Zenkaikon 2015 – Watching the Life Drain from Winter’s Eyes

There are at least two things you can glean about me from listening to the podcast or reading my reviews (non-appearance related, I mean)—I hate the cold and I love going to conventions. Well, with the latter coming with the passing of the former, I was much looking forward to traveling up to Pennsylvania Dutch country for a convention. Briefly the thought occurred to me of what would transpire should I find myself in cosplay near any Amish people, but then again, how would they know a cosplay from normal attire? And besides; they’d probably look at me weird and avoid eye contact regardless (not like I haven’t experienced that in my life before…).

Zenkaikon came to us during the last weekend of March 2015 from Lancaster, PA, smack in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch country. I missed out on the festivities last year, which obviously sucked, because I always had a lot of fun at this convention, regardless of where it was. So now that I had the means to make my comeback, in a matter of speaking, I was going to take advantage of it.

I left for the convention Thursday after work. Being close to the NJ/DE border only made it mildly inconvenient getting up there in relation to my current home. I had briefly considered going back through Philadelphia, but the GPS on my phone told me that those weren’t the fastest routes. So it meant spending time bombing through Delaware and Maryland before drilling up into Pennsylvania to get to my destination. Even better, I found a neat little liquor store near some college on the way up, where I got, among other things, a bottle of Pinnacle Vodka (salted caramel flavor!) that was eight goddamn dollars. I don’t know why it was such a bargain, I don’t know if there was something wrong with it (didn’t taste wrong), but I wasn’t about to complain.

What was nice about the drive was that the weather had grown warmer where I was—and I foolishly thought it’d stay relatively consistent at the convention, but I’ll get into that in a bit—and it meant eschewing turning on the heat in favor of driving with the windows down. Hooray! Winter has finally fucked off! Except that the feast for the senses that was Zenkaikon started with the drive through the farm-heavy Pennsylvania Dutch country. Upon crossing the Lancaster County line, my senses were assailed with the sights and sounds of rural farming communities. And the smells. Definitely the smells. The scents that assailed my nose were, in order: shit, burning firewood, shit, someone frying very fatty foods, and from there oscillating back and forth between shit and burning firewood.

I finally get to the hotel/convention center, Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square, where the convention is being held, though several hours before the rest of the adventuring party, so I couldn’t immediately move my stuff into our room. Which was incredibly awkward sitting in the lobby on one of the (many, thankfully) couches with it close by, making sure nothing got lost. The convention center, to its credit, was very nice. The first two floors, including where we would get our passes, had the hotel lobby sort of at the midpoint between the two. There was a bar nearby, right in/near the lobby. Its prices were a little exorbitant, but the one time I did eat there I got lucky; a dozen wings for $5. So it wasn’t too bad. I wouldn’t be eating there again, is what I’m saying. Especially because we had all packed food and drinks to bring with us to the hotel, to cut back on dining costs (as is becoming the new standard for us).

Another thing about the hotel itself was its pool. I made sure to check it out at least once during the weekend, but I found it a tad disappointing. It was about the depth of the Gaylord’s pool, only not nearly as large. And the hot tub…well, I’ve stepped into bath tubs bigger than their hot tub. Even more damning is that the website made the pool look much nicer than it was in actuality.

Friday started off simply enough, as I attended a panel on The Legend of Zelda and its mythos, entitled “Hyrule: A History.” It was their first panel, they told us, and they were understandably given a lot of slack (technical issues notwithstanding). Though, the crux of their panel pretty much involved going through the Hyrule Historia anthology like they were doing a review of the textbook like a high school history class. I only stayed for about half of that panel.

The next panel after that I attended was called “Fanon vs. Canon,” which was essentially a discussion about the various canons for whatever franchise people wanted to discuss, and how the fanon, be it individual head-canons or wholly accepted fanon theories, stacked up against them. You’d think that it would devolve into interfandom arguments with one another, and you’d be exactly right.

Throughout the weekend, I was taking numerous pictures of people’s cosplays, and though people might think of Zenkaikon as a “smaller” con, people were bringing their best to the convention. Which is always nice to see. Speaking of cosplay, one panel that had my interest was one called “The ‘Plus’ Side of Cosplay.” I thought, from the name, and having attended similar panels before, that it would be about body positivity and being alright with cosplaying regardless of how large you might be. And it was…except that only took up about ¼ of the topic; the rest was essentially a how-to guide for big people…and given some of the costumes people were wearing, that wasn’t exactly new information for these people.

