Whether you’re interested in computing facts like the clock speed of some of the first processors ever made or just want to get hands-on with a seriously large collection of consoles and PCs, you can’t beat spending a bit of time at the Museum of Computing in Swindon.
Established in the early 2000s the Museum is divided into several sections. Coming through the door you are greeted by a exhibit that covers the very early days computing, including information on Babbage’s mechanical Analytical Engine and also the Turing era of electro-mechanical computing in the 1940s. There are a variety of parts harvested from the early age of computing to look at, along with placards and looping video screens that give informative, bite-sized introductions to the birth of the computer.
In the next space you are met by nearly every major (and also not so major) brand of PC since the 1970s. Moving between the cabinets and tables that are choc-full of machines, your inner nerd can’t help but feel all warm and fuzzy. Scanning through the room you see PCs you either owned when you were younger or wanted desperately. The best bit about this exhibit is that it’s hands on. Want to remind yourself how terrible your BASIC programming skills are? There’s a BBC Micro set-up ready to take your commands. Want to load up a tape on the C64? Go for it. Want to kick back and play a classic platformer? Grab a joystick and play some Bart vs. the Space Mutants on the Commodore Amiga. That’s the great thing about the Museum, it’s there for you to actually use, not just to look at.
The next area of the museum is a special exhibition, “Gaming on the Go”. I lost count of all the handhelds on show here, from early Mattel machines through to a 3DS. There’s plenty of opportunity to get hands on in this exhibit as well. Did you come with a friend? Then there’s 2-player Micro Machines via link cable on the original Gameboy. Came on your own? Then settle down with Tetris or Super Mario Advance 4 on the other Nintendo machines.
A brief stop in the next area reminded me how expensive portable computers were before we were spoilt by miniaturization and the cheap and powerful laptops we can pick up at major retailers (even supermarkets) today.
The jewel in the crown for me though was the final area, the Pong to PlayStation exhibit. There is nearly every major console you could think of in this area, from the original Binatone Pong variant through to the Microsoft Xbox. This area also includes a nice collection of the old table-top LCD games like Munchman and many others. The best bit about this exhibit was that it, like the rest of the museum, had many consoles hooked up and ready to play, with multiple controllers for a bit of multiplayer madness. I spent a good half-hour on the Nintendo Playchoice-10 stand-up cabinet, button-mashing through Contra, Double Dragon and various other NES classics. In fact you can lose yourself on a SNES, N64, Atari 2600, Megadrive, PlayStation and many more.
If you thought the Museum is just about the exhibits and computing curios you’d be wrong. The Museum organsies many special events, for example a real-life, massive game of Pac-Man for the yellow gaming hero’s 30th birthday. Other events have included a Mario Kart Tournament as part of the Italian plumber’s 20th birthday and an upcoming event is planned for Sonic the Hedgehog as well. There is also an education centre in the Museum for programming classes and a hackspace.
Entry to the museum is a very reasonable £2 for adults and £1 for children (with other discount rates for concessions and families). To get the most out of your time there I’d recommend having a good read of all of the information posted by the exhibits, getting hands on with as many machines as you can and having a chat with the friendly volunteer staff. Ask the curator Simon about his Gameboy collection, it puts most of ours to shame!
Don’t forget the Museum is only open on Friday and Saturday. I went on a Friday afternoon, spending a good hour and a half fiddling about on all the machines. It’s the only museum of it’s kind that I’m aware of in the South West and it’s a retro gamer’s paradise, we’re lucky to have it here. Get down there and support it now!