There are many reasons why retro gaming has enjoyed a great resurgence over the last decade. Humble hardware and pixelated graphics have the power to whisk us away to a simpler time, before the days of two-hour learning curves and HD graphics. Perhaps it's the nostalgia factor that's kept the scene alive all these years, or maybe games from the eight-bit era simply play better than their modern-day counterparts? When we attended the R3PLAY Expo in Blackpool earlier this month, it was refreshing to see gamers of all ages embracing the medium's roots. The attendees' passion for age-old platforms from the ZX Spectrum to the Amiga was testament to just how thriving the UK's retro scene is. We caught up with co-organiser Dave Moore to discuss the movement's great revival.
Billed as the largest retro computing event in Britain, the R3PLAY Expo is a celebration of the history of video gaming. All facets of the medium were represented, from the earliest examples of home computers, to Japanese arcade machines and even current generation consoles. Almost every gaming system ever invented was available for the public to try out free of charge. We expected to see the various incarnations of the ZX Spectrum, Super Nintendo, Sega Master System and Neo Geo on offer, but the likes of the Panasonic Q (a hybrid edition of the GameCube) and the SuperGrafx were surprise inclusions.
In addition to the history lesson, those with a competitive streak weren't disappointed. There were Super Street Fighter IV, Tekken 6, FIFA 11 and Halo Reach tournaments in full swing, alongside contests involving nostalgic fare such as Sensible Soccer and International Karate +, in which the winners took on the games' creators on stage. An immense 64-Player Warlords elimination tournament using Atari 2600s went down a storm on the Saturday, while The King of Pong contest the following day gave the older gamers something to shout about.
"Our main goal was to increase the profile of retro gaming by bringing it to a wider audience - as there were signs that it might have been reaching a peak," said Dave. "For example, we'd noticed the odd remark on internet forums claiming that retro-only events were beginning to lose their 'shine', and it was comments like this which spurred us on to spice things up a little.
"The concept behind R3PLAY was pretty simple, really: what happens if you take all aspects of gaming - everything from the current generation [which was well represented with stalls from Nintendo, Sony, Sega and Ubisoft as well as developers like Sumo Digital] to niche and enthusiast areas [such as Retro Consoles/Computers, Arcade, Pinball, Dance Machines, Cosplay, the Fighting scene and LAN Gaming] - and mash it all together in one big hall.
"We always believed that R3PLAY had the necessary ingredients for a successful show, but were obviously a bit apprehensive because we'd never staged anything on this kind of scale before. Also, there's a danger that the bigger you go, the 'flatter' your event may be. Therefore, one of the most important objectives of R3PLAY was to try and retain the buzz and the energy that was present at our previous events (such as Byte Back, Retro Reunited and Acorn World). Having now seen the electrifying footage of R3PLAY that’s all over YouTube, I think it's fair to say that we achieved our goal."
Not only is the retro scene well supported by those who were brought up on old systems, the younger demographic appears to be catching on too. The rise of online storefronts such as PSN and Xbox Live Arcade has given age-old classics a new lease of life, offering junior gamers the opportunity to see what they missed. Retro is well represented in the download charts for both platforms in the shape of reissues and remakes alike, but have these services helped stimulate growth within the movement, or merely provided another avenue for existing fans to utilise?
"I think they've definitely increased exposure. Some people simply haven't got the room or capability to set the old consoles up. You try tuning a 2600 into a modern telly, for instance," Dave offered. "It's just another way of giving people access. Some folks might want to hunt down the original systems, whilst others may choose emulation (though this can sometimes be a bit of a grey area, obviously). Alternatively, you can utilise Xbox Live, PlayStation Network or Wii Ware. Either way, it's all good."
At R3PLAY, it was interesting to see attendees - including those of the younger generation - overlooking the modern hardware in favour of the technology from yesteryear. Arcade machines sporting the likes of Street Fighter II, Donkey Kong and Pac-Man as well as a host of more obscure Japanese titles, pulled in an impressive crowd, and the pinball tables were equally well received. According to Dave, one of the most popular exhibits was the Neo Geo, further underlining gamers' hunger for arcade action. Rarities such as the PC Engine and the aforementioned Panasonic Q also did well, managing to hold their own against the sleek current gen systems.
The popularity of the arcade cabinets and pinball tables is reminiscent of a time when these machines were all the rage in Britain. Some two decades ago, arcade parlours were thriving dens of cutting-edge video game action, but they weren't the only places you could get your fix. Many pubs, clubs and other public spaces played host to such attractions. Sadly, the rise of the home console slowly killed them off, with one-armed bandits and other novelty platforms being the only survivors, aside from the occasional light gun and driving simulations. Despite the fervour such hardware attracted at R3play, the age of the arcade machines has long past.
"That's just the way the amusement scene has gone now, it's all fruit machines, pushers and grabbers. If you can't make money or win a prize, it seems punters don't want to know, unfortunately," Dave added. "The improvement in the consoles is partly to blame and sometimes you find that the home conversions are actually better than their arcade counterparts. Something else worth noting: even if you are lucky enough to find an amusement arcade containing video game cabinets, you'd be doing very well to spot any 'traditional' joysticks in use - it’s all steering wheels, pedals and light guns nowadays."
From the success of R3PLAY, we can safely say that retro gaming is alive and well in the UK. It was no surprise to see aged Spectrum and Commodore fanatics at the event, but judging by the broad age range in attendance, the movement is beginning to strike a chord among the younger generation too. Perhaps this is down to the volume of nostalgic fare available on online storefronts, or maybe contemporary gamers just have a desire to explore the history of their favourite pastime, but what does the future hold for retro?
"Well, a lot of people have already rediscovered the games and systems from the 80s and early 90s that they grew up with – so it's logical to assume that the next generation of retro heads will be gamers who began their foray into video gaming at the dawn of the 'Next Gen' era in the mid-late 90s.
"There is certainly evidence to suggest this is already the case: according to R3PLAY exhibitor Andy Brown of ConsolePassion.co.uk, up until about a year ago there was little to no interest in the huge stock of used PSOne titles he had listed for sale on his website. However, PSOne games are now flying off the shelves and at present he shifts more than a hundred PSOne titles per month.
"While certain fans of classic gaming might not deem systems such as the PSOne or Dreamcast to be 'true' retro platforms; if you're in your late teens or early twenties, games like Wipeout and Tekken 2 will be just as significant or close-to-your-heart as Manic Miner or Super Mario might be to an older gamer like you or me."
Judging by what we saw at the Blackpool show, it doesn't look like nostalgic gaming has hit its peak quite yet, and nor has R3PLAY. According to Dave, next year's event will see the exhibitors return in force. The co-organiser said that both the pinball and arcade communities are expected to attend in greater numbers in 2011, and the competitive game contests could be expanded. "What we were hearing for everyone who exhibited is that they want to return next year, but in full-force," he added. "Now that we've proved ourselves, I think we can expect a lot more of everything next year."
The R3PLAY Expo took place on November 6 and November 7 at the Norbreck Castle in Blackpool. The event will return in 2011.