Last week marked yet another eventful and successful Play Expo at the EventCity venue in Manchester. Back for it’s sixth year, the UK’s biggest retro gaming convention was pack with arcade games, retro consoles, up and coming indie developers, video game education academy booths and guest speakers from the world of gaming. Eager to see what the event had in store, I stayed over at Manchester to experience this year’s proceedings, and to see what more new and old games were being showcased, and once again, I was not left disappointed. Here is what was on at Play Manchester 2017.
Having been in the works for over two years now, Makin Games, operating within the Midlands, were there to once again showcase their 2D beat ‘em up Raging Justice. Inspired by arcade classics such as Streets of Rage and Double Dragon, Raging Justice provides an updated take on the 2D-style fighting genre, following the exploits of maverick cops Nikki Rage and Rick Justice as they sweep the streets clean of crime and administer their own brand of vigilante justice. The last time I saw this game was at Play Manchester 2015, and it took me pleasantly by surprise when I first saw it, with it’s unique-looking visuals and unique take on gameplay, utilizing a morality mechanic whereby players can either kill criminals or arrest them, keeping bloodshed to a minimum. Since 2015, the developers have added more levels, and a heightened sense of challenge more akin to classic games that served as the inspiration. I was extremely impressed with the improvements made to this title and I can’t wait for it’s upcoming release.
All Contact Lost
Another one of many developers returning to Play Expo on the back of many previous shows were 1st Impact Games, as they once again showcased their sci-fi survival first-person shooter All Contact Lost. All Contact Lost relies on the player’s ability to stay alive and stand their ground for as long as possible against horde after horde of oncoming aliens. The player must learn to adapt to environments whilst conserving ammo and knowing when to flee and replenish supplies. The biggest improvement from when I first saw the play showcased at Play Blackpool this year was undoubtedly the visuals. The last time I saw the game, it looked like something that could easily have been made to run on a PlayStation 2. But after seeing it again, it looked like a game on par with many AAA PlayStation 4 games. Running on Unreal Engine 4, it was undoubtedly the best looking game at the expo on a technical level, and it baffled me how the developers were able to make such a significant leap in graphical quality in such a small span of time.
Another great looking game at the show, especially from a conceptual standpoint, was Nippon Marathon; an on-foot racing game developed by Onion Soup Interactive heavily inspired by Japanese culture. Primarily a multiplayer games, players must race against each other whilst also avoiding obstacles in their path, and finding the best way navigate round each course in order to build and maintain an advantage over other players. Weapons and power-ups are also available through each for players to take advantage of. I would best describe it as Mario Kart Meets Sonic R and Takeshi’s Castle; except that even in the early stages of development, the controls in this game are nowhere near as infuriating as in Sonic R. But alluding to my other two comparisons, the game is particularly fun, as well as downright hilarious.
As at EGX Rezzed last April, there was also a large amount of PC games on display at Play Manchester, old and new. One indie game at the show was a strategy game on PC called Sigma Theory developed by mi-clos Studio operating out of France. Though in essence it could possibly be describe as a 4X game, it plays out drastically different to traditional 4X games, such as Civilization or Stellaris. Players must pursue world domination, and to gather as many resources and recruit the best personnel possible in order to complete their objective. Negotiation skills play a massive part in the game with players having to use correct dialogue options in order to recruit people to their side and carry diplomatic missions. I found there to be intriguing level of depth to this game compared to many other PC strategy games I’ve played, and for someone who has played a great of games in the genre, that’s saying a lot. The game is available for pre-order via their website, and I can’t wait to try this one and explore the full game’s additional features. As with many 4X games like it, it could also theoretically be extremely open to modding in my opinion, which makes me even more excited for it.
