Wednesday 24 October 2018

A Tour de Saturn at the 2018 Portland Retro Gaming Expo

The Portland Retro Gaming Expo (PRGE) happened last weekend and it was nothing short of a celebration of excess in retro game collecting and culture. Although PRGE lacks the corporate-bankrolled production values of shows like PAX or E3, the expo sports a ton of attractions and no shortage of distractions. There was a myriad of video, arcade, and pinball games to play, plentiful panels with familiar YouTube personalities from throughout the retrosphere, plus an assortment of competitive tournaments -- including the Tetris World Championship -- a far more intense and interesting affair than I would've ever expected.

Top: The Video Game History Foundation's 35th Anniversary NES museum shows off random '80s and '90s Nintendo merch, complete with a creepy-ass Link face that someone might have conceivably worn on top of their own face. Left: We witness an epic final tournament round of that Russian block drop game; it was nearly as intense as a match of Smash Bros I watched where one of the players had to fight using a N64 mouse. Right: Ben Heckendorn takes some time to dismantle a Sega Genesis in between dad jokes. 

However, with the high profile events like Smash Bros Melee and Mario Kart tournaments, a spectacular display of NES history, and all of the Thrashing Christs and Nintendo Hoodlums and other retro gaming public figures wandering about -- what surprised me most was what didn't get lost in the shuffle. The Atari Jaguar had a surprisingly strong presence with no less than five upcoming, in-development games playable on the show floor.

Atari Age shares the Jaguar indie love with a new shmup, an RTS, a Dizzy game, and more. The racing game on the right-hand side is literally called Not Outrun. At least it knows what it isn't.

Then there was our beloved Sega Saturn, which was repped surprisingly hard at PRGE. I stumbled upon a 10-player Saturn Bomberman set up when I first arrived at the expo. Apparently, they even held a tournament at some point over the weekend. What fun!

Saturn Bomberman: the Saturn's multiplayer game of the year...every year since 1996.

Of course, a major part of any expo consists of people selling shit. And at PRGE, dozens of vendors had plenty of Saturn goods for sale. Whether you were looking for affordable Japanese games or less affordable North American long box titles (including plenty of sealed games), vendors had you covered. On the whole, prices weren't nearly as exorbitant as I expected, albeit with some exceptions...

If you thought the Saturn's priciest games were overly expensive...try spending $55 on Virtual Hydlide! For additional perspective, any one of those shitty NES games in the display case will fetch at least double the price of Panzer Dragoon Saga.

Sidebar: While not specifically Saturn related, the free play arcade area did have a Virtua Cop 2 cabinet, which is one of my favorite Saturn games. There was also an F-Zero AX cab, which totally rocks...uncontrollably, side-to-side as you bank through the game's churning twists at 1,500 km/h. There were also some older Sega arcade titles on the expo floor but I don't really remember which ones. Probably Congo Bongo and stuff like that.

Time to serve some sweet, Stunner justice...or suffer some severe motion sickness. You decide!

That brings us to one of the more topically relevant aspects of this year's PRGE: Retro-bit and Sega's upcoming Saturn gamepads. There were a few original-style pads on display, including both the Saturn and USB wired versions (the wireless pad was absent, outside of its placeholder box design). From what I could tell, the controllers hold up well compared to the originals -- with a strong build quality and feel of the d-pad and face buttons. In other words, RetroLink this ain't (which is a good thing) but it's a bit odd to hold a brand new Saturn controller that has yet to be broken in. The shoulder buttons remain a work in progress -- the representative said Retro-bit is focusing on refining the springs and molds to get them to feel as clicky as the original pad. Although it's not quite there yet, I see this this as a promising sign that Retro-bit is sweating the details and making an earnest effort to do justice to one of gaming's all-time greatest controllers. We should find out whether they succeeded by the end of the year.

EDIT: For more info and impressions on the Retro-bit Saturn pads, be sure to check out this article from the Sega Saturn, Shiro! guys. I think they spent a bit more time putting the pads through their paces than I was able to.
Some close up pics of the Retro-bit Saturn pad, draft promo boxes, and my ugly mug.

