10 Good and Bad Things About the Houston Arcade Expo

Arcade games
Arcade games Photo by Jef Rouner
The annual Houston Arcade Expo this past weekend was just delightful. It’s a chance to celebrate the long history of gaming in a tactile, hands-on setting. I took the family there on Saturday and had a wonderful time. I’ll definitely be going back next year.

Let’s look at the things that rocked and the things that could be improved.

Good: Oddities

I was amazed at the amount of gaming that was crammed into the expo this year. I got to play a pinball table from 1961, take a selfie with a Game Boy Camera and finally play all the way through CarnEvil. There were ancient PCs you could run floppy discs on, your standard console set-ups and all the classics you could want. Innovative marriages of retro style and modern usability were available, too. My favorites were the networked pinball machine that allowed for competitive play and the analog Pong table powered by magnets but also enabled for Bluetooth so you could stream your music while playing it. The variety is exceptional.

Bad: Too Many Pac-MansPac-Men… Whatever

That said, it seemed like every other cabinet was a Pac-Man variation. A few here and there are fine, but the number seemed excessive.

click to enlarge Custom arcade face painting designs - PHOTO BY JEF ROUNER
Custom arcade face painting designs
Photo by Jef Rouner
Good: Stools for Shorties

I was going to bring my own collapsible step stool for my diminutive daughter. I was pleasantly surprised to that a great many were scattered around for use. That sort of random thoughtfulness is rare than you might think, and it was really appreciated.

Bad: Sensory Overload

It’s a video game expo, so the room is already full of beeps and boops and flashing lights. Yet, the expo seemed to be going for the miniature rave vibe. A lot of the sound design of yesteryear was lost over hair metal and ‘80s nostalgia pop. It made the experience more exhausting than it needed to be.

Good: Non-Licensed Property Pinball Tables

The pinball tables that get the most attention are the ones based off properties like Iron Maiden or Deadpool or Star Wars. Those are fine, but I absolutely love the original tables, and the expo had a lot of great ones. Attack From Mars is my favorite of all time, but I was stoked to finally play Houdini and White Water. They may not be as well know, but like Weird Al’s non-parody work they often exceed in quality the Hollywood tables.

Bad: Not Enough Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality gaming has come back in a big way, but you wouldn’t know it by the expo. There was only one VR station that I saw, and every time I went by it was down for repair or booked solid through the afternoon. There are at least two VR companies I know of in Houston, not to mention we’re the birthplace of the Omni. Throw in the fact that the expo happens in October and horror games are the bread and butter of the VR gaming scene, and it just seemed like an area that was overlooked.

click to enlarge Video game art for sale - PHOTO BY KATY ROUNER
Video game art for sale
Photo by Katy Rouner
Good: Collection Sales!

I really wish I’d budgeted more money when I set out to cover the expo. I really wanted that Tonberry lamp I saw. That aside, the expo is a collector’s paradise for retro gamers. I didn’t see a whole lot of big finds while I was there, but there was more than enough to get a retro collection started. The rummage bins were cornucopias of wonders, particularly if you’re into Playstation 2 and N64. You can walk out with some real gems for not a lot of money of you’re willing to spend some time really digging.

Bad: Lack of Cockpit Games

One of the few things arcades can still offer us that home gaming cant are cockpit games, and there weren’t a lot at the expo. I suppose ever getting to play The Ocean Hunter is too much to ask, but others are more widely available. Rip out a few Pac-Men and throw in some Jurassic Parks instead.

click to enlarge Retro Pong table that works with magnets - PHOTO BY JEF ROUNER
Retro Pong table that works with magnets
Photo by Jef Rouner
Good: Homebrew Games

Ultra Dolphin Revolution was onsite with some homebrew games (new games designed to look like the classics). Filmmaker Joe Grisaffi was also there showing off he old-school Atari adaptations (in actual cartridges!) of his locally produced horror movies. I love the homebrew scene, and any time we get to see people embracing the classic aesthetic in new ways I am reminded of just how far gaming has come as an art.

Bad: Needs More Curation

Some of the various games lying around to be played with had explanations of their histories, but not nearly enough. I know the expo gets a list of games, and it would be wonderful if someone would take the time to research them and print up information to be displayed alongside them. The expo is partially a history lesson of gaming, and while there is something to be said for just diving right in a little context and trivia wouldn’t hurt. On top of all that, the expo desperately calls out for a book kiosk. There are great books being written about gaming, not just strategy guides. At the very least someone should tell Boss Fight Books to come down and rent a table.

In the end, my main complaint about the expo is that there simply isn’t more of it! To judge by the audience I saw, it was a hit, and I hope we see even more growth next year.
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner