The Second SDA Marathon, Ninth MAGFest, and first Emptyeye Wedding

(And that third item will hopefully also be the last Emptyeye Wedding)

Silver and I had a pretty crazy week and a half recently. It started on Thursday, the 6th, when we left at 7:30 AM or so to head to Alexandria, VA. This was actually not for any marathon or festival or anything–those would come later–but rather, it was to obtain our marriage license. This actually went without a hitch once we arrived in Alexandria at 2PM or so, and so from there it was on to the 4H Center in Chevy Chase, MD for the Second Annual SDA Charity Marathon, titled “Awesome Games Done Quick”. Over the next five days, we’d be playing 100 games in what was projected to be 100 hours (But turned out to be about 120) to raise money for the Prevent Cancer Foundation, whose mission is basically in their name.

But first, a bit of digression about the 4H Center itself. We are not their typical clientele, being older than the average. For reference, one of the other groups there while we were there was a group of French high school students that, from the brief snippets of their seminars I happened to overhear, were part of a class on business customs in the US. In any event, the Center was awesome in terms of what they allowed us to do versus what the rules stated be should have been able to do. The main example of this is that the rules, as written, forbid food and drink that was not purchased on the premises (Similar to a lot of convention centers). By about the 4th day, the center was handing us menus of places that would deliver there. Just an awesome place to work with in general, and I can’t imagine we won’t have the next marathon, whenever that may be (No official plans have been made yet, but pretty much everyone on staff at SDA agrees that one will happen at some point), at the Center as well.

But back to this year’s marathon. Unlike last year, I only was slated to run 2 games–Battletoads in a race with PJ, and Final Fight in cooperation with Mike Uyama. But before that, we opened the schedule with Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Halo, and some other games. And a couple things became immediately apparent.

  1. Some people hadn’t practiced their games as much as they should have.
  2. Practice or not, we were way over-ambitious with our scheduling.

After two games, we were about 2 hours behind, and the drift was only going to increase, whether due to lack of practice, not taking into account setup times, or other unexpected technical difficulties. The good news is that we were getting a huge flood of donations right off the bat, to the point that even with a program to help us handle donations, actually getting and tracking them was a major challenge. This was a problem that would rear its head throughout the marathon, as we would occasionally get huge donation spikes faster than the people manning the donation input computer could get them in.

As for my own games, Battletoads came first. Given how terribly practice had gone for both PJ (My competitor) and myself, I felt it necessary to add a disclaimer before the start of the race, approximating “I’m told a lot of people (including many of the speedrunners at the marathon) were looking forward to this. I believe I can speak for PJ as well when I say..’heh heh heh, suckers.'”. How terribly had practice gone? PJ and I had come up with a contingency plan that, if one of us missed the Level 1 warp, rather than resetting and losing about 30 seconds, the other person would reset and we’d do an impromptu 100% race through the game, setting everything back about 20 minutes (This was before we knew just how far off schedule the rest of the marathon would go).

Luckily, the actual race featured us both hitting the level 1 warp, and even hitting a much more difficult trick later on that let us skip part of a level. PJ ultimately won, although I frankly wanted to just turn the power to the NES I was using off and quit as soon as he hit said trick. I did finish, and actually am pretty pleased with my play despite losing, outside of one stupid mistake late in the game after the race was already lost. In all, people seemed to enjoy it, especially when Kareshi, who was playing the game music on piano (If you’re curious how this was handled, he played the music of the level that the person who was ahead [Which was PJ from start to finish] was on, and then went back and played the songs of the levels I was on when PJ finished), went into Final Fantasy IV music (Because A. He was sick of the Battletoads Boss Battle Theme, and B. As his tribute to what would become the finale of the marathon, Final Fantasy IV [Or “Final Fantasy II” as its initial US release was called], since he couldn’t be there at the time).

Several days after Battletoads came Final Fight on my list of games, this one co-op with Mike Uyama. We took donations for our character selections, having practiced all three possible combinations (Haggar/Cody, Haggar/Guy, Cody/Guy) despite MIKE HAGGAR being the only correct character choice. Fortunately, the Haggar-Cody combination won out, allowing me to play as The Good Mayor (I was prepared to give everyone a Shocking Swerve, given my love of MIKE HAGGAR…both Uyama’s Haggar and my Guy are far superior to Uyama’s Guy, meaning he would’ve been Haggar in the Haggar/Guy combination).

