Those blips, bloops, beeps, and sweeps (and/or creeps) emanating from I-94 this past weekend weren’t your imagination: they were the sounds of the 2015 Midwest Gaming Classic, once again held at the Sheraton Milwaukee Brookfield Hotel. For two days, the Brookfield Square-adjacent hotel was transformed into a veritable video game mecca, with an untold number of vendors peddling classic games and consoles, an untold number of free-to-play arcade and pinball games beckoning to be beaten, and at least one near-purchase of a Model 1 Sega CD for $200. On top of that, there were board games, panel discussions, tournaments, comedians, bands, and more video game-related stuff than you could shake a Deku Stick at. Past MGCs have been big, but this one was HUGE.
Remember when we wondered if Gen Con could ever come back to Milwaukee? Eh, who needs it: the Midwest Gaming Classic is here to stay. (Now, let’s talk about bringing it downtown…) Here are some of our favorite moments from this year’s 8-bit, 16-bit, 32-bit, and 64-bit blowout.
• We pull into the Sheraton parking lot and spy a pickup truck covered in an Aperture Laboratories logo and the lyrics to Portal’s “Still Alive.” Yep, we’re in the right place.
• Argh! How did we forget to bring our 3DS? Do you know how many StreetPasses we could have picked up in all of five minutes? Damn!
• First local-mover-and-shaker sighting of the day: MKE Punk’s Jeremy Ampe, accompanied by his lovely wife and children. His daughter is dressed as Wonder Woman, and she’s talking the ear off a grown woman dressed as…yep, Wonder Woman. Adorable.
• Holy shit: this thing is nuts. A giant tent that stretches across one of the hotel’s parking lots serves as ground zero for hundreds of vendors selling everything from old Atari, NES, Genesis, and SNES games to vintage toys and computer gear. And it’s wall-to-wall packed with people. There’s a definite “flea market” vibe to the whole thing, and there’s no way we’re walking out of here without dropping at least $300.
• Bango, the Milwaukee Bucks mascot, is on a stage at the far end of the tent playing NBA Jam.
• Browsing through the trillions of 8-bit NES carts for sale, we’re glad we started our collection when we did—i.e. decades ago. $13 for Super Mario 3? Are you kidding? Sure, a boxed copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project for $40 makes sense, and any latter-day Mega Man sequels are definitely worth a pretty penny, but there are a lot of crummy NES games going for way too much. It’s dangerous to go alone, indeed.
• The Milwaukee Company of Gamers has an impressive wall of tabletop games near the front of the tent, with plenty of tables and chairs for those seeking some analog gaming pleasures. It’s nice to see families playing friendly games of Apples To Apples alongside hardcore gamers rocking hour two of Relic Knights.
• If the giant parking lot tent is “trying to land in Top Gun” overwhelming, then the hotel itself is “that rocket-bike level in Battletoads” overwhelming. Every inch of space is taken up by the MGC: ballrooms boast hundreds of free-to-play games (Lethal Weapon 3 pinball!), hallways double as museums to consoles both fondly remembered and thankfully forgotten (Phillips CD-i!), and meeting rooms tantalize with even more stuff for sale. We duck into one and grab a Jersey Mike’s sub and a Mountain Dew. When in Rome!
• We drop in on a panel about the history of video game magazines. It’s a delightfully dorky sight: two middle-aged dudes talking about GamePro and Nintendo Power in front of a dozen or so attendees. We couldn’t think of a more…wait a minute. Did that dude just say he used to write for Electronic Gaming Monthly? And that he was legendary EGM reviewer Sushi-X? HOLY SHIT! SUSHI-X! A CHILDHOOD INSPIRATION IS IN OUR MIDST! AND HE’S GIVING A PRESENTATION INSIDE THE SHERATON MILWAUKEE BROOKFIELD HOTEL’S BAR AND RESTAURANT!
• Overheard during the panel: “I thought you would have been a fan of Fall Of The Foot Clan on Game Boy.” “Well, it’s on Game Boy, so there you go.”
• It’s hilarious watching kids in the computer museum (did we mention there was a computer museum?) trying to figure out old text adventure games like Zork and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. “I don’t understand what you mean by ‘what am i supposed to do’” will likely be burnt on dozens of green-and-black monitors before weekend’s end.
• We zone out for a few minutes watching one lonely dude play Dungeon Explorer for the TurboGrafx-16. Speaking of which: we’re not leaving this thing until we buy an old TurboGrafx-16.
• Overheard at an NBA Jam machine: “This is worse reffing than the Badgers game!”
• At a bathroom urinal, the guy standing next to us cuts a huge fart without a shred of embarrassment. Not laughing hysterically would be the most challenging game we’d play all day.
• Back in the tent, we strike up a conversation with Lynn Nilles, co-owner of Milwaukee’s premier geek-themed bar, 42 Lounge (which is also Milwaukee Record’s newest advertiser!). As we sip our first of what turned out to be many tallboys of Bawls energy drink we’d drink at the Classic, Nilles tells us the forthcoming 42 Ale House location is on schedule for its projected June opening.
• Awkward Terrible is playing its video-game-appropriate 8-bit glitch-rock. The constant clattering from the nearby air hockey tables is both distracting and somehow appropriate.
• Second local-mover-and-shaker sighting of the day: Pabst Theater’s Andy Nelson, who shows off his sweet TNG Klingon-head playset.
• We decide to follow Nelson around for a while. As he risks death and dysentery on the Oregon Trail, we partake in an equally nostalgic game of Fraction Munchers. It’s so much fun that we temporarily forget we’re doing math.
• Things we never thought we’d say: “We’re watching the Sugar Stems at a giant video game convention in Brookfield.” But yeah, we’re watching the Sugar Stems at a giant video game convention in Brookfield. They’re laying on the geek-speak pretty thick (“This one is about loving something, like the Sega Dreamcast,”) but they sound terrific, and end their set with the always-awesome “Greatest Pretender” and a challenge to play interested parties in air hockey.
• Figuring the nine Super NES games at our office are getting stale, we rationalize making another pass by the various vendors. We’re glad to snatch up an MLBPA Baseball cartridge for a cool $2. Tempting as it is, we ultimately decide to put down the $5 Lethal Weapon game because we are, after all, getting too old for this shit. We’ll be kicking ourselves if we find out there’s a bomb-in-the-toilet level.
• After eating another pre-made Jersey Mike’s sub (one of the few food options available at the bursting convention) and taking down another Bawls, we head to the arcade area to play any and every vacant pinball machine—ranging from Demolition Man to Baywatch, and an especially fun Jurassic Park machine—and a few more arcade games. Oddly, Arkanoid (an oldie but very goodie) never seems to have a line. We set camp there for 20 minutes, until the game’s owner tempts us with his sales pitch for the $150 steal. If you’re reading this, Arkanoid owner, email Tyler after tax season!
• Eventually, we make our way downstairs to check out two smaller arcade and console areas. As we wait in line for Tron (and ultimately give up before our turn), we run into Twin Brother drummer Tyler Nelson. Later, Greg Reynolds, who serves as President of Extra Life’s Milwaukee guild, is kind enough to take the time to give us details about how the foundation raises money to benefit children’s hospitals through pledge-generating 24-hour gaming marathons.
• Speaking of marathons, we’ve been on our feet a while. We decide to take a load off at a stageside table and take in Evacuate The Earth. The unusual-yet-enjoyable three-piece’s frontwoman does it all: operatic vocals, yelling dystopian warnings into a megaphone, playing the saxophone, a floor tom, and crash cymbals. Those in the vicinity, who already seem into the band, go crazy when the bassist plays the theremin.
