Saturday, January 23, 2016

A Day at the Arcade Expo

I've driven to Palm Springs from LA many times, and often stopped in Banning to visit Hadley's Fruit Orchards for one of their famous date shakes, but I had no idea that the town also housed an incredible Museum of Pinball that was the site of last weekend's Arcade Expo. It's a 40,000 square foot facility situated on 18 acres with 800 pinball and arcade games! The Arcade Expo was a 3-day celebration of pinball and vintage arcade games, with live music, food and drink, vendors, and panel discussions. We were just there for the first day - Friday.  Admission was $35 for one day, including unlimited free play on the games, or $100 for all 3 days. We got a groupon that saved us half off the daily admission. 

Upon arrival, we spent some time in the pinball room which was a giant warehouse-sized space housing hundreds of @ 500 pinball machines.  You can see the full list of pinball and arcade games here.  Unlike many arcades, the room was laid out with plenty of space in the aisles to allow for comfortable game play. Machines were arranged by decade so a stroll through the space took us on a tour of pinball history.  They had some of the latest machines like Metallica and AC/DC. They even had an "adults only" room that had a couple machines with adult themes like The Sopranos and Sexy Girl, and black lighting.  The back corner was reserved for a weekend-long pinball tournament called "It Never Drains in Southern California" and there were monitors above the machines so spectators could watch the competitors.  They had Hercules - the largest pinball machine ever produced, and Joust - a two-player game that was set up like a cocktail arcade table where both players could play at the same time.  

Another large room housed all the video games and vendors with video game memorabilia. We talked to the guy at the Intellivision booth and checked out the new all-in-one Intellivision machine with all the games built in (and those same shitty controllers!).  We had a blast roaming the arcade and playing Dig Dug, Kick!, Breakout, Dragon's Lair and many other games from our misspent youth.  It brought me back to the days my mom would drop me off at Showbiz Pizza with a roll of quarters and go do her shopping. Would any parent leave a 10 year old in an arcade unattended these days? We got sucked into Magical Tetris Challenge - a tetris game with Disney characters where both players play at the same time. I said we couldn't stop until I won a game and it took me about 45 minutes to pull that off. 

Elsewhere on the museum grounds, there was a food court with burgers, hot dogs, pupusas, and craft beer (including Centipede IPA).  We visited a shooting gallery with gun-oriented video games.  There was a popular tent that housed pinball vendors and some of the hottest new games including The Walking Dead, KISS, Game of Thrones, WWE Wrestling, and, um, Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons.  After seeing so many degrading images of women in the clutches of demons or being rescued by Conan the Barbarian types on all the vintage pinball machines, it was disappointing to see that we haven't in fact come a long way, baby, when it comes to representation in pinball.  It's a male-dominated hobby and this is supposed to be kitschy humor.  Here's an article with more info on the controversy around this Whoa Nellie! machine.  

The day passed quickly. We had a drink in the cocktail lounge but were disappointed that the vintage pong cocktail table machine wasn't working. There quite a few machines not working, but many volunteer techs were there fixing them as quick as they could, so by the time we walked by again, they'd be working. Dave had a rum drink served in a coconut - a fun take on the "ball" theme of the day. We would have hung out in the bar longer, but there was a huge vintage bowling game that was super loud and took up a lot of space in the small bar.


At 9:00 PM, we went to the theater room for a presentation by Walter Day, founder of the Twin Galaxies arcade and related organization that is the authority for video game competitions and world record validation, and Billy Mitchell, world record holder and super villain as portrayed in The King of Kong.  I was surprised at how tall Billy was, although I guess a couple of inches come from his hair. They answered audience questions. Billy said he hasn't seen any of the movies he appears in, which surprised me. He hadn't seen King of Kong although he's one of the main players in it, and he hadn't seen Pixels, where Peter Dinklage plays a villain that looks a heckuva lot like Billy. I would think curiosity would get the better of him.  

Billy showed a short film about Zack Hample, who is best known as a baseball collector but also holds some video game records including Super Breakout and Arkanoid. I was interested as a baseball fan but the video had no content at all about his video game prowess so it seemed an odd choice to show. Billy said the point was that if you could be obsessed and great at catching foul balls and home run balls and become the best in the country at it, that was the same type of dedication you needed to master a video game and be able to play Centipede for 47 hours straight as he had done. They started to show another short film about video game designers, and we went back to gaming.

Later, we ran into Billy and I asked if we could take a photo.  He posed for pics with me and Dave and also gave me a box of cookies that I suppose some fan had given him. We debated on the way home if we should eat the cookies or not. If someone felt he was a true villain, perhaps they added ex-lax.  Dave ate a few cookies without any negative effects.  I didn't find Billy to be at all villainous in person. He was gracious in answering fan questions and posing for pics.  I believe he was at the event the whole weekend, participating in panels and doing more screenings.  

The crowd got larger as the night wore on, and there were DJs spinning 80s tunes in the video game room. The evening DJ did a "name the TV or movie theme song" game with the crowd and kept everyone having fun.  There was also live music in the beer garden area. We saw Timon Marmex - a guy dressed kind of like Dr. Who playing a synth. It was quirky but didn't hold our attention - plus it was damn cold even with the heaters they had set up. Because of the cold, we didn't check out the Starcade - an outdoor gaming area where you could play video games and look at the stars - but it's a cool idea and would be great in summer. 

I wish the Museum of Pinball was open all the time, but the owner feels he doesn't have the ability to staff it and keep all the games running. I think it would draw a lot of tourists who are visiting Palm Springs or the nearby Casino Morongo and outlet mall in Cabazon, just as the Pinball Hall of Fame in Vegas draws tourists from the Strip.  I would definitely go back to play again. We were there for 8 hours but the time flew by, and I didn't manage to beat Dave at Dig Dug so we have unfinished business.

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