"Game On is the first major exhibition to explore the vibrant history and culture of video games. Focusing on key developments between 1962 and 2002, it's an in-depth look at gaming's fascinating past and limitless future."
The Ultimate Arcade
(Otherwise known as GameOn)
Well, yes, I went three times. Uh, yeah, the first time I was there from when it opened until the minute it closed. OK, so I spent a total of over 13 hours and £33 at the exhibition, plus travel. But in my defence, it's pretty near to me, and the third time a friend dragged me along. I didn't want to go. Honest. Well, ok, maybe... never mind. The point is, I have spent a lot of time at this place and I'll probably end up going again before it closes.
As you walk into the exhibition, the first thing that greets you is a giant screen with two vertically moving lines, a large bouncing block, two big white numbers and very little else. Pong is just one of the classic arcade games on display. Starting with Spacewar!, developed for the PDP-1 computer at MIT in 1960 and the first computer game on a computer with a monitor (more here, if you are interested), the history of arcade gaming is plotted through this room. Old favourites including Asteroids, Defender, Qix and Space Invaders, all intact in their original arcade cabinets, are not only present but all playable. In fact, almost every game on display at GameOn is free to be played at no cost other than admission.
The rest of the lower floor was dominated by the console classics. The beat-'em-ups were out in full force, with Double Dragon, Street Fighter II, King Of The Fighters and several others, old and new, represented. Despite forgetting all of the special moves, playing the classic Mortal Kombat 2 on an original arcade machine was great fun. Older greats such as Frogger, Flashback, Bubble Bobble and Monkey Island joined other ZX Spectrum, NES, Atari, NeoGeo and Genesis games. Mario and Sonic had their own small section, supposedly on character development but just with a couple of their games, a few posters and a little vague text.
The multiplayer section, while a good laugh, was a bit of a disappointment. The meagre selection of games included four-player Super Smash Brothers for the GameCube, and Saturn Bomberman supporting up to eight players. There were also four networked PCs running the shareware flight sim Red Ace Squadron, made by the ever excellent Small Rockets. At no time while I was there were all four computers up and running the game. Still, strafing the person sitting across from you is always fun; that's on the list for the next LAN. Warlords, as close to deathmatch as you can get on the Atari 2600, a four-player mix between Tetris and Pong in which each player tries to bounce a ball into his enemies' forts while defending his own corner, provided some comic relief, only aplified by one of the controllers breaking repeatedly. Nevertheless, though much time was spent killing everyone at Bomberman (which is still great) and losing horribly at Super Smash Brothers (which gets boring after ten minutes), true online multiplayer gaming was unforgivably under-represented. There was no mention of popular shooters such as Counterstrike or Quake III, nor was anything about massively multiplayer gaming mentioned other than an obviously sponsored display on the forthcoming The Sims Online. The nearest I got to a good frag was with Halo, running off four X-Boxes, each with a screen and a controller (again an assumption - almost all of the actual machines were hidden in cabinets or under enclosed tables). Please give me a mouse and keyboard! I found this to be a recurring problem. Wolfenstein 3D and Max Payne simply do not work right with a gamepad, and the Playstation version of Deus Ex is just no fun.
The Future Technology room housed plenty of useless gadgetry, new and old. As well as failed attempts at virtual reality such as the Nintendo Powerglove and an old VR headset prototype, there were plenty of displays claiming to be the future of video gaming. Liquid Fire, Sony's latest development in interactive technology, allows you to move around a little ball on a screen with your hands as well as create water ripples and flames by waving your arms around. You change the effects on screen by "tapping" buttons on the screen with your fingers. All this is done several metres from the screen and the camera detecting your movements. The single lens allows only 2D motion, but it's an impressive gadget. Utterly useless, of course, in the near future, but impressive nonetheless. There is also a large projection screen on which, using a joystick, you can explore a virtual city with people, buildings and other objects, though it was more the size of a small village. Using the Quake III engine (and some of the original sounds), it begs the question why properly animated 3D models were not used with simple pathfinding AI rather than scrolling carousels of two dimensional images, ever circling around a single point. To be brutally honest, there was little in this section that either cannot be done better already or is innovative in a genuinely useful way.
