My Vacation at MAGFest 2018

For the first time ever, I travelled out of state to go to a convention. What convention, you ask? MAGFest, which is short for Music and Gaming, is held in Maryland. Since I was on vacation, I went to fully enjoy what the event had to offer. This is more of a story instead of a full on review. Sure, there are some review aspects here but it’s still a story. Did MAGFest live up to be what it was hyped out to be or did it suck? Read on to find out.

I’ve heard about MAGfest for years. I believe I first heard about it from the Happy Video Game Nerd youtube channel back in the day. MAGFest was the mythological event where musicians from all over the world would travel to and perform great covers of video game songs. Loving video game soundtracks, I would’ve gladly made a pilgrimage to an event like that if it was close by. I heard it was in Washington and put it out of my mind because of how far of a distance it was. Jealousy flowed through my veins because I couldn’t go while it seemed like everyone else was. Eventually, I forgot about it. Fast forward to October 2016, Sam of the Super Guitar Bros had implored me to go to MAGFest in 2017. By implore, it means I have to quote Sam properly: “Bro, you gotta go. Just go, bro. Just go”. Suffice to say, I didn’t go because I felt it was too late and I still thought it was in Washington. September 2017 came around and I ran into a friend while I was at work. She brought up MAGFest and that inspired me to look it up immediately. After doing some research, I saw that it was in Maryland, close to Washington DC. I guess getting your facts straight can be helpful from time to time. Looking at the distance, it was doable compared to the other Washington. Seeing that I wasn’t scheduled to work during that weekend, a light bulb went off and the stars aligned. I was obsessed with going. One way or another, I had to make it work. I ran my crazy whim of an idea by my girlfriend to see if she was interested. She was and it turned out that she was able to go too. We bought badges at full price and we booked a hotel five miles out from the Gaylord. A few months and a less than two hour flight later, we arrived in Maryland to check out MAGFest.

Early Thursday and Observations
We arrived early on Thursday, around 10, to get in line for tickets. I heard that MAGfest usually sees over 5 digits when it comes to attendees. I had no idea how long the line was going to be and if it was going to stretch outside since I never attended before. Thankfully, long lines that stretched out the doors did not await us when we arrived at the hotel. In fact, it was barely a line at all. There were at least 15 registration stations to speed up the process. We had our badges in less than 10 minutes.

The theme for 2018 was King Donut but we all know it was based on the Kirby game series. I’ve always enjoyed the games with the Pink Puffball. Prior to purchasing a badge, this con had already earned a thumbs up from me. The badges were tailored and shaped for specific groups that wore them. Guests wore the yellow stars which are prominent in the games. Staff wore donuts. Attendees were given the Dreamer patches. These were fashioned after the Kirby’s Epic Yarn which is one of my favorite Kirby games of all time. I was very impressed with the design of my badge.

What awaited us was a table full of lanyard choices that were all colors of the rainbow. I’m glad that they didn’t give us badge with a clip attached to it. I feel that lanyards are better to utilize. Each badge had an ID number and a barcode associated to each attendee when they checked in. There was a security hotline number printed on the back too. If you wanted to access the schedule, all you had to do was scan the QR code and it would take you to the guidebook. I wish more conventions/events would implement these ideas.

Afterwards, we wondered around to see what was available. The gaming rooms and dealer rooms were closed off. There were a few panels here and there. There wasn’t a lot available to the public until around 2pm. Once 2pm hit, game on. That pun was totally intended. For the next few paragraphs, I would like to go over some general things but not necessarily in chronological order.

Let’s get this out of the way, MAG is a music festival centered around gaming first and foremost. Everything else follows after the music as far as order of importance. If you are only going to play video games and hang out with your friends without attending any of the concerts, you are missing the point of MAGFest. Its like going to an Asian buffet and ordering pizza. Obviously, people are free to do what they please but I can’t imagine going to MAGFest and skipping on the main attraction.

Music was felt everywhere. The main stage concerts were held in a ballroom. Close to the ballroom, there was a chiptune showcase space. On the opposite side of the same level, the Mega Man-Athon area served as another concert area. On the way to the Mega Man area, you would find a pop music space where musicians would do impromptu performances. I watched a group of cosplaying belly dancers perform in the pop up area. The Belvedere Lobby Bar was a relaxing area to catch music. There was a designated Jam Space too. Suffice to say, I was in paradise since I love music so much.

