Free Play Florida: 2016 Review

Collecting classic arcade games is an expensive habit. There’s always one more cabinet to hunt down, and every collector will have a grail – the one cab you really, really, really need to find. And when you find your grail, it’ll be replaced with another grail to hunt down. Seasoned enthusiasts will all tell you that yes, they probably own too many machines. But with a few exceptions, most collectors are bound by finances and of course space. You have to stop somewhere.

For some of us, there’s an additional barrier, and that’s one of availability – the simple fact is that over here in Blighty, arcade machines, whilst prevalent in the early 80s, weren’t produced in the huge numbers that they were over the pond in the USA. The lack of machines here in the UK today has meant that prices have shot up in recent years – to the point that many would-be collectors are priced out of the market.

So what to do? One option is to not own any games at all, and seek them out elsewhere. On these shores, Arcade Club in Bury near Manchester is one option. You pay a fee at the floor and get to play everything inside for free. But some of us take things a stage further, travelling further afield to hunt down and play rare classic arcade machines.

Arcade Expos have become very popular in the USA; most major states now host at least one of these events on an annual basis, and Florida’s Free Play event is no exception. Starting out as the Southern Pinball Festival in 2011, Free Play Florida is the brainchild of four arcade enthusiasts from the Sunshine State: Brian Jones, Leon Essex, William Stillwell and Mick Simmonds. These guys have created what is now recognized as one of the very best events in the world’s classic arcade calendar.

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Putting on an event with over 200 arcade cabinets is no mean feat. Hours of planning, stress and physical work is required to get these machines collated to one place over the three days – not to mention the marketing and financial investment required to put the show on. Many collectors donate multiple machines, allowing the general public to play without restrictions – it’s a serious commitment and a demonstration of the huge collective generosity of the people who put their time into making FPF happen. The electricity bill alone for the event this year was just shy of $6,000!

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It’s worth pointing out that Free Play Florida isn’t a commercial venture, the whole thing is self-funded and doesn’t make money. Everyone gets together to simply make it happen for the 2,000 paying guests who arrive each year.

I’ve flown over to the last three Free Play Florida events and this year’s was without question the best one yet.  The nice thing about an event in November, is that it is off-season, so flights and hotel accommodation tend to be on the more reasonable side (even after your fellow countrymen vote to leave the EU and shaft the exchange rate with the USA in the process).

I took plenty of pictures which should give you an idea of how the event shaped up, and the sheer scale of what is available to play:

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What you see in the main room are 247 machines all available to play. Of those, some 120 were pinball machines:

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A good mix of old and new was at the show, and some were even for sale:

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A real treat for many pinball enthusiasts was the appearance of not one but two Dialed In! pinball machines, brought to the show by pinball manufacturer Jersey Jack. This brand new pin created by legendary designer Pat Lawlor has yet to start full production. Both machines were played constantly throughout the three days, and ran without fault for the entire time:

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Getting some serious play time was tricky as there was always a queue, but from the couple of games I managed to get in, I really enjoyed this pinball. Lots of deep rules and it played much faster than JJ’s two previous wide body releases. This pin is the first to feature Bluetooth connectivity, a camera, and the ability to unlock additional features via your smart phone. Really looking forward to this one coming out next year.

And as you’d expect, there was a large Stern presence at the show, with pretty much every modern pin from their roster out on the floor somewhere:

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Both Jack Guarnieri from Jersey Jack and Gary Stern from er.. Stern Pinball were in attendance to give talks at the show. I found their perspectives and insight on the state of the Pinball industry really interesting and reassuring. Despite running businesses in competition with each other, they both individually travel the globe to enthuse and educate the public about pinball and its history:

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(Incidentally, you can watch Jack’s talk from the show here and Gary’s talk here).

In short, the pin setup was amazing. Over 100 tables stretching right across the decades:

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It’s worth dwelling on the talks for a second. Throughout the weekend a variety of subjects were covered from Pinball, arcade restorations, gaming legends panels, films and industry talks. This was a great opportunity to learn and meet/greet, and to take a breather from the buzz of the main room. Arcade Blogger was asked to talk about a variety of subjects, which I was very happy to do.

