The inaugural PAX Australia held in July 2013 provided a watershed moment for Australian gaming culture. Over three comparatively wet and wild days (hey, it was Melbourne), several halls (and one large ‘circus tent’), tens of thousands of video and board gamers, big publishers, small indie development companies, academics, journalists, musicians, and let’s not forget three little retro gaming websites and their travelling retro video game museum, gathered together to stake a claim that gaming in Australia is not only big business, but big fun. The mix of commercial entities, indie exhibitors, media, and show goers who were there purely for the fun provided a melting pot of gaming culture with an ensuing vibe that couldn’t be topped (or so I thought until this year). Sure there were a few very minor teething problems, what with some smallish halls for the panels and the occasional never-ending lineup, but it was easily the grandest scale video gaming (or otherwise nerdy) convention that I’ve ever attended.
And let’s not forget the Classic Gaming retro gaming ‘museum’. Retrospekt and our classic gaming brethren from Retro Domination, Australian Retro Gamer, and Retro Gaming Australia teamed up to provide over thirty playable consoles and computers released during the 1970s through the early 2000s. It was a hit (evidence: link, link, link, link, link, link), providing not only a place for those to revisit the games of their youth, but also a medium for parents to introduce their children to the early days of gaming. It also seemed to serve as a meeting point for many in their late 20s through to their 30s. Dare I suggest we were a magnet for generation X PAX attendees? It wasn’t until the hard slog of the weekend has taken its toll, when pack-down was taking place, that we all were able to reflect on how well the weekend had gone, how people from two states (many who hadn’t met in person before PAX) had managed to run the area so smoothly. And, as we shuffled our sore feet and dragged the many boxes of heavy old consoles and metres upon metres of cables (did you ever realise old consoles and computers were such a spaghettified mess?) back to our homes, we dreamt of just how we could build upon such a successful start for classic gaming at PAX…
So, PAX 2014 then. A new venue at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, where it goes without saying is essentially perfect for such a large scale event. Roomy, modern, comfortable, flat-panel monitors *everywhere* constantly updating with panel and tournament information, easy to navigate, and close to the CBD with every amenity you could want within walking distance (and the Boatbuilders Yard bar that probably did more than their usual three day turnover by a fair margin). The fact that PAX Australia announced just before the event as a lock-in for the next five years was demonstrative of the confidence that they have in not just the new venue, but in Melbourne and PAX Australia itself. The date was also shifted back to early November, causing concern for some due to a close call with the Melbourne Cup being held only two days after (pro tip #1: book your flights and accommodation early), but in the wash-up it was probably warranted given the sheer scale of this year’s event necessitated a lot more planning. At least it did for us retro guys – what may seem like an easy thing to do (drop consoles at venue, plug them in) required even more coordination than last year. You really don’t want to see the thousands of written words, diagrams, shared lists, emails, and private messages on social networks that resulted in the Classic Gaming Area coming to fruition. But we definitely aimed to ‘level-up’ and build upon last year’s efforts.
Ahh, the Classic Gaming area. Our home for the weekend. Retro Gaming Australia couldn’t make it this year, but our good friends from Weird and Retro joined the fray to provide a number of consoles and introduce handheld gaming (I’m hesitant to say portable, have you seen the size of an Atari Lynx?). The setup this year was even more inviting and conducive to provide a second home for PAX attendees with an affection for the past. More and better use of space for rows of dozens of consoles and computers, a raised tournament area with a big screen, a dedicated six-play Halo 2 area with three screens, a Point Blank section, beanbags in the dedicated handheld area (pro tip #2: if you’re tired at PAX, grab a nap on our beanbags), and even a dedicated indie game arcade machine (more about that below). Not only did the area give me chills when I first saw it (t-minus 60 minutes before the hordes arrived on Friday morning), it also gave me ideas on how I could set up some of my retro gaming equipment at home – a good or a bad thing depending on your point of view. Needless to say, the area was packed throughout the weekend, with emotions from the wide-eyed punters ranging from nostalgic to confused to downright determined to get their game on with their machine or game of choice (pro tip #3: request a game via email or social media beforehand, there’s no need to bring your own).
