VCF Midwest 2023: My Retro Happy Place

Parallax Abstraction
9 min readSep 16, 2023
Mecca for Old Nerds

I’ve been into retro gaming and computing pretty much since they became a thing. I used to be a big collector, but got out of that in the late 2000s because it became a dangerous habit. My old collection could probably pay off half my house had I hung onto it until now, but I’m not bitter about that. Nope, not at all.

Now that I’m older and make more money, I’m dipping back into the hobby in a more measured way, plus I also have the opportunity to travel more easily and retro conventions are now popping up all over the place. This past weekend, my good friend and I drove 12 hours to Chicago to attend Vintage Computer Festival Midwest, one of several such completely free shows being put up by various retro clubs across the US. VCFMW is the most well established of these. We had some idea of what to expect from videos of the show we’d seen, but the in-person experience blew away all our expectations. These shows may serve a niche, but I tell you what, it’s a big niche now.

Yeah, this show was BUSY!

There are no tickets and no admission fee so you can just walk in and out as you please. We discovered after standing in line for 15 minutes that it wasn’t for admittance, it was just to purchase t-shirts and pick up the complimentary badges. The shirts are one of the ways the show funds itself, so I grabbed two and the badges are really cool for the price of free.

The awesome (and free!) show badges. This year’s logo was modelled after the album cover for RUSH’s 2112. Yeah, these are my people.

Beside the lines are the “garage sale” tables, where people donate all kinds of old hardware and the proceeds of which go 100% to the show. I didn’t buy anything from here, but it was a smorgasbord of cool, random stuff.

The garage sale stuff. Some stuff you’d recognize, some stuff just about anyone wouldn’t.

In the hallways surrounding the main conference halls are where most of the vendors hang out. You can buy all manner of things, from old computers themselves to monitors, accessories, software, odds and ends and even some new accessories made for various older systems.

Only a fraction of the amazing stuff on sale from the vendors. Many more pictures in the gallery linked up top.

If you’re wondering if I bought stuff at the show, you bet your ass I did! I didn’t end up spending all the cash I brought, and I was a bit disappointed that a couple of hardware finds I really wanted weren’t here. But them’s the breaks.

This is an Atari 130XE, a computer I grew up with. I’ve wanted one of my own for years. This one wasn’t for sale and I’m not gonna’ say I wasn’t slightly tempted to just grab it and run.

Once you get inside the three (yes, three) main halls, that’s when the real magic begins. Exhibiting at the show is also free, but it was packed with enthusiasts showing off their collections, cool hardware and software projects, plus there’s a few more vendors here too.

Left: A fully functional, self-contained NABU network | Middle: A NeXTSTEP workstation. | Right: Sonic the Hedgehog running on a stock Commodore 64.
Left: A Sharp X68000 PC from Japan. | Middle: PicoGUS, a 100% compatible Gravis Ultrasound powered by a Raspberry Pi Pico. | Right: A sick Mac case mod.
Left: A Soviet era games console. Ees good, yes? | Middle: Silicon Graphics workstations. Another booth had a bunch networked playing DOOM.| Right: LGR’s amazing Ultimate Oddware Tower build.
They had a fully functional old school Meridian analog phone system setup, with phones at a bunch of different booths that you could call between.

The pictures and videos I took honestly don’t do justice to just how friggin’ cool all this was. I’m sure I had a dopey grin on my face most of the time we were in here. The knowledge, skill, ingenuity and passion on display was infectious and almost all of it isn’t from people who are in it for the money, but are in it just because they love the creativity and challenge retro computing offers and wanted to show off what they’ve done. Everyone was brimming with enthusiasm and happy to talk your ear off about not just what they were working on, but really anything in general.

I walked up to a fully functional NABU setup, told the guy I was from Ottawa and grew up with it and you’d swear he just met his soulmate. He spent the next twenty minutes going over his whole setup, the tools he was using to connect it and why he liked one more than the other. We talked about the massive resurgence in interest for the platform that was spurned by Adrian Black’s video, how I experienced the NABU as a kid and a ton more. I can’t think of anywhere else I could have geeked out about this amazing and largely unknown system with a total stranger. Most everyone at the booths have forgotten more about retro computing than I will ever know, but I still felt like I was surrounded by peers and it was so great as people who aren’t into the hobby understandably glaze over when I talk about it. Not here.

