This is the coastal town That they forgot to close down Armageddon - come Armageddon! Come, Armageddon! Come!
So sang Morrissey in his classic hit Every Day Is Like Sunday – a verse that perfectly encapsulates how Blackpool feels; much like the arcades we all remember fondly, its best days seem to be in the past and looking around as you walk down the promenade you could easily think you've just woken up in the 1990's. I half-expected to see posters for a Roy Chubby Brown gig or the new ‘Music For The Jilted Generation’ album and was mildly disappointed not to see a Sierra Cosworth complete with a whale tail rear spoiler revving away at the traffic lights whilst pumping out Mr Vain but then you can’t have everything I suppose. There’s definitely an air of Phoenix Nights about the place but if you're coming for a retro event like Play Expo then these sort of things just add to the ambience and make Blackpool a great venue!
Many retro gamers have fond memories of playing arcades during their trips to various seaside towns across the U.K. but visiting seaside arcades these days is a melancholic affair with the coin-ops we all know and love nowhere to be found, their spaces occupied by claw machines, 10 pence pushers and various other gambling machines which I guess return bigger profits.
Search hard enough though and you'll find something; we eventually discovered a deluxe OutRun 2 cabinet and a token After Burner machine – not amazing I grant you, but we were just grateful to finding anything - a stark contrast to those days of walking into an arcade and searching for the latest releases amongst the rows of coin-op staples such as Robocop and Chase HQ.
Fortunately though we didn't come to Blackpool with the expectation of finding arcades on the sea front, we came for Replay Events' annual Play Expo - a weekend of retro-inspired gaming hosted at the Norbreck Hotel affectiately referred to as ‘Castle Grayskull’!
As someone who has now attended a few Play Expo's my focus has shifted to meeting the people from the retro gaming community rather than playing the games (although that does still happen!). I'm in regular contact with a lot of people on social media but rarely get the chance (if at all) to meet them in person - a lot of the time we only know each other by our Twitter handles (so choose yours wisely if you haven’t already!) - it's definitely nice to be able to put faces to avatars and podcast voices at these events!
Another reason I look forward to attending Play Expos is because they do a fantastic job of getting really interesting guests to come and chat about their experiences in the industry - we were spoiled this year with Gary Bracey, David Pleasance and Mark Cale all talking to Dan Wood & Ravi Abbott from The Retro Hour podcast (one of my favourite podcasts by the way!) on the Saturday with Sunday giving us industry legend Jim Bagley being interviewed about the new ZX Spectrum Next by none other than Alex Verrey (aka Big Boy Barry from Games World)!
Jim wowed the crowd with some technical demos running on the Spectrum Next board which included parallax scrolling, the 7MHz accelerated mode and a sneak preview of his game 'Baggers Ladders'; basically if you are a backer of the Spectrum Next like myself, there is a lot to look forward to! Alex went on to give his own very entertaining talk later in the day about his rise to fame from winning his challenge at GamesMaster to being one of the videators on Sky One's Games World with some interesting anecdotes and insights into productions of both GamesMaster and Games World.
The free-play arcades and pinball machines at the Play Expos are obviously a huge crowd-pleaser - as I mentioned earlier, it's now the only way to find all our childhood favourites in the same place and we're lucky that groups such as Retro Games Party and Arcade Club are passionate and dedicated to keeping this important part of gaming history alive. The team at RGP did a sterling job of keeping all the machines going throughout the weekend, no mean feat when you consider the fact that many of the machines are over 30 years old and being played back to back throughout the weekend. A special mention must go to the After Burner and OutRun cabs they brought along; this was the first time I'd experienced either game in their hydraulic cabinets and was an absolute joy! The OutRun music that was blasting out from the speaker behind my head would stick in my brain for hours afterwards - a timeless classic indeed!
At previous events I've tended not to buy very much, usually just sticking to browsing various stalls but a few days before this event I'd purchased a few items from Allan's Japanese Retro Game Sales via the Facebook page and just needed to drop by his stall to pick them up - however nothing is ever that easy when you arrive at his emporium of NTSC-J bargains! I ended up visiting his stand on the Saturday and Sunday and buying games on both days - I just can't ever seem to level up on willpower when 16-bit Japanese games are involved!
And so another Play Expo ends but with Manchester only a few months away I'm already looking forward to catching up with those who couldn't make Blackpool this time around. If Morrissey is right and every day is like Sunday then we can only hope they're something like the ones experienced at Play Blackpool...
Review by Darren Browne - aka Kingmonkey25
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