A few surprises from Play Expo Blackpool

As promised, I thought I’d write up a few thoughts on my visit to the wonderful Play Expo Blackpool just over a week ago. It was a crazily hectic day in the end, as I rushed around trying to interview people and type up my notes, but I did manage to find some time to check out some of the exhibits and play a few games.

The Norbreck Castle Hotel.
The Norbreck Castle Hotel.

The exhibition took place at the Norbreck Castle Hotel, a bizarre pink and beige fortress that looms up in front of the beach like a sort of shabby Disneyland. You get the impression that the hotel has seen better days – not least from the copious amounts of missing letters on the sign outside.

The sign for the conference centre is more like a giant game of outdoor Hangman.
The sign for the conference centre is more like a giant game of outdoor Hangman.

Things were much more impressive inside, however. The main room was essentially a giant arcade, packed to the brim with fantastic old coin-ops. I made a a beeline for the Defender cabinet, as I loved the Amiga conversion but I’ve never played the arcade original.

Arcade heaven.
Arcade heaven.

Defender was as brutally difficult as its reputation suggests – and much harder than the Amiga conversion thanks to its needlessly complicated control system. In the Amiga version, you change the direction of your ship by simply moving left or right on the joystick, but in the arcade version you have to press a ‘reverse’ button to change direction. Similarly, on the Amiga you speed up your ship by simply holding in the direction you want to go, but in the arcade version you have to press a ‘thrust’ button. Then there are other buttons for hyperspace and smart bombs – the first few times I played, I was tying my hands in knots just trying to move my ship around.

I just about got the hang of it in the end – but getting to the second wave felt like an enormous achievement. And all told, I think the Amiga conversion is far more enjoyable thanks to the controls – a conclusion that I’m sure many will argue with.

A Megadrive dev kit, complete with Primal Rage.
A Megadrive dev kit, complete with Primal Rage prototype board.

One of the highlights of the day was meeting with Phil Robinson, who previously worked for Psygnosis and had a hand in the Primal Rage conversion for the Megadrive. He even brought the game’s prototype board along to the show. I mentioned that a certain Primal Rage megafan and co-blogger of mine would be very jealous that I got to meet him…

One disappointment was that I wasn’t able to track down the Virtual Boy that was supposed to be somewhere at the show – I suppose I’ll have to wait a while longer to play on Nintendo’s white elephant. But I did end up spending an enjoyable hour or so in the board game area chatting to various board-game aficionados, and receiving plenty of useful recommendations in the process. It took an enormous amount of willpower to resist buying some of the amazing board games on sale: I came very close to dropping nearly £50 on Fury of Dracula, but in the end I settled on the rather less expensive Forbidden Island, from the same guy who made Pandemic. (I’ve played it since, it’s ace.)


A major highlight came during the Spectrum talk. Henrique Olifiers (of I Am Bread and Surgeon Simulator fame) gave a really interesting talk about the Spectrum mod scene, and highlighted some of the fascinating games that are coming out of Russia (something I’ve written about before). But then he dropped a bombshell.

Henrique Olifiers is on the right.

Turns out he’s been working on a new version of the Spectrum with the original Spectrum designer Rick Dickinson, and he gave the official worldwide reveal of the system right there – the room exploded with excitement. The new system is compatible with all of the various expansions that have been built in Russia and elsewhere, and it has that all-important HDMI port, along with lots of various other bells and whistles. More importantly, it looks beautiful. You can check out the official page here – a Kickstarter is coming soon.

The beautiful ZX Spectrum Next, Image from http://www.specnext.com/
The beautiful ZX Spectrum Next, Image from http://www.specnext.com/

So all in all, a pretty exciting day – and it made me think I really should go along to these events more often, if only to meet so many people who are just as passionate about games as I am.

Buy Forbidden Island from Amazon UK.


  1. I’d really like to go to a convention some day, but unfortunately I live in rural middle America and there isn’t anything I can hit without extensive travel.

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