The Gaylord Hotel was beautiful. Plus, it was huge. I have never seen an atrium so big that it could easily fit two houses with ample room. Now, I can say that I have. Honestly, the Gaylord is the nicest hotel I have ever seen. I like the fact that MAGFest was held in one central location at the Gaylord. No walking/running from building to building to catch events. It was not difficult to navigate once you had the lay of the land. This con was held on four levels The video game rooms, registration and dealers room were held on the Atrium level, check in was held on the Lobby level. Concerts, LAN gaming and panels were held on the Ballroom level. Finally, table top gaming was held on the National Harbor level. You could casually walk from one area to the next within 5 to 10 minutes depending on how crowded it was.

One criticism that I had, against the Gaylord and the surrounding areas, was the overpriced food in the restaurants. $17.95 for a burger, fries and a soft drink? Come on!!!! You can call me cheap, frugal, thrifty, etc, etc, but I don’t want to break the bank over the course of week while eating at a convention.Thankfully, the convention/hotel didn’t ban outside food. There was a CVS Pharmacy down the street where we stocked up on snacks to hold us over until we went out for dinner.

The Guidebook app was pretty cool. Once you downloaded the MAGFest schedule to the app, the initial version was left on your phone. If you left your phone connected to the internet, the schedule was constantly updated by the staff. The MAG crew were on the ball. When changes in the schedule occurred, you would know about it. Being able to set reminders and filter events was a nice touch to the app too.

For the first time at a con, I noticed a merch booth for the musicians which I usually see at concerts. Considering that MAG is a music festival, the merch booth known as Rock Island made a lot of sense. Rock Island was open from early in the morning until late at night. Usually, I would have to watch a band and then wait to buy merch from the band afterward. That was not the case with MAGFest since the MAG staff were selling merch on behalf of the musicians. There was a wall of posters noting the available albums from each respective artist. You would go to the booth and tell the staff what you want and away you went with your new music. I like the fact that I was able to purchase music whenever the booth hours were open instead of having to track down the musical guests to buy from them. Rock Island was a pretty handy feature to experience.

Fun Fact: I was the first person to buy the new Ocarina of Time album by the Super Guitar Bros. Suck it, Trebeck.

I did a quick walkthrough of the Dealer’s Room. From what I saw, it was a typical Dealer’s Room with a wide variety of artists and vendors. I didn’t spend much time in there because I had very limited space with my carry-ons for my flight home. I didn’t want to push it by buying a boatload of stuff. Plus, there wasn’t anything that made me scream internally “I MUST HAVE IT NOW”.

As a whole package, I would have to say that MAGFest had the best gaming setup I have ever seen. There were three separate rooms dedicated to gaming. One room for console gaming ranging from the Atari to the Xbox One. One room for the Indie Video Game Showcase. Finally, one room for the arcade games. As I walked through the arcade room, I learned that there was a Sailor Moon beat’em up and a whitewater rafting game called Rapid River. If arcade video games were not your thing, I saw rows of pinball machines too. For some reason, I didn’t see Battletoads. I saw The Simpsons and the X-Men Arcade games but not Battletoads. Not even close to being a deal breaker. Did I mention that each room was massive? It was amazing. 24 hour gaming too except for the Indie Video Game Showcase.

I sat down and checked out a few of the games by the indie developers. The developer of Kung Fu Kickball thoroughly trounced me. When that game comes out, I hope there are more stages. Pretty fun nonetheless. Another developer trounced me in Blind Blades. Certainly a pattern in how I was fairing against indie developers. I like the utilization of black and white to obscure you from your opponents and vice versa. Another cool game. Battlesloths 2025: The Great Pizza Wars was a fun and frantic multiplayer with random weapons spawning all over the screen. Apparently, the Impeccable Picaro made its demo debut at MAGFest. The game reminded me of Mark of the Ninja. You played a thief who was robbing museums of their valuables. You had the option of avoiding or killing security guards. When you killed a security guard and cleared a stage, you had a dossier report describing what the guard was like. My favorite description was Total Dick. I didn’t feel so bad in killing him after I read that.

I’m sad to say that I did not make the time to play Salmon Roll: The Upstream Team. I witnessed players holding a plank to tip up and down while guiding a salmon between underwater bears to reach a spawning site. That game looked like a lot of fun. There are some very cool games coming down the road from these developers.

While walking around, I experienced the Colossus Roar. From what I understand, it was fashioned after Colossus’ special move from the X-Men arcade game. A group of people would start the roar and then it would start off a chain reaction of people joining in. It would happen randomly and it would happen often. Listening to the roar throughout the weekend was a unique experience.

The signage around MAGFest was often hilarious and full of personality.

