Monday, October 30, 2017

Portland Retro Gaming Expo 2017 Report

The Portland Retro Gaming Expo is the biggest and one of the best conventions in the country focusing on vintage video games. I had heard many great things about it over the years (the first one was in 2006), but I never had a chance to go until this year.

Held at the Oregon Convention Center Oct. 20-22, the event easily lived up to its billing—I had a great time and sold a ton of stuff.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Since I had never been to the Pacific Northwest, I decided to go to Portland a couple of days early and get in some vacation time. A gamer friend of mine, Delf Meek, thought this was a good idea, so we split a hotel room across from the convention center, from Wednesday through the following Monday.

I love exploring new cities (and old cities—one of my favorite things to do is go cycling all over my home town of Fort Worth, Texas), so as soon as we checked into our hotel room, we set off on foot, hoofing our way past the Moda Center (where the Portland Trailblazers play), across the Willamette River, and into downtown, admiring the fall colors and beauty of the city in general.

In addition to sampling some craft beers, we scoped out the usual tourist spots, including Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade, which whet our appetites for the big show coming up, Voodoo Doughnuts, which is as colorful and as quirky as the city itself, and Powell’s City of Books, a three-story swathe of heaven measuring 1.6 acres.

Powell’s has an amazing selection of new books (there are millions of stories within its three stories), along with vintage titles sprinkled throughout, but I didn’t find many bargains among the older used science fiction, performing arts, or movie tie-in paperbacks. The prices were certainly fair, but unlike my favorite haunt, Half-Price Books, a chain located primarily in the Midwest, none of these types of books were available for half of cover price (most were marked up considerably more). In short, I found plenty to read, but nothing to resell at shows or in my pop culture antique booth.

The next day we headed for the coast in a rental car. It rained most of the day, but we made the best of it, enjoying the winding roads, the rolling hills, the sprawling wilderness homes, the tall trees and, again, the fall colors—striking yellow, bright orange, impossible red. Our primary destination was Haystack Rock, an intertidal sea stack located on Cannon Beach, about an hour and a half from Portland.

The monolithic rock, which can be seen in such films as Sometimes a Great Notion (1971), The Goonies (1985), and Kindergarten Cop (1990), is reachable from the beach at low tide, but on this rainy, windy, chilly day, we were content to see it from afar. It was shrouded in a foggy haze, but instantly recognizable.

We spent the next couple of hours exploring Cannon Beach, as well as the equally charming town of Seaside eight miles up the road. We enjoyed steaming hot bowls of clam chowder at a local restaurant and marveled over the dusty and fading, yet highly organized stacks of VHS videos in a rental store “straight outta” the 1980s called Universal Video. Other than a small DVD section, you’d never know this was anything but a time warp. There were thousands of movies for rent, including many big box videos and movies that have never been released on DVD.

It occurred to Delf and I that since they had so many videos for rent, they might sell used games. The neon sign out front, which was obviously from the mid-late 1980s, said “Nintendo,” but we didn’t see any games in the store.  

When I asked the guy running the place if they had video games, he said they did up until about two years ago when he noticed that older games had gotten valuable. After doing a bit of research, he sold the lot of them for $40,000 to a dealer (this may seem like an exorbitant sum, but if he had hundreds of games and they included original boxes, it’s entirely feasible). He said up until then he had been renting them for $2.50 each.

We also stumbled across a quaint little antique mall, where I drooled over two particularly cool pop culture artifacts: a Dragon’s Lair lunch box with thermos ($75) and a mint-in-package Mork from Ork Eggship Radio ($55) licensed from the popular TV show, Mork & Mindy (1978-1982).

Later that night, we got back to Portland in time for a tour of the Shanghai Tunnels, a group of passages located primarily underneath Chinatown. Online reviews were mixed for this tourist trap, but we decided to give it a shot. Unfortunately, a trap is truly what it was. Instead of a creepy good time, we stood around in a series of three different underground rooms and listened to a man drone on an on in a voice that was barely above a whisper. I think he was telling spooky stories, but I couldn’t really hear him. Lame.

The next day, Friday, umbrellas in hand, we explored more of the city, enjoying the river, the bridges, the ships, and the beautiful homes, making sure we were at the convention center by 3:00 pm. This was when the Portland Retro Gaming Expo arcade opened. Since I would be “stuck” at my booth most all of Saturday and Sunday it was nice that only the arcade was open Friday. I had a blast playing a variety of the classics, including Donkey Kong 3, Crazy Climber, and Lady Bug, along with some new pinball machines, such as Batman based on the old television series.

Then it was show time.

I arrived at the convention center a couple of hours before PRGE, giving me plenty of time to set up my booth and look around the showroom floor before the doors opened to the general public. Vendors were selling everything from common Sega Genesis cartridges to rare and valuable boxed NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) and Super NES games to gaming consoles from a variety of eras. A couple of dealers even had old paperback books and laser discs on display.

