Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Classic Gaming Expo 2007

Signing a book for Bill "The Game Doctor" Kunkel

This past weekend, while many of my fellow comic book junkies and journalists were braving the hordes of the always awesome Comic-Con International: San Diego (a convention I attended last year), I was in Las Vegas at a much smaller gathering of video game gurus and joystick jockeys. Held at the Riviera Hotel and Casino, Classic Gaming Expo 2007 was a two-day celebration of all things Atari 2600, Intellivision, ColecoVision, and other video game consoles of the past. In addition, the event paid healthy respect to arcade games of yore, as evidenced by a long row of coin-op classics at the back of the convention hall set up on free play.

Perhaps the most important aspect of CGE is its recognition of classic game programmers, such as the intelligent and charming Jay Smith, designer of the Microvision, which was the first programmable handheld game system, and of the Vectrex, which remains the only programmable vector graphics console. According to Mr. Smith, the bulky Microvision was larger than it had to be, thanks to Milton Bradley wanting consumers to think they were getting good value for their dollar. In addition, Milton Bradley was strangely opposed to licensing such arcade titles as Space Invaders, a policy Smith found absurd. On the Vectrex front, Smith talked about the embarrassment of the “dust” levels in the original Mine Storm, what would have been a color Vectrex unit (had the video game market not collapsed in 1983/84), and much more.

I didn’t get a chance to attend the Activision or Intellivision panels, but I did manage to catch the legendary Bill Kunkel talking about the demise of Tips & Tricks magazine, and about the decline and fall of print video game journalism in general (thanks in part to free and easy access to online information, such as it is). For me, the highlight of the entire convention was when Mr. Kunkel purchased a copy of my book, Classic Home Video Games, 1972-1984, and had me sign it for him. For those who don’t know, Bill “The Game Doctor” Kunkel was the executive editor of Electronic Games magazine, the groundbreaking publication from the early ’80s that paved the way for video game journalism. As a teenager, I read EG religiously, and it was a true honor to speak to and sign a book for Mr. Kunkel.

Other highlights of the show included chatting with Chris Cavanaugh (my former editor at The All Game Guide), meeting Leonard Herman (author of the indispensable Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames), attending the auction (which was funny and surprisingly dramatic, thanks to some boldly battlin’ bidders), and playing such arcade classics as Star Castle, Super Breakout, and Gorf. Console ports can be great, but there’s nothing like the real deal.

A feature on CGE can’t be complete without making mention of the guys at Digital Press: Joe Santulli, John Hardie, and Sean Kelly, each of whom has a devotion to classic gaming that is fun and infectious. These guys (along with a number of volunteers) bust their butts to organize the Classic Gaming Expo each year, with apparently little to no regard for financial gain (their expenditures must surely outweigh their costs). The DP dudes simply enjoy putting on the show, meeting fellow gaming enthusiasts, and having a beer or two along the way. To visit their site, click on the following link: Digital Press.

All in all, CGE 2007 was a blast. Can’t wait to go again next year.

Riviera Hotel and Casino: Site of CGE 2007

Recreation of typical 1980s living room

Atari2600.com, one of many vendors selling vintage video games

Intellivision booth

The always popular swap meet

Twin Galaxies' Walter Day checks out the latest must-have video game book

Star Castle, one of my favorite arcade games, set up on free play

John Hardie auctions off Meteorites, a rare Atari 5200 game

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Making plans to attend...

Classic Gaming Expo 2007!

I turn 40 August 7, which my body seems to understand, but my mind doesn’t. Playing basketball, reading, listening to rock ‘n’ roll music, and killing alien invaders are things I still enjoy, but I am now sore the day after a game of full court hoops, I oftentimes fall asleep midway through the first chapter of a book, hair metal is more of a nostalgic pleasure than an actual musical preference, and my reflexes aren’t quite what they used to be when it comes to saving planet Earth from annihilation.