• After staying near the stage and taking in a few songs of acoustic trio Waxing Gibbous’ well-received set/EP release show, we rush to the presentation area (okay, we play a few more games of pinball and Arkanoid, too) to snag one of the few seats remaining for Cthulhu Comedy Collective’s MGC showcase. Though the room (which is split between bar and restaurant) is full, laughs, and even audience attention seems hard to come by. Gary Zajackowski garners a select few laughs from the tough crowd with a tag to a joke about computers. “You guys just spent a lot of money to play old, shitty ones.” Jason Hillman battles until his microphone abruptly cuts out mid-set, prompting him to end his set. Not long after, we decide to call it a day and rest up for day two.
• As we prepare to leave, we are finally able to convince a Mario cosplayer to let us photograph him “off duty.” We absolutely respect his commitment to character and passion for the event, but can’t help but notice that he still resembles Mario with the mask off. Dude should’ve just worn a red hat with an M on it.
• We’re back at it for day two. It’s family day, which means there are more kids and, strangely, more cosplay. But never mind that: we brought our 3DS with us today, and we max out on StreetPasses in all of five minutes. If Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate wasn’t a time-suck already…
• We hunker down in the arcade room for the bulk of the afternoon, playing everything from The Simpsons Bowling (high score: 286) to a new Star Trek pinball game based on the first J.J. Abrams reboot. We suddenly realize that not only has MGC assembled a top-notch arcade, it has nailed the feel of an arcade: dark, dingy, loud, and carpeted. The only things missing are those ash trays and drink holders that used to come built into Ms. Pac-Man machines or whatever. Does the Landmark still have some of those? Yeah, we think it does.
• Almost all the classic systems are getting plenty of play, but no one—and we mean no one—is touching the Atari Jaguar. Hell, we’ve seen more people suffering through that off-brand Zelda game on the CD-i than go near Atari’s not-really-64-bit flub. We still love you, Jag.
• Many of the vendors have already packed up and left, so it’s crunch time. There’s that “last day of the flea market” vibe in the air, with vendors marking down prices and attendees scrambling to find hidden gems. For us, we’ve given up on finding a TurboGrafx-16 and instead have our eyes on a Model 1 Sega CD for $200. Yeah, a nearby Model 2 is $100 cheaper and it probably works, but the amount of nostalgia we have tied to that hulking, lousy original system is immense. Do we do it? Do we pull the trigger and hope for the best? Is a complimentary boxed copy of Sewer Shark enough to seal the deal? (“Twelve…Three…Six…Niner…”)
• No, we walk away. Maybe 10 or even five years ago we would have snatched it up in a heartbeat (assuming we had $200), but these days, no dice. After all, who has the time? It was wonderful losing ourselves in a weekend full of old games, old memories, and shrink-wrapped copes of Secret Of Mana, but we have loved ones to attend to, businesses to run, articles to write. The days of collecting old games and occasionally playing those old games are sadly gone. God bless all the die-hards who still live and breathe video games (and God bless the organizers of MGC for putting on such a spectacular show), but it’s time for us to go. It’s Game Over. We prepare to leave the Sheraton with heavy hearts and no loot…
• …but on our way out, we stop at a booth for Gnome Games. We spy a card game called Boss Monster, the box of which is done up like an old 8-bit NES cart. It’s inspired by old video games, the cheery Gnome Games woman explains, and perfect for a quick and casual game night. Huh. Quick and casual…
• We buy it, along with an expansion deck. Yes, it feels strange to buy a facsimile of a retro video game after spending two days browsing actual retro video games, but what are you going to do? Maybe you can never go back, and maybe it’s better to remember a thing than to relive a thing. Either way, we feel good as we walk out of the Sheraton. The sun in shining and the parking lot is full of people loading old Galaga machines, old pinball machines, and old computer rigs into trailers.
• We see the pickup with the Portal lyrics again. We agree. This was a triumph. We’re making a note here: HUGE SUCCESS.