I grabbed a few odds and ends before zeroing in on a large tub of Atari 2600 cartridges sticking out from under a table. At first glance, it appeared to be the usual common fare, including such best-selling titles as Asteroids, Berzerk, Missile Command, Moon Patrol, and Space Invaders. Great games, but only worth about a buck or two apiece, which is what the guy running the booth was selling them for ($2 each, cheaper if you buy a bunch, which I did).

After a little digging, I discovered buried treasure (relatively speaking) among the commons, including a bunch of third-party titles worth anywhere from $8 to $12 each. The highlight was a pair of Xonox Double Enders, which are hard to find games you can insert into the Atari 2600 console on both ends, each end offering a different game. I found Ghost Manor/Spike’s Peak ($12-$15) and Artillery Duel/Ghost Manor ($40-$50). Another cool thing I grabbed was K.C.'s Escape!, a new homebrew game that is the third game in the "K.C. Munchkin" trilogy. 

Even better than the video game pickups were the connections I made at the show with fellow content creators, including Seattle-area YouTubers Kinsey Burke, who’s just as perky in person as she is on her channel, John Hancock, whose passion for the hobby is obvious, Kelsey Lewin, who became an instant friend, and John Riggs, as nice a guy as you could hope to meet. I had corresponded with each of these talented folks online prior to the show, but it was great meeting them in person.

Also cool was seeing friends I’ve known for years, including fellow authors Leonard Herman (PhoenixIV: The History of the Videogame Industry) and Michael Thomasson (DOWNRIGHT BIZARRE GAMES: Video Games thatCrossed the Line). There were other gaming authors in attendance as well, including Tim Lapetino (Art of Atari) and Chris Kohler (Power-Up: How JapaneseVideo Games Gave the World an Extra Life), great guys all. This just scratches the surface of the friends and I saw and connections I made, so forgive me if your name’s not included—too many to mention them all!

Show promoter Rick Weis had me out to PRGE as a guest, so it was incumbent on me to do a panel. I’m not a gifted public speaker (to put it mildly), but I do pretty well in a Q&A format, so that’s just what I did, thanks to my buddy John “Gamester81”Lester joining me onstage. We bounced some gaming history questions off one another, then threw it open to the audience, who asked some really good questions, making for a fairly entertaining panel. Only one or two people walked out, so I call that a win.

Thanks to my publisher, Schiffer, I had a copy of The100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987 to give away to the person who answered the question, “What and when was the last official release for the Sega Genesis?” The answer was the seemingly anachronistic Frogger in 1998, and the winner seemed genuinely excited to receive the book.

Speaking of genuinely excited and “100 Greatest,” I was super stoked when Atari 2600 programmer Garry Kitchen (Donkey Kong, Keystone Kapers) stopped by my booth to say hello and purchase a signed copy of my book. We had spoken at previous gaming events, but we discovered at PRGE that we both enjoy collecting vintage paperback books featuring cover art by the likes of Roy Krenkel, Frank Frazetta, Neal Adams, Ken Kelly, and Frank Kelly Freas, among others. I told him about Powell’s City of Books, but warned him that he might not find any bargains.

Unfortunately, I didn't have time to go to any of the Atari 40th anniversary panels, but I had a fantastic time manning my booth and talking to fellow gamers and readers who were familiar with my work. Based on the awesome time I had and connections I made, not to mention all the books and games I sold, I hope to make the Portland Retro Gaming Expo an annual excursion. In fact, I’ve already signed on to appear as a guest at next year’s show.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Land of the Lost - My "Routine Expedition" with Holly Marshall

As a child of the 1970s, I was impacted by four television shows over all others: The Super Friends, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and, most notably, Land of the Lost.

The Super Friends, a Saturday morning cartoon featuring Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and other Justice Leaguers, sparked my interest in superheroes. More serious than the Adam West Batman show and more colorful and adventurous than Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves, The Super Friends lead me down the road of reading comic books, which eventually lead to my co-owning two comic book stores and writing for the Comics Buyer’s Guide, the latter of which was my introduction to getting published nationally on a regular basis.

Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, which I watched as reruns, cemented my love for science fiction, a genre that has influenced me in many ways, including my career path and outlook on life. I was introduced to science fiction via Lost in Space but fell in love it with through The Land of the Lost.

A show that sent my senses soaring, Land of the Lost ran on NBC Saturday mornings from 1974 through 1976. There were 43 episodes spread across three seasons. As the theme song goes, it’s the story of Rick Marshall and his kids, Will and Holly, who were on a “routine expedition,” river rafting in the Grand Canyon. An earthquake opens up and plunges them “a thousand feet below” to a mysterious world of stop-motion dinosaurs, furry Pakuni people, and bipedal reptilian cave dwellers called Sleestaks (including one played by future NBA superstar Bill Laimbeer). The Sleestaks’ ineffectual arrows they would shoot at Rick, Will, and Holly never hit their mark, but the creatures looked and sounded scary to young children.

A typical episode would find our heroes, who had fewer amenities than Robinson Crusoe (which is one of many things that made the original series much better than the 1991-1992 remake), gathering food, running from dinosaurs, and exploring their mysterious new world, including the spooky pylons, which held the secret to getting home.