As for the run itself, it actually went pretty well, with Mike in particular managing to 1-credit the game for the first time ever (While on not-nearly-enough sleep, no less). I decidedly did not this time, although we did manage to raise some decent money by finishing every possible boss with a piledriver (The final boss of Final Fight, Belger, acquires Magical Throw Protection(TM) once he gets low on life. Even if you hang onto him long enough to perform a throwing action/suplex/piledriver, he’ll just jump out of it and you’ll perform your animation on air). Our final time was 29:13, although it was good that we left our estimate at 35:00, since apparently neither Mike nor I know how to work an XBox 360.

That was probably the main problem with the schedule; that people (Including myself for Battletoads) failed to take into account either endings or setup time when making their estimates. Random donations that came in for challenges pushed the time back further in some cases, although this was probably a worthy tradeoff in all. And really, the constantly slipping schedule, while something Mike is justifiably sick of hearing about, was our biggest issue this year. If nothing else, we’ve learned, or at least I’ve learned, to pad our estimates a bit in terms of setup time, endings, and random challenges that might come in.

Overall, though, the marathon was a giant success. Last year, we raised $11000 or so in about 50 hours, so the SDA administration saw fit to raise this year’s goal to $25000. I had thought this was a lot, but in hindsight, given that the marathon was twice as long as last year, plus accounting for a bit of natural growth year-on-year, it was actually a reasonable goal. Or so we thought, because for whatever reason–better promotion than last year, better game selection making people want to tune in, a charity that more people could identify with and donate towards (helping women in the third world is without a doubt a noble cause, but as a first-world while male, it’s difficult for me to feel a personal connection with said cause, and I imagine the same is true of most of our audience)–we met that goal in about 48 hours. Ultimately, before the marathon and subsequent bonus stream were through, we ended up raising about $53000 for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. For a bit of context, this is over half of a two-year research grant that has yielded all sorts of advances in fighting cancer. Suffice to say that this blew away any of our wildest dreams when the marathon started.

This is without getting into how all the people there were amazing to hang out with, talk games and speedrunning with, etc. Particularly, because Silver and I actually roomed with them, I want to mention MercuryZelda and Lag.Com for being super awesome, both to room with and for all the stuff they did individually and collectively for the marathon–knitting stuff, chat modding, and being the tech guy were some of the things one or both of them did.

You can check out just about all of the marathon runs at this page. Some of the highlights that I saw were UltraJMan’s Metroid run, the already-mentioned 1-credit-clear of Final Fight, and the finale, Final Fantasy IV, whose final battle just has to be seen.

After the conclusion of the marathon “proper”, those who remained reconvened at Mike Uyama’s house (Site of last year’s marathon) for bonus streaming, featuring Lagoon. Unfortunately (Or perhaps fortunately), Silver and I couldn’t stay there very long, because it was time to head to the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center to prepare for our MAGFest wedding! Arriving there, it was clear that we had discovered the secret to being treated like MAGFest VIPs, and it’s actually pretty easy. All you have to do is be the first couple in the history of MAGFest to get married there! More seriously, on Wednesday night, we got to go to Brendan’s (AKA Mr. MAGFest, the guy who ran the whole show this year and many years prior) hotel room. Then we got to drink vodka with Jon St. John, best known as the voice of Sonic Adventure’s Big the Cat Duke Nukem. Pretty cool stuff, and enough to pacify me for the night. It was not, however, enough to pacify Silver, who was (rightly, although at this point I was just euphoric from meeting Jon St. John, plus my sleep schedule was already destroyed from the marathon) freaking out about the room the wedding would be held in not being ready. At about 3AM, though, Brendan and Ryon (Who organizes the MAGFest Challenges Booth each year, and where I spent way too much time at M6 and M7) managed to set the room up enough to satisfy her.

I should give a special shoutout to Brendan here, for scrambling to set up the room despite not sleeping for 3 days prior. Indeed, prepping for MAGFest this year gave him stress hives all over his body. We’re both very appreciative of the effort he went through both for the wedding specifically and the festival in general.

The next morning arrives, and we go down to the room to get the flowers we’ll need and meet our high priestess, Millie Knox, for the first time. I’m then tasked with finding plain and sparkling water. Finding the plain water was easy enough; as for the sparkling water, I get lucky that the hotel has an upscale restaurant inside of it, and purchase a bottle of sparkling water.

After that, there’s not much to do except wait for the wedding to start. Well, besides having a random panic attack 15 minutes before the wedding, due mainly to my feeling like I have no idea what the heck to do because we didn’t get a rehearsal period (Note to people getting married in the future: Rehearse if at all possible). This shows when I pretty much completely miss my entrance cue, as well as in my face when a specific part of Wiccan tradition is explained: that the couple, according to tradition, spend the entire wedding day handfasted (Those giant cords are tying her right hand to my left).

