playing field kinda-sorta-but-not-really correlates to what's happening on the screen. It's hard to describe, but seeing it in person makes a lot more sense. It's a shame the concept never took off - there really could've been some great games (did somebody say sequels to Fish Tales and White Water?) utilizing the idea. 


Space Shuttle!

Clearly, this thing came out before the Challenger disaster (and, by proxy, the theatrical release of SpaceCamp, which I suppose constitutes an entirely different kind of disaster.) I also like how it promotes itself as "a pinball adventure," like it really offers you anything you haven't seen before in a hundred different boards. Jeez, guys, way to get carried away after N.A.S.A. gave you their licensing approval ... 


The game itself is pretty good, if not fairly unnoteworthy. With the exception of the "heat shield" ball saver near the drain, there's not a whole lot of innovation to be found here, although the artwork is, for the most part, pretty decent.


Naturally, the most noticeable aspect of the game is the little replica space shuttle up top. I'm not quite sure if it moves or not, but it's certainly a nice, detailed prop. If you get a multiball bonus, does it explode or something? Because even if it doesn't, it totally should.


Swords of Fury!

That backglass is just so eighties-tastic. It could either be the image on a kid's cartoon-branded lunchbox or the artwork for a Satanic heavy metal band's debut album. Funny how it's so hard to tell the two apart sometimes, eh?


The board is pretty solid. The artwork has a lot of nice blues and oranges, and the ramps are especially fun to muddle around with. Does anybody else get the impression this thing was probably designed to be a Thundercats unit, but the license got yanked at the last minute? 'Cause it sure as hell feels that way to this neutral observer.


Oddly enough, Swords of Fury is probably most remembered for being the table re-skinned for an ambitious fan's homebrew Buffy the Vampire Slayer project. If you haven't seen it, it's worth a gander - if only for the fact it reminds you just how fucking hot Goth Alyson Hannigan was back in the day. 


Black Knight!

Among hardcore pinball enthusiasts, this is routinely cited as one of the absolute best boards ever. This, despite the fact it has almost nothing to do with the Martin Lawrence movie of the same name, which we can all agree is probably the Citizen Kane of our generation.


Of course, Black Knight is a historically important game for several reasons - the most obvious being its inclusion of an elevated platform near the top of the screen (complete with an extra set of flippers!) that effectively constitutes a mini board itself. 


It's a gimmick that's been done plenty of times since, but if I'm not mistaken (and remember, unlike the Pope, I am very much fallible) this was the very first game to incorporate the hook. That historical resonance alone makes Black Knight a must-play - although in my humblest o' opinions it remains a solid little board even with that little element factored out of the equation. 


Wheel of Fortune!

What's better than a regular old, beat-to-shit version of the Wheel of Fortune pinball game? Why, a special edition  beat-to-shit "tournament play" version of the game, which apparently is identical to the standard unit only with a big yellow placard placed atop the backglass board!


If you ever wondered if licensing got out of hand in the pinball industry, the mere existence of this board alone is all the proof you need. I mean, is there really anything innate about the long-running game show that easily translates over into the world of pinball in a logical manner? I mean, Press Your Luck and The Gong Show, I can understand, but there's nothing about Pat Sajak and Vanna White that immediately screams "perfect pinball material" to me, personally. 


That said, it's still an intriguing board. I like the fact they included contestants in the board patchwork, and I really like the fact they made two of them the absolute whitest characters I've seen in any type of medium ever. Of course, we're all left to wonder what happened to poor Maria's head, although it's probably safe to assume she was decapitated after being repeatedly gang raped by Lonnie and Keith in a sadistic anti-Hispanic hate crime. Well, that, or it's stuck underneath the table somewhere and whoever owns it just don't give a shit about finding it anymore. 


Legends of WrestleMania!

Obviously, this is a re-skinned version of Stern's WrestleMania board from a few years back. And yes, color me tickled pink and surprised periwinkle that Hulk "I am racist to a point, fuckin' niggers" Hogan got the marquee spot on the backglass. Hey, I guess it was either him or Roman Reigns, and I guess Hogan's more likable even with the penchant for casual sex-tape racial slurs


If you're a nostalgia-prone 'rasslin dork, you'll probably have a hoot playing this one. Pretty much all the major stars of the 1980s and early 1990s who have since become crack addicts with millions of dollars owed in back taxes are featured somewhere on the unit, although there are several noticeable omissions. I mean, how can you call this Legends of WrestleMania without paying homage to such grappling greats as Special Delivery Jones, Sky Low Low or Giant Gonzalez, guys?


