The Portland Retro Gaming Expo helps keep the classics alive

“Sega had their own console?”

That was a devastating comment I heard as I sat playing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on a Sega Genesis Mini at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo (PRGE) this weekend. The Sonic games on Genesis were my favorites as a kid; one time, I played so much Sonic that I peed my pants. How could this person not know about Sega consoles?

Thankfully, the person’s friend was more charitable than I would have been. He used it as a teaching opportunity and showed him the game he was playing. (And I realized later that the person may have been asking about mini consoles.)

The whole event was filled with that wonderful spirit about sharing the joy of classic games and generally nerdy stuff. I saw four friends huddled around a classic X-Men arcade machine. Tons of younger kids were playing older games with the same wonder I had for them as a kid. Rows of vendors sold things like retro games and elaborate art (my favorite: Blue Bomber Pixel Art, which remade my favorite famous sprite characters out of pixel-like Perler beads). In a room next to one of the auditoriums, I sat and listened to somebody sing their heart out to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” backed by Rock Band musicians. 

One hilarious expo attraction was a giant NES-style controller advertised as the “world’s largest video game controller.” It’s genuinely huge, at 18.5 feet long, 8.5 feet wide, and three feet tall, and it nearly weighs a ton. At the show, it was hooked up to a TV so people could team up to play Super Mario Bros. Multiple people had to coordinate across the controller to attempt to beat the suddenly challenging level 1-1. The first goomba proved to be a fearsome monster. The first tall pipe was a nearly insurmountable obstacle. But somehow, clambering over the controller like a playground structure, kids and grown-ups could advance through the game.

There was a GoFundMe advertised at the show to help “save” the controller; its humongous size makes it difficult to transport.

Seriously, this controller was huge.

One area was littered with older game consoles hooked up to TVs. I beelined for a Donkey Konga station, where I drummed along (poorly) to Blink-182’s “All the Small Things.” As I was getting near the end of the song, a young kid who was definitely not alive when that song was written watched in awe, and I happily handed the controller to him so he could drum and clap to the song, too. (His mom really tried hard to coach him through it.) Then, I made my way to my Sega Genesis Mini station with Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which has a lot more bullshit than I remembered. (Tails is a liability during the special levels.)

My favorite part of the show was watching some early rounds of the Classic Tetris World Championship competition, where players competed in the NES version of Tetris. A particularly intense battle between two players, Sharky and Hydrant, went to the final game of a best-of-five match, and as Hydrant was overwhelmed by tetrominoes, the crowd roared, leaping to their feet and chanting Sharky’s name.

I was a regular attendee and (eventually a volunteer) at PAX West for years, so I thought PRGE would be that but smaller. I was wrong; where PAX always felt to me like a celebration of video games to come, PRGE felt like a show honoring what’s great about what we already have. Yes, I should have expected that; it’s a retro gaming show, after all. But in a year absolutely stacked with humongous games — and some that have missed the mark — it was nice to be surrounded by excitement and joy for what you can already play right now, even if some of the games are decades old.

These sorts of events are important. Video game preservation is a multipronged initiative, and when almost 90 percent of classic games are “critically endangered” and major hardware makers are seemingly inching away from ways to play physical media, gathering groups of people at PRGE to share and celebrate their love of older titles is a valuable way to keep their history alive.

I’m planning to go back next year.

Photography by Jay Peters / The Verge


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