There was even a sign asking for attendees to refrain from doing the Colossus roar in the atrium area. To be honest, that sign didn’t make a difference at all.

The Gaming Museum was a collection of old gaming computer rigs throughout the ages. It was awesome diving into history and seeing the evolution of computer games. The museum was an impressive sight right down to the old school monitors. I can’t remember the last time I saw a floppy drive. I think the “newest” game in there was 1996’s Quake. Wolfenstein 3D, Sam and Max and a Wheel of Fortune type game were available to play amongst the numerous titles. I played a Japanese brawler with voice acted cut scenes. I remember fighting against demons. I have no idea what the name of that game was. A trip through this museum is highly recommended.

Thursday Evening

The first musical artists that I caught were The Nerdy People of Color or NPC Collective, at the Mega-Man-Athon stage. The performing collective was comprised of, as you guessed, musicians of color. I believe I caught the tail end of Eye Q’s set. Amanda Lepre, of the Descendants of Erdrick, was performing her solo acoustic catalogue. The song that stood out to me was the Wrath on the Styx because of the awesome riffs. Shubzilla, with Bill Beats, was spitting lyrical madness. Sammus was the final performer. Not to downplay everyone else and their talents but I was looking forward to seeing her set the most and she did not disappoint. During her final song, Love Song, she went out into the crowd to shake hands with everyone in attendance while rapping the entire time. I hope to catch more music from the NPC Collective in the future.

Side note for Shubzilla. During her final song Baby Steps, which was about wanting to have a baby, she was throwing out her “business cards” to the audience. The card was a condom with her social media info stapled to it. One of the condoms hilariously hit me in the face since I was close to the stage. I must note that there were warnings on the card to avoid using the condom just to deter anyone dumb enough to not notice the staples.

After Sammus’ performance, I sat down with K-Murdock to do my longest interview thus far. Since I was on vacation, I only brought my recording equipment. Kyle is a cool dude. He’s responsible for one of my favorite chip hop albums ever, Forever Famicom. The time flew by because it was a lot of fun.

Kirby’s Dream Band
We ventured into the Pink Ball with Kirby’s Dream Band performing. The Pink Ball was reminiscent of a high school prom with the attendees in pink. Considering that it was thematically fashioned after Kirby, it made a lot of sense. I wish I would’ve done more research ahead of time and I would’ve found a pink article of clothing. Thankfully, our entrance wasn’t barred due to a lack of pink on us. Kirby’s Dream Band would don hats or headbands to correspond with the game music they were performing. For example, during the Sonic the Hedgehog medley, the bassist wore the Ring Item Box over his head while the guitarists wore hats for Sonic and Knuckles. During their set, pink balloons descended from the ceiling and bounced around amongst the crowd. Also, an individual dressed like a 1920s speakeasy waitress was passing out pink glow in the dark bracelets to attendees. After the band’s performance, I bought their first album. Sarah and I didn’t stick around for the Super Soul Bros since it was 1am. Thankfully, the Bros had multiple sets throughout the weekend.

Friday

Videri String Quartet
The first concert of the day was Crazy Composer Collective featuring the Videri String Quartet. Basically, a string quartet with some backup musicians to round out the songs. The set was very enjoyable, especially their piece on Chrono Trigger. It’s too bad that the group didn’t have any albums available for purchase afterward. I would’ve gladly bought one to show support.

Rare Candy
Rare Candy was another band that I heard of in my geek travels. They played a mix of The Tragic Prince and Dracula’s Castle from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Hands down one of my favorite games and soundtracks of all time. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see this awesome band.

Amanda Lepre
I witnessed another good performance from Amanda Lepre. Basically, it was more of her solo acoustic work. My only regret was missing her third performance of the weekend. Her final performance consisted of all covers. Her covers of Ghost songs are pretty solid. It’s too bad I missed that set. What can you do?

I was finally able to play Cuphead for the first time. For those who are not familiar, it is designed to look like a cartoon straight out of the 1930s. I was able to beat the first boss (the Root Pack) with ease since I’ve watched a few videos on the game. I can’t say I was as successful on the Ribby and Croaks duo frog boss. I was so close to beating them a few times but I couldn’t pull it off. This game is like all the reviews said, difficult but fun. It’s also gorgeous too. I love the hand drawn animation for this game and I would love to play it again.

