A few weeks ago I visited the Game On Exhibition at the Science Museum in London. For those who want an in-depth description of what the show offers and the overall impression that the typical game-savvy visitor is left with, I can recommend the official site and this review by Duncan Lawson, which largely tallies with my own experience.
The exhibition’s greatest achievement is that the organisers have striven to make as many of the exhibits on display playable. They’ve convincingly solved the technical challenges of keeping over a hundred disparate consoles and computers up and running at the hands of the general public. During our visit there were maybe only two or three machines out of service.
Unfortunately this commendable effort is let down by the selection of games that the organisers have chosen. It’s no exaggeration to say that it this selection seems completely random. For each notable game there are at least half a dozen non-entities that could easily have been selected by blindly buying old cartridges at a car boot sale.
Stranger still, the skew of formats and genres borders on the perverse. No coinops post 1990. No RPGs. No mention of MMORPGs. Three PC games (all of which are ports and none of which are Starcraft, Doom, Quake, Ultima VII/UW/UW2, Deus Ex or Tie Fighter), two(!) Mega Drive games (again, completely bafflingly, both ports – forgettable versions of Sokoban and Prince of Persia), and one(!?) Amiga game (Lemmings). And most damningly of all (maybe), zero Master System games (they could have at least had Wonderboy III).
In fact most (or at least an extremely disproportionate amount) of the 100+ display machines were Nintendo consoles. Yes, OK, Mario Kart, very good, Goldeneye, no problem … but (SNES) Sim City and (NES) Elite? I thought that this anomaly might have something to do with the exhibition’s sponsor, but have heard that the lineup was largely the same in previous incarnations, so it must be the curators who are at fault.
Very little effort has been spent on trying to explain how everything fits together chronologically, or what makes any particular game notable (in terms of popularity, notoriety, innovation, influence, relevance to gaming in the UK, or any other criteria). There is also a heavy degree of censorship, which swiss-cheeses any attempt to present an accurate history of games post the golden age.
Even though we found most of the show to be a disappointment, we did glean some entertainment from Saturn Bomberman and Bubble Bobble, followed by a lengthy game of Buzz! against some MOTPs. And I got a nerdy kick out of ‘speedrunning’ HHGTTG (my experiences with the Infocom games are a story for another update) and seeing some original Steve Purcell artwork for The Secret of Monkey Island.
Hopefully the exhibition will get an overhaul before its next outing, as the seeds of an informative, entertaining experience are there. Until then, you’re not missing much.