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.

Review: Looking for Group, Pittsburgh’s Game Center and Coworking Space

In our Replay FX adventure, we spent about four hours learning new board games in an expanded tabletop gaming area.  Our game play facilitators, that either ran or got us connected to games of Pandemic Legacy, Hanabi, and One Night Ultimate Werewolf, turned out to be representatives of a new business in Pittsburgh, Looking for Group, and when we were near the top of our gaming high, they gave us red tokens stamped with their name and address, as well as an offer of one hour of free game play.

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A quick note on this is warranted.  Looking for Group’s marketing model is as cutting edge as their game center would turn out to be, as while you can’t really call it “undercover marketing” due to their eventual disclosing of their identities, they definitely disclosed it AFTER we were hooked on our first game.  What do you call “undercover marketing” after it has evolved into a more friendly model that plugs its association once it has gained your trust and sold you on the possibility of a customer relationship?  I found it to be not only clever but an intriguingly fleet-footed way of transmitting their whole business concept to their prospects.  However, it was undoubtedly aided by the friendly and knowledgeable Looking for Group representatives that were in attendance at RePlay FX.

I was sure to put the tokens on the mantle when we returned from RePlay FX, though it was a good three weeks later when we decided we would go across town to Brookline to see the facilities.  Looking for Group is located on Brookline Boulevard, a historic Pittsburgh shopping and restaurant district, within walking distance of other colorful businesses, like Rather Ripped Records, Geekadrome, and more.

But even the eclectic neighborhood couldn’t prepare us for what waited inside the doors.

Looking for Group is truly gamers’ Eden, with the two Trees, the Tree of Tabletop Gaming and the Tree of Video Gaming, fully flowered.  Video gamers can play video games both in the large format, in widescreen from a nine foot couch, or in the more personal format of video rockers a few feet from the game.  While one of my kids played Mario Kart Wii and the other got to try No Man’s Sky at last, the wife and I learned Tokaido from one of the owners.


Tokaido Board Game

Tokaido is an outstanding game, by the way, that will probably be our next tabletop game purchase, and you will probably eventually see it reviewed on Board of Life.  It is incredibly fun, with lots of strategy and a very tiny learning curve, so that you could play this great game easily with anyone you know.  It is also an extremely fast game, as it only took us about an hour to finish.  And after we completed our game, my oldest told me that she had great fun playing No Man’s Sky, in which she repaired a spaceship that she flew into outer space.  My youngest, on the other hand, did not want to leave, though we have Mario Kart Wii at home.

Earlier in Board of Life, I have blogged about the emergence of board game cafes, and while Looking for Group has some affinity with that concept, there is a much different vision here.  Looking for Group is described not only as a gaming center, but also as a “coworking space,” which started as kind of a game developers’ studio co-op, but has changed as people from different walks of life have joined the coworking space, not just game developers but also, for instance an educator and a systems administrator.  On their website, they say that their they have not only multiple server tools for game developers, but also things that would appeal to a more diverse group, such as fast internet, LAN access, a conference room, a kitchenette, and keyless entry via smartphone.

Membership at Looking for Group is pricey, ranging from a $25/month basic membership that allows site access for one day a month to the $225/month unlimited membership that allows access at any time.  There are also hourly rates–$4/hour or $10 for 3 hours–and a $20 day rate, for people to come in during gaming hours (2 to 10 PM), and every Wednesday from 7 to 10 PM there is a three hour Board Game Night that costs $5 per participant.

And this leads me to my only criticism of Looking for Group, that while the cost of the facility is probably reasonable for young millennials, it is prohibitive to families.  It would be $16 an hour for us to enjoy Looking for Group, or $40 for 3 hours.  Board Game Night would be more reasonable for us, at $20 for the three hour block, but there are numerous free board game Meetup Groups in the Pittsburgh area, including one that already meets on Wednesdays at a Crazy Mocha in Squirrel Hill, and that one has equally knowledgeable tabletop gaming fans as members.  And if I was a young millennial, I would have a hard time paying as much for one day at Looking for Group that I have paid for a whole month of gym membership.

