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Tetris Championships, Rare Video Games: Welcome to 8-Bit Paradise

Photo for The Washington Post by Gregory Leporati
One entire wing of the expo’s main exhibition hall is dedicated to the Classic Tetris World Championship. During the qualifying round, competitors set the highest scores they can in a two-hour window to determine seeding.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Inside the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, the Super Mario Brothers are everywhere. You could easily lose count of how many Marios and Luigis you’ll see at this sprawling, three-day convention showcasing the golden age of video games. Adults wearing fake mustaches and blue overalls are a common sight, but you’ll also see people dressed up as Sonic the Hedgehog and Mortal Kombat characters.

“There’s really something for everyone,” said Gabe Tindall, a 35-year-old “Super Nintendo kid” from the Pacific Northwest. “And if you’re a millennial or part of Gen X, then you’re really in heaven,” he added.

At the expo in October, Tindall and his friends were dressed as Mario heroes as they walked around the main arcade hall. Classic pinball machines and gaming cabinets stretched for rows and rows, their bright lights and beeping noises reminiscent of an innocent Las Vegas casino.

Founded in the late ’90s as a grass-roots video game tournament, the Portland Retro Gaming Expo has steadily grown. Today, it bills itself as the nation’s largest retro video game convention, attracting somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 fans each year to the Oregon Convention Center. In addition to arcade machines, it features panel discussions with game designers and YouTube personalities, a museum, and tons of merchandise for sale – everything from rare copies of Nintendo Power magazine to Sega Genesis consoles in their original packaging.

And then there’s “Tetris.” Since 2012, the expo has hosted the Classic Tetris World Championship, which has been featured in documentaries, on ESPN and in viral YouTube videos. Organizers said this year’s competition featured 136 participants representing 13 different countries. The final rounds tend to draw a crowd.

“When it’s just the last few people competing, it’s so tense and packed,” Tindall said. “Definitely a must-watch.”

An all-you-can-play buffet

My first order of business was visiting the convention’s arcade, which featured just about every classic game you could imagine – from “Pac-Man” to “Street Fighter II” – and pinball machines dating from the late ’70s to modern day.

After you pay admission (single-day tickets ranged from $15 to $40 this year, and a weekend pass was $65) everything is free to play. Not having to worry about wasting hundreds of quarters was surprisingly freeing; I was finally able to plug away at the original “Mortal Kombat” for more than a few rounds.

The convention also had tables lined with video game consoles including the Nintendo Entertainment System, Microsoft Xbox 360 and everything in between.

There were more obscure consoles available, too, such as the Atari Jaguar and Nintendo’s short-lived Virtual Boy, which bombed only a year after launch in 1995.

And then, of course, you could buy games: expansive merchandise booths featured vendors selling an overwhelming number of old games, from $3 throwaway titles on the Super Nintendo to rare Sega Saturn games – such as “Panzer Dragoon Saga,” a 1998 cult classic that saw a limited release in the U.S. – costing upward of $10,000. There were even vintage accessories on sale, such as the Nintendo Power Glove. Some collectors said they have more than 5,000 games in storage back home.

One corner of the exhibition hall featured a replica Blockbuster, complete with rows of VHS tapes. A vintage living room was set up next to it with old antenna televisions and couches with funky designs.

Cat Erickson, a 34-year-old from Oregon, told me the whole scene brought back a rush of childhood memories.

“It takes me back to those Friday nights renting stuff from Blockbuster,” she said. “And it reminds me of all the times I’d play games on my brother’s consoles – until he chased me out of his room!”

Meet the voice of ‘NBA Jam’

Photo for The Washington Post by Gregory Leporati
The expo also featured fun and insightful panel discussions, including cult-favorite film director Lloyd Kaufman, right, discussing his campy Toxic Avenger movie series and the video games based on it.

The expo also felt like an extended history class: Breakout rooms throughout the weekend featured more than 30 panels and Q&As with industry pioneers and personalities, from ’80s game designers to former Nintendo Power editors.

Tim Kitzrow, the voice behind the arcade classic “NBA Jam,” was a must-see for basketball fans. Near the end of his discussion, Kitzrow – who helped make “NBA Jam” famous through his “Boomshakalaka!” and “He’s on fire!” calls – waxed poetic about the power of nostalgia.

“This convention is like Christmas Day for so many people, when you’d wake up and unwrap that video game you really wanted, back when you didn’t have bills and responsibilities,” he said. “It’s still crazy to me when people come up and say, ‘I grew up on your voice!'”

Other standout sessions included a packed-house panel with YouTube’s Angry Video Game Nerd and an amusing history lesson on how the Atari Jaguar was later used as dental equipment (when Atari went bankrupt, it sold the molds of its consoles to other tech companies, including one that made dental cameras). Cult-favorite film director Lloyd Kaufman gave a delightfully wacky talk about his Toxic Avenger series and the video games it spawned.

“They’ve done a great job of curating so many different activities,” said longtime convention goer Brian Kidd, who showed up wearing a Darth Vader mask and playing bagpipes while riding a unicycle. “I always tell newbies to get the weekend pass. You can’t cram everything into just one day, especially with all the cool panels.”

‘Tetris’ takes center stage

As the convention wound down on Sunday, most people made their way to the far corner of the exhibition hall, where the Classic Tetris World Championship was in full swing.

In recent years, the competition has become dominated by teenagers who have pushed the game to its limits with many of them holding their controller sideways and rolling their fingers across the back of it, allowing them to move pieces at lightning-fast speeds.

Broadcasters added suspenseful narration, and the final moments of each round brought audience members to the edges of their seats as the speed of play escalated. Competitors hugged after each match as the crowd applauded.

“This game has a wonderful community, and I’m so fortunate to have become a part of this,” said Andrew Ellibee, a former competitor who now volunteers to help with the live stream production of the tournament. “This weekend is like Christmas for us ‘Tetris’ fans.”

This year’s championship round was a showdown between Justin Yu, a 22-year-old from the U.S. who goes by the handle “Fractal,” and a 19-year-old from the Netherlands known by “Sidnev.”

The standing-room crowd oohed and aahed, broke out into chants, and gasped during tense moments as the players frantically tried to clear their boards. It felt a like a sports arena, and I completely forgot that I was missing a full slate of NFL football games that same afternoon.

Fractal prevailed in the fifth and final round, taking home a grand prize of more than $3,000 in what the announcers confidently declared “The greatest match of ‘Tetris’ ever played on this Earth.”

“The best part of this is all the great people who play ‘Tetris,'” said the runner-up, full name Sidney Commandeur. “The tournament is secondary, honestly – it’s all about having fun with this community.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Gregory Leporati
In later rounds of the Classic Tetris World Championship, commentators provide live play-by-play and analysis.