RePlay FX 2017: Retro Gaming in Pittsburgh (Review)

For its third year running, the Burgh’s retro gaming convention, RePlay FX, has marshaled an impressive army of the coin-op monoliths of arcades past—there are so many of these sizable and venerated artifacts of video gaming, in fact, that this year I was reminded of the moai statues of Easter Island. And unlike other nerdy gatherings, RePlay FX has Easter Island’s je ne sais quoi of being that rare bird in the convention circuit, having its own truly unique ambiance, and offering a one of a kind experience. There are dozens upon dozens of comic cons and gaming cons that are very similar to each other, but there’s only one RePlay FX.

While RePlay FX bears some resemblance to the arcades of decades past, the emphasis here is less on the arcade experience—though you buy a ticket at the door, all the coin op games are set to free play—and more on the culture and aesthetic of these vintage games, as if some time-traveling liberator arrived in the eighties, set all the video games free, and gave them a ride in his Tardis to a place where people would appreciate them more than twenty-five cents at a time. Moreover, in addition to the rows of coin-op arcade games and pinball machines, there are consoles vintage and current, musical acts, seminars (i.e. panels), and tabletop gaming.

While the inaugural RePlay FX won me over right out of the gate, and each year since then has simply added to the awesome, my experience of it this year was much different, because on Friday, my wife and I were able to attend kid-free. So while on Thursday and Saturday we gamed in the family-friendly way that we had at prior RePlays, Friday was a chance to take in one and a half concerts and play the games we wanted to play.

Nothing speaks to the ongoing development of RePlay Fx more than the evolution of Thursday attendance. While in 2015, Thursday was like a ghost town, in 2017 there were a good number of attendees, so that I had to wait for a game once or twice. That there still wasn’t a ton of congestion means that Thursday is still a great day for crossing things off of your convention to-do list. Attendance increases every year, so that if you’re reading this in 2020 it may no longer be true, but if you’re looking at attending the 2018 RePlay, I would definitely plan on going down your game checklist, hitting any vendors, and demoing tabletop games on Thursday, when the competition is lighter.

Our Thursday was epic, marked by a ton of coin-op play, including Ms. Pac-Man, Burger Time, Gauntlet, Gauntlet Legacy, Asteroids, Crazy Taxi, The Simpsons, Donkey Kong, Joust, Joust: Survival of the Fittest, Donkey Kong Jr. Missile Command, Tron, Tempest, and probably a few others I’ve forgotten.

Thursday was the day I discovered I can no longer walk past Tempest without playing it, an unspoken law that remained in effect during the convention. Of all the games listed above, I played Tempest the highest number of times and Ms. Pac-Man for the longest duration. While I’m no Ms. Pac-Man pro, I can often get past Act III on one life, and I was on my A game during Replay FX 2018. The game in which I showed the most improvement, though, was Burger Time, which I have never taken seriously, and for which I found a new appreciation this year. Not unlike Ms. Pac-Man, in Burger Time you can fake out the fatal food’s programming; when I realized this, Burger Time became more strategic, and I played it as many times at RePlay FX as I have my entire life. Also, the soundtrack is really catchy.

Magical Truck Adventure gave us a cardio burn and that mid-day convention push we needed. If you’re not familiar with this Japanese arcade game, you can find pictures of Magical Truck Adventure through this link to last year’s RePlay FX review. Suffice to say that MTA is a really fun game, especially when your co-pilot’s moves are coordinated with yours, and its best feature is that you feel more energized after you play.

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After our arcade fix and a snack, we decided to demo a tabletop game. RePlay FX’s tabletop area is staffed by volunteers from the local gaming / co-work association, Looking for Group, so that if you want to learn a game, and/or want an extra player when they’re not demoing for someone else, LfG’s volunteers, identifiable by the leis they wear, are happy to help.

Tiny Epic games were already on my radar, not only because they’ve been spamming my e-mail, but because they’re really committed to the “tiny epic” concept, as illustrated by its many iterations: Tiny Epic Galaxies, Tiny Epic Kingdoms, Tiny Epic Defenders, Tiny Epic Quest, and Tiny Epic Western, the one that we learned.

