Field Trip: Detroit’s YOUMACON 2016
As October comes to a close and November settles in, thousands of fans of anime, video games, and nerd culture descend on downtown Detroit for YOUMACON, Michigan’s largest anime convention. After a quick jaunt up I-75, my crew and I arrived at the GM Renaissance Center (hereafter called the Ren Cen) at just before 3 pm and after scoring a prime parking spot we made our way to check in at the Marriott. While all the hotel staff were courteous, they didn’t have the lines organized well for check in and workers would walk away and not be replaced for several minutes with no explanation, so I found myself in line far longer than some of those around me, which was a bit annoying. However, once I got up front they had no problem finding me room and getting me on my way quickly. After a second trip to the parking garage, which is conveniently attached to the Ren Cen by a covered walkway over the street, we relaxed with some cocktails before heading over to Cobo hall to pick up our badges.
While registration lines tend to be a continuous problem for conventions, Youmacon did a solid job with them this year, with most people I talked to having to wait two hours or less to get through the lines, at least once registration actually opened. When I first arrived at Cobo, the line was considerable and I set off to find out if there was a specific line or area I needed to head to pick up my press badge. I encountered a member of Youmacon’s security named Kevin, and while he was very polite, he didn’t know anything, so I headed back to join Anna in the reg line. Thankfully I decided to check my email while walking and discovered that they moved press registration this year to one of the con ops rooms, and we set off to see what was going on. Upon arrival it was clear that no one had any information about press reg, so I sent off an email inquiring what was up while they reached out to the head of that department over facebook. Rather than wait around for an immediate answer, Anna and I decided to take a walk along the waterfront and try back later.
Cobo is right on the river, and while most con goers don’t venture out that direction other than for photo shoots, it is actually quite a lovely area. We meandered down the shoreline, chatting and jumping on chairs and benches, before finally coming to a stepped, circular pyramid. We climbed up and took some time to enjoy the scenery and the silence, a much needed quiet moment in a hectic day. We wandered back after about a half hour, and while they still didn’t have our press badges, we decided to wait it out for now and see what happens. Thankfully, after about an hour Greg Cummins finally arrived with the badges and was pretty quick at doling them out. So badges in hand Anna and I set off back to the Ren Cen to grab some dinner.
We decided to check out Andiamo, an italian restaurant on the bottom floor of the Ren Cen. Anna ordered a seafood dish which she found delicious and I had the chicken parmesan, which was tasty, but nowhere near the best I’ve ever had. The prices are about what you would expect for an Italian dinner house by the river, but there are some more affordable menu items, particularly if you are just sticking to pasta. My only complaint was that the waiter wasn’t very attentive, and while I may have been a bit underdressed for the restaurant, once the hostess made to call to seat us I should’ve been treated just like any other table, and I noticed that all the other table near us were given a higher degree of attention.
After dinner we went back to the room to relax and have a few drinks, and we eventually decided to head out and see what was going on around the con. We checked out the screening rooms, which were rather empty at that time but were none the less staffed by friendly people who were happy to fill you in on what was being screened. We stopped and watched an episode of Lum, which is a classic comedic anime series from the early 80’s and well worth a watch. Our wander lust got the best of us before long and we headed off to go find the video game room.
The video game room at Youmacon is always impressive, but they may have out done themselves this year. Besides a plethora of japanese arcade games that will easily ensnare you and suck hours out of your life, they’ve also got rows and rows of tables set up for just about any kind of video gaming your heart could desire. They’ve got rigs where you can log into your steam account and play your favorite multiplayer online battle arena or massively multiplayer online game of choice. They run tournaments throughout the weekend so you can test your mettle against other gamers, which can be fun, but be careful because if the entry pool is large you may find yourself stuck there for hours. One of the coolest parts of the video game room was World 9 Gaming, they’re a video game contractor and they fulfill almost all of your nostalgia needs. With set ups of just about every console imaginable, and a game library that will have even the most pretentious of gamers drooling, there is very little you can’t find there. The process to get a game is simple, you give them your ID, they give you the game, when you are done playing you simply return the game and they return your ID. I’m not going to lie, I was tempted to attempt a speed run of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but as I wasn’t at this con by myself, I decided I shouldn’t be rude and hide in the game room all weekend.
Anna and I found ourselves drawn back to the game room several times over the weekend, and we had a great time with the Japanese arcade games. Anna enjoyed Dance Evolution, which was entertaining to watch, particularly when an enthusiastic player were busting their moves. I found a new favorite in Jubeat, which is a hand eye coordination game where you hit buttons that are lighting up in changing patterns while listening to Japanese pop music. As always, we both had some fun playing the table flip game, which doesn’t keep you interested long term but is always good for a laugh. We played a few rounds of Taiko, the japanese drum game, and it is always fun, particularly the amusing on screen animations when you are doing really well or really terrible. We had some fun with another music game, which I can’t remember or find the name of despite my best efforts. There is circle in the center of the screen and you activate shapes that require different actions as they hit the center circle, while also watching for the peripheral action shapes to hit. It was pretty fun but it did start to hurt my hands after a couple of songs.
