Hello everyone! Welcome back to Brick & Mortar, and another thrilling look at where gamers go to purchase, play, and party! My apologies for the brief hiatus these past few weeks. I had some things going on in my personal life that needed to be taken care of, but I’m back and ready to blab!
If you’re at all engaged with the retro gaming scene in the Northeast, you’ve likely heard of MAGFest before. If you haven’t then BOY, do I have a treat for you. MAG stands for “Music and Gaming”, and “Fest” is an apt way to describe this gathering, as it certainly has a festival-like atmosphere to it. When people ask me to describe MAGFest, I generally tell them to “imagine a retro game convention, combined with a music festival, combined with a wacky college party, non-stop for 96 hours”. Since I first started attending MAGFest back in 2012, it has become a can’t-miss marquee event, a vital way to start off each new year (it’s generally hosted on the first full weekend in January), and a weekend I look forward to, more than any other, for the entire rest of the year.
But we’ll discuss the original MAGFest in greater detail when I get back from MAGFest 2017. (Psst, you all should go! Passes are still on sale!). We’re here today to discuss MAGFest’s fledgling little brother. A little back-story might be necessary here – When MAGFest 8 was hosted at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center back in 2010, attendance was around 2200. By the next year, the venue had capped out at 3000, and so the main event had to move to the much grander and much larger Gaylord National Harbor, which as of MAGFest 2016 has hit the attendance cap yet again, at 20,000!
In six years, the Fest has grown tenfold! However, over those initial, more intimate years, a tightly-knit community of MAG fans had formed, and they were slowly being drowned out as wave after wave of newcomers skyrocketed MAGFest towards becoming the premier game gathering in the Mid-Atlantic. The veterans pined for the old days, back at Mark Center…
And who could blame them? So, the MAGFest organization announced in 2014 that they would be premiering a throwback MAGFest, back in Alexandria, capped at 2000 people, with all the trappings of MAG “before it got big”. While the main MAGFest would continue on in it’s winter time-slot, MAGFest 8.5 would be in early September, providing a perfect way to send off the summer in celebration. I was sadly unable to attend this one (my Gamestop budget at the time wasn’t getting me out of Boston anytime soon), but luckily this “Mini-MAG” was successful enough to warrant a sequel!
With a change of name, the re-dubbed MAGClassic was hosted from September 11-13 at the Hilton Mark Center, and was an absolute blast. I made a few lasting friendships, drank a LOT of beer, danced like an idiot at the spontaneous Gazebo Dance Party until 3 AM… and most importantly, I introduced myself to a few folks from Retroware, a website I had been following for years. And it was all thanks to this debaucherous weekend that I’m now here, writing this article. So, it only seems fair that I bring some attention to this event that made me a games writer. Things have truly come full-circle!
As you could probably tell from the name of this article, and the banner above, MAGClassic changed its name yet again this year, to the more thematic MAGFest Laboratories. And as you can see below, the Fest organizers themed MAGLabs around a Portal aesthetic. I think this was sort of a joke-in-a-joke, thanks to the still-experimental nature of this Mini-MAG event, suggesting that nothing is set in stone, and that we may find ourselves with yet another name and another theme next year.
I was “summoned” back to Alexandria on September 9th for the “test”. After a ten-hour overnight Megabus ride (not that I’m complaining… I only spent $2 on them!), I was greeted with a pretty beautiful sight:
Hilton Mark Center is a very monolithic structure, piercing the sky and overlooking a neighborhood dominated by wide roads, parking garages and business parks. I must say, it did look beautiful reflecting the blue sky off of it. It was starting to cool off back in Boston, but in Alexandira, temperatures were in the 90s and would hold there all weekend. Upon arrival, I was given a cartoon-y map of the neighborhood.
See that 7-Eleven on the right? As the only liquor-selling store in walking distance, that 7-Eleven was absolutely swamped with MAG kids the entire weekend. That plaza on the left was also a frequented locale, for those looking to grab a bite to eat. For three days, this would be our neighborhood. And the halls mapped out below would be our home.
