By TOBIAS MCNABB
Descending the stairs into the bowels of the Elm Street Center in Greensboro on Friday, I was met with con staff and volunteers setting up for Super FamiCon. Greeting me and my early arrival with confusion and unfamiliarity, I answered in playful self-importance: “I have arrived!” Luckily, my contact for the event was quick to arrive and vouch for me before I was unceremoniously removed from the premises, but the interaction set the tone for the weekend itself. My own convention experience usually bills industry guests, panels, and special events as a priority, but the majority of attendees at Super FamiCon were there for one thing, and one thing only: Super Smash Bros.
I have only visited Greensboro once before in my youth, and luckily, I was able to explore a bit of it during the weekend. In some way, it reminds me of my hometown of Birmingham: dingy buildings serving as reminders of the past, nestled alongside modern, gentrified storefronts and restaurants. In many ways, this bipolar atmosphere served as a wider lens into Super FamiCon itself.
The Elm Street Center is a gorgeous location, but not one intended for a large nerd convention, and the layout shows. The tournament area stood far and away from the dealer’s hall and panel rooms. The floorplan, while straightforward, involved several flights of stairs with no centralized elevator, and a push through the registration desk and a hallway hall-full of artist tables.The shortcuts leading back into the parking garage only served as a change of pace rather than saving you any walking time. On the other hand, the ballroom the dealers were in was absolutely beautiful and spacious (naturally, I did not think to take any pictures of it before the weekend was up), and a quick trip down Elm Street in either direction provided a variety of food options, even if you weren’t impressed by the three food trucks that the convention brought in.
I mentioned “bipolar atmosphere” earlier, and was certainly the theme of the event schedule. Super FamiCon was really two events going on in the same venue. Downstairs was dominated by tables and collections of flickering CRT’s forming stations for the various iterations of Super Smash Bros. What space wasn’t being taken up by the equipment was certainly occupied by the warm bodies of the tournament entrants huddled around them, like travelers seeking warmth against the wintery environs. The passion and dedication of these players was ever-present—while fighting games are not exactly an area of interest for me, I couldn’t help but feel engrossed and, in part, invested in the the fights taking place. It took me back to high school, when Melee was fresh and new. We would sneak in a few Gamecubes during finals week, and the teachers let us play in the afternoons when our tests were done.
While video gaming rooms and tournaments are a staple of anime conventions, they usually take a backseat to the usual events and guest appearances. Super FamiCon flipped this paradigm, whether intentionally or not. The industry guests were top-notch. Patrick Thorpe, editor at Dark Horse Comics, showed up to talk about localizing Hyrule Historia. Luke Edwards, star of The Wizard, answered fan question and recorded a podcast interview with Jeremy Parish of Retronauts fame. Jeremy himself recorded another podcast with Limited Run Games about the cult classic Night Trap. I was personally invited to moderate the panel “Writing About the History of Video Games,” featuring Patrick, Jeremy, and Jon Irwin. Jon himself gave a panel on the development of Super Mario Bros. 2, which he literally wrote the book on.
The upper floor of the Empire Room housed both the dealers hall and fan panel room. Maybe it’s just the familiarity of anime convention merchandise, but the selection at Super FamiCon stood out to me. On one side of the room, you could purchase a variety of retro video games and consoles, as well as backlight and aesthetic mods for your classic Game Boy. On the other, you could find pillows and quilts with video game imagery imagined as stained-glass windows. My wallet cried out in fear every aisle I passed.
The fan panel lineup was stellar, even if the attendance left something to be desired. I was able to see panels by both Borderline Panels as well as fellow contributors to Third Impact Anime. Sully’s new “Nintendo Outside Nintendo” panel was a standout example to me: it was entertaining, educational, and a little bit horrifying, all attributes of a well-designed panel. One of these days, I’ll actually get to see a Tori panel from start to finish, but I have to give her a shout-out for reminding me I should check out more Fatal Frame and Silent Hill in her “If You Die in the Game, You Die for Real” panel on horror video games. Austin’s “A Brief History of Kingdom Hearts” might have been relatively brief, but he certainly didn’t skimp on the depth, covering early concept designs and lasting fan-appeal of the notorious cross-media franchise. My own panels went well—I enjoy my video game content as much as my anime coverage, and it’s a good feeling to be able to share that passion with other nerds, to see those shared moments of nostalgia betray themselves in the grins and groans of recognition of my audience.
The finale of Super FamiCon was the feedback panel with the head convention staff. There were a few logistics complaints, many of which I chalk up to this being their second year and the quick expansion from just tournaments to a full convention experience. The con chair did let slip that next year’s event will be held at the Raleigh Convention Center, the home of Animazement and Playthrough Gaming Convention. Super FamiCon could certainly use the spaciousness of the RCC, as well as a more centralized and adaptable floorplan, but a larger attendance pool is also necessary to avoid the feeling of an empty convention center. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Super FamiCon 2017, although much of that was due to being around friends and hosting a number of events. Had I walked in off the street with no prior knowledge, I’m afraid I would have been a little disappointed, but I also know myself well enough to know that disappointment would have turned into motivation to volunteer time, resources, and panel content for the next year. Super FamiCon has a solid core statement, it just needs a little time and polish to get there.
[Full disclosure, Austin of Third Impact is on senior staff at Super FamiCon, which includes his role as chief panel director. Sully and Tori were both volunteers. Stating that in the spirit of full transparency.]