Posing with Wii U is mandatory

It was upon arriving at Eccles train station, ready for Play Expo and briskly navigating a muggy mist lurking over the Manchester Ship Canal, when we contemplated if the UK’s weather had decided to skip autumn altogether and engulf us in this mid-October Sunday with a winter chill. However, within the space of an hour of entering Event City and being welcomed by a huge retro “re.play” section, our icy fingers gripped vintage joypads and quickly warmed up. The charming presence of such a magnitude of classic games consoles and free coin-ops ensured that retro gaming would become the focus of our day.

Shortly after arriving, we had an unexpected chat with Steve Lycett from Sumo Digital and were treated to a spontaneous race on Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed as they prepared for their developer talk, setting the mood for the rest of the day. Meeting gamers, from passionate and enthusiastic game developers (like Steve, as well as Mike Montgomery of The Bitmap Brothers), to friends from the gaming community and new faces, created the warm atmosphere of Play Expo.

The feeling of being a child with unlimited funds in their pockets, let loose on the world’s largest toy shop, had not left us since the awesome Eurogamer Expo and the retro re.play entrance area of Play Expo evoked a similar response. The thing about a kid in a candy shop is that they don’t know what sweets to buy first, so we flitted frantically as we were tempted by SNES classics including F-Zero, Axelay, Super Mario Kart, Star Fox and Killer Instinct, but we were mostly ensnared by more obscure games like the Japanese Famicom title Yume Penguin Monogatari, by Konami from 1991. It seemed apt, as we were feeling nostalgic for the past, to experience travelling through time by playing the Super Famicom platform game, Super Back to the Future II.

An early inspiration for Nintendo Land?

The N64 was also prevalent and we found having a blast on coin-ops that were linked to Nintendo, such as Killer Instinct and Cruis'n World, provided a pleasant reminder of the arcade roots associated with earlier N64 games. The most fun was in multiplayer sessions, we mixed modern and retro gaming by simultaneously sharing Mario Kart 7 course times through StreetPass on 3DS, while we indulged in a friendly competition against gamers in repeated four player races on Mario Kart 64. It was amusing to hear the younger gamers be so vocal about having to acclimatise to the looser feel of the N64 controller’s analogue stick, when they had fine-tuned their racing skills by tilting a Wii Remote and becoming accustomed to the 3DS Circle Pad.

There was something completely charming about seeing a couple engrossed in Pac-Man Vs. on GameCube, especially when we heared the boyfriend openly admitting that he should not really have the advantage of seeing his girlfriend’s screen, because it was displayed on TV using the Game Boy Player. We were having so much fun that time was quickly ticking away, but a moment could always be set aside to bash on the DK Bongos for the GameCube's Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. We planned our day meticulously, to ensure that we could experience some of the developer talks and after chatting to some organisational members of Replay Events, we felt lucky that the developer sessions were still available on the Sunday. They explained that there were fascinating talks arranged for Saturday 13th October, including a From Bedrooms to Billions preview and a Commodore 64 Vs. Spectrum panel, but sadly they had to be cancelled for reasons beyond their control.

We arrived early for Sumo Digital’s Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed discussion that was held by executive producer Steve Lycett, which could have distracted them as they were busy preparing for their talk. However, we received the exact opposite response, Steve welcomed us enthusiastically and quickly handed us the controller, so that we could race on a colourful checkerboard grid Super Monkey Ball ‘Temple Trouble’ themed course, in which there were water based areas, with a deep hole in the middle of the track for our newly transformed boat to avoid. We explained that we played the original Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing extensively, so Steve set the difficulty to ‘Hard’ to provide us with ample challenge. Consequently nerves resulting from racing in front of the game’s developer took over and we didn’t explore the new title’s advanced skills; we forgot the timing for a boost start and didn’t experiment with chaining stunts and flips off jumps. However, after a couple of laps we settled into charging drift boosts and the fortuitous implementation of an All-Star Move meant that we could breathe a sigh of relief as we battled to achieve first place.

It was race day

Sumo Digital’s team took the same approach for their talk, with Steve Lycett explaining the dynamics of the game, as gamers of all ages received hands-on with a variety of game modes. As well as a more traditional Grand Prix, there were a variety of challenges from races involving split-screen multiplayer cooperation to beat AI drivers, drift trials through designated zones, to overtaking and dodging waves of cars in Traffic Attack. It had all the variety and inventiveness of a continuation to their work in the Heart Attack Mode, for example, in the PlayStation Network version of OutRun Online Arcade. It also had the flamboyancy of an arcade game, which is especially fitting for a SEGA published racer.

The most impressive aspect of the demonstration was the enthusiasm and verve with which they’ve utilised classic SEGA IP characters, plus much-loved environments, incorporating them into constantly evolving and morphing race tracks. Hurtling past a canyon dwelling Panzer Dragoon beast, flapping its wings in ancient ruins, or whizzing along a carrier and utilising a ramp to soar into the explosive charged skies of the After Burner stage, is a treat for SEGA fans. Similarly, the unique character design of Gilius Thunderhead from Golden Axe, who has a vehicle that transforms from a metal hawk, to a turtle, into a Minotaur on wheels, demonstrates how the ‘Transformed’ part of the title extends from vehicles to the visual presentation of SEGA’s characters.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is also well positioned to cater for the interests of Nintendo gamers, a track set in outer space is based on Sonic Colours, involving a race through an asteroid field and will provide the greatest visual nostalgia for players of the exclusive Wii or DS games. Steve explained that Sumo Digital is working intensive hours to complete this game, it is a Wii U launch day title, which means that the North American 18th November release date will mark the end of a two and a half year development period. Wii U exclusive features include 5-player races (4-player split-screen on TV and one on the GamePad) and a special mode inspired by the school playground game British Bulldog, where whoever has the GamePad controls Joe Musashi from Shinobi and has to chase down the other players. The GamePad is also used in single-player as a course map, weapon camera and you can lift it up to act as a rear view mirror. You can also slide your fingers on the touchscreen, to pull the entire game onto the GamePad, just in case other members of your family want to watch something on TV, perhaps Sonic the Hedgehog: The Animated Series.

