Game On EntranceGame On Mario Poster DEC PDP-1 at Game On Atari Pong at Game On Arcade Cabinets at Game On Magnavox Odyssey at Game On Ralph Baer's Brown Box at Game On Spectravideo SV-318 at Game OnNintendo Family Computer at Game On Atari Star Wars Cabinet at Game On Panchinko Machine at Game OnHandheld Videogame Collection at Game On Atari Jaguar VR Headset at Game OnVectrex 3D Imager at Game On Motorstorm PS3 at Game OnGame On Full Video Link

GAME ON - LONDON 2006

There are some things that the average retro gamer will never see, the rare or extremely old machines that are only read about in magazines and books. So when we heard that the Game On exhibition was back in the UK, a trip to London was hastily arranged.

As we boarded the train on a chilly but sunny December morning, we were looking forward to a day of nostalgic gaming adventuring. The journey itself was taken up by a little retro gaming indulgence, with Jops playing Capcom Classics on my PSP, and me reading some of his classic C & VG magazines he had recently bought from E-Bay. As we got closer to London, a suited chap across the aisle leaned over and commented on our talk of old games. It turned out this well dressed MD had worked for Acorn and proceeded to show us some video footage, on his laptop, of his appearance on the old BBC program 'Micro Live'. It was amazing that in a train with several hundred passengers, we would sit across from such an intriguing person. This chance encounter certainly put us in a great frame of mind for the rest of the day. Before we knew it we were at Liverpool Street station and headed for South Kensington and the Science Museum.

On entering the first hall, a glance to the left revealed a majestic DEC PDP-1. Any photos that I’d previously seen of this 1960’s colossal (although for it’s time it was ‘small’) were put into stark contrast with seeing the real thing. The pale blue casing of the main cabinets, opened to expose the silver power supply filters and rows of circuit boards, as well as the main control panel with it’s rows of indicator lights and toggle switches, the paper tape reader, and strange looking crt display (the first used on a computer), really gave me an idea of the technology of the time. It is amazing to think that it was this machine that Steven Russell had designed ‘Spacewar!’ on, during his time at MIT, all those years ago. The computer was supplied by the Computer History Museum based in San Francisco. They have a great website which contains a massive amount of information on the PDP-1 (they restored one over a three year period). Visit them here.

Flanking the PDP-1 were two examples of it’s legacy, to the left a Vectrex running ‘Space War’, and to the right were two ‘Computer Space’ cabinets from 1971, looking very sci-fi but sadly not available to play on. ‘Computer Space’ has its place in history as the first video game that Nolan Bushnell designed, based on ‘Spacewar!’. Unfortunately it didn’t do too well. But his next creation, which sat beside the ‘Computer Space’ machines, brought him and the newly formed Atari much more success. This of course was the seminal ‘Pong’. This game was being projected onto the wall so I challenged Jops to a game but as the right controller was not working, it was an unfair victory for me (or so he said…).

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Our next port of call were the arcade cabinets, lined up, back to back, with an audible cacophony of attract modes and in-game melodies that brought back the heady days of the amusement arcade. With all of them on free-play, it was a veteran gamers paradise. I just had to have a play, so dabbled in some Centipede, Berserk, Ms Pac-man, Galaxians, Galaga, and Missile Command (although I don't remember the track-ball being so 'heavy'). There was also a multi-game unit projecting onto the wall, so I had a chance to play one of my all time favourites, Mr. Do!, on a 15 foot screen! There were other cabinets including Space Invaders, Asteroids, Dig Dug, Donkey Kong, and, Xevious.

I just have to add that playing these games makes the emulated versions on home systems seem quite plain, there is nothing quite like standing in front of the original cabinet, seeing and hearing the game as intended, they create their own atmosphere.

And so we crossed from the dark arcade zone, into the lighter consoles area. The first machine on display was Ralph Baer’s Magnavox Odyssey. It was the first time I had seen one in the ‘flesh?’ and I had to chance to check out the strange controllers. It was running Tennis (basically a Pong game… or should that be that Pong is basically a Tennis game?). I did find the ‘twist’ control of the game overly sensitive but as the first home games console, released back in 1972, it did show how things started. There was also a replica of the 'Brown Box' prototype, which was created in 1968 by Ralph, to demo the capabilities of a TV games machine (which was to become the Odyssey).

Also in this section we found Freeway on the original Atari VCS, Death Chase on the Sinclair Spectrum (which I found very playable), Mario Bros on the Nintendo Famicom (the more visually pleasing Japanese version of our NES), as well as games on the Commodore 64, Amiga, Gameboy, and PC Engine (with CD-Rom attachment). There was also the Spectravideo SV-318, similar to the MSX, which is one of only a few machines to have a joystick built into the case. Unfortunately this was not playable; rather a Sega Saturn pad was available to play the MSX Collection on, from a hidden Saturn console underneath.

This section plotted an interesting progression of games from the first steps of the Odyssey, right up to more recent developments such as the Atari Jaguar (Tempest 2000), Sony Playstation (Ridge Racer), Sega Dreamcast (Virtua Tennis 2), and XBOX 360 (Project Gotham Racing 3).

