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72 Scenes from the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, 2012

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On September 30, I spent a geektastic day at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo. I arrived early and got a look at many booths before they opened (later, they would be swarmed by thousands of attendees). For much of the day I was one of several referees for the Classic Tetris World Championship. The whole day was a joy -- a convention hall filled with classic games, from Atari to Zelda, with pinball in between. And, this being a Portland event, there were game-themed crafts everywhere. The expo organizers summarized the weekend like so:

• Over 3,000 attendees came through the doors over the weekend
• Over 160 arcade and pinball machines were on display for freeplay
• Over 70 retro video game consoles were set up to play
• There were over 70 vendors in attendance
• Our after-hours event was a blast with over 200 people dining and drinking until midnight right in the Mega-cade
• Our live auction was packed with over 400 attendees. At the auction we raised nearly $900 for Portland's Cat Adoption Team

I just want to emphasize that this event had a "Mega-cade" and it was, indeed, mega. I brought my camera and captured some scenes from the event -- some before the action began, some in the midst of it. Have a look, and click on any photo to enlarge:

Oregon Trail, 2012

This actually happened. In 2012. I have hope for future generations. (To the side of the mega-cade was a large area with various classic computers and game systems set up for free play.)

Atari 2600 - Combat

This also happened, in a little time-warp area in the back of the hall. In the closeup you can see that the game is Combat. Remind you of your childhood much?

Atari 2600 Living Room

Atari 2600 Combat

Scenes from the Mega-cade

The Mega-cade was frankly more mega than these photos convey. Rows of pinball machines, standup arcade games, co-op games, and lots of driving games -- all in freeplay mode! -- made for a geeky paradise. I kept returning to the updated X-Men co-op game, both because it was popular, but also because I had burned hours (and many dollars) on that game in years past.

Joust

Mega-cade

Mega-cade

Mega-cade - Pac-Mans!

I was particularly confused by this "Granny and the Gators" game. Click to enlarge, trust me. (The second photo is a detail of the play area.)

Mega-cade - Granny and the Gators

Mega-cade - Granny and the Gators detail

Mega-cade

Mega-cade

Mega-cade

Here's the X-Men game. Note that in this modified version, instead of two CRT screens, it has one large (and quite nice) LCD.

Mega-cade - X-Men

The family that plays X-Men together...stays together.

Mega-cade - X-Men

And here's a Back to the Future pinball game on the fritz. When was the last time you got to see inside a BTTF pinball game?! (Click to see the guts, especially on the latter two shots.)

Mega-cade - BTTF

Mega-cade - BTTF

Mega-cade - BTTF

Mega-cade - pinball

Mega-cade - pinball

It's hard to see here, but this is a parent teaching a child to play the Empire Strikes Back game. This kid's gonna grow up right.

Mega-cade - Empire Strikes Back

Mega-cade - Empire Strikes Back

Games, Games, Games

There were thousands of game cartridges (and some floppy/CD games) on display, plus some other neat memorabilia. Here's a look at part of what you missed.

Movie Posters

NES Tetris: "From Russia With Fun."

Tetris

Games

Well, this is neat

I picked up some excellent Tetris fridge magnets from this vendor:

Game Art

Game Art

Color Basic

Hey, look -- modern Atari 2600 games!

Games

Games

In case of emergency:

Game Repair Manuals

Games

Nintendo Power

NES Games

NES Controllers and Weapons

Games

Games

Games

Games

Games

Games

Games

Games

Games

Games

Games

Games

This booth was helping an autism charity. There were crowds around it later in the day (this was taken before the doors opened).

Games

Games

Retro Systems

Lots of retro game systems were set up on the show floor -- you could play most of them, and many were also for sale.

Guess what costs $200 these days:

Intellivision clone

The Power Glove: it's so bad. (And it's $249.99.)

Power Glove

Check out the price tag on this:

R.O.B. System

R.O.B. costs less on his own, out of the box:

R.O.B.

Colorful PlayStations

PC System

My father had a system much like this one. Portable!

Note: We almost never do this, but 72 images—that's a lot of images. So we're splitting this into two pages.

PC System

Note the game pucks on top:

Apple Systems

Commodore!

Game System

Game System

Game Systems

This Vectrex has a steering wheel!

Vectrex

I was blown away to see a real live Computer Space console. If you don't know what that is, read your history.

Computer Space!

Computer Space controls

Computer Space!!!

Classic Tetris World Championship 2012

The Classic Tetris World Championship started three years ago; its birth is documented in the film Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters. This year, as I refereed, I caught a few poignant moments.

