Impressions of GEEK 2012

How did the UK’s newest gaming expo shape up?

Americans are rather spoilt for choice when it comes to videogaming get-togethers. PAX Prime, PAX East, E3, SGC, QuakeCon, and BlizzCon (except this year obviously) are just some of the many cons and expos on offer to my chums across the pond, and that’s not counting non-videogame gaming stuff like GenCon and DragonCon. Gamers in the UK meanwhile are catered for by Eurogamer, GAMEfest, GameCity and…not really much else sadly. A shocking state of affairs for a country where 56% of the population buy games on a regular basis.

So when I first became aware of Games Expo East Kent (GEEK) 2012 towards the end of last year I was intrigued and more than a little excited. Billed as a five day event “celebrating video games past, present and future” with industry speakers, tournaments and – most importantly – tons of games to play for free, it’s the sort of event you’d expect to occur somewhere like historic Canterbury. I was therefore more than a little surprised to discover it would be held in sunny Margate of all places, a small English seaside town that has seen better days and the last place on earth I’d expect to find a videogame expo. Today Margate is known mostly for being the subject of a Chas & Dave song, appearing in an episode of classic British comedy series Only Fools and Horses, and as the birthplace of artist Tracey Emin. It’s also right on my doorstep, coincidentally enough, so I had no excuses really. I had to go.

On Saturday I moseyed on down to Margate where GEEK was being held at the town’s historic Winter Gardens, a theatre and music hall dating back to 1911 that has hosted such luminaries as Laurel & Hardy (ask your parents if you don’t know who they are). After grabbing a funky yellow wristband from a friendly lady in the foyer I descended a winding staircase into the Queen’s Hall, where some merch booths, comfy sofas and a bunch of modern consoles were set up. If this was all they had to offer I’d have been a mite disappointed but there was still the larger main hall to investigate. As I descended another large red-carpeted staircase I pondered what I might expect, and if I’m perfectly honest I was also bracing myself for disappointment. Would there be a lot of people? How much would be on display? Would I get bored after an hour and mope off home, my weekend ruined? I needn’t have worried, for at the bottom of the stairs was the entrance to a retro-gaming Nirvana.

The innocuous Saint Peter of retro-gaming Heaven.

GEEK’s main hall was a bustling museum of favourite gaming memories for anyone that grew up with classic computers and consoles like the ZX Spectrum, Commodore Amiga, Sega Master System and Nintendo Entertainment System. Almost any retro gaming platform you can think of was available to play, including the NEC SuperGrafX, Amstrad GX4000 and something called the SEGA SC3000 I didn’t know even existed until this weekend. Nothing prepares you for seeing Steel Battalion’s legendary cockpit controller in person, let alone actually trying your hand at it, and they even had one of Amstrad’s failed GX4000 consoles with both of the games that ever came out for it. Square-Enix fans also had a special treat with an entire row of consoles dedicated to every instalment of the Final Fantasy series, with Chrono Trigger on the SNES as an extra little bonus, beneath a giant billboard charting the series’ history. As celebrations of gaming go it was loud, passionate and proud.

All these goodies were provided by UK retro-gaming specialists Replay Events Ltd, whom you may already know of if you hung out in the awesome Retro Zone at Eurogamer Expo 2011. Thanks to them I probably played more retro consoles and games during the several hours I spent at GEEK that afternoon than I ever did in my entire childhood, although I specifically avoided Micro Machines on the Megadrive for personal reasons. Some more-recent games like Batman: Arkham City, Skyrim and Streetfighter IV were also present, here and there, but GEEK was for the most part a living, breathing history lesson for any young whippersnapper who refuses to believe games used to come on cassette tapes. Anyone expecting an exclusive first look at upcoming 2012 releases would’ve been disappointed although if anyone was then I didn’t notice. All I saw in the expressions of most attendees was nostalgic joy or stern concentration.

Speaking of the attendees they were a large, diverse and enthusiastic crowd, with mothers and fathers standing shoulder to shoulder with sons and daughters in front of various consoles, or at one of the good number of free to play classic arcade machines like Operation Thunderbolt – the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare of its time. The most memorable attendee I saw was a little grey-haired elderly lady – the perfect image of someone’s dear old gran – smiling widely as she played the living hell out of Super Mario Kart on the SNES. Over the next six or so hours I’d occasionally spot her at yet another machine clutching yet another controller, still smiling and generally having a whale of a time. I swear she must have played every single machine before the end.

Crappy iPhone camera pics do not do this beast justice.

Choosing Saturday for my visit sadly meant I missed Wednesday’s panel discussion with Ian Livingstone (of Eidos and Fighting Fantasy novel fame), and I got so caught up trying to reach level 2 on Ghouls ’n’ Ghosts I missed the panel event hosted by David Darling and Bruce Everiss of Codemasters. I also didn’t get to check out any of the various fringe events happening at different venues around the area, which ranged from game-inspired poetry sessions to club nights with videogame music. I did however catch a few of the many tournaments occurring  at the expo itself throughout the day, in which gamers young and old battled each other at Soul Calibur IV, the original Halo and even ye olde classic Pong, the latter a warm-up for GEEK’s successful attempt on Sunday to break the world record for largest Pong tournament.

Speaking as someone who has attended larger, established gaming expos like the yearly Eurogamer Expo atEarls Court,London, GEEK 2012 was an impressive debut. Despite slipping beneath a lot of people’s radars the turnout was fantastic, and the amount to see and do was far greater than I expected from such a new event. It deserved to be a success from the start, so I’m pleased to say the organisers’ hard work, passion, dedication and enthusiasm have paid off. It was announced yesterday on the GEEK Facebook page that GEEK 2013 is confirmed, and they’ll be soliciting suggestions and ideas for it once they’ve finished tidying up after this one. One of the thing they’re aiming for next year is more modern stuff, so next year’s event might be more to your tastes if retro isn’t your cup of tea.

Whatever they decide to focus on I look forward to seeing what they bring to town next year. Besides delivering a great five days for gamers in the south-east of England, GEEK also highlights the demand for events like this at a local level. Not everyone has the time, money or patience to travel to London for gaming gatherings so I’d love to see GEEK inspire similar events in towns and cities across the UK.

If you feel a twinge of regret at having missed out then watch the following little video from Youtube user ukretrogameaddict that shows off what was on offer, and maybe I’ll see you there next year.

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Matt McDermott

About Matt McDermott

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com.