Bee Bee Q
VR games also maintained a very strong presence at this year’s proceedings; a case in point being the game Bee Bee Q created by local developed from Manchester, Popup Asylum. Bee Bee Q was one of a few games I regrettably didn’t get to try out when I was at EGX Rezzed earlier this year, and so when I heard it was making an appearing at Play Manchester, I relished the opportunity to try it, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a 2-player game whereby the wearer of the VR headset takes on the role of a barbeque chef in his garden who must swat bees as many times as possible to rack up as many points as possible. The second player controls the bee, which must sting the barbeque chef as many times as possible, and to avoid getting swatted. In the long term, this game has helped significantly to realize my newfound perception of VR gaming. It’s shown me that not only can the peripheral itself be a viable idea in terms of video game development, but that new and outlandish ideas can be experimented with whilst developing for it, which lines up with some of the best ideas ever conceived for individual video game franchises. My biggest regret is not being able to try this game sooner; I had a great of fun playing it.
Fragmental is the type of game that I’ve seen at almost every single video games conference I’ve attended; it’s a top-down local multiplayer shooter for up to 4 players, but what sets this one apart from the other in a very positive way is its conceptual design and it’s variety in weapons choice. Players can either melee attack one another, or pick up various guns scattered across each arena. I also found it to be much more accessible than many other titles I’ve played at expos made in the same vein, such as Towerfall Ascension and Porcunpine, but with all the uniqueness as the two aforementioned examples.
However, in terms of uniqueness, there was one indie title that caught my attention in this respect more than any other; a game called Tanglewood, developed by a studio named Big Evil Corporation. Being developed for the Sega Mega Drive following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it is a 2D side scroller with gameplay elements vaguely reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog, which follows the adventures of a fox named Nymm, who has been separated from his family and must find a way to survive. The game features day-to-night transitions similar to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, which plays a massive part in gameplay, as it triggers the coming of enemies, which players must then defeat before the sun rises again. Despite the developer’s choice of platform, or perhaps because of it, Tanglewood is one of the most unique indie titles I’ve seen in a long time, and the prospects seem very good for an extremely enjoyable title in terms of gameplay despite the fact that it is only in an alpha build at the moment. It’s unclear whether the developers will bring it to other platforms in the future, but if demand is high enough, I don’t see any reason why people wouldn’t want it to happen.
The Otterman Empire
Another multiplayer indie title I particularly enjoyed playing at Play Manchester was a Splatoon-inspired shooter named The Otterman Empire. Featuring wonderfully unusual conceptual design, as well as similar gameplay to the former title, it’s an arena-based shooter whereby the objective is to attain as many kills as possible before the timer runs out. Similar to Splatoon, players recharge their ammo by submerging themselves into water. This tactic can also be used to hide from enemies. Whilst talking to the developer from Tri-Heart Interactive, he remarked that the shooter game genre is dominated by the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield, whereas none of these games fall under the category of being child-appropriate, and that Splatoon seems to him as being the only one. Having had time to ponder what he said, I realized that he was more or less right; at least in terms of mainstream gaming. The Otterman Empire certainly looks like a game that could possibly start a series of games made in the same vein that are indeed appropriate for children, along with Splatoon.
Balance of Kingdoms
Balance of Kingdoms was yet another multiplayer experience at the show that did extremely well to stand out among most other games on display. The concept of the game is to build a tower made from various medieval architectural buildings and structures, and to then ensure that it all stays in place without toppling. After which, the player must then buy various artillery weapons, such as cannons and trebuchets in order to destroy the opposing player’s tower, and vice versa. The best way I could possibly describe it is if Tricky Towers was infinitely more combat-orientated. It took me a while to adapt to the unique gameplay and to play it effectively, but one I got the hang of it, I ended up having a lot of fun with it. It had been well received by players throughout this year’s proceeding, and having sampled it myself, it was little wonder to me why that was.
Boom Boom Barbarian
A particular type of game that I saw when I was there, which I hadn’t ever seen among indie developers before, was a rhythm action RPG hybrid name Boom Boom Barbarian. Developed by Silo Black Games, players must choose from a selection of character classes and abilities, and use them to battle oncoming enemies to the rhythm of the background music. That I hadn’t seen a game like this before since I started going to these conferences, it made me think that in the absence of many other previously big name rhythm game series such as Rock Band, like with the Otterman Empire, there is most definitely a market to be had with games that can provide a unique twist on an otherwise largely dormant genre of games.