What amazed me even more was just how trusting everyone was and how they were right to be. Many people — including vendors — would leave their booths for sometimes thirty minutes or more to go get food, use the washroom or just look around themselves. All their often very expensive stuff was still on display unsecured and could easily have grown legs and walked away. But that didn’t happen. I even saw people pick up stuff they wanted to buy, leave cash on the table with a sticky note saying what it was for, and no one batted an eye. How often do you see that anymore? To me, it shows just how serious and profound the sense of community is among this group of enthusiasts and it’s wonderful to see.

Clint from LGR and Robin from 8-Bit Show & Tell

Several retro YouTubers were also in attendance, including Clint from LGR, David from The 8-Bit Guy, Adrian Black from Adrian’s Digital Basement and fellow Canadian Robin from 8-Bit Show & Tell. These guys are not only some of my favourite channels to watch, LGR was one of the main inspirations for my getting into YouTube myself. Unfortunately, I only got to talk to David and Robin, and only for a short time. These guys were mobbed with good reason and silly as it sounds, I was actually shy to talk to them, even though they’re all super nice and approachable. Robin in particular is a gentle giant and actually hooked me up for free with a missing H key for my Commodore 128D keyboard that I’ve been hunting for years now. Next time I’m at the show, I really need to make a point to get out of my own way and chat these guys up.

There were several panels too, including one with the YouTubers that filled to capacity well before we could get to it, but we did catch a really interesting talk on the history of Imagic. We also attended some of the auction, where all the proceeds went to help fund the show. I didn’t buy anything, though not for lack of temptation.

At the end of the last day, we also went to the awesome 2DKits Build-A-Blinkie booth, where you can buy various levels of little project kits to teach yourself soldering and use their stations to build them right at the show. I’d never soldered anything in my life, but if you want to get into restoring old computers, it’s kind of important to learn. I soldered a beginner’s earring set for my girlfriend and bought three more kits to try on my own. The guys at this booth are the nicest bunch and we were chatting with them the whole time. I had a blast and am really excited to build the other kits and finally learn this skill I should have learned decades ago.

Solder selfie. Mantras is way better at it than I am, but I’ll get there.

Though I joke about this show being Mecca for Old Nerds, that really wasn’t the case at all. It doesn’t necessarily show in my photos, but despite the tech industry’s reputation of being an old boys club, there were tons of women present, both exhibiting and visiting. This wasn’t remotely the stereotypical nerd show, full of socially awkward know-it-alls that stunk of body odour. Everyone was friendly, social and you could freely strike up a conversation with just about anyone, whether at a booth or just hanging out in the hotel bistro. It was about as close to universally welcoming and inclusive as you can get, not because it was trying to signal itself as such, but because it just was.

Furthermore, there were a lot of young people here, from babies in strollers all the way up. These weren’t kids who were dragged to the show by their parents. They were playing games, hearing about the different projects, building their own solder kits and all the ones I saw were thoroughly enjoying themselves. It shows that technology doesn’t have to always be the newest shiny to gain people’s interest. Old doesn’t mean boring and it makes me happy to know that even if a small fraction of these kids go on to become enthusiasts, that still builds a stronger community that’s better for everyone.

Technology dominates every aspect of our collective lives now and only seems to be accelerating. I work in IT and often still can’t believe how fast things are changing. But it’s important to remember our history and roots as you can’t fully know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. The retro community and shows like VCF Midwest not only make this history accessible and fun, but show that you can still do amazing things with stuff from the past. Retro computing is in vogue now and though that doesn’t bode well for many of our wallets, it does give me renewed hope and optimism that this hobby and it’s importance to our society will live on for generations to come. I find few things as invigorating as seeing super passionate people discussing and sharing those passions with others and that was at the very core of everything at the show.

A big thank you to all the amazing volunteer organizers from VCF Midwest who put together a great event and ran it like a well oiled machine. This won’t be the last time I attend and I hope I can eventually hit up some other shows as well. If you’d like to help keep this event alive and free, you can donate here, which I would strongly encourage as like everything else, their costs went through the roof this year.

Did you attend a VCF this year or in years past? If so, leave a comment with your own experiences or other retro shows you recommend. I’d love to talk about them!

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Parallax Abstraction

Gamer, variety/indie/retro Twitch streamer/YouTuber, pet parent, IT ninja and much more. I'm not opinionated, I'm just always right!