Super Soul Bros
My girlfriend managed to secure a table for us in the Belvedere Lobby Bar area right before the Super Soul Bros performed. The lobby was so packed that they were only admitting those who were buying drinks and food from the bar. The acoustics of the Belvedere Lobby Bar were not the greatest. Due to the huge ceiling of the Gaylord, it created a vacuum of sound. The musicians were audible to a muffled extent. Fortunately, the sound of the Super Soul Bros funk and jazz was able to punch through the vacuum. I’m glad I had the opportunity to catch this set since I missed out at the Pink ball.

While I didn’t stick around for their set at the Pink Ball, the folks from MAGFest were kind enough to post their set for everyone to see.

The last time I saw the X-Hunters was during GR8bit Live 2 in 2014. The riffs from this band are so tight. They are known for their metal covers of Mega Man X themes. I was initially worried about missing their set because it was pushed back an hour due to schedule issues in the Mega Man-Athon room. I didn’t want to miss Powerglove but I also wanted to show support for this band. Fortunately, things worked out and I was able to check out both of the bands with ample time in between. Nonetheless, I was happy when they included Magna Centipede into their medley of Mega Man X songs.

LONELYROLLINGSTARS feat. Vince DiCola
I caught the last 20 minutes of their set. Vince DiCola is known for composing the soundtracks to Rocky IV and the Transformers movie. The band was performing the background music to the scene where Optimus Prime dies. I’ve always knew about the movie but never got the chance to see it. With the music on in the background while my eyes were transfixed on the scene, I can understand why that was a heart wrenching moment for some folks back in the day. They capped off their set with the theme music to the Rocky IV training montage. Not a bad band, I will have to look into them more.

Powerglove
I Finally got to see Powerglove for the 1st time. I was aware of them for years but was unable to check out one of their shows since Michigan gets squat when it comes to gnarly shows. Powerglove didn’t disappoint. I was confused at first when I only noticed 3 members onstage. Later, I later found out that the bassist left to focus on his video game development. All in all, a pretty solid show. This metal band was a great way to end my Friday night.

After a day of music, I learned a few things about the concert ballroom.

1. The only request that staff asked of attendees was to abstain from eating food in the concert ballroom, which was more than reasonable. While I was going through the bag check line, they allowed my sealed snacks through along with a bottle of water. Alcohol was prohibited, which made sense. They also prohibited water bottles bigger than 20oz. The reasoning, they could be used as projectiles. A little baffling considering that a full 20oz bottle could be the same thing. A head scratcher but not a deal breaker.

2. If you want to get into concerts quicker, leave your bags in a safe spot. Since I went to multiple concerts, I had to go through the bag check line multiple times. Without a bag, I barely had to wait in line for the show. The next day, I left my bag at the bag check and that made my day easier.

3. Once inside of the ballroom, I noticed that the production was top notch overall. Visuals on the three screens, on stage, complimented the music. Audio was balanced for the most part. Outside of a few hiccups here and there, the people at the soundboard did a great job. Bad mixing can kill the excitement of a concert quick. Thankfully, MAGFest had it together and I walked away impressed.

4. The concert ballroom needed chairs for those who had trouble standing. If you couldn’t stand for long periods of time, you were welcome to sit on the floor on the sides of the ballroom. I can understand that chairs in the middle section of the ballroom would pose as a fire hazard. However, chairs would be a welcome edition if they were off on the sides. No one should have to sit on the floor during a concert.

Saturday

After two full days at MAGFest, I noticed that there was not a huge focus on cosplay by staff and attendees. I didn’t see a cosplay contest listed in the program guide. Sure, I saw cosplayers here and there but they made up a small percentage of attendees. I will admit that it was cute to see the father and child Colossus duo. I did manage to take a photo with a giant Snorlax.

Washington Metropolitan Gamer Symphony Orchestra
The bag check line for this show spanned hundreds of feet. I’m glad I left my stuff at a bag check. Once inside, I was treated to wonderful set of music. Songs from Banjo Tooie, Halo and Dark Souls were among the number of games covered. Their cover of Ode to Laharl showcased how the music from Disgaea: Hour of Darkness was whimsical. Also, I never expected to hear a medley of Papers Please and Red Alert 3. The final song, Liberi Fatali, gave me goosebumps. Video game symphony orchestras are always cool in my book. They announced that they were finally going to record an album too. That will be something to look forward to.

Super Guitar Bros
Michigan based acoustic gods, the Super Guitar Bros performed the newly released Ocarina of Time album in its entirety. A huge shout out goes to Nate Horsfall for the great visuals. The owl clip was hilarious but the shopping for weapons bit took the cake. Even though Ocarina of Time is far from being my favorite Zelda game, I can appreciate it’s music. I appreciate the Super Guitar Bros version even more. They do an excellent job every time. Well worth seeing.

