Leveled Up: How This Pittsburgher Achieved Every Kid's Video Game Dream
For video game enthusiast Mark Bussler, simple, retro 8-bit games can be just as fun as complex modern ones.
He should know, and in fact, it's his business to know.
The 38-year-old of Oakmont has been collecting games since he was five, and today his collection reaches the thousands, all thanks to fans who send him old-school games and accessories to review on his website, Classic Game Room.
“We probably have one of the biggest collections of games and accessories in the country,” he said, “just about every game system ever created.”
His collection, which includes 14 arcade machines — the oldest being "Asteroids" from 1979 — is situated in a warehouse space near his office. Affectionately dubbed the "Intergalactic Space Arcade," Bussler broadcasts his reviews and answers online fan questions there in front of a camera and studio lighting. A disco ball hangs from the ceiling for good measure.
But it wasn’t always like this.
Just after YouTube began to kick off in 2007, Bussler, whose background is in business and filmmaking, realized the potential of resurrecting a review show he co-hosted in 1999 out of an internet start up called FromUSAlive.com. In 2008, with just a microphone in his basement, Bussler started reviewing games for Classic Game Room via YouTube under the channel name Lord Karnage.
Fans caught on to his zany sense of humor, and his collection began to expand as viewers sent him more and more of their old games, as well as old school toys like the Hot Wheels toy cars. The channel's audience swelled to more than 330,000 subscribers.
Bussler eventually moved the operation from his basement to heated storage lockers from 2012 to mid-2013. In September 2013, to accommodate his growing number of requests, he moved his collection to an office space in Ohara to work on his new website. He now has a staff of eight who help him with public relations and marketing, website development, business and in-house video production.
The website is also where Bussler publishes most of his video content after YouTube changed its copyright restrictions. There, users can participate in community reviews and will soon be able to build, archive and share their own game collection.
His show not only attracts older gamers seeking nostalgia from the 8-bit video game days and pinball machines, but also teens curious about the newest "Assassin’s Creed" or "Call of Duty."
Bussler’s favorites include the iconic "Pac Man" and the "Vectrex," a vector display-based console connected to a tiny monitor from the early 1980s, for which indie-developers are still making games. He placed a plastic screen over the machine to simulate color as he demonstrated the simple game.
“If you don’t love the Vectrex, there is something wrong with you,” he said.
Whatever the demographic, his audience seems to enjoy watching the 6-foot-2-inch tall man clutching a root beer duck into a sit-down "Discs of Tron" arcade machine or finding out about a game they never knew existed, such as "Air Force Delta" for Dreamcast, he said.
The most challenging part of running the show, he said, is actually playing the games, especially when it's his first encounter with a title. That’s why Classic Game Room also includes CGRundertow, another review show with a different host who also reviews the incoming games every day.
Back in his office, Bussler records himself reviewing the game, adding an inflated inflection to his deep voice.
“I’m a lot looser on the air,” he said. “It’s probably just an amplified version of who I am.”
On each review, Classic Game Room provides links to the games sold on eBay. Bussler said games such as "Pac Man" for Atari 2600 can be sold for pennies, but an arcade machine is at least $1,000. And pinball machines, he said, can be sold from $8,000 to $10,000.
The site now has its own online game, a 1970s-styled game called "Space Gar," where a triangle space ship shoots block lasers at its floating block-like enemies. The goal, he said, is to get users involved in the Classic Game Room community and compete for high scores. He hopes to publish more games like this on the website in the future.
For Bussler, it was never about the competition of the games, but the art form, characters and what he calls “game play.”
He said modern games today are becoming too expensive and are released less frequently because they quickly become outdated. When interviewing game designers for his website, he said more of them are inspired by the simple, old school graphics they grew up with.
“Simple doesn’t necessarily mean bad," he said. "It just means it has an older style that requires less powerful hardware, and therefore it’s cheaper to produce. But at the same time, it can be far superior to something that looks like real life.”