Whilst a vast majority of the multiplayer games at the expo seems to be in later stages of development, one game that was in a much earlier stage was Bullion, a 4-player game whereby players must kill as many enemies as possible and collect as much treasure as possible before the timer runs out. Similar to many of the mini games in the Mario Party franchise, and developed by Plasma Beam Games based in Oxford, they remarked that before release, they plan to include more stages than what were present in the current build, and they are aiming for release relatively soon. Though that would of course help to enhance the overall gameplay experience, I myself found it to be delightfully challenging nonetheless. I’ve always liked playing the Mario Party games, especially when I was growing up laying with my friends from school, and this game, to my satisfaction, did extremely well to hearken bac k to those days for me, as well as provide it’s own unique twist on things.
A game that I enjoyed more than any of the others that were at Manchester this year, however, was a title called Ersatz. A game, which was not made by a studio, but rather by a single Manchester-born programmer named Paris Stalker, it is a 2D side scrolling rhythm game, which presents players with much more of a challenge than many games made in the same vein. I would best describe it as Titan Souls meets Mega Man. The player must rely on the rhythm of the soundtrack in order to best navigate their way through each level, as well as take on bosses at the end. The boss fight in particular were extremely well designed, as well as intensely challenging; but not to the point where like games made in the same vein, Castlevania for example, that they have can be considered to be inaccessible by some players. I’ve always been a sucker for great looking games with 8-BIT graphics, especially since the boom of indie games, and Ersatz certainly did not fail to impress in this respect either.
Another game that also did not fail to impress was yet another unique 2D side scroller called Glo. Glo is a game recently released on Steam by developers Chronik Spartan, and is a 2D platformer whereby players control a single square throughout a series of pitch-black stages; all the while using various different light sources through each stage to navigate through them. Players can take advantage of power-ups to either find their way to the end of each stage, or to deal with enemies hidden around them that players can inadvertently encounter, greatly adding to the game’s wonderful sense of tension. Whilst I was playing, however, the developer showing to me remarked that there were various areas of the game which he felt he would have to make more accessible in order for it to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, However, in the state I witnessed it in, I told him tat it didn’t seem too inaccessible at all, and with that perseverance, players would get the hang of it soon enough while playing. And I stand by my opinion; Glo did not make me feel that the challenge was either too big or too small.
For the second year running, Robert Hewson, son of Andrew Hewson of Hewson Consultant, was back at Play Manchester showing off his heavily publicised and heavily anticipated arcade shooter Hyper Sentinel. Made in the same vein as arcade classics such as Defender and Bosconian, Hewson was mainly there to demonstrate the games newly added survival mode before it’s impending release in early 2018. Every time I’ve seen this game showcased, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing through it, and the new survival mode adds an even greater layer of depth to the gameplay, and is a major improvement on an already outstanding arcade gaming experience made for a modern audience. The Hewson family have an illustrious history in the world of gaming, and with the release of Hyper Sentinel, I’m confident that this can only add to that history in an extremely positive way.
One of the last indie games at the show to have caught my attention was an excellent-looking game called Razed. Developed by Warpfish Games, Razed is a platforming racing game whereby players must race to the end of each stage in as little time as possible, and find unique ways to navigate around then in order the get the fastest times. There is also a surprisingly strong RPG element to it, as players in time gain more abilities for their character, thereby being able to interact with their surroundings in different ways, such as opening gates and lowering platforms. Finding my way through each level made me marvel at this game, as well as intermittently laugh whenever I died. It was another one of these games that provided a delightfully accessible challenge, and I can’t wait to try out the final product when it is released.