The above admissions would be depressing, but for a couple of things: my favorite activity these days is spending time with my kids, whether it’s swimming, bowling, watching movies, going to the park, or playing with the untold number of kitties that occupy our yard. Another aspect of my life that staves off old age angst is my ever-loving, ever-amazing wife, who got me a simply awesome gift for my 40th: a trip to the Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas! I haven’t been to CGE since 2003, so a voyage to the Valhalla of video games is long overdue.

At CGE, the convention floor is lined with vintage arcade video games set up on free play, meaning once you pay your admission at the door, you can play Tron, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, or any number of other classics as many times as you’d like. In addition, there are dealers set up selling rare and unusual items, such as vintage ColecoVision games still in the box, copies of Electronic Games magazine, Atari 2600 prototypes, and much more. Common items abound as well, meaning gamers of any budget can find something to purchase and enjoy.

Other attractions include: a swap meet, an auction, panel discussions, video game tournaments, and appearances by such celebrities as David “Pitfall!” Crane, Steve “MegaMania” Cartwright, and Al “I designed the Atari 2600” Alcorn (to cite three examples of guests who will be at this year’s convention). Amazingly enough, there are still companies and individuals producing games for the older systems, and CGE is the place to introduce these types of games. New cartridges making their debut at CGE 2007 include Rent Wars, N.E.R.D.S., and The Last Ninja for the Atari 2600, Pitcher’s Duel for the Vectrex, and a number of other titles.

I hope to make my mark (in some small way) at CGE this year by toting along copies of my new book, Classic Home Video Games, 1972-1984. Hopefully, I can sell a few books, make some new friends, and hand out a few business cards. Regardless of what happens, I’m sure I’ll have a great time, so much so that I may forget to act my age.

The 2007 edition of the Classic Gaming Expo takes place at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas , Nevada, July 28-29. For more information, click on the following link: http://cgexpo.com/index.htm.

Friday, July 13, 2007

It's here!

My book, Classic Home Video Games, 1972-1984: A Complete Reference Guide, is now available through amazon.com. To order a copy, or to simply read about the book, click on the following link: amazon.com

Excerpts from

Sample Atari 2600 game entry:

Publisher: Atari. Developer: Atari.
Non-Scrolling Shooter, 1 or 2 players (alternating). 1981.

Wisely steering clear of trying to mimic the look of the vector graphics found in their own 1979 arcade classic, Atari rendered the 2600 version of Asteroids in unabashedly obvious raster graphics. The space rocks flicker when too many appear onscreen, and they don’t change direction or speed when shot, but they are colorful. And, like the 2600 rendition of Space Invaders, Asteroids has lots of extra features not found in its coin-op cousin, including shields, modes of play that dispense with the satellites and UFOs, the ability to flip the ship 180 degrees, and more. The game doesn’t handle as smoothly as the original, and the ship can only belt out two shots at a time (as opposed to four), but Atari did a decent job of incorporating the five-button coin-op control scheme into the one-button 2600 joystick.

Sample Intellivision game entry:

Masters of the Universe: The Power of He-Man
Publisher: Mattel Electronics
Developer: Mattel Electronics
Side-Scrolling Shooter/Action, 1 player. 1983.

Based on the popular 1980s cartoon, Masters of the Universe is one of the best looking and sounding games for the Intellivision. The theme song is dead-on, the characters and the vehicle are nicely drawn and animated, and the mountains and Castle Grayskull are beautiful. Regrettably, the action is only average. The player, as He-Man, hops aboard his Wind Raider and flies mostly to the right, shooting lasers at fireballs and dropping bombs on Skeletor, who runs along the ground. The ship is stuck moving up and down in the middle of the screen, and the fireballs don’t make for very interesting targets. Fuel is a factor, but there’s no way to gain more. Once He-Man has made it 30 “miles,” it’s on to the next three screens, each of which has players running from left to right, avoiding (or blocking with a shield) a screen full of lightning balls and power-bolts. Then, there’s a swordfight with Skeletor, but it’s only an animation, not a player-controlled battle.

Sample ColecoVision game entry:

Publisher: Imagic. Developer: Imagic.
Action/Adventure, 1 or 2 players (alternating). 1983.

