Saturday, April 16, 2016

8-bit Fridays - The Diaries: April 15, 2016

Field Trips and New Obsessions

It's been a pretty full three weeks since my last entry. For April 1st my 8-bit Friday would be taken up by my visit to Level 257. The Friday following April 8th, we where in Milwaukee getting ready to attend Midwest Gaming Classics on that Saturday. I have one posting out already about the Level 257 visit ( ), and you can visit my Facebook page or Twitter (@Emperor_Grand) about my MGC visit although I will be publishing something about that soon too. With that said its obvious I've had to put down the controller (at least at home) for those first two weekends to experience something new. 

This weekend (April 15th) on the other had we are back to a normal, and with it a whole pile of games on multiple systems I need to get through. I could go over my list of buys over the past two weekends, both at MGC and on eBay but I also know I'm not getting through all of them this weekend. What I can tell you on the other hand is that I have bought and/or set up some new systems over the past few weeks. One of these is the Sega Saturn which I got up a running shortly after my March 25th entry. I also managed to get a hold of its predecessor the Sega-CD at MGC, but I haven't hooked it up yet. What I will say for now about the Saturn is that I do like it, and I've since bought additional games for it, one of which I will cover this weekend but I'll get more in depth on the Saturn system itself in a later post. 

I've also been attempting to get to that 100 SNES game mark I bought up in my New Years Resolution post ( ). Even though it's only April I still don't see myself making this one, but I have discovered a genre I really like on the SNES, SHMUPS. Now, SHMUPS, may not be the largest genre on the SNES; I'm sure that honor goes to fighting games, platformers, or RPG/JRPG's, but it has a healthy amount games. To me SHMUPS hearken back to the early days of arcade games and home consoles making their golden era in the early to mid-80's with titles like Galaga, Raiden, and 1942 to name a few. The time of the SNES may have been past that, but many of these games are still very good and carry on the legacy well. 

This Friday's Buy's

Star Wars (NES) - I picked this up CIB on eBay, although the box is a little beat up. It's been on my gaming wish list for a while and looks like a ton of fun and a major improvement over its Famicom predecessor. 

Rad Gravity (NES) - I spotted this one at MGC last week but didn't pick it up at the time, although I wish I had now. I had never heard of it before but it's obscure and judging by YouTube play-through's looks fun and zany. 

Follow Ups

Solstice (NES) - I brought this one up last time, and after some polishing of pins and coaxing it into the machine just right I finally got it to work. What can I say about Solstice? Well, how about that intro music? It's actually pretty epic (the intro music). As far as the game...well maybe I'll retry it with an actual NES controller, since it's a little confusing to control and sluggish with the Retron 5 controller, but people do rave about this game and I think I'll give it a second chance. 

This Weekends Plays

Xexyz (NES) - I purchased this one the night of my last 8-bit Friday Diary entry. I can best describe it as one of those stiff platformers that we saw a lot of out of third parties developers on the NES. This one by Hudson isn't too bad, but you're swamped by enemies from the get go, and the controls are sluggish. Also, it does have that lower budget look, that as I said, we saw a lot out of with third party games. I personally think with some extra time on the controls this is one I could really enjoy. 

Little Nemo: Dream Master (NES) - This is another purchase from last time I just finally got to play. Ok, here is an example of a third party platformer that actually had a bit more money spent on it. Heck, I  remember the commercials for this game on TV. Graphically it's a good looking game, and play wise it's pretty good too. However, I have to say I do find the element of climbing into an animal, um...interesting. Anyway, it's a pretty good game and worth adding to an NES core collection. 

Phalanx (SNES) - More known for its box art then its content, but it's actually a pretty impressive SHMUP, and a challenging one too at that. I was really impressed by the imaginative transitions between levels, detailed backgrounds, and just overall look to the game. As far as gameplay its standard SHMUP fare, with powerups and whatnot, but as a whole package this game is definitely worth having. 

As word of caution this bad boy glitched out my Retron 5, so the next time around I think I will play it on my actual SNES. I also have a similar problem with Mechwarrior 3050, which absolutely refused to work on the Retron 5, but I had no issues at all on the actual SNES. 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game (NES) - Can I say Wow, and Wow. I've heard people talk positively about this game before but, I'm really impressed. It's about a 1000 times better then the first game. Still equally tough though, but far more fun. Great intuitive gameplay, lots of show references, just love it. 

Space Hulk (Saturn) - As I said the Saturn is a system I came to like very fast. Space Hulk is a title that was on the Saturn, PS1, and 3DO, as well as PC, and is based in the Warhammer 40000 franchise. The game follows a quasi-religious order of space marines known as the Blood Angels as they attempt to eradicate malicious aliens from an out of control Space Hulk on a collision course with a heavily populated planet. Cool concept, right?

As far as game play think of it as Doom except with AI teammates, and your C.O. continually yelling at you "Go here", "Go there", "Open this".... Ok, it's a little annoying. Besides that though what can so say, it's not too bad of a game, but it's not Doom, or Halo. It does look pretty good on the Saturn though, and I'm pretty happy I went with this version instead of that of the PS1's. 

Until Next Time

Well that's 5 games, and 3 of them where NES titles so I'm keeping pretty true to the 8-bit Friday concept. Next time around maybe I can cover this Friday's  purchases, and perhaps have another system hooked up like my new Sega CD. Until then enjoy the rest of your weekend. and I'm off to play a few more games.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Level 257 - A Retro Gaming Field Trip

On a hot late July day last year my family and I drove down to Schaumburg, Illinois to visit one very specific place, Level 257. I had come across the barcade in late 2014 before it even opened, and had followed its progress on social media up to its opening. So when it came time to plan activities for my sons birthday last year, he had no hesitations on picking the barcade as the place he wanted to go the most.

A row of classic machines, next to one of the two bowling alleys located at Level 257

The trip went well overall, and we as a family were impressed. The food was good, the adult beverages even better, and the ambiance was that of pure fun. As an adult I flash backed to my 6th birthday party at Showtime Pizza in Arlington Heights, and that feeling of "to hell with food lets just get to the games", but of course you have to set a good example and prioritize your visit, that means lunch first kids. Of course being midday on a weekday during the summer, the restaurant and arcade was pretty much empty and the bowling alleys where going unused. This gave us free run of the place, and allowed us to explore.

My wife an I got the feeling that as adults, it would be a cool place to hang out with friends, and have drinks while leaving the kids at home. Lots of cool lounge areas, plenty of social gaming opportunities including bowling and cocktail table arcade machines, and of course a great wine, beer, and mixed drink list. Of course it's no surprise that although kid friendly, the restaurant has held some adult oriented parties for New Years Eve, and Mardi Gras.

Now, if you don't know about Level 257 let me tell you about it. First of all Level 257 is a Pac-Man themed barcade located in Schaumburg's famous Woodfield Mall. Whats even more interesting about the place is that it's owned by Namco itself. According to some of the wait staff there at this point it is the only Namco restaurant of its kind, and is 100% owned and operated by Namco, meaning this isn't a licensing deal or anything. Although Namco does operate similar restaurants around the world they go under the Funscape name, and not Level 257.  As far as the name Level 257 that too is Pac-Man oriented. In Pac-man the highest level you can achieve is that of level 255, but beyond that there is a level 256 which is nearly unplayable due to bugs, although some have tried. The moniker Level 257, obviously derives from that being a level beyond 256.

The restaurant features a "Level 256" arcade cabinet, which allows players to immediately experience Pac-Mans level 256 but this time without the bugs. 

My family and I returned to the restaurant for my eldest sons spring break, in between visiting Legoland, and going to the mall. Unlike the first time though the restaurant was very crowded and service a bit slow. On top of that some games like the Star Wars: Battle Pod arcade machine, were overrun with kids who weren't exactly up on sharing and proper arcade etiquette. The visit was still pretty fun though, but I did miss our more quiet visit in July.

If you haven't come to check out Level 257, make sure you do if your in the Chicago area. But, let me also give you some info you may want to know before you visit.

-Level 257 is in the mall, but not IN THE MALL.

You can't access the restaurant from inside the mall itself. It actually has its own entrance near the Sears women's apparel entrance. The separate entrance may seem inconvenient, but it actually keeps a lot of the mall crowds and mall noise out so you don't get that Rainforest Cafe feel. The restaurants entrance shares the same awning as that of Sears, so you do have some cover moving between the store/mall and Level 257 during bad weather. 

-Not mall food

Level 257's food is of a higher quality then what you will find in the mall. But of course fine dining is always a bit pricier. You will get some great food, and good proportions, but be prepared to pay more. Also, as is the case in most restaurants, the mixed drinks are definitely going to raise your bill. 

-Gaming by the minute

No need to bring singles or roles of quarters the games are played with rechargeable cards. There are kiosks located throughout the gaming area that allow you to purchase cards and add time to them via debit/credit card or cash. I do wish there was a flat sum free play option though, or at least bonus time for dining there. But the time option does work well with kids since it allows you to limit time spent gaming, especially if you want to get back to the mall, or have to get back to O'Hare to catch a flight.

Overall, I think you will find it a pleasant experience, and you will be happy you visited. 

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Retro Gaming Price Bubble is Nothing New: Comparing Electric Trains and Video Games

Classic Lionel Santa Fe F3 with the NES and SNES

When it comes to the classic video game market we're currently experiencing, I suddenly find myself having déjà vu. I guess this is because I'm in the very unique position of both currently being and having been into two nostalgia based collectors markets that are experiencing the exact same conditions, but nearly 30 years apart. 

