Inside a new Atlanta video game and pinball convention.
The night before Father’s Day, I was up all night long because my daughter, Scarlett, was projectile vomiting. Running a high fever. Doing all kinds of viral things in the olden days sense of the term. It wasn’t’ all bad – I’m a chronic insomniac and I had my 3DS in hand the whole time playing Etrian Odyssey while she drifted in and out of sleep with one of those dreadful “Buddies” movies on. At least it was the superhero one.
So in the morning, my wife and my son River come down stairs and present me with a robot card and a Breville blender. Plans for the zoo and lunch at this Venezuelan joint are scrapped after a 102.8 temperature reading. My wife hands me her phone and Amex and says “here, take River to this…I would have absolutely no fun there.” On her screen is something called the Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo. I kind of balk at it a little- not wanting to leave her home alone with a very sick child, but we were quickly ushered out the door, River’s backpack full of snacks and drinks.
Come to find out, this sort of arcade game convention that I had never heard of was literally around the corner from our house at a Marriott hotel I never expected to set foot in. We parked, River was being his usual five year old fidgety and excited about everything self. I told him that he would probably get to play the original game that Donkey Kong and Mario was in- possibly even against the top Donkey Kong player in the world. None other than Billy Mitchell was one of the show’s guests of honor. “I’m gonna play Splatoon!”, he said.
So we went in and I was expecting the worst, to be honest. I pictured a hotel ballroom filled with pinball and arcade games, mostly for sale at exorbitant prices with stinky, sweaty men with ponytails that probably know a little too much about the history of Gottlieb pinball hovering about. We paid the entry fee- free for him, a mere $10 for me and there at the registration table booth was Mr. Mitchell himself. He stood there with his supernaturally straight hair, beard, American flag tie and eat shit glare. Just like you would expect. I wanted to say something, but I just couldn’t think of anything. I brought a little step stool for River that he was carrying and he said “That kid’s bringing his own stool, he’s ready to play”. We had instant credibility at this event, which was full of hipsters, kids and families as much as middle-aged hobby hermits.
So we walked into one of the main ballrooms and I have to say, it was like magic. It was almost but not quite like walking into an arcade circa 1985. What got me beyond the sights and sounds of all of these beautiful, vintage arcade machines (all set on free play) was that it freaking smelled just like how I remember The Gold Mine, Red Baron, Pinball Palace, 2001 and any other arcade I used to play in when I was a kid. It’s not the smell of bad hygiene. It’s like this ozone smell of hot electronics enclosed in wood. My wife texted me- "is it dumb?" "No - it's awesome." I replied.
First game we played – Donkey Kong. River was screaming the entire time because it was so loud in there, the speakers blasting Billy Idol and Tears for Fears notwithstanding. “This is really hard!” he hollered. I took a shot at it, having not played an actual arcade game in a long time, and what surprised me about it was how physical it was to control Mario with an old fashioned joystick and a big old button. We’re so used to gamepads and analog sticks these days that we’ve forgotten the subtle amount of hand strength it took to use those controls.
With the games all on free play, it’s hard in that environment to focus on one game or to really, seriously try to play. You play one or two lives and then move on to something else. We barreled through a history of classic games. Gorf, Zaxxon, Rampage, Tapper (Budweiser tabletop model), Track and Field, Asteroids, Popeye, Sinistar, Time Crisis, Burgertime, Dragon’s Lair, Star Wars, Robotron 2084, Food Fight, Centipede, TMNT Turtles in Time…I probably couldn’t tell you what all we played. But I do have to say that I could’t help but notice that Omega Race, Crystal Castles, Satan’s Hollow, Crossbow, Battlezone, Spy Hunter and Berzerk weren’t there.
And oh my god, the pinball machines. Pretty much every major machine you’d care to name (with the very notable omission of Twilight Zone) was there, and almost every one lovingly cared for and 100% functional. I played an amazing Firepower machine that I would have bought on the spot if I had the money and my wife wouldn’t kill me. River absolutely loved Medieval Madness, we played it a bunch and he was really into the Star Wars machine, for obvious reasons. I played a lot of machines I had only seen pictures of before, like this stunning wide-field Bally Space Invaders machine with table art pretty much directly ripped off from HR Giger’s Alien work. Another one I would have bought on the spot if I had my druthers. Vintage machines going back to the 1940s and 50s were on hand, as were more recent Stern machines like the new Walking Dead machine, which was impossible to ever get a turn on. Classics such as Pin-Bot, Black Knight, Addams Family and so forth were there and wonderful as always.
The games were all brought in by private collectors to create this sort of temporary museum. Some were for sale. Some were entered in a contest to pick the best-restored or best-modified machines. Simpsons Arcade won its category and a beautiful Genesis machine won for pinball. There were also custom-made machines, like this one I saw playing Earthbound of all things. Some interesting items like a Fix-It Felix Jr. machine that must have been some kind of promo for the film. Virtual pinball tables with the big LCD TVs for the playfield were also present and very, very cool.
But that wasn’t all. There were also rooms for modern consoles, where we played a couple of rounds of eight player Smash Bros. Wii U, and also a small assortment of vintage consoles. I finally got to play Virtual Boy, and it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. It was actually kind of neat. River got to play his grandpa’s favorite game River Raid on a classic wood panel 2600. They had an Intellivision and it was really funny to see my boy try to hold the controller with that big stupid disc on the left like a modern gamepad.
River loved the whole thing. He wanted to play everything. But the one game that he kept coming back to and asking to go back to was Duck Hunt, played on this beat-up NES on a thrift store Magnavox. I think he would have sat there and played it all day long if I had let him. He was fascinated with the Zapper (which he recognized from Splatoon) with its satisfyingly tactile trigger-click, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t try to shoot that damn dog, as is the unspoken tradition of that classic game.
There were tournaments. There were panels. There were a couple of vendors. Billy Mitchell was hawking some kind of hot sauce. Buckner was there, but for some reason not Garcia. "Artistic differences", perhaps? There was a big booth that sold pinball machine parts. Jamma boards. Lightbox art pieces made from old game marquees, including a Ghosts and Goblins one I really wanted. But we didn’t spend any money.
But we did spend plenty of time there, I think all told we were there for like five hours and River still wasn’t ready to leave. In all, I think it was probably the best father’s day I’ve ever had, apart from my daughter being sick and my wife being stuck at home with her. This was the first year they've done this, apparently, so we'll definitely be back next year for it.
As a footnote- I ran into none other than Ameritrash founding father Robert Martin, I haven’t seen him in years. He was planning on playing a game of TI3 with his 11 year old son later that evening, so he’s still out there.