Kirby Among the Retro Games: My Time at the Midwest Gaming Classic
Earlier this month I headed out to the Midwest Gaming Classic, which bills itself as “the largest all-encompassing gaming trade show in the Midwest.” Located in Milwaukee, the event includes more than 200,000 square feet of retro and modern game consoles, arcade units and pinball machines, tabletop RPGs and board games, tournaments, panel discussions, exhibits devoted to gaming history and current developers in the retro space, a massive vendor hall, and much more.
For such a sprawling event, spanning multiple floors of the Wisconsin Center convention hall, I was surprised I had never heard of it before. I’m originally from a suburb of Milwaukee, and the event has been running off and on at various locations around Wisconsin since 2001—in 2003, it was apparently even held at Nicolet High School while I was a student there! But with the convention now bigger than it’s ever been, and me residing just a bit more than an hour away in the Madison area, I knew it was something I had to check out and cover for Kirby Informer.
While I’ve always enjoyed playing retro games along with the new, I’ve only more recently gotten into the deeper nuances of collecting and price charting. And while eBay is still one of my first go-to resources for classic titles, I’m also learning to better appreciate the thrill of the hunt that can come from tracking down these games in the wild. Given that scores of game sellers around the country would be convening in MGC’s vendor hall, I knew this could be an ideal time to cross a few things off my list, and I wanted to leave with at least one new Kirby game I’ve never played. There are still a few I don’t have, like Kirby and the Rainbow Curse or Kirby: Battle Royale. But given the recent price spikes of Wii U and 3DS games following the close of the eShop, I decide to go for the DS’s Kirby: Mass Attack, whose price has remained relatively consistent for years.
Retro Games Galore
Arriving at the convention on April 1st (no relation to April Fool’s), I’m greeted by the multistory inflatable gorilla holding their signage. After getting my admission bracelet and bearings, I head to the vendor hall on the third floor—which is apparently most others’ first stop—as the hall is absolutely packed. It’s a huge room full of vendor booths, with countless games set out in boxes, tubs, and sealed display cases. Plenty of other products are for sale, too, from more common fare like Funko Pop figures or plushes (including, yes, giant Kirbys) to more unique items and merchandise, like art, toys, masks, or sculptures. There is also a space for food vendors, tables for special guests, and even a wrestling ring in one corner. From what I've read online, I admittedly don't know who most of the special guests are, but I do recognize a few YouTubers, like John Hancock and the mononymous Jay from Square Pegs (a smaller channel I highly recommend for its affable and well-produced content).
Wandering among the masses, the drone of a thousand conversations about video games in the air, each table is initially so crowded it is difficult to see much of what is on offer. But I am able to do my browsing from a distance, and lines move quickly if I want to see things up close. Sega Genesis, NES, Super Nintendo, and Playstation games of all numerals are some of the most popular and prevalent, but there's a little of everything, from the Sega Master System to the Game Gear, from the Atari 7800 to the Atari Lynx. Some of my favorite Kirby things I saw were Kirby Super Star for the Super Famicom, in its iconic paulownia-inspired box, and a custom Kirby-themed Game Boy Color.
Flipping through a booth’s stash of Nintendo 64 cartridges, I come across a non-Kirby title I’m also looking for—Perfect Dark. I’d never played Rare's acclaimed 2000 shooter back in the day, and given that its sci-fi spy drama takes place in the futuristic year of…2023, I’d been thinking this was the right time to finally play it. But this cartridge had some tape on it, and I decided to see if I can find one elsewhere in slightly better condition.
Eventually, I track down a copy of Kirby: Mass Attack. DS games complete-in-box are a bit harder to come by, but I find a vendor with a diverse collection stacked in several display cubes. After some effort, he manages to finagle Kirby out of the back of the display, and I then realize I have made a glaring rookie mistake. This booth only accepts cash, and I have just a few dollars on me, thinking I'd mostly be paying by credit card. I feel a little bad for making him dig the game out only for me to have to decline, but my search for Mass Attack continues. I do find the Perfect Dark I was looking for, however, in a booth across from him. They ask me to pay with Venmo, which is easy enough. (I realize much later I probably could've just Venmo’d the cash-only guy for Mass Attack, too.)
By this point, the crowd has thinned somewhat. Wrestling has begun, drawing people to that corner of the hall, and I find I enjoy browsing much more with additional freedom to move and actually see what’s on display. A booth with a large Dreamcast selection gets my attention. I’ve recently acquired a Dreamcast and building that library is a sort of sub-goal behind my search for Kirby things. And while I’m tempted by a Dreamcast Street Fighter Alpha 3, one of my favorite fighting games in a console version superior to others I’ve played, the price is a bit too far above the going rate. This is a game I’ve found to be elusive in other retro stores, and I don't mind paying a premium to support people's small businesses. But with cheaper ways to get games online through eBay, it can be hard to justify a price increase of more than a few dollars.
New Takes on Old Video Games
It's been a few hours now, and I'm more than ready to venture beyond the vendor hall. The Midwest Gaming Classic is overflowing with activity, to the point where you can often stand in one place and see multiple simultaneous events at once. It’s almost overwhelming—a standup comedian on a small stage just yards away from the Carcade van, just yards away from a row of TVs for ongoing tournaments, just yards away from a literal rock band playing on the MGC Main Stage. In one of the smaller rooms, the BitBuild Experience showcases amazing modded consoles, including a handheld GameCube, shown playing Kirby Air Ride, and the fascinating WiiVision hybrid console, also shown playing Kirby Air Ride. (Clearly, society wants portable Air Ride options and is willing to go to great lengths to create them!)
My favorite exhibit in another room, the World of Nintendo, recreates a Nintendo store counter from the 1990s, with original memorabilia and even playable SNES kiosks.