The Tiny Epic premise is that of pocket games as potent as big box games, and Tiny Epic Western delivered by mashing-up a worker placement game with three card poker. While the insertion of poker enlivens the Wild West theme, it is also an unusually effective game mechanism, so that I was only reminded by its similarities to other worker placement games for a few minutes before I became fascinated by its own unique dynamics.

Judging by the volunteers that helped us this year and last, Looking for Group‘s demo staff are excellent facilitators that add to the value of RePlay FX. The tabletop gaming area was always bustling with gamers, which makes me excited for the future evolution of RePlay’s tabletop gaming. My concluding paragraphs mention ways that RePlay FX 2018 and beyond may expand in scale, and while I hope the RePlay FX formula stays the same, my fingers are also crossed for more tabletop gaming.

We also played a lot of video games on Friday, especially longer ones like Gauntlet that are hard to play with kids in tow. This was nice, but the real highlight of our kid-free Friday was Super Thrash Bros, an outstanding band that came all the way from South Jersey to the Burgh to drop some sweet sets, the coolest of which was their rendition of Donkey Kong Country. If Super Thrash Bros is coming to your local convention, you should definitely forego any other events to take in their act.

While we were only able to catch some of the Triforce Quartet, we were already fans, being familiar from last year’s RePlay FX and from their musical contributions on YouTube. As I’m a gaming nerd, a soundtrack nerd, and a classical music nerd, they hit a lot of my sweet spots. You may already know them from their 2014 interpretations of Super Smash Bros and The Legend of Zelda as these pop up occasionally in YouTube recommendations for those search terms. Triforce Quartet’s gift to the world is taking the already epic soundtracks of some of the best video games and letting that grandeur linger on classical strings. If Nintendo ever does that often-rumored The Legend of Zelda live action movie, it would be harder for them to do better than Triforce Quartet’s interpretation for a classical-styled soundtrack.

Saturday morning was a redux of Thursday, although my daughter and I first played Japanese arcade games, such as Pang Pang Paradise, in which you have to throw actual plastic balls–not unlike Chuck E Cheese ball pit balls in size, shape and lightness–at the touch screen a few feet in front of you; and, Future Tom Tom, which inserts your image into the game via a video camera, so that we could see what we would look like if we ever got into Furry fandom. The more that I play these awesome Japanese imports, the more that I wish someone would open an arcade in Pittsburgh with nothing but Japanese coin-op games. Each one of them seems to be its own separate experience, unlike the video games I played as a youth, which were all variations on shooting, racing, or levelling.

Since we’ve been working our way through Star Trek: The Original Series, it was nice to find the Star Trek simulator so that she could sit in the captain’s chair and kill Klingons. Eventually, we made our way over to Looking for Group’s LAN gaming area, so that she could play a variety of their PC games.  

Earlier in July, RePlay FX announced the welcome news that the convention had locked in three more years for the show at the David L Lawrence Convention Center. On Friday morning, I talked with RePlay FX’s Fred Cochran about some of the factors that went into this, as well as some potentially exciting news for fans of the convention. Cochran noted that they always had a five year plan, and this was fueled by their rapid growth—15,000 attended in 2016, with sales expected to outpace that in 2017—which has made them the third largest show at the DLC. Dates are already set not only for the 2018 RePlay FX, but also for 2019 and 2020, which will take them into their sixth year. While it has not yet been finalized, he added that it is almost certain that RePlay FX will add 50,000 square feet to 2018 by adding Hall C to the already-rented Hall A & B. Let it all be true—I hope nothing but the best for the future of this convention.

RePlay FX is not only an entertaining convention, full of amusements, but the curation of the experience is very strong as well, with a dynamic theme interpreted not only in the gaming contents of the hall, but the musical entertainment, the lighting, and a light-show on the ceiling in which you can see video game art as well as logo branding.  The only other Pittsburgh con with a passion, a theme, and a mission that’s at the level of RePlay FX is Tekko, and that RePlay has crafted such a strong presence in just three short years speaks not only to there being a demand for this convention, it also speaks to the future of this convention, as it appears to resonate not only with fans of vintage games everywhere, but also the local convention goer.  I look forward to the ongoing evolution of this gaming festival.

RePlay FX provided press passes for this event. Cross-posted to NerdSpan.com.

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