One change that was implemented in 2014 was scheduled tournaments rather than the ad-hoc (yet popular) ones we ran last year. Popular and strongly contested, they ran the gamut of familiar (Sonic the Hedgehog speed run), competitive (multiplayer Bomberman), proper old-school (Galaga, Hero, River Raid high score), and obscure (Battle Stadium Don – a multiplayer beat em up with characters featuring characters from One Piece, Naruto & Dragonball Z). The winners were justifiably proud of their medals, especially given the hot competition. It’s fair to say that tournaments will again be a feature of any future events, the main dilemma being what games to choose. Perhaps running more tournaments will help us during the brutal process of culling potential tournament games (pro tip #4: let us know what you’d like to see well in advance of future tournaments at AVCon and PAX and we’ll make it happen).
Panels and presentations are a huge focal point for many punters at PAX. Were I not involved in the Classic Gaming area, that’s probably what I’d spend a lot more time partaking in as they range through topics that would interest attendees who are interested in many areas of gaming. You can see developers and publishers discuss their wide range of experiences, look at how the academic and educational aspects can be a positive force for learning, discuss tips an anecdotes from journalists, listen in on discussions of political or other controversial elements of the business, and even see how gaming technology is being repurposed into musical instruments. On the classic console side of things, Paul Monopoli hosted another edition of the Super Video Game Trivia Challenge. Unfortunately I was locked in at the Classic Gaming area at the time, but by all reports it was the VERY. BEST. GAME. SHOW. EVER. Although we won’t be running the event at the Adelaide Fringe in 2015, if you have enjoyed our shows in the past, expect new things from Paul and the Retrospekt game show gang in the not too distant future. Our friend Serby and his cohorts from Weird and Retro held the ‘Retro Roadshow’ where audience members were encouraged to “bring along their rarest and/or favourite video gaming item” and discuss its history and significance. The show and tell aspect of this panel was at times informative and occasionally hilarious, and always had the audience intrigued. My favourites were the ‘portable’ Commodore SX-64 (I’ve wanted one for the last thirty years, does anyone have one spare for me?) and the 1970s vintage boxed Nintendo Roulette game.
Wanting to be part of the action, I brainstormed a few ideas after PAX 2013 (and scrapped most immediately). The panel that eventuated was “The best [retro] video games you’ve [probably] never played”. Paul, Daz from Retro Domination, and Alex from Australian Retro Gamer, and yours truly made a shortlist of our favourite games that, for whatever reason, didn’t gain mainstream success or the notoriety that they should have beyond a core group of fans. In addition to facts and figures about the games, why we find them appealing, and how one can obtain or play them now, we edited video (sometimes unintentionally hilarious) for each game. As we were scheduled to appear in one of the ‘smaller’ theatres and not being a well-known entity, I was satisfied (hoping!) that we’d get a suitably moderate yet appropriate crowd. Upon arrival at the (very well technologically appointed I must add) theatre to test my computer, I was somewhat dismayed to find that this ‘small’ theatre was huge, with the capacity to hold up to 450 punters. My main concern was that it might feel empty for a somewhat niche panel. I was subsequently pleasantly surprised when I arrived ten minutes before the panel to find a comparatively large lineup of people waiting to get in (I was initially convinced it must be for another panel!). Needless to say the theatre was almost full throughout the bulk of the presentation, and it was pretty clear that most people enjoyed, were informed, and some were even shocked about the prices one could spend to obtain of a few of the rarer games. I’ll definitely do more panels in future, but next time I’ll aim not to lose my voice prior to PAX (cue Neil Young).
