Retrovision III

A photo diary by Shiuming Lai


Just a day after visiting the event, I couldn't remember how or where I found out about Retrovision, so it must have been good! All I do remember is thinking what a splendid idea it was, and that I must attend, in the absence (to my knowledge) of any major Atari related events in the UK. Around the same time I found out about Retrovision, I also discovered there is now to be a UK edition of the long established Jag Fest, in the summer. Nice, another one for the diary!

Regular readers will have noticed our February issue was somewhat delayed and also smaller than usual. Other responsibilities in life left most of the editorial team snowed under and lacking preparation time for Retrovision III, to be held in Oxford. Matthew couldn't make it at all, thanks to the crazy hours he's working in his day job.

I arranged to go with my old friend Mike Rose (remember the fabulous Fuji robot cover picture from Christmas 2001?), whose gaming tendencies lie firmly in the retro era. Right up until the night before, we still hadn't established where we would meet, since he lives near central London and I'm way out in leafy Surrey. A general disdain for British public transport and insufficient time to check prices and timetables meant we defaulted to going by car. The M25 London orbital motorway has recently been experiencing severe congestion (nothing new there, then, though lately it seems to be full of emergency vehicles), so we decided to meet in town and get onto the A40.

Saturday 8 March 2003
As ever when I have something important to do, I woke up on time without the assistance of an alarm. I was out of the house at 07:10 and in Camberwell, London, by 07:55. Mike was already there at the Texaco petrol station next to the bus depot, with his bicycle. We dismantled it to get it in the back of my car then wasted no time heading north across the River Thames, as Mike had heard there might be a protest march later in the day. Cutting through Victoria and then whizzing past Hyde Park we got to the A40 near the Marylebone flyover, except we couldn't get on to it. We got under and around, and it was many years since I knew this area quite well... After wasting 20 minutes or so I remembered the way (the road signs were little help and simply made us go in circles). Then it was straight cruising for the best part of a football match to the tune of the Jackson Five.

By the time we reached what looked like the countryside, with acres of fields and dramatically sweeping hills, strong winds were affecting my car's performance. I recently had a complete set of new tyres fitted so it gripped as if driving on fly paper but the headwind really made me wish there was a turbocharger or V6 under the bonnet.

Soon, we passed a sign welcoming us to Oxford, then the BMW Mini factory to our left. From here it became apparent that we were lost, since the map on the Retrovision web site didn't give enough surrounding scope (in fact it suggested to me the venue was in the middle of nowhere, yet there were loads of houses and streets just like back at home) and we didn't have any local maps. We were over two hours early, though, so that gave us breathing space and an opportunity to hunt down some breakfast.

At around 10:00, we got onto the A420 Botley Road towards Oxford railway station. Crossing over the canal, Mike spotted some graffiti on a wall, "Cor, even the graffiti around here is posh! Top quality graffiti!" and then I saw the YHA (Youth Hostel Association) building, one of the recommended boarding places (for visitors going on Saturday and Sunday) on the Retrovision web site. That was a good sign. We must have been near.

Relieved to see a familiar landmark, we just flowed with the traffic until we were lost again, on the A4144 Woodstock Road. There were some places to eat here, so I parked and we headed for the greasy spoon café for an English breakfast. It took ages to be served and was exceedingly unhealthy but nice and filling!

Nobody seemed able to give us directions to our destination so we did the very scientific thing of driving around randomly in the hope of spotting the venue, the Folly Bridge Inn. When this proved to be taking us further and further away from all signs of life, we quickly returned to the station and asked at the youth hostel for directions.

[Photo: Oxford YHA]

Within ten minutes we found the Folly Bridge Inn, almost in time for opening of Retrovision at 12:00. The pub's car park was full and everywhere else on the streets was strictly reserved for residents' parking, so we found a car park further down the road next to a children's playground. It had a vague notice warning drivers to move their vehicles "before dusk" or risk wheel clamping...

Once inside the pub (where the only indication that we were in the right place was a Retrovision poster on the downstairs toilet door...) I ordered some drinks and we sat down while we set up our equipment, since Retrovision would not start until 12:00. I had the digital camera, and its all-important USB lead. Mike brought a notebook PC, so I could preview the photos at the event (and re-shoot any importants ones that didn't make the grade), as it is very difficult to judge the quality of pictures on the tiny camera LCD. I also had the camera USB storage device driver on two separate CDs, to be on the safe side. At this point Mike was starting to wonder if he had a copy of Windows 98 on the hard disk, as the USB device installation would require some system files from there. Being an IT manager, of course he had done this, except it seemed to be missing an essential CAB file containing some even more essential VXD file... What a disappointment! Over the next half-hour of tweaking and fiddling in vain, a big guy with a green head walked behind, that was Mark Rayson the organizer. Still, we tried to make the blasted USB driver install. It didn't, so Mike fired up Uridium 2 on his Amiga emulator for a quick blast.

[Photo: Mike playing Uridium 2]

Uridium 2, hmm... Reminds me of Mirax Force on my 800XL! "The battle begins... Game over..."

Time passed, there was no announcement anywhere about Retrovision, but it was way past 12:00. We packed our gear and headed upstairs - sure enough, the event was already alive and buzzing. How did all these people get up here without us noticing?

[Photo: The "guest book" at the entrance]

[Photo: Coloured lights]

[Photo: Sarah Rayson on the door]

Sarah Rayson the Cheshire cat, welcoming visitors and taking payment on the door.

First sight
To the left of the entrance, Mark's wife Sarah, to the right, a Joust cocktail table, straight ahead, a large table covered in Scalextric for some racing action! All around the sides of the room were different retro machines with monitors and television sets perched on the most colourful collection of beer crates ever assembled in one place. Jeff Minter, the man, the legend, then walked out with a group of what we could only presume were Llamasoft fans... Probably heading for the bar downstairs or something. Wow, that was amazing! I must have first read about Jeff and Llamasoft in 1987, in one of the 8-bit Atari magazines, and I'd just seen him for real! Mike was also very excited.

Mark welcomed us like old friends and we explained our predicament with the USB driver, and asked if he could help sort a Windows 98 CD. Luck would have it he had just rebuilt a machine with Windows 98 and could bring us a CD very soon.

A big television screen near the Joust machine was connected to a Jaguar, running Tempest 2000. I sat down to play this, feeling very self-conscious with Jeff Minter hovering around nearby! Mike came over and sat down and we had another look at the notebook, would you believe the USB driver then magically installed and everything worked! I played Joust a lot, what a great game.

[Photo: Joust title screen]

[Photo: Joust two-player]

[Photo: Mike playing Gyruss on the 65XE]

[Photo: Attack from Mars pinball]

[Photo: Attack from Mars pinball table view]

Getting a chance to talk to Jeff Minter seemed difficult as he was always surrounded! I caught him at the bar and he very kindly autographed my copy of Trip-a-Tron (I'd also brought my Tempest 2000 soundtrack CD for this but accidentally left it in my car), then whipped out a personal DVD player to show me a video of his latest work. At first sight it looked like a kind of super-VLM, but I did't dare say such an obvious or potentially ignorant thing (especially almost a decade after the launch of the Jaguar). It turned out to be an abstract 3D shoot-'em-up and boy did it look good! Mike was hanging around and got his photo taken with his hero! I had the pleasure of registering my copy of Llamatron with a beer, cheers!

[Photo: Jeff's DVD player]

[Photo: Mike and Jeff Minter]

[Photo: Scalextric 1]

[Photo: Scalextric 2]

[Photo: The bar]

[Photo: Vectrex]

[Photo: Atari's Space Duel]

Mark Stoneham playing Atari's Space Duel.

[Photo: Super Sprint on MAME]

Atari's Super Sprint on MAME.

[Photo: MAME arcade controller]

MAME heavy duty arcade style controller.

I must confess to doing far more talking than game playing, as the atmosphere was very chilled, and I could recognize faces from the Club area of the Retrovision web site so had to introduce myself ("Hi, I'm number 34..."). Having the notebook PC really made it easier to explain when people asked me what I did, I simply loaded up the MyAtari web site stored on the hard disk. Probably couldn't do that at any other type of party though!

When the battery started running low (and my throat was very sore), there was not a chance of plugging in anywhere in the main event room to recharge. The bar staff downstairs were very helpful and found a place for me to plug in and do some work on the magazine while charging. I managed to sit on a table where Matt Allen (AKA Mayhem, the C64 game collecting fanatic) also decided to have his lunch. We chatted for a bit and got on to the subject of the Game On exhibition at the Barbican in London last year. I had previously read his review of the show on his web site, which is why his name sounded vaguely familiar, and mine likewise to him, since I'd mailed him with my feedback. Matt also happens to live near where I work!

During this interesting conversation, regular MyAtari contributor Thomas Wellicome finally arrived. In another spooky co-incidence, Matt had just mentioned Lords of Chaos, which Thomas had just reviewed in the February 2003 issue of MyAtari!

[Photo: Thomas Wellicome]

Thomas Wellicome enjoying a pint downstairs as I work on the show report.

Back upstairs, Thomas strutted his stuff on Tempest 2000, beating my abysmal score to the point of embarrassment, so I swiftly moved on... Elsewhere in the room there were all the other quintessential European '80s home computers like the Amstrad CPC, Amiga, Spectrum +2 and a smattering of Japanese consoles. It would be very difficult to cram much more into the space available not to mention finding the time to play them all, though perhaps I only say that for only having been there for half a day. Possibly the most "interesting" machine was a blue PlayStation, this wasn't just a re-casing job, but one of the official developer debugging machines. Everything else on display was the same as what consumers got.