Dragonfire for the ColecoVision is a significant upgrade over the already impressive Atari 2600 and Intellivision versions of the game. Just about everything, from the castle to the dragon to the backgrounds, has been embellished with enhanced graphical detail. Surprisingly, however, the ornate treasures that glimmered so beautifully on the 2600 are now flat and monochromatic. Gameplay remains about the same. In the first screen, players guide the prince over a castle bridge while ducking under and jumping over fireballs. During the second stage, the prince must dodge dragon fire while running around gathering treasures. Like the Intellivision game, this rendition features the addition of an archer positioned on a tower, shooting arrows at the valiant prince as he runs across the bridge. Later levels add a ColecoVision-exclusive troll to the treasure room.

Now reading...

Scott Westerfeld

My dad’s second cousin is fellow Texan (make that former Texan) Scott Westerfeld, author of such popular young adult novels as the Midnighters trilogy and the Uglies trilogy. I knew he had hit the big time when I was at my kids’ book fair at their school and saw some of his books for sale under the Scholastic banner. Although marketed to young adults, his books are good reading for science fiction fans of all ages. For further info, check out his always interesting blog: Westerblog

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Now playing...

…Justice League Heroes for the PS2.

When not writing, playing with my kids, or spending time with my beloved spouse, I like to get in a good video game or three (big surprise there, huh?). Despite my preference for the classics, I do enjoy the open-ended pleasures and adventure-laden aspects of modern gaming, especially when the game’s objectives and mapping system are clearly defined (meaning I don’t get lost or otherwise befuddled). Justice League Heroes for the PlayStation 2 is one such game. Not only is it accessible and entertaining, it stars Superman, Batman, The Martian Manhunter, Zatanna, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman as playable characters, plus other DC heroes that can be unlocked (including Hawkgirl and Green Arrow) as the action progresses.

Although gameplay tends to be a bit too similar to X-Men Legends (overhead viewpoint, the ability to switch between heroes), Justice League Heroes is nevertheless great fun. Each character has five of his or her own super powers, such as Superman’s heat vision and Zatanna’s fire bolts, the latter of which are a blast to use against the hoards of assault bots, bee creatures, super-villains, Martians, and other enemies that populate the game’s 11 levels of play (Metropolis, Gorilla City, Brainiac’s Lair, etc.). The melee-style combat is rewarding in and of itself, but the ability to customize and upgrade your super-team gives a level of depth to what is, admittedly, a fairly shallow game. The plot is simplistic, which is a bit of a surprise since it was written by Dwayne McDuffie, and the levels are short on hidden items.

As in X-Men Legends, Justice League Heroes allows a second gamer to join in on the fun. The camera can be problematic at times in two-player mode, but pairing up to thwart the forces of evil remains an engaging endeavor. X-men Legends boasts four onscreen-heroes simultaneously (two or three of the characters are controlled by the computer), but I actually prefer running with two heroes--the action seems less cluttered that way. From a purely visual standpoint, Justice League Heroes exhibits rich coloring and detail, and the load screens (yes, the load screens) are perhaps the coolest I’ve ever seen.

Only the fifth Justice League video game ever produced (along with Justice League Task Force, Justice League: Injustice For All, Justice League Chronicles, and Justice League Heroes: The Flash), Justice League Heroes is easily worth its newly reduced price of $20 (down from $40 upon release), especially for fans of The World’s Greatest Super-Hero Team.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Recently quoted on...

"The majority of the strips in this unassuming little volume are funnier than most current newspaper comics."
-Brett Weiss, Comics Buyer's Guide

You'll Have That

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Recently published in...

Comics Buyer's Guide #1633, which includes reviews of
  • Alien Pig Farm 3000 #1
  • The Batman Strikes #33
  • Robin #160

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Recently published in...

Scary Monsters Magazine, where I have a feature on the 50th anniversary of one of my favorite films of all time: Forbidden Planet.
Scary Monsters Magazine website

Recently published in...

Comics Buyer's Guide #1631, where I review the following comics:
  • Iron Man: Hypervelocity #1
  • Looney Tunes #148
  • Nightwing #129-130

CBG Online