Not that Looking for Group is aiming at the business model of a free library or meetup group, or even an economical gym membership; they’re selling the joy of networking, of unifying their coworking elite on the one hand, and of creating a tribe of gamers on the other hand.  Looking for Group is aiming at the church business model, and their high rates are not unlike tithing, fraternity dues, or the fees for auditing in Scientology.  They’re looking for members that will feel a belongingness to the space, not treat it with the rudeness that customers treat libraries, gyms, and movie theaters.

And, much as I am fascinated by world religious literature, I am fascinated by Looking for Group’s vision as well.  And, I have an undeniable affinity with their game center, so when I rue their exorbitant prices, it’s with the bitterness of Aesop’s Fox.  Not to mention the fact of their friendliness, professionalism, and welcoming nature, which makes me feel that my criticism is ridiculous, tantamount to Groucho Marx’s “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

If you’re in the Pittsburgh area, and you like board games or video games, you will undoubtedly feel right at home at Looking for Group.  I can attest to the fact that my entire family felt right at home and enjoyed every minute there.  However, the pricing is not as welcoming to families as the space is itself, so bear that in mind.  The pricing is geared towards young singles and couples that leave their kids at home.  And the most important caveat of all is that this space will make an impact on you, so that you’ll feel its draw moments after you leave.

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RePlay FX 2016: A Review of Pittsburgh’s Gaming Convention

The second year of Pittsburgh’s gaming convention, RePlay FX 2016, was much like the first, in that the convention had all the values that made it such an entertaining venue before, with enhancements stemming from what, at first glance, seemed to simply be their first year strengths arrayed better so that all that RePlay FX has to offer could be sampled by its attendees. However, upon contemplation of the significant changes in this event, I can only conclude that RePlay FX appears to be becoming a hybrid gaming event.

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Attendance seemed higher at RePlay FX 2016.
Attendance seemed higher at RePlay FX 2016.

In the first year, while there were console games, tabletop games, and musical acts, they were fringe activities taking place in the margins. While the console games were in the main hall, they were crowded together towards one wall; the musical acts were outside the main doors, and few attendees seemed to be stopping on their way to the main draw inside the convention hall; and, the tabletop games were down a hallway and in a dedicated nook that was peopled only by one Replay FX staff member when we went to it.

This year, by way of comparison, the live music stage was inside the main convention hall and, as it had multicolored stage lights, did attract audiences from the attendees that were both exhausted from standing up to play games and predispositioned to like brightly colored lights from their fandom for vintage coin op video games. Additionally, the musical acts were playing gaming soundtrack favorites. For instance, when we visited the live music area, we listened to a few Legend of Zelda interpretations by the Triforce Quartet. They were such a cool act that I might have preferred to sit down for a while and let my bones soak up the vibes, but as I still had not found Tempest anywhere in the hall, and the echo of Tempest screens charging toward my cursor was at the forefront of my memory, I moved on.

The console games section was expanded into rows, and the supply of numerous home gaming platforms, represented from the 1980s to the present, seemed easier to enjoy; and, lastly, the board game tables supplanted the laid-back space outside the main hall which was the venue for live music in 2015.

Open tabletop gaming at RePlay FX.

I love to play vintage coin op games, and we did nothing but hop between stand up arcade games on Friday, but Saturday we decided that we would make extensive use of the board game room. The board game room, as it was prominently situated right outside the main gate to the convention hall, had a lot more traffic this year, and on Saturday, most of the game tables were filled at any given time, so that there was a little waiting for games, but that did not stop us from enjoying four hours of tabletop gaming, including learning how to play Hanabi, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, and Pandemic Legacy. A chance to have a handful of board games taught to us is a great thing. Not only can we sample these pricey products before laying out the funds, it also diminishes the time between buying a game and playing it on a game night with friends, as we already understand the game, and do not need to absorb the rules. Aside from that, as I haven’t gone to a tabletop convention since the early 90s, for me it was also a taste of GenCon. And apparently the dozens of other attendees that were in the open tabletop gaming area agreed with me. This is why I remarked in my opening paragraph that RePlay FX seemed to be evolving into a hybrid gaming convention, just as gamers worldwide are evolving to prefer a hybrid gaming environment embracing both video games and tabletop games in venues such as “gaming cafes.”

