Walking into the Basement Gallery of the London Science Museum, you're greeted by an uncomfortable warmth that often comes with gaming events, but this is soon forgotten when you cast your eyes over the sea of consoles lying in wait. We're all so used to seeing old gaming systems locked away behind glass, perched on a stand with just the right amount of lighting to give them an almost grandiose presence. But what the Power UP exhibition understands, however, is that consoles are meant to be played.
The exhibition itself is open now until April 19th at the Science Museum in South Kensington, London. Entry comes at a small cost, but the good news is that the Science Museum itself is free to explore.
With 160 consoles in total, the exhibition hosts everything from the Binatone TV Master right up to the Nintendo Switch. Everything is out in the open and ready to be played. You can sample classic platformers like Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog, move onto the fighting section with a bit of Street Fighter II and Super Smash Bros. Melee, sample classic racing games like Mario Kart: Double Dash!! and Gran Turismo, before finishing off with the sensory-overloading majesty of PSVR. Granted, with its focus on providing age-appropriate content, you won't find more difficult games like Mega Man 2 or Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, nor will you find the kind of adult-oriented games like Mortal Kombat that would make the likes of Jack Thompson grumble in disgust; this is a family friendly affair by all accounts.
The main attraction was undoubtedly the 30-year physical timeline of consoles from 1976 (Binatone) to 2006 (Wii). Each console came complete with a short description of its history, along with a brief summary of the game that the systems came loaded with. Again, everything here can be sampled and played, and it's a stark reminder of just how revolutionary the NES was with its controller. Everything prior felt like a bizarre experiment; a strange oddity that — unless you grew up with these systems — feels completely alien. When you consider that every controller since 1985 (or 1983 with Japan's original Famicom) is simply an evolution of Masayuki Uemura's design, feeling that evolution in the flesh is a miraculous experience.
It's a shame, then, that such a fascinating look at the history of video game consoles felt like it was tucked away at the back of the room. This is something that should have been front-and-centre, right when you enter the exhibition. Indeed, given the exhibition's focus on fun and providing entertainment to children, we've a feeling that many will have completely skirted over this section of the room entirely, quite content with sitting at a desk in the opposite corner of the room playing a round of Street Fighter, which is no bad thing in itself!
Then again, we suppose it lets us old fogeys appreciate the more "boring" section of the exhibition, because there's slim chance of playing anything else with all the kids hovering around the screens.
In terms of how Nintendo itself was represented, however, it's safe to say that it was the star of the show. There was plenty of variety on offer, with Mega Drive, PlayStation, Xbox, and Atari all getting their chance to shine, but Nintendo really felt like the dominant presence. There were N64 consoles hooked up with four controllers and a copy of GoldenEye: 007, NES and SNES consoles lined up in rows, GameCube consoles with everything from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess to Super Monkey Ball 2, and small circular desks complete with Game Boy Advance systems hooked up (though these desks were often occupied by bored parents scrolling through FaceBook or — ironically — playing a mobile game).
What was also fascinating to see was just how little patience the younger audience has with a game like Super Mario Bros. Despite the general consensus among fans that World 1-1 is near enough a perfect tutorial for the rest of the game, we witnessed kids just straight up quitting at the first Goomba enemy, dropping the pad back on the desk for the next child to try. Curiously, we'd later see the same kids glued to the screen playing a round of Fortnite, a game that — in our eyes, at least — has a lot more disparate mechanics and systems to learn in open 3D space.
It's a stark indication, perhaps, of how much game tutorials have evolved in recent years and how modern titles bombard players with rewards. For a youngster playing Super Mario Bros., falling at the first hurdle may bring them nothing but a deep sense of frustration, and we witnessed it first hand.
Nevertheless, seeing everyone from middle-aged parents to young toddlers take part in what is essentially a celebration of gaming history is a wonderful sight to behold. With Nintendo in particular, it's easy to sample their legacy games today thanks to the likes of Nintendo Switch Online, but to actually play them in their original form is something that the more casual audience may never get to experience in any other environment. It's an excellent reminder of how far the medium has come, and how much potential has yet to be realised.
The 'Power Up' exhibition is now open at The Science Museum in London until Tuesday, April 19th. Tickets start at £8 and can be bought via the official website.