Fan conventions often revolve around a whole lot of pleasure and a whole lot of pain. Sometimes, they even forget the pleasure. If you’ve ever experienced the line for Hall H during San Diego Comic-Con weekend, or braved the hordes of sardine-packed cosplayers at the Anime Expo, you have a good idea of what I mean. It makes for a wonderful paradox; events that are designed for people to gather at, suck because people gather at them. But there is an alternative! Instead of having to fight mile-long lines, uppity geeks and rip-off vendor stalls, you can save yourself the hassle of a big con (pun intended) and go to the smaller ones instead! That’s exactly what I did a couple of weeks back, when I checked out the Retro City Festival in Pomona, CA.
Dedicated to the never-dying nostalgia of the retro gaming scene, it was an occasion that promised many things - live bands, tournaments, tons of free-to-play arcade and pinball machines, and a ‘console museum’, to name but a few. Without the backing of some huge company to sponsor the whole thing though, it sounded too good to be true. But the retro game community is not to be underestimated. Considering just how much money drives this assumedly niche market (at time of writing, Galaga arcade machines can still command prices over $2,500), it’s often the consumers of such entertainment who have the greenbacks - and the game collections - to make such events worth the trip. Such was the case with Retro City, which was a very good trip indeed. Maybe not ‘million-dollar-convention-done-well’ good, but a fine day out nonetheless. I mean, what’s cooler than getting the opportunity to finally play Space Ace in its original, arcade form? Okay, maybe quite a few things - but it’s still fun, dammit.
Here’s some highlights, as well as a focus on some of the real vintage goodness that was on display for any lucky visitor.
1. Nostalgia + Arcades = SUPER FUN. Have you ever felt that pop culture has been stuck digging up old things to fawn over for the past two decades? If so, you’ve probably also realised that it’s because old things are still flippin’ great. Especially old video games! Stepping into Retro City’s hall at the Pomona Fairplex was like stepping into a weird warp-hole, where both your local video game store and amusement arcade from childhood merge to exist in the same area of space and time. Old-school game vendors dominated the front of the hall, but the promise of those vintage arcade machines was clear as day at the back. That was the place to have your fun, especially if you didn’t have the money to burn on a pristinely-kept Genesis or the odd NES cart.
And holy shit, could you have fun!
The event catered for practically every era of arcade gaming, with plenty of Street Fighter and Neo Geo cabinets on offer. But it was the 80s stuff that got the most attention. Naturally, a whole horde of Galaga machines (as well as its clones - Galaxian, etc.) were in attendance, but the event also had ample room for a few of Sega’s old titles from their early years. Isometric shooter Zaxxon - and all of the frustrations that came with its dodgy controls - was available…
As was Pengo - basically some kind of maze game where you control a penguin and kick giant ice cubes into monsters. One of Sega’s more obscure hits, for sure.
But as far as real arcade oddities went, they don’t come much better than those weird cocktail table varieties that continue to pop up in holiday camps and budget hotel lobbies around the world. Turns out Retro City had a couple of these, and of particular prominence was Atari’s Warlords, a kind of Pong-meets-Breakout hybrid from 1980 that boasted controllers for up to four players. Imagine huddling around that tiny thing back in the day… elbows would be flying within seconds.
The aim of Warlords, as my wife and I soon found out, was to protect your own corner of the screen from being breached by a fireball that would bounce relentlessly from player to player. As well as having a wall to protect your area, you also had a tiny shield that you could control twiddle back and forth, Pong-style. Physics are also key here. The quicker you move your shield thingy to deflect the fireball, the faster the fireball would bounce around. This either means chaos for your opponents, or if you’re not very good at the game, chaos for yourself. How do I know this? Because I’m not very good at this game. I blame the paddle controller, personally.
Also, did I mention pinball? Because pinball was in town - and it rocked.
Naturally, modern day favourites such as The Walking Dead machine made an appearance, and it was still a blast as always. I love the grisly LCD zombie animations on this one...
...but this was a retro gaming festival, after all. And what retro gaming festival would be complete, without an equally retro Super Mario Bros. pinball machine from 1992? It certainly looked the part - which meant that naturally, it soon got hammered into an error state by those over-zealous, lucky few who had gotten to play it. Too bad I couldn’t give it a spin by the time it got free.
Whatever your antiquated gaming passion though, Retro City had it all. It even had a few LaserDisc games, too - which leads us on to our next segment..
2. LaserDisc games are whack. I mean that in the best possible sense, but they’re still nuts. Whoever thought that combining live-action footage with computer graphics and gameplay would make for an arcade sensation in the early 80s is in need of getting their heads checked. Primarily because they were crazy enough to be right, and thus, also rich enough to go for treatment.