The last panel I ended up attending that day turned out to be the most fun panel I attended that whole weekend. It was “AHHHHH! Video Game Cartoons!” It was about the horrors of video game based cartoons in the early and mid-90s, and they are as horrible as everyone remembered them (though, they did add the Saturday morning edition of Sonic the Hedgehog, which got lots of derisive remarks on the crowd’s part). But that wasn’t the main point of the panel for long. See, throughout they were tossing out candy—usually Reese’s peanut butter cups—to everyone, either for a funny riff on the cartoon du jour, or for answering a trivia question right. Or because reasons. And I mean tossing in the most literal sense; the presenters would just grab a handful and toss it into the crowd, not caring who they hit. But about halfway through the panel, they changed it up and decided they were going to play video games on the display, off the emulator on his iMac. Five of us, myself included, were challenged to play a handful of games for everyone’s enjoyment, and whoever spent the least amount of time playing (the first stage, for time constraints) was eliminated. The games were, in order, Contra, Paperboy, Life Force, and Felix the Cat, all from the NES library. Some went out in embarrassing fashion; in some instances it felt like I was the only one who had ever played the games before; god only knows I was one of those my-only-friends-were-video-games types growing up. The only major problem I had was not from the other players, but the controller itself. We were tasked with playing on this itty-bitty 3rd party controller that was maybe ½ the size of my phone. The D-pad had a propensity for mistaking down as down-right, which fucked up my Contra game to no end; nothing makes people cringe more like ducking only to get up and walk with your gun aimed downward right into enemy fire (I still got to the boss, which no one else can say). The rest of the games were better, though. I got through the neighborhood and crashed on the course in Paperboy, actually got through all of stage 1 and defeated the boss in Life Force—which caused people to erroneously assign divine gaming powers to me for whatever reason—and managed to get to the end of the first stage in Felix, a game I had never played before and was incredibly easy. My “prize” was a bad video game from an old system. I think it was based off of Ed, Edd, & Eddy. I gave it away to some bystander. It’s not like I was going to play it.

Whatever panels I had earmarked for later that night (I typically check off an abundance of panels on the schedule when it comes to these reports) were dismissed when it was decided to go get dinner. We did, though it was fairly late, and we sufficed for Chinese food at this Chinese take-out place that was about a block from the convention. Nothing special, really; we did leave enough leftovers for anyone else in the room who wanted it, though space in the mini-fridge was limited. Then it was a typical night of drinking and watching Abridged series stuff on the TV (DJ had jury-rigged the TV to be essentially a second, much larger monitor for his laptop). Good times.

Saturday began with me waking up sans hangover and slightly refreshed, mostly because I don’t always sleep the best in crowded hotel beds. Regardless, I started the day with “Cosplay as Therapy”, which, as you can assume, is a panel about how people have used cosplaying—and really, conventions in general—to help them get through emotionally and mentally challenging times in their lives. This is something that I can totally relate to, for a myriad of (irrelevant, for the moment) reasons.

Of course, the biggest thing I wanted to do on Saturday was the “Anime Password” panel, run by Greg “Greggo” Wicker. This would not be my first encounter with him this weekend. The audition process was fun; they’d take contestants in four at a time, two to actually audition, and the other two to take notes, if you will. I did alright, but the guy I auditioned with positively killed it. We were bouncing off another easily. I wouldn’t find out if I got picked or not (there were only two contestants) until I got to the panel itself.

Sad for me, I didn’t get picked. But that other guy did.

For what it was worth, “Anime Password” was entertaining. The two celebrities they had were Karl Custer, a.k.a. Uncle Yo, and Doug Walker, a.k.a. The Nostalgia Critic. (I briefly wondered how they got NC down here, as I’m under the impression that this would be a con too “small” for someone of his renown) The matches were fun and going back and forth frequently. The funniest moment of the panel was when Doug, who had to give a clue for the word “water,” gave his clue by going “WIND~!” like Gi from Captain Planet. The contestant didn’t get it.

Also, DJ wanted me to record the event, which I was alright with. Unfortunately, a memory card snafu meant only about fifteen minutes of footage got recorded. Guess I hauled all that down there for nothing, huh?

