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Intruder Alert

At the California Extreme Video Game and Pinball Convention, you're only as good as your last free game

By Todd Inoue

EVERY BOY'S DRAWING of a dream home features an area--next to the pizza oven and Slurpee machine, near the fire pole connecting floors--where a bank of video games and pinball machines are lined up in a row, all on free play.

For most kids, the schematic gets crumpled up and discarded. The dream of owning a stand-up video game gets displaced by things like spouses, babies, televised sports and house payments (there are always home consoles, Internet gaming and the quick fix down at the corner liquor store). But for a select group of die-hards, big lunky video games and pinball machines have moved up from hobby to husbandry, occupying large parts of their lives and free space.

Outside of a storage locker facility in Sunnyvale, four avid collectors from video game/pinball convention California Extreme are reminiscing about a time when family fun and arcades went hand in joystick. The lockers contain some artifacts left over from the golden years of video games--Tempest, Circus, Sea Wolf--as well as newer ones like the intense driving game San Francisco Rush 2049 that will be on display at California Extreme's annual convention this weekend at Parkside Hall in downtown San Jose.

Sea Wolf holds a warm place in 36-year-old Ken Chaney's heart. When he got dragged to Sears with his mother and sister, the future aeronautical engineer would hunker down in the Sears basement and plunk dimes into Sea Wolf, peer through the periscope and proceed to sink ships. "I had a dime in my pocket and boy, that was something that looked like fun," Chaney recalls. "Whenever I knew we'd be going to Sears, I'd bring every dime I could find."

As the night goes on, the stories become more revealing. The first time 44-year-old pinball enthusiast and accountant Mark Birsching went to Disneyland, he ended up spending more time in the arcade than on the rides. The tale that gets the biggest laughs comes from 31-year-old Intel product analyst David Louie, who recounts playing video games after school at Straw Hat Pizza. He would save all his money to play games, even forego eating and all dignity so he could get the high score.

"I wouldn't eat lunch, hence I'd always be starving," he recalls. "So I'd always keep an eye out for people who left half a pizza or half a pitcher of soda. I'd eat the pizza and then run up to the counter and say, 'Can I have a cup of water?' then go fill up."

You never want to play doubles with these three because you'll wait forever for them to crash a ship or drain a ball. All the guys own between six and 100 video games and pinball machines. They keep them in different houses and storage lockers. They've traveled as far as Lake Tahoe and Chicago just to play or buy a game. When asked what their significant others or wives think about their hobby--a peal of laughter goes up.

"You're looking at three single guys," says Birsching.

Brain Drain

Under the title California Extreme, Chaney, Louie, TJ Beyer, Brad Martinson and Alan Whittle started the convention in 1995 after the demise of Wild West Pinball Fest. The idea was to integrate the all-pinball Wild West Fest with video games.

"The phrase I came up the first year was 'A roomful of games and people to play them,'" says Chaney. "I like seeing equipment that's been buried for too long being appreciated."

The first California Extreme took place at a Bamboola-type kiddie place called Playland at what was then a fire-retardant Town & Country Village. Attendance was meager--just friends and friends of friends--but the enthusiasm for the project lit up a block. Now in its seventh year, the convention takes over Parkside Hall and attracts old-school video game and pinball enthusiasts from around the world.

Some 350 games--an even mix of pinballs and video games--are expected to be plugged in and bleeping. Rare prototypes that never saw production will be up and running, as well as forgotten favorites. All the games will be set to free play, making this a geekfest of orgiastic proportions. Classic vector video games like Battlezone and Tempest will be hooked up to a laser and shot up on the wall. There are pinball and Rush 2049 tournaments during the weekend.

The games come from private collections through connections usually made on the Internet, and they are in pristine condition. There is a minimum of duplication; 330 of the games are distinct. The free play makes it easy to step up to games without risk of losing quarters.

"It's an opportunity to discover something new and rediscover something old," Louie says. "I played pinball when I was a kid; my father didn't know how to play anything but pinball. In the '80s, I played nothing but video games. Then, being around Ken, I was slowly being reintroduced to playing pinball. There's more to pinball than hitting the flippers."

"Pinball is a great meditation," Birsching adds.

The Games Gang

There was a time when arcades were part of the Silicon Valley landscape. Workers would duck into Time Zone at Oakridge Mall, Merlin's Castle in El Paseo de Saratoga, Bullwinkle's in Sunnyale, Eli McFly's in Campbell, Chuck E. Cheese on Tully or Tilt at Vallco to drop quarters and let off some steam. Today, Dave & Buster's, Chuck E. Cheese, Golfland, Nickel City and a few independents dedicate rooms to games. The stand-alone arcade is a rarity, especially outside of the Silicon Valley. Blame home consoles and PCs.

"The power that's available at home now is so cheap, and the home console games are pretty damn good," Chaney says. "A new game will come out, and they can buy it and play it at home in six weeks. All the classic arcades have folded."

To feed the old-school game obsession takes some geek cunning. Chaney would forage games from the side of the road during large-item pickup day. Once he was shooting pool and got to talking with the owner, who had 16 video games gathering dust in an upstairs storage area. The guy said he could cart 'em away for free, but they'd have to be removed that night.

A few panicked calls to truck-owning friends later and Chaney was the proud owner of vintage games like Red Tank, Blasto and Bandito. "There was a lot of garbage, but we got some real gems," Chaney recalls. "We gave the guy some money because it's bad karma to take a game for free. You'll never get it working if you do that."

In what should be the geekiest part of the weekend, there is a panel discussion with Atari programmers Mike Albaugh, Ed Logg and Owen Rubin. Albaugh, referred to as a "guts monkey," did a lot of the behind-the-scenes technical work for Atari. Logg was the man behind Asteroids, Centipede, Millipede and Gauntlet. Owen Rubin did a lot of the classic vector games, including Major Havoc, Space Duel, Orbit, Tunnel Hunt and Battlezone.

The Atari panel appears to verify an accusation that California Extreme only focuses on the classic video games and pinball machines. Not true, says Chaney, pointing out the Rush 2049 tournament scheduled for the weekend. True, a lot of old-school games will be in there, but there will be a few "new classics" as well.

"Those of us at the beginning never had any sense of exclusion," Chaney insists. "There's a lot of really great games that came out since the so-called classic period. When we started out in 1992, Bust-A-Move came out, and it's huge! It's a great game! There's no reason to exclude that."

The weekend is a video game nut's wet dream come true. It's the dream-house picture blown up to IMAX proportions. It's like entering a galaxy where it's 1982 again. Time flies by, and you'll exit 21 hours later--stomach growling, fingers aching, eyes blurry, underarms reeking, ears numb from the constant assault of enemy invaders being blown away.

"The weekend is crazy; you end up being real tired, but it's so much fun," Birsching says. "People are having the time of their lives. It's a good noise when you have 300-plus games going on at the same time."

The California Extreme Video Game and Pinball Convention happens Saturday and Sunday (Sept. 7-8) in Parkside Hall on the corner of Almaden and Park avenues, across from the Convention Center and behind the Civic Auditorium in downtown San Jose. Hours are noon-midnight Saturday and 11am-9pm Sunday. Tickets are $12.50 for children under 12, $25 for adults per day or $20 children/$40 adults for a weekend pass, available through Ticketweb and at the door; www.caextreme.org.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

To contact Todd Inoue: tinoue at metronews dot com

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From the September 5-11, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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