Last year, after PAX Prime 2011 ended, I found out there was a local retro games convention around Portland called the Portland Retro Gaming Expo. Apparently it had been running for several years, and I was unaware of its existence, so I decided to head over to the event. Despite the small venue – it was at a DoubleTree convention hall not too far from the Lloyd Center mall – I had a blast buying a few games to fulfill my ever-increasing collection.
Cut to 2012, and the Portland Retro Gaming Expo came back for its seventh year. This time, they kicked things into overdrive as they moved facilities to the much larger Oregon Convention Center just off downtown Portland. Though the ticket prices jumped due to the venue change – $20 for a day, $25 for both days – I still expected to have a lot of fun.
On Saturday, I grabbed a friend along for the ride. He hasn’t played much video games, but did remember messing around with the old Kaypro, Macintoshes and Commodore 64s that some of the vendors had, while occasionally talking about the classic Atari 2600 and NES eras. I’m honestly amazed he was willing to put up with me being an obnoxious nerd about some of the things.
Naturally like any retro games convention, the place had many different vendors selling off all sorts of things: Old computers, Nintendo Power magazines — likely will increase in value since they’re shutting down — NES and SNES game reproductions, Tiger Electronics handhelds, various toys and figures, comic books and other assorted nerdy things. There was an absolute breadth of stuff there. My wallet took a hit during the whole event, which I talk about in another blog post.
After me and my friend roamed around the main hall and played a few arcade classics like Galaga, Robotron 2084 and that pinball/arcade hybrid Baby Pac-Man, I walked into the small auditoriums they had for the convention’s events. Chris Kohler (of Wired at the time of this article, now at Kotaku) was doing his Retrogaming Roadshow event. It’s a fairly simple thing: people bring up interesting gaming things and basically seeing if they’re worth anything.
Later during the panel, there was a surprise guest: Howard Phillips, formerly of Nintendo during the NES glory days, now advertising himself under the “Gamemaster Howard” brand. He’s lately been posting stuff on Facebook and other social media sites, showing off most of the old stuff he had from his Nintendo days, such as a promo booklet for the Nintendo AVS — the original name for the NES — back from the 1985 Consumer Electronics Show. Honestly I was not expecting these people to make the trek to Portland, but hey, anything to talk to Chris — and have him recognize me! — and ask him how much my Japanese copy of Hot Shots Golf 2 is. (Turns out it’s worth nothing. Oh well, I only spent $5 on it.)
I still bought a couple of things on Saturday, and bumped into Howard Phillips at the show. I asked him about why we never got the original Super Mario Bros. 2, since it was one of those apocryphal stories that he was the impetus for why the original Super Mario Bros. 2 never made it to the US until years later, and why Nintendo reskinned Doki Doki Panic into the US Super Mario Bros 2. Turns out it wasn’t nearly as clear cut as that. He gave these reasons: “It was too similar to the original, and I hated the poison mushrooms and the wind sections!” It was still neat to talk and hear stories from him about those days, as those aren’t as documented nearly as well.
During all this, I missed the panel David Crane was having. Crane was one of the early Atari programmers who split off to form Activision and is most known for games like Pitfall and A Boy and His Blob. I got him to sign a dinky $2 cartridge of Pitfall I bought at the show, which was the highlight of the whole event, along with my friend asking him tips about Pitfall. Now my copy of Pitfall probably doubles in value!
Sunday was much more low key, and since some of these people came from Washington and Southern Oregon to sell their wares, some vendors were doing deep discounts so they had less stuff to take back with them. One vendor had a guy talk on a microphone all day and just discount loads everything, even gave away some things. At one point, I threw my hat in the ring to win that Cheetahmen II Lost Levels game, which I’m amazed they’re even going to great lengths to improve that piece of garbage.
That’s when I made my good hauls, which were about 95% NES games. I said to my friends for a while that I was “done with NES game collecting.” If my haul from this is any indication, it seems I’m not done with it just yet.
I only saw one panel on Sunday, about writing new video games on old hardware. I mostly came there to hear Ed Fries talk about how he made Halo 2600, but there was also people like Chris Spry who was also showing off Princess Rescue his Super Mario Bros. 2600 demake at the show, as well as Clay Cowgill of notable Portland “Barcade” Ground Kontrol.
AtariAge was selling these cartridges, but at exuberant prices — $50 for a copy of Halo 2600 with box, $40 for a Pac-Man romhack that made the game playable, that kind of stuff. I was tempted to buy them, but not at that price. I know they’re made with limited production runs, but I can’t justify paying $50 for Halo 2600 unless I was doing it for collecting and novelty purposes. I could get the entire Halo series for $50 and it would be a better value investment.
I did spot a whole bunch of other cool things at the show that weren’t people selling games. Naturally there were people making pixel art things out of beads and wood, artists showing off their skills, even a few booths that were more general nerd culture than specifically video games. I did see a few interesting things, like a guy who was showing off his circuit-bent video game hardware, and had a chance to tinker around with a Super Famicom with magnets on them to glitch out the games.
There was also a small Intellivision booth dedicated to a former designer who’s name escapes me, a booth for the Watch Out for Fireballs podcast, where their goal was to get all 96 exits in Super Mario World during the time of the convention – they succeeded! – even people selling a bunch of Wisdom Tree video games. I could’ve bought Super Noah’s Ark 3D for DOS at a staggering five bucks, something I’m kicking myself for not doing.
In addition to the arcade and pinball play areas, they had sections where you could play old console and handheld games. At one point, they even had a Saturn plugged in with Saturn Bomberman with the multi-tap. Unfortunately I did not see eight-player Saturn Bomberman in action this year. At one point, I popped in Sonic the Hedgehog 3 – which is the best Sonic game and I’ll fight anyone who says Sonic 2 is better – and nailed 3 emeralds in Angel Island before I stepped away to grab something to eat. There were also tournaments for Tetris, Super Bomberman and other games, as well as raffles to win stuff.
At around 5PM on Sunday, the show was over, wrapping up year seven of the PRGE. I loved it, only because it’s close by, had a bunch of people selling interesting stuff, and now that the convention has a few “celebrities” in the video gaming world that aren’t just random YouTubers, it must mean we’re getting somewhere. Here’s hoping PRGE 2013 is even bigger.
Updated 5/15/2020 for grammar and other changes. I still think this is one of the cooler PRGE trips I made. I’ve gone with friends and seen some cool people, but this is the one that has stuck with me the most. The expo itself isn’t bad, though I hope with 2021’s entry that they spice things up a bit, cause it even felt a bit uneventful in 2019.