Go to CAX they told me, it was unanimous. So I did, and this is my story. My summer Cali vacation actually starts in Nevada – as all good ones do – but I'll skip the road trip and dive in to the zero hour of the 15th annual California Extreme.
Initially upon entering the registration area was a sunny hallway full of pinball and a few overflow uprights. Getting on the high score tables of Joust (1st/6th 55150) and Robotron (2nd/11th 71525) was a good start! With approx. 500 games total, this was about an average size CAX, and playing that many cabinets is an impossible undertaking. I had a plan of attack in mind, I set out to scout the machines and find those I knew from those I didn’t.
By 11am the flow of attendees into the ballroom was constant, and the low lighting of CRT monitors mingled with the sharp clacking of flippers felt like coming home. To some extent I feel a bit sad that today’s kids simply don’t have the arcade experience. Back when it was you, the arcade staff that you probably knew, and the other jerks you probably didn’t, there wasn’t the notion of “system wars” or fanboyism. There weren’t really dudes who only played Konami games, or boycotted Taito, or never even tried Mortal Kombat or Pit Fighter because they were too busy killing at SF2. But if you grew up in an arcade you remember a time before online multiplayer, where the person joining your game as 2UP is right there. All games are pick-up games, and that is fun in a way that completely eludes Quick Matchmaking code. The social component of arcades is as tangible and visceral as the basketball court. Everyone there loves to play, but some are waiting for the next victim to crush. The attendee mix was quite good, regulars sporting over a decade of past CAX shirts, parents and kids, WM members (like myself) repping shirts giving each other nods and thumbs up, and no small amount of women and significant others. The stereotypes are gone, leave your jokes back in the 90s, and don't be shocked to see someone Farmvilling as they wait to play Addams Family pinball.
One thing CAX has done to expand their offerings is have speakers, panels and bands. The first speaker I attended was a professor from UC Santa Cruz, Jim Whitehead, who (wait for it) researches shmups. He had a good overview of everything from Space Invaders to Parodius to Ikaruga, and even touched briefly on Touhou and the latest 360 imports. The fact that Japan has 360 games (on disc) that we don't says something about the success of hardcore shmups. From an academic POV he hit all the thematic notes: choices of cardinality, themes of xenophobia, the sexual subtext of Gradius cutscenes, and the influence of Star Wars on the genre. He described the forms of narrative that shmups have, calling Zaxxon the first landscape narrative. I tweeted this to Greg Kasavin and how this made me think of Bastion, and Greg appreciated the very notion of an academic shmup talk. Demos and videos included Gradius, Ikaruga, Radiant Silvergun, and others on a variety of platforms. The prof was likely in his 40s and did about as well as I might have on a projector screen in front of a crowd. Clearly he plays everything.
The session immediately following was about restoration and emulation of laserdisc games, but as it was mainly a technical session I decided to grab lunch and go play some of them instead. It was around this time I saw Ed Boon walk out of the ballroom. Didn't bug him for an autograph, but he's a fine looking man in person. I had also seen Patrick Klepek around, mainly by the Bust-A-Move or playing House of the Dead next to it. Dan Amrich (of GamePro, OXM and Activision fame) was busy working one of the registration tables, as he was hosting a contest for playing an insane 1997 Namco game called Panic Park later in the day. A very nice fellow to talk with, and good friends with Andy Eddy, whom I had been tweeting with about getting some things autographed.
Later in the day I came to watch the Panic Park madness, which was more than a spectator sport as props like coin boxes, giant foam mallets, and uncomfortable touching added to the realism for the poor, poor contestants. I got to chat with Dan and Andy afterward, and of all the industry people I saw there, meeting Andy Eddy was the only moment I risked geeking out! I had my 1988 premiere issue of Video Games & Computer Entertainment, and a well worn copy of Game Over, which Andy contributed to. He's a delightfully affable gentleman, and as far as I'm concerned the pioneer of video game journalism. I practically ate and drank magazines between ages 10-18, and my game mag collection essentially starts with VG&CE and ends with Next Generation.
After a couple more hours going around, including a couple heated rounds of cocktail Warlords with GB's own "Big Ben" GlenTennis, the final "seminar" I attended at 10pm was Rick Stetta teaching a small standing room only crowd how to play pinball. Using a Medieval Madness machine with the glass off, he demonstrated control of the pinball via post-transfers, tilt and multiball techniques, observing the playfield, triggering the ball release cycle and more, down to basic maintenance (regular waxing is important). Even though my feet were killing me, I stuck it out in a nearby chair and left educated. Ever since I was a young boy I played the silver ball, but for a long time I have felt like the Pinball Gods abandoned me, with only an uncanny ability to set up perfect drains... I really need to get a pin to practice on! Deciding on which one is even harder than finding the space for it....
After a lazy Sunday morning I started fresh with my WM members shirt in tow, determined to collect autographs. By mid-afternoon I had chatted with and collected from Patrick, Jeff and Dave, witnessing a bonus hit and run fistbump from Justin Calvert. As you might expect these are regular softspoken dudes that have been around games their whole lives, so just having a chat surrounded by arcade cabinets is the most casual thing in the world. Very glad to have had a humorous minute with all of them. I very nearly caught up with Ryan by challenging him to a game of cocktail Centipede, but his attention was on his phone before he walked off and I didn't care to interrupt. CANADIAN.
The first day of any convention is the worst time to buy from vendors, by now I had a shopping list in mind. I'm restoring a BurgerTime cabinet, including replacing the entire control board, so new joysticks, new buttons, the works. Unfortunately there weren't perfect matches in colour and style or the right bezel, so I'm rebuilding it better than before, because we have the technology. There were boxes and boxes of arcade service manuals, but nothing Data East or BT, so I found a nice Dig Dug manual with a comprehensive cross section of every cabinet part you can imagine. (Also there's an adorable Fygar getting popped right on the cover.) As a random treat I bought a Battlezone bezel in great condition... fitting it in my suitcase was troublesome.
Other vendors were selling collectible console games (feh!), Hot Topic-esque t-shirts and more random toys than I expected to see. The most prominently placed vendor was Marco Specialties because they were the ones who brought fucking Stern TRON LEGACY complete with a stack of speakers and a video camera displaying the playfield live on a spectator screen. That's a nice pin, and for ~$4500 it better be! They also sell a Stern Rolling Stones pin, which only makes me surprised there wasn't already one. I mean Journey got a game...! Very interesting to watch over both days was another pinball vendor with guys actually repairing machines and upgrading the lights to LEDs right on the floor next to their booth. They mainly worked on a Twilight Zone.
(more Mega to come)
What? You didn't that was it, did you?
On Monday I had the entire day to kill before my flight home, so I spent most of the afternoon shifting my luggage around the arcade at Sunnyvale Golf Land. Jared Rea has talked extensively about it, but I had no sense of what to expect. Fortunately it was a classic in the best sense, reminding me of pay-per-hour arcades of my youth. They have a swipe-card system, with a very reasonable $8/hour fee most days. The mini-golf course itself was certainly elaborate, but I easily killed 2+ hours circling the cabinets around the walls while most of the kids stuck with the carnival-skill ticket games in the middle.
Highlights of their collection included the Japanese Initial D Arcade Stage 5, which is phenomenal compared to past D games (but I'm biased toward Wangan Midnight); plenty of rhythm games, Konami's Pop'N Music, Mario Kart Arcade GP 2, Razing Storm, and Tekken 6 which I'm terrible at. Eventually I had to head off and make my way towards SFO, but if you are in the area definitely stop to check it out, and have a game of golf if you're with friends.