Nerd Culture

Game On Expo 2016: A Field Guide to This Weekend's Event in Mesa

If video games have taught us anything over the years, it’s that the sequel will oftentimes eclipse its predecessor. While it’s not necessarily true in every instance (see: Devil May Cry 2), many follow-ups can be bigger and even better than the original.

The organizers of the Game On Expo would like that to be the case with the second edition of the event, which takes place Friday, August 5, through Sunday, August 7, in Mesa. According to John Lester, one of the creators of the annual gaming-oriented extravaganza, they’re hoping it will be more Mega Man 2 than Super Mario Bros. 2 in every respect.

“It’s definitely going to be bigger than our first year in every aspect,” Lester says. “Size-wise and programming-wise, definitely. As far as excitement and all that goes, for sure.”

The three-day event, which launched last year and focuses largely on video games and gaming culture, is also leveling up the amount of special guests, vendors, and panels that will be featured during its second year, as well as adding a live music stage. Lester says that this year’s version of the expo – held at the Mesa Convention Center – is almost twice as large its inaugural edition in 2015.

That includes a lot more games being available for play, including those of the console, arcade, and event tabletop variety.

"We're definitely expanding the tabletop gaming aspect of the event,” Lester says. “Last year we only had like a room and a half devoted to it, but this year we'll have much more.”

This year’s event will also include appearances by local developers in the vendor hall, including the Phoenix-based indie game incubator Game Colab and Tempe’s University of Advancing Technology.

“It’s kind of cool that we're getting a lot more developers involved. Last year, we didn't have that many involved,” Lester says. “We're pretty stoked.”

Almost every aspect of the expo has gotten larger, Lester adds. So much so that organizers – who include local gamers Jason Heine, Gray Rogers, and Neil Kotler – have events taking place at the adjacent Phoenix Marriott Mesa. For instance, a multitude of tournaments being put on by local competitive gaming league AZHP will occur in the hotel’s 9,000-square-foot ballroom, as will the Free Play Lounge featuring more than 50 games on loan from such spots as Starfighters Arcade, Dave & Busters, and Cobra Arcade Bar.

“It’s step up from the 19 games that were offered last year,” Lester says. “Castles and Coasters is bringing over Star Wars: Battle Pod, which is pretty sweet. It's an awesome machine.”

Another thing that’s changed about the Game On Expo is that the staff feels far more organized this time around after working out the kinks last year.

“At the end of last year, we learned some things as far as organization, how to run things better, and communication,” Lester says.

Many aspects of the expo remain unchanged, however, whether it’s the variety of gaming-related guests (which range from YouTube personalities like Pat the NES Punk to voice actors like Halo star Steve Downes) or all the tournaments that are planned. There will also be opportunities for collectors and gamers alike to spy some rarities, including one of the rarest consoles of all: Sony’s prototype of the Super Nintendo CD-ROM unit, better known as the forerunner to the PlayStation.

Widely considered to be one of the holiest of Holy Grails in gaming, the ultra-rare accessory was originally going to be manufactured by Sony in the mid-1990s before the company’s deal with Nintendo fell through. A scant few prototypes were made, however, one of which was unearthed in Philadelphia last year by a gamer and will be displayed at the expo.

“It’s the holy grail of consoles. It looks like a Super Nintendo but its got a CD tray built into it,” Lester says. “I was talking to the owner and he was actually able to get it to work. So not only will people see it, they'll get to play it, too.”

Suffice it to say, there’s going to be a lot of gaming going on at the expo over the course of three days. With that in mind, we've assembled a rundown covering everything you might need to know about the event in order to get the most out of it. Consider it your personal strategy guide with plenty of tips included.

Dates and Times: This year’s Game On Expo will take place from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday, August 5; from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday, August 7; and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, August 7. Anyone who purchases VIP admission can get in an hour before the general public each day.

Location: Both the Mesa Convention Center, 263 North Center Street, and the Phoenix Marriott Mesa next door will host expo-related activities and events throughout the weekend. The Free Play Lounge, live music stage, and AZHP gaming competitions will all be located inside the hotel’s ballroom, while the convention center will host the vendor hall and various panels.

Prices: Want to spend the whole weekend at the event? That’ll run you $60. If you’re only interested in attending for a single day, admission will be $25 on Friday, $35 on Saturday, and $30 on Sunday. The aforementioned VIP package, which includes early access and a free poster, is $60.

Age Limits:
The expo is open to all ages and families are encouraged to attend. Kids 5 and under are free while children ages 6 to 12 can get in for $10 on Friday, $25 on Saturday, $20 on Sunday, or $45 for all three days.

