We’re now at the point where the video games age has accumulated a history that stretches back across generations. Clearly the industry is flourishing and shows no signs of stopping, so now is an interesting moment to step back and take a look at the story so far.
That’s pretty much the premise of Manchester Science and Industry Museum’s temporary show, Power UP, which returns after a successful run pre-pandemic. There’s a fundamental hurdle to overcome here, though. Modern video games look great (and the graphics on older ones are often pleasingly retro) but, in an exhibition, is there actually much to look at? In this respect, Power UP mostly keeps things simple, with one big low-lit space full of keyboards and monitors clustered in groups, like an open-plan office meant for fun rather than drudgery. Along one side there’s a ‘timeline’ of consoles stretching from the late 70s to the Wii and the Playstation. Needless to say, the earlier half of the timeline is often dominated by visiting dads eager to revisit youthful glories (but in Northern Soul‘s experience just as likely to remind themselves how rubbish they were, and indeed remain, at the likes of Chuckie Egg and Paperboy).
During our visit on a Saturday, the exhibition has a fair few punters in but it’s never so busy that it’s difficult to play on what you like. Inevitably, with this much tech on the go at once, some things are out of action now and then, but attendant bods seem to be keeping the show on the road.
Within the exhibition space there are sub-sections covering LEGO games, Disney, Mario and Zelda, plus opportunities to join in on multiplayer titans such as Halo and Fortnite and separate tables with hand-held consoles. There are zones for VR and physical games, too. The 2008 Wii game Samba de Amigo – imagine playing Guitar Hero but you’re shaking motion-detector maracas to Tequila or Volare – is a belated revelation, and it’s good to see alternatives being offered up to straight-ahead thumb-twizzling.
There are already a few places hereabouts catering to this idea of a family day out playing a range of different games – Arcade Club in Bury or the National Videogame Museum in Sheffield, for instance. In that respect Power Up isn’t doing anything earth-shatteringly new but it does a perfectly decent job of it. Possibly, though, it could go a little further in exploring some more substantial aspects of video-gaming history. There are several ‘Fact’ boards scattered around the room that provide some food for thought, but still it could do more.
Nevertheless, there’s an intriguing selection of offerings by BAFTA Young Games Designers, such as SnakeLaw Island and Fractured Minds, that could prove inspiring to visitors. There’s also a similar huddle of fine ‘Manchester Made’ games such as the offbeat, lushly designed Death’s Door and breezy 3D platformer Unbox: Newbie’s Adventure. These feel genuinely fresh and, again, potentially inspiring. In fact, Manchester and the North West is such a hub for the games industry – and has quite a history for it – that this could have been the angle for the entire show rather than just an (admittedly fine) sub-section complete with developers’ stories on the wall (fair’s fair, though – there is talk of developing and expanding this through the run).
It’s arguable then that Power UP could have included more focused, factual content for its audience which would have distinguished it further from existing ‘loads of games in a big room’ venues, but it does its bit and, ultimately, it would be churlish to suggest that it’s anything less than a guaranteed few hours of top fun for all ages.
Power UP is at Manchester Science and Industry Museum until December 2023