Old school onslaught

A retro games renaissance is currently taking the world by storm.

Tara Gould takes a closer look at some of the old school gaming tournaments and events that are attracting gaming fanatics with a love of nostalgia.


Big bucks and global prestige

“Alright, now I understand what you need to survive. So now we’re going to take this entire side of your brain and dedicate it to the most awesome thing that’s happening right now.”

This is what the five times, current Tetris World Champion thought to himself when he first encountered the game in 1985. Even then, he had a strong inkling of what fate had in store: that he and Tetris were going to enjoy a long and illustrious relationship.

Jonas Neubauer has been playing the deceptively simple, yet incredibly addictive game since its arrival on the arcade scene back in 1984.  Tetris was created by a Russian engineer during the tail end of the Cold War, and as you probably already know,  is a puzzle game where seven different shaped blocks descend from the top of the screen, to be slotted into spaces by the player.

“It was a little tougher than I expected playing in front of a crowd because Tetris is a very isolated game.”

Jonas explained to Rolling Stone, whilst describing his first tournament played in front of an audience of thousands to the distracting commentary of the MC,

“I wanted to do the no-headphones thing because I wanted the whole experience, like a baseball player who doesn’t wear batting gloves.”

Jonas is just one of a vast community of gamers hooked on arcade games from the Golden Age like Tetris, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Space Invaders et al.  And ‘the whole experience’ is where it’s at for many of the gamers involved in this scene.


The rise in electronic sports

The recent growth in ‘esports’ or competitive gaming has taken competitions that were predominantly amateur into the professional arena, with big sponsorship, large prizes, and live broadcasts.  But video game competitions are not a new phenomenon.  The first recorded event took place between Stanford University students on October 19, 1972 playing Spacewar for the prize of a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine.

And in 1980 Atari hosted a Space Invaders Championship which was the first large scale video tournament attracting more than 10,000 entrants across the US. It established what had been a niche, sub-culture activity as a mainstream hobby.  

Currently, across America, record breaking champion players compete for huge (sometimes 6 figure) cash prizes, and prestige at corporate sponsored tournaments. But there are a plethora of ‘lo-fi’ competitions, friendlies and events also taking place on a smaller, local level. And what was once a solitary hobby is now a group activity where communities of like minded games fanatics come together to share their passion for the design, game play, iconography and nostalgia of old school gaming.


The burgeoning UK scene

A growing number of such events are springing across the UK and James Brindle, the founder of Retro Games Party is passionate about spreading the word to those searching for little known or unpublicised events, venues and competitions.

He recognised that, like him, many gamers were disappointed and disillusioned with the products currently available on the market. Nothing quite matched up to those Golden Age games in the heady days of 1980s gaming fever.

“Back in the 1980’s there was less graphics and more depth, computers weren’t just PC’s and Mac’s and you didn’t need to upgrade them for nearly every game you bought…For some time, we’ve watched the games systems evolve to the point of near perfection but sadly while graphics quality has gone up, gameplay and addictive quality has gone down.  Are some games too easy to complete compared to their retro parents?  We see kids getting a new game for Christmas and trading it in at the local game exchange shop within a week!”

Other events, like New Frontier Arcade and Arcade Club in Lancashire have brought the period back to life by re-creating a late 1970s early 1980s style gaming arcade. It is decked out with all the old favourites, including Asteroids, Space Invaders, Super Breakout, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Centipede, Berzerk, Out Run and later games of the early 90’s like Street Fighter, as well as a decent offering of pinball machines such as Scared Stiff, Adams Family and Metallica. Amazing to consider that there is no need for internet or Wifi connection in these anachronistic environs, yet gamers from a mixed demographic happily while away the hours immersed in the ‘lo-fi’ nostalgia of addictive game play. As described in their own words:

“These are the original games in their original form…no emulators, no joypads – and no LCD’s, the way it was meant to be. You can become one with the game again…”


Pinball passion

While retro gaming organisations such as North East Retro Gaming offer old school games fans a mix of video games and pinball at their annual show, pinball takes centre stage at a growing number of events within groups devoted to this iconic, non-digital, classic game.

The UK Pinball League and the London Pinball League were both set up in the 21st century and are seeing membership numbers climb steadily.  And the new boutique pinball bars that are becoming fashionable in UK cities, are a close cousin of the ‘Barcade’ across the pond, whose popularity confirms the enduring appeal of vintage style venues with retro games on offer.  

The Pipeline Bar in London’s uber trendy Shoreditch is just one example of how pinball has risen from the dead with a cool new image.  The London Pinball League have their finger firmly on the pulse and will be holding their annual pinball competition there this year, sponsored by award winning UK games company Home Leisure Direct who sell new and vintage pinball machines.

I asked Director Andy Beresford what he thinks about this revolution in retro gaming:

“It’s not simply a love of nostalgia and the Golden Age of arcade, it’s about the design, the quality or ‘substance’ of the gameplay.  Yes, people love the whole retro vibe, and the community and culture that comes with it, but driving all of that is the sheer entertainment and satisfaction factor.  I know it’s a cliché, but they don’t make ‘em like they used to!”

In America, PAPA is The Professional & Amateur Pinball Association founded in the mid 1980s. Its objective is to create and promote the largest pinball tournaments and encourage friendly competition. PAPA’s Pinburgh Match-Play Championship is the largest pinball tournament in the world where over 400 players battle for more than $60,000 in prize money.

On a much smaller but no less fanatical scale, Seattle has well and truly caught the pinball bug. The city is well known for its pinball culture and boasts a large number of female players. There are machines in most venues and bars and the  popular and cool pinball zine Skill Shot is widely read. Tournaments are frequent and unpretentious and residents of all ages compete simply for the love of the game: the prizes may be smaller, but the scene is big on community and fun.


Back to the future

The Golden Age of video games began in the late 1970s with the arrival on the market of Space Invaders and continued until the mid 1980s when personal computers and video consoles stole the show.  At the time the technology seemed futuristic, and the excitement and novelty of that period of intense innovation is unforgettable to gamers who were around at the time.

Many of these Golden Age games entered our general consciousness and lexicon and became part of popular culture, music and film, and this legacy continues to endure.

More than a decade after the end of the Golden Age the Electroclash record, “Space Invaders are Smoking Grass,”  is testament to the permanent place of these iconic games in popular culture,  the tune was pithily described by a music journo as:

“a burbling electro in a vocodered homage to Atari-era hi-jinks”.

Likewise, pinball inhabits a significant place in popular culture as an all American iconic object. Its return to the scene with all of its bells ringing and lights flashing has been long awaited by those collectors who hoarded, fixed and cherished their machines and who are in part responsible for its revival.  

In comparison to the hundreds of unremarkable games that quickly appear and disappear from our game store shelves, the sustained appeal of these old school classics confirms that the right mix of  technology, innovation and emotionally durable design can work wonders.