Getting There: The convention center is easy to get to by car (just head for downtown Mesa via Country Club Road) and there’s tons of free parking available. All that said, it’s easier to take the light rail. A station is located mere blocks away and tickets are cheap ($2 for a single ride, $4 for a day pass).

Special Guests: Fans of the Halo franchise will undoubtedly be thrilled by the fact that Steve Downes, better known as the voice of Master Chief, is scheduled to appear at the Expo. He won't be the only game-related guest at the event, as fellow voice actors Jen Taylor (Cortana in the Halo series and Zoey in Left 4 Dead, among other roles) and Darin De Paul (DOOM, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Warhammer 40,000: Regicide) will also be in attendance.

And if you’ve ever wanted to go toe-to-toe with Thor Aackerlund, the dude who won the original Nintendo World Championships back in 1990, he’ll be featured at the event and will face the winner of the expo’s re-creation of the famed NES competition.

Meanwhile, gaming icons and YouTube stars will also be in abundance this year, including Johnny Millenium, AlphaOmegaSin, Metal Jesus, Alex Faciane, Pete Dorr, 8-Bit Eric, and Scottsquatch. Several guests who appeared at the inaugural Game On Expo last year, such as Jirard "The Completionist" Khalil and Pat "The NES Punk" Contri, are making a return.

Vendors: According to Lester, more than 100 different vendors will have booths set up at the event. Most will be associated with gaming in some form, be it such local stores as the Gaming Zone or Fallout Games, game bars like Bonus Round, or arcades. Don’t be surprised if you encounter several geek-related businesses as well.

Cosplay: Got a fantastic-looking Samus Aran costume you'd like to show off? Wear it at the expo. Ditto for any sort of game-oriented getup you've been crafting in your workspace or have hanging in the closet. Game On Expo is, after all, a geek event, which means cosplay is sort of de rigueur.  A cosplay contest for prizes is also scheduled to take place on Saturday afternoon starting at 4:30 p.m. (Full details and registration info can be found here.)

Live Music: Mesa game bar the Grid will host a stage inside the Marriott's ballroom that will host Rock Band sessions in the morning and performances by actual rock bands in the afternoon and evening. The lineup of local bands participating includes NES game music cover act Minibosses (natch), as well as such electronica and synth acts as Future Holotape, Robots With Rayguns, VoidBreaker, Ichi Sound, Gran Turismo, Dungeon Destroyah, Tropical Girls, Militia Joan Hart, and The Gothsicles.

Gaming: As you’d expect, there will be tons of it going on all three days. The Free Play lounge at the Marriott will boast more than 50 different arcade titles, retro and modern alike, all of which won’t need a single quarter to play. The list includes such favorites as Altered Beast, NARC, Pole Position, Star Wars, Street Fighter Alpha, Tempest, and Thunder Jaws.

A slew of home consoles from throughout gaming history, ranging from the Atari 2600 and Coleco Telstar Arcade to the Sega Dreamcast and Xbox, will also be available at the Retro Living Room lounge area, which even features a couch.

Tournaments will transpire throughout the weekend, including modern gaming battles organized by the AZHP and console-oriented competitions presented by the Gaming Zone. The biggest event of the expo, however, will be the Retro Championships 2016, which mimics the 1990 Nintendo World Championships and features participants playing Tetris, Rad Racer, and Super Mario Bros. Those who prevail will then duke it out with such old-school NWC finalists as Thor Aackerlund, Mike Iarossi, Dorion Whitlock, and Chris Tang.

And if you're still hunting for a Charizard or Ghastly to round out your Pokédex, several Pokémon Go meetups will be taking place outside. “There are quite a few Pokestops around here, and there's a [gym] as well within walking distance of the convention center,” Lester says. Plus, any attendees who can show they're a member of a team (be it Mystic, Instinct, or Valor) will get 20 percent discount off admission.

Pre-Parties and After-Parties:
Want to pre-game before the expo? Cobra Arcade Bar will host a pre-party starting at 9 p.m. on Thursday, August 4, that will include free pizza, music from DJ Hartbreaks, and a variety of drink specials. Admission passes will also be given away to a few lucky patrons. 

And on both Friday and Saturday, the Grid in Mesa will be putting on after-parties that will offer free play on all of its machines. Doors open at 9 p.m. each night and live music is also planned (Amplitude Problem and Warhorse will perform on Friday while Toxin is scheduled to hit the stage on Saturday) and admission will be free for anyone sporting a Game On Expo badge. Both parties start at 9 p.m.