Interview with the Digital Retro Park (translation)
[ If you prefer reading the original interview in German click this link. ]
Not so long ago I read an article about a museum on a Game Boy cartridge. This is produced by the Digital Retro Park and has recently become available as a cool marketing item on their website. The Digital Retro Park is an experiential museum and registered society, with focus on old gaming computers. As soon as I read about it, I contacted them directly and arranged an interview. The first chairman was kind enough to answer my questions.
Please introduce yourself briefly, so that it is clear to the readers who is speaking for the Digital Retro Park 🙂
I am Stefan Pitsch, the first chairman of Digital Retro Park e.V., which runs the Digital Retro Park Museum in Offenbach. The association was founded in February 2014 and the museum opened in October 2018.
What exactly is the mission of the Digital Retro Park?
The Digital Retro Park aims to be a socio-digital cultural center in the Rhine-Main area. It consists of a technology museum, where ~40 exhibits are ready to use for visitors, and a commons café with a workshop area, where events are held to accompany the exhibition or current topics (as soon as Corona allows it). We are also doing other projects around the DRP in Offenbach, such as the digital tree or the redesign of the Hugenottenplatz (in Offenbach, not Berlin).
Since 2008 the German Cultural Council recognized computer and video games as a cultural asset, why don’t you receive any government donations or other government support?
Well, just because something is a cultural asset doesn’t mean the money taps suddenly open. We are not a city, state or even federal museum, but are completely privately run and receive no basic funding. However, we intend to join the museum association as soon as possible (there is still some administrative work to be done) in order to receive at least a small basic subsidy. The rest is financed by entrance fees, donations, project and cultural funding from the city of Offenbach and various cultural foundations. It’s quite a puzzle game and hard work feeds the squirrel.
How many people are helping out at the Digital Retro Park and do you still need reinforcements?
We now have nominally > 40 members in the association, but many of them support us not with work, but ideally and with their contribution – often also because they find the idea great, but they themselves live quite far away from Offenbach. And that’s okay – we need supporters of all kinds and are happy about every member. Our Saturday team is of course also happy about everyone who stops by and helps out.
Are there any specific plans that will be realized soon?
Mainly: Surviving. We’ll see after Corona.
How many visitors do you have per month? Assuming the Corona regulations allow it…
We had about 100 visitors per month on average in 2019. However, we opened in October 2018, so we were still building our reach when Corona hit in early 2020 and we already had to close.
What impact does the whole Corona crisis have on Digital Retro Park? You had to close down quite often, didn’t you?
„Quite often“ is good. We were closed virtually from the end of March 2020 until June 2021. We were able to open September/October 2020 for a full four Saturdays before regulations were tightened again. We have now been open again on Saturdays since June 2021. It will take a while before we can open during the week again.
What kind of special tours do you offer?
Special tours do not exist – just normal tours. These last about 60 – 90 minutes (depending on questions and interest) for adults and 30 – 45 minutes for children. You will learn something about all the exhibits in our exhibition, as well as the history behind it.
As part of your commons cafe you also offer workshops, what kind of workshops have there been so far? What kind of workshops can we look forward to? You should urgently advertise such workshops at universities…
Of course, we wanted to do more workshops, but Corona got in the way. We had a few soldering workshops, 3D printer workshops, and once we even brewed beer. Ironing beads were turned into pixel images. As part of the Bended Realities Festival, we also hosted lectures on various topics. We are currently planning video evenings with theme-related films on the exhibition as well as a series of lectures on the demoscene.
Is there contact with other such organizations or registered societies?
Yes, of course. Germany is small 🙂 We have a big overlap (in terms of personnel) e.g. with the For Amusement Only e.V., which runs the pinball and arcade museum in Seligenstadt, and the 1st Hanauer Netzwerkclub, which organizes the retro meeting HomeCon in Großauheim/Steinheim five times a year. We also have contact to other museums in Germany and Europe, e.g. to the Oldenburg Computer Museum of Thiemo Eddiks or the HomeComputerMuseum of Bart van den Akker in Helmond, Holland.
How many different consoles / computer systems do you have? I have 14 xD
I can’t say that at all. There are over 40 different ones in the showroom, and there are probably at least as many in the warehouse. It’s even more if you count in all the handhelds.
Is there a particular gem in the Digital Retro Park collection that you are especially proud of?
Oh, which child do I love the most… no one can say. We are of course proud of our complete NeXT Cube with printer and soundbox. Also the POLYPLAY slot machine from the GDR is a beautiful and a rare eye-catcher. Last year we added a few gems with the IMSAI 8080, the DEC VT180 „Robin“ (both unfortunately not yet operational) and a Heathkit H8 computer with floppy station and terminal.
What devices are you still missing that you are urgently looking for?There’s always something. An Apple I, for example – you can only dream of that, but at least we have a replica. An original IBM 5150 would also be nice, but so far we have the younger brother IBM 5160. For most of the desired candidates, we as a club simply lack the small change. Or simply the space. We are already at maximum capacity and have to exchange devices if we want to put something new in the exhibition.
Is it allowed to use your exhibits?
Yes, that is the basic idea behind our museum: All the devices that are switched on (~40) