Last month saw an early return of the annual Play Expo at the Norbreck Castle Hotel in Blackpool. As per normal, there were a vast array of new, up and coming developers showcasing new and exciting indie games, as well as a few returning developers displaying improvements made on previously showcased titles, and a thrilling lineup of guest speakers from the home computer era of UK gaming throughout the 80s, as well as some of the country’s most well-known YouTube personalities. There was a great deal on show at this year’s proceedings, so without further ado, here’s what was on at 2018’s Play Expo in Blackpool.
Mao Mao Castle
One of the returning developers present at the show was Quang Nguyen of Asobi Tech once again showcasing his arcade rail shooter Mao Mao Castle heavily incorporating old-school graphics as well as conceptual design inspired by the works of Studio Ghibli. It was to my great delight that this game returned, since I have become quite proficient at playing it, and as of this writing, I have now set the high score on it at Play Expos three times. The game is extremely fun and addictive, and will have players coming back time and again upon release on Android and iOS.
Major differences have been made since the last time the game was on display back at Play Manchester; the current build has been shortened down to a demo mode, and there are also now the new check mate challenge for players to have to contend with, which involves having to fly through chequered formations aside from the pre-existing challenges such as avoiding the trees and flying over and above walls. Though the new demo build was fantastic, I hope that endless mode is included in the final build of the game, and I’m very much looking forward to its release.
The Mystery of Woolley Mountain
Robert Hewson of Huey Games also made a return to Play Blackpool to showcase a title co-developed by them and Lightfoot Bros Games entitled The Mystery of Woolley Mountain. Conceived by indie developer James Lightfoot, The game is a classic point & click style adventure game set in a semi-steampunk fantasy world in which five renegade scientists seek to rid Woolley Mountain of an evil witch. I discuss the influences behind the game with Robert Hewson, who explained classic games of the genre, such as Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango were among sources of inspiration behind the game’s story and gameplay aesthetics. Having played the demo, I could see the similarities in this game’s quirky sense of humour and hidden secrets throughout, of which there is set to be much more of.
Point & click is a genre that I have intermittently indulged in over the years I’ve spent playing games, but what I have experience in this particular style of play, I have thoroughly enjoyed; games like Broken Sword and Sanitarium spring to mind. But since Broken Age, there haven’t been a great of new games in the genre that I’ve seen. It was a breath of fresh air to see a new genre being integrated into the indie scene, and having seen early footage of The Mystery of Woolley Mountain, along with recent re-masters of classic point and click games, it all bodes well for the future of the genre.
Employee of the Month
Multiplayer games also maintained a strong presence at Play Expo in 2018 following the popularity of previously displayed games in 2017 such as Nippon Marathon and Bee Bee Q. One of many multiplayer games central to this year’s show in Blackpool was Employee of the Month; a game that has up to four players hashing it out to see how can clean up most of in the in-game stage than the other three, and having players combat each other by picking up items available that give players the ability to increase their speed or slow opponents down among others. Out of every multiplayer game at the show, Employee of the Month was my favourite to be showcased, since it reminded me of Mario Kart to a certain extent; not in the sense of gameplay, but in the sense that the course of a game can be turned around exponentially fast. One minute the player may be winning, then the next, they may be miles behind the opposition. It’s a deceptively competitive game, but a whole load of fun at the same time.
Another fun-filled multiplayer game at the show was Mechanic Panic, which is a co-operative multiplayer game developed by a team operating out of the University of Northampton centring around up to four mechanics who must put together as many cars as possible before the timer runs out. This is done by retrieving car parts from revolving conveyors, which match the patterns generated by the CPU to put each car together correctly. In its basic design, it’s not too dissimilar to Overcooked, which was at Play Blackpool back in 2015, but though it’s little more simplistic than the former, it still seems like a pretty fun game. It’s early in development, so there may be more added to it in order to intensify the challenge and introduce new possible elements, but from what I played of it, I thoroughly enjoyed.
One of the more unusual games I saw on display was a puzzle platformer called Mr Grayscale. Extremely similar to a game called Glo, which was on display at Play Manchester last year, it involves navigating a small square character through mazes of elaborate platforms in order to reach the portal to the next level. Each puzzle is solved by either traditional platforming and/or rotating the obstacle itself in order to get around; similar to Fez, but much more simplistic in it’s design, and potentially harder.
The game seems to pull no punches in terms of challenging players and demanding a great deal of platforming skill, as well as encouraging players to improvise along the way. Though it’s linear in it’s core design, potential replayability could lie in a wide range of ways that players can solve each puzzle. I was both intrigued by the game’s visual design, as well as it level of stern, yet accessible difficulty. There is an early build of the game available to play on Newgrounds, but the full version will be coming to both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in the not too distant future, and I can’t wait to play the finished article.