Also, I have to give a huge kudos to Ke Kona and Ben Wallace of Sega Saturn, Shiro! These guys had a booth celebrating plenty of Saturn goodness, including some of Ke's gorgeous repro art and an awesome NiGHTS poster.
A Murder of Crows, a.k.a. the Sega Saturn Mecca of PRGE.

The Saturn is often seen as Sega's forgotten middle child of a console -- nestled firmly between the breakthrough popularity of the Genesis and the long-tailed shooting star that was the Dreamcast. However, one of the interesting bi-products of the current retro renaissance is that many people have cast an eye towards discovering the retro games and platforms they missed back in the day. Since the PlayStation outsold the Saturn by over 10:1, Sega's diminished presence in the broader gaming lexicon ensured that relatively few gaming fans had ever heard of the Saturn, let alone played or owned one.

For many of us indulging in retro gaming today, the Saturn carries a certain mystique and allure by virtue of its relative elusiveness. The Saturn appeals to many peoples' sense of discovery in the retro space -- or perhaps retro FOMO -- so I'm not surprised that people would still be drawn to the Saturn and its “hidden gem” status at a convention like this. At the very least, my experience at this year's PRGE has shown that Sega's forgotten console may not be so forgotten after all.


Anyway, PRGE is an awesome expo and if you happen to find yourself visiting the Pacific Northwest around this time next year, you should absolutely check it out. Otherwise, you don't need to be on this side of the globe nor wait until next year to get your retro convention fix. If you're near Blackpool this weekend, check out Play Expo where the great folks from our sister site, the Dreamcast Junkyard, will be hanging out. As a nifty bonus, our very own Father K will also grace the expo with his presence.

Stop by and say hello!


Pole Position Performance said...

Jealousy from this side of the pond my friend. Wish I was there with you. 😁

Jet Brian Radio (@VirtuaSchlub) said...

Come on over next year, Roberto!

Blondejon said...

excellent article old chum, very jealous that you got your hands on the new pads, they look the part thats for sure :)

Anthony817 said...

Although I don't own a Saturn anymore, sold it off around 2015 or so, I am still getting the Bluetooth dual analog pad for my Dreamcast, PC and most importantly PS3 what with all the excellent fighters from PS1, PS2 and PS3 that can be played from the jailbroke system via software emulation. I am happy to confirm that the controllers will be compatible with each of the 3 major Sega systems dongles, so if you want to use a DC pad on Saturn, or Saturn pad on DC, you absolutely can as they have confirmed.

I just have one question about the feel of the controllers Brian, does the D-pad have the same feel as the official ones, in it had a slight rubbery feel to it, or is it simply just hard plastic? Looks hard plastic to me, but I don't really mind it as much but I know some fans keep asking me if I found out any info about how the D-pad plastic feels.

I do have a thread over at AssemblerGames where I am posting every bit of news I can about these awesome controllers.

Jet Brian Radio (@VirtuaSchlub) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jet Brian Radio (@VirtuaSchlub) said...

Noting the controllers are still works in progress: From what I could tell, the d-pad and buttons feel identical to the original Saturn pads. The d-pad itself is hard plastic and the way it pivots in each direction feels indistinguishable to me. I’ve heard they made a point to replicate the rubber membrane underneath and so far it feels great. However, I did notice a bit of stiffness in the Genesis d-pad but I think that’s a product of it not being broken in yet.

The main sticking points for the Saturn pad — so to speak — are the shoulder buttons. They do feel kind of sticky don’t quite have the same clickiness as the originals but the rep said RB is focusing on getting those just right before release. They’re tentatively shooting for end of December but if the pads come out later than that, I’d expect that to be the reason.

Anthony817 said...

Awesome to hear! Thanks for the lengthy reply! I was under the assumption they were coming out this month in my Assembler thread, but I will update it with the info you posted in quotations if you don;t mind? Was also going to link back to this article.


Jet Brian Radio (@VirtuaSchlub) said...

No problem, though honestly, I'd also check out what the Sega Saturn Shiro guys had to say about it. They wrote an article that was a bit more focused on the Retro-bit controllers and I think they probably spent a bit more time with them than I did. I just wanted to briefly touch on them amidst my broader PRGE observations in this article.

Anthony817 said...

Wow thanks for the link great info there!