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Game Development History On My Doorstep - The Silicon Spa Exhibition
Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, UK, is well known for being the game development hub of the UK, with CodeMasters, FreeStyle Games (DJ Hero, Guitar Hero Live), Mediatonic (Fall Guys), SEGA Hardlight, Epic Games, Rebellion, Xbox Game Studios and many, many more all having a local presence here.
Silicon Spa is a temporary exhibition showcasing all these and more - 50 studios in total - taking place until May 9th at the Royal Pump Rooms in Leamington Spa. So let’s see what it’s all about!
Royal Leamington Spa, a spa town in the heart of the British Midlands dating back over 1000 years, and home to the Royal Pump Rooms, a spa bath house first opened in the 18th century which now houses a library and a museum.
But we’re here for some more recent history, in the form of “Silicon Spa”, the small temporary exhibition housed inside and running until May 9th that celebrates the area’s rich game dev heritage, with over 50 local game developers represented.
So after being greeted by the fan favourite Atari 2600 and this rather nice example of a Binatone pong clone, this arcade machine caught my eye. Although it doesn’t have any controls and apparently just plays footage from Astro Blaster and Phoenix on a loop - WHY CAN’T WE PLAY WITH YOU!?
Oh well, on to the good stuff. The main stars of the show are local legends The Oliver Twins, and here’s a cabinet showing a collection of games with links to these infamous bedroom coders, who apparently in 1986 were single-or-double-handedly responsible for 7% of all of the games sold in the UK. Their early work for CodeMasters is well represented of course - the company still being based 2 minutes down the road in Southam. Philip and Andrew’s games sold over 3 million units during their time working with the publisher, which included 10 UK number 1 best sellers, with the Dizzy series perhaps being the best known.
After CodeMasters the twins founded Interactive Games - later rebranded Blitz Games. There’s Fuzion Frenzy, a launch title for the original Xbox and a pretty excellent game actually, and a Spongebob game for the Wii that I wasn’t previously aware of but that I’m not surprised is a thing.
Oh, and the Chicken Run game for the Dreamcast looks pretty cool actually, I love Aardman stuff so I’ll have to check that one out.
OK, maybe not.
All that Dizzy stuff aside, perhaps their greatest achievement is Barbie Horse Adventures, slotting in comfortably alongside the original Xbox’s selection of manly shooters and racing games. In true Oliver Twins tradition, this was not only the ultimate simulation of riding a horse but also cleaning one.
Speaking of simulators, here’s their own personal copy of Advanced Ski Simulator from 1989. As far as I’m aware Sim City doesn’t have a local connection and the card doesn’t offer any clues. But it’s a great game so we’ll let them off.
The Commodore 64, NES, and ZX Spectrum are all represented here too, lovely stuff.
These are pretty cool - these models of Dizzy and Daisy were made by Andrew Oliver and very kindly loaned to the museum for this exhibition. There’s also some stuff from a game called SkySaga, which I’d never heard of but was apparently going to be an online battle royale type game with crafting and all that good stuff, sadly the plug was pulled by their publisher in 2017 before the game was finished which is a shame considering pretty much every game looks like this these days so they may have actually been onto something.
The connection? It was developed by - you guessed it - the Olivers’ studio Radiant Worlds, which was then acquired by Rebellion Games who are still based locally, in Warwick.
Moving on from the Twins, also local are Attention To Detail, who developed RollCage, a racing game for the original PlayStation, and FreeStyle Games, who developed rhythm game B-Boy for the PS2.
It’s nice to see indies represented and here are some notes from an in-development space game made by local game designer Adam Frost, so I’ll have to keep an eye out for that one.
Ah, now this I remember very well - an ill-advised purchase on the Xbox 360 when I was into Guitar Hero and Rock Band and the like. DJ Hero, again from local developer FreeStyle Games. It’s also nice to see one of the biggest modern game franchises in the world - Forza Motorsport by local developers CodeMasters - represented by the single Xbox One copy of Horizon just shoved into the corner of this cabinet.
Speaking of Guitar Hero, that’s here too, with a rather sad story about the relative failure of spinoff Guitar Hero Live - also by FreeStyle - who were disbanded shortly after by parent company Activision, with what was left being sold to French gaming giant Ubisoft.
Home Wars, a really cool looking boardgame by local game developer Lucia Vazquez, who went on to work as a user interface artist at that same company.
Here’s some stuff representing Exient, who worked on Angry Birds Transformers, Electric Square who developed Warped Kart Racers, and Sonic Forces, developed by SEGA Hardlight. Yup, even SEGA has a studio here in Warwickshire.
There was also this thing, which I thought may be one of those amoguses that the kids keep talking about, but apparently it’s something called a Fall Guy. Am I saying that right?
Anyway, apparently that game was made by a company called Mediatonic, part of Epic Games, and, yup, they have a studio just down the road.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, I can confirm that I indeed did not touch the Vichy douche slab. Apparently that kind of thing is frowned upon here.
Anyway, it’s a great little exhibition if you’re local to the area, there’s not a huge amount here but what is here is a real slice of local history and very cool to check out. Big thanks to my Patreon and Ko-Fi supporters, and of course my lovely YouTube channel members, thank you very much for watching, and I’ll see you next time.
Relevant Links & Further Viewing:
Silicon Spa: https://royal-leamington-spa.co.uk/event/silicon-spa-video-games-in-leamington
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