Austin Gaming Expo: A Lifetime of Gaming, One Crowded Convention Center

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Look at the crowd!

Well, it is Saturday morning, July 26th, and I wake up bright and early. I had packed everything the night before so I was practically ready to go right out of bed. After taking care of a few last minute details I’m off to Austin to attend the annual Austin Gaming Expo. I had about three hours worth of road to cover before I could get there, all of it plagued by construction and speed traps. Thankfully, yours truly invested in a pretty nice radar detector so the latter was not a problem. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any magical device to help me dodge the road construction.

Finally, I make it to the convention. It’s about eleven o’clock when I pull in and the first thing I noticed is that there is no parking. The lot slated as convention center parking is packed. I end up parking on the opposite end from where I wanted to be, but that’s ok. At least I was there. Now I have mentioned the time. The convention itself was scheduled to have started at 10:00 A.M. and I figured it was going to be slow getting started. Boy was I mistaken. The first thing I noticed was that there were people leaving. I was shocked. I’m thinking, “Is it that bad? Am I about to be horribly disappointed?” Then a guy walks by me talking to his buddy on the phone telling him how packed it was inside and he’s going to come back later when things calm down. So, I’m like, OK. He just can’t take the heat. Chump. Then I walk through the door and see The Line. This puppy was long, weaving from the registration table half way around the lobby. Now, yours truly isn’t one for lines and, with that in mind, I had pre-registered. Why should I have to wait in line if I’m already signed up, right? So, adopting my most mocking stance, I stride past all of the mere mortals and approach the door. I find the door guy and ask him what I need to do to get in if I’m already signed up. He points of my shoulder and says, “Go talk to that guy.” Score. Moments later I walk into…a mad house.

Playing a Vectrex

This place is crazy. Instantly I’m flooded with familiar memories of the good old days of the arcade when you would walk into the local establishment to the greeting of beeps, bells, whistles, laser fire, hoots, hollers, and the occasional “Noooo, I had that one!” I just kind of stop…and stand there. I didn’t really have much choice. I had walked into the middle of a throng of people, all trying to go in a different direction at once. Looking to my left I see wall-to-wall arcade machines ranging from the classics up to some of the more modern games. Is that a MAME machine I see over there? Well I’ll be, it sure is. Right in front of me I see a stack of Atari 8 bit carts next to an Atari 600XL wrapped in its original protective plastic. There’s also an 800XL displaying a demo of a multi-cart. To my right I see people, a bunch of them.

Now I’ve been in bigger convention halls, but this one is currently cramming more people per square foot than I’ve ever seen. Later, I find out that the line I saw outside was nothing. The one when the convention first opened was three times as long. I decided to do the quick tour. I want to find out where everything is before the rest of that line outside gets in. Making my way around the convention I take note of the things I want to take a closer look at later. Right now I’m on a mission. Rumor has it that Ambient Distortions is hosting a Jaguar Tempest 2000 tournament somewhere and I fancy myself as something of an expert on that particular game. I find my target standing in front of a table with three Jaguars on it, all of which have Tempest running. I ask the guy about the tournament then tell him I’ll be right back. I know I’m going to be there for a while and there’s a few functions people usually take care of after a road trip that I had yet to find an outlet for.

Games Galore!

Making my way back to the tournament I sign the list. I’m not the first person in the competition but there are already some pretty good scores on there. I sit down and start playing. Now while I am very familiar with Tempest, I have never played this version of it. Immediately I start noticing the differences. Some are minor. Some help. Some force me to change my strategy. Thankfully, I’m starting from the beginning and have time to adjust before things start getting difficult. Thirty minutes later I casually stroll past the current champion’s top score. This is where I had one of those high points in my gaming career. There had been a few people talking to me while I was playing, which I didn’t mind since for much of my game I was just trying to build up lives for when things get difficult. However, I couldn’t tell you what any of those people looked like. They were all just voices standing behind me. Then, I hear this conversation:

Guy 1 : Wow, he’s doing pretty good!
Guy 2 : Yeah, he’s already got the top score.
Guy 1 : How many lives does he have left?
Guy 2 : I’m not sure. It will only show eight on the screen. He has quite a few more than that.
Guy 1 : Damn, that looks tough.
Guy 2: I know. It looks like he’s going to be here for a while too.

Heated DDR competition

That left me all glowy inside. I continue to put on what I think is a pretty good representation of my skills. About twenty minutes later, roughly 45 minutes since I started playing, I lose my last life to a Pulsar which caught me off guard while I was trying to get to a power-up. My score is 790,000. That was roughly 250,000 more points then the now second place contestant. My hands are cramped and I need to unwind. Thankfully, this hotel has a restaurant. In that restaurant is a bar. And in that bar they serve beer.

Alright. I have two beers and a double-decker sandwich in my belly. I have a strong lead in the tournament. It is time to check out the rest of this shindig and, let me tell you, there was some neat stuff. When AGE advertised the event as "a gathering of gamers enjoying videogames of all types, whether they are classic videogames of the early 80's, modern game systems you'll find in today's stores, or full-size arcade games" they were not kidding. I saw running versions of just about every system you could think of. Looking back, I can think of a few consoles I didn’t see, but I’m not going to mention them since there was so much going on I could have easily missed them. The video game museum was just awesome featuring game systems dating from the late 70s all the way up to modern times. I saw things I haven’t seen up close in years and some other things I had only seen in pictures. Heck, I’ll admit it. There were things I didn’t even know existed. They also had an Atari timeline display starting with the original home version of Pong up to the Jaguar, including some kind of virtual reality helmet that was new to me.

