Interplay, mid-1996: My first E3

(Here are the links to Parts 1 and 2.)

20140603_e3_logoAs several coworkers and I were getting the last details of our transfer from QA to Interplay’s OEM division finalized, the videogame trade show known as the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) was drawing near. It debuted the year prior, and it was already legendary, mainly due to the combined impact the show and the Sony PlayStation had on both the industry and consumers alike. Most of my gaming friends and I had one already because of the strong buzz it developed and for its solid launch lineup, including Ridge Racer, Battle Arena Toshinden, and Rayman.

I really wanted to see E3 for myself, but since the show would be moving to Atlanta the following year, I figured this would be my last chance to attend. I worked up some courage and kindly asked the management team if I could go for one day. I was thrilled when they said yes and were able to secure me a badge. I didn’t even care that my name wasn’t on it; I would be known as the generic “EX96”, and treated that pass like gold! I still have it.

The first day of E3 arrived on May 16, 1996. Little did I know what I was in for.

First of all, nobody told me about the parking, or lack thereof. I suppose I should have known that I would need to get to the LA Convetion Center by or before the crack of dawn to secure parking at the actual venue. I would never make that mistake again.

20140603_sm64_boxThat was a big year, as among many other things it marked the debut of Nintendo’s Super Mario 64, and everyone wanted to get a taste. It’s a classic that a lot series die-hards still consider the best of the 3D Mario games, if not at the very least the most revolutionary. I would go on to spend way too much money on an import Nintendo 64 to play it before its US release, but I’ll save that story for another post.

Anyway, back to the parking saga. After sitting in gridlocked hell for over an hour, I finally found a “parking lot” about 5 blocks away. It consisted of little more than rock-riddled dirt, a chain-link fence, and a shady attendant, but after wasting nearly 3 hours driving to LA and scouring the area, lowering my parking standards didn’t take much effort. I parked and headed towards the convention center, wondering if my car would still be there after the show.

Now, if you’ve never been to E3 before, pictures and videos really don’t do it justice. The enormity and intensity of everything is very difficult to fully capture in words, especially back in the day when the sky was still the limit for everyone. The venue itself was already larger than life, with giant banners adorning the outside of the convention halls, while advertisements, kiosks, models, bright lights, huge video walls, and very, very loud music hitting me from every angle once I stepped through the building threshold.

It was sensory overload of the highest magnitude, and I loved it. I was just about to turn 22 that month, so I was still in my “I’m able to go out every night to loud clubs and bars and function fine the next day!” years. I was ready.

Walking into one of the main halls, I just didn’t know where to start. I saw the names of my favorite companies hanging high in the air: Nintendo, Sega, Konami, Namco, Square, Sony, Capcom, and many others. It’s interesting to look back and see how much the Japanese companies dominated the industry back then, compared to what it’s like now. While I wanted to make a beeline straight for the heavy hitters, I decided to just go up and down each row to check out every booth in order.

About halfway through the first hall, though, I was not only starting to feel fatigued, but also incredibly annoyed with the insanely dense (and sweaty) sea of attendees.  It was pretty cool to see so many like-minded people together at one event like that, but when you can’t even focus on a game you’re eager to check out because someone’s standing there yelling at you to go through their game a certain way, or you’re being constantly bumped by the flow of people behind you, it quickly becomes an exercise in patience. Or rage control, rather.

That aside, however, the announcements and games themselves that year were fantastic! It’s crazy to think that Windows wasn’t even really a gaming platform yet. Most things we did at the time were still done in DOS. I was definitely more comfortable with the streamlined C:\> prompt than I was with the clunky and ugly Windows 95. Microsoft made a big gaming push that year, but I didn’t really pay attention, since I was still very much attached to DOS gaming. I was there for the consoles, man.

20140603_crash_1_boxAlthough Super Mario 64 was the star of the show, Naughty Dog — who was still relatively unknown at the time — was showing off their own mascot platformer for the PlayStation: Crash Bandicoot. Like the whole Windows gaming thing, I remember walking past it, thinking that it looked nice, but I didn’t really pay much attention to it. Part of it was the Mario 64 buzz; the other being my weird bias against domestic developers at the time.

While I loved them for traditional PC game development, I found most US-based console games to be lacking when stacked up against their Japanese competitors, and the vast majority of my favorite 8-bit and 16-bit games came from overseas. There were exceptions, like the excellent Cool Spot and refined Disney platformers from Virgin, but heading into the 32-bit generation, a lot of those ill feelings still persisted. However, by the second — and especially the third — Crash Bandicoot game, I was a huge Naughty Dog fan, with their games and the games of many other US-based developers looking and playing as good as the best out of Japan.

20140603_nightsMeanwhile, after a year on the market, Sega was still struggling with their Saturn console. It was one of the worst console launches ever, and even though I felt burnt by both the Sega CD and 32X — both were huge disappointments for me — I was still a big Sega fan at heart. One of my most anticipated games was NiGHTS into dreams…, which I had only seen in tiny, compressed video clips on the internet earlier that year, but the design, colors, and sound immediately drew me in.

