Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Video Game Valhalla (With No Quarters Necessary)

Uncommon Journalism speaks with the co-founder of Atlanta's Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo about the appeal of retro gaming to old school hobbyists and iPhone-weaned youngsters alike.

By: James Swift

Close to 100 people squeezed themselves into a side room at the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel on the morning of June 10. Onstage was video gaming royalty - Pac-Man world record holder Billy Mitchell and Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day, both of whom were featured prominently in the 2007 documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

In between them stood a five-foot, box-shaped object draped underneath a dark-colored veil.

Dressed in a speckless white suit, Mitchell - who supplied bottles of his company's hot sauce for every single attendee at the weekend-long Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo - recounted a visit to the Nintendo of America headquarters in Seattle in the 1980s.

"Anytime I spoke of it, people just scratched their heads and didn't remember anything," he reminisced"The guys who we traveled there with, who were there in the break room with us, I said 'remember when we played Sky Skipper?' - 'no, no' - so I mean there was nobody even to speak to of it."

The "lost" game Mitchell referenced is a 1981 Nintendo arcade title that was never mass-produced. While emulated versions of Sky Skipper have leaked on the Internet, only a scant few gamers were ever afforded the opportunity to play the game as originally intended.

That is, until that afternoon in Atlanta. Enter Alex Crowley and Whitney Roberts of the Sky Skipper Project
THE BIG REVEAL From left, Alex Crowley,
Whitney Roberts, Billy Mitchell and Walter Day marvel
at the refurbished Sky Skipper arcade cabinet.
(Photo Credit: James Swift)

"I never thought in my wildest dreams that this little game would take me all the way to the good old United States," said Crowley, a Britain-based YouTuber. "I'd seen pictures of Sky Skipper - fliers, black and white fliers and marquees - but I'd never actually seen a full-sized, upright cabinet, and I didn't even know if it existed."

A few years ago Crowley connected with fellow Nintendo-enthusiast Whitney Roberts. They soon joined forces to bring the 36-year-old coin-op back to life

"Getting the boards was the first major accomplishment," Crowley told the audience. "There were many times where we didn't know if we were actually going to be able to finish this, and even put it on stage for everybody to see." 

The lights dimmed and Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" - a.k.a, the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the longtime entrance theme of pro wrestler Ric Flair - started pumping through the audio system.

"We went through, we rebuilt an extra monitor, we rebuilt an extra power supply, Alex brought his extra board set," Roberts said. "The only thing we did not duplicate was the cabinet itself, and I don't know if we would live through another one of those." 

The crowd counted down. Three. Two. One. 

Roberts and Crowley gently yanked off the black sheet. As soon as the arcade game's bright, baby blue veneer became visible, the audience howled. 

"We have contact," Crowley declared. "It lives."

What's Old is New Again
THE MAN WITH THE PLAN Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo co-founder Preston Burt, 36, said the annual event is one of the most "fan-driven" conventions out there. (Photo credit: James Swift)

The literal resurrection of Sky Skipper serves as something of a metaphor for the Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo as a whole. For the last four years the event has drawn thousands of old school gamers and retro hobbyists to the metro-Atlanta area, offering attendees a chance to relive the glory days of such anachronistic amusement as pinball parlors and video game arcades.

"I started the Atlanta Pinball League awhile ago," said expo co-founder Preston Burt. "The network of collectors and hobbyists that I've met realized that there wasn't an expo, or games-on-location, or really any way to play games like these except in people's basements." 

Five years ago, Burt and five of his friends began the groundwork on what would eventually become the Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo (SFGE.) "We did a little bit of a Kickstarter," the 36-year-old Gainesville, Ga. resident said. "I had some support because I do have a podcast called Gameroom Junkies ... we have an audience kind of built in to advertise and market this to."

The first expo, held at the Marriott Century Center in Decatur, Ga. in 2014, focused exclusively on vintage video gaming - i.e., arcade offerings, pinball units and vintage home consoles. All of the machines - including a few wheeled in from Burt's personal collection - were set to freeplay mode, with the admission fee negating the need for attendees to bulk up on spare change before hitting the show floor. 

The expo changed venues to the more spacious Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel in 2016, which is just a few yards away from the new Atlanta Braves baseball stadium. The move allowed the expo to add a tabletop gaming component to the festivities, beef up the number of coin-ops on display and even add professional wrestling to its official lineup of extracurricular activities (which also includes cosplay contests, musical performances and film screenings.) 

"Last year, we had just around 3,000," Burt said. "Looking at ticket sales, I think we're probably going to be safe to say we have 3,400 to 3,500 people this year." 