As for the attendees, well, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew something of the background of many of the organizers and even they were a varied lot . Yes, there were quite a few young people there ranging from little kids on up to your later teens. However, many of those younger kids were there with their parents and from the look of some of them I couldn’t tell who was more exited, the child or the parent. After that you had this extremely varied mix of characters fitting just about every description you can think of. The thing is, everybody was really into what was going on. I think that most people there had some kind of thing, or theme, or game…some kind of focus they were really into and I’m sure not everybody was into everything but everybody was into something. As I mentioned, the place was crowded. Every once in a while I would wander off to some quieter corner of the hotel to relax for a bit. In other words, I would go to the bar and have another beer. Every time I did that I would end up talking to somebody from the convention and each time it was both a distinctly different yet extremely interesting conversation about some aspect of gaming, both old and new. I met some cool people.

SCSI Cide

Then there was the arcade. It featured about fifteen to twenty pinball machines along with more than thirty arcade machines. I had been hoping for more of the classics but sadly there were only a handful there that fit my definition of the genre. However, I can see where they were coming from. They are trying to give a sampling of the entire history of the arcade and that is what they did. For any particular time frame they had a couple of machines to represent it. I would try to list them all from memory but that would be an act in futility. I will take a guess that the earliest game that featured was Asteroids Deluxe with the latest, I believe, being Dance Dance Revolution, which became the site of a crazy tournament later on. They had a few of the more modern fighting games that may be more current than DDR but I couldn’t say for sure. They also had Major Havoc, one of the later vector games, which I had only seen once in my life while on vacation as a child in some town whose name I can’t remember.

Now, let us not forget, yours truly still has a tournament going on. So while all this is going on I also occasionally glance at the Tempest tournament to see whose there. I have to give my competitors some props, especially those of you above the 500,000 range. There were a number of times I would glance over, see somebody playing, and not really think about it. Then, thirty minutes later, I would glance over again and you would STILL BE THERE! No need to fret though. Ditto still has a strong hold on the title. A few of you made me nervous though.

You might have found yourself wondering what kind of gaming related items were available for purchase at a gaming expo. Well, when it came to games, just about anything. I saw plenty of Atari carts for the 2600, 5200 and, to a lesser extent, the 7800. I saw some Atari 8-bit carts, some Sega Genesis carts, and some of the original 8-bit Nintendo carts. Of course there were some Nintendo 64 carts, some Atari Lynx carts, and some Atari Jaguar carts. That and some TI-99 carts, some Colecovision carts, and some Magnavox Odyssey 2 carts. Did I mention that you had a few options when it came to carts? After that I saw people selling games for every disk-based system I can think of, one exception possibly being Sega CD games. There was some hardware available. I talked to one guy who picked up a Vectrex, in excellent condition, for eighty dollars. Lucky for him I didn’t find that deal first. I saw various older consoles for sale though I didn’t notice anything particularly rare outside of a top loading NES and the Vectrex, which the vendor was rather proud of in my opinion.

Playing Tempest

That was one thing I will add in somewhat of a negative tone. I did notice a few things that were overpriced. I know that you have to mark up your stuff somewhat in order to make a profit but with some people, not the majority, I had to wonder what they were thinking. Put it this way, as I was picking out a few Atari 2600 carts I didn’t have from one vendors basket, he told me as he handed me a small flyer, “Here is a list of some other things we have available. We had more here earlier but that booth down the way bought them from us since we were selling them cheaper.” However, as I said, that was definitely not the rule. I got some pretty good deals on some stuff I would be hard put to find in my normal wanderings. If you ever find yourself in Austin, I would highly recommend visiting the people at Goodwill Computerworks.

Let us move on to the people behind the booths. I would say that 95% of the people I met that were somehow involved with a sponsor, vendor, and/or exhibitor were cool people. The other 5% may have been tired. I don’t know…crowded, long day, I guess we all can’t be chipper. Anyway, most everybody was cool and everyone was willing to talk to you if you were able to catch him or her at a time when they were not talking to anybody else. That was more of a challenge then one might think. I did spend some time talking to some of the guys from Ambient Distortions and they were some interesting characters. I had a brief visit with a gentleman from Video Game Bible that was cool. His group of contributors had a rather impressive collection of their own which was used to build their publications. Another great guy I met was Joe from Pixels Past , whom I doubt realized his picture was going to end up here when he struck that pose with the coozie. If anyone is unfamiliar with Joe’s work, he is the author of SCSIcide, an interesting game that I stopped and watched in action a number of times but never got to play. I’ll have to fix that shortly. Another group I tried to visit with, but whose attention I never could catch due to the swarm of people around their table, were the guys and gals from AtariAge. They had some really great stuff available, and one of them did make a guest appearance in the forums here, but I never could catch them.

That was the Expo. If you are still keeping score, I didn’t win the Tempest tournament. I was beat out at the last minute by a guy, pictured to the left here, who was incredibly good. I can honestly say that he was better than me, but not by much. His lead in the end wasn’t that much higher than mine. I’m not a sore loser… especially after making all those other people look bad. I left the place with a nice collection of loot. I saw some interesting stuff and met some cool people. If you haven’t done it yet, take a look at the homepage for the Austin Gaming Expo. They're already planning next year's event to be bigger and better than ever, which it will be, since next time Fatman Games is going to represent. All we need is for the Fatman to get off his medium-sized ass and get some t-shirts made.

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