Nestled among the Georgian facades and naval monuments of Portsmouth’s old town lies a hidden retro gaming gem. Situated just a few doors down from the inn where Admiral Nelson spent his last night before setting sail to engage the Spanish Armada at the battle of Trafalgar is a subterranean treasure trove of blinking lights, flickering CRTs and bleeping retro systems - the Game Over Cafe. It is rather apt that a shrine to gaming of yesteryear has found a home in an area of Hampshire, UK that is so steeped in history.
The Game Over Cafe opened it’s doors to the public in October 2015 and offers visitors the opportunity to try their hand at an eclectic range of both modern and retro consoles, whilst ejoying food and (soft) drinks from the well stocked bar area. Bean bags, and couches allow gamers to recline in comfort while they get to grips with the Vectrexes, Megadrives, Atari 2600s and Amstrads that adorn the cafe's tables and desks. RetroCollect thought it’d be a good idea to catch up with the venue’s owner Steve Lowe for a brief chat about what visitors to this gaming paradise can expect...
RetroCollect: Hi Steve, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. First off, can you explain why you opened the Game Over Café? What's the story?
Steve Lowe: I've spent the last 3½ years planning to open a museum, and I did a total of 9 business plans based upon the properties I thought would be suitable. I had to re-think my strategy as I was always up against set-backs and projected financial problems due to cash flow. An opportunity arose, I looked at my business plan and scrapped it. I worked out how much I'd need if I didn't have any customers and went for it. What's the worst that can happen – I've got an expensive hobby for the duration of my lease. The cafe is a way to raise the funds needed to open a fully interactive museum in the future.
Are all of the systems on offer from your own collection?
Yes they are. I've been questioned why I'd trust others to use them, I feel people are going to bring these back to life.
When did you start collecting retro systems and games?
I started around 1984, it was a privilege to have a computer at that age and at the time we only had one for the whole school which was on a trolley! A friend of mine upgraded and gave me their old one, so I had two. It just went from there really.
You clearly have a long history with gaming if you started in 1984! Do you have any particular favourite systems or games?
Desert Island console would be the Atari 2600, the variety of games are immense and the gameplay is great. The coolest in my opinion is the Vectrex, no graphics as such just lines drawn between points, but very smooth. My favourite games are Atic Atac on the ZX Spectrum, Command & Conquer: Tiberium Sun on the PC and OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast on the Playstation 2.
That's a nice range of titles in your list. We're sure many people reading this are just as interested in more modern games as they are in retro. On this subject, retro gaming has become incredibly popular in the last decade, what do you think has caused this increase in interest?
In my opinion I think the popularity is due to a decade of games which are so realistic that the element of arcade style video gaming has become too detached, and no longer a game but more of a real life simulation.
Do you find that it is mainly older gamers who visit the Game Over Café? Or do you find a lot of younger gamers are visiting too?
It has only been a few weeks, but it appears to be an almost equal mix. What has been heart warming is two people of different generations playing against each other. One machine that does get a lot of use is Pong game (Tennis) on the Binatone. It's black and white and the ball is square – but is a firm favourite.
Nostalgia is obviously an intrinsic part of retro gaming, how would you entice younger gamers with no history of antiquated systems and games to take up the hobby?
I don't really know how to answer that one. Youngsters see real life on their computer screens, we just had blocks – so had to pretend that it was something else. Our imagination was still a big part in what we played. However, I have noticed some youngsters sharing their knowledge and memories of equipment which an older sibling may have had – then they'll look it up on the internet.
Can you tell us about the ceiling art? It's pretty spectacular and features lots of different characters from yesteryear. Did you get a professional team in to do it?
No. I did it all myself by hand, cutting the foam tiles and arranging it pixel by pixel
Wow! That is seriously impressive. Steve, thanks for your time.
If you like what you've read and seen, head over to Game Over's website for location and opening times. The entire venue can be booked in blocks of time by groups and Steve and his staff are on hand to assist with any requests for games and snacks. What more could you ask for?