AnimeNEXT 2016 – Going All In

I’ve had a lot of personal dealings to contend with between now and the convention itself, but as they’re a bit on the personal side, I’ll put them aside for now and just get right into it.

AnimeNEXT 2016 took the big, bold step of moving its venue and had its first year at the Atlantic City Convention Center in…well, Atlantic City, New Jersey. Guess in a roundabout way, my pipe dream of a “CasinoCon” came to fruition after all. It’s important to change things up every now and then, to experience things from a different perspective, lest you fall into the false sense of security or lose yourself to stagnation and mediocrity. Which is at least part of the reason for the much-noted change in venue that highlighted this convention. But the main reason being was the venue itself; AnimeNEXT has outgrown Somerset, and no more evident was it than last year.

As soon as the hotel listings for AnimeNEXT went up last year, I jumped all over it and got a room reserved at the Sheraton right across from the convention center itself. I dreaded what would become of parking in a veritable tourist trap like Atlantic City, but as luck would have it, the hotel offered up a deep discount for anyone parking in the convention center’s garage for the duration. As the city was known for the Miss America pageant as well as the gambling, there was a lot of Miss America history on display in the hotel’s lobby, including a statue of long-standing host Bert Parks—holding a tiara as he crowns the new Miss America—in the garden outside the hotel. Needless to say, women standing under said crown and marking out like they just won the pageant was a stock photo op for the weekend.

I got to the hotel early, as a beeline down the Atlantic City Expressway took a little under an hour, as I suspect the weekend shore traffic didn’t quite pick up until the middle of Friday afternoon. Regardless, I got checked in and unpacked all by 8:30 AM. And while I tend to not like con weekends that start on Friday morning, this convention didn’t feel like it normally would if that were the case; hell, I barely felt tired throughout the day while enjoying the city.

The convention center itself was very nice—it had four floors, with panel rooms spread out among every floor, it was well lit with the sky lights, and the pedestrian walkway from the parking garage went right into the first floor of the convention center, so it was extra convenient for getting in and out while avoiding the hot sun (if it came down to that). There were places to get food inside the con, but I didn’t partake of them, as I was predicting they’d be expensive, and I had brought snacks and water and the like for the room.

In any event, I was all geared up in my Bear Hugger cosplay and ready to enjoy the con.

The first panel I took part in was called “Toonami: Celebrating 20 Years of a Generation.” The panel was run by a guy named Nate, who set the tone for the panel by coming in doing Shinsuke Nakamura’s entrance, complete with music, gestures, and YEAOH pose…which he described as being harder to pull off than it looked. It went about as predictably as one would expect, the panel being a brief history of Toonami, from its origins on Ghost Planet (itself an offshoot of Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast) and originally emceed by Moltar—the graphics of him did not age as well as we previously thought—to its various iterations of Tom while out exploring deep space, with everyone sharing their fondest memories of their favorite shows and said shows’ favorite moments.

The next panel I intended was of a similar vein, “Weeaboo Flashback Hour”. Much like the Toonami panel, everyone came together to share stories of their favorite anime from their pasts, be they 90s, 80s, or further back. The panelists also gave out packages of ramen to people who got quiz questions right, or just because.

I had brought food down from home for the weekend, with plenty to share for everyone staying with us, as has become the custom for staying at conventions. This helped alleviate the cost of food for the weekend, as I had predicted that meals outside of (hell, even despite being) fast food joints to be above the curve in terms of pricing. This is a tourist town, after all. What followed after recharging in the room was wandering around, taking pictures, checking out the combined Artists’ Alley and Dealers’ Room, and hitting up the game room more than once.

By the time I went to my next panel, I had changed into Dan Hibiki from Street Fighter. I bring this up not only because it’s a great cosplay, but I actually saw a Sagat cosplayer He was tall as hell and everything. I saw him walk in late to the next panel I went to, “Epic Con Stories.” The panel is exactly what it promises: people tell stories about the best things that happened to them at conventions, be it with their favorite voice actors, with other guests, with other people in the room, whatever. I ended up telling my story about retiring my first Pokémon cosplay, which got a pretty big pop. Afterward I got into a mock-confrontation with that Sagat cosplayer (mimicking the events of Street Fighter Alpha 2) before leaving.

And of course since we had our journalistic duties to attend to, I wound up recording the “Anime Press Your Luck” panel to close off the night. It went about as well as other anime themed game show that Greggo puts on, albeit with a very small audience…and mid-tier contestants. The crowd only got bigger during the second round or so, when people—presumably from the rave—were wandering around and into the panel.

Speaking of the rave, the first night of said rave had to relocate due to severe issues with the floor where it was originally being hosted. So they held it out in the main lobby on the first floor. Wasn’t that fun.