[Photo: Debugging PlayStation]

[Photo: Debug PlayStation box]

[Photo: Thomas on the ST]

[Photo: Atari T-shirt]

[Photo: Thomas Wellicome on Xenon 2]

Thomas loves Xenon 2 on the ST!

[Photo: Andy Wood and Shiuming]

Andy Wood on the left and some guy from MyAtari!

[Photo: Asteroids]

A young lady called Rain playing Atari's Asteroids on MAME.

Dusk looming...
I'd have loved to stay for the whole weekend (and curry afterwards every evening - I love curry, and if anyone doesn't know, so does Jeff "Vindaloo" Minter!) but both Mike and I had work to do, not to mention we had to get my wheels out of that car park. That was too bad because we missed a whole load of stuff like VLM 3 on a Nuon machine and lots more talking and gaming.

[Photo: Beers all round]

[Photo: The bar from afar]

[Photo: From the far end]

[Photo: Atari ST fan]

The journey back to London was much easier as you might expect. On the way, we passed a few places where I used to live but I was in auto-pilot so couldn't even think where we might stop for some food. We ended up going down Regent Street in London (absolutely jammed at 18:00 on a Saturday) to get back across the river, ending up in East Dulwich, a place with no shortage of good food. Let me tell you there is an excellent restaurant here on Northcross Road (off Lordship Lane) called the Thai Corner Café, and if you don't book a table you just won't get in... I forgot its telephone number, assumed there would be space for just two, and we didn't get in. How nice to be able to run a business so successful that you can turn away customers, Mike lamented.

I was quite surprised to hear that Retrovision has so far been a quarterly, rather than annual event. Now I think about it, that seems feasible, as it's not one of those huge commercial exhibitions, and everyone had a great time in the cosy atmosphere.

Retrovision by Mike
It was great to attend the Retrovision III show in Oxford the other day with Shiuming - you instantly know you're in Oxford as there are loads of nice stone buildings and Japanese tourists everywhere. It's a bit cleaner than the Elephant and Castle I thought!

When we arrived Mark the organiser really looked the part in his beautiful green make-up and gave us a very warm welcome. What a nice friendly bloke. Apparently Mark had left his "Ming the Merciless" robe at home and the power had blown up the night before - but he wasn't going to let that stop him having a good time. After a few fags and pints of beer all the problems seemed to magically sort themselves out! Sarah his wife sat at the front of the bar ticking people off as they came in and everyone seemed so nice and friendly. Good start.

After remembering seeing some rather shocking red wallpaper in the pub below, going upstairs into Retrovision III I could see Robotron in an arcade cabinet across the room through the archway fairy lights... then I saw a table top arcade Joust... In case you're wondering about what kind of people go to these things - it was a complete cross spectrum. Everyone was talking computers that day - people helping you out explaining the games you were playing. They had lots of music on the go and flashing coloured lights - with pinball machines and Scalextric in the middle of the room. Cool! I walked past a shaggy black coat and saw a bloke with long hair and thought, "That must be Jeff Minter". It was great to finally get to say hello to Jeff Minter after all these years of playing his games - what a treat. I mentioned to Jeff I've got a Defender arcade machine - apparently he's got one over in the USA and we talked about how it was one of the best games we've ever played. He was a good sport and even did the honour of posing for the obligatory cheesy photo with me. After complimenting him one hundred times he was very humble - "I'm just a normal bloke" - then again could anyone "normal" write something so wicked as Tempest 2000? "Nuff Respek" to you Jeff for being so, err, humble!

After I got thrashed on a Japanese shoot-'em-up by a ten year old kid I swiftly moved on to the arcade cabinet of Robotron and starting shoving in my 20 p pieces like nobody's business. Robotron, like Defender is an awesome display of colour and psychedelics (one of the best games I reckon) and I really got into those pulsing glowing screens again. Oh that took me back for a brief moment in time. Ooh and those two knobby joysticks on Robotron - is it me - or does anyone else really like the feel of them?

We played C64s, Amigas, VIC-20s, an Atari 65XE (running Gyruss and Boulderdash) - so lots to keep an 8-bit junkie happy.

Mark - the organiser with the green head - summed up the day for me: He said it's the best feeling in the world getting all his mates together for a blast-'em-up and downing a few beers. And you know, I understand exactly what he meant! Nice one, Mark!

So 4.8 out of 5 for the day - slap on the wrists and 0.2 points deducted for not having that Vectrex at the front of the bar working... still there's always a next time!

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MyAtari magazine - Feature #4, March 2003

Copyright 2003 MyAtari magazine