While Land of the Lost was filled with fantasy and adventure, its literary scripts were what made it special. To give the program depth beyond typical kiddie fare, producers Sid and Marty Krofft (H.R. Pufnstuf, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters) commissioned a number of highly respected science fiction authors to write the scripts, including Ben Bova, D.C. Fontana, Larry Niven, Norman Spinrad, Theodore Sturgeon, and David Gerrold.

Such episodes as Fontana’s “Elsewhen,” featuring Holly meeting an older version of herself, and Niven and Gerrold’s “Circle,” where the writers explored the concept of a closed universe, blew my young mind.

Just recently, I discovered that “Elsewhen” is Kathy Coleman’s favorite episode of Land of the Lost. Coleman, who began in Hollywood doing commercials, played Holly on the show. Wesley Eure, who played Will, and who was a regular on Days of Our Lives during that time, cited “Circle” as his favorite, thanks to its clever ideas and concepts.

How did I discover these bits of trivia, you may be wondering? The actors told me when I asked them, of course!

Ms. Coleman and Mr. Eure were guests at a recent science fiction convention called Infinicon, which was in Addison, a suburb of Dallas. The event was held over a three-day weekend, and I decided to go on that Friday.

I arrived at the show in time to check out the vendor’s room prior to attending the Land of the Lost panel. As a collector of old and unusual items, I was disappointed by the offerings, which consisted mostly of art prints, crafts, cosplay weapons, and those ubiquitous Funko Pop toys.

But that hardly mattered—I was there to meet two of my childhood heroes.

The guests at the show, which also included Jed Rees (Galaxy Quest), Clive Revill (The Empire Strikes Back), and Anne Lockhart (the original Battlestar Galactica), were situated along a wall in the vendor’s room, so after looking around a bit, I casually strolled over that direction, trying not to appear too excited.

As a freelance journalist, I’ve interviewed many celebrities, but I was genuinely excited and even a little nervous upon meeting the Land of the Lost actors. Luckily, they were both super friendly, immediately putting me at ease. They smiled, shook my hand, and seemed genuinely appreciative of my interest in the show.

While meeting Wesley Eure was awesome—he was energetic and enthusiastic—I was especially interested in Kathy Coleman, who I had a bit of a crush on as a kid, and who was selling her autobiography, Run, Holly, Run!, which I had promised to pick up for a friend.

Kathy was selling signed copies of her book for $50 each. Since I’m not much of an autograph collector, and since the book only goes for $14.99 on Amazon, I decided to wait on getting a copy for myself, but buying the book for my friend had fringe benefits, namely getting my picture taken with Kathy. (In the old days, celebrities would sell their book for cover price and autograph it for free, but I digress…)

The person behind me in line got a signed book as well and began chatting with Kathy. After a time he walked away, and after a few minutes it dawned on her that he had forgotten to pay for the book. She was distressed over this, so I told her I would help search for the guy. We went opposite directions, and I found him—he had made an honest mistake and was on his way back to pay for it.

While she didn’t really need my help, it was totally surreal going on a “mission” with Holly from Land of the Lost. Even more surreal was later that afternoon when I was leaving the show. I went out the side door of the hotel, and Kathy was out there by herself, having a smoke. I said hello, and we began talking for another 15 or 20 minutes. It was bizarre and exciting, but also terribly sad. She relayed a very personal and painful story, which you can read about in her book, of inappropriate behavior by an adult cast member during season three.

Luckily, the rest of the convention was upbeat and fun, including the Land of the Lost panel, which Wesley began by leading Kathy and the audience in singing the show’s theme song (which makes sense since he sang it originally), setting just the right mood for an hour of laughter and reminiscing.

Kathy and Wesley regaled the audience with interesting and amusing stories, such as the time the cast hired a masseuse for Wesley for his birthday, and when, in later years, they went searching for the elusive Spencer Milligan, who played their dad on the show. They also discussed the 2009 Land of the Lost movie, which everyone in the room agreed was a major disappointment.

Meeting Kathy and Wesley revived my interest in Land of the Lost collectibles. I don’t own very many—just the DVD sets of each season, the Little Golden Book ($15), the Dynamite magazine ($10), and a set of three View-Master reels ($15)—but I was curious to see what else was out there, so I did a little hunting online. Here’s what a search of completed eBay auctions turned up:

*Lunch box complete with thermos: $140-$160
*Magic Slate writing pad: $115
*Ben Cooper Sleestak Halloween costume in the box: $70
*Moon Spinner toys in the blister pack: $58
*Direction Finder compass with blister pack: $38
*Milton Bradley board game complete in the box: $45
*Talking View-Master Reels set in the box: $40

And, of course, there were Funko Pops, but only of a Sleestak and Enik (an intelligent predecessor to the Sleestaks). These go for $90 each because they were New York Comic-Con exclusives. I think I’ll pass on these, hop on Amazon, and go buy Kathy’s book, which I’ve been meaning to do ever since I got back from my wondrous trip to Infinicon.