Saturday morning I got a relatively early start and was delighted to plunge head-first into the whole journalism and press thing we’re so famous for. We, along with several other press outlets, were escorted to a very nice suite in order to record a group interview with voice actress Erica Mendez, who did voice work for Kill la Kill, Dead or Alive, Love Live!, among others. Among other things she talked about, I learned she has a massive sweet tooth, and after the interview I recommended to her a rather delightful candy shop along the Jersey Shore (albeit a little distance away). I don’t know if she stopped by there or no, or even if she took my request seriously. Either way, it was worth a shot.

I spent the day in my Hoenn!Ash cosplay, doing my usual convention thing. The first panel I attended was “Hayao Miyazaki: A Storyteller’s Journey,” which chronicled the life and times of the aforementioned director, the history of Studio Ghibli, and the myriad of inspirations and experiences he had in bringing his artistic visions to life. The panelists also spoke of a Ghibli museum open in Japan…and how the tickets are ridiculously hard to get, due to its popularity.

I dropped in on an anime themed Mystery Science Theater 3000 panel after that, but didn’t stay too long, as these kinds of panels fall short of what the series—and, by extension, RiffTrax—set out to do. The panel immediately after that was something I spent much more time at, and was much more rewarding: “Super Dub Fighter Turbo Championship Edition Version 0.2.” In it, the panelists, chief among them Mark Swint, a voice actor whose more recent roles include Necalli from Street Fighter V, discussed the processes involved in voice acting, how auditions are handled, and how actors and actresses are given their directions for their lines. It was easily the longest panel I attended that weekend, over two hours long. They gave the crowd a taste of what the process is like, by having people “audition” for characters in a hypothetical fighting game. There was all sorts of character types, but the most memorable performance went to a guy voicing a ninja in an incredibly stone cold and badass fashion. The panelists were especially thrilled with him.

I wound up getting late lunch/early dinner at the Wingcraft Kitchen & Beer Bar after leaving that panel. The food was pretty good, and the staff was very hospitable to the cosplayers in attendance. I like to get at least one good meal (read: not snacks, etc. brought from home in the room) in during the con weekend, and I think I made a good choice with them.

Later, I was tasked with filming the masquerade. They made everyone line up in a massive unused warehouse-like room at one end of the convention center and walked us to the venue on the other end of the convention center. The staff wasn’t taking too kindly to press people at first, but it didn’t matter too much in the end, as I managed to get a good seat close to the front to set up the camcorder and the rest of the equipment. There were plenty of good skits this year—though the winner for the first half of the evening was a Fire Emblem Fates skit that I felt fell flat (but then again, I wasn’t judging, so…)—as well as a competition to see who would advance to the World Cosplay Summit. What struck me as odd was the use of the Brother logo all over the place…until it was pointed out that Brother was sponsoring the event, as well as giving out sewing machines to winners as well as judges’ picks. The contestants who won were marking out and/or breaking down in tears when being presented with them; and while I’m glad they won and it’s very clear it was something they could use, but I couldn’t help but feel confused. I don’t expect them to give away their most top-of-the-line products, or their bottom-tier line, for that matter…but what exactly is the price range for their sewing machines, anyway?

oh.

I ran into the aforementioned Nate again well later after the masquerade. While we were waiting to get into the last panel of the evening that I would attend, he clued me in to the complete and utter total fucking insanity that was the “Brother Nero” and “The Final Deletion” angle that TNA had been running. I hadn’t watched TNA Wrestling in quite some time, and to see Matt Hardy dive into…whatever the shit that was had me absolutely flabbergasted. My mind was still unable to comprehend what I had just watched when I went into “Adult Swim Revolution.” The premise was very similar to the Toonami panel I attended the day before—a brief history of [as], the shows that came and went, all that good stuff. Made me feel old, seeing what they used to play on there.

There wasn’t a whole lot to do Sunday. Though there was something in particular I wanted to do since I got down to AC. Other people in our room for the con went in and out of the casinos at different points during the weekend (the jitney service that had a special promotion with the convention certainly helped), winning varying amounts of money. I went as well, but I wasn’t there to gamble. I hit up the breakfast buffet at the Showboat, which was good, but a little pricey even for casino buffet standards. I also pissed away about $10 on a video blackjack machine. I’ve never been very good at gambling. That was the highlight of my Sunday, as it wasn’t long after that that I packed everything up, departed Atlantic City, and headed home.

AnimeNEXT took a big risk moving to Atlantic City, not just with the possibility of parents dropping off their kids to be wholly unsupervised at the con while they went to the casinos. But all it took was one day—hell, less than that—to see that the risk paid off. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the new venue, about how nice it was to have everything in the same building, and how much cleaner and less compacted it was compared to the Doubletree and the surrounding convention center in Somerset. I can only assume the deals with hotels in the area (casinos or otherwise) will come more readily as the years go on, and I hope that the con becomes a fixture of Atlantic City and South Jersey as a whole for years to come. Not as much as Miss America was (probably), but Uncle Yo doing his best Bert Parks impersonation while crowning the winner of the masquerade will obviously be a license to print money.

Ari Rockefeller

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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