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Journey Back: Inside the Classic Gaming Expo
Classic gamers converge on the gambling capitol of the world for a look at the classics of gaming and its growth in the US.
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The anticipation is over, and Classic Gaming Expo '99 (CGE) is now a thing of the past. Despite an Internet scandal in which an important industry leader backed out of a commitment and accused the CGE team of inappropriate behavior, the show went on (as all shows must) and a grand time was had by all who attended.

CGE was the brainchild of two die-hard video-game collectors: Keita Iida and John Hardie. Iida and Hardie's experience in organizing classic video-game meetings began in late 1995 when they cofounded NAVA (North Atlantic Videogame Aficionado), which still meets every six weeks in Videogame Connections, the store owned by Mike Etler in central New Jersey. In 1998, they hooked up with Rich Tsukiji, the organizer of the annual World of Atari conventions. With Hardie and Iida's assistance, World of Atari '98 moved to Las Vegas and expanded to classic gamers of all kinds, not just Atarians. However, because of the name of the event, many gamers stayed away, believing it to be an Atari-only event.

Thus, Classic Gaming Expo was formed. Hardie and Iida quickly obtained sponsorship from such heavy hitters as Hasbro Interactive (, which embraced classic gamers with its acquisition of Atari, and Nyko (, which had introduced its Classic Trackball at last year's show.

The organizers of CGE didn't waste any time assembling a stellar array of talent for the show. One of the first legends to commit to the show was the Ralph Baer, the guy who started it all. Prior commitments had prevented him from attending the World of Atari show so he was more than happy to attend CGE The list of important folks who attended last year's show and returned for CGE is numerous. There was Rob Fulop, best known for Imagic's hit Demon Attack. John Harris, the designer of Jawbreaker, returned to give a talk. Dan Kramer, the man who designed the Atari 5200 trackball, returned as a representative of Nyko. Finally there was Steve Woita, who programmed Quadrun for the 2600, the first video-game ever to feature voice synthesis without the aid of external hardware.

Programmers weren't the only dignitaries who made a return engagement. Las Vegas residents Bill Kunkle, Arnie Katz, and Joyce Worley, the team that assembled the first video-game magazine, Electronic Games, were there, as well as Don Thomas, the man formally known as Atari's official spokesperson. While the list of personalities from last year is impressive in its own right, Iida, Hardie, and Sean Kelly went overboard and invited as many people as he could track down from the classic days. The list of "alumni" who actually attended was astounding and marked the first time that such an amazing group of talent was in one place at the same time outside of a CES or E3 exhibition. While the entire list of attendees would be too large to mention (and fortunately can be found at the CGE web site, some notable mentions were: Jerry Lawson who designed the Fairchild Channel F, the first programmable video-game console; Jay Smith, the father of the Vectrex; Joe Decuir, the designer of the Atari 2600 and 800 computer; and Jay Fenton, who is best known for designing the Bally Arcade video-game console. These five legends, along with Ralph Baer, joined in a panel discussion led by Wired's Van Burnham, the author of the forthcoming history of video games: Supercade.

This panel made up only one discussion offered during the weekend. In a hectic schedule, there were individual sessions. The talks covered all facets of video-game lore, from a group speech by Atari programmers to a panel discussion by the former gaming executives. But the highlight of the show was a speech by the legendary father of video games, Ralph Baer, who explained to the packed crowd just how he came to accomplish such a momentous event. Baer also showed the first board to display dots on a TV screen. Then he floored the attendees by displaying for the first time his brown box, the original prototype for Magnavox's Odyssey. Strangely enough, Baer couldn't get the unit to work when it was hooked up to the TV. A second TV was brought in, and this time the machine worked. The second TV, as Van Burnham pointed out, was a Magnavox. This was ironic because when the original Odyssey was sold, the public falsely believed that the marvelous new device could only work on a Magnavox television set.

The audience sat in awe and silence as it saw the familiar image of a line drawn down the center of the screen with a small square on each side. Several lucky members of the audience were invited to the front of the room to play against Ralph Baer himself. These were truly magical moments.

All of the guests were totally unpretentious, as if they had no idea of their impact on the video-game community and on the world in general. If the discussions and speeches and meetings with the celebrities were all that were offered at CGE, it would have been well worth the price of admission. But there was much more! Walter Day (, video gaming's official referee and the compiler of the Twin Galaxies Official Video Game & Pinball Book of World Records was on hand to host several classic video-game tournaments. Billy Mitchell, who recently made history for achieving the highest possible score in Pac-Man could be seen playing other games. Another champion, Michael Rideout, winner of Atari's legendary Swordquest match was also seen roaming the floor.

"New" classic games were very much in evidence around the show. Eric Bacher (, the talented young programmer from France, returned for a second year with a new original game for the Atari 2600. This time the game was Merlin's Walls, and Bacher brought a friend named Igor Barzilai who offered an original game called Pesco.

Songbird Productions ( featured brand-new games for the Atari Lynx, with titles like Ponx and Skyhammer. Telegames Inc. ( also offered brand-new Lynx games and its new Yars' Revenge for the Game Boy Color (available this September). Howard Scott Warshaw (, the programmer of the original 2600, was on hand to sell the latest installment in his Once upon Atari videotape series. Warshaw was not the only classic programmer who was peddling his wares. The group of Intellivision programmers, the Blue Sky Rangers (, also had a booth in which they sold their Intellivision Lives CD and previewed the upcoming PlayStation compilation of Intellivision games from Activision. Meanwhile, Hasbro Interactive displayed its upcoming Missile Command, Pong, and Q*Bert titles to the public for the very first time. All players who tried out the new games received copies of the new Atari Arcade Hits 1.

As World of Atari had done, CGE featured a museum of rare and unusual items. Among the unique devices that could be found were Ralph Baer's original Brown Box, along with the first light gun ever made, a color Vectrex prototype, and an Odyssey 3 (Magnavox's unreleased super gaming console).

With the introduction of MAME and other emulators, gamers can now play practically every arcade game at home. Unfortunately, sitting in front of a computer monitor doesn't adequately simulate the true gaming experience. Two companies have decided to take care of that and use CGE as their launching pad. Both companies offer arcade cabinets with a multitude of controllers, a monitor, and room to store the PC where it can't be seen. Although HanaHo Games' HotRod Mini-Cabinet ( seemed to be the more professional of the two, Jeff Kemper's Arcade 2000 ( featured a dial controller, which made playing Tempest a perfect experience. It worked so well that a Tempest tournament was actually staged on the machine.

All in all, the Classic Gaming Expo was a whole lot of fun, even without the star attraction who changed his mind at the last moment. The question now is, how is the CGE team going to outdo itself next year for CGE 2000?
By Leonard Herman, GameSpot PC  [POSTED: 08/16/99]

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