Luckily, some things do go right, the most important of which is that we get through the ceremony and get our wedding certificate to the courthouse on time, meaning we are now officially legally married. Hooray! Also pretty cool: Jon St. John agrees to “DJ” the wedding, meaning basically operate the iPod with our entrance and exit music. This came about from him walking by and Silver going “Jon! We need your help!” He is indeed what the younguns would call “A pretty cool guy”.

Fortunately for me, Silver decides not to adhere to the letter of Wiccan tradition, and we untie ourselves after cleaning up the wedding room (Itself a very interesting experience, to be sure…especially since I’m left-handed, meaning we didn’t really have a dominant hand to use between the two of us) and getting back to our hotel room. Then it was MAGFest time!

This year’s edition included a fun new activity–waiting in line for your pass for about an hour and a half. MAGFest actually sold out of their pre-registrations this year, necessitating the need to hunt for a new location next year (Frankly, parking was ridiculous enough last year–see My post on MAGFest 8/Classic Games Done Quick for more–that it can be argued that it should’ve happened this year.). This led to a ridiculous wait to get your badges, which my strategy–to get in the staff line with Silver, and basically hope I could use the “I just got married here!” defense to explain why I was in the line despite not actually being on staff–didn’t really help alleviate.

Still, MAGFest itself was quite fun. The game room was fun as always, and on Thursday night I headed to the concert room to check out Bit Brigade, which was an awesome show. While not quite a speed run per se thanks to watching the cinema scenes, the live game play accompanying the music (Or vice versa, depending on your perspective) was quite skilled, and added a dimension that set it apart from the various other “video game cover bands” of the weekend.

Friday brought what I, and a lot of other people, had been waiting for for years–the return of The Minibosses to MAGFest! For those of you who don’t know, the early years of MAGFest served essentially as the Mecca for people on The Minibosses Message Board, as well as The Shizz in general, thanks to The Minibosses being the convention’s big attraction in its very first year. Some behind-the-scenes drama, combined with the Minibosses taking a hiatus, meant they were absent from MAGFests 5 through 8, but by that time the Shizz community had grown big enough that MAGFest’s status as “The main Shizz party” persevered regardless. But the Minibosses returned for MAGFest 9, and despite being given a pretty random slot in the band hierarchy, absolutely rocked the house. The Minibosses were probably one of, if not the first, band dedicated to video game music covers, and they’re as good now as when I saw them 5 years ago at M4, if not better (It was tough for me to fully appreciate the M4 set, because A. I had no idea I wouldn’t see them play again for 5 years, and B. I had gotten approximately a half hour of sleep in the 36 hours or so leading up to the ‘Bosses set). Honorable Mention goes to The Protomen, who among their original Mega Man-inspired rock opera tunage saw fit to include a cover of Journey’s “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)”, best known for having maybe the most gloriously 80s music video ever.

Saturday saw me do something that I don’t think I had done at a MAGFest since M5: Attend a panel! This was the “Make Your Game Now!” panel, which more or less confirmed that I’m doing the right thing as regards my (Currently dormant, as 99% of projects I start tend to wind up) RPG–essentially, “Try to get stuff working on a small scale, one feature at a time. Once you have a ‘mini-game’, so to speak, then design/implement everything full-scale”. I also saw Cheap Dinosaurs (A chiptune band composed mostly of members of Chromolodeon), although I did not end up in The Shizz Family Photo. Oh well. Also sometime during the weekend, I believe it was on Saturday, several people gave Silver and I free stuff for being married at MAGFest (I told you being treated like a VIP was easy!). Plus, I got free food from the Staff/Super Supporter room. Super cool all around.

Alas, on Sunday (And for us, actually relatively early on Sunday…we were on the road by about noon), it was time to leave the video game utopia we had occupied for the last week and a half and return to reality. We did get one more pleasant surprise on the way back, though–during MAGFest Closing Ceremonies, those who had gathered there yelled out a last “Congratulations!” to us over the phone while we were driving back to Connecticut.

In short (Too late, I know), this was one of the greatest spans of time of my life. As I said to Brendan, “I wrote on the proposal to hold the wedding at MAGFest that ‘if I’m doing it right, it’s not something you run multiple times’. I’m sorely tempted to now.” (I had to present the wedding as a convention panel, which the panel questionaire wasn’t really designed to handle, with questions such as “Have you ever run this panel before?”) It was amazing, and while I presumably won’t have another wedding again, I can’t wait for the next marathon and/or MAGFest, whichever comes first.

EDIT 6/5/11: Updated the link to the new, permanent page for the January 2011 marathon.

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