Gamers gather for retro glory in New Hampshire

Cathode-ray dreams
By BARRY THOMPSON  |  June 10, 2011


A person prone to dumbass assumptions might have confused this past weekend's 13th annual International Classic Video Game Tournament with a four-day-long exercise in retro-fetishism. What kind of fanatical Luddite of a gamer would leave their house — much less travel any considerable distance — to blast crude, pixelated aliens in Galaga, when more elegantly rendered extraterrestrials need annihilating in Halo 3? Why control a shitty-looking Mario in Donkey Kong when you can brutalize the filthy monkey as a far cuter incarnation in Super Smash Brothers? Why play Amidar when I have absolutely no idea what's going on in that game? These were questions I pondered before visiting the American Classic Arcade Museum — the site of much drama from the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters — on the third floor of the Funspot entertainment complex in Laconia, New Hampshire.

Though arcade games are still manufactured, they aren't as challenging to players. In the 1980s, back before the rise of home console systems, arcade-game mastery required analytical thinking, good timing, and patience.

Most importantly, back then, when you died, you had to start from the beginning. There was no flashing prompt asking if you wanted to "continue." This is probably why I was able to handily murder Mr. Burns and rescue Maggie in 1991's button-masher-friendly Simpsons game — thanks to a plastic cup of tokens — yet washed out in about 45 seconds at every certified "classic" pre-late-'80s game I attempted.

At the ACAM, dabblers are encouraged to try their hands at the classics, but this competition was not for kiddies (except for the few participating children who presumably wield precocious gaming abilities). There is never anything quaint about a quest for bragging rights.

"If nothing else, I made back the price of my plane ticket and lodging," Arizona-based software engineer Tom Votava said on Sunday, after the tournament's conclusion. Votava had squeaked by his competitor by the narrowest of margins to snag first place and the $750 prize in the main tournament.

Votava triumphed over approximately 150 registered competitors who trekked to Funspot from as far as Australia. Fifteen classic games, out of the about 300 at the museum, were selected more or less at random and moved to the front of the room the night before the tournament, so as to not give an advantage to anyone with expertise in a specific game. The scoring system is complicated and involves a lot of math, but essentially, the players are ranked on each game by how close they come to the recorded highest score. Then at the end of the competition, those rankings are added up; the gamer with the overall highest ranking wins.

On his road to victory, Votava racked up high scores in four games: R-Type, a side-scrolling spaceship shooter; Tiger Road, where you slap evil motherfuckers with your battle ax; Road Runner, possibly the first-ever worthwhile cartoon tie-in game; and Pulsar, which is kind of like Pac-Man with a tank.

"I didn't really gain a whole lot financially, but I don't come here for the money or even to win the thing. It's about having fun," said Votava, a six-year tournament vet. "I like to compete, but it's not always about that. It just happens to be the scene of the party, so to speak."

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