A trip to Play Expo Blackpool

Last weeked I took a trip to Play Expo Blackpool, an annual jaunt that’s become something I look forward to immensely, ever since my first trip in 2016. It’s a great chance to connect with members of the retro-gaming community, as well as to play some wonderfully ancient games.

This year, the highlight was undoubtedly the talk from John Romero, who gave some fascinating insights into his early career and the development of the groundbreaking games Doom and Quake. There was also something of a surprise announcement in that he announced plans to re-release Catacomb 3D in a box set with all six games in the Catacomb series. Catacomb 3D was the first FPS to use texture mapping, so it’s something of a landmark title, although it’s little remembered now when compared with the success of other id Software games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom.

I also got a chance to have a quick chat with John in person, and I was fascinated to learn that he now works with Les Ellis at Romero Games. I briefly shared an office with Les when he was a game journalist at Computer and Video Games magazine and I was doing a stint as an intern after university. Les had previously worked on GamesMaster magazine, where he reviewed Doom and spent many column inches raving about how amazing it was, so it’s rather fitting that he now works alongside Doom‘s creator.

Another highlight was a panel discussion about making new games for old systems. Among the speakers was Alistair Low, who I wrote about for Nintendo Life last year, as well as Amiga-game creator Graeme Cowie and Mike Tucker from Bitmap Bureau (who made the excellent Final Vendetta). Mike kindly sent me a code for the top-down shooter Xeno Crisis, and I’ll post my thoughts on it just as soon as I get round to playing.

Out in the main hall, I came across some wonderfully obscure and musty retro consoles, including the beautifully ugly ColecoVision, which looks something like a cross between a VCR and a CB radio. Then there was the Binatone TV Master Mk 6 (a brilliantly orange Pong console from the mid-1970s) and the unbelievably awful Philips CDI 450. Just take a look at the controller the CDI comes with and try to imagine playing games with it. It boggles my mind to think that anyone at Philips thought this was OK.

Best of all, there was an enormous Steel Battalion controller. I remember having a go on this ridiculous thing back when it was released, and it’s still mind blowing to me that Capcom ever gave it the green light. There are pedals, too! It is a gloriously silly piece of kit, and it’s just a shame that Steel Battalion itself is a bit dull, with gameplay centred on plodding around very slowly while shooting blobs in the far distance.

There was also a whole slew of arcade games that I’d never seen before, and in some cases never even heard of. Vindicators from Atari was a new one on me, and featured tank controls that worked in a similar way to Battlezone, but the whole thing was instead viewed from a top-down perspective. I can see why it’s obscure, though – the game is quite slow and frustrating to play, and not a patch on the excellent vector-powered BZ. Much better were Space Duel and Asteroids Deluxe, both of which are variations on Asteroids that mix up the gameplay in fun ways, such as by introducing enemy spaceships and a simultaneous two player mode.

All in all, it was an enormously fun trip, but as I say every year, I wish they’d move to a new venue. I think a lot of attendees have a mysterious fondness for the Norbreck Castle hotel, but in my opinion it’s a pretty shabby and depressing place that gets shabbier and more depressing every year. Still, it’s what’s inside that counts, I guess, and I couldn’t fault the line up this time around.

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