Selling with the power of hypnosis

After the Sumo Digital talk we had a look at the clothing and accessories stands, taking time to admire Retro GT’s Bubble Bobble and Street Fighter T-shirts. There was also a stand by Teebag Republic, which had an assortment of Mario and Luigi caps and 1-Up Mushroom, or Yoshi backpacks. We met up with Jake Smith from the website MegaDrive.Me and were impressed that his young son was able to convince such a fervent 16-bit gamer to share his retro gaming time with Pokémon Black and White 2. This was another example of Play Expo blending both retro and modern gaming, bringing a SEGA-loving retro gamer to the Nintendo stand to check out the new DS iteration of a huge Nintendo franchise.

Next we rendezvoused with a retro gamer called Michael Heald, who not only loves classic consoles, but has grown increasingly interested in building a collection of his own coin-ops. Michael is a designer and an illustrator, the creator and owner of a media company called Fully Illustrated. We arranged with Michael to meet and attend a talk by Mike Montgomery, who is the Managing Director of The Bitmap Brothers, a massively influential UK video game developer during the late eighties, throughout the nineties, and still releases games today. The Bitmap Brothers are legends of the 16-bit Amiga and Atari ST computer era, but Nintendo fans have also seen their games ported to the NES, Game Boy, SNES and Game Boy Advance. This developer talk was organised as a massive Q&A session; Mike Montgomery was passionate about discussing the history and origins of how they first started developing games, and he reflected upon specific titles and the future plans for his company.

We asked a couple of questions of our own, including one about the unique graphics and strong art style that seemed synonymous with their games. If you look at the SNES conversions of Gods and The Chaos Engine (Soldiers of Fortune in the US), as well as Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe on Game Boy Advance, you may agree that The Bitmap Brothers had an individual style of their own. The visuals had a solid, chunky, sometimes metallic sheen, adding detail to their 16-bit graphics. However, Mike Montgomery noted that the initial five or six games by The Bitmap Brothers only used three artists and each artist was responsible for their own game. Therefore, they aimed to make each game look as perfect as possible for that era and there was not a conscious decision to create an overall Bitmap Brothers art style. Montgomery was generous with his time and stayed around long after the Q&A session to talk to retro gamers. He was also happy to sign copies of The Bitmap Brothers games, if you had the forethought to bring a classic like Xenon 2 with you. We also had a chat with a gamer called Steve Robertson, who it turns out was an artist in the eighties, who drew the loading screens for a number of 8-bit computer titles.

A popular attraction

During such an eventful day, we kept our eye on the Nintendo section, to see if the vast crowds and queues would subside so that we could have an extra play on the Wii U’s launch window games. A number of our team had played Wii U extensively at Eurogamer Expo, but we were intrigued to see Michael Heald’s reaction to the games on display. Michael’s viewpoint was interesting, in that he had enjoyed a number of Nintendo consoles in the past, but from the information that has been released he has not been inspired to purchase a Wii U on launch day. We seized our opportunity, and a decent multiplayer session on the co-op demos of Rayman Legends and New Super Mario Bros. U were enjoyable enough to convince him to change his mind.

The day had reached an end, but we still had one last opportunity to grab a controller each for a 4-player game of Luigi's Ghost Mansion, on Nintendo Land. However, as we were watching another gamer play through ZombiU the Wii U consoles started to be turned off, leaving Michael confident that he wanted to purchase a Wii U at launch. Mission accomplished, Nintendo. We only had time for one last game before heading home, a quick four-player coin-op session on an unconverted side-scrolling beat-‘em-up called Vendetta, made by Konami in 1991.

To summarise our day at Play Expo, including the Sumo Digital and Bitmap Brothers developer talks: it epitomised what we love about gaming. It celebrated a combination of the nostalgic retro past, sitting side-by-side with the innovations afforded by new technologies as Nintendo prepares to enter the eighth generation of consoles. There is something magical about being chased by ghosts, through the Game Boy Advance and GameCube system link, to then follow the experience with a playable version of Luigi's Ghost Mansion, showing how Pac-Man Vs. probably influenced a small part of Nintendo Land.

We'd be smiling too

As we were leaving Event City, our final photograph was of two gamers with beaming faces, outwardly buzzing from acquiring a huge screenshot poster of Gunstar Heroes. On the bus to Manchester Piccadilly train station a group of gamers we had never met before, who had become masters at the Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance demo, kindly shared one of their prize 3D lenticular posters with us, which they had spare as a gift. Play Expo managed to expand its size, yet retain the same friendly atmosphere of the smaller venue from 2011 in Blackpool. We left with the same sense of community that our team experienced after meeting gamers for four days at Eurogamer Expo 2012. It is the gamers that make an event like this enjoyable, so if ever you feel jaded from reading trolls or spammers sabotaging an online gaming debate, we recommend that you head to an expo. It seems that they bring out the true colours of a gamer; it makes you feel proud to be part of the gaming community, to be given the chance to meet such a fun and friendly bunch of people.