On the cold morning of 12th October 2013 I found myself in a queue that was situated just outside the vast shopping behemoth of the North that is the Trafford Centre, Manchester. This line of people, which stretched on for quite a bit, was for entry into Play Expo 2013.
Now in its second year, the event came from Replay Events who specialise in providing retro gaming installations for other larger expos such as EuroGamer Expo or EGX as it's now known as well as private functions and for educational purposes.
Replay Events held their own event in Blackpool, which was exclusively retro orientated, but they expanded to include contemporary games and other gaming related culture such as cos-play and tournaments.
As I walked into the show floor I could not help but marvel at the variety of video game related machines they had on display. Arcade machines, pinball machines and 8 bit computers that had no right to still be functioning were all present.
There were even LED based hand held consoles that were prevalent throughout the early 80's on display where they even had their own installation. The LED Arcade had a selection of games that I remember playing for hours as a wee little person way back in the mists of time.
Playing them now, however, just left me wondering how on Earth I garnered any kind of entertainment from them; they are most definitely best left in the memory.
Play Expo occupies one large space. There are no doors or levels, just a large area that is sectioned off into 4 main areas: Replay, Nowplay, Proplay and Cosplay. The Replay area contains the retro computers and video game consoles, most of which are fully functioning.
Some of the hardware on display was over 30 years old and in some cases it was a little too much to ask for it to remain on for the two days of the expo.
Some very unusual machines were on display, such as the PC Engine that never arrived in Europe that had the almost arcade perfect version of R-Type
running on it. The easiest way to get that version is to buy it on the Wii Virtual Console. At least you could until very recently.
Nowplay has yet to be released games that include indie games as well as AAA mainstream titles. This year there was Assassin's Creed 4
being shown on the PS4 and the Oculus Rift was doing an excellent job of making people nauseous while giving them pink-eye, allegedly. Representing the indie scene was Red Shirts
, which we have previewed, Democracy 3
and Prison Architect
Nintendo were also present with a very impressive stand showing Mario Kart 8 and Zelda: Link to a New World to name but a few.
Proplay area had a Streetfighter IV
competition as well as FIFA 14
, Mario Kart
all had tournaments running throughout the weekend. The Cosplay had a host of cosplayers all showing off their creations with the culmination being a competition for the best cosplayer of the event.
This was really well represented as many people crowded around the main-stage area of the expo to see cosplayers show off their efforts.
Speaking of the main stage, this also played host to a series of talks. Placed at the rear of the hall, I attended both of the presentations that were held on the Saturday, which were focussed on the retro side of gaming.
The first was on the upcoming film, From Bedrooms to Billions
. This documentary is on the rise of the British video game industry that started life in the early 80's, just as the spread of 8-bit computers sprang into being.
This fragmented environment, with a vast array of competing formats, gave birth to a thriving video game development community whose legacy remains with us to this day. Grand Theft Auto V
is a good example of this. It is largely created in Edinburgh and can trace its roots back to the fledgling game development community that started life in the bedrooms of game creators hunched over 8-bit computers that appeared in the 1980's.
The makers of From Bedrooms to Billions
have managed to get interviews from many people who made games from that era, many of which have since moved on away from the video game industry.
Nicola and Anthony Caulfield, the makers of the film hosted the talk and they managed to recruit two people who they to interviewed for the film in the form of Rob Hubbard and Ben Daglish onto the panel.
These two both worked on music for Commodore 64 games in the 1980's, which resulted in them now being generally regarded as SID Chip tunesmiths. Not only did they get interviewed for the film, but they also wrote its theme tune. Called A New Frontier
, it was created using traditional instruments but there is also a SID chip version of it too.
During the Q&A session after the presentation, there was much talk about contemporary scene of video games and the question was asked to both Ben and Rob what they thought of music for games now.
Interestingly Rob was very dismissive of it, as he appeared to be of the opinion that because the lack of effort into making current generation computers and consoles produce music, it was of little worth. Ben, however, did not share this view as he recognised good music for what it is, no matter how it is made. He did concede that he didn't really listen to video game music as it tended to be too ambient for his liking.
The second talk was given by Andrew Hewson of Hewson Consultants. This publisher was one of the handful that survived the transition from 8-bit to 16-bit in the late 80's/early 90's.
They published a highly varied set of games that ranged from space craft that blew up battleships as it skimmed over them in Uridium
through to steam train simulators in the form of Southern Belle. Andrew described himself as a keen enthusiast but not a skilled programmer. This didn't stop him, however, from writing books on how to program the ZX80, ZX81 and ZX Spectrum computers.
The success of these books allowed him to release games that were initially made by people who wrote to Andrew to ask about the possibility of him publishing their game.
Andrew based the success of Hewson Consultants on the quality of games that the publisher released. He played hundreds of games that were submitted and most of them were dire. It was only the ones that were deemed to be entertaining and engrossing that were considered.
Games like Avalon
all came from Hewson Consultants. Nebulus was of particular interest as it featured a cylinder tower that the player jumped and rotated as they climbed up it. Fez
and Mr. Crab
feature this same mechanic, although Andrew seemed to be ignorant of this as he declared no other games since had used it during his talk.
Nebulus came into being after its developer saw a colour effect that Andrew Braybrook, the creator of Uridium
, has added to the logo of that game. Braybrook had managed to flash it into a rainbow of colours and John Phillips reworked the technique to eventually arrive at a spinning shaft.
Such feats were not uncommon in the early days of game development as the community was relatively small and there was no Internet back then, so communication was not as it is now and hence the sharing of ideas was limited.
Beyond the talks I played a lot of pinball machines, and I mean a lot of pinball machines. They seemed to be everywhere at the expo and I couldn't help but marvel at how some of the older ones still functioned.
Playing real pinball is obviously a very different experience to the video game variety and for me they are a real highlight of Play Expo as well as PAX and EGX. The latter two expos do not have the variety or number of machines Play Expo does though. At least not yet.
The arcade machines are also very varied, but most are from the late 70's to mid 80's era. As I walked around I managed to get some time on Gauntlet
where I spent much of the time informing my fellow players what to do. It's a surprisingly complex game, which I believe is still available on XBox Live Arcade.
Other games I played included Chase HQ
, Dig Dug
, which were a mere smattering of what was available.
I did enjoy my time at Play Expo and would certainly go again. The variety of machines they had available for play throughout the weekend was impressive. The next scheduled event is to be held in May 2014, on the weekend of 3rd and 4th and will be at the original venue in Blackpool.