Thursday 22 October 2015

Fun and Games

So, another year, and another thoroughly enjoyable weekend spent at the Great Western Brick Show, a.k.a. STEAM. This event, which is held at the Museum of the Great Western Railway in Swindon, features builds by members of the Brickish Association, the UK's largest LEGO User Group. The show is now in its 13th year, and as in previous years it offered up a dizzying array of superb LEGO creations. Having first visited STEAM in 2010, I ended up going back in 2011 as an exhibitor and I've exhibited there every year since then, displaying the likes of the UCS AT-AT in 2013 and my Ghostbusters HQ and ECTO 1 last year. Having reached September without anything new to show this year,  however, I 'd pretty much resigned myself to attending STEAM 2015 as a tourist rather than an exhibitor. Thankfully, with the show rapidly approaching I unexpectedly had a flash of inspiration and managed to design, source the parts for and build a brand new MOC for STEAM in double-quick time - most out of character....

Photo courtesy of Andrew Tipping/Bricks Magazine
My STEAM display (above - click to enlarge) was an homage to Manic Miner, one of my favourite ever video games. Written in just six weeks by eccentric eighties gaming enigma Matthew Smith and first released on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer in 1983, it's no exaggeration to say that Manic Miner was something of a phenomenon back in the day. The game was basically a fiendishly sadistic platformer which required pixel-perfect jumps and meticulously precise timing; I shudder to think how many hundreds of hours I spent trying to safely negotiate the game's twenty increasingly bastard-hard levels. Certainly it felt like an eternity before I finally defeated the game and emerged dischevelled and squinting into the sunlight. Leap forward more than 30 years to a couple of months ago and I randomly stumbled across a couple of Flash versions of Manic Miner online; the memories immediately came flooding back, and amid the waves of nostalgia it occurred to me that the first level of the game (below) might translate rather nicely into a LEGO mosaic....

Image from Girny Gamer
My initial idea was to reproduce the whole screen in LEGO, with one LEGO stud representing one ZX Spectrum pixel. I quickly realised, however, that building a 256 x 192 stud LEGO mosaic (equivalent to 8 x 6 standard 32 x 32 baseplates), not to mention a frame that would be sufficiently robust to safely and securely support the mosaic at a public event, wouldn't be feasible in the time available. I therefore opted to compromise by only reproducing a 120 x 88 pixel section of the screen, and while even this ended up being a bit of a stretch time-wise I thankfully managed to complete it a few days before the show.

Although I was pleased with the finished build, I do have to admit that I was far from sure how visitors to STEAM would react to it. While I was confident that there would be at least some visitors of a certain age who'd immediately recognise what I'd built, I was also concerned that there would be a whole lot of people who would have absolutely no idea what it was.... Just 48 hours prior to the show, however, I stumbled upon a possible solution to the problem - a video clip (embedded below, or click here to view it on YouTube) posted by kingqueen3065 featuring the Manic Miner ZX Spectrum loading sequence followed by a five-level play-though.

I figured that if took my iPad along to the show and used it to display the video clip on a loop it'd provide a useful reference point for visitors who hadn't previously come across the game. Decision made, I quickly constructed a suitable LEGO frame to slot my iPad into and I was ready to go. Transporting the mosaic and its 108 cm x 81 cm frame to the show was a bit of a pain thanks to my impractical choice of car, although my long-suffering wife was thankfully on hand to fashion a huge protective sleeve out of deconstructed cardboard boxes and polythene sheets to protect the mosaic in transit, and I was able to break the brick-built frame into manageable sections and box them up without too much difficulty. Having eventually managed to shoehorn everything into the car, I drove to Swindon at the crack of dawn on the first day of the show. Setting up was pretty straightforward, and at 10 a.m. the doors opened and STEAM was underway. As things turned out, using the iPad alongside my build proved to be a masterstroke. While a steady flow of grown ups recognised the mosaic and happily reminisced about the game, there were at least as many kids who were transfixed by the gameplay video running on the iPad and quickly made the connection with my display, so everybody was happy.

So that's STEAM done and dusted for another year, and there's just one final loose end to tie up - what to do with my mosaic now it's back home. I wonder if my wife wants some new artwork for the sitting room....?

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