As we are already big Pandemic fans, and have been wondering if we should drop the $75 (and growing, due to being currently hard to find) that is required to acquire season 1 of Pandemic Legacy, we found that this was a great opportunity to test drive the game. Also, while the grown-ups have played Pandemic many times on game nights, my daughter has not had this chance, and she has been wanting to play any version of Pandemic since watching that episode of Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop.

What was especially innovative is that the person who taught us how to play Pandemic Legacy had opened a brand new copy of the game before the convention, and had been playing it off and on through the convention, so that we were inheriting characters that other people had played. Some of the characters had experience, and we were entering the game year at the end of February. The yellow disease markers were incurable and untreatable, which meant that one of us was on quarantine duty for most of the game.

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The end game of our episode of Pandemic Legacy.

We also learned One Night Ultimate Werewolf in the best possible way. The gamers that taught us played the One Night app through this steampunk speaker that looked like it was borrowed from Agatha Heterodyne‘s closet.

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As to the video game room, there were still row upon row of arcade classics, not only the holy gaming relics worthy of veneration, such as Ms. Pac Man, Tempest, Crazy Taxi, Asteroids, The Simpsons (in two years of attending this convention, I have never found The Simpsons video game to be unoccupied), and Rampage, but also the more ephemeral oddballs such as Robotron 2084 (forgot about that one, didn’t you?).

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There were hundreds of pinball games, including probably a few that were as old as the oldest attendee, as well as newer models such as this Game of Thrones pinball game—which dates at least to before the Red Wedding, as it depicts Robb Stark.

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One thing that I greatly appreciated, as it was an inestimable contribution to the enjoyment of my five year old, was the presence of small folding step-ladders on the show floor. With the extra ten inches of height, a whole world of video game enjoyment opened up to my son, and we discovered that he loved pinball as much as he loves racing games. Last year, my son could only play with the console games and a handful of coin op games in the hall, and this year there was no game that he could not enjoy. My recommendation to parents, though, for future installments of this convention, is to buy one before this show, as there were at least twice as many attendees this year as last, and with that kind of growth rate, you won’t be able to count on the availability of amenities.

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I mentioned in my review of Tekko 2016 that there seemed to be a conversation between Tekko and RePlay FX, as well as the other pop culture events in this area, as Tekko had expanded their coin op video game selection into a miniature Japanese themed RePlay FX. The influence of Tekko could be more directly observed at RePlay FX 2016; not only was there a Tekko booth next to the RePlay FX registration stand, at least two of the Japanese games I saw at Tekko were on the RePlay FX game floor. There was also a marvelous Japanese import that I had not seen yet at either con, Magical Truck Adventure, which we had a wonderful and vigorous time playing. Magical Truck Adventure—truck as in hand truck, the two-manned cars that use muscle power to ply train tracks—requires its two players to frantically pump the hand truck’s lever alternately to flee threats and to pursue enemies. We found it to be one of the more refreshing examples of the Japanese arcade imports that combine physical fitness with playing video games, not unlike the dancing games in this regard.

Magical Truck Adventure.
Magical Truck Adventure.

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The vendors had more competition this year, but there also seemed to be more customers in total. In addition to Comic Wreck, who we mentioned in our last year’s review, there were many new faces, including not just more vendors hawking video game accessories and apparel, but also another comic book merchant, Pittsburgh’s own New Dimension Comics, as well as an animator, Philo Barnhart, known for his work on not just the famous video games Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace, but also many Disney cartoons such as The Little Mermaid, and Don Bluth productions, such as The Secret of Nimh. Philo Barnhart’s sketch prices started at $40, and he had dozens of prints available for the more budget conscious, but as he always seemed to be sketching when I walked by, RePlay FX fans seemed to be glad to have their own personal piece of video game or animation history hanging on their wall.

There were numerous highlights this year at RePlay FX 2016, but the defining moments for our family were probably the four hours we played board games, discovering my son was a pinball enthusiast, and getting our pulses racing playing Magical Truck Adventure. In its first outing, RePlay FX defined itself as a new, distinctive, Pittsburgh pop culture convention, and this year, RePlay has already leveled up to be an even more engaging event.

(RePlay FX provided press passes for this event.  Cross-posted on NerdSpan.com.)


Hanabi Deluxe Card Game

Pandemic Legacy Red Board Game

Pandemic Legacy Blue Board Game

One Night Ultimate Werewolf