The display that Sega had for NiGHTS was pretty cool, with the title character flying high above their booth, but the area they had for it was small. Most folks stood transfixed (myself included) on the utterly amazing Virtua Fighter 3 demo, showing off Sega’s new Model 3 arcade board. To put it lightly, it melted faces, and I think it still looks pretty darn good for its age.

I didn’t get the sense that Sega really believed in NiGHTS, and I remember that it didn’t do much when it came out in the US later that year. I loved it, though; the analog controller was terrific, and it remains one of my all-time favorite Saturn games. It also possesses a magical soundtrack that is still part of my CD collection.

20140603_ff7One other major title at E3 was Square’s behemoth: Final Fantasy VII.

At the time, I don’t know if any other game was anticipated as highly as this, and it had already made tsunami-sized waves with the announcement earlier that year that it would no longer be released for the Nintendo 64, but instead would be exclusive to the PlayStation. The announcement underscored the high cost and low capacity of cartridges, practically outdating the N64 before it had even been released. This was absolutely huge news at the time, since Nintendo fans had grown up with so many Square classics across its 8-bit and 16-bit systems, and many would find themselves deserting the child’s play of Nintendo for the cool, new kid on the block.

I honestly don’t remember much about FF7‘s presence at the show, as I think it was only there in CGI trailer form. No matter, though; the demo that was released later that year pretty much guaranteed that everyone and their mother would buy it upon release. And buy it they did, to the tune of about 10 million copies over its lifetime. No wonder it’s often referred to as the game that sold the PlayStation.

But after only about 4 hours, I was done. That whole “I don’t remember much” theme would continue through all E3 shows I would attend as either a guest or exhibitor. There’s just so much to see and do. If you do get a chance to attend, I’d recommend bringing a camera and notepad so that you can actually document and remember what you saw, because otherwise you won’t. There’s just no way. This is especially true for the tiny diamonds in the rough, of which there are always many.

My next show wouldn’t be until Atlanta ’98, where I would also work the Interplay booth for the first time. I almost didn’t make it onto the flight back to LA, if that says anything about the good times that were had.

I’ll always be very thankful that I was able to go, and yes, my car was still there, parked in the dirt as I’d left it.


8 thoughts on “Interplay, mid-1996: My first E3

  1. I remember reading all about E3 in EGM and was supremely jealous that I couldn’t go. Thankfully I was able to go years later thanks to my job at Toys R Us, since Toys R Us is a retailer in the game industry. It’s quite a spectacle to attend though seeing it back in ’96 would have been amazing will all of the great titles coming out.

  2. Wow, what an amazing year to be there. I always treasure the fact that I got to be at the “Xbox 360” announce e-3, but 96? man what a year to have been there. the heady old days. it would be like having had a chance to go to woodstock or something. just like a time that has long gone and can only be remember by those who were there. Totally fascinating read.

    • Yeah, it was a great time. A little bittersweet for me, since I was such a Sega and Nintendo fan heading into the 32-bit generation. Seeing both of them now in the shadow of Sony — more so with Sega — was bizarre. I would come to have such a love/hate relationship with the Saturn… I’m looking forward to writing those pieces. Anyway, glad you enjoyed reading this, and I appreciate the comment!

  3. Wow. E3. I didn’t get to go as a Interplay employee, but I did get to go with THQ. I feel like my first year was either 2000 or 2001. Sega made a huge push with Dreamcast and Space Channel 5 one of those years. I remember parking right near Shaquille ONeal’s Hummer. Lol.

    Nothing prepared me for the gaming nirvana that was the show floor. It was like Christmas morning. I’ll never forget it. I got to play and demo games that I only read about in magazines. I made sure to brag to my friends when I got home. No other E3 had that same magic, but I think that’s partially because I always had to work it.

    Thanks for sharing this, Mikey.

    • I can’t remember what year it was — ’99 probably — but Guenther and I were upstairs eating lunch at E3 and we saw Sinbad there. I remember watching someone walk up to him and say hi, and Sinbad stopped eating, turned to him, and talked to him for a few minutes. He was super-friendly, and I thought it was cool that he didn’t just brush the guy off. Respect for him went way up after that.

      The year the Wii dominated E3, some friends and I met Miyamoto as he was wandering around alone by the Kodak Theater. I’ll have to write about that one in more vivid detail in a future post. 🙂

      • I don’t believe I’ve heard the Miyamoto story. Sounds like a good one.

        I had lunch with Adam Sessler and Morgan Webb once at E3. That was fun. Also got to demo Destroy All Humans for Elijah Wood. I geeked out on that one. Haha.

        • That was the second time I’d been that close to Miyamoto. The first time was in a hotel elevator, and by the time I realized who it was, I froze and couldn’t think of anything to say. Our second meeting must have been meant to be. LOL

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