Game On 2.0

February 16, 2006 By Glenn Turner

While waiting to enter Chicago's Museum of Science & Industry's relaunching of the Game On video games history exhibit, my better half and and I were scoping out the museum's gift shop. Specifically, I was checking out the small shelf devoted to the Game On exhibit which had added a new book to it's paltry gaming literature offerings: Gamers: Writers, Artists & Programmers on the Pleasures of Pixels. I couldn't help but get excited by a book that opens with a bit with filmmaker David Cronenberg discussing Super Mario Brothers with author Salman Rushdie and, well most game-centric books just don't go there. After scrutinizing the glow-in-the-dark Einstein shirts and plushie microbes, we ambled up to the counter to pay for the book when our checkout clerk asks us if we're going to check out the Game On exhibit. "We are – we went last year and are curious to see what's changed," we respond. He nods as he scans our book, then takes my credit card. "I hope they have the 360 there. That was my big complaint from last year: nothing about the new systems," he informs us. "After you're done, come on back down and let me know if it's any good, will ya?" We tell him we will, then saunter up the familiar flights of stairs we clambered up last year, on our way to Game On 2.0.

Walking through the doors of the 'relaunched' Game On exhibit was akin to walking into your favorite shop: it's comfortable & familiar. You know the exact layout of the place, you know where your favorite items are stashed, and you know where to go to dodge the crowds. That is a great feeling if you're in an environment you adore and never want it to change, but I was quite disappointed in last year's showing. The sub-par branding (redesigned from the original retro-future look of the European exhibit), the slipshod layout of the exhibit, the number of emulated games, the erroneous 'facts', the abysmal excuses for 'game design' educational materials – it all culminated in a dreadful feeling that Game On was nothing more than a glorified penny arcade. Apparently it was a penny arcade folks were willing to queue up, wallets in hand, for as it has apparently found success in the city with big shoulders. It's not cheap though. Sure, the exhibit itself is only $5, but that's after a standard museum general admittance fee of $11 (up $2 from last year!), and unless you live on Chicago's South Side you probably need to park in their automated, underground parking lot for $12. Not exactly free play now, is it?

The first changes I noticed were minute, and slightly depressing. My favorite part of the exhibit, the PDP-1, was now behind glass, as were the Computer Space cabinets. I'm sure the new obstructions were necessary, as kids will try and play anything, but it steals away a bit of the magic of seeing these machines in person. Meanwhile, the fake projected Pong setup was still standing (sure, you can't literally can't emulate the original, but a more faithful version with the score actually on the table would be nice), and the rest of the early arcade games seemed accounted for. At this point we decided to breeze through the exhibit, find what had changed and focus on that, then wind back through the exhibit and familiarize ourselves with the old.

Easy enough. Most of 'the new' was to be found right before the exit doors - or at least, new to us. When we arrived on opening day last year, b consultant's exhibit was still being set up. Or at least, we presume so as all we ever saw was a limp, third-party controller sitting on an isolated pedestal. We never really knew what that was about, but we have since been enlightened: it was to show the feasibility of future architectural and construction projects by using gameplay devices as part of the development process. It was intriguing, but not much more than that.

Behind the b consultant pedestal was a Gran Turismo 4 cabinet - the arcade cabinet, not just a PS2 disguised in cheap wood veneer. To the right of that was a Star Wars: Battlefront 2 rig, a game that disappointed me no more than two weeks ago! Both were, along with the dance game Pump It Up, set up as examples of 'future games', or at least examples of advances in contemporary gaming. Why you would want to have two sequels that are widely known as offering little but 'more of the same' to celebrate the future of video games is beyond me, unless the Game On curator trying to hint at something.

Apart from these 'future games', little of the exhibit had been changed. Most of the same games inhabited the same kiosks, barring from the yearly updates to sport games like Madden. The impressive (in its antiquity, not its technology) communist-created Poly Play machine is still standing, even though the machine appears to have been powered down for the purposes of the show. Sega unfortunately keeps getting pressed further and further into the corner, and OutRun2 has been replaced with Forza Motorsport, complete with dirty disc errors! That's not to say Sega took this lying down, as they too decided to go on strike and prevent anyone from trying to play ESPN NHL 2k5. The newly added Lego Star Wars (part of the 'Movies as Games' section) seemed to be part of the same union, as all that appeared on its kiosk screen was a starfield. Either it had crashed, or it was doing a convincing Spacewar! impression.