Marshall Art
Unfortunately, Marshall Art was the worse sounding band due to bad mixing at the sound board. Mikhail the guitarist was barely audible. I didn’t hear Jer on the keyboards and the bass drum was vastly overpowering everything else. I was disappointed because I felt the mixing hampered the whole set. Thankfully, the video posted on the youtube channel sounded infinitely better. So, all was not lost. I purchased two albums from them.

The World Is Square
Prior to this convention, it was at over two years since the last time I watched The World Is Square perform. Due to the Belvedere Lounge sound vacuum, I could partially hear them. It’s too bad because their music is great. Thankfully, I’ve seen them before and own all of their albums. After their set they were giving away free copies of all of their albums.

Sammus
Sammus was the last stop on my journey to enjoy as many concerts as possible. She performed with a live band. The addition of a bass player and drummer added a new sonic dynamic on top of the fantastic beats. I’m glad she performed Time Crisis and 1080p. I’m glad I took the time to dive into her catalogue of impactful music. Sammus was a great way to end my musical journey for the weekend.

A service that I was not expecting but I felt was totally awesome: an ALS interpreter was provided for attendees. The two ladies were very impressive with their translating on the spot. Especially the services of Holly Maniatty, who has interpreted for the Wu Tang Clan, Snoop Doog and Waka Flocka Flame. She interpreted during Sammus’ set and I admire her skill for matching the fast paced lyrics. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this service featured at a concert. I would love to see this implemented at conventions in Michigan.

After the concert and her autograph signing, I managed to have a sit down interview with Sammus. Similar to the K-Murdock interview, the time flew by during this hour plus conversation. She caught me off guard when she brought up The Maxx animated show on MTV back in the day. That was a throwback show. I countered that with MTV’s The Head. All in all, it was a great conversation that you should check out.

After I completed my interview with Sammus, I was able to attend one of the greatest events in all of history. Yes, I said it, all of history. Oh Hai MAGFest was a secret screening of The Room by Tommy Wiseau. This terrible masterpiece is lauded as one of the worst movies of all time due to terrible acting, directing and a nonsensical plot. I’ve seen clips of it online. Now, I was lucky enough to catch the full experience. The screening room was filled to capacity. It was to the point that people were turned away at the door. Thankfully, my girlfriend was able to get in and save a spot for me. You have not lived until you watch The Room in a big room full of people. It was like a Rocky Horror Picture Show experience. People were throwing plastic spoons at the screen and shouting out lines during certain scenes. During Johnny’s meltdown scene, the crowd erupted into the Colossus roar. Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to enjoy this film. I managed to catch a photo with “Johnny and Mark” from the film. What a way to cap off my Saturday.

Sunday
On Sunday, we went to game. I got to play WWF NO Mercy for the N64. Despite owning it, I hadn’t played that game in years. Suffice to say, Essa Rios suffered numerous Stunners at the hands of my Stone Cold Steve Austin. Still a great game to play.

No concerts were scheduled and everything shut down around 2pm. It was a lazy day at the con for me. After I spent a little time gaming, I said my goodbyes to my friends that I don’t see that often but wish I could. We cut out before 5pm. Sarah and I spent our last evening in Virginia. We flew back to Michigan on Monday morning.

MAGFest was a great time. It was everything I hoped for and it didn’t disappoint. At the full price of $85 for a badge, it was well worth it. I would call it a kick-ass way to start off the new year. My only gripe with MAGFest lies within myself. I can’t believe it took me so long to go to this event. Consider me a new fan, MAGFest. We will meet again.

Shout outs to the following:

Bobby, Zach, Jer and Chris of Arc Impulse.

Justin T, Justin W and Adam of Knight of the Round.

Sam and Steve, of the Super Guitar Bros. It’s always great to see you.

Amanda, Paige, and Tom for being the awesome Midwest crew.

Kenny of Gimmick!

Lauren of The Returners.

Lauren and Josh, of The World Is Square. It was great to see you again after two years.

Amanda Lepre and Thad, of the Descendants of Erdrick, for being cool metal heads to talk to.

Alex, of Vacant Eyes, for being another awesome metal head to talk to.

Eye Q, Shubzilla and Creative Mind Frame of the NPC Collective.

Massive shout outs to Sammus and K-Murdock for the great interviews too.

Brittany for inspiring this trip.

The biggest and bestest shout out goes to my lovely girlfriend, Sarah, for going on this whim of a vacation with me. If it wasn’t for her, I would’ve been so lost.

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