Following a successful Play Blackpool showcasing this year, Sinister Sot were back to promote their dungeon crawler entitled Dungeons, as well a new smartphone game named RetroStar. Having begun to code the game after the first day at Play Blackpool, RetroStar has since been released on Android, and has proved to be a very solid effort on the part of the developer. The objective of the game is to simply shoot down as many oncoming enemy spaceships as possible whilst using the speed of the player character’s ship to gain a tactical combat advantage. I would best describe it as Asteroids meets Defender in 3D. I was given a reviewer code to try it out, and I am very much looking forward to composing a review for it in the future.
Space Toads Mayhem
Yet another game returning to Play Expo on the back of a successful showcasing at Play Blackpool 2017 was Space Toads Mayhem, developed by programmer Lukasz Snopkiewicz. The game takes the form of a classic arcade style top-down rail shooter, which relies heavily on player skill, as well as perception, as items picked up throughout can either have invaluable benefits or disastrous consequences. The main difference I found whilst playing this game now, in comparison to how it played out when I was in Blackpool, is that it seemed a lot more accessible than it had been before, which to me is a massive improvement. Though I enjoyed playing the game the first time I did play it anyway, toning down the difficulty has certainly helped it to eel that much more enjoyable. But I can’t wait to see how Lukasz further develops the game before it’s release; if he does again decide to bring it to Play Expo in 2018.
The last indie game I tried out when I was at play Manchester was a stealth sci-fi game called The Tension. Developed by Hope for Hopeless Studios on the back of a success Steam Greenlight campaign, the game plays out very much like classic Metal Gear Solid games, with players having to avoid enemies and find ways around their field of vision in order to solve puzzles and to advance to each new area in turn. Over the years, my feelings towards stealth games have been mixed. On one and, where the likes of classic Metal Gear games have been concerned, I have been impressed for the most part. But with first person stealth games, though they have been solid experiences, they do tend to drag on with how many times is required to start again at certain stages of the games in order to advance without being detected. With this game, however, it doesn’t come with such issues, and it made for a very enjoyable game. It had great conceptual design, especially for a game at relatively early stages of development, and I can’t wait to play the finished product when it is released.
Finally, there were three guest talks at Play Manchester that I had the distinct pleasure of attending and listening on. It was also conducted in a far superior way this time, as they were held in a separate room as opposed to it being on the main floor, which made it much easier to hear over reduced background crowd noise, as well as it being a lot more atmospheric with the lighting. One of the talk I attended was with former Psygnosis developers Mike Clarke, Martin Linklater and Mike Kaisar were present to talk about the history of the Liverpool-based development company, their gaming library, and how they went from being a fairly successful local developer to enjoying global critical acclaim with gaming franchises such as Wipeout and Lemmings. The three outlined how the company started out operating from the South Harrington building in Brunswick to then going on to set up shop at Wavertree Technology Park, where they continued to develop for Sony later on as Studio Liverpool, and then being disbanded in 2012 after the release of Wipeout 2048 on the PlayStation Vita.
Watching this talk made me particularly proud as a gamer, to have seen the history of this studio outlined in such a way, and to listen in-depth about how a development company from my own neck of the woods were instrumental in popularising one of the highest selling video game consoles of all time, and later playing a pivotal role in establishing Sony’s dominance over the gaming market during the sixth generation of gaming in addition. Since I started going to these expos, I’ve met and listened to many people from Liverpool associated with gaming who have had their own unique stories to tell, but for me, this talk has so far been the most significant, as these guy were instrumental in hving the greatest impact on the industry overall.
Karl Hilton & Graeme Norgate
Early on during the first day of the expo, another talk was held with two of the nine core developers at Rare who worked on the critical and commercial marvel Goldeneye, released on the Nintendo 64 20 years ago. The developers there were Karl Hilton, who worked on the game’s level design, and Graeme Norgate, who supervised the game’s sound effects; the due worked on Goldeneye, as well as its spiritual successor, Perfect Dark. They both talked about their own respective experiences of working on the hugely successful game, along with their experiences of working with the rest of the team such as the soundtrack compose Grant Kirkhope, and the game’s principal programmer Martin Hollis. There was also a competition held after the talk, whereby two gamers were invited to compete against the two developers for a signed copy of the game; the main stipulation being that anyone who chose Oddjob as their character would be instantly disqualified. A gamer named Chris, who in the end recorded 30 kills against the other players, won the competition.