One of three games to make a re-appearance at Play Expo, along with Mao Mao Castle and All Contact Lost, was Tanglewood; a retro-style 2D platformer being developed as an initial excusive for the Sega Mega Drive by Big Evil Corp. Seemingly inspired by the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog and the Lion King, it revolves around both traditional platforming and puzzle solving, as well as day-to-night transitions playing a central role in the game’s style of play, similar to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. The story follows a fox-like creature name Nymm, who must find a way to survive and adapt to the world around him having been separated from his family.
Following the last time I played this game, a lot seems to have been dramatically improved in terms of it’s mechanics. The puzzle element was a lot more prevalent this time round, and the design of the stages were a lot more honed than before. I had much more of an idea of how I was supposed to traverse obstacles as they came, and the puzzles were far more practical, without it being too obvious how to solve them. I was impressed with the improvements made to Tanglewood since Manchester, and I have even more confidence that this game may go on to impress a wide range of audiences everywhere, from people who wish to experience a sense of nostalgia to players who may wish to experience some of the early years of traditional platforming games.
Guardians of the Past
Guardians of the Past was the last game at the event I tried that centred around multiplayer. In it’s design, it is somewhat similar to Bullion, which was on display at Play Manchester 2017, but in my opinion, it played out infinitely better than the former. A multiplayer brawler, it emphasizes the use of a wide range of weapons available in-game, as well as setting up traps and gadgets that players can place within the arena in order to catch out their opponents and gain as much of an edge as possible in battle, whilst the player must also ensure that they do not fall for the traps set by opposing players.
After having attended a number of video game expos events now, I have seen a lot of this type of game, and it’s been difficult to determine a definitive favourite, but Guardians of the Past is certainly among my favourites along with De Mambo and Porcunpine. I was particularly impressed with the amount of variety within the game, and the different ways in which players can strategize for each battle before and during. It was always going to be difficult for games of this play style to stand out among each other, as there have been so many displayed at these events that I’ve attended over the last four years. However, Guardians of the Past did particularly well to stand out, and it will be interesting to see where the developmental process takes this title.
All Contact Lost
The last returning title that I have been continuously impressed by, and did not fail to impress this time round either, was All Contact Lost. Developed by 1st Impact Games, All Contact Lost is a competitive survival shooter in which the player must survive for as long as possible with a set amount of time against hordes of oncoming insect aliens by replenishing health and ammo regularly, as well as maintaining the defences of their base of operations. It present gamers with an extremely stern challenge on a level that I have rarely seen in an FPS, as well as stunningly high-quality graphics that I have rarely seen in indie games.
The improvements that were made for Play Blackpool was an increased variety in level design, with stages set in caves as well as space stations and wide open planet surfaces. Over the last two years, I have watched this game continuously improve in both graphics and gameplay, and every time I see it, I grow more and more confident in it’s quality. It still poses a challenge without being inaccessible and the increased variety in level design compliment it’s stunning visuals to a greater extent than ever before. The game is currently on Steam early access, but the finished article will truly be something to behold.
In recent years, what I’ve notice in the indie gaming scene is an influx of on-rail games in the absence of mainstream series in the genre, like the likes of Star Fox and Sin and Punishment. I’ve seen games like Nerve and Race the Sun continue to impress audiences everywhere, and they all work well to keep the genre fresh and exciting. One such game at Blackpool this year was Lost Wing; an on-rails game whereby layers must manipulate speed in order to traverse oncoming obstacles and collect as many orbs as possible, and in turn, racking up as high a score as possible. In conceptual design, it reminded me a lot of the zone challenges in Wipeout HD, but in it’s gameplay, it’s extremely similar to Nerve.
Though it wasn’t as intense as Nerve (certainly as the game is not available for VR peripherals), it was still as challenging; if not more so. Though there has been a small resurgence of this genre in the mainstream with the return of Star Fox on the Wii U, it hasn’t been enough to rekindle its former popularity, and it still leaves a space to be filled. Games like this could do extremely well to contribute to a return of the popularity of rail shooters given the right amount of originality, and dependent on how development of Lost Wing progresses, it could possibly be an extremely strong contributor to that end.
The last game I tried at the expo was an extremely unique title called Positron. Designed by Retroburn Games, and Seemingly taking visual influence from the classic sci-fi film Tron, as well as 80s culture in general, Positron involves players having to navigate a man on a bike through a series of elaborate mazes in order to progress to each level, whilst also being careful not to touch any of the walls or their previous path. If either is touched, it’s game over.