I can’t reflect on PAX 2014 without mentioning the music. Although I missed MC Frontalot this year, I was able to catch three performances over the weekend. 7 Bit Hero played a set of uptempo pop with smatterings of rock and chiptune, all the while having a backdrop projected with their own interactive mobile app/game. Freezepop played set full of wonderfully synthy tunes that harkened back to the 1980s. And then there was Tripod, full of their usual hilarity and irreverence. As a special preview for PAX attendees, they played a few songs from their upcoming show “This Gaming Life” with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The Skyrim and other RPG tropes woven through these tunes were hilarious, and based on this short teaser I’m seriously contemplating buying tickets to one or both of the upcoming two performances.
Another notable improvement at PAX this year was the Indie Games section, which was conveniently located in close proximity to the Classic Gaming area. One could have easily lost a day or more just in this section – it was huge! The genres of games were many and varied, although inevitably due to the inherent small teams and focused nature of the gameplay, many of the games exuded a retro flavour from a more experimental age. This also provided an opportunity to talk directly to the developers, which was equal parts enjoyable and informative, as well as frustrating given the tight time constraints of the weekend. (pro tip #5: clone all Retrospekt members or do a recruitment drive soon). I won’t devote a large number of words to each of these games, nor will I put photos of every indie game that I played, but here at Retrospekt we will be covering and reviewing a number of these games (and more) in upcoming articles in the not too distant future. For now, however, check out these photos.
Another vendor that may be of interest to Retrospekt readers was Infinity Amusements. They are a business that builds custom digital pinball machines, either standard full size tables or three quarter sized machines. The twist here is that the play-field and backglass are now high framerate LCD screens, and the ‘brains’ of the machine being a PC running numerous pinball simulators seamlessly. Although pinball purists may balk instead preferring to collect and maintain original machines, and do-it-yourselfers would probably rather construct their own video pinball machines. Although I’ve belonged to both of the above groups in the past, after playing a number of their machines (with both classic and original video pinball creations loaded) and weighed up the flaws and benefits associated with these machine, I’ve crunched the numbers and am currently eyeing off every free corner in my house…
And there we were in an almost empty hall, the previous three days a blur, back at the Sunday evening pack-up. Sore, tired, some of us voiceless (pro tip #6: ALL of the comfortable shoes and throat lozenges are necessary) and with a tinge of sadness, the dozen-odd retro enthusiasts from four like-minded websites started the efficient and not too onerous pack-down (we’re becoming experts at this). It was universally agreed, not just amongst the organisers but the numerous ‘regulars’ and familiar faces who we spoke to who attended both last year and this, that we really levelled-up with the range of consoles, the tournaments, and the overall vibe of the Classic Gaming area. Once we left, a number of us headed to Forgotten Worlds, a great little barcade in Collingwood with a number of awesome chiptune acts playing on the night, for a informal debrief. As the stress of the weekend subsided, not only did the wonderful range of craft beers flow, so did ideas for the future. What have we got in store for you at AVCon and PAX 2015, in addition to forthcoming online activities? You’ll have to wait and see.
Looking past the Classic Gaming area, and taking a larger view beyond the big gaming companies and their stands, the pre-release access to games both popular and obscure alike, and obtaining as much swag as one can physically carry, PAX Australia has definitely raised the cultural capital of gamers and gaming in Australia alike. The sense of community, despite every individual’s disparate interests is intangible yet bubbled under the surface throughout each day (and often into the evening at the Boatbuilders Yard once the doors to MCEC closed). Welcome home indeed. See you next year PAX.
Many thanks to our retro gaming kin who co-hosted the Classic Gaming area with us, to Guy ‘Yug’ Blomberg for being an thorough and accommodating host (doubly so given our often peculiar requests and requirements), to Khahil White for providing support for the panelist, and mostly to you, the PAX retro gaming enthusiast (let us know what you thought either below or on Facebook). High fives and double fist pumps to you all! Until next year…