My personal back story, and one that I have shared before, is that I am a long time collector of O gauge electric trains. If your unfamiliar with electric trains, O gauge is basically what Lionel makes, if that helps clarify it for you. If not and that name doesn't mean anything to you, than let me just tell you that as electric trains go these tend to be mid-sized electric trains, with large sized price tags. I started with my first set when I was about three years old, and have collected ever since, although much less in recent years. In the early 80's electric trains especially Lionel's where easy to come by and still inexpensive, people sold them at garage sales, in classified ads, and even resale shops. But, by the late 80's things changed and suddenly something that may seem very familiar to all of you in the retro video game community, happened. Train sets that you could buy for $25 a set at garage sales, now went for $200 and where only sold in hobby shops, or perhaps at train shows for a little cheaper. People who never owned an electric train in their life, where suddenly snapping them up as "investments" and prices began to get out of control as supply (in a real or perceived sense) dwindled. Something that was formally a kids toy, suddenly became nearly as precious as gold, and kids like myself at the time, could barely afford to keep it as a hobby. Does this sound familiar to you yet?

Believe it or not the hobby of classic electric trains and classic video game collecting aren't really as different as you would think. Both hobbies are based on kids toys, both hobbies have "generations" in which the toys advanced both technically and in construction, both are about expansion (i.e. rolling stock for the trains, and games for the consoles), both start off with basic sets, and both are always worth more in original packaging. But, there is one other key thing that makes these two hobbies more alike then anything else, and that is a generation of people. You see 30 years ago the electric train market went nuts for one other reason, and that was that a lot of the "Baby-Boomers" had suddenly "arrived" in their lives. Being in their late 30's through early 40's a lot of them where mid-career, with children in their pre-teen or teenage years, they owned their own homes, and they had disposable income. They had reached an age where they wanted to recapture some of their childhoods, perhaps to "share with the kids", and many of them now had the ability to buy those electric trains they always wanted as kids. Once again does this sound familiar yet?

So here we are now, we late Gen-Xer's and early Millennials in our late 30's and early 40's looking at a video game market that is skyrocketing in prices, and being taken over by folks "investing" in retro-games. We keep asking why prices have shot up so much, and how a copy of Super-Metroid that was $20 loose a few years ago is selling for about $50. What we fail to realize though is that we, as a generation, have "arrived" ourselves. Suddenly we have the income and ability to own both an SNES, and Sega Genesis like we wanted to as kids, or to get those long lost Gameboy games that eluded us on our paperboy and lawn mowing salaries as 12 year olds. Suddenly the glut of games available at resale shops, and garage sales for next to nothing a few years ago have disappeared, and that $5 boxed copy of Goldeneye you spotted at a church rummage sale 4 years ago, is now selling for $50 on eBay.

Yes, it sucks that the prices are going up, and in a way you feel like your being priced out of a cool hobby and childhood memories. At the same time though there is a bit of a testament to the hobbies significance through this, like the fact that these games had meaning to many people, a meaning that is filled to the brim with great memories, and nostalgia. Or how about the fact that we, the enthusiasts, have made such a positive impression with our passion for the hobby, that we have inspired others to join in. I will agree that perhaps there are those looking to make a quick buck on all of this, all you really need to do is look at the Retro VGS fiasco, price gouging on eBay, or even the prices in some antique shops, and pawn shops to see all that, but for the most part though I believe the hobby is healthy and blooming.

So what does history teach us about the future of retro gaming?

Here is what happened in the world of electric trains. Like our own hobby, electric train producers still exist and come out with new stuff all the time. A finely detailed Lionel steam engine with a mind blowing array of electronics on-board can easily set you back about $2000 brand new, and something as simple as a boxcar about $90, also new. So yes, even at its worst retro-gaming is still cheaper, but I digress. The old stuff, which was in high demand in the late-80's, began to decline in price as the new stuff became more detailed and realistic. Prices of the old stuff never fell back to their early-80's prices, but they are more at equilibrium now, especially for old stuff in good shape. In a way this is where the electric train market and retro video game market diverge. The advances in technology and realism in electric trains was unexpected, while advances in video gaming technology is always expected. So the ability for a new generation to suddenly upstage the old in video gaming seems unlikely since we take the advancements for granted. Look at gen 7 systems like the XBox 360 or PS3 and the price of those respective systems games now, many including some true classics range from $5-$10 each on eBay. What I honestly believe we can expect is for the bubble to move progressively from one generation of consoles to the next, as people age into the appropriate mix of disposable income and nostalgia for that generation of console. Right now that is between 5th and 6th generation systems, with a great deal of lingering on the 4th generation of systems as well. In many ways when we compare electric trains and video games this reminds me of the way the generation known as Post-War (World War 2) electric trains, had its decade based sub-generations and the way in which 1950's and 60's trains grew into popularity with its aged in groups, while the 1940's classics seemed to stay evergreen. Once the bubble moved for trains, or for gaming will move, I believe like trains we should see a more study equilibrium for games prices in its wake, especially as a lot of speculators, and price gougers leave the market for these generations, and free up stock to be sold at more realistic pricing. 

A decade from now when we will most definitely call the PS2, and first XBox, retro I have no doubt that we will see the preceding generations in aftermath mode with prices higher then there where a decade ago but still lower than they are now. Until then, we just need to enjoy what we have collected cheaply, and just remember that the bubble will eventually pop.