Out of every game that featured in this year’s proceedings, this one was the most unique in terms of gameplay by some distance. I always have a great deal of fun experiencing a new way to play games, and Positron was no exception. I’m always thrilled when developers try their hand at the type of game that has never been created before. It can be a long and drawn out process to ensure that each element of it is handled correctly, but when it comes together at the end, it usually makes for something special; and Positron could certainly fall under that category dependent on how the rest of development progresses.
Play Blackpool 2018 also had a wide range of guest speakers from the world of gaming to offer their insights and experiences within the medium. One of which was a special panel comprised of various YouTubers from the UK. There was Daniel of Slopes Game Room, Peter Leigh AKA The Nostalgia Nerd, Kim Justice and Stuart Ashen, the author of Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard of, and it’s sequel Attack of the Flickering Skeletons.
Especially from a journalistic point of view, I knew that this talk was going to provide quite a deep insight into how the medium is portrayed through what is essentially televisual personality, but I wasn’t prepared for how deep that insight would be provided; particularly concerning the subject now and before.
Kim Justice made this point best I found. She discussed her opinion on the reason why TV programs about video games were never quite as popular as other shows at the time were back then, or as popular as YouTube is now. She argued the case that since video gaming has been seen as a rival to television by many production studios, they would never do as well as other programs, or they would be confined to their own networks even, and not be as prevalent throughout other mainstream TV networks such as BBC or ITV. Until then, I never actually thought about this in as much depth, since I suppose I was always quick to believe that the problem may have simply been down to viewing figures. However, the more I think about Kim’s point, the more sense it makes. Even back when I was a kid, I remember video game programs being confined to digital networks such as Game Network for example. And even today, GINX seems to be the only TV channel dedicated to gaming specifically. Even Dara O’Briain’s Go 8-BIT is confined to a regular spot on Dave despite the fact that Dara O’Briain has been a prominent figure on mainstream TV for a number of years.
Stuart Ashen also provided a rather unique insight of his own, elaborating on many of the things that he’d written in his two books about extremely obscure games that are of exceptionally low quality. As a reviewer, I have played a number of games that I consider to be of exceptionally poor quality, such as Bubsy 3D and Tunguska. But Stuart went through a lot of the presentation talking about games that had seen an official release but in even an unplayable state. I’d read Terrible Old Games That You’ve Probably Never Heard Of after my best friend bought it for me, but there seemed to be games described that were even too bad to mention in his book.
Continuing the line of guests from the medium of video games journalism, Paul Rose, AKA Mr Biffo was also there to describe his history in the gaming industry. Back in the days of Teletext, Paul Rose created Digitiser; a Teletext page dedicated solely to gaming. I addition, he also wrote the script for a sixth generation game called Future Tactics released on PS2, GameCube and the original Xbox. Chronicling a long career of great ups and great downs, Paul has seen Digitiser grow from a niche interest into something that was adored by people all over the country, eventually leaving behind a cult legacy the UK gaming industry.
Since the show in Blackpool, Paul has also since announced a crowd funding project on Kickstarter to fund a full-fledged show of Digitiser, which has since received five times more than the initial £7000.00 goal. The show will be co-presented with Larry Bundy Jnr and Gameplay Jenny, with several potential guests already announced. Though it surprisingly wasn’t mentioned in the show, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish Paul and his co-presenters best of luck with the Digitiser show when it airs, and that his talk at the show was extremely intriguing, and boded well for the show’s hopefully successful future.
The Oliver Twins
Capping off a great weekend at Play Blackpool, The Oliver Twins, Phil and Andrew Oliver also returned to the Norbreck following their appearance back in 2015 presenting their MMO game SkySaga: Infinite Isles, to talk more about their biggest success as games developers; Dizzy. For my younger readers, Dizzy was a series of platform adventure games, which featured primarily on home computer consoles in the UK throughout the 80s, and went on to become one of the most beloved series of games on the likes of the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and the Amstrad CPC.
The first talk they attended on the Saturday was their taking part in a panel of developers creating games for the upcoming ZX Spectrum Next along with the likes of Jim Bagley, Mike Dailly and Clive Townsend. The second of their talks, however, was a presentation chronicling the history of the Dizzy games, and how the Oliver Twins went from developing games on their original Dragon 32 system to creating one of the most prolific game series’ on home computer consoles. It was great to see the Oliver Twins back at Blackpool and to hear more about their quite illustrious place in UK gaming history, and it will be extremely interesting to see the result of what they will create for the ZX Spectrum Next along with the long list of developers creating games for it.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the staff and volunteers who helped Play Blackpool to be as enjoyable and as safe an events it could possibly have been, and I’m looking forward to attending another Play Expo later on this year; particularly the one-off retro special, which again will be held at the Norbreck later on this year in October. I hope you guys had as much reading this article as I did writing it.
Scouse Gamer 88