With the exception of the sprawling tabletop room, the entire festival took place on Level 1, the ground floor. As you cam down the escalator, panel rooms were located to your left, and literally everything else was to your right. Let’s begin our tour with the arcade:
It may look a bit empty, but I took these on Friday morning, barely an hour after the Fest had begun. Trust me, it got PACKED later. Also, I love the “0 days without an accident” sign. Nice touch! Also, while this Freeplay Arcade didn’t hold a candle to the warehouse-aized one at MAGFest “Prime” (or so most folks call the main MAGFest now), it had a little bit of everything, pared down in size to suit an audience 1/10 the sizeo f the main event. It had a row of fighting game staples…
… Time Crisis 2 and a series of pinball machines…
… a small collection of 80’s classics…
… and an entire back room dedicated to music rhythm games, such as this little bastard by Sega, called Flash beats.
I played the hell out of this over the course of the weekend. It’s a competitive 1-on-1 game with opponents on opposite sides, and a button at either end of each beam. Starting with the beam in the middle, then eventually ratcheting up to three and then five, a red dot moves towards one of the players. Hit the button for that beam, and the dot reverses course. Each time it’s sent back the other way, it picks up pace. If you tap the button in time with the beat of the song, the dot temporarily freezes and then rockets the opposite way at max speed. Fail to stop a dot before it reaches you, and the opponent gets a point. Take a look at this game in action!
Directly adjacent to the arcade was an intimately-sized Console Freeplay area. It had everything you would expect, and also a few oddities that stood out for me. First off was this NES setup, projected onto the wall (playing Dr. Mario), with these two beautifully-crafted wooden tables serving as the controllers!
There was a CRT shooting gallery set up near the entrance, which I thought was an excellent idea.
I see Duck Hunt, Hogan’s Alley, House of the Dead 2, Time Crisis (Hello GunCon my old friend)…
… and here’s a few gentlemen taking shots. I like the differences in firing stance you see here.
There were other curiosities, like a two-player setup for Typing of the Dead, which to the un-initiated is a conversion of Sega’s popular light gun franchise House of the Dead, where you use the Sega Dreamcast Keyboard Controller to literally type zombies to death. The cut-scenes are laughably absurd, with the tone-deaf voice acting shown up only by the fact that all the characters, instead of guns, have keyboards strapped to their chests.
Next, I took a peek into the LAN Freeplay Room. They had a Discord chat up on a projector so that folks in the room could easily coordinate LAN matches. I came down here early on Saturday because I was promised there would be some Age of Empires II action, but I left disappointed. Still, I’m sure that fun was had.
Now, let’s move on to the Merch area. And I must say, I was quite impressed! MAGFest Prime generally has about three or four vendors of retro game goodness, and there were easily that many at MAGLabs!
These lovable goofballs were at MAGClassic as well, so it was a pleasure to see familiar faces. And oh my gosh he has an Ultros hat. What what what. How am I only just now noticing this? Anyway, they had a pretty fantastic selection of goods. Their pricing was strange… I didn’t see any like, absolute steals (they obviously know what they’ve got), but I saw a few games I consider to be uncommon and in high demand, for unusually reasonable prices, such as Final Fantasy II US for $40. They also had a stack of old Players’ Guides, all in excellent condition, that were a joy to flip through. I must have visited these folks three of four times over the course of the weekend.
My favorite vendors by far were these folks though, at least when it came to their selection:
The girl up front, Jen, was actually one of the folks I met at MAGClassic last year, and she had been telling me all about Japan and what to expect. I was a mere two months away from my first journey to the Far East, so I was giddy with excitement over it. This time, she brought back goodies from your time there, and had an impressive selection for sale!
All three Pokemon Stadium games (our Pokemon Stadium 1 is actually their Pokemon Stadium 2, as their first Pokemon Stadium was just a pared-down version of the first game with only 40 Pokemon and less features), Doshin the Giant, Puyo Pop, and a slew of SNES RPGs like Bahamut Lagoon, Chrono Trigger, Star Ocean, Tales of Phantasia, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest… She even had The Legend of Zelda for the Famicom Disk System!
She even had this curiosity…It’s apparently one of the only games that took advantage of the Gamecube’s Broadband Adapter, and I love strange curio like this, so I’d love to check this out!
She also had something I had never seen in the wild before – the Japanese Famicom version of the NES-101. Unlike the original Famicom/NES models, these were nearly identical, outside of the shape of the cartridge slot and the branding. Still, it’s so cool to see both of these units in their original boxes, and in such excellent condition.
I’m going to guess that we never got this one in the states because of the strangeness of seeing Mario aim guns at things.
