Every once in a while I like to break up the routine and try something different. When I heard there was going to be a show dedicated to pinball and video games in Orlando, I didn’t know what to expect but I decided if it was reasonably priced and convenient I would give it a look. The first annual Gamewarp show scored on both counts so on Sunday, August 14, I managed to catch the final day of the three day convention at the Hilton Orlando.
I am old enough to remember the dark and primitive days of BAVG (Before Arcades and Video Games). Prior to video games, we deprived youngsters had to amuse ourselves with pinball machines and since we did not know any better we had a great time slinging the silver ball. There were no proper stand alone arcades in those days (at least not where I lived or anywhere close by) so we had to content ourselves with small stashes of pinball machines found in the back rooms of bowling alleys, skating rinks, and even some hotels. I can recall going to a few birthday parties at these locations for no other reason than to have an excuse to stretch my allowance into a couple of hours of pinball play.
In 1978, a new kid moved into the pinball rooms with the strange name of Space Invaders. The green monochrome alien blocks that fired missiles at the player’s shields as he valiantly attempted to defend the planet from hostile takeover weren’t exactly the first non-pinball game to appear on the scene but they were the first to gain widespread popularity. Prior to the Invaders, there had been shooting games and even some very crude video style games but this new technology made all that came before it look obsolete. It wasn’t long before competitors like Asteroids, Breakout, and Cosmic Guerilla were hot on its heels. Video games began to evolve by leaps and bounds and by the time Pac Man and Donkey Kong arrived on the scene there were enough variations to warrant their own free standing arcades in malls and shopping centers. These were glorious days and we hadn’t even discovered the home video joys of Pong yet!
When word first reached me a few months ago about Gamewarp, I wasn’t sure what to expect and the website wasn’t clear on the scope of the show. As a person who abandoned home video and computer games after the original Nintendo NES system and with only a passing interest in current arcade games, I was concerned this might not be my kind of event. They did promise vintage pinball and video games though so I decided to take a chance. I was passing through Orlando that weekend anyway, not even very far from the International Drive Hilton, and I have learned that sometimes a first show is also the last one so you grab the opportunity when you have it.
As I arrived at the Hilton around noon on Sunday, I was immediately reminded of why I hate most events in that area of town. There was no nearby surface parking and the garage at the hotel charged $13.00 a day for standard parking (I didn’t even dare imagine how much valet might set me back). After swallowing that unpleasant pill and entering the expansive hotel, the luck of con decreed that the show was on the complete opposite end of the complex from where I had come in at the lobby and I had a hike ahead of me. I finally completed the maze-like trek by dutifully following some vague signs and found the room at the back of the hotel where the con was. The $15.00 single day admission was a little easier to take when I found out it included a discount pass that reduced the price of parking to $6.00 so that was a nice bonus.
After declining an offer for a package deal on a convention T-shirt, I headed into the game room I had been listening to the sounds of while I was buying my ticket. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was almost all vintage games with just a small scattering of newer models. There was one wall dedicated to home video games but these seemed to end with one of the most popular of all time, the Atari 2600 from the late 70’s / early 80’s. There were a few vendors around the periphery of the room but they were mainly selling replacement parts and repair manuals for arcade machines. Surprisingly, no one was selling pinball back glass which has become a highly collectible form of art. One vendor had some extremely cool antique gambling games that he was only too happy to educate me on and let me play for free but at an average price of $600-$700 each they were a little steep for my collecting budget. I did pick up a few Atari 2600 cartridges and a controller from one vendor for only a few dollars but that was my sole purchase for the show.
Before I could get into some serious arcade action (the roughly one hundred or so games on display at the show were set on free play), fellow Fanboy Andy Lalino, my tipster for the event, arrived with his wife Sandy and young son AJ. We exchanged greetings and then began a proper perusal of the antique arcade attractions. Their appeared to be a fairly even split between pinball and video games and they covered the most popular years of their manufacture. There was a small version of Space Invaders, a cocktail Wizard of Wor (which I don’t remember playing but Andy swears was one of his favorite games back in the day), and a classic Breakout. I also saw one of the earliest video machines which predates Space Invaders by two years, Death Race. This game was worth having for the cabinet graphics alone but sadly it wasn’t working when Andy and I tried to play it.
I was always a classics man so I did manage to get in a little time on Donkey Kong and Pac Man. Then I settled in on one of my favorite video games of all time – Rolling Thunder. This was a great shoot ‘em up game from the 80’s that I spent many hours playing in college. It was the very first game with a story that I actually completed and it was great to get to relive a few minutes of that fun. I was a little disappointed not to see some of my other favorite games like Dig Dug or Jungle King but there was still plenty to keep me entertained without running the risk of carpel tunnel problems!
There weren’t too many lines at any of the games and the patrons at the show were all friendly and willing to share. While a few people crowded around some of the newer pinball games like the awesome Creature from the Black Lagoon model, I had a date with a less grandiose but still hellaciously fun little machine. Gorgar was the very first talking pinball machine when it was introduced in 1979 and I can tell you from first hand experience that it made an impression on me and my friends. The speaking voice sounded something like a digitized demonic version of the Hulk as it spouted such catch phrases as “Gorgar beat you” and “me hurt”. It also featured some great sound effects like a heart beat that increased in tempo as a player began to rack up points and presumably get the upper hand on the game. Combine all this with some awesome graphics of a giant demon peering down at a barbarian warrior and his woman and you get a machine that could still talk me out of quarters today and probably deplete my bank account if it had been for sale!
Some of the other games at the show actually were for sale according to notes posted on them that instructed potential buyers on who to contact. There had been a number of events, like game competitions, and seminars on collecting and repairing games throughout the weekend. The only thing happening on Sunday though was an auction of some of the games on display. While I wasn’t in any position to be hauling anything home with me that day, I couldn’t resist seeing what was on the block and what kind of prices they would go for. Of the twenty or so machines the auctioneer threw out for bids, less than half of them met their reserves which, based on the bids they did receive, seemed rather high in my estimations. I showed up just a few minutes late and missed the Wizard of Wor machine which seemed to be the one real bargain of the day at $125. It was just as well since Andy and I would have probably ending up arm wrestling for it in the parking lot and I would have never gotten it back to Jacksonville in one piece!
Gamewarp was a pleasant diversion that easily has the potential to develop into a full blown annual convention. If the promoters can keep the games rotated and expanded and the vendor selection can be increased, they may be able to build a reliable following with a show that is fun for the whole family. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to relive my misspent youth for a few hours with a bunch of fellow pinball and video enthusiasts and would seriously consider attending next year if it returns.