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Memories of a 16-bit Consumer Electronics Show
By Cyril Lachel     |   Posted on January 08, 2018   |   Episode 20 (Show Archive)  

   
This week marks the 51st year of the Consumer Electronics Show, the annual Las Vegas event that sees the biggest names in televisions, computers, virtual reality and even car audio come together and announce the next big thing. If this is the first you're hearing about it, then it's probably because CES doesn't generate a lot of gaming news these days. With E3, Tokyo Game Show and a half dozen other gaming events, companies like Sony and Microsoft tend to use this show to highlight their other products.

But there once was a time when companies like Nintendo, Sega, Capcom, Konami, SNK and Data East used to bring all their newest games to the Las Vegas Convention Center to generate excitement for the new year. I went to every Winter CES between 1993 and 1996, and today I thought it would be fun to go back in time and discuss some of the highs and lows. These are my memories of a 16-bit Consumer Electronics Show.

Video Games Got No Respect
These days, video games are everywhere. It's an industry that makes $100 billion a year, easily outpacing movies and music sales. But if you said that to any of the bigwigs at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1993, they would laugh in your face and never believe another word you said. Video gamers were the outcasts. We were the new kids trying to shake things up, and the stodgy old-timers had nothing but contempt for us.

Don't believe me? Then let me remind you that most of the video game companies were separated from the convention center and hidden away in a large tent. Sure, this was partially done to make more room for an ever-growing convention, but there was a noticeable feeling that the games weren't actually part of the "real" CES.

Of course, I didn't care. I attended my first Consumer Electronics Show when I was 14, so I was used to getting no respect. You have to understand that this was an era before everybody was on the internet and we could easily verify simple facts. Using little more than an X-Acto Knife and glue, my mom doctored a birth certificate and we used my high school's newspaper to obtain a press pass. I was a few years too young to get in, but my impeccably maintained goatee helped me look a little older.

Now, it's worth pointing out that there was some drama picking up the badge. Even though I had already been approved, I was worried that they were going to be jerks and require a driver's license I didn't have. I mean, my family and I had flown all the way to Nevada, so how crushing would it have been if I was denied access to the one thing we came for? Thankfully, they didn't care, and my Ocean Breeze press pass was good enough for them. The 1990s were great.

I didn't care that all these CES veterans were looking down at us gamers, because I was just excited to be at the most important video game event in the world. It was the show I read so much about in Electronic Gaming Monthly and GamePro, and I was at the center of it as a teenager. Some of the games and faces are a little blurry, but when I close my eyes and concentrate, I can still see myself entering that CES video game tent for the first time.


Playing StarFox 2 for the First Time
Gamers had lofty expectations going into the 1995 Winter Consumer Electronics Show. Not only did they expect a bunch of new games, but they were hoping to get their first glimpse of what would become the Nintendo 64. This was not to be, but at least they brought a bunch of games, right?

I'm not going to lie, my frustration and disappoint over the hardware news completely overshadowed the fact that I was playing StarFox 2. The same StarFox 2 that Nintendo ended up canceling, only to release it some two decades later on the Super NES Classic Edition. At the time I didn't think anything of it. I figured that this was just an incomplete version of a game I would be playing later that year. Had I known that Nintendo was going to axe the game late in development, I would have stopped being butthurt about the lack of N64 and savored my time with StarFox 2. Blame it on being young.

On the topic of unreleased Super NES games, Nintendo was also showing off a little game called Comanche. This was a port of the popular NovaLogic computer game, and what I played at CES seemed okay. It was later scrapped due to performance issues and has since been completely forgotten. I guess it's too much to ask for the Super NES Classic Edition to have two unreleased games from 1995.


You Don't Know Jack Saves the CES
You know how some TV shows will stay on the air a couple seasons too long? Well, I went to one too many Consumer Electronics Shows. Thanks to the birth of E3 in 1995, the following Winter CES was a ghost town. Very few of the major gaming companies bothered to show up, and the few that did had little to show off. The days of the CES being the biggest gaming event were over, and I felt like the last person to get the memo.

As disappointing as it was, I put on a brave face and made the most out of a bad situation. I got to know the few gaming companies that showed up and found myself exploring more than ever before. But when it came right down to it, the only thing that really made me feel better was a small booth manned by the developers of You Don't Know Jack.

This was the first I had seen of the game, and I was immediately hooked. Their booth was shaped like a game show, where three people could get on a small stage and go head-to-head. The winner would get a free copy of You Don't Know Jack, complete in box. I must have gone up on that stage a couple dozen times over the course of the three days. I came home with an armful of copies of You Don't Know Jack, which I ended up giving out to a lot of my friends. I still have multiple copies left over. This was easily the game of the show in 1996.


CES '95 Kind of Sucked, Too
It's easy to view the 1995 Consumer Electronics Show as a disappointment, and not just because the Nintendo 64 was nowhere to be found. This was the year when both Sony and Sega had 32-bit consoles to sell, yet neither company had those systems on the show floor. If you wanted to check out the PlayStation and Saturn, you were forced to huddle around the Die Hard Game Fan booth and take turns playing their Japanese imports.

There was new hardware at that year's CES, but it turned out to be the Virtual Boy. I waited in a long line in order to be led into a dark room full of kiosks with games. I stuck my head in the goggles and was introduced to a simple pinball game full of eye-piercing 3D effects. After a few minutes, I was ready to try out the next game, a boxing game with giant robots. I bounced between the games trying to get a sense of what the system had to offer, a little confused by what I was seeing. A few minutes later, we were being rushed out of the booth to make room for the next group of unsuspecting suckers.

Outside, it was easy to tell who were the Virtual Boy survivors, they all had a dazed and confused look. All except for one guy, who broke the silence by blurting out the single most honest comment I've heard at a convention: "Wait ... this thing is two hundred bucks? TWO HUNDRED BUCKS?!? OH, FUCK THAT!" In my head he received a well-deserved slow clap, but I'm sure that's just me embellishing what happened twenty years ago.

The 1995 Consumer Electronics Show was the first time I realized that a video game convention could be an utter disappointment. The bubble had burst.


A Few Non-Gaming Memories
The first year I went to the Consumer Electronics Show, we stayed at a small hotel called the Mardi Gras. That's "Mardi Gras," like the Carnival celebration in New Orleans. Yet everybody at the hotel kept calling it the Mardi Grass, almost as if they had never heard the word said out loud before. It's probably the only reason I remember where we stayed.

One year later, we stayed at Circus Circus. That's the hotel that is usually the butt of the joke in movies and TV, as it has a reputation for being kind of dirty and gimmicky. I'm sure that's true, but as a teenager, I loved every second of it. They had an incredible laser tag setup that felt like it was an entire building. I must have spent hours in that thing. Just thinking about it makes me want to play laser tag, but I'm not sure if I can do that without looking like a giant creep.

This is everything you could possibly want to know about the Consumer Electronics Show in one place. It looks like it's a CD, but it's actually a couple of floppy disks. What am I supposed to do with this?

Even though there were a couple of dud years, I loved going to the Consumer Electronics Show. I have so many memories of the event throughout the years and wish I could get to all of them. It was the convention that sparked my interest in going to gaming events, and without it I'm not sure I would have gone to E3. CES will never be as great as it was in the 1990s, but as long as I have my memories, it doesn't need to be.
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