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Retro Gaming Expo lets players plug back into the joy of a joystick

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Video games have been the bastion of home players lately, but arcade games still attract enthusiasts. The Portland Retro Gaming Expo, Sept. 29 and 30, promises to be a big draw for fans of old video games.Oh, the nostalgia of it all.

Kids have not always planted themselves in front of a television and played video games for hours. Years ago, they actually had to walk to the arcade — or hitch a ride — to play the vids. And, they had to put quarters in the machines. We’re talking the 1970s and early ‘80s — ancient times.

Then along came home TV video game counsels, and Atari and Nintendo and everything leading up to the modern day, when playing a video game is like taking part in a movie.

It’s like a walk down memory lane for some people, which serves as the appeal for the seventh annual Portland Retro Gaming Expo, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 29 and 30, at the Oregon Convention Center.

Arcade videos and TV video game counsels will fill 60,000 square feet of the convention center, and up to 3,700 people are expected to attend both days. A prized attraction will be “Computer Space,” co-created by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, believed to be the first video game.

Toby Wickwire and Chuck Van Pelt help organize the Portland Retro Gaming Expo. So, naturally, they have their own memories of the advent of playing games inside and on their television/video screen, buttons and joysticks in hands.

“It was so expensive back then, I had to make due with a page from the Sears catalog for about half a year,” says the 39-year-old Wickwire. “They had a screen shot of ‘Space Invaders’ on the page ... ‘Oh man, that’s going to be so much fun.’ That was 1981 for me. My family was a little late to the party. Games were expensive, $35, and that was a lot of money.”

Says Van Pelt, 41: “When ‘Pac-Man’ launched, it was $50 at Sears in 1981 dollars. I remember being blown away at that — $50. I couldn’t even conceive of that amount of money.”

Ms. Pac-Man in a maze

Today, the video games are lifelike with their graphics and dialogue and the ability for multiple online players to engage each other. Long gone are the days of “Pong,” when players electronically moved a paddle to hit a ball to break through a layered barricade.

Long gone are the days of “Asteroids,” where you tried to shoot at objects without getting hit, or “Combat,” where you squared off against another tank or airplane.

Long gone are the days of “Pac-Man” and “Ms. Pac-Man,” where you gobbled things through a maze.

But, time has not forgotten these games. At downtown’s Ground Kontrol, such arcade games still fill the place, along with other hands-on activities of yesteryear — pinball machines.

The old and the young play the arcade games, owner Anthony Dandrea says.

“It’s interesting that the old games have stuck around,” he says. “They’re so different. There’s a renewed interest. We call it ‘New-stalgia.’ “

Adds Ground Kontrol’s Art Santana: “We get people who grew up with the games — 30s and 40s or whatever — and we get younger people who maybe never went to an arcade in their youth. It’s something they can go and do in their original format, as it was meant to be played.”

Mario’s resurgence

The early days of video games was an exciting time. Van Pelt says he bought his first “Pong” machine for $5.

“I got it from a kid who had gotten an Atari 2600,” he says. “So ‘Pong’ was his junk. He had the Atari 2600, and my parents gave me some lame excuse about they heard if you hooked up an Atari to your TV it would ruin your television. So, they wouldn’t get one.

“So, I gave my $5 for his ‘Pong’ and I thought it was the coolest thing to have this thing at home.”

Forty years ago, “Computer Space” fascinated people, and the arcade games had been born. The Magnavox Odyssey and Sears Atari “Pong” hit the market. Atari went on to license arcade games for TV use, such games as “Pac Man” and “Space Invaders” and “Asteroids.” Video games took off, hit a lull in the 1980s, and then underwent a resurgence when Nintendo (“Mario”) came to the United States. Today, it’s all about Wii and Xbox and PlayStation and the hundreds upon thousands of gaming options.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Ground Kontrol in downtown Portland houses many retro games and pinball machines; it's open for minors during the day and adults at night.Arcades have certainly given way to TV games, but arcades still attract the players of bigger, driving games such as “Rush 2049” and “Cruis’n’ Exotica.” A popular newer game is “Pac-Man Battle Royale” for multiple players.

“The counsels have taken over the lion’s share of video games,” Dandrea says. “Arcade games are now working on the fringes, doing the things that home games cannot — big simulator rides, big gun games.”

The Portland Retro Gaming Expo includes about 160 arcade games — “the arcade section (‘Megacade’) will be the same size as the whole show last year,” Wickwire says — and rows of TV game counsels.

Ground Kontrol has rented a 28-foot truck to haul some of its games to the convention center, and collectors have donated their machines for the weekend.

There will be rare arcade games like “Computer Space” and home games including the “Nintendo World Championship Cartridge” from 1990 (Portlander Robin Mihara, who took third place in the contest, will be there). There will be a remake of the “Tetris Classic” contest, and people from the subsequent film documentary about the event, called “Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters,” will be in attendance. There will be scores of vendors, and panel discussions will include notables David Crane and Garry Kitchen.

Tickets are $25 for the weekend, or $20 for Saturday and $15 for Sunday. With admission, game playing is free.

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