“Does anybody know if this elevator goes down to the Dungeon?”
It’s the first day of this year’s Music and Gaming Festival, aka MAGFest 2014, and most of us have no idea if the convention decided to get medieval with the names of the rooms or if there’s a secret chamber somewhere in the basement of the hotel. Thankfully it’s the former.
As we learned, the elevator does not go directly down to the Dungeon. Con-goers first have to take a small hike through the Gaylord Convention Center, past the restaurants, gift shops, and roaming packs of families and MAGfest attendees. Then, they must go down two flights of stairs to enter the Dungeon—the name the convention lovingly gave to the 24-hour game room at this year’s Legend of Zelda-themed event.
This large space is one of the biggest draws of MAGFest; it’s the largest single room at the festival, and it’s where most people gather. The place is set up like a videogame museum, covering the gamut of gaming options with rows of ancient arcade cabinets, consoles set-ups, and seemingly never-ending tournaments of games from all generations. Many people come to the convention just for access to this room, which is included with the badge fee, and allows con-goers to play games not common in America.
On one side of the room, there is a long column of bulky cabinets that create some of the loudest noises at the whole convention. Some aren’t in the best condition, with peeling paint and parts held together with duct tape. Each of these has seen a brief moment in the spotlight, but most of those days are gone, eclipsed by more well-known cousins such as DDR. These are Bemani games, and while most only saw recognition in Japan, each has at least a small group of spectators. Some have lines hours long, like a more obscure version of Disneyland.
Throughout the whole four-day event, many of the people I see in this area become regulars, camping out in front of games like Beatmania IIDX just for a round of mashing buttons. The hardcore players have set-ups of this game at home, with controllers hooked up to computers running hacked versions just to keep up with their friends. MAGFest is one of the few places where these games can be played in the flesh. They might not always work (the Beatmania machine’s audio would sometimes short out and one of the Bemani attendants had to restart it), but there were four days to play. For some, that’s still not enough time.
A hotel room on the fourth floor of the Gaylord Convention Center is cramped with people who stumbled in between five and 7:30 in the morning. They’re hoping to catch a few hours of sleep to wipe away the hangovers and the sweat before heading out to do it all again. Most don’t succeed; the Dungeon sometimes filled with gamers half-asleep, shambling from one game to the next. Each subsequent hotel room I travel to is stuffed with people, many drunk or on their way to getting drunk. Instead of energy drinks, they’re stocking up on beer to go downstairs for more gaming.
The people that don’t want to wait on the lines for the more popular games crowd around the other cabinets, trying out old favorites like Time Crisis II, Street Fighter and Duck Hunt. More mysterious titles like Primal Rage—which is a terrible fighting game about dinosaurs—draw a crowd that usually leaves disappointed and confused. Pinball machines just around the corner from these older additions are almost always occupied, but rounds are short and people are more than willing to get out of the way for another player.
When I went to try out Pop’N Music—another rhythm game from Bemani that features brightly-colored buttons, loud music, and more coordination than most people would deem necessary—the lines were short but filled with loyal fans aiming to pass new songs and beat their old scores from last year’s convention. A girl on the line behind me mentioned that she felt nervous trying to play as a beginner, like she didn’t have the right to a round. However, players would check behind them after each attempt to see if somebody was waiting for a turn; there was always an opportunity for a beginner to try out something new.
MAGFest is filled with nostalgic activities. There are board games like Scrabble and Sorry in the Tabletop area. An Atari game pack sits ready to play on an ancient Mac computer. Classic game tournaments run almost 24 hours a day. In the dealer’s area, several booths sell old Super NES consoles or used PlayStation games. Multiple panels focus on classic games.
Our culture focuses on flashy, shiny, new games, but it’s hard to find public places that still allow you to freely play the oldies. Many of the people lining up in the Bemani area don’t have any other way to access to the cabinets that they get to play during this weekend. As I walk with my friend along the wall, he runs into one person every five steps that gives him a hug or a playful nuggie. They bond over Beatmania, then move on to the next person. It’s just another line to wait on, but these are the kind of lines that people at MAGFest live for, the reason people attend, traveling hundreds of miles to spend 24 hours a day in a place called “The Dungeon.”
Carli Velocci is a freelance journalist in Boston, Massachusetts. She has written for DigBoston and Gameranx and isn’t afraid of anything. You can find her on Twitter @revierypone.