At another booth, there was an impressive suggestion of SNES reproduction carts. Unfortunately, the prices were just too steep for me to bite. But I’d love to someday play English translations of those Japanese-exclusive SNES RPGs, like Bahamut Lagoon and Romancing Saga.
Lastly, let’s pay a visit to our pal Cyrus Burris. he was manning the Retroware TV merch booth while I ran around taking pictures. Keep up the good work, buddy!
Also, can I just point out his awesome Onett shirt, and Zelda Gold Cart backpack? Kid’s on fleek. If you want that shirt too, check out Cool Shirtz. And if you’re jonesing for some Video Game Years DVDs, take a gander at the Retroware Store.
Now, it wouldn’t be MAGFest without the Music! Unlike MAGFest Prime, all shows were played on a single stage at MAGLabs, but that also meant that you always knew where to look for some jams. Bands and performers in attendance included: 8-bit Mullet, Bit Brigade, CHRONOWOLF, DJ Super Sonic, explosion sound, Flexstyle, Insane Ian, Inverse Phase, The Megas, NESkimos, Overclocked University, Search Snake, Stargate, Steel Samurai, The Yordles, You Bred Raptors?, and OverClocked ReMix!
Bit Brigade in particular is always a favorite of mine. I’ve seen these guys play over a dozen times, and it seriously never gets old. In essence, Bit Brigade is like a microcosm of MAGFest itself -a power-metal instrumental band that includes in its ranks a kick-ass speedrunner named Noah. Noah will speed-run an NES game while the rest of the band performs the soundtrack to the game in sync with his performance. If he dies, the music cuts off and the death music plays. If he defeats a boss five seconds in ,they cut immediately to the victory music. It’s an engaging experience, with your eyes darting between the band and the gameplay, and the set builds in intensity until Noah finally faces some sort of final boss, and the crowd just goes nuts. I saw these guys back at MAGFest 2012, and I’ve never missed a MAG set of theirs since. They even come up and play at PAX East now! If you would like to see Bit Brigade’s MAGLabs set in action, click here.
Of course, I wasn’t able to catch every set at MAGLabs, so if you would like to check out some of these performances for yourself, the MAGFest YouTube Channel built a playlist just for you!
The panels at MAGLabs had a far more DIY, impromptu, community-driven feel to them than those at MAGFest Prime. The marquee event of the show was the Nick Arcade imitator – MAGFest Versus!
There was a MAGFsus both Friday and Saturday nights. I attended the second one, and while Red Team absolutely wrecked, it was a blast to witness! From the trivia to the game board to the video challenges to the wacky host, to the stereotypical perky female co-host listing out the prizes, they absolutely nailed the hilarity, awkwardness, and deep nostalgia of Nick Arcade. Rumor has it that this format may be coming to MAGFest Prime, so stay tuned!
Other popular panels included Super Art Fight, The Mega Man Power Hour (head to 31:50 to see Cyrus hop in), and, of course, the Retroware Patented Video Game Jeopardy! That’s right, Cyrus, they filmed this one! For a playlist of other MAGLabs panels, click here.
Lastly, I would be absolutely remiss if I didn’t discuss the most crucial element of any MAGFest event – the people!
These lovable guys and gals put their hearts and souls into MAGFest, and it brings out the strangest, most delightful folks you will ever meet. It is the people that hands-down make any MAG event one you simply cannot miss.
Moral support for Cyrus.
2AM Gazebo hangouts. Illicit substances may or may not have been involved.
Rummy bears. Nobody would drink them (they were dissolving in the rum) but him.
Shyguy is having a rip-roaring time.
Why do I keep making bad decisions?
Bringing strangers together.
And… in a nutshell, that’s what a weekend at MAGLabs looks like! I couldn’t possibly give you folks a play-play-play of all the shenanigans that went down off-camera. You would just have to be there. And maybe you can be! If you live within a day’s drive of the Washington DC area, I strongly suggest that you all take a look at MAGFest. MAGPrime is coming up in January, and You wouldn’t want to miss it! Where MAGLabs was quaint, MAGPrime will be all of what you see here, multiplied tenfold in scale and absolute insanity. Passes are still on sale, so click here to claim yours!
Next time, in honor of Halloween, I’ll be taking you all on a trip to Salem, to experience the surprisingly rich alt-culture scene there. Until next time!