Sunday, April 03, 2016

The National Videogame Museum is Open! Here's the Review.

The National Videogame Museum (NVM)! Where Videogame is one word and it is killing my spell check. So many red lines that I can not fix.

Grand Opening was this past Saturday, April 2nd. And The Geek Spot fans, I promised I would deliver with a review and in-depth look at the location. It started out as the Videogame History Museum, a traveling collection of gaming memorabilia moving from convention to convention. As the gaming content has grown over the years, it became necessary for the team to look for a more solid location. Seeing what was available at NVM it's easy to understand how it would have been impossible for the group to bring every piece, from game consoles to memorabilia, around the country and give people the full experience.

The museum has since settled in Frisco, Texas at the Frisco Discovery Center. Think of it as a community theater on a tech trip. It's a mini-geek paradise. They even had nerd art on the walls before you get to the museum!

Saturday was ridiculously busy. Not only was I asked to attend to report for a few news outlets, I volunteered to be a cosplay assistant and help greet people as they made their way inside. Look! There's me with a Wario cosplayer. I call that a cosplay win.

Let's get the basics out of the way. The museum costs $12 for adults and $10 for military, senior citizens, educators, and children. Not students though. The size of the museum is probably around the square-footage of a respectable 3 bedroom/2bathroom home. It can hold up to 275 people at a time. Which means there was a long line to get in on Saturday, roughly an hour wait. As mentioned on the museum's Facebook page, the exhibit can take you as little as 30 minutes to walk through if you don't stop and look at everything. Or it can take you 2-3 hours before you make your way into the arcade.

NVM is all about interactivity. The museum wants you to touch. To play. To experience everything in front of you. Unless it's behind a glass pane or a walled off display, they want you to go up to the item and touch it. There's a 15 foot game of Pong, for crying out loud. You must play it!

I can easily see how someone who's not into the history of games could walk though and be done in 30 minutes. And others, like myself, who could get wrapped up in all of the displays and artwork that we'd stay for several hours, taking it all in. Would I have liked to have seen a bigger museum? Yes. But I think with their collection size and the space they worked with, NVM did a fantastic job with it's layout that you can easily see there is a lot of content in the space, while still making the area feel open and inviting.

Currently the museum has 3 exhibits, and I believe these will run indefinitely until they opt to swap out for a limited time event: The Timeline of Consoles, 80's Arcade (which came with the infamous sweaty smell), and Pre-Historic (Pong and early PC's). They also have a "wall of kitsch," as I call it (the one pictured is just one of the cases - there were several). A huge display of all of the pins, pre-order items, t-shirts, and random figurines one could find for a video game.

My critique of the exhibits is that the flow feels off. There are no markers on the floor or signs telling you which way to go. You're meant to explore more on your own and make your way around the square. There are "stage" signs above the exhibits (Stage 1, Stage 2, etc.), but it doesn't fit with the format they are trying to convey. It's not bad, but it's also not in a traditional museum model. If you want to look at The Timeline of Consoles, unfortunately you'll have to bounce to different parts of the museum to see them all. Some are to your immediate left as you walk into the museum, but then you have to walk past the Giant Pong to see more, then you have to wiggle your way past the Online Games arena and Randy Pitchford's office, around the music zone, and then! you're the display cases of more gaming consoles. The layout of the museum is nice, but it is not conductive for those wanting to go through exhibit-by-exhibit; as one would in a traditional museum. Things are too scattered to use a map in that manner.

If you attend, I recommend that you go through the museum like this (after the entryway with the gaming art piece). Note that many of these "stages" are in order, but getting from Point A to Point B can be awkward. The outline I've created seemed to make the most sense in terms of exhibit structure and the layout of the room:

Start out on the left with the Giant Pong and stick to the left wall as you see the start of the consoles. Keep to the left and be immersed by the wall of controllers (which looks like a wall of Space Invaders when you stand back - we have made some weird controllers over the years). Keep to the left as you go into the hand-held alcove and when you leave, you'll find yourself in the "going out of business" game store. This is the mark of the 1980's game crash. Stick to the left wall to go through the history of the crash and then turn around to view the section on your right which is all of the PC units. I nearly forgot how giant those rigs were in the 80's.