The First Rock Star Video Game Designer
A LIVING LEGEND Programmer David Crane is
responsible for some of the most popular Atari 2600
games of all-time, including Pitfall! and Kaboom!
(Photo Credit: James Swift)
The expo isn't just a chance for attendees to wax nostalgic on such 2D classics as After Burner and Wizard of Wor, though. It also gives a platform to some of the most illustrious figures in the history of video gaming, such as Activision co-founder David Crane, to discuss the early days of the interactive medium.

"When we founded Activision, we didn't own any arcade games or arcade licenses, so we had to create original concepts from the beginning," Crane said at a panel discussion. "That was kind of the design philosophy ... we left Atari because they didn't recognize the creative work that went into a video game and treated us like nameless engineers in the back."

Crane would go on to create some of the most memorable games on the Atari 2600, including Pitfall!, Kaboom! and Freeway

"The Atari 2600 could render 128 colors, we used six, seven of them, maybe," he said. "People would look at it and say 'that looks so much better than your competition,' and they couldn't see why - it's a single scan line of black that made it just look better."

Programmers constantly struggled to overcome the console's hardware limitations. "Two players, eight bits, two missiles and a ball was all that it wanted to put on the screen," Crane said. "I'd spend six weeks sometimes making a new trick for what the 2600 could do and they didn't know it could do." 

Often, he said Activision developed games around technological tricks and hardware workarounds. He cites the cars in Grand Prix - which were 16 times larger than the tanks in the console pack-in game Combat - as among his greatest engineering feats.

In 1986, Crane left Activision and co-founded Absolute Entertainment. After developing the cult NES classic A Boy and His Blob, he largely worked on licensed Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis and Game Boy titles based on properties like The Simpsons and Home Improvement

"There was a tremendous amount of back-end work that you have to do," he said. "You're limited by the size of the ROM every single time ... so we're writing custom image compressors, we're writing all kinds of strange things we have to do just to make those games work, and the next console that comes out - now it's the Super Nintendo - we've got to start all over again."

In the mid '90s and 2000s Crane mostly worked with Skyworks Interactive on "adver-games" for brands like Nabisco and Life Savers. He attempted a comeback in 2012 with Jungle Adventure, but the project was scuttled after it failed to meet its $900,000 crowdfunding goal. With $1 as the floor for iPhone and iPad apps, Crane said he had serious apprehensions about the profitability - and sustainability - of small developers producing games on today's mobile platforms.

Crane concluded his presentation by recounting his experience consulting on the infamous full-motion-video Sega CD release Night Trap a controversial title that drew the wrath of Capitol Hill and lead to the development of an industry-wide video game ratings system. Interestingly, the game actually began life as a title on Hasbro's never-released Control-Vision system - a device consumers could connect to their VCRs to effectively "play" live-action video cassettes

"It was a B-horror movie with scantily-clad women as the bait they put on those movies being eaten by vampires," Crane said. "I'm credited on that game, but I was in the office for two hours helping them out."

The Patriarch of Pinball
THE PINBALL WIZARD Not only is Roger Sharpe
one of the most famous pinball players in history, he also
helped design such classic machines as Sharpshooter and
Barracoro. (Photo Credit: James Swift)
Anyone who has played a pinball machine in New York owes more than a grain of gratitude to Roger Sharpe. As hard as it may be to believe, pinball was actually illegal in many cities prior to the 1980s, with local legislatures deeming the devices illegal gambling machines. In 1976, the City of New York overturned their anti-pinball ordinance when Sharpe lugged several pinball units into the council chambers and - with one forecalled ramp shot - proved once and for all that pinball was a game of skill as opposed to chance. 

"As any of us get older, we wind up thinking about things in different contexts," Sharpe said. "In Chicago, where I grew up, pinball was illegal ... I thought about it in the context that if I had grown up any other place - let's say I had grown up in Madison, Wisc., where I went to school and pinball was around - I never would've did what I done." 

Sharpe isn't just a world-famous pinball player, however. In addition to literally writing the authoritative book on pinball history, he also helped design numerous old-school classics, including Sharpshooter, Barracoro and Cyclopes

His children, Zach and Josh Sharpe - both of whom attended the presentation as audience members - carry on their father's legacy as two of world's top-ranked pinball competitors today.