Players practice just before the 32-player bracket head-to-head matches began.

Tetris trials

Matt Buco (left) topped out in his crucial second game, leaving the game in his opponent's hands. (I featured Buco's Tetris max-out in January.) At this moment the crowd cried "Buco!" in disbelief. Ben Mullen (right, crouching), another Tetris master, watches in concern. At the far right, Tetris master Dana Wilcox looks on. In the following round, Buco, Mullen, and Wilcox were all eliminated. (I refereed the Mullen and Wilcox matches.)

Matt Buco and Ben Mullen

Ben Mullen watches as Buco's score is beaten, removing Buco from play. Let me be clear: Mullen was Buco's competition, but he was not happy to see this happen. Update, Sunday, Oct 7: Breaking news update -- Mullen maxed out NES Tetris one week after this photo was taken. Good job, Ben!

Ben Mullen

Trey Harrison was defeated much like Buco. In this shot, he has already unplugged his controller, knowing his top-out score will be beaten. Seconds later he was eliminated.

Trey Harrison

The final rounds of the tournament were a bit fancier. You may recognize the setup from Ecstasy of Order; this is the quad-panel Tetris screen as players competed. You can also see my phone live-streaming the action.

Tetris finals - screen

Here's a closeup of the first-place trophy (there was also a cash prize). This thing is a fingerprint magnet.

Tetris first prize

And here's Jonas Neubauer holding his trophy aloft as the fog machines kicked in.

Jonas Neubauer wins!

That's All

You really want to go to the Portland Retro Gaming Expo next year. I'll be there, and taking pictures. Come beat X-Men with me, okay?

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10 Fast Facts About Pac-Man

by Ryan Lambie

When Pac-Man emerged in the early 1980s, nothing else looked or sounded quite like it. Whereas most arcade games of the era involved shooting marauding aliens, Pac-Man looked like a miniature, interactive cartoon: a comical tug-of-war between a round, yellow character with an addiction to munching tiny white dots and a quartet of roaming ghosts with big, anxious eyes.

As we now know, Pac-Man was a massive hit, and its grip on pop culture is still strong today. But Pac-Man's success was far from certain; its designer initially had no interest in games, and the public reaction to it was initially mixed. Here's a brief look at some of the fascinating facts behind Pac-Man's making, its impact, and its legacy.

1. PAC-MAN DESIGNER TORU IWATANI HAD NO TRAINING AS A DESIGNER OR PROGRAMMER.

When then 22-year-old Toru Iwatani started work at Namco in 1977, he had no particular interest in designing video games. In fact, Iwatani initially expected that he'd work on pinball machines, but instead ended up designing the Breakout-inspired paddle games Gee Bee (1978), Bomb Bee and Cutie Q (1979). Two years after Pac-Man's release in 1980, he designed Pole Position.

2. PAC-MAN WAS DESIGNED AS A RESPONSE TO SHOOTING GAMES LIKE SPACE INVADERS.

Japanese arcades of the late 1970s and early 1980s were dark, masculine places full of space shooting games inspired by the success of Space Invaders—including Namco's own enormously successful Galaxian. In response, Iwatani began thinking about a concept which ran counter to those games.

"All the computer games available at the time were of the violent type—war games and Space Invader types," Iwatani said in 1986. "There were no games that everyone could enjoy, and especially none for women. I wanted to come up with a 'comical' game women could enjoy."

Iwatani began thinking about ideas based around the word taberu, meaning "to eat." And gradually, the concept of a game called Pakku-Man (derived from paku paku, a Japanese slang word akin to chomp) began to form.

3. PAC-MAN'S PIZZA INSPIRATION IS ONLY HALF TRUE.

By Official GDC - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

One of the great creation legends of game design is that Iwatani, while eating a pizza, looked down at the pie with a missing slice and used the outline as inspiration for Pac-Man's distinctive shape. The story was furthered by Iwatani himself; when Pac-Man fever was at its height, he even posed with a half-eaten pizza for a publicity photograph. But in a 1986 interview, Iwatani admitted that the legend was only "half true."

"In Japanese, the character for mouth [kuchi] is a square shape," Iwatani explained. "It's not circular like the pizza, but I decided to round it out." And thus, Pac-Man was born.

