Last week marked the fourth time that the United Kingdom Play Expo came to the seaside city of Blackpool. Events were happening thick and fast at the show, and a multitude of different games and speeches took place across the three-day expo, and yours truly was there to capture every moment of it, and return with as many different opinions about what was on display at the show, and how the medium is bigger now than it ever has before; as well as an interesting insight into how it has gotten to where it has. It was exciting three days for me, especially since this was in fact the first ever video games expo I had ever attended, and here’s hoping that it won’t be the last of which this year.
The Arcade and Retro Console Booths & Shopping Stalls
As well as having a multitude of either current or upcoming video game on display at the show, there was also a great deal of arcade cabinets of some of the most famous retro video games of the first and second generations of gaming, along with a ton of retro consoles across the rest of the industry’s history. Among the cabinets were Galaxian, Pac Man, Dig Dug, Frogger, Pole Position, Donkey Kong and even Berserk, which I had never played before, but had heard quite a lot about. Berserk, in particular, had provided me with a great deal of intense and demanding gameplay, as well as a look deeper into how developers would rely on other means of conveying the mythology behind their games to players in order to compensate for the lack of visual detail at the time, while the developers however used advanced audio technology to make Berserk one of the first games to include speech synthesis.
Berserk was inspired by a dream that the designer Alan McNeil had, in which he was trapped in a black and white video game whilst having to fight robots, and the game’s chief antagonist, Evil Otto, was named after the security chief at McNeil’s former employers, Dave Otto, who according to McNeil would “smile, while he chewed you out”. Although I would get much more of an insight into this particular matter as the three days progressed, playing Berserk was definitely an effective starting point.
But aside from this, I also had a lot of fun revisiting many other classic video games of the 80s, such as Pac Man, Q Bert, Space Invaders and Asteroids. It was here that I also got to try some of the lesser successful systems to have come and gone in the past, such as the Sega Saturn and the Vectrex. Much to my delight, I also got to try out the original Super Mario Bros on not the Nintendo Entertainment System, but the Family Computer, or Famicom. There was also a shop in one of the other rooms at the show, which had not only the Famicom on sale, but also the Famicom Disk System, much to my personal surprise. There were so many other games and consoles on sale at these shop stalls, but in the end, I settled on a couple of T-shirts, as well as an Ike Amiibo. I was also able to get a photo taken at a stall where replica swords were being sold, of myself holding Narsil; the sword belonging to Aragorn from Lord of the Rings.
Although a great portion of the main complex was overloaded with retro consoles and arcade booths, there was also a great deal of indie games either on display, or being unveiled, and open to explanation from developers dispatched by various different software companies to give run-down about how their games work, and what they hope to achieve with them in the future. Taking to these developers in-depth gave me more of an understanding into not only what direction the industry is going in the present day, but also into how much opportunity aspiring developers themselves are being given within the industry.
The first Indie game I tried at the expo, and about the best indie game I saw at the entire show, which is will so far be for Xbox One only, was Wulverblade. The game is a cinematic 2D side-scrolling beat ‘em up, similar to Streets of Rage but set in 120AD when the Roman empire was still at large. The developer at the expo explained to me what his influences were behind the game’s conceptual design, and that he had a massive interest in ancient history, and how he wanted to retell it in his own image. His own style of drawing that he had been incorporating all his life was in fact what he used to render the game’s visual style. Aside from having all the brutality of games such as Mortal Kombat or God of War, it also seemed fairly enjoyable to play, as well offering a stern, yet accessible amount of challenge. We also talked about how difficult he intends the final product to be once it is released to retail, and we actually seemed t be on the page about it; how games like Bloodborne and Dark Souls II are far too inaccessible, and how he wanted to develop Wulverblade to be as enjoyable a game as he can, with players not having to complain about difficulty too much.
Thankfully, Wulverblade isn’t the hardest indie game I’ve played since they began to gain in popularity. It wasn’t even the hardest game I played at the expo. The developer did talk about the possibly of taking the game to multiple platforms if it increases in popularity, and I think it will most probably happen, since it does have the potential to be something quite special, and Microsoft may easily lose exclusivity of it particularly quickly in my opinion.
