Special guest review: Games Masters at ACMI

Guest post by Andrew Marshall…

Retro gamers have a massive reason to visit Melbourne with the opening of the Game Masters exhibition at ACMI. The follow up to the hugely successful Game On (with over 148,000 visitors in 2008), Game Masters aims to introduce the public to the Gods of gaming. Taking its cues from the auteur theory of film criticism, over 30 video game designers are profiled, with over 125 fully playable games. A stroll through the gallery space is indeed an appointment with gaming genius.

Yu Suzuki creations Hang On, Out Run & Virtua Fighter.

As you descend the staircase into ACMI’s subterranean cavern of delights, you enter the first of Game Masters’ three themed areas, Arcade Heroes. This area is a loving homage to the darkened arcades of the late 70’s and early 80’s. The classics of the genre are all represented, with all time classic cabinets like Pac Man, Space Invaders and Donkey Kong all present. However, by focussing on specific developers, the curators have managed to also include some more obscure machines along with the classics. For example, when profiling Masanobu Endo, we see examples of not only seminal vertically scrolling shoot ‘em up Xevious, but also includes his action RPG Tower of Druaga. This machine was never released outside of Japan, and was only made available for western audiences in the third Namco Museum compilation for the Playstation.

All the machines in the opening section are restored to pristine condition, with original cabinets, art and instruction cards all on display. The only minor gripe is that the arcade section seems smaller that of the Game On exhibition (2008). However any disappointment is overridden by the overall high quality of the selection included.

Moving out of the dim arcade, you emerge, blinking, into the well lit and attractive Game Changers section. This central section represents the real meat and potatoes of the exhibit, and it is here that the idea of profiling the “Gods of Gaming” really shines. Rather than organising everything chronologically, each set of games is grouped together by the developer that produced them. In some cases this means an individual (Hideo Kojima, Will Wright, Fumito Ueda) whilst in others the output of an entire studio is considered (Blizzard, Nintendo, TT Games).

The individual designers seem a better fit for the Game Masters. You can really drill down into the common themes and design choices from a designer when playing several of their games in a row. This is less evident in the company based displays, and in many cases it is unclear why a single developer wasn’t chosen. Notably Shigeru Miyamoto would seem to fit the theme better than a section devoted to the whole of Nintendo. Each section has several games, alongside video pods featuring specially commissioned interviews with the various Game Masters in question. One of the highlights of this section is a full ride on arcade version of Yu Suzuki’s Hang On. [Not to mention a deluxe moving version of Out Run! -ed]

See concept art from many landmark games…

Heading towards the rear of the exhibition, you walk through a central corridor devoted purely to the works of the three Game Masters invited to the launch week, Peter Molyneux, Tim Schafer and Warren Spector. Whilst Molyneux was an unfortunate late cancellation, Schafer and Spector are both excellent additions. It is especially gratifying being able to play some of their more difficult to find and run games, such as System Shock and Full Throttle. Alongside the games are examples of ‘making of’ ephemera, such as Schafer’s infamous comic book job application to Lucasarts, and antique Mickey Mouse memorablia owned by Spector, used in the making of Epic Mickey.

The final part of the Game Changers section is devoted to the more recent ‘performance’ genre of game. Paulina Bozek is one of the few female developers featured, and is represented by a SingStar karaoke booth. Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy of Harmonix are represented by both a Rock Band jam room, and a large Dance Central 2 dance stage. Also highly recommended is a darkened room occupied with a 3D-enabled version of Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s rhythm shooter Child of Eden.

The rhythm-action genre is well represented.

After this gaming smorgasbord, you enter the final segment of Game Masters, Indies. The explosion in the Indie scene is one of the key changes to the gaming landscape since Game On moved on from Melbourne, and ACMI is very pleased to recognise this with the Indies section. After the wide open spaces of Game Changers, the Indies room feels a little cramped, but there are still many gaming gems on display. Aussie developers have taken on the world in the indie gaming space, and are well represented here. Firemint provides multiplayer thrills with a 4 player version of Real Racing 2, controllable by iPads, and HalfBrick are represented by a Fruit Ninja Kinect booth.

The colossal names in indie development are all here with Marcus ‘Notch’ Person (Minecraft), Jonathan Blow (Braid), and thatgamecompany (Journey) all on display. It is gratifying to see that some of the older ‘pre-indie-revolution’ names have also been included, with games from Eric Chahi (Another World, From Dust) and Masaya Matsuura (Parappa the Rapper) amongst those highlighted.

Double Fine’s Tim Schafer, [Victorian Premier] Ted Bailleau, Firemint’s Rob Murray & Disney Interactive/Ion Storm’s Warren Spector.

It would take an especially jaded gamer to emerge from Game Masters’ Aladdin’s cave of delights disappointed. The breadth of games available in playable formats has something for everone, and the exhibition as a whole feels easily superior to the already excellent Game On.

A visit to Game Masters is virtually compulsory for any fans of old school gaming thrills.

You can read more from Andrew Marshall on his blog Random Acts of Criticism and on Fairfax Media’s Screen PlayGame Masters runs through to 28 October 2012 at ACMI, Melbourne.  
Photo credits: [1-2] Mark Gambino, [3-5] Brendan McGrath.

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