4. PAC-MAN'S GAMEPLAY AND GHOSTS WERE INSPIRED BY COMIC BOOK CHARACTERS.

As Iwatani continued to develop the idea of a game which involved eating, he added the concept of a maze, and then came the power pellet (or power cookie), a special item that allowed Pac-Man to eat his enemies. Iwatani later revealed that the power-up idea was inspired by Popeye, who often defeated his arch rival Bluto by eating spinach.

Pac-Man's ghosts were also inspired by comic book characters. "Pac-Man is inspired by all the manga and animation that I’d watch as a kid," Iwatani told WIRED in 2010. "The ghosts were inspired by Casper, or Obake no Q-Taro."

5. IT WAS ONE OF THE FIRST GAMES TO INTRODUCE CUT-SCENES.

Pac-Man's action is occasionally interspersed with simple cartoonlike interludes, where an enormous Pac-Man chases a terrified ghost across the screen. Iwatani dubbed these "coffee breaks" and imagined them as a means of enticing players to chomp their way to the next scene. Iwatani's programmers initially resisted the idea, arguing that the interludes added little to the game, but Iwatani ultimately won the battle.

6. THE GAME WOULD BE NOTHING WITHOUT ITS ENEMY AI.

Although Iwatani was the creative force behind Pac-Man, bringing the game to life fell to a team of four staff, including programmer Shigeo Funaki and sound designer Toshio Kai. Development of the game took around 18 months—an unusually lengthy production for the era—with the ghosts' behavior posing the greatest challenge.

As Iwatani himself admitted, "There's not much entertainment in a game of eating, so we decided to create enemies to inject a little excitement and tension."

One of the most ingenious aspects of Pac-Man is that each ghost behaves differently—one simply chases the player, two try to attack Pac-Man from the front, while the fourth will chase and then abruptly change course.

"It was tricky because the monster movements are quite complex," Iwatani said. "This is the heart of the game ... The AI in this game impresses me to this day!"

7. THE GAME WASN'T EXPECTED TO BE A HIT.

The first ever Pac-Man machine—then called Puck-Man—was installed in a Tokyo movie theater on May 22, 1980. As Iwatani and his team had hoped, the game was popular with women and the very young, but seasoned gamers—who were more used to the intensity of shooting games—were initially nonplussed.

The uncertainty continued when Pac-Man was shown off at a coin-op trade show later that year. Many of the American arcade operators in attendance thought that another Namco game at the show—a driving game called Rally X—would be the more popular of the two due to its faster pace. Ultimately, Pac-Man was picked up for American distribution by Bally/Midway. Its name was changed from Puck-Man to Pac-Man, and the game's journey to global popularity began.

8. IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST SUCCESSFUL ARCADE GAMES OF ALL TIME, YET ITS CREATOR DIDN'T GET RICH FROM IT.

Selling 350,000 arcade machines within 18 months, generating millions in profits and yet more revenue from merchandising, Pac-Man was an international phenomenon. But Iwatani, like many designers and programmers working in Japan at the time—including Space Invaders' creator Tomohiro Nishikado—didn't directly profit from all that success.

"The truth of the matter is, there were no rewards per se for the success of Pac-Man," Nishikado said in 1987. "I was just an employee. There was no change in my salary, no bonus, no official citation of any kind."

9. THE HIGHEST SCORE POSSIBLE IS 3,333,360 POINTS.

Although Pac-Man doesn't have an ending as such, an integer overflow makes the 256th level impossible to clear. This means that if every dot, power pellet, fruit, and enemy is consumed on each of the 255 levels, the maximum possible score is 3,333,360 points. The legendarily dextrous videogame champion Billy Mitchell was the first player to achieve a perfect Pac-Man score.

10. IT'S STILL INSIDIOUSLY ADDICTIVE.

To celebrate Pac-Man's 30th birthday back in 2010, Google placed a playable version of the game on its homepage. According to a report issued by a time management company, the game's brief appearance managed to rob the world of around 4.8 million working hours. Google's first ever playable doodle, the search engine's anniversary version of Pac-Man can still be played today. 

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15 Surprising Benefits of Playing Video Games
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Complex, challenging, and ambitious, video games have come a long way since the simple arcade titles of the 1970s—and evidence is mounting that the benefits of play go well beyond entertainment and improved hand-eye coordination. In honor of Video Games Day (today), here are 15 ways games are programming better people. 

1. THEY'RE PRODUCING BETTER SURGEONS.

While you may think you want your surgeon reading up on the latest medical research instead of playing games, you might want to reconsider: a study of laparoscopic (small incision) specialists found that those who played for more than three hours per week made 32 percent fewer errors during practice procedures compared to their non-gaming counterparts.  

2. THEY MAY HELP PEOPLE OVERCOME DYSLEXIA.

Some research points to attention difficulties as being a key component of dyslexia. One study has shown dyslexics improved their reading comprehension following sessions of games heavy on action. The reason, researchers believe, is that the games have constantly changing environments that require intense focus.

3. THEY COULD IMPROVE YOUR VISION.

“Don’t sit too close to the television” used to be a common parental refrain without a lot of science to back it up. Instead, scientists are discovering games in moderation may actually improve—not strain—your vision. In one study, 10 weeks of play was associated with a greater ability to discern between different shades of grey. Another had participants try to play games using only their “lazy” eye, with the “good” one obscured. Those players showed significant, sometimes normalized improvement in the affected eye. 

4. YOU MIGHT GET A CAREER BOOST.

Because certain genres of games reward and encourage leadership traits—providing for “communities,” securing their safety, etc.—researchers have noted that players can display a correlating motivation in their real-world career goals. Improvising in a game can also translate into being faster on your feet when an office crisis crops up. 

5. PLAYERS CAN BECOME FASCINATED WITH HISTORY.

Many games use actual historical events to drive their stories. Those characters and places can then spark a child’s interest in discovering more about the culture they’re immersed in, according to researchers. Parents who have obtained books, maps, and other resources connected to games have reported their children are more engaged with learning, which can lead to a lifetime appreciation for history. 

6. THEY MAKE KIDS PHYSICAL.

While some games promote a whole-body level of interaction, even those requiring a simple handheld controller can lead to physical activity. Sports games that involve basketball, tennis, or even skateboarding can lead to children practicing those same skills outdoors. 

7. THEY MAY SLOW THE AGING PROCESS.

So-called “brain games” involving problem-solving, memory, and puzzle components have been shown to have a positive benefit on older players. In one study, just 10 hours of play led to increased cognitive functioning in participants 50 and older—improvement that lasted for several years. 

8. THEY HELP EASE PAIN.

It’s common to try to distract ourselves from pain by paying attention to something else or focusing on other body mechanisms, but that’s not the only reason why games are a good post-injury prescription. Playing can actually produce an analgesic (pain-killing) response in our higher cortical systems. The more immersive, the better—which is why pending virtual reality systems may one day be as prevalent in hospitals as hand sanitizer.  

9. YOU'LL MAKE NEW SOCIAL CONNECTIONS.

Gamers are sometimes stigmatized as being too insulated, but the opposite is actually true. The rise of multi-player experiences online has given way to a new form of socializing in which players work together to solve problems. But studies have shown games can also be the catalyst for friends to gather in person: roughly 70 percent of all players play with friends at least some of the time. 

10. THEY MAY IMPROVE BALANCE IN MS SUFFERERS.

Since it is a disorder affecting multiple nerves, multiple sclerosis patients often have problems with their balance—and no medications have been conclusively proven to help. However, one study showed that MS patients who played games requiring physical interaction while standing on a balance board displayed improvement afterward. 

11. YOU'LL MAKE FASTER DECISIONS.

We all know someone who seems to have a faster CPU than the rest of us, able to retrieve information or react in a split second. For some, that ability might be strengthened through gaming. Because new information is constantly being displayed during play, players are forced to adapt quickly. In one study, players who were immersed in fast-paced games were 25 percent faster in reacting to questions about an image they had just seen compared to non-players. 

12. THEY MAY CURB CRAVINGS.

Players preoccupied with indulging in overeating, smoking, or drinking might be best served by reaching for a controller instead. A university study revealed a 24 percent reduction in desire for their vice of choice after playing a puzzle game. 

13. THEY'LL REDUCE STRESS.

While some games are thought to induce stress—especially when you see your character struck down for the umpteenth time—the opposite can be true. A major study that tracked players over six months and measured heart rate found that certain titles reduced the adrenaline response by over 50 percent. 

14. GAMERS MIGHT BE LESS LIKELY TO BULLY.

Though the stance is controversial, some researchers have asserted that action games may reduce a bully’s motivation to—well, bully. One study that had players assume the role of both the hero and villain showed that those controlling the bad guy’s behaviors displayed a greater sense of remorse over their actions. 

15. THEY CAN HELP ADDRESS AUTISM.

Gamers using systems that incorporate the entire body to control onscreen movement have been shown to be more engaged in celebrating victories with their peers, which runs counter to the lack of communication people with autism sometimes present. A study also showed that sharing space with multiple players can also lead to increased social interaction for those with the disorder.

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