Sound. Right, this I did like. A section on the music of video games, video games about music, and various stages in between. Two out of three walls held soundpoints where you could listen to tracks from various and sundry game soundtracks, including Japanese stuff (Final Fantasy et al), the ghetto beats of Grand Theft Auto and the techno of games such as Wipeout. None of that nasty Dance Dance Revolution stuff, luckily, though there was a DDR machine in another section and also one on the main floor of the Barbican. As well as an ancient arcade "game" called Ping, in which three people [do something to] and [sometimes do something else to] blocks which make different pitched sounds as they hit [other things] (it was a little too complicated for those used to modern shoot-'em-ups, MMORPGs and real-time strategy), there was also a Japanese dance/action/cartoon game in which aliens invade and a television presenter has to defeat them and free the human hostages by dancing and shouting "Right! Left! Shoot Shoot Shoot!". Unsurprisingly, I forget the name. So why did I say I liked the sound section? One word. Rez.
I'm seriously tempted to buy a Playstation 2 just so I can play this game. It's a wonderful mix of shooting, space combat, symphony orchestra and electronica, where every button press, on-screen action and enemy triggers sound effects accompanied by pulsing vibrations of the controller. You find yourself totally immersed in Rez's world, discovering that you're even pressing buttons when there is nothing to shoot at just to accompany the beat of the music surrounding you. The gameplay is beautifully simple - enemies appear, you kill them before they shoot you, and collect any powerups they leave behind.
Having said that, if Rez blew me away, Pikmin really drew me in as well. I found myself playing this GameCube game for nearly an hour, having to be told that the exhibition was closing before I would stop. Why spend all that money on a PS2 for Rez when I can buy a GameCube just for Pikmin? You control your character, who has crashed on an unknown planet and finds himself with a half-working spaceship and surrounded by a hostile (though you wouldn't think so to look at it) environment. You discover little plant guys called Pikmin who flock to help you, banding together to fight bigger creatures and carry the lost parts of your ship. Original, horribly addictive, and really good fun.
There were plenty of games on show from the latest consoles. As mentioned, Pikmin and Super Smash Brothers, as well as the excellent Super Monkey Ball, flew the flag for the GameCube. The unusual Parappa The Rapper, the quirky Jak & Daxter, the ultra-realistic Gran Turismo 3 and the exceedingly shiny Dead Or Alive 3 were among the best games vying for their manufacturer's supremacy in the console wars.
GameOn is little more than a glorified arcade. The small character, costume, storyboarding, magazine and design exhibits are hardly more than space fillers. The Channel Four documentary, a 20-minute film shown at the small cinema screen looping with game trailers and FMVs, on the origins of popular computer gaming from Japanese games, through Atari, to early PC gaming, makes a good stab at the historical aspect. But despite these efforts there is little of cultural value to gamers, old or new, other than the games themselves.
But is anything else really needed? GameOn is, quite simply, great fun. For older gamers, the Atari and early arcade machines are a trip down memory lane, and those who are younger can spend more time with the later consoles. There are games for kids, with the Bob The Builder and various Pokémon-related machines in constant use, and I saw a few groups of more elderly people (or "veterans") trying to figure out how to play Pong. For £11, or £5 for concessions, you get a whole bunch of freeplay arcade machines, a sample of the best games on almost every console, a try on the newest releases and the latest consoles and, most importantly of all, 8-player Bomberman. Interestingly, having said that, I did not notice a single Dreamcast amongst all the modern consoles, though that doesn't necessarily mean there wasn't one buried inside a cabinet. Still, the range and variety (150+ games to play) is enough to keep you gaming for as long as you have time for, or at least until it closes. With arcades nowadays often costing a pound per play, £11 for potentially eight hours of gaming (thirteen on Wednesdays) is excellent value.
The exhibition finishes on the 15th September. If you can get down to London, I'd definitely recommend giving it a shot, even if only to see if you can still beat the first level of PacMan in under a minute or if you still remember the correct responses in the insult matches in Monkey Island. Take some friends - it's a nice day out.
Edited by Stormcaller at 2002-08-13 18:43:28