Arcades have been making a comeback lately, with the number of barcades and family-friendly joints dedicated to classic arcade games and pinball machines growing nationwide. If your part of the world doesn’t have an arcade that fits your classic gaming needs, though, you have to improvise. Take Atlanta, for instance: although there’s a great barcade in the heart of the city, there’s no family friendly place to introduce the games of the past to the kids of today. That’s why Paste Games contributor Preston Burt and a group of likeminded colleagues created the Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo, an annual convention that features over 200 classic arcade games and pinball machines, vintage consoles and a variety of special guests. Celebrating its second year, the Expo runs this weekend in Atlanta. Paste talked to Burt about the SFGE, the rise of interest in arcade gaming and the culture of home collectors. (And when you’re done reading, check out our gallery of great pinball backglass designs from last year’s SFGE.)
Paste: This is the second year of the Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo. What are your long-term goals for the show?
Preston Burt: The show was born out of a close-knit community of collectors who simply recognized there wasn’t a convention within close range of the Southeast and felt Atlanta was deserving of a family-friendly gaming con to call “home.” While we certainly want to continue to grow and to be bigger and better, we never want to lose that community feel. While Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo is currently mostly geared toward arcade, pinball and console gaming, we recognize there are some other communities out there, such as tabletop gaming and RPGs that could seamlessly expand our audience. At the same time, I’d love to see SFGE as a place gaming companies might choose to debut titles and show off the newest games like a mini-version of E3, but we’re not in any rush. What we have now is great!
Paste: How did the show come together?
PB: I founded Atlanta’s first pinball league to have a little competitive fun and hang out with other coin-op hobbyists. My friends Shannon DeWitt and Patrick Wall were my first recruits and through the Atlanta Pinball League we really connected with our friends Dana and Joel Reeves. Initially, the expo was born out of jealousy of other shows around the country like California Extreme and Pinball Expo in Chicago and the fact that our closest convention was an eight hour drive away. Not to mention, location games in Atlanta are practically extinct. We knew Atlanta had tons of great games for people to play, but they were just locked in collectors’ basements. Others had tried to plan a convention like this before, but we felt we each possessed certain skills and had the community support that we could pull it off.
Paste: How will this year’s show be different than last year’s?
PB: We put a lot of thought and effort into making sure SFGE is more than just a bunch of games in a room to play. Don’t get me wrong, we have over 200 games to play, but we take pride in the amount of family-friendly programming we have. Each day we have a variety of tournaments to enter, numerous seminars and panels, and even have our own live game show this year. Basically, we saw what worked and what people liked last year, so we’re doing more of it.
Paste: A lot’s been made about the pinball resurgence of late. Has that carried over into interest in arcade games? I know Killer Queen is a huge hit wherever it’s available, and people are excited about the Star Wars: Battle Pods. Are there other new arcade games like that being made? And will we see games like Killer Queen and the Battle Pod at SFGE?
PB: There’s definitely been a resurgence in arcade games, not to the extent of pinball, but it’s there. You can definitely see that with the increased popularity in arcade bars across the country like Atlanta’s Joystick Gamebar. Ultimately, I think the people have remembered how much fun the social element of these games can be. Playing on your home console is awesome, but the physicality of playing in public for competition or fun with your friends is the driving force.
Yes, new games are definitely being made, and there’s a lot of buzz around Star Wars: Battle Pod, but they’re just really expensive so they’re not in collector’s homes yet, which is where we get most of our games for the show. Thanks to Stars and Strikes, a local family entertainment chain here in Georgia, we’re lucky to have a giant Pac-Man Battle Royale this year. We’re using that one for our event called “Battle Billy Mitchell 2: The Revenge,” where three folks at a time can play against Billy and win some of his hot sauce and prizes from the new Pixels movie.
Paste: Last year the side room that had all the old consoles never seemed that crowded. Will the SFGE continue to highlight non-arcade games like that, and if so why is it important for the show to do so?
PB: Yes, we’re still going to have those type of games for folks to play. I mean, when was the last time you got to play a Magnavox Odyssey? Like I said earlier, I think the arcade and pinball games are more popular because, for most people, it isn’t something they can experience on a daily basis. Tons of people can pull out their old Nintendo and play Mario whenever they want, but most don’t have full-size arcades and pinballs at their disposal. As for their importance, they’re part of our history and there will always be an appreciation from those who grew up with them and a sense of novelty from those who didn’t.
Paste: Why do you think these old games still have such power over us? It’s not just nostalgia, is it?
PB: A lot of it, yes. However, I think the lure of competition is part of it. We want to be good at something, to beat the game and feel a sense of mastery. There’s a thrill there. I think if it was only about nostalgia, then people would only ever gravitate towards the games familiar to them from their childhood and not seek out anything new. Plus, there’s a beauty in their simplicity. Games these days have become so complicated and require such a time commitment, there’s something to be said for walking up to an old game you’ve never seen and immediately figuring out what to do.
Paste: How did you get into game room culture? What does it mean to you?
PB: I’ll never forget it. I was working at a movie theater in college in the late 90’s and one of the operators who serviced the games in our lobby came in to wheel out an old game and he asked me if I wanted to buy that one or some others he had in his arcade. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I could actually own one of those things. As a kid, they just seemed so out of reach and I assumed they cost thousands and thousands of dollars. I got my first game, a Varth: Operation Thunderstorm for $300 bucks delivered to my little college apartment. I was hooked.
Back then, it was all about recreating a childhood fantasy. However, as an adult, it allows me to find fulfillment in fixing things and restoring them to their former glory. Most importantly, as a parent, it gives me the opportunity to connect with my kids and show them something I loved when I was their age. They teach me about Minecraft, and I can show them a thing or two on Galaga.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. Follow him on Twitter.