For the young or unaware, the LaserDisc craze on the arcade market was a short but financially sweet fad. Early entries in this genre were based upon the simple idea of laying computer sprites over cheap video footage, and were usually produced by the major arcade players of the time (case in point being the luridly weird Galaxy Rangers, another Sega creation). But once more major figures got their hands on the tech - including American animation legend, Don Bluth - some real cool stuff began to happen. No greater example of this could be found than in the Bluth-produced Dragon’s Lair, a 1984 smash hit that combined animated epic fantasy with a reaction-based style of gameplay. Naturally, the tech was still fairly primitive; the machines loved to ignore the controls you input, and that especially made Dragon’s Lair an absolute bitch to play. But curiously, that was also part of the game’s appeal, which lead to a whole bunch of other competitors trying to cash in on the trend while they could.
Sadly, Retro City didn’t have a Dragon’s Lair cabinet on show, but it did have its spiritual sequel - the sci-fi-themed Space Ace, also produced by Don Bluth Studios. The nostalgia was certainly delivered on this one. In my one play, I probably burned through ten credits and lasted all of three minutes - and half of that time was spent watching the intro. Never mind ‘Nintendo hard’ - clearly Don Bluth Studios set the bar for fiendishly unforgiving difficulty in video games. Clearly producing the likes of All Dogs Go To Heaven was just a smokescreen for more nefarious schemes.
While big animation studios were trying to make masterpieces with this platform though, others had more ill-fated plans. Step forward RDI Systems, a long-dead company who, besides also working on Dragon’s Lair, also wanted to go deeper than the standard knights-saving-princesses shtick. They also made Thayer’s Quest, another 1984 title similar in the animated fantasy vein, but way deeper in terms of the adventure. It was a cross between arcade action and a sprawling RPG - an absolutely terrible idea if you actually want to make money from an arcade. I mean, how are you going to keep those kids popping quarters in if Melvin the D&D nerd keeps hogging the machine for hours on end? Truly, some game developers of this time had more ambition than sense.
Some (like RDI Systems) also went as far to attach creepy-as-fuck AI voices to their cabinets too - acting as yet another deterrent from playing the game.
Fortunately, I have a thing for weird shit, so my wife and I gave this one a go, too. And almost immediately, we wished we hadn’t. In true LaserDisc game fashion, the game decided to penalize my control of titular hero Thayer for going left at a waterfall, forcing him into some kind of weird trap that demanded I drop one of my belongings. This was interesting because a) I didn’t realize I had any belongings, and b) I didn’t realise that even walking around with no apparent danger present could also get you killed in these games. More grating was the fact that this game’s synthesizer (acting as some kind of gameskeeper, I guess) chose this opportunity to start screaming at me to make a decision. “CHOOSE-THE-ITEM-YOU-WANT-TO-DROP”, HAL the Dungeon Master repeatedly insisted. Panickingly pressing every single item on the keyboard in front didn’t seem to help matters. In fact, it made them worse. Telling this silicon overlord that we wished to drop items we didn’t actually have seemed to make him angrier. Rather than risk its wrath any longer, we decided to let it go, leaving Thayer to a fate of constantly being rebooted into a fantasy world presided over by a sadistic computer. Whatever, he was a dweeby hero anyway. Also, didn’t Harlan Ellison write a story about that?
3. Video game cover bands are awesome. As any regular readers might have seen from my review of Anime Expo last year, I have a little thing for talented musicians who can adapt video game music into full blown arrangements. Super Soul Brothers may not have been present at this event, but a small handful of equally adept bands were on hand to provide a bit of sonic enthusiasm for the event. While I just barely missed Kirby’s Dream Band, I was able to witness the supremely solid (and supremely metal) Super MadNES on the small soundstage outside. Super MadNES are, like the name suggests, a rock band capable of uniting mad riffs with memorable tunes from Nintendo’s 8-bit era. Castlevania and Batman certainly got their dues, but the absolute highlight was a cover of NES Double Dragon’s first level - a track instantly recognizable to anyone old enough to have kicked and punched their way through that all-time classic.
4. Convention food, as usual, was bloody awful. Ever since I sank my teeth into an unusually mushy Philly cheese-steak sandwich at Anime Expo 2006, I’ve been certain that food served at fan conventions is always an afterthought, and frequently nasty AF. Usually at the bigger events you can get around this by grabbing a meal elsewhere - big convention centers tend to be in downtown areas, after all. Unfortunately, with Retro City pitching itself up at the Pomona Fairplex - a huge network of buildings surrounded by suburbia - visitors had to make do with whatever catering was available.
In total, it wasn’t all bad. There was a standard beer tent selling standard beer stuff. A smoothie truck that also happened to sell pretty decent coffee on the side. A Hot-Dog-On-A-Stick stall was also about, because clearly the ritual of humiliating teenagers by making them wear silly hats in part-time jobs is showing no signs of going away. But for all of these, there was one major offender - the food truck that offered my wife and I some jerk chicken fries as a lunch option. Yum!, you might think. Jerk chicken fries sounds great on a day out. Not so when the food area is situated outdoors in a cold wind and the food truck in question is either having a very bad day, or just doesn’t give a shit about serving patrons edible food. I decline to name the actual business in question on the off-chance that it was the former rather than the latter. And well, I forgot the name. So there’s that too.
