I recently took a trip to Toronto, Ontario to celebrate my birthday with my twin sister (albeit a bit belatedly). We saw some of our extended family, went to a Jays game (they lost, unfortunately), and spent some time at the ROM. None of this is important (well, at least in the context of this blog), since I also spent some time in the Ontario Science Centre, and their special exhibit, Game On 2.0.
In the words of the Science Centre:
[On] Sept. 26, 1969, a radio signal over 1.5 billion light years away struck a circuit that raised the curtain at the Science Centre’s official opening. It was one of the world’s first interactive science museums. The Science Centre has since welcomed more than 46 million visitors for a range of fascinating experiences in science and technology. It is one of Ontario’s most significant cultural attractions, focused on interactivity and hands-on learning for visitors of all ages.
An exhibition about gaming seems right at home.
Full disclosure: my sister works at the Ontario Science Centre, and as such, I received the family discount on the admission price. I received no other perks, benefits, or preferential treatment, and would have paid the full price of admission had it been required.
On display were games older than many members of Arqade. As the Ontario Science Centre is an interactive museum, most of the games on display were also playable. I saw (and played) games from the ’70s all the way up to modern games, across numerous genres. This vast swath of gaming history led to some uplifting moments, seeing young gamers play games that are not only older than them, but sometimes even two or three times their age. It’s a testament to good gameplay, that even playing with dated graphics can still be enjoyable.
So let’s talk about some of what was on display. Upon entering the exhibit, you’re greeted with some dinner game machines, Pong, some pinball machines and a set of classic computers and game consoles.
Unfortunately, only Pong and the pinball machines were operational, and even then, they could be temperamental. The pinball machines, for instance, were down for maintenance when I first entered the exhibit. Other games and consoles were also out of order, to various degrees, although given the age of some of the hardware, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In any case, there are more than enough games to occupy your time than for you to worry about a handful of them being unavailable.
More hardware can be found, with the internals of three consoles on display, as well as Amigas, Commodores, and Ataris running games while safely tucked behind Plexiglas.
Next up you’ll see the majority of the games on display, with Indy 500 at one end, Half Life 2 at the other, and everything in between. While some of the PC games here use mouse and keyboard, many of the games use original controllers and run (mostly) on original hardware. It’s an eclectic mix of games, and there’s bound to be something for every gamer to play. It’d be tough to get to every game that’s here, given the number of games on display combined with the number of visitors to the exhibit, and the fact that the museum isn’t open all day, but there’s usually one game waiting to be played. Besides, there’s more to see in the exhibit.
Beyond the old games and hardware lie a collection of gaming art, including a statue of Lady Croft, probably the largest art piece in the exhibit. Other artwork from the Tomb Raider series is on display, as well as artwork for the Uncharted and Sonic the Hedgehog series, among others. Movie posters for some of the franchises that successfully (or unsuccessfully, as the case may be) made the move to the silver screen also have their place in the exhibit. Luckily, I don’t remember seeing any Uwe Boll on the wall.
In the centre of the exhibit hall are two more areas covering handhelds, new technology, and kids’ games. I didn’t spend any time in front of the kids’ games, but the handhelds included playable models ranging from an old Tron game up to the PSP (I didn’t see a Vita).
Technologies covered included racing wheels, motion controls, and multiplayer. Gran Turismo 5 was showcased with a full racing wheel setup and a 3 monitor panoramic view, with some arcade (literally) racing games beside it. In addition to the Wii games found throughout, there were also Kinect and PlayStation Move games to be played. The big multiplayer draw was 8-player Halo: Reach on four consoles. Pro tip: if you really want to get in on the 8-player deathmatch, bring seven of your friends or be really outgoing. Touch-screen gaming seemed oddly absent from the exhibit, although that could be due to a number of reasons.
Looking at a display dedicated to the progression of Nintendo handhelds, a fellow visitor a little older than me explained to his daughter that he owned the original Game Boy. I piped up saying that I had one too, and that it would probably still work if I threw 4 AA’s in it. Asking what games I had for it, I gave the standard reply of Tetris and Dr. Mario, the same response that would come from basically every other Game Boy owner. It’s a testament to the hardware design that us gamers in our 20’s and 30’s to still expect these older systems from our youth to still be functional. I highly doubt that we’ll see the same thing with respect to the PS3 and 360 even 15 years from now.
The exhibit also features this really cool and innovative game called Joust!
No, I’m not talking about the 1982 video game, but rather J.S. Joust, the independently developed, videoless game that’s played with PlayStation Move controllers. It’s an interesting game, combining fineness with a wide range of strategies and tactics. Your goal is to be the last person standing by protecting your Move controller from high accelerations (i.e. other players hitting it). Move to quickly while attacking someone else, and you might just knock yourself out. Guard your controller to your side rather than in front of you, and someone might sneak up from behind. Interesting strategies can pop up when, for instance, you mix 30-something parents with their preteen children. While a parent can hold their Move controller over their head, out of reach of their child, the kid might choose to tickle their parent, causing the parent to shake their controller enough to trigger it.
Last up is the arcade. Luckily, you don’t have to bring a roll of quarters with you; the games here are free. All the charm of these machines is also maintained, including the high score lists. I spent more than a little time trying to get my name on the high score list for Centipede. If you’re really looking for nostalgia, this is the place to be.
I do feel there was some stuff missing from the exhibit, though. Myst and Riven, for example, were truly innovative games that brought some of the first photo-realistic graphics to video games, and the Mass Effect series stretched the envelope in terms of non-linear storytelling. The curators may have left these games out, given that it would be hard to play them in 5 minute chunks, and they don’t lend themselves to having multiple people making decisions. This isn’t really a problem with Tomb Raider or Uncharted, since choice doesn’t affect the story. Also missing are games using alternative business models, i.e. Minecraft and Kerbal Space Program. Actually, these two games are a perfect choice, since they can be used educationally. Redstone has encouraged more than a few people to learn more about electronics, and what better way to learn about rocket science than by building a (virtual) rocket and launching it? I don’t know what kind of lead time was required for this exhibit, which could excuse KSP, but Minecraft has been available a lot longer. Don’t think I’m disappointed that these games weren’t shown, because I’m not. There was plenty of other stuff to make up for it. Of particular note, they have a virtual reality sphere that hadn’t opened yet, probably because they’re waiting for a VR headset or something, but it should be open soon (or even by the time you’re reading this).
I haven’t touched on everything at the exhibit, and to do so would be difficult at best – just look at the games list! There’s a lot to see and do here. And of course there’s the rest of the museum to explore as well. Game On is just one exhibit out of many. If you’re in the Toronto area with a free day and you’re a gamer (I presume you are, since you’re reading this blog), then you owe it to yourself to go see this exhibit. Game On 2.0 is on display until September 2nd, 2013.