The end of April marked the fifth Replay Expo to have been hosted at Blackpool’s Norbreck Castle Hotel. Following on from the hugely successful 2015 proceedings showcasing numerous indie games in development at the time, as well as presentations hosted by the executives of Hewson Consultants and Knightmare artist David Rowe, new games and even consoles were on show from indie developers and presenters alike, and the momentum from last year’s show was brought into this year’s expo.
Pan Dimensional Conga Combat
The first indie game that caught my eye was Pan Dimensional Conga Combat, which after being showcased last year at the Play Expo in Manchester, was on display again with James Monkman of Retro Gamer CD on hand to explain to players of the game what they hope to achieve with the title, and the challenges that came with making the game. What I noticed about it in comparison with when I was playing it last year in Manchester was that the controls seemed a lot more fluent than what they were when I last played it, so it felt like Monkman had made significant improvements. As a result, it certainly felt like a much more accessible game than before, and I must commend the team’s efforts. It made me much more excited to think about how the finished product will play out like, and what further improvements may be made in the interim.
The next game I tried out was another indie title entitled Bopscotch. Developed by Leda Entertainment, Bopscotch is a runner platformer whereby players must control the speed at which the player character moves at in order to traverse a wide range of different levels and obstacles that become increasingly more challenging as the game goes on. It was developed for Android and iOS, but there is also an Xbox 360 port, which I played. The lead developer present at the conference, Ben Pritchard, explained to me that with Bopscotch, he wanted to develop a game with a conceptual design in mind that was suitable for all ages. Whilst I ultimately think the game’s conceptual design is fairly weak, especially compared to a lot of other family-friendly games such as Pokemon, Skylanders, or even Parappa the Rapper, I found the gameplay to be far more addictive than I’d first anticipated. I was given a reviewer copy of the game at the expo, and will be giving it a fairly positive and more in-depth review in the coming months. Overall, I did enjoy the game and after seeing Ben Pritchard and Leda Entertainment’s latest outing I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of game they can come up with next.
Talisman: The Horus Heresy
Definitely the most interesting game that was on display at this year’s Play Blackpool was Talisman: The Horus Heresy. Set in the Warhammer universe, it is a digital board game developed by Nomad Games for PC, Android and iOS. Similar to Risk, it involves players controlling warlord with their unique properties and abilities, as well as their armies, to journey across galaxies in order to take as much territory as possible. At first, it seemed like an overly convoluted game, and that it would take far too much getting used to in order to enjoy it from the get-go. Although there is quite a learning curve involved, however, I did find it to be accessible enough without it being too complicated. It’s a different kind of game compared to anything else I’ve ever played before. It’s only recently after coming across indie titles like Sumer that I’ve personally began to warm up to the idea, and Talisman did well to perpetuate that for me.
The last game on show that I tried out at the expo was Sociable soccer; a spiritual successor to Sensible Soccer developed by the same programmer, Jon Hare. Playing out extremely similarly to Sensible Soccer, it will have additional features of online multiplayer, as well as the facility for players to customize their own team ranging from existing players of the sport to player creations. After playing it at the event, I didn’t think it was ready to be showcased. There were an unbelievable amount of glitches and control issues that it seemed to have, and I found myself quite frustrated with the overall experience. The initial Kickstarter campaign that Hare set up got off to a bad start and was cancelled late last year; but if this was the only build of it he had at the time to show off, it’s plain to see why. If John Hare can get the game out in a more playable form at Play Manchester, if he indeed decides to showcase it there as well, then perhaps I may be able to look at it in a different light. But I believe something needs to happen, and probably sooner rather than later.
The first of four talks I have decided to cover was with Henrique Olifiers; co-founder of Bossa Studios, and programmer on several hit indie games released over the last few years, including Surgeon Simulator, I Am Bread and World Adrift. Olifiers started out his career by coding on one of the 80’s most popular home computer consoles, the ZX Spectrum, and has since been a huge fan of the console, as well as the various games that came out of it. Ever since, Olifiers has assisted in the development of updated versions of the classic 80s console, and during his talk, he revealed for the first time his latest creation; the ZX Spectrum Next. The ZX Spectrum Next will feature a variety of new facilities, such as faster memory, SD storage for games, HDMI output, and is designed to run both games made for the official system and independently developed ones released since the discontinuation of the console.