After spending a tidy bit of time in the game room, we decided it was best to retire and get back to more convention shenanigans in the morning. One of the benefits of being in downtown Detroit is that there are plenty of dining options, and while those who want to do the con on a budget will certainly appreciate the food court in the bottom of the Ren Cen, we decided to venture out to a local breakfast hot spot to start our day off with a bracing meal. We walked about a half mile up the road to Clique, a great little breakfast place that is short on space but has great prices and tasty food. They had good pancakes, but I would avoid the chocolate chip ones as they seemed stingy on the chocolate, and their hash browns were particularly tasty.
With opening ceremonies not starting until after noon on Friday, there wasn’t a whole lot going on late morning, so rather than hurry up and wait we spent some time in the video game room before heading over to Cobo to check out the dealers room and meet up with some friends. Once we got to Cobo, I quickly discovered that there had been a misprint in the schedule and the dealers room was only open to platinum badge members, but as it was opening momentarily for everyone else, I got in line and just waited it out. My first order of business once I got inside was inquiring about Nintendo, which had been listed as one of the vendors by Youmacon but wasn’t displayed anywhere on the dealer’s room map. Unfortunately, no one working at that time seemed to know anything, which was a bit frustrating. I would actually make this inquiry repeatedly throughout the weekend, and I was eventually informed they would be showing up for half a day on Saturday or Sunday, only to be informed late on Saturday that they had canceled all together, which was disappointing.
The dealer’s hall was more packed than ever this year, and it definitely felt like the quality of the dealers had increased as well. There were plenty of people vending anime and the selection ranged from current to out of print, and while you may not have a great selection for the older series, it was nice to see that Youmacon had grown to the point to attract more vendors who deal with more niche anime properties. As always there were plenty of vendors selling the latest figures, wall scrolls, plushies, and art books from Japan. There were also plenty of apparel options, from leather goods to Kigurumis and everything in between. My big finds for the weekend were a deluxe original program from the Cowboy Bebop movie, a Bebop soundtrack that I was missing, a cute shirt, and a Hatsune Miku figure.
The other side of the dealers room was the artist alley, and it was always packed whenever I was in there. I’ve always loved the fact that anime conventions actively support independent artists, and while the majority of booths in artist alley sold prints, there was actually quite a wide variety of other items. Clothing, etched glasses, plushies, charms, and even original games could be found in the alley this year, and most of artists would cut you deals if you bought several items or were looking to commission something. Between the artist alley and the dealers area the room was fairly packed this year, to the point that I hope they expand the space soon because more dealers and artists at a convention are always a huge draw.
After shopping for a while and catching up with some friends we ran into, Anna and I headed back to the Ren Cen to get ready for dinner. Thankfully the elevators weren’t packed yet, and we got back to the room in plenty of time to get gussied up for Coach Insignia, the restaurant on the top of the Ren Cen. While you’ll probably end up paying a hundred dollars or more for just two people, the view alone is worth the cost as the dining area overlooks the river and Windsor from 72 floors up, which is just breathtaking. Besides the view, the food is always excellent, with a variety of chops and seafood to choose from, and the truffle oil wedge fries are just to die for. If you find yourself with an expansive budget when you attend this convention, I can’t recommend this place enough, but be warned, you will need to be dressed at least business casual to attend, so pack something fancier than jeans and a t-shirt if you hope to add this to your agenda.
After dinner we retired to our room to digest, relax, and then change before we headed back out to Cobo for the Team Four Star 18+ panel. The line for the panel wrapped all the way around the upper floor and then moved down the stairs to street level and continued on. Team Four Star are one of the main reasons that I always look forward to Youmacon, because they typically put on a great show, but they were lackluster this year. For my first few Youmacons TFS would always premier a Hellsing Abridged episode and something, usually a special, from Dragonball Z Abridged, but this year we got no such thing. We got a very brief preview for Hellsing and a slightly longer preview for the next DBZ Abridged episode, but nothing beyond that, and on top of this they had no other programing planned other than Q and A, which tends to get rather boring after a half hour or so. Add to this the fact that Takahata101 didn’t come to the convention this year, and you were left with a panel that didn’t crackle with banter the way it normally does, though Lanipator and Kaiserneko did their best, and an overall experience that made you feel like you were wasting your time.
Hoping to salvage some of the night after a less than stellar panel, Anna and I opted to hit up the dance. Now I have been to many raves over the years, both at anime conventions and not, and I was surprised to find they were frisking people at the door because, while this is common at a normal rave, I have never encountered this at an anime rave before. Once we got inside the place was about two thirds of the way full and jumping. Anna and I made our way to the front and had fun dancing to some pretty slick techno beats. The event was MCed by MC Yoda, one of the most prolific MCs in the midwest who I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know on multiple occasions, and he kept the crowd engaged and pumped up, and even gave me a shout out when he first saw me. After getting our pulses racing and our hearts pumping for about an hour, Anna and I decided to call it a night and headed back to the hotel room to crash out.
