The UK's National Videogame Museum Switches On in Sheffield

By Alan Wen on at

The National Videogame Arcade closed its doors in Nottingham this summer, but has been reborn with a new name in its new home of Sheffield. Long live the National Videogame Museum!

If the change of semantics sounds initially intimidating — a bit too pristine and proper for what’s supposed to be a playful and interactive medium — there's no need to worry. The NVM feels even more like an arcade than before, with a rich treasure trove of games to be seen, heard and touched from the moment you step inside, with a statue of Sonic the Hedgehog right in the middle for good measure.

Much of this is thanks to the new venue’s huge open space. Converted from a former Co-Op department store, it’s a contrast to the fragmented rooms of the listed building of the old Nottingham space, which museum founder Iain Simons describes as a badly designed Quake level. “It was ‘exciting’, and visitors loved it, but it was just a nightmare to work in.”

As well as accessibility, one of the issues of the NVA in Nottingham was that the space meant it was never able to make changes to exhibits or installations, whereas now it's free to chop, change, and experiment on the fly. The NVM calls itself “the UK’s only permanent videogame museum”, but that doesn't mean the contents are fixed.

Of course, you’ll find on one side of the museum a row of classic arcade cabinets, including Space Invaders, Ms Pac Man, Dancing Stage, and – a personal highlight – Street Fighter III: Third Strike. Other than that, there aren’t plans to make the games on display this weekend part of a ‘permanent collection’, nor is it purporting to provide a definitive history of games.

“If you were to come back in March, ideally for me, it would be almost completely different,” Simons tells me. “We’ve deliberately not bolted anything down, it’s quite modular in its design, it’s intended to change and adapt with different exhibitions. We’re trying to tell different stories about games.”

For launch, the focus is on smaller stories, what Simons describes as ‘bundles.’ These are pretty diverse, and more importantly all playable. A music section displays some of the most ingenious forms of the genre where, besides Vib Ribbon, I was pleased to discover an old Famicom game called Otocky. Designed by Electroplankton creator Toshio Iwai, it’s a musical side-scrolling shooter where firing from any of the eight directions played its own musical note, preceding Rez by almost 15 years.

That said, this wasn’t Otocky running on a Famicom. While some of these games are exhibited with the original hardware, many are ROMs running from a Raspberry Pi. Purists may baulk at this but at least the games are hooked up to the appropriate controller, like a NES pad or fightstick, and it's also obvious why it's necessary for a 'bundle' like one that focuses on bonus levels. These sections of games, such as the special stage in Sonic the Hedgehog or the car-smashing from Street Fighter II, require save states that can be easily reset at the press of a switch, and which wouldn’t be possible on original hardware.

Suitably, one of these bundles celebrates the games made in Sheffield, including speedy platformer Zool from Gremlin Graphics, whose former staff would also go on to form Sumo Digital, also represented here by its first original title, slithery 3D platformer Snake Pass.

Naturally Sumo is one of the NVM’s many industry supporters, while Gang Beasts developer Boneloaf are also using the venue as a test lab where they can regularly bring the latest experimental builds for the public to try out. It’s that kind of support and collaboration with local developers that made Sheffield the ideal home for the NVM, rather than it becoming another London-centric national institute.

“We’re trying to make something useful and valuable to the games industry and to people who care about games, but also to the community that’s around it,” says Simons. “The NVM is part of the Castlegate development project, which is where Sheffield Castle used to be, and one of the most exciting things about it is redeveloping a part of Sheffield and its growth. It’s a really good opportunity for us to join in and have an impact on one of the most important tech clusters in the country, on its own terms.”

If Simons refers to the NVA in Nottingham as a learning experience for the past three years, the early access build if you will, then Sheffield is the full launch. But perhaps Destiny would be a better analogy, as more features and iteration aims to change the experience over time. Even for the opening weekend, there’s still plenty of unused space ready for more games, displays, or installations.

Compared to the games exhibition currently running at the V&A, this is definitely a more hands-on affair, arguably the way games are meant to be exhibited, although there are also glass cases to display the odd rarity and collectibles; here's the Samba de Amigo maraca controller for the Dreamcast, and there's Master Chief’s helmet. But between merely exhibiting or passing you a controller, the NVM also aims to go beyond curation to teach visitors about games in a fun way.

“The big question most game exhibitions duck — because it’s a really hard question to answer — is how do we communicate to you what’s interesting and important about a game without you necessarily having to play it?” says Simons. “Take people who are crap at Sonic, how do we explain to them what’s interesting about the design of the Green Hill Zone?”

Thinking back to the V&A’s exhibition, I was impressed by the Bloodborne exhibit (though it may be just because I love Bloodborne), which had a video installation that conveys the conflicting emotions in its combat, with the screen split into the Cleric Beast boss fight, another capturing the player’s hands on the DualShock, while another rolls footage of countless unsuccessful attempts. That said, it’s also essentially just watching a video on a loop.

Although not ready at launch, the NVM’s future projects include creating ‘software about software’, sort of interactive walkthroughs that can help visitors in a more tactile way to explore a game’s design and functions that isn’t just reading a book or watching a YouTuber, or requiring you to ‘git gud’ in order to appreciate its nuances.

“We want to build software that allow people to play with what it’s made of, giving them different ways to explore maps and some of the ideas in them without just assuming you can put people in front of a game, hope that they can play it, and hope that they can understand it,” says Simons. “We don’t have all the answers at all, but that’s the core of what we’re trying to do.”

The National Videogame Museum is at Castle House, Angel Street in Sheffield. It’s open from 12pm - 5pm on Fridays, and 10am - 5pm on Saturdays and Sundays during term time, and all week during school holidays.

All photos courtesy of National Videogame Museum.