With nothing on my plate for the moment, I decided to go over to the nearby farmers’ market, as I had been informed of (read: shilled relentlessly on) before going out to the convention. The place was expansive, and the three of us got plenty of good stuff. I got myself a block of habanero cheese—a literal block, almost a brick, really—and got gifts for my parents.

I put the stuff back in the room—not wanting to carry around a literal cheese brick with me, obviously—and found my way to a panel called “The Politics of Bravely Default.” For all of those who haven’t played Bravely Default, you very much need to; it’s an excellent game. While their panel had the best intentions, they eventually devolved into discussions on Ringabel and his…mannerisms, as well as the rest of the characters…and decidedly away from the main idea of their panel.

The artists’ alley/dealers’ room encompassed one big warehouse-like enclosure on the bottom floor, and there was plenty of selection to go around. I got a couple of new accessories, which I have yet to fully implement, but one of vendor I came back to more than once was a guy selling Magic: the Gathering cards. Aside from boosters and other merch, he had a unique gimmick at his booth: you could roll five d6s and get a prize based on what you roll. The majority of them were random little sleeves with about half a dozen cards, but the bigger prizes came from rolling 5 or 30 (all 1s or all 6s), and get a sealed box of Dragons of Tarkir boosters. I, sadly, did not get to those prizes, try as I might. There were two (I think three?) gaming rooms, one for tabletop games, and the other(s?) for console gaming. I spent a little bit of time in both, not wanting to kill my weekend doing nothing but playing video games. Not at a convention, at least.

What ended up being my last panel of Saturday was “Even More Awesome Animation Not from Japan.” It was exactly what you’d think; it wasn’t just non-Japanese, non-American or non-European (so no expose on the radar dodging of Code Lyoko, sadly), but a bunch of different films and animated series from the Caribbean, Latin America and the Middle East. It was actually pretty interesting.

This also marked the first time (or at least the first time I can remember) that the AJS staff ate together at a con…and I always advocate for the room to sit down and eat together. And to add to the incredibility, it was at a ramen shop. An actual ramen shop, too; it wasn’t that stinking Top Ramen instant stuff, too. Since it was my first time at one of these places, I didn’t have anything to compare it to aside from aforementioned instant stuff, and that didn’t count. My cohorts on the other hand, were much more expressive about it. They found it to be mediocre at best. I’ll have to trust their judgment on this one.

It might have been a little earlier than usual, but I got done the panels I wanted to see and we all returned to the room. We drank, obviously, were visited by friends of our room that I hadn’t met before, and among other things, watched a whole bunch of crazy shit on YouTube on the TV. And then, roughly around midnight or so, we found ourselves doing shots at the bar before wandering either to the rave or to some random hallway alcove to drink and talk some more. It was the first real “room party” experience I can say I’ve had, and it was fucking fantastic.

Sunday I woke up earlier than I would’ve liked—not because of the hangover, but because I was crowded out of the bed I was sharing. Granted, I’m a large man, and am aware of how much space is in the hotel beds, and try my best not to take up too much space, but that’s not an invitation to take your half from the middle. Also. It was fucking snowing. Why was it fucking snowing?! It was the end of March; hasn’t winter been told to fuck off enough as it is?

Anyhow, we all packed up, divvied up the remaining snacks, and got rid of the impressive amounts of trash we had. I only attended one panel that day, “Anime Press Your Luck”, so I made it a good one. Greggo struck gold again with another well put together game, with pretty high scoring, and plenty of new Whammy animations. His way of selecting people came via pulling out a deck of cards and making people draw; whoever drew the highest cards got on stage. I…only drew a six.

While Mako and DJ were conducting interviews, I had to part ways, as I still had to head home, bombing down the PA Turnpike, and cook for the WrestleMania party I was going to that evening. I made my famous egg rolls; I tinkered with the sauce a bit, adding sriracha to the mix. They were a big hit.

Like I said, I was disappointed that I didn’t go to Zenkaikon last year, and based on what I experienced this year, I can only imagine what I missed out on. It’s fun, not too far off, and I very much enjoyed the hotel and the convention center itself. It’s safe to say we’ll be back again next year; we’ll just know better than to waste a good meal on mediocre ramen.

Ari Rockefeller

When he is not training Pokémon and being the very best, the Master of the Written Word churns out convention, video game, anime and movie reviews like clockwork. No one is more productive and dangerous with a pen and paper (or, in this case, a keyboard).

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