You can never go back: the Play Expo Blackpool Retro Special

Blackpool does an excellent line in faded glamour.

I went to the Play Expo Blackpool Retro Special the other weekend, the event’s second visit to Blackpool this year. I previously attended the show a couple of years ago, when I interviewed a few of the exhibitors for articles that were later published on Kotaku UK and Eurogamer (this one on 1990s VR, this one on games and human evolution and this one on board games based on video games). But this time around I was there without an agenda – with a whole day to steep myself in crumbly old games.

I met up with a couple of old friends, and we had a rum old time playing the Addams Family pinball table, part of the huge pinball hall. It was great to see so many pinball tables in one place – I love a bit of silver-ball action, and you rarely see pinball tables these days. They seemed to be incredibly popular, too, with all of the machines being absolutely rammed for the whole day. And the Addams Family machine had a fun gimmick whereby you sit in an ‘electric chair’ to play it, which vibrates and emits smoke when you get multiball or hit certain features. Silly, but fun.

The wealth of arcade cabinets on display was quite something to behold, and my favourites by far were the old Atari vector-display cabinets. I played a lot of Asteroids on my old Amiga, but it was amazing to see the original arcade version – the vector graphics look stunning, so bright and smooth. The game is still frustrating as hell though.

Battle Zone was a real treat to play – again I’ve never had a chance to play on an original arcade cabinet before, and it’s easy to see why it was so mind-blowing back in the 1980s, with its smooth graphics and the funky goggles you peer through to see the action. Battle Zone definitely holds up, but one game that should definitely be left in the past is Tron – what a load of old tosh that arcade game is. It’s a series of bland mini games of mostly poor quality – why couldn’t they have done a vector version of the light-bike race instead? It seems like such an obvious choice that I’m baffled as to why they didn’t go for it. I mean, just look at how amazing the trench run in Star Wars turned out on the Atari vector machine.

Elsewhere I had a go on the original version of Alone in the Dark, which is the first time I’ve ever got my hands on this forefather of survival horror. And my god it looks dated now. I can just about remember when these 3D filled-polygon graphics took people’s breath away, but now they look, well, comical – especially the chunky enemies with cartoonish faces. And the game is so slow! It’s amazing to look back and see just how far games have come since 1992.

I also had a go on multiplayer Halo 2 – and I couldn’t believe how slow THAT was either. My friends and I had some epic eight-player LAN parties on Halo 2 back in the day, but it feels really basic now. I kept searching for the run button, not willing to believe it could be so slow. That said, it was still fun, just not quite as mind blowing as I remember.

One game that does stand up today is Quake II. I’d only ever played Quake III Arena before, but I quickly settled into its prequel and spent nearly an hour blasting through multiplayer matches. This is one game that’s at least as much fun as it was 20 years ago.

Digitiser Live – slightly shambolic.

I saw Mr Biffo’s Digitiser Live, too, which was a bit disappointing to be honest. It was meant to build hype for Digitiser: The Show, which starts on Sunday, but it was a mostly shambolic live panel where a lot of the jokes fell flat. Mr Biffo himself admitted that he’d barely prepared for it, and frankly, it showed. But on the positive side, the clips he played of the YouTube show looked great, and I’m looking forward to seeing the series when it airs.

The best thing I saw by far at Play Expo Blackpool was the VR room, which had PSVR, Oculus Rift and Vive VR headsets to try out. Jeff Minter’s Polybius on PSVR was absolutely mind blowing, a super-fast, psychedelic shoot ’em up that literally had me squealing with delight. But my absolute highlight was Beat Saber on Vive, a rhythm action game with light sabers, and I was grinning like an absolute loon the whole time I was playing it. I can see this game becoming a bit of a phenomenon – it’s out on PSVR on 20th November, and I bet it will sell like hot cakes. It’s even got me thinking about buying a PSVR kit for myself, and now they’re down to around £200, I’m ready to take the plunge.

It was great seeing so many classic games under one roof, but it also reminded me that you can never really go back to the past. I love thinking and writing about old games, yet when it comes to actually playing them again, often there’s a tinge of disappointment. And modern games are generally so much better than what’s come before that when given the choice, I’d much rather play something contemporary on my PS4 than dig out an old Amiga or Game Boy and load up something from my youth. That’s why my SNES Mini, lovely as it is, only really got a few days of play before being left on the shelf for a rainy day.

As you can tell, I’m not really one for nostalgia – but I do love delving into the history of games.

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