Another indie game that caught my attention at the show was a 1-4-player co-op game called Overcooked. The objective of which is to prepare, cook and serve food before customers lose patience and walk out of the restaurant. As the game progresses, more obstacles are put in player’s way, such as poisonous insects, kitchen fires and rats. The developers had an offer on at their booth, whereby anyone who tagged the developers on Twitter with #OvercookedGame would get a free cookie. I did just that, but after having had a chat with the developer present at the show about how unique the game is, and what they hope to achieve with the title upon release, the company decided to follow me on Twitter, and enjoy the blog.
The general impression got from the video game reminded me of one of the mini games from Pokémon Stadium featuring the pokémon Lickitung, whereby the player must eat more sushi than the other three players in a designated amount of time. Regardless, it did seem to have a lot of originality about it; especially compared to other indie games. About the most original indie game I played last year was Octodad: Dadliest Catch, but unfortunately I didn’t think the gameplay was up to scratch at all. However, Overcooked looked like a particularly enjoyable game, and I’m very much looking forward to its release.
The Apocalypse Collection
Renowned indie developer Curve Digital also made a particularly prominent appearance at the show. After bundling many of their games together, such as The Swapper, Titan Attacks, Lone Survivor and Proteus, they were there to promote another upcoming bundle, containing their latest game Ultratron, along with two upcoming games entitled Nova 111 and Porcun Pine.
Ultratron was undoubtedly my favourite of the three games; at least at the moment, until the other two games are released in their entirety. Adopting virtually the same visual style as Titan Attacks, it also revolves around many of the same basic principles of gameplay, but it plays out much more like Smash TV, as opposed to Space Invaders. But by proxy, it’s also a lot better than Curve Digital’s previous effort in my opinion. It feels much more satisfying to upgrade the playable vehicle in the game, since there are a lot more options and abilities available.
Although I didn’t find the gameplay as addictive as Ultratron, Nova 111 had a lot more uniqueness about it than not only the other two games at the expo, but more than many other previous efforts from Curve Digital. Taking partial inspiration from games such as Road Not Taken and Super Motherload, it involves the player having to navigate another kind of vehicle around different stages and obstacles within a certain number of moves, whilst also engaging in turn-based combat of all things. Unfortunately, the demo only lasted so long, after glitching out during the second level, but I think it will be interesting to see how the developers modify the title, and what kind of new levels and enemies they add along the way. It has the potential to be quite diverse in these respects as well as its gameplay.
But none of this is to discount the last of the three games Curve Digital had in display. Entitled Porcun Pine, it is a player vs. player game with a particularly sadistic twist of visual design as well as the basic premise of gameplay. It involves animals having to kill each other using the detachable horns on their heads, but the challenge lies in judging what angle the player should shoot the horn at, as well as the angle and trajectory at which the enemy’s horns are being shot at, since they can be ricocheted off walls and obstacles, which can result in unintended or even inadvertent death. The experience can become delightfully hectic, and by proxy, callously funny as well; depending on gamer’s sense of humour.
Since playing this game after I got home, and finding out it isn’t so accessible on PC, I don’t think it’s any wonder the developer is desperate to port Gunnihilation to consoles as soon as possible. Playing out similarly to Expendabros, Gunnihilation is pretty much what it sounds like; a run-and-gun shooter, whereby the objective is to simply kill everything on the screen, advance forward, rinse and repeat. It plays out many times more fluently with a standard console controller, and was to say the least quite enjoyable for something that started out as a Flash game on Newgrounds. It’s another pretty interesting indication of how much opportunity there is for different kinds of developers who choose to initially port their games in some unlikely places. Newgrounds is home to mainly small videos, or comedy games that can only last for a few minutes, but it was good to see a more serious title emerge from it all.