As you make your way around, keep going straight as if you are leaving the museum. To your left is the museum's Easter Egg hunt where you can win some fun small prizes for finding all the hidden parts to the museum. You'll also pass the Q-Bert wall installation, featuring every Q-Bert game in action. It's kind of mesmerizing. Move forward and you'll see Mario! That's the next stop. There's a giant SNES controller where you can play some games and most console history. Behind you there will be a series of gaming system where people can stop and play. But don't sit down quite yet. Stick to the left wall with the Duck Hunt art and turn left where you'll find the rest of the consoles. There are a number of units and trinkets in these cases, so take your time to look. There's also a Brother sewing machine that hooked up to a GameBoy Color. Who knew?

Now you can turn around and stop at the gaming area and play for a while. The games range from classics to more modern content, all seated under this amazing artwork of video game characters spanning the decades. When you're done head right and past the Q-Bert wall once more. To your right you'll see Randy's office and the Online Gaming history. Randy's space definitely needs a larger plaque. Unless you've been following the NVM building process, no one really knew what it was and kept walking. When you're done oogling his goodies (he has a lot of classic games in his office), you'll step into the modern gaming world with touch screens, Minecraft, and a music gaming mini-learning center. I have found that I'm still decent at Parappa the Rapper even without the sound on.

On the far wall is the "wall of kitsch" I was describing earlier. If you head to the left those are the restrooms, covered in Dragon's Lair art, and to the right you can step into a 1980's home and bedroom. These area are 100% intractable, from the Calicovision system to the Rubix cube on the nightstand. Though we argued the logic on a person being both a Duran Duran and Blue Oyster Cult fan (based on the posters and records in the area).

As you leave the home, you'll find a Castlevania life-sized statue to your left, and the arcade is straight ahead! It really is stepping back into the 1980's with the colors, the lights, and the smell. Only an hour in and the air was filled with the scents of an arcade. This is the last stop as it leads you out to the small gift shop, which has more gaming collectables and less knick-knacks (by the way, NVM, look into buttons, pens, and smaller items to sell. Gamers love buttons. Just ask Penny Arcade. They have a pin and button empire).

That walk through is likely going to get you the most out of your experience while utilizing the exhibit format they are trying to portray.

Another thing I strongly encourage people to do if they plan to visit: take in the art work. All of the art was commissioned by some talented people around the country and this is one of the few museums where one could spend as much time looking at the walls as they could on the collection. Everywhere you go you can find your favorite video game characters, homage to classic gaming moments, and more. They did a really smart thing here where they couldn't utilize all of the content due to lack of space - they made the walls part of the experience. And it's just amazing...I loved seeing the walls become part of the experience. They told part of the gaming story and allow you to visualize other aspects of the past without having the pieces out on display. You could tell that the artwork was deliberate so as to give equal share to the games on the floor as well as on the walls.

Even though I was busy, I did get a chance to at least see everything, even if it was a quick pass-through. I am definitely going back again so I can sit down and truly experience it. I didn't get an opportunity to play the Giant Pong due to the lines, but there will be other days!

If you're coming in from out of town and you want to see the NVM, here are my tips:

- Be prepared for a small space, but remember this is an interactive exhibit. What you put into it is how much you'll get out of it. The more you are involved, the more you'll get your money's worth.

- Take your kids, if you have any! Part of the highlights was watching them try to use some of the older consoles and gain an appreciation for how much we have evolved in the past few years. Trying to teach them how to play Pong and use the Calicovision controllers was hilarious (they thought they were touchpads like you'd use on an iPod).

- Don't go during the opening weekends if you want to avoid the crowds. It's very likely this museum is going to be busy over the next few months, right into Summer as kids get out of school. Look to a week-day visit if you can.

- Bring hand sanitizer. There were a few pump bottles around the area, but I didn't see any in the arcade room. Yeah. Gross.

- Photos and videos are encouraged! Just remember to follow the rules and don't open any display cases that are clearly meant for viewing.

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