Classic Games And CGE at E3 2004 (R.I.P. Keith Robinson)

Note: This is a lost story from before 8bitrocket.com existed.   It was published June 1st, 2004 on Andrew Bub’s Gamerdad.com as E3 Embraces The Classics.   This was the first time I met Keith Robinson, one of the original Blue Sky Rangers from Mattel Electronics, and the owner of Intellivsion Productiond.   By Steve Fulton

E3 2003 was a huge disappointment for me.  It was my first time attending, and my hope was to see all the cool new games, but at the same time, view some of the vast array of classic compilations that were starting to pop-up with amazing frequency.  As well, the newly formed Atari (Infogrames) would be there, showcasing why they had changed their name to that of world’s first great video game pioneers.  It looked like a bonanza for a classic gaming fan like myself.  However, it was not to be.  Besides a few trading-card based classic games for the  GBA, there were almost no golden-age games at the show.  Atari’s booth (as this year) was closed to the public, and I could not find a way to worm my way in.  E3 it seemed was simply a show-case of tired, me-too 3D games with little room for innovation or reverence for the truly amazing game of the past. It was waste of my time, and a missed opportunity. I wasn’t even sure I would ever attend the show again.

A year down the road with renewed interest and somewhat cloudy memory, I decided to attend E3 2004, this time with my expectations in check.    I need not have worried, as this year, E3 was a delightfully different story altogether. As the gaming industry attempts to grow in sales in revenue, all of a sudden classic games and gamers are targeted market segment.   The influence of classic games could be seen in many places where they were not previously.     For example Midway was showing “Lost Treasures Of Midway II”.    In 2003 the original “Lost Treasures Of Midway” was nowhere to be found on the show floor, but this year’s collection was prominently displayed just to right as you entered Midway’s booth..   A spirited game of  the bodily carnage pioneer “NARC” proved that this year’s collection would be even better than the last.  Digital Eclipse is the developer again, and their track record of classic collections speaks for itself      More classic game were on display in other prominent booths.  The most notable was in Nintendo, who this year they showcased the Mega Man Anniversary Collection for The Game Cube: 10 classic Mega Man games in one package.   Most of these classic games were found in and around Sony and Nintendo heavy South Hall (the impregnable Atari booth was here as well), and the feeling I got was that this was just the first date in an ever-evolving 3-way relationship between the newer consoles, E3 and classic gaming compilations.

Classic collections, while still a great find, were not the only sign that E3 had finally embraced the “classic” gamer.  The biggest sign of E3 welcoming classic games was the inclusion of the CGE, Classic Gaming Expo.    The Classic Gaming Expo has been an annual event for the past 6 years in Las Vegas.  It started as a classic Atari only show, but these days welcomes all golden-age systems, developers writers, and fans to attend and enjoy a weekend of Classic Gaming  in Las Vegas (This year’s show has been moved to San Jose, see http://www.cgexpo.com for more details) .   The CGE had two fair sized booths in Kentia hall, the red-headed step-child area of E3.   One in the center of the hall held a museum of classic consoles and computers.   Everything from a reproduction of Ralph Baer’s original Brown-Box to a complete Atari 800 in-store computer display were they for you to see, touch and play with.   Most importantly, Leonard Herman, author of “Phoenix, The Rise And Fall And Rise Of Video Games” could be found here, chatting away with interested classic gaming fans, and holding a manuscript for a book Ralph Baer was writing about his experience in pre-Golden days of classic gaming.    I was most interested in the “Brown Box”, Ralph Baer’s invention that sowed the seeds for both the arcade and home video game industries.  The “Brown box” is an analog device, in that it used standard electronic components to create digital circuits, with no microchips of processors to be found.    It was simply unfathomable for me to imagine that just 30 years prior, this modest little contraption had created the massive, ear splitting, near-reality games industry that was exploded all around it in the LA Convention Center.  If there was an epicenter to E3, it should have been right there, yet Kentia Hall was the quietest room at the entire convention.

