Inside MAGFest 2016: A first-timer’s perspective

Feb 29, 2016

Is it an exageration to say MAGFest is the ultimate geek’s playground? Perhaps, but not by much.

Every year in mid-February, at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., MAGFest (Mid-Atlantic Gaming Festival) puts together the most impressive array of electronic and and musical entertainment you’re likely to see on the East Coast. This monster of a convention offers free-play console gaming, arcade cabinets, LAN tournaments, tabletop/card games, indie demos; apparel, gift and accessories vendors; concerts, hallway dance sessions, raves, panels and much more.

Sound impressive? That’s what I though when I first heard about MAGFest from some friends earlier this year. I often attend smaller conventions in my home state of Ohio, mostly anime-oriented ones like Ohayocon, Matsuricon and Colossalcon, but I had been told that MAGFest put them all to shame. My interest was piqued and I was on board for the road trip almost immediately.

Along with a couple of old high school chums, I set out on the six-hour drive to MAGFest on Friday, Feb. 19. We were worried we’d be late, but arriving to a non-stop party like MAGFest at 7 p.m. is no problem. Expect to see intense activity in the convention center until the wee hours of dawn at MAGFest.

What struck me right away was the size of the convention center. The Gaylord boasts all the space an event like MAGFest would need. Thousands of attendees coursed through the complex, but the generous hallways and gaming rooms minimized the claustrophobia factor.

Speaking of space, the arcade room alone was large enough to hold more than 200 cabinets and systems. You could find almost anything here; obscure Japanese rhythm games, light-gun shooters, racers and everything in between. I was personally happy to see not one but two Crisis Zone cabinets. The X-Men arcade game and several iterations of Metal Slug were icing on the cake.

Dealing with lines is one of the less-fun aspects of MAGFest, but people were generally good about giving each other a turn.

Dealing with lines is one of the less-fun aspects of MAGFest’s game rooms, but people were generally good about giving others a turn.

Next door to the arcade room, the “Marketplace” was similar to the dealer’s room you’d find at most other conventions, except much larger than any I’d ever visited. It was also open all night. Some booths closed down at night, but many merchants sold their wares well past midnight, carrying everything from t-shirts, prop weapons, buttons, candles, retro games and collectibles to name a few.

A surprising and interesting part of the fest was the indie showcase room, where independent game developers had demonstration copies of their games set up and available for anyone to try out. Not all were playable, but many stood out as projects worth following to their release. Liege, a turn-based fantasy RPG by small developer Coda Games, was only a demo video, but it showcased an inventive combat system that allowed for a wide variety of maneuvers, including defensive moves and area-of-effect attacks you don’t see in many games of the genre.

Attracting a steady crowd of eager players, Combat Core, by MABManZ Game Development, was another popular guest of the indie showcase. This high-energy multiplayer arena beat-em-up seemed like the heir apparent to Power Stone and games of its stripe. My fighting game skills being as modest as they are, I held my own in a couple of matches and saw a lot of potential in the several characters, game modes and maps Combat Core brings to the table.

MAGFest's indie showcase featured several interesting upcoming games, including multiplayer arena fighter Combat Core.

MAGFest’s indie showcase featured several interesting upcoming games, including multiplayer arena fighter Combat Core.

If that didn’t scratch your fighting game itch, there were several Super Smash Bros. games set up next door in the console room – a football field-length collection of consoles modern and retro alike. Fest-goers could lend a hand toward the MAGFest Metroid marathon, join the Rock Band party, kill some time with Pokemon Snap or any of the many other games.

These four rooms made up the core of the gaming experiences at MAGFest, but that’s far from the end of the lineup. For those willing to lug their PC rigs to the festival, tournaments and LAN parties were available in the separate PC gaming room. I didn’t make the time for it this year, but there’s also a healthy selection of card games, pen-and-paper campaigns such as Pathfinder, and other tabletop activities that were free for anyone to join.

Music is also key to the identity of MAGFest, and this was clear by the volume of performers that were regularly rotating into and out of the concert hall. Bands and artists like Psychostick, Ninja Sex Party, I Fight Dragons, Bit Brigade, Sammus, The OneUps and many more filled out the bill. I only made it to one concert, but I Fight Dragons put on one of the greatest live sets I’ve ever attended. It made my night to hear them play their cover of the Contra theme song. I was also impressed with the punctuality of the musical performances. Bands stuck to their stage times and started playing as scheduled.

Chicago-based rock band I Fight Dragons wears its geeky identity on its sleeve. The band is well known for its rocking rendition of the Contra theme song.

Chicago-based rock band I Fight Dragons wears its geeky identity on its sleeve. It provided one of many high-energy performances in the MAGFest concert hall.

On their own, these activities would be a great time for almost anyone. However, MAGFest is far greater than the sum of its parts. What truly brings the whole experience together is the culture, the people and the community. People in the game room were very good about sharing machines, giving turns and welcoming co-op partners. Designated “jam pods” were marked on the floor to show people where it was safe to dance, mosh and just jam out – and jam out they did. At one point, my friends wandered past an open hotel room door upstairs and were invited in to watch cartoons with the strangers inside, who quickly became friends. Cosplay was also strong at MAGFest, creating a welcoming and dynamic environment, not to mention great people-watching opportunities.

This all adds up to an event where having a great time is the prime directive – everything else fell by the wayside. I was beyond exhausted by the end of the weekend and I still feel like I experienced a fraction of what MAGFest has to offer.

If you’re interested in seeing for yourself what MAGFest has to offer, take a few tips from a fellow newbie.

  • Go with friends: This might seem like common sense, but I can’t overstate how important it is to have a group of people you know with you at the event. You’ll probably want to split up at times and you’re likely to meet new friends, but it’s very beneficial to be able to have familiar faces nearby.
  • Pre-register: Always get your pass ahead of time. Not only is it cheaper, but it also guarantees entry in case the event sells out.
  • Plan ahead: Far ahead. Very far ahead. As with most cons, the hotel attached to the convention center can and does completely sell out each year. If you want a room with easy access to the festival, but you don’t plan on sleeping all that much, reserve a room several months, if not a year, in advance.
  • Stay hydrated: Unless you want constant headaches, drink some water at every chance you get while you’re walking around, taking in the festival. MAGFest makes this easy for you by placing water jugs all over the game rooms and along several of the hallways.

If you live near or can easily get to the East Coast of the U.S., it’s well worth your while to consider coming out to MAGFest 2017.

Did you attend this year? Let us know in the comments below what you thought of MAGFest 2016!