But if you’re curious, them jerk chicken fries came out like this:
Bleurgh. That stuff on top didn’t look or taste like chicken, and the only ‘jerk’ here is me for being gullible to order them. And also, probably to complain about them if the truck was having an off-day. But whatevs. My wife and I barely finished half of this before deeming it enough sustenance to get through the rest of the day without puking. One day I’ll learn my lesson when it comes to food at fairs and conventions. Today however, was not that day.
5. Retro City’s ‘video game museum’ was both interactive, and fascinating. Granted, it was a bit low-budget, essentially boiling down to two long tables with random assortments of old-school gaming consoles and TVs on them. But for anyone who vividly remembers playing their games on a CRT or antenna TV, this was another wonderful trip down memory lane.
It was also undoubtedly aimed at the seasoned game collectors - the type who get giddy at the sight of Japanese Super Famicoms (above) and Hitachi-produced Sega Saturns. If that means nothing to you, that’s probably a good thing. It means you’re immune from getting ludicrously excited about rare pieces of gaming hardware. And it also means you won’t spend the crazy money to buy such things either!
Touring around the tables though revealed some serious vintage stuff - everything from Commodore 64s to Atari 2600s blaring out Centipede on 70s mini TVs. I could and bloody well should have snapped pictures of the latter, but I was at least able to get one of another obscurity; a sighting of a Power Base Converter (essentially a Genesis-to-Master System adapter) on American shores.
Growing up in the UK, a Master System was an integral part of my early gaming years. Most of my friends had one, and for a while it even competed with the NES for a dominant share of the European market. Insanely, it’s still an active system too, thanks to a Brazilian market that somehow keeps it in demand. But it’s a rare sighting to see such a thing in the US, especially when you consider just how ridiculously successful Nintendo was in getting their own 8-bit wonder established in these parts. The result? Collecting both a Master System and games here in the States can be an expensive hobby - and some titles can even command a price tag of over $300. This Power Base Converter goes for around $200. Not bad for a piece of kit that actually downgrades the Genesis!
Still, even if the perceived value is now crazily inflated, this particular installation was free to play, and it even had the console’s own version of Sonic the Hedgehog - a version I loved as a kid and completed many, many times. No chance this time though. I’ve gotten so used to the later 2D Sonic games that I can no longer handle the controls or the dodgy collision detection on this one. It’s not that I’m old, honest!
6. For once, you could actually get good deals from the vendors. Ever get that sneaking suspicion that the $10 you paid at Comic-Con for a ‘limited edition’ Avengers fridge magnet might have been a frivolous purchase? Or, have you found that living life with one kidney - because you needed to sell one to afford that $450 statue of Overwatch’s D. Va - turned out to be more difficult than you thought? If so, it’s natural to feel aggrieved: convention vendors are usually massive rip-off merchants. So it’s nice to actually go to an event for once that didn’t have this kind of daylight robbery on show. In fact, if you were an avid retro game collector (like myself), you could actually pick up more than a few bargains.
The sheer range of what you could buy was immense too: vintage Game Boys complete in box, rare Japanese titles for almost every platform, even Pacman Ghost-styled lamps! Because there still needs to be room for cheap junk to go with all the collectibles, too.
One box even promised discounts of the ‘only $1’ variety…
… before turning out to be the result of one game company’s naive belief that Paws & Claws Pet Vet for the Game Boy Advance would sell by the millions. I hope it at least got to the hundreds.
In total though, I was able to pick up a few Genesis classics - Speedball 2, NHL ‘94 and Lemmings - for well under $50 (suck on that, Ebay!). I almost went with getting a Game Boy too, before eventually deciding that never having enough time to play anything in my adult life, and having a wife who likes having an apartment not cluttered with old consoles from yesteryear, would prevent me from reaping its benefits. Not to mention, you can play Tetris for free online, these days.
All in all, Retro City Festival was a whole lot of fun, and living proof that big budgets and big corporate presence don’t really matter for a convention, so long as a whole lot of passion and collaboration is put into it. In the case of this particular fan scene, its openness is what makes it work. Whether it’s a love for old arcades, consoles and computers, or a chance to snag some good deals for your own collections, there was literally something for everyone. Hardly surprising then, that they’re scheduled for another event in 2019 too. If you’re a fellow Californian and retro games are your thing, you’d do worse than to swing by for a day or two.
Retro City Festival 2019 will be running on January 5th-6th at the Pomona Fairplex in Pomona, CA. Tickets for this year's event were around $20 for the whole weekend. I doubt it'll go up in price for next year's outing.
Media utilized in article is property of: Retro City Festival / Super MadNES