The landscape of pinball has changed dramatically since the 1990s, when Sharpe helped manufacturers such as Bally's and Midway weed through potential licenses (among other credits, Sharpe said he was single-handedly responsible for Midway picking up the rights to The Shadow - deemed one of the best units of the decade - over I.P.s such as Stargate and Maverick.) All of the major pinball companies of yesteryear, save for the Chicago-based Stern, have gone under or abandoned the market. During the presentation, Sharpe shared his thoughts on the controversial Pinball 2000 systems, whose market failure led to Williams' exit from the hardware business.

"Do I think if Pinball 2000, if it had been allowed to survive, if that would've changed things?" he posed. "No, and I say that not necessarily emphatically - the biggest problem pinball had and still has is technicians."

With scant arcades remaining in the market, Sharpe said manufacturers are extremely limited with placement options.

"Businesses out there just are not willing to invest the time and effort necessary to take care of something that - oh my God - will actually appreciate in value," he said. "There are barcades now and all these other things - if you go in and you go in front of that pinball machine and that pinball machine has lights out and malfunctioning flippers, something not working, the sound turned down, what's your reaction going to be, young or old? You're reaction is going to be 'what's everybody talking about?'"

While Sharpe said he was impressed by the newer wave of pinball games - ones that include high-definition video screens, among other innovations - he nonetheless feels less than optimistic about the business of pinball. 

"The problem," he concluded his presentation, "is we're not growing the market."

Why Retro Gaming Matters
A BLAST FROM THE PAST Video game historian Walter Day compared SFGE to a virtual archaeological dig. "This is a video game collector's version of scientists actually doing the research, making the discoveries and now publishing for everyone to see," he said. "Finding something that otherwise was forgotten, bringing it back to life [and] putting it all together." (Photo Credit: James Swift)
While Burt was a little too young to experience the golden age of arcade gaming, he nonetheless cherishes his experiences playing Street Fighter II down at the local corner shop in his youth. 

"I remember putting my quarter up on the edge of the control panel waiting my turn and realizing I was actually good enough at the game to beat someone who was an adult," Burt reminisced. "Here I was, this 12-year-old kid, showing them who's the boss on this video game - it was pretty empowering, and I will never forget that."

While competition remains the root of video gaming - the eSports industry is expected to top $1.5 billion by the time the decade ends - Burt contends that the joy of retro gaming lies in its socializing aspects. 

"Retro gaming is a big phenomenon partly because people are nostalgic for their childhood youth and the people who were kids at the time want to reconnect with their past," he said. "But part of it is also because a little bit of that social atmosphere ... going to the mall and having the arcade as a place to go with your friends, that's totally lost."

Burt's sentiments are echoed by Walter Day - the referee-shirt-bedecked gaming historian who compared the expo to a virtual archaeological dig.

"A lot of you people have actually become what we can technically call historians, but it's sort of snuck up on you without you realizing, because you were just doing what was dear to your hearts," he told SFGE attendees. "This is a video game collector's version of scientists actually doing the research, making the discoveries and now publishing for everyone to see ... finding something that otherwise was forgotten, bringing it back to life [and] putting it all together."

AN EXTRA LIFE SFGE Co-founder Preston Burt says
it isn't just nostalgia that brought more than 3,000
people to this year's event - it's also the socialization
aspect. (Photo Credit: James Swift)
While most of the retro arcade and console classics can easily be emulated on P.C.s and mobile devices, Burt said playing a physical arcade cabinet or pinball machine provides an entirely different user experience - and one that's perfect for family bonding.

"Every year, there are kids who come who have never seen a pinball machine," he said. "So it's a chance for parents to connect and instill not only a love of gaming but a better understanding of the parents as children for their children."

Although Burt said he would love to expand SFGE, he feels the Atlanta convention scene is a bit too crowded to facilitate more than one major expo a year. Still, he's already making plans for 2018's festivities - indeed, the dates and venue for next year's show were stamped on the aforementioned complementary hot sauce bottles each expo attendee received at the box office.

"The hardest part is making sure this well-oiled machine is well-oiled," he said. "The week of the convention and the convention itself, it's making sure everybody is where they are supposed to be, the panels are being led, guests are accounted for ... and then the final hard part is, of course, helping load and unload 250-and-300 pound machines." 

And as he darts around the expo floors, weaving in and out of Star Wars tee-shirt clad guests and vendors hawking old comic books and Nintendo cartridges - naturally, making sure to dodge any discarded cans of Monster and avoid bumping his knees on Food Fight cocktail tables - what goes through his mind?

"I can't believe I helped create this," he said. "It's really amazing to see what can happen when people come together ... all the games come from people who love to share this hobby with others and are willing to haul a 300-pound machine out of their basement. So looking at just how many people came together to make something like this happen? It's really overwhelming."
Uncommon Journalism, 2017

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