Where Play Manchester in general has been concerned, I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the calibre of the guests that have attended the show to give various talks, such as the original development team for Tomb Raider, and Q*Bert creator Warren Davies. This year, given this impressive line-up, was no exception. Goldeneye was one of the most commercially successful games on the Nintendo 64, and it was incredible to gain an insight into the developmental process from the two gaming veterans.
Memoirs of a Spectrum Addict
The final talk that I attended at the show was a grand collective of faces synonymous with the popularity and the continued popularity of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum console of the 80s. They were Liverpool-born developer Jim Bagley, Andrew Hewson of Hewson Consultants, Jon Hare of Sensible Software, Spectrum developers Steve Turner and Rich Stevenson, Vivid Image’s Mev Dinc and Mark R Jones of Ocean Software. Also joining them on the stage was Andy Remic and Simon Butler, who together had created a shot film entitled Memoirs of a Spectrum Addict; a dramatization and collection of developers interviews detailing the popularity of the ZX Spectrum throughout the 80s, and the various different memories that each respective developer had of the era of which the console was most popular, and how it has continued to remain so to this day.
Again, much like the Psygnosis talk, in respect of the many guest talk I have attended detailing how the ZX Spectrum has continued to remain popular following the console official discontinuity, this one was by far the most significant, since it clarified in the furthest detail of how instrumental the home computer console was in maintaining the popularity of video games following the video game crash of 1983 until Nintendo began to dominate the market, and of how much of an impact the console had on the lives of both gamers and developer alike. It makes me regret not having tried the console earlier than I did because I’ve always been intrigued by the history of gaming, especially since I started writing, and it’s always a pleasure to experience the origins of gaming and the history of development out of the UK. I sincerely hope that more of the types of talk will be held at future Play Expos throughout the country, and after attending this in particular talk, I can positively say that there doesn’t seem to be any sign of them ending any time soon.
Once again, I had a fantastic time attending Play Manchester, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the organisers for allowing me to attend the event, and to thank the staff for their continuous efforts of making Replay Events the best expos that they can possibly be. I would also like to give a massive shout-out to each and every indie developer at the event, and to wish you all best of luck with your respective gaming endeavours.
But I would also like to take this opportunity to make quite a huge announcement in respect of the blog. As of this article, I will be going on hiatus until the start of 2018. Personally, I have not been happy with myself in terms of the amount and variety in content that I have provided throughout 2017, and quite frankly, I believe my audience deserve more. So over the course of the next few months, I will be planning ahead for 2018, and thinking up new ideas for content not only on the blog, but on other platforms, as well as my social media links. But I would also like to emphasize that this does not mean I have enjoyed that which I have experienced this year and have broadcast to my readers.
2017 has been a fantastic year for video gaming in general with the release of the Nintendo Switch, as well as games released on many other consoles and platforms, and I have had the distinct pleasure of attending a great number of expos and conferences in the process; EGX Rezzed in particular was a huge moment in my writing career. But I feel the time is right to take this amount of time to re-think what kind of content I would to deliver to my readers, and to better engage them. So although I’m somewhat upset to have to deliver this news to you all, I promise that it will serve a greater purpose, and I promise that I will be back in 2018 with more content than ever before, as well as a few surprises in store along the way.
In the meantime, I hope you all look forward to seeing what I’m going to be bringing to the table soon, and of course, all previous content will remain on the site for people to read at their own leisure. I’d also like to thank each and every one of you for taking the time out of your day to read my previous content, and I will be back to continue bringing you more.
Thank you all, and game on,
Scouse Gamer 88