Just like last year the large, but mostly empty, Tomb Raider exhibit was still kicking. The entire area felt like a ghost town, desolate, abandoned, left to rot. I don't blame those that stayed away, I would too if I weren't here to document it. Still, it would have been nice if the Tomb Raider showcase had at least a mention of the new Lara Croft redesign, that they're trying to get (at least slightly) away from the Barbie like-a-look in favor of a muted pornstar-on-set look. And yet again, an inappropriate amount of floor space was reserved for Golden Tee, with all the machines still safely tucked away behind glass. But just like last year you could read about how they make trees for the game!

Unlike Golden Tee, I was quite happy to see that the mind-boggling mech simulator Steel Battalion had returned, and this time there was no salaryman monopolizing the gargantuan controller. After spending about a minute laughing at the paltry control summary on the game's placard, I spent about three more minutes trying to figure out what the hell I was doing before my mech was taken down by the first robot it encountered, mere seconds before I recalled that I really wanted to try pressing the big, red eject button encased in clear plastic. Oh well, there's always next year.

We strolled back through to the 'genre' room, an area of the exhibit where it seemed as if the curators had haphazardly chucked in any games they wanted or could find. Elite, Gradius V, Super Monkey Ball 2, Pilotwings, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and more, all were available for the playing. Most of these were remnants of last year's exhibit, however there were a few minute differences in their presentation. For instance, Parappa the Rapper 2 and Animal Crossing are correctly labeled, and they've also added a brief fact to each game's placard. Finally, a reason for the game to be on display! Most of the factoids were minor notes about the game or obscure tidbits about developing the game. For example, The Secret of Monkey Island's placard details that lead character Guybrush Threepwood received his name via a combination of art asset titles (guy.brush) and a company contest. Fun, occasionally insightful, facts for sure - a welcome addition, and they inject a sorely needed authoritative voice to the exhibit.

Upon playing through a handful of the 'genre games', we found ourselves back where we started: the early games, the arcade games, the PDP-1. Feeling my job of scanning the exhibit for new material was over, I sipped in a few games of Galaxian (or that's what we call it, although it doesn't really look like Galaxian), then I moved on up to Galaga before nailing Berzerk while listening to the neighboring housewives chatter about how the exhibit helped their kids learn 'engineering'. Perhaps they meant fun-gineering.

With our minds jarringly stimulated with the bells and whistles of our youth, we finally exited the exhibit and headed back down to the store to tell our new-found Science & Industry friend our opinions on the show. Unfortunately, it appeared that the afternoon rush hour had just started as swarms of kids were streaming up the stairs and escalators. The museum shop was absolutely flooded with tots and sadly, the clerk was nowhere to be seen so instead we began weaving our way towards the parking lot. It's just as well as he'd only be disappointed to hear that, not only was there no Xbox 360 available to play, but there was no Xbox 360 anywhere in the exhibit, which seemed consistent with Game On's unspoken rule that there is to be no mention of any up and coming next-generation systems, ever, within their walls. Even the PSP and the DS were represented only by a sole Lumines UMD with both handhelds, powered off, behind glass. The lack of any word on the Playstation 3 and upcoming Nintendo console is understandable, considering they have yet to be released, but ignoring the Xbox 360, the first console to usher in 'the next console war' probably deserves a spot if for no other reason than its relevance to modern gaming. It's a harbinger of what's to come, man.

In spite of Game On 2.0's unchanged and seemingly-arbitrary mishmash of consoles and games, I walked away from it feeling more satisfied than last year, wearing a slight frown instead of a grimace. The quality of the exhibit has only marginally improved, and that can mostly be attributed to the newly available placard information. Game On 2.0 still resoundingly fails to effectively showcase the evolution and impact of video games worldwide. Japan, arguably one of the most important cultures to contribute to the growth and influence of video games, is represented by little more than Pokemon, simulation games, and Pachinko. Game development is still summarized as a collection of storyboards, something drawn instead of programmed and the future of video games is relegated to sub-par sequels of current generation games. I can't say that my time spent at Game On 2.0 was miserable, as I did have a good time playing Garou: Mark of the Wolves on a non-NeoGeo controller, and thrilled at the semi-massive multiplayer of Saturn Bomberman but it's the same thrill I get whenever I partake of a decently sized video game collection. A gaming exhibit should be more than the sum of its parts, and maybe Game On 3.0 will recognize that.

For more enthralling images ripped straight from the frontline of Game On 2.0's opening day, please visit our Game On 2.0 image gallery.

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