While the game is a re-do, it hasn't changed THAT much from the earlier iteration of the unit. There have been a lot of old/new photos shopped onto the playing field, but practically all of the obstacles (the bumpers, the ramps, etc.) remain unchanged. And while I didn't spend too much time getting acquainted with the product, it doesn't appear that Stern made any major overhauls to the gameplay. That is, unless they threw in a special wizard mode where you help Chris Benoit murder his immediate family before stringing himself up on a Bowflex - which, yeah, probably would be distasteful or something. 


Earthshaker!

Fuck, this game is so early 1990s. A huge titted blonde bitch putting on pink lipstick while an Elvis lookalike drives recklessly and oddly optimistically over tumbling terrain, paying no heed to all the horrified bystanders running for their lives? Man, such whimsical fun, eh kids?


The table layout, though, is just fantastic. It's colorful but isn't too cluttered and the ramps and bumpers are pretty much perfectly placed. It's a pastel wonderland that wouldn't look out of place as an early 1990s board game, and I for one, think it's fantastic


It never really dawned on me before, but there sure are a lot of pinball games out there about mass casualty events. You've got this, you've got Sega's Twister, you've got Rescue 911, and there has to be at least three or four pinball units based on nautical disasters alone. So does that mean that, someday, there are going to be boards based on 9/11 or the Sandy Hook Massacre? I mean, when you really think about it, isn't basing a game around a devastating earthquake every bit as disrespectful and offensive? 


America's Most Haunted!

This is one of those indie-boards that came out in the mid-2000s that was designed to look like a long-forgotten pinball game from the mid-1980s. Oddly enough, as soon as I saw the backglass my immediate thought wasn't "hey, I've never seen this old-school game before" but rather "hey, I've never seen this newer game pretending to be an old-school one before," which is pretty much shades of fourth-dimensional meta I can't even begin to wrap my head around. 


Really, the story here is the lighting. As a whole the board may be pretty forgettable, but this might just be the best use of LED effects I've ever seen in a pinball game. They really do give the game an atmosphere and ambiance it wouldn't have had, otherwise - not only does it make the game, it's pretty much the only thing that makes it worth playing.


The entire board reminds me of one of those blacklight putt-putt golf places. I'm not quite sure I'd call it truly glow-in-the-dark, but it's pretty damn close. Shit, why didn't anybody in the 1980s or 1990s think of doing this? Bone Busters probably would've qualified as G.O.A.T. had somebody floated the idea back in the day. 


I also really dug the ramps, which were very detailed and nowhere near as flimsy as the photo would suggest. That said, the character design on the ghosts in the far background need some work. As in, all the fucking work in the world, because holy shit, are they about the crappiest looking things I've ever seen in a pinball game that wasn't literally built by retards.


Al's Garage Band Goes on A World Tour!

From the same folks who brought us U.S.A. Football comes a more traditional, solo-player pinball offering. It's gimmick? Well, it involves a whole bunch of made-up rock stars modeled after the designer's friends hopping all over the globe, no doubt engaging in all the routine rock and roll behaviors, like kidnapping and repeatedly raping minors and trying to pistol whip security guards to death.


It's an alright board - nothing really more and certainly nothing less. There's probably a bit too much table space dedicated to the map, and there just aren't enough obstacles to tinker around with. The ramp shots are pretty boring, too, but at least the audio design is above average for its time. 


With pinball games modeled after Kiss, Guns N Roses, The Rolling Stones and Metallica out there, Al's Garage Band really doesn't offer too much for music fans or hardcore pinballers alike. Not that it's a bad game or anything like that, just that it doesn't really live up to the gimmick as much as it could (and should have.) Granted, I assume these guys couldn't have licensed Green Day or Nirvana, but I'm sure there were plenty of lesser-known acts from the era with rabid cult followings that would've made outstanding rock-and-roll tables. Shit - now that I think about it, how did we NOT get some kind of GWAR-themed pinball game back in the day, or one based on G.G. Allin


Genesis (again!)