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And of course with the talks, came many classic arcade and pinball gaming alumni. It was good to catch up with friends both old and new at the show including the Godfather of high scores, my good friend Mr Walter Day:

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Walter hosted a couple of panels and brought along some new trading cards. His trusty sidekick Billy Mitchell (Pac-Man extraordinaire and star of the King of Kong movie) was on hand too, complete with extensive tie collection and an array of Rickey’s Hot Sauce:

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High scoring gaming legend Mr Todd Rogers was there. Always great fun to be around this guy:

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And the brilliantly entertaining Nathan Barnatt was in attendance as his Neo-Geo playing alter-ego retro fruitcake Keith Apicary:

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But what about the video arcade cabinets? The truth of the matter is I don’t know where to start, there was so much to choose from and I could literally post up 100’s of photos and still not cover everything. But here’s a selection of some of the rarer more unusual stuff that I enjoyed at the show:

Not one but five Gottlieb Reactor cabinets. A tournament was organized with these machines:

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Cool lineup of rare vector games. Armor Attack anyone?

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This was an interesting Tempest conversion. The machine was running Jeff Minter’s Tempest 2000, originally released on Atari’s ill-fated jaguar console:

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I’m not usually a fan of conversions but this one was in context and very well done.

To celebrate Todd Rogers’ high score on the title, and his appearance at the show, the organizers arranged for this custom Kaboom! cabinet to be made up:

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And talking of cabarets, there was a cracking lineup of unusual cabaret games here. From left to right: Qix, Centuri Eagle, Kickman, Galaga, Centipede and Dig Dug:

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This is one of the nicest early black & white cocktail machines I’ve ever seen. A title called Moon Lander:

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A super rare Space Wars. This machine is a huge beast, and surprisingly good fun to play as a two player title:

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First time I’ve seen an original Atari Lunar Lander in the flesh, complete with thrust controller:

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A really nice tabletop Arkanoid game:

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And two favorites of mine, Major Havoc and Quantum. Beautiful cabs these, and both were in absolutely mint condition and playable:

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Probably the highlight of the whole show for me was being able to see and play a Williams Sinistar cockpit. Estimates are that less than 10 of these cabs are in existence. What a cab:

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And a mint condition Rock-Ola Nibbler cabinet, signed by the stars of the Man vs Snake documentary, which I wrote about in a previous post here.

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And you won’t see many of these out in the wild, a very early Midway Space Encounters:

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There was so much more on the floor, but I hope this gives you an idea of what was there.

With the show came many world-class players. Steve Kleisath was on hand, looking to set a world record on Mario Bros using a Japanese romset:

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The two best Pac-Man players in the world, Billy Mitchell and Jon Stoodley were showcasing their skills on the game (great to watch those guys do their thing):

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And something else you won’t see every day; we were fortunate enough to witness a Donkey Kong kill screen at the event! Florida’s Shawn Robinson gained automatic qualification for next years Kong Off event as a result. Cracking stuff:

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I was asked to showcase some Missile Command at the event. My gameplay is pretty rusty these days, but I was able to drop a few respectable scores and share some tips with other players:

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So there you have it. Free Play Florida 2016 was the best yet, and next year looks set to be even better. If you’re looking for a place to see and play some rare arcade titles, watch some of the best players in the world do their thing, and meet up with like-minded individuals, it is unmissable in my book.

There’s a few walk-through videos from the event on YouTube. This one gives a good overview of things:

And if you want one just focusing on the pins, try this:

Thanks again to the organizers, donators and speakers for making a great weekend for us all, I genuinely had a blast this year, and heartily recommend you visit. The show is popular, but not so busy that you can’t get onto machines. It is super well-organized, there’s plenty going on, attended by good folk, and frankly, 3 whole days just isn’t enough time to play everything!

For more information about Free Play Florida 2017 and upcoming dates, keep an eye on the official website here.

Thanks for reading this week!

Tony

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul Drury says:

    Loving your shorts… lovely write up and yup, I want to sit in that Sinistar cab. also great to see the Reactor and Armor Attack cabs – will pass those pics on to Tim Skelly,the man behind that pair. you going next year? Mmm, must accumulate Brownie points…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Neil McEwan says:

    It’s all about the shorts!

    Like

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