Xbox Vs PlayStation
Indie developers maintained an extremely strong presence throughout the three-day show, but so did mainstream gaming. There were many Xbox Ones and PlayStation 4s available to play, with some of the most popular mainstream and indie titles accessible on both systems right now; some of which I own already, but most of which I’d played for the first time; some being games I’d been curious about for some time.
Shovel Knight being a case in point; a traditional 2D platformer taking elements from Mega Man, Castlevania and even Duck Tales about a knight, whose primary weapon is a sword-shovel hybrid, which is used to perform a variety of different tasks, such as attacking enemies, digging to find treasure and secret locations and even pogo jumping from platform to platform; hence the Duck Tales influence. I’d already watched Gaijin Goombah’s numerous videos about how much cultural reference there is in the game, and how it’s a nice throwback to the days of gaming simplicity, and I wasn’t disappointed by it. I did maintain scepticism about a game being mentioned in the same breath as Castlevania and Mega Man, but was pleasantly surprised by how accessible it was, and finding it not to be overly hard, as I feared it may have been.
The only indie game on the Xbox One to have caught my attention even slightly, however, was Max: The Curse of Brotherhood. A young boy named Max, the protagonist of a prior game called Max & the Magic Marker, is tired of being annoyed by his brother, and stumbles upon a magic spell to make him disappear into a portal leading to another world. Regretting his actions, he jumps in after him, and sets out on a journey to save him. Though the story sound like something straight out of the film Labyrinth, in terms of both story and gameplay, it is almost identical to Eric Chahi’s Heart of Darkness; albeit much more accessible than the latter.
The affair disappointed me slightly, since I knew this game had been released for some time prior to the start of the show, yet this and The Escapists were about the only interesting things that Xbox had to offer at the show in my opinion. There were many booths of Halo 4 and Forza Horizon 2 there as well, but they were mainly there in preparation for gaming competitions held at the expo later on in the days, and in all honesty, didn’t really show me anything new about what the Xbox One has to offer.
Therefore, I spent the majority of my time at the expo playing PlayStation 4 games; even ones that I’d played excessively beforehand, such as Rogue Legacy. However, another game that stood out to a great extent to me, and one that I hadn’t played, was a game called Titan Souls. Distributed by Devolver Digital, known for their ongoing partnership with Sony, Titan Souls is an open world game, in which the objective is to roam the land looking for nineteen titan enemies, and killing them using only a bow and a single arrow, which must be retrieved every time it is shot, putting the player at a merciless disadvantage. Although the visual style was very well executed, and it seemed to show promise at first with the inclusion of an open world, problems became apparent to me, since not only is the game unforgiving in terms of difficulty, but that for such a big world, there aren’t any side quests. The same could be said about Shadow of the Colossus, but the in-game world of Titan Souls feels a lot more redundant, since there isn’t as much to do. It reportedly took inspiration form a multitude of classic games, but in my opinion, not enough influence.
In summation, whilst both had their high points and low points, what PlayStation had to offer unanimously overshadowed what was on display on Xbox consoles, and simply asserted my opinion that it was the right choice to align with the PlayStation 4 over the Xbox One. I’ve now seen first-hand how and why Sony have been able to come out on top, and stay on top, during the eighth generation of gaming so far. Whilst mainstream releases may be particularly prominent on the Xbox One, and may afford them to come out on top in terms of sales every Christmas, the only choice for the true gamer has to be the PlayStation 4, for the greater amount of variety in games, as well as many other factors.
Formula One Simulator
Ahead of my upcoming series for the podcast Pit Stop Radio, entitled BIT Stop, I also took the opportunity to try out a Formula One simulator that was on display at the expo, and managed to do a personal best of one minute and forty seconds around a virtual Silverstone in three separate attempts. I also did it in homage to my good friend Sarah Jones, who not only encouraged me to start my blog up in the first place, but who also write her own blog at jonesonf1.wordpress.com.
Ahead of recording the BIT Stop series, it offered a particularly interesting perspective on the sport, and how challenging it must be for the many iconic Formula One drivers to master their profession over so many years of striving to get to where they are today. There was also a Pole Position arcade cabinet there to try out, which offered me even more insight into the subject of the first official episode of the series.
