By Marshall Garvey and Sean Willis
Marshall: After what felt like an interminable winter, it’s spring time once again in Sacramento. That means baseball, sunshine, way too much pollen and allergy attacks, and most importantly, the annual Sacramento Indie Arcade Gaming Expo. This year marked the third installment of the convention, which brings local developers, vendors and gaming enthusiasts together for a day.
And by all accounts, this year’s expo was not only by far the best, but a smash success that took all conceivable expectations and obliterated them. Earlier this year, we interviewed local dev and founding IGDA member Gabriel Gutierrez, during which he passionately detailed his dream of turning Sacramento into a premiere gaming city for developing talent to flock to, rather than a mere refuge for those who can’t afford to live in the Bay Area. If April 9’s proceedings in West Sacramento are any indication, if his dream hasn’t completely come true, it’s on the fast track to do so.
First to note was the tremendous jump in size of the event itself. The first two Indie Arcade Expos, including the one we covered last year, were held at the Colonial Cafe, which while a comfy venue nonetheless proved a bit cramped after a little while. This year saw the action move to the much bigger West Sacramento Community Center, and it was a seamless transition. First, the building is more spacious and better suited to large crowds going in and out all throughout the day. Second, it has more than enough rooms to accommodate devs and give people more space to enjoy their games.
Which leads us to the greatest key to this convention’s success: the local game developers. It’s been over three weeks since this event, during which I thought I’d be able to wrap my mind around both how many there were and how memorable their games are. To say the least, I haven’t even come close. There were so many indie devs it took not one, not two, but THREE rooms on the first floor to feature them all, and that’s not including the table of Davis devs who set up shop on the second floor outside the black box. Yet another room on the first floor was taken up entirely by West Coast Mega Games to provide a healthy dose of tabletop gaming.
A new component that made 2016’s Expo even better than the last two was the lineup of speakers. The community center’s second-story black box was allocated for a wide array of lectures, including Cat Wendt’s eye-opening talk about diversity in gaming, William Tan from Rocktastic Games, Thomas Espinoza of Black Shell Media, and a live podcast by Cory Vincent and Aaron Carter from Videogame BANG!.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an Indie Arcade Expo without some classic consoles on hand for playing. Atari Party came all the way from Davis to satisfy that requirement, providing a smorgasbord of retro systems for attendants to enjoy. I devoted a decent chunk of time to some trackball Centipede, as well as a port of my other arcade go-to, Dig Dug.
The heart of the event’s entertainment, of course, was what Sacramento’s local game developers had for attendees to play. Getting to sample them was a bit like a buffet with too much great food, and no matter how much I engorged myself, I still wanted more. The first title I sampled was the trippy Love is Moving, a sensory experience unlike anything else I’ve ever played. Armored Acorns was a richly designed actioner that recalls Metal Slug, while certainly being the most creative utilization of squirrels in a game since Conker’s Bad Fur Day. (I did indeed reference CBFD while playing with the devs, and they all got a kick out of it.) The early demo of the interactive novel A More Beautiful World impressed me with its highly detailed artwork, all the more remarkable when I was shown an improved update of how the game looks now. Super Neoplasm provided a healthy dose of challenge and frustration, making progressing through each level feel like an accomplishment (in an entirely good way). And these titles are just scratching the surface!
To say the least, it’s a chore to pick just one favorite of the aforementioned titles, as well as others I haven’t gotten to. In a “gun to my head” scenario, I’d have to go with the serene Frauki and the Mother Prism, a Metroidvania actioner that combines classic sidescrolling adventure with a gorgeous color design. When Gabe and Bree from IGDA handed out the award for best game at day’s end, it ultimately went to the highly original The Rabbit and the Owl. But I wouldn’t have blamed the judges for declaring a tie amongst multiple titles, or abdicating their responsibility of picking a winner altogether. There were not only many excellent games to pick from, but also a staggering breadth of diversity and innovation amongst them.
All told, there were way more than enough games to keep any visitor enthralled from the convention’s opening until its conclusion. In my view, that’s no small feat, especially for a local indie gathering in only its third annual iteration. The only downside I could conjure was the fact that, even with three rooms allocated for devs, the main room still felt a little cramped due to the volume of devs and vendors. To say the least, that’s a good problem to have.
Perhaps even greater than the entertainment value of the games was the sense of community amongst Sac devs and gamers that has truly solidified over the past few years. This feeling of community was especially affirmed by the presence of many familiar faces. Our friends at Videogame Bang! and cosplayer Macy Rose were seated next to each other just like they were at Sac Gamers Expo. Almost a year after interviewing Arclight Worlds, they had Venture Forth on display, and it was a treat to see how excellently the game has come along after all this time. Later on, Sean and I even had the privilege of finally getting to meet and chat with the esteemed individuals of Black Shell Media. With no disrespect to anyone who couldn’t make it or simply didn’t attend, it truly felt like all of the major players of Sac gaming were on hand.
Throughout the day, I just savored the feeling of satisfaction that not only were there so many people period, but that it all added up to the exhilarating realization that Sacramento has truly arrived as a “gaming town.” Any native of this city is familiar with the lament that for being the capital city of perhaps the most globally recognized U.S. state, Sacramento has always lacked a distinct identity. (Granted, we’re trying our damndest to establish one with the Kings, but that’s a whole other struggle in and of itself.) While it may be a bit myopic to peg video game development as the essential identity of an entire city, the idea that we could become as esteemed in that area as San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles is a tantalizing one. And as the talent here continues to blossom, it’s a reality that may not be too far off.
Altogether, 2016’s Sac Indie Arcade Expo felt like the epicenter of the local gaming universe. One that, much like the actual universe, is rapidly expanding. And we here at Last Token Gaming are honored to be considered a vital part of it.
Sean: The Sacramento Indie Arcade Gaming Expo sure has come a long way. The community there was friendly and easy to talk to. Many had games set up for anyone to play, which often inspired retro-filled talks. I can’t say how happy I am to see indie devs and fellow gamers get together like this, especially in our area.
I was pleased to see faces we ran into before with their games set up, and even some new devs with games ranging from free games to higher profile console games. I was inspired by some projects using the Unreal engine as well which showed that the new engine could even be used for 2D gaming, something I didn’t realize it was setup for.
I also played the Lynx port of one of my all time favorite arcade games, Stun Runner. I had never tried a Lynx outside of emulators, and despite the poor screen on the Lynx the game itself is pretty impressive on the real hardware. We wouldn’t see pseudo 3D like that till the Game Boy Advance. Thanks to Atari Party for letting me try that at their booth.