Play Expo Review - 2015

I'd been to game expos before, mostly focused on modern games with a mere hat-tip to retro stuffed away in a neglected corner. Occasionally small, local events would pop up with the good retro citizens of the parish showing off and generously sharing their prized collections.

Andy Pryer gives his take on this huge event. Follow him here on Twitter: @clammylizard

Video overview: 

All the really big events are up north and for a southerner like me with the scent of the English Channel constantly in my nostrils it's a long step. 

This year I decided that I couldn't I all good conscience call myself a retro gamer until I'd made the effort to get to an all retro event and so it was off to Play Expo for me.

To cover the ground between my HQ and Manchester I naturally flew, which helped lend it a sense of occasion, similar to that of flying out to Westworld.  

Playexpo 2015

On arrival at the venue, I was massively fortunate enough to be granted access a little early, so of course I made directly for the arcade section with visions of Operation Wolf in my head and my trigger finger twitching.  

Zelda Link Retrogaming

The whole area was blissfully abandoned save for Link brushing up his Space Harrier skills.  I was expecting a good number of cabinets but was not prepared for the vast selection on offer.  The first few minutes were spent excitedly pacing up and down the neat rows of cabinets with a fixed grin painted on my dial, revealing in the familiar sound clash of 100 attract modes and the smell of hot circuitry and vinyl. 

Operation Wolf was notable by its absence (it always seems to elude me) but it was soon forgotten as I clambered into the deluxe Turbo Outrun.  I did badly, but it wasn't really surprising, how could I be expected to concentrate under the circumstances?  I'm in the best arcade of my life with all the machines on free play and I'm only sharing it with Link!

Conscious that this utopia wouldn't last forever I cherry-picked my way around the lavish selection, prioritising my choices.  Battle Zone managed to take quite a disproportionate slice of my time as did Star Wars and I'm pleased to report my Point Blank prowess hasn't slipped too far which also served to itch my index finger.

Playexpo 2015 1

Having this array of machines at my sole disposal was a surreal experience, it seemed very unnatural and not only because I'm not usually that lucky.  The only missing element to this paradise was all too quickly added however in the form of the general public. 

Thanks to them the arcade burst into life and the arcade was complete. The shared joy of the collection was palpable in the air. Memories were shared and skills were demonstrated making the wait for machines a pleasure.  No joystick was allowed to cool even for an instant: I was called in by a stranger to fill the vacant player two position on Double Dragon. 

I never would have guessed that an arcade such as this needs people to be properly enjoyed. Keen, enthusiastic, friendly people who make video games more than the sum of their parts. It was a powerful reminder for me of what we've lost in gaming, huddled in our homes with a BT headset on.  What's the point of being good at an arcade game if you're not pulling a crowd? That's what they're for!

Although I could have died happy in that arcade once it was populated, I knew the arcade was just a fraction of the gaming goodness on offer, so reluctantly set forth to see what else I could find.  While chatting to a disarmingly keen and friendly vendor of bartop cabs named Paul, my ear was struck by a familiar tune.  My head whipped around and my eyes were met with the joyous sight of a row of Dreamcasts with a player tackling the final stage of Rez.  I promised myself that I'd return later to have a go myself, but the distractions were so numerous that I never did.  I shared a successful game of Cabal with Paul and moved on again. 

On display and ready for use down the center of the venue was every conceivable computer, games console and board game from my childhood.  It was great to see them all in one place, but more than anything it was wonderful to watch todays kids clamoring, wide-eyed to play the timeless treasures. 

My keen eye was once more drawn to a display of familiar gaming posters and cover art. While perusing the delightfully familiar selection nostalgically I got talking to the stall holder, who delightfully turned out to be the original artist Mr D Rowe esq, also famous for his fine work on Knightmare. I found him to be a thoroughly charming and modest gentleman who very generously showed me some of his sketches and concept art, giving a fascinating insight into some familiar imagery which I'll always remember.

Jeff Minter Play Expo

It wasn't long before I noticed another legend from my childhood through the crowd in the distinctive form of Jeff Minter.  We spoke spoke at length and he was very generous with his time.  He enthusiastically discussed his projects - new and old.  We played Tempest on Atari Jaguar, Nuon and even in it's most recent iteration on the Oculus Rift.  It was a real privilege to have my head messed up by THE Jeff Minter on the latter.  I really suck at Tempest whatever the platform, but Jeff was most kind and pretended not to notice.  It's often said that one shouldn't meet their heroes, but in this case I'm looking forward to meeting him again.

Throughout the day I popped back along to the arcade to recharge my levels from the collective vibe being generated and to get my fix on games that can't be played at home.  I discovered I'm actually quite good at Tron which was a surprise.

One frustrated arcade proprietor, apparently pressed for space but flush with skill and time, decided to assemble his own cabinets in a 50% scale.  These fully working replicas, hospitably offered for the enjoyment of all, are almost flawless in design and artwork, particularly the stand up Star Wars cab. He also had a Donkey Kong, Dragon's Lair and a Defender bar-top (on which one patron sat and impressed with his incredible prowess). 

Naturally there were many stalls selling consoles, games and related paraphernalia. Whatever your retro needs they they could certainly be fulfilled here. There was also ample opportunity to discover new 'needs'. 

At the end of the day I retired to the bar tired but happy. Although my one day visit was eventful and ticked all my boxes, I would have gladly returned the next day to repeat my steps precisely.  

The event was worth the trip entirely and I shan't ever hesitate to make the trip again and perhaps next time I'll catch up to that elusive Operation Wolf cabinet. 

Review by Andy Pryer. Follow him here on Twitter: @clammylizard

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