Play Blackpool not only marked the first time that I had ever been to a video games expo, but also the first time that I would get to experience the potential future of gaming from a very different perspective; through an Oculus Rift headset. Currently being tried out at expos around the world, the Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset reminiscent of the Nintendo Virtual Boy, but one that the industry seemingly has very high hopes for, and as recently announced, will be available to the public early next year.
After experimenting with it to a certain extent, I can realize what potential this piece of kit may have but only if its faults are ironed out before release. Whether it was something to do with my imperfect eyesight or not, I did find it to be a little bit on the blurry side, particularly from out the corners of my eyes, and wondered whether or not it was normal, since the Oculus representative didn’t fully explain. I think if this issue is resolved, especially if it is a recurring issue (let me know in the comments), then it could potentially change the face of gaming in due time, but as of now, I still remain about as sceptical of VR gaming in general as I did before trying it for the first time. As I’ve said many times before, it also largely depends on what kind of software support the headset receives from developers. At the expo, that aspect seemed somewhat promising, but time will tell, I think.
The Oliver Twins & SkySaga
In addition to having a multitude of different video games on a plethora of different platforms from across every generation of gaming to date, there were also a series of very exciting talks and presentations taking place at the expo; the first of which was hosted by tin brothers and renowned game designers of the 80s, Philip and Andrew Oliver; developers of the Dizzy series, and founders of the development company Radiant Worlds. They were there to first discuss there history, and long career of developing video games, and how they aspired to learn code as best as they could throughout they’re childhoods, and eventually create some of the most well received and highly regarded games of the home computer era, across platforms such as the ZX 81 and the Dragon 32; consoles that came many years before my time.
The second half of their presentation was concerning their new and upcoming project; a game called SkySaga. SkySaga will be a free-to-play game inspired by the likes of The Legend of Zelda, Skylanders and most obviously Minecraft, revolving around many of the same principles; building, fighting and copious customisation. The game is currently in it’s alpha stage, and is available for anyone to try out, who would like to make an account on their website:
Personally, I’ve never thought to play Minecraft to any certain extent, but if the Andrew Twins’ own personal faith in the title is anything to go by, which seemed to be at the presentation, then it could potentially be a suitable substitute. It certainly has much better graphics, but the question is whether or not the game can deliver on the matter of gameplay over visuals that Markus Perrson did with Minecraft. I also chatted to the twins briefly about where they would like to take this game in the future. In the immediate future, they said they would like to stick to the PC format, but they said that if the opportunity arises, they would consider taking it to Steam, and from there, home consoles; but they admitted themselves that it all largely depends on whether or not demand for the game proves to be that high. In any case, I’m looking forward to the release of the game, and would like to take this opportunity to personally thank Philip and Andrew Oliver for their contributions to the gaming industry, as well as taking the time to address all the issues that certain attendees had about the game during the presentation, and wish them the best of luck with SkySaga, and that it can go on to be the best game it possibly can.
David Rowe: The Art of Knightmare
The second major presentation was hosted by another extremely noteworthy figure of the video game industry and beyond; conceptual artist David Rowe. David Rowe, like the Oliver Twins, first found prominence in his career throughout the 80s, in a time when software was much more limited than it is nowadays, and when imagination played a massive part for not only the developers, but for the players who only had box art and instruction manuals to go on for any kind of story. Rowe captured the imagination of the industry by conceiving box art for some of the most notable titles of that era, including Wild West Hero, James Pond, Budokan, Amos 3D, Populous and Populous II. But where his career truly took off was when he developed the conceptual art for the hugely popular TV program of the 80 and 90s; Knightmare. Created by Tim Child, it ran for 112 episodes from 1987 to 1994, and was and is still considered to be ahead of its time.
