Game On Exposition, Forum, Groningen

This exhibition aims to take you through 50 years of video games with some emphasis on Dutch game makers, though not to the exclusion of classics such as Space War, Pong, Pacman and so on.

It’s on the 5th and 6th floor of the Forum (entry on 6th), in the middle of Groningen, and you’ll need a mask and covid pass with proof of identity to get in. It started on 2nd October 2021, and is currently bookable through to the end of February, which I’m presuming is the close. Tickets are €12.50 (€7.50 for students), though you can add entry to Storyworld on the same day for just an extra €2.50 (for a total of €15) to make it all bargainacious. I had to buy my ticket on the day, as going via the web is tilted to Dutch bank cards and accounts, but that was no problem. It also meant I wasn’t tied to a time slot I’d picked in advance, so on this quiet weekday (I saw no one but staff till the end, where four of us were on different machines) I just could roll up and head in.

As it’s in the Forum, there’s free wifi throughout, you just need to be able to head to forum.nl/wifi to get a code – it’s for 24 hours, so you could do that in advance if you don’t have mobile access. There are free lockers inside the exhibition so you don’t have to carry anything with you – just read the instructions more carefully than I did, or it will take you a couple of goes to set a code.

Neon lighting marks the entrance to the exhibition, with retro video games visible in cabinets behind.
The entrance.
A large info board in red with white grid lines, above give display cabinets showing items from the 70s, including converse trainers, a telephone and an etch-a-sketch.
Introductory panel and paraphernalia from the 70s.

There are some explanatory panels giving context, and some basic info about the consoles and games on show, but really this is all about playing. I think even if you came here to learn, you’d probably pick up more by actually trying out the games, but I doubt many people come in without some interest in playing games. I headed straight for Asteroids, paused briefly by Pong and then tried Sentinel for the first time.

Two cabinets hold an Atari Jaguar and Nintendo 64 console for play. Mario Kart and Sentinel are loaded and ready. Above are a Gamecube and older Atari on display only.
Atari and Nintendo.
Two cabinets hold old consoles with controllers attached for play. Sony Playstation and Sega Dreamcast, with older consoles above, display only.
Sega and Sony.

Some of the older exhibits are only for display, or are playable but fallible. I found the Puck Monster console, below, hugely exciting to get my hands on, as I had one a long time ago, but the joystick only sporadically moving left meant that playing it was not as much fun as looking at it. I wonder how many of these older exhibits were in full working order at the beginning of the exhibition, and how many stopped being fully operational a long time ago. At any rate, it’s a full-time job for someone, going round and re-connecting controllers and so on, particularly on the more temperamental of the modern pieces of kit; there was a Wii-U simulation that is used to give surgeons experience of laparoscopy, which is amazing, but the controllers are fragile. Fine if you’re showing surgeons how to be careful, maybe less so with others wandering around and trying it for fun.

Puck Monster hand held console from the 80s (?) - it's big, but can be held in two hands. A version of pac man, powered by batteries or a DC adaptor, with two game modes.
Puck Monster – Pac Man? Never heard of him.
More portable game consoles and units, for play, mostly retro, but including a Nintendo DS with a recent Pokemon.
Portable games for play.

A little knowledge is useful as you wander round, particularly at quiet times. Obviously if you’ve played a game before then you might know what you’re doing, but it’s also handy to know that if an Xbox says it’s lost contact with the controller, then you press and hold the round X button to reconnect, or on a Wii, press a button.

Three games next to one another, playable by single players. Splatoon, Super Monkeyball and Vib Ribbon.
Splatoon (2015), Super Monkeyball (2001), Vib Ribbon (2000)

I tried all sorts of games, but had the most fun with the ones I didn’t know well but that were easy to pick up. A modern “stroll about and solve puzzles” game held me for the longest, as what I should do wasn’t clear, but revealed itself with just a few moments exploration. Other games, particularly fighting games, have never been my strongpoint, and even when I realised that there was a list of which buttons did what (often at waist height – or small child height, perhaps) I didn’t get much further.

Portable Games section divided by a screen. Playable Rockband is on a console to one side.
Portable Games section.

The two floors are split into 16 sections, though they flow into each other naturally. The first floor – head downstairs once in the front door – starts with the old and heads through classics into multiplayer, while upstairs shows the portable systems, simulation and independent games but still ends with older arcade cabinets. They’ve done a good, and smart, job in making multiplayer games available periodically, not all in one place, and the same is true of most other things – you don’t go past the entrance and then run out of original classics, for instance, and I ended my visit with games of Track and Field and Pac-Man. So much is possible with emulation now that some of these games may not be running on original hardware – I couldn’t work out whether the fact that the bottom lines of Track and Field’s display had slipped out of view were because of a screen positioned wrongly, or an emulator with different aspect ration. But it didn’t matter to me – the fun is in the playing, and for me, in rediscovering old favourite controllers. There were a few ‘clicky’ microswitched joysticks to use with the Commodore 64, a variety of fighting sticks (which were my favourite for everything, but designed particularly for fighting games) and a simple joy in bashing buttons to get my athlete running faster in Track and Field.

Large red display board about connected gamers, with items from that era in display cabinets below, such as a Furby, mobile phones and trading cards.
2001 Connected Gamers

It’s a great and well-designed exhibition. It misses out all sorts of things – I’d have liked to see an Amiga and Spectrum, for instance – but that’s to be expected and besides, the joy is in the combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, rather than in seeing a whole load of things that you already know all about. Highly recommended, and even better if you can take a friend to enjoy the multiplayer games. My one recommendation is that you allow time to eat beforehand, as several hours in the exhibition on one banana left me pretty tired when I left.

I expect you’ll see that quote on a poster some time soon.

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