Gaming in Las Vegas usually translates to blackjack, poker and roulette, not pixelated space invaders, cosmic mutants and a mustachioed plumber out to save the princess from a giant ape. However, for two days this summer, gaming in Sin City translates to video games, thanks to the Classic Gaming Expo.
Now in its 13th year, the Classic Gaming Expo is the world’s largest and oldest convention of its type, catering to the glory days of yesteryear, when the Atari 2600 was the centerpiece of living rooms across the country, when Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man were king and queen of the arcades and when households equipped with an Apple II or a Commodore 64 were the envy of the neighborhood.
Spawning such imitators as the Midwest Gaming Classic and the Oklahoma Video Game Exhibition, the Classic Gaming Expo remains the most popular convention of its type, entertaining attendees with dozens of coin-op machines set to free play, a large showroom floor featuring vendors selling classic cartridges and consoles, live music, a swap meet, a live auction (always a highlight of the show) and much more.
One of the more impressive aspects of the Classic Gaming Expo is the traveling museum, which boasts more than 5,000 square feet of rare and unusual artifacts, including store displays, prototypes, memorabilia, design documentation and boxed game systems. CGE organizer Joe Santulli has initiated a campaign to raise funds for a permanent home for the massive collection, with plans of calling it The Video Game History Museum.
“The video game industry is double the size of the music industry, and while there are several music halls of fame and museums, there isn’t a single dedicated video game museum,” Santulli said. “It’s time!”
A gamer since the original Odyssey system appeared under the family Christmas tree in 1972, Santulli has one of the largest video game collections in the world. He’s also the editor in chief of Digital Press, a quarterly fanzine (fan-made magazine) devoted to video games.
“I’ve always been a pack rat, and I’ve never grown tired of collecting video game cartridges,” Santulli said. “You see, there’s more to a video game than just looks and fancy packaging. In each cartridge there’s a challenge that’s waiting to be met. A history waiting to be studied, and all of the greatest electronic artists, musicians and engineers had their hands in the development, and you, in turn, have them in your hands.”
At the Classic Gaming Expo, the men (and, in some cases, women) who designed games for the Atari 2600, ColecoVision, Intellivision and other systems of the late 1970s and early ’80s are considered to be much more than mere programmers. They are, in fact, celebrities who meet and greet fans, autograph game boxes, systems and cartridges and give presentations about their days in the industry.
Numerous such “celebrities” are scheduled to appear at CGE 2012, including David Crane (Pitfall!), Don Daglow (Utopia), Warren Davis (Q*bert), Bob Polaro (the Atari 2600 version of Defender), Warren Robinett (Adventure), Robert Smith (Dragonfire) and Steve Woita (Sonic the Hedgehog 2). Composer Tommy Tallarico, co-creator of the concert series, “Video Games Live,” and Leonard Herman, author of ABC To The VCS and Phoenix: The Fall And Rise Of Videogames, will be in attendance as well.
Casual gamers may be surprised to learn that new games are still being produced for older systems that were abandoned by their manufacturers years ago, a notion that CGE enthusiastically supports. Designed by fans and amateur programmers, these so-called “homebrew” titles are often sophisticated in nature and frequently come with a box, a manual and a labeled cartridge. Better yet, many of them are fun to play.
Several homebrew publishers will offer their products for sale at this year’s Classic Gaming Expo, including Elektronite, a Canadian company specializing in Intellivision games (such as the newly released D2K Arcade), and Good Deal Games’ Homebrew Heaven, which offers more than 400 different homebrew titles in their online store (www.gooddealgames.com).
One question remains: why would someone want to play (much less purchase) an old, outdated game for an old, outdated system when there are so many shiny new titles for such current-generation systems as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360?
Santulli sums it up best.
“There’s a certain simplicity that defies the standards we put on graphics and sound today,” he said. “Audiovisuals are but a small part of the experience of playing a game like Parker Bros.’ Reactor for the Atari 2600. It’s the way they draw you in. No tricks or special effects to distract you from the challenge at hand.”
Albert Yarusso, co-founder of AtariAge.com and frequent CGE exhibitor, agrees.
“Even though modern game systems have amazing graphics and sound, the most important aspect of any video game is that it actually be fun to play,” he said. “Because classic game systems, like the Atari 2600, had very simple graphics, game designers had to focus on the game-play. It is this simple pick-up-and-play philosophy that makes for quick gaming without the need to invest in large amounts of time as many of today's games require.”
What: Classic Gaming Expo
When: Aug. 11-12
Where: Plaza Hotel & Casino
More info: www.cgexpo.com