Rowe talked about the many kinds of things that went on to influence his artistic style, as well as the things that inspired him to create Knightmare’s conceptual art, which included the box art and conceptual design of many popular video games at that time, including the early Chris Stamper effort Atic Atac, and even Dragontorc. We were also shown some of the techniques used at the time to integrate the artwork into the program, and jus how ahead of its time these methods were. Throughout the expo, I chatted with David on multiple occasions, as he was also running a stall, in which he was selling off some original pieces of his artwork, and each time was an absolute pleasure. Despite his work instilling fear into the hearts of many who watched the show at the time, at heart, he is a wonderful person, I was glad to have learnt first-hand the impact he had on not only the gaming industry, but on British television and media and I would highly recommend that anyone check out more of his stuff. Here are links to his websites and social media platforms:
The final presentation of the expo was held by three leading figures at the legendary Hewson Consultants; Andrew Hewson, Simon Cobb and Stewart Gilray. Together, these men worked at one of the smaller software companies around during the 80s and 90s, but nevertheless developed some of the most highly regarded games of the time, including Dragontorc, 3D Space Wars and Paradroid to name but a few, over a wide selection of consoles. Andrew Hewson not only the programming guidebook Hints & Tips for the ZX80, but he also founded ELSPA, which before PEGI, became the governing body of video game censorship in Europe. His legacy can be found on most video games released in Europe up to the fifth generation.
Hewson Consultants was recently reformed back in 2013,and since, Andrew has launched a Kickstarter program, after having been persuaded by his son Robert Hewson, ho was also present at the talk, to publish a book detailing the events of what happened during the time when Hewson Consultants were at their apex, and his own personal perspective of what constitutes a great video game.
To me, it offered yet another valuable insight into how the gaming industry had progressed up to that point, and how Hewson Consultants chose their programmers and how they were able to produce hit game after hit game at the time. Simon Cobb even revealed how after reading Hewson’s book over 20 times, he still couldn’t grasp many of the core concepts of coding, but how he persevered to force himself to understand Andrew’s many words of wisdom, and go on to achieve great things within the industry. It’s because of all this that I wish Andrew and Hewson Consultants all the best with the release of the books, which scheduled to be at some point this year, and wish them the best of luck with all their future projects. Hewson in particular seemed like an extremely animated character, and I think it will be interesting to see what either he or his son come up with next.
All photos of the expo will be posted on my Facebook page, but another huge part of the expo entailed meeting up and chatting with many of the great cosplayers present. Spanning many different video game genres and titles, a great number of people came dressed up as some of the most iconic video game characters and film characters of all time, and all competed in the Cosplay Masquerade, which was held once each day. Although it wasn’t something that I contemplated being a part of prior to the start of the show, it was still exhilarating to witness first-hand the attraction of such, and it is something I would possibly consider doing in the future. It also gave me further insight into just how popular gaming has become among a lot of people from around the world. From now on, I will have a special page on the blog dedicated to photos from different expos I may go to in the future, since I plan on going to many as I can, and hope to experience even more excitement from interacting with other avid gamers, and watching the industry change and grow with my own eyes.
In all, I was honoured to have gone to Play Blackpool, and would like to take this opportunity to announce that I will also be attending the Play Expo coming later on in the year in Manchester, which will apparently be eight times bigger than Blackpool. I cant wait to expand my insight into the industry, and for the many different events that will be planned over the three days.
Meeting so many different faces within the industry, and having seen so many different things relating to not only the direction in which the industry is going, but also how far it has come since the days of perfect squares depicting heroes. It made me proud to be a gamer, and proud at the fact that people have gotten over the viewpoint that gaming is a waste of time, and that we’re all into something stupid that will rot our brains overtime. I at least like to think that I’m proving that this is wrong in my own way with every article I write, but if not, I’m glad that there plenty of other people from different background from all around the world who are posthumously proving this wrong.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the staff and volunteers who helped Play Blackpool be as enjoyable and as safe an events it could possibly have been, and I’m looking forward to seeing you again in Manchester, as well as all the great people I have destined to meet whist I’m there too. You’re all as much of a credit to the industry as I hope I can be one day prove to be.
Scouse Gamer 88
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