A little over a week ago a remarkable event took place in Wolverhampton, which turned a racecourse into a Technicolor time machine. And as you might expect, the conference centre at Dunstall Park really did seem bigger on the inside!
The happening in question was Revival 2014, a computer and console games expo with a difference – it might not have looked out of place back in the 1980s or 1990s, for this was something very special – a ‘retro gamer’s’ time warp.
I have to admit to being more than a little retro myself, having started both ‘serious’ computing and gaming back in 1982 at the start of the British home computer boom, and I am glad I spotted an advertisement for this second event in the now-annual series while reading the latest issue of Retro Gamer magazine. I was determined to be there or be square on Saturday 9 August, the first day of the two day show. As it happens I was unable to make it on the Sunday, which is just as well as I would have gotten a soaking due to the rain, but fortunately the Saturday weather was perfect, especially for sitting outside eating lunch in the glorious sunshine.
The event, which filled the racecourse’s foyer, bar and biggest function rooms, was headlined by legendary US computer games designer John Romero, a rockstar-like programmer equally known for his long hair as well as game titles like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Dangerous Dave and Quake to his credit – and he certainly had fans following him around and asking for his autograph all day. He even gave a very interesting and well-received Q&A session about his career and work as part of a packed programme of talks by seminal games makers and journalists from the British scene.
Behind the scenes of Revival 2014, though, the real powers that be were busy corralling computers and gang-mastering arcade games, with the vital assistance of some important partners and exhibitors, not to mention a substantial number of dealers in retro and arcade goodies both esoteric and popular.
Head honchos of Revival Chris Wilkins, who is the editor of Retro Fusion magazine and Craig Turner, who runs Wolverhampton firm Turnarcades Custom Arcade Machines, certainly had their hands full as did their helpful and ever-visible staff (both voluntary and otherwise), with an estimated 2,000 eager gamers on-site over the weekend.
One local newspaper later quoted Chris, who is from Kenilworth, as saying the demand for retro gaming was growing ‘out of all proportion’, and on the evidence of last weekend he seems to be right, claiming more than double the number of visitors at the 2013 event. Certainly the choice of venue seems to have been ideal, with plenty of parking and room for both everything on show as well as the heaving throng of gamers of all ages, from under-10’s to pensioners!
On the subject of the retro gaming scene, John Romero himself reckons that the relative simplicity and colourful nature of games from the 80s and nineties has a universal appeal even today, and it certainly looks like a growing niche in the market, even though massive, complex games are still hugely popular with buyers of modern consoles and gaming pc’s. Maybe not as popular as they used to be though, judging by the stacks of modern consoles being racked up on the second-hand shelves of dealers like CEX.
Still, there’s no doubt that the collectable nature of old kit, the thrill of hunting for rare bits and bobs on eBay or in the hands of specialist dealers such as those at Revival, and the fun of actually getting it to work, something which can be akin to restoring classic cars, is something that just doesn’t feature in the glossy mass-market world of the PS4 and Xbox One, with their massively expensive games produced by massive teams of programmers, designers, musicians and artists. A world that, ironically, has to a great extent been made popular by the work of Romero and programmer John Carmack, who have been given much credit for popularising the 3D first-person shooter style that has taken over the modern gaming era.
A far cry from the early 1980s days of the Sinclair Spectrum, BBC Micro and Commodore 64, with squeaky cassette loading instead of terabyte hard drives, and teenagers programming games in their bedrooms – and even their more sophisticated sixteen-bit successors the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, who were kings of the ’90s, before Windows and Mac OS crushed the diversity out of hobby computing and the big, expensive consoles took over much of the games market.
Meanwhile, back in the energy-filled time warp that is Revival, dozens of tables supported hundreds of classic computers and pre-PS3 games consoles, with all ages coming together to thrash joysticks and blast aliens to bits with light pistols. There were even a couple of virtual reality machines on show, though sadly only the cutting edge Oculus Rift demo was in operation, albeit not exactly retro.
The floor plan included, apart from large game and pinball arcades, a series of computer and console gaming ‘zones’ – including a fighting game zone, platform zone, shoot-em-up and multiplayer zones, portables, mature gaming, chiptune music artists, rhythm zone, racing, indie gaming, history and the stage with a big video projection stage setup surrounded by computers.
Massive contributors to this side of the event (amongst other individuals and smaller organisations like Amibay) were the top two ‘home computer’ museums in the UK – The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge, who laid out dozens of machines in the darkened ‘arcade hall’ and the Retro Computer Museum of Leicester, who packed out much of the other main room. Thankfully, although we may all have to wait a year for the next Revival event, you can still visit these two highly-recommended museums to find out what all the fuss is about in person!
Row-on-row of buzzing and beeping arcade machines competed with the banging and flashing of equal numbers of gaudily-decorated pinball machines, in one darkened hall that had the ideal atmosphere of a time-travelling trip back to the 1970s.
And on a stage above all, regular and hotly-contested games competitions were organised throughout the day in front of cheering crowds by the Retro Lords and nearby Retro Collect, the retro gamers and collectors community – even a multi-player Doom death match starring John Romero himself!
There were not that many cosplayers about , though I did come across a bearded ‘Judge Dredd’ – actually Judge Beerman (aka Jonathan Scott of Beercave Games), presumably on holiday from Mega City One – but the stars of the show in this respect would have to be Doom-costumed 11-year-old Taylor Davis and father Arron Davis, from Stourbridge, and the adventurous-looking lady who was there in Doom-themed character with them, Jenny Friel (see above and below).
Something old and something new might well describe Surface Tension, who were set up in a corner all their own. They create fabulous stylish new furniture with built-in arcade games via MAME – in one case like a 21st century version of the good old Space Invaders pub table games!
Fascinatingly, the retro scene is not just about old games either – apart from the more serious application of what was once thought to be obsolete computer hardware, there is also a burgeoning market for independently-produced (or ‘indie’ games) and this was also represented at the show by Option 4 Studios and Durrell Software, the latter a blast from the past!
Revival 2014 was not just about flogging games and flogging joysticks to death, though – apart from Mike Hally’s contribution to computing history, the event saw talks to fans from many pioneers of gaming history, including developers from top software house Ocean.
I had time to attend the fascinating and refreshingly informal presentation by the ex-Newsfield magazine publishers Roger Kean, Oli Frey, Steve Jarratt and Gary Penn (remember Crash! and Zzap! 64, amongst others?) – which was particularly interesting to me because of my background in newspapers and also in writing freelance for several 1980s-90s home computer mags – and John Romero’s very enjoyable Q&A ably hosted by Paul Drury.
I also just caught the tail end of Andrew Hewson’s talk about his own famous British games house Hewson Consultants, and stayed for the final talk of the day, a polished presentation by one half of the archetypal 1980s ‘teenager in a bedroom’ games programming duo ‘The Oliver Twins’ – Andrew Oliver, of Codemasters, Volatile, Blitz, Interactive, Indie city and now Radiant Worlds fame – followed up by his own son Adam, himself a BAFTA Young Designer winner with his game AlienX. This all overran quite a bit for various reasons, but was well worth hanging on till the end.
I have to say I’m really pleased that I’ve been able to make the second Revival event the first major feature in Retrocomputing News, it was a great experience and has given me many ideas for the future – including taking less photos and listening to more talks and playing more games :O)
I really couldn’t have asked for a better event to start with – and I’ll be aiming to cover the full weekend next year. Thanks guys!
There are loads more photos to see than I can show here, so if you want to get a full visual flavour of Revival 2014, follow this link to the Retrocomputing News Flickr Album.