Other rooms are devoted to playing video games, including another massive hall with a free playable station for what must be nearly every console ever released, more historical exhibits, a fleet of famous pop culture vehicles, and a multitude of classic arcade games and pinball machines. I remain impressed by the sheer scale of everything that has been organized for this convention, and I understand why it is considered the biggest of its kind in the Midwest. It all has a certain spectacular quality, almost as much for the logistics of what it must’ve taken to assemble it all as for the evolution of the games themselves.
People are certainly making the most of it. This room seems to have more of a family crowd, and I can see it being a rare opportunity for parents to grab joysticks and play their favorite retro games with their kids. Others congregate around more modern systems and arcade units. The bustling crowds do mean that most of the stations I find interesting are already fully occupied, but it is still fun to watch others behind the wheel of Mario Kart GP DX or at original cabinets for Marvel Vs. Capcom 2. And I might’ve hung around to wait in line if there wasn’t so much more to do.
Eventually, I return to the vendor hall, where I pick up a Kirby mug, in a booth that’s so packed I have to wait for others to clear out before I can physically leave. (I don't mean to belabor the point about this being a crowded event, but I do hear others murmuring about it, too, throughout the day. No offense to the wrestlers, but with space already so limited, it feels like we maybe could've moved or nixed the random food court wrestling ring.) At another vendor, I see a copy of Kirby and the Rainbow Curse. While it’s nice to finally find another Kirby game I don’t have, the box isn't in the greatest shape, and I pass on it. Elsewhere I even find some Kirby bath bombs. As much as I like Kirby, I decide I don't need to bathe with him. But they were certainly creative!
It’s the afternoon now, and I start looking for lunch. While there are a variety of food vendors, the lines are long, the food is expensive, and being vegan, my options are limited. (I do see pitas available for $16—almost as much as I paid for Perfect Dark!) I realize my second rookie mistake was not bringing some snacks, so I just get a bag of chips, and those prove to be sustenance enough. I spend more time wandering the space and returning to a few of the rooms I’ve previously mentioned before it's time for panels.
Panels are running all weekend, but the two I decide to attend are back to back at 4 and 5 PM. The first, presented by the Retronauts podcast, is a look at the history of food mascot games, starring everyone from Kool-Aid Man to The Noid to a dog chasing down Chuck Wagon dog food on the Atari 2600. The games are of varying, and often dubious, quality. But examining them, with footage of gameplay and old commercials, makes for a very entertaining hour. The next panel features various YouTubers in the retro game space. It’s mostly treated as a Q&A with the audience, and they end up talking about their favorite games, trends they’ve noticed on YouTube over the years, and their advice for aspiring video makers.
I leave the panels thinking it’s probably time to start heading out. I saw what I came to see, and yet, I can’t help feeling a little unfinished. After hours of browsing all day, I still just have a single game and a mug. I head to the vendor hall one last time, to see if I can’t find at least one more thing to leave with. Some of the booths have closed up by this point, but it’s refreshingly uncrowded. And I’m not sure if he’s a later arrival or if I just hadn’t seen him when the room was flooded with people, but I find a seller with a case full of Dreamcast games—easily the most I’d seen on offer from anyone.
I’d gone into this convention with some general goals, to track down a Kirby game and some things from a shortlist of Nintendo 64, GameCube, and Dreamcast games. And while I’ve seen plenty of exciting booths, this is the first where I see a wide selection of things I’d actually be interested in buying. He has Street Fighter Alpha 3, at a much better price, and I feel vindicated for passing it up earlier. It’s still inherently on the pricier side, so I just go with that, and he apologizes that his credit card reader has stopped working. I offer to Venmo him instead, which he seems a bit surprised by, but it works seamlessly.
Feeling more than satisfied now, I drive home reflecting on my first Midwest Gaming Classic. It was a hoot, and I would definitely return. I applaud all the work that goes into making something like this possible, and I’m grateful to have it in my own backyard. There's definitely something for everyone. If you're looking to play classic games (the way they were meant to be played, and just not free online workarounds), you can do so. Searching for a particular N64, GBA, or even MS-DOS game? You may very well find it. And with so many live events, tournaments, and exhibits that pay tribute to both the latest retro contributions and legendary titles of the past, it's not just a giant arcade and retro store but a genuinely moving celebration of video game culture.
I do hope they can refine how space is allocated in future years. Some rooms were so crowded you could barely stand and look at the exhibits without causing a bottleneck, while other activities, like the foam weapon combat, seemed to get whole empty rooms to themselves. Bands and musical displays, like the jukebox, would make more sense further away from where the panels and speakers were, and it was sometimes hard to hear the presenters. With so many lights and sounds in all directions, and the crowd shuttling you from one place to the next, it can sometimes feel like you’re in a giant pinball machine yourself. But overall it seemed like everything was thoughtfully considered and well-executed.
In the future, I would probably approach some things differently myself, too. I knew I wanted to cover the event for Kirby Informer, so went into the convention with a loose goal of finding a new Kirby game, along with a handful of other things I was looking for. I didn’t have any particular expectations, but in the process of trying to structure an article around the search for specific games, I may have missed out on a more freeform experience.
My advice now for conventions like this: let the event guide you. Take risks. Buy some old games you’ve never heard of before, see some panels on things you’re not already interested in, and have more interaction with the developers, artists, exhibitors, and presenters you’ll meet along the way. Bring cash, some snacks, and friends, as it’ll be much more fun with others. This was a year for me to be an observer—which I think made sense for a Kirby-focused article with a Kirby-focused publication. But next year, I look forward to going as a more active participant. And who knows—maybe I'll finally find that Kirby: Mass Attack...