After a rather late night Friday, Anna decided to sleep in on Saturday and I took off to do some con wandering before the all ages Team Four Star panel. One of the fun things about conventions is wandering around and seeing people cosplaying, and since Youmacon takes place at two different venues there is ample opportunity to people watch and see some fantastic, as well as some tragic, costuming endeavors. I arrived a bit early for the TFS panel and decided to pop in and sit in on the end of the Pokemon – Lisa Ortiz panel. She was very engaging with her fans and took time to be open and honest with them, which I give her a great deal of respect for because their couldn’t of been more than 30 people in attendance, but she still delivered for the fans that were there. After her panel ended I started talking with the staffer who was running the room while they were setting up for Team Four Star. He was quite polite and nice, as were the majority of the staff at Youmacon this year, and while we had different views as to what is and isn’t appropriate for staff members (I believe that they should be having fun and partying just as much as the con goers when they aren’t on duty, he did not) we had a respectful discourse that gives me hope for the future of not just Youmacon, but for all anime conventions.
Anna showed up just minutes before Team Four Star took the stage for the second time, and while I had higher hopes for the all ages panel than the 18+ one, there wasn’t much improvement. They showed the same clips as they did in the previous panel and the majority of the time was once again spent on Q and A. I would have left early, but they teased a major announcement, which turned out to be an original series that they had a trailer for that should be premiering sometime next year. The new show seems like a western with elements of Trigun and Borderlands, but with the kind of flair and references that TFS is known for. The animation didn’t look great, but it’s not bad for an initial original programing effort and I am excited to see how it is once it officially drops in 2017. Overall I expected much more from Team Four Star, and as excited as I am to see the new series, I don’t think I’ll sit through another panel of theirs if they don’t have some premiers or designed programing (like when they used to read sections of 50 Shades of Grey in their characters’ voices).
Once out of the panel, Anna and I headed over to the dealers room so she could do more shopping and I could find Chris, a friend of mine who I was hoping would join us for drinks later. I I made a round through the room, double checking booths to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and eventually ran into Chris, who was going to be busy for a bit but was definitely interested in grabbing some drinks later. We parted ways and I went to find Anna, who had ran into our freind Pat in artists alley and was happily shopping with him. We toured around the booths for a bit as Anna was intent on expanding her print collection, and we invited Pat to join in our drinking shenanigans later on before parted ways when Anna and I decided to return to the Ren Cen to grab some grub before the drinking began.
After a quick lunch we watched some Berserk and relaxed with rum and cokes until Chris and Pat showed up around 4:30. The four of us conversed and drank, enjoying a break from the busy con, but eventually we went down to the video game room for a bit before heading over to the dealers room to meet up with Rita, Chris’s wife, Melanie, and her friend Kelly, who were getting in some last minute shopping. Everyone scattered once we got in there, but we met up again after making final purchases and decided to walk a few blocks up the street to grab some dinner. Unfortunately, our first choice was too crowded to accommodate seven people, but luckily I knew of a place up the street, Fishbones, which was able to get us in right away.
The atmosphere at Fishbones was fun but subdued, but due to the fact that most of us had been drinking for hours, our table was having fun. The conversation meandered across all sorts of topics including travel, relationships, work, hobbies, life stories, and humorous anecdotes. The food turned out to be just as good as the company, and I found myself laughing and grinning more than I had in a long time.
After dinner we parted ways at the Ren Cen, as they needed to go back to their car and get clothes to change into for the rave, so we head up to the room to chill out until they arrived. They eventually arrived, though slightly later than they originally intended, but they had Jen with them which more than made up for the delay because she is always a welcome burst of fun. We all got decked out in our raver gear and headed downstairs to get in line, unfortunately Jen hit an energy wall and decided to call it a night, so it ended up just being Chris, Rita, Pat, Anna, and myself going to the rave. The line moved quickly and once we got inside I discovered it was far more packed than the night before, and the music wasn’t as great. I often find that the DJs booked for cons are not always fully aware of the crowd they’re playing to, the sharper ones will throw on some happy hardcore or some remixed anime songs to help keep the crowd interested, but there was none of that this night, so after dancing for a bit and roaming around, I mostly just watched dance circles or danced with minor enthusiasm with Chris and company. We left the rave at about 2 am and wandered around the con a bit before heading down by the river. We enjoyed the night air and decided to part ways after what was a great day. Anna and I went back upstairs and I took some of the luggage down to the car to avoid the elevator fiasco that always happens in the morning before we finally hit the hay.
The next morning we slept in until about ten, then we packed up our belongings and braved the stairs after waiting for the elevator for 10 minutes and finding all of them full, which is a constant problem on Sunday morning at the Marriott in the Ren Cen. Once we stowed everything we decided to take one more crack at the game room before hitting the road, and this was when I discovered Jubeat, which I am sure I will be seeking out in the future. Our adventure done, we headed back to the car and said goodbye to Youmacon for another year.