Personally, although my own experience with 80s computer consoles is quite limited, with my eldest sister having only owned a ZX Spectrum before I was born, and my uncle owning an Amiga, and only having played it a few times before me and my cousin accidentally broke it, I was nevertheless intrigued by the amount of fanfare that in particular era had garnished, and how many up and coming coders and programmers who were present at the talk had been influenced to continue developing games for it over the years. Given the amount of popularity the console has managed to maintain over the last 20 to 30 years, I don’t understand how the updated console won’t be a commercial success amongst both old school and younger gamers. Though I’m not the biggest fan of what software Henrique has developed over the years like I Am Bread or Surgeon Simulator, He certainly proved himself to be much more proficient in the development of hardware at Play Blackpool, and would like to take this opportunity to wish him and his team the best of luck with the ZX Spectrum Next.
The next speaker, perpetuating the ongoing inclusion at Replay Expos of discussing art in video games, was Duncan Gutteridge, who during the release of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 & 3 was granted creative license to illustrate Sonic the Hedgehog for Sega. He held a master class teaching and demonstrating to attendees how Sonic the Hedgehog was drawn by himself and Sega artists during the early 90s, and to give his perspective of how he felt about working with Sega, as well as what challenges were presented to him on a creative level.
When I was a kid, I grew into a phase during the Dreamcast years whereby Sonic Adventure and subsequently Sonic Adventure 2 were the only games I played for months. Therefore, couple with a largely obstructed view as I was sitting at the right hand side of the room, when Duncan was demonstrating how to draw Sonic based on early 90s conceptual art, I drew Sonic as he appeared in modern games, as I sometimes did when I was in school. However, a great deal of the others who were at the presentation followed Duncan’s drawings very closely, and many of them came up with fantastic illustrations, fuelled by their love for the blue speedster. Though I’ve always much preferred Mario to Sonic over the years, Sonic the Hedgehog has been an integral part of gaming history for the last 25 years, and I felt overwhelmingly privileged to be a part of Duncan’s master class.
The next two presentations, however, were most significant to me on a much more personal level, as during which, I felt a sense of local pride whilst listening to the both of them. The first of which was with Jim Bagley; a developer from the Wirral who had previously done extensive work for Ocean Software, and has developed a wide variety of games since the days of the ZX spectrum, and is still continuing to develop to this day. Bagley started out developing for Consult Computer systems with games such as Throne of Fire with Mike Shingleton, and then going on to develop games for a massive range of consoles, including the GAME Boy Colour, Game Boy Advance, Android, iOS and Sega Saturn to name but a few. He also shared the story of how he worked the Saturn port of Doom, whereby John Carmack of id Software had told him to develop it a certain way at the time, but when he met John Romero some time later, he told him that it should have been developed another way to accommodate for the Saturn’s unique hardware.
After witnessing the emergence of many indie developers within Liverpool last year, and the release of the likes of Coffin Dodgers and Kaiju Panic, I also felt proud to learn more of local developer’s involvement in the industry over the last 30 years with Jim Bagley being at the forefront of many games created throughout that time. I already knew that many classics had come out of Liverpool, such as Lemmings, Wipeout and Manic Miner, but it was interesting to see that it ran much deeper than I thought, and it instilled me with excitement for the future of games development on Merseyside.
The next talker was less geared towards the development of games, and much more towards simply playing them; though the task that this man had set himself was anything but simple. Jon Stoodley, who was born in Liverpool, had recently become only the 7th person in the world, and first person in Europe, to attain a perfect score on a Pac-Man arcade cabinet when he set the record last year at Play Margate. A perfect score in Pac-Man constitutes to 3,333,360 points, and is achieved by clearing all 255 boards, eating every ghost with every energizer, eating every bonus fruit, and doing it all with a single life. Over the last 5 years, Jon has been playing the game, and striving for the elusive high score to raise money and awareness of cancer for both Bright Red Blood Cancer research and the British Heart Foundation. In his presentation, Jon revealed many of the techniques he employed to achieve the perfect score, such as exploiting in-game glitches and trying to get the ghosts all together to eat them as easily and consistently as possible. He also revealed how he prepares himself for each event or attempt and what steps need to be taken prior to taking it on.
Jon’s story cemented to me a misconception that people around me have tried to force upon me ever since I was born; that video games are a waste of time, and that they can’t possibly do people any good. If charities such as the BHF, Bright Red and Extra Life can raise money for those in need through the medium of video games, then in my opinion, that is anything but a waste of time. Jon’s work has inspired people all around the country to attempt to do the same thing, and I hope that it continues to do so.