No, you eyes aren't deceiving you - this is indeed the same game from earlier, only with a backboard that totally rips off Metropolis (and to a much, much lesser extent, Bride of Pinbot.) 


I don't know if the backglass is something a fan whipped up or if it actually is a rare alternate backboard design. Surely, somebody out there can set the record straight for me, can't they?


But yeah, beyond that, it's the exact same game, complete with those hard as hell, slippery as an eel's asshole Fallopian-tube ramps and color-coded bumpers that remind me of Simon. Before we move on, I just wanted to remind everybody how fucking great the music in this game was - please, SOMEBODY out there sample this for a hip hop song, and please make sure it sounds like an unreleased Geto Boys track


Cactus Canyon!

And last, but certainly not least, we come to Cactus Canyon. It's a pretty fitting game to close out on, seeing as how it was the last traditional unit manufactured by Bally's before they migrated to the Pinball 2000 format. It's also an extremely rare game, with less than 1,000 boards ever manufactured. At this point, it's nigh impossible to obtain one of the units for less than $10,000 - and in five years' time, you probably won't be able to snatch one up for less than $20,000


This is just a fantastic board. Even without the gimmicky pistols at the bottom of the table this thing is utterly awesome. I like how semi-cruddy the art style is. It's almost like it was ripped from an old Valiant or Image comic from circa 1993 and can we give the ramp design some love? There is ALWAYS crazy shit going on, which makes this one of the most anarchic (and funnest) pinball units of the late 1990s. (Oh, and if you're keen on Easter eggs, if you don't immediately pull the plunger, you'll start getting a whole bunch of soundbites asking you what the fuck you're waiting for. I wonder just how many other tables have the same hidden feature?)


There's just something so beautiful about old school units like this. Gawping at that plastic wonderland near the top corner of the screen, I can't help but be reminded of all sorts of glorious antiquities from the 1990s, like that one putt-putt golf place next to Dairy Queen in my hometown that I'm pretty sure was intentionally set on fire for the insurance money, or the interior dressings of American Adventures in Marietta, Ga. (which still hasn't been torn down, despite having been closed for at least ten years now.) Everything about this game is just so ethereal and ephemeral, residing in this weird, nostalgic no-man's land that doesn't feel current, per se, but doesn't necessarily feel outdated, either. Every time I see one of these machines brought back to live - buzzing and humming and blinking and making Lord knows what kinds of sonic hullabaloo - I can't help but feel as if part of my childhood is instantly resuscitated. In a way, the expo is like taking a trip back to the mom and pop video store at its zenith in 1998, or taking a trip to the old school Showbiz Pizza circa 1991. What you see above isn't just some old-ass pinball game, it's a living, breathing slice of what life was like in the late 1990s - and if you don't see the indescribable magic of that, I pity you plenty.


Whew! That shit took forever, didn't it? Well, don't expect no apologies fro me, because I consider it an honor and a privilege to give you cretins a tour of the Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo each and every year. I'm not sure how they do it, but every year seems to get exponentially more awesome than the year before it, and there's ALWAYS a ton of new (well, technically old, but you know what I'm trying to say here) games on display that weren't at the previous year's show. I'm already pumped, primed and psyched for next year's show, and I can't encourage you enough to come out and visit the festivities at least once.

I've got to tip my hat (fun fact: I never actually wear real hats) to the fine, upstanding folks who put on this gala each and every summer. There's not a whole lot of things I look forward to every year, but by this point the expo is pretty much on par with the start of the pro football season and Halloween in terms of yearly rites I get plumb excited over. Of course I don't have much experience covering retro video gaming conferences and conventions elsewhere, but I highly doubt there's one anywhere on this planet with the charm, coziness and overall awesomeness of the Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo. 

You might as well make Marietta, Ga. the veritable Mecca of old-school gaming; if you fancy yourself a retro gaming enthusiast, you practically owe the gods of gaming at least one pilgrimage to the event before you die. And - as the photos above demonstrate - you absolutely will not regret making the journey ... I guaran-damn-tee it.

HEY! Looking for some fine, fun and dandy retro gaming reading material while waiting for 2018's show to roll around? Check out our absurdly in-depth coverage of the previous Southern-Fried Gameroom Expos at the handy-dandy links below, why don't you?