The second CGE booth included a couple dozen full-sized arcade games, as well a Intellivision  and Atari 2600  “living rooms” for players to relax and play games like it was still 1981.   In this booth, which was sponsored by Intellivision Productions, was Keith Robinson, one of the original “Blue  Sky Rangers” from Mattel Electronics.   Keith, a brilliantly funny man, was on-hand to discuss his experiences with Mattel, the Intellivision, and his recent efforts to release classic Intellivision games.  Robinson was most interested in getting the rights to all the classic Intellivision games, of which only a few were still outstanding (one being He-Man from Mattel, and the others from Coleco).   Robinson also spoke of a manuscript he had recently finished about the adventures of himself and The Blue Sky rangers as they created their own niche in the history of video games.   Also in the booth was “The Fat Man” himself, George Alistar Sanger, the first really famous computer-game musician.  Early-on, Sanger worked for Mattel Electronics and created soundtracks for some Intellivision games.     The laid-back and friendly atmosphere of the CGE booth was a welcome relief from the intense posturing of the games and booths directly above in the West Hall.   While the mammoths and wannabes strove to create their own sense of purpose and importance for their creations out of a marketing vacuum, the denizens of the CGE booths needed only to crack smile, and, speak a bit about the past and focus on the present.   Their import and place in history was already etched for them.

The CGE booth had another surprise to offer that came totally unexpected.   Every 1/2 hour the hybrid techno band “8-Bit Weapon” played a short, but amazing set.  Utilizing classic machines like a Commodore 64 and Gameboy, 8-bit Weapon proved that “retro” could expand beyond gaming into new forms of entertainment drawing on the heart and soul of classic games.  The duo had a kind of nerdy, White Stripes dynamic with NaughtyBoy playing music on the classic systems, and StickChick on drums.  The combination of the classic C64 sounds mixed with the acoustic drums was cathartic and refreshing when compared to the interminable DJs and mix-masters that manned booths in other halls at E3.  It showed that a bit of class and understatement can work wonders as a relief from the sea of overwhelming cheese and crass in the West and South Halls of the Electronic Entertainment Expo.

A few aisles north or CGE exhibit I found the real classic gem of  E3 2004,  Skyworks Interactive.  Skyworks was created out of the ashes of Accolade by Garry Kitchen, Alan Miller and David Crane, 3 of the original designers from Activision.   Skyworks is a very successful company making wireless, CD-ROM, and web-based games that focus primarily on marketing consumer products.    All three of these original “Activisoneers” were on-hand to discuss their current projects, their classic games, and to generally soak-in the atmosphere of Kentia Hall.  Seeing those three war horses of the industry, still working hard with a viable business was the absolute highlight of E3.   I talked to Garry Kitchen about “Keystone Kapers” and his time writing “Donkey Kong” for the 2600,  to Alan Miller about the brilliant “Star Master”, and finally to David Crane about everything else. Not wanting wear-out-my-welcome with these guys, we left them after about 20 minutes, to venture back into the ear-splitting mayhem of the West Hall, directly upstairs.

The new games we saw all looked very good.  Brilliant 3D graphics, amazing 5.1 and 6.1 sound, huge development teams wearing identical t-shirts emblazoned with their mottos and plans for world domination.  We passed amazing booths that were decorated like movie theatres, haunted houses, army headquarters, and everything in between.   We made to the Activision booth, trying to get past it towards a display for the new game “The Movies”, but got trapped behind a throng of sweaty, deodorant poor, males surrounding the DJ booth of yet another E3 techno avatar.   He was joined by two spandex-clad booth babes, swinging swords, and looking fiercely disinterested in the proceddings.. One “lucky” conventioneer wrapped his meaty-paws around their shoulders, begging his pal to take his picture with his new “conquests”.   The music pulsed out of the ample speakers, with the glowing, modern Activision sign high above , inviting the geek-chic crowd into the giant booth to see it’s batch of “new” wares, based on everything that has already been played, hopefully a few new ideas.   As I tried to squeeze by, my mind wandered back to the four guys in the sparsely attended Skyworks Interactive booth, to Keith Robinson, and to Ralph Baer’s modest little Brown Box.  I wondered to myself:, was anyone in this hulking, smelly mass of human gamers in front of me aware that none of this would be possible without the history that lay directly under their feet in Kentia hall?  Did they care?  Should they?  If classic gaming expands to E3 2005 at the same rate it expanded this year, they may be forced to find out, whether they like it or not.

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