Norwich Retro Gamers on YouTube Norwich Retro Gamers on YouTube

As we entered into the next hall, we were surrounded by screen upon screen of games, each grouped into defined ‘families’ of games (as set out in the book ‘L'Univers des Jeux Video’ by the Le Diberder brothers). In total there were 35 playable games, covering Puzzle, Racing, Action, Shoot’em Up, Adventure & RPG, Simulation, Fighting, and Platform. Most of the games available were ‘best in class’ on the hosted platform, including Super Mario Kart and Pilot Wings on the Super Nintendo, Secret Of Monkey Island on the PC, Mario 64 and Zelda – Ocarina Of Time on the Nintendo 64, and Gradius V on the Playstation 2 (which was extremely good and made me wish I hadn’t sold my machine).

Moving onto the next section, we entering the sound area. Pods allowed visitors to don a pair of headphones and select from a cd of tunes. The different pods covered original 8-bit and 16-bit chip generated music as well as professionally produced music (including scores produced specifically for games and existing music that had been used as the soundtrack). Being a fan of the SID chip from the Commodore 64, I have to admit that the old music produced by pioneers such as Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway has a certain charm that the epic orchestral masterpieces used in the latest Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games lack. Of course I should not forget how important music is to games, creating feelings of high and low emotions that were not possible in the early days.

The other half of the sound area was exploring the effect of games in cinema. Film posters and clips from movies such as Resident Evil and Tomb Raider, as well as the games based on movies. I managed to get a go on the very popular cockpit version of Atari's Star Wars, but there was also a Discs Of Tron machine and Golden Eye on the Nintendo 64. In the centre of this hall was a dark room, which I believe, housed the Friendchip scanner, a sort of digital Simon game, recording visitors footsteps and adding these to previous visitors to create a visual and sonic experience. Unfortunately this was not working on the day we visited.

After having a quick go on the Star Wars cabinet (which apparently is not the real game, but actually a mame version running on a normal monitor...), our journey moved on. I have to admit that we didn't really spend much time in the next hall as many of the games were from recent history and not as interesting as the old stuff, at least to a grissled old gamer like me. I own an Xbox and have only recently sold my PS2, so the newer games are not as interesting as the old and rarer stuff.

The highlight in the section on US / European Game Culture was the Poly Play cabinet. This sturdy wooden beast hailed from East Germany and is one of a kind (as arcade machines were outlawed in the Eastern Bloc). Unfortunately it was not switched on, but the sparse control panel and bleak stylings are a world apart from the arcade cabinets that graced arcades in the West with their bright artwork and noisy attract modes (the Poly Play didn't have sound).

Norwich Retro Gamers on YouTube Norwich Retro Gamers on YouTube

The Japanese Game Culture section featured a couple of pachinko machines, which are extremely popular in Japan as a way of gambling. These machines have come a long way from their early days, now resembling facets of slot machines rather than the quasi-pinball functionality (which is still their core mechanic). Both of these machines had small video screens above the rows of small pins which guide the machines metal balls. Jops tried his hand at 'Go By Train' on the Playstation, using the special controller. Unfortunately much like trains in the UK, it was a very slow journey and I think most of the passengers had already jumped off and walked before he left the station.

The last hall was both large and noisy. The first display we found was a great collection of hand-held games, from the simple games of the early years, through the 'mini' arcade machines that were shaped like cabinets with replica artwork and a little arcade-style joystick, to the first hand-held 'consoles' such as the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear. A second display included unusual gaming 'gear', such as the prototype virtual reality headset designed for the Atari Jaguar, the Nintendo Power Glove (which was possibly the most uncomfortable gaming device ever devised), and the rather sinster looking Vectrex Imager which allowed 3D effects on the cult console.

Norwich Retro Gamers on YouTube Norwich Retro Gamers on YouTube

A turn to the left and the exit was in sight, but there was one last surprise in store. Projected onto the wall was Guitar Hero (PS2) and Rockstar's Table Tennis (XBOX360) as well as Tennis from Wii Sports collection (Nintendo Wii). These were well attended with visitors having particular fun with Guitar Hero. But the real gem was in the far corner, hidden away just infront of the exit.. yes, it was the Sony PS3. Being a bit of a Sony fan I was intrigured to see just what all the fuss was about. It was running Motor Storm on a nice Hi-Def TV and I have to admit it looked absolutely stunning. Although I didn't have a go, it did seem that several of the 'players' were struggling a little to get used to the six-axis controller. I can't wait to play Star Force on it.

And so our exploration came to end. Game On is a really impressive collection of all things that makes games the fun experience so many of us enjoy. Through the 15 sections is all of history from the 1962 Dec PDP-1, through the rise and falls of subsequent generations of hardware, and finishing with the 'Next Gen' consoles, including of course the 2007 Sony PS3 (at least for us Brits). I can highly recommend it to anybody who is into retro gaming and even those who are interested in knowing how games and culture has developed over the last 46 years. And believe me when I say that things have come a long, long way in those few short decades.

Oh, by the way, if anybody wondered if they may have been around on the day we were there, I was the one with the brown Space Invaders t-shirt.. I kid you not, the old Joystick Junkies favourite got an airing for the day, well it only seemed right.

 

Original article by Gary (web design & video) and Jops (images) - December 2006

 

FURTHER INFORMATION

Barbican International Enterprises (Game On) - Offical page for the Game On Exhibition

Game On Tour Pack - The accompanying tour pack for the exhibition (copyright of BIE)

Game On Exhibition (Wikipedia Page)

PDP-1 Restoration Project - The definitive website for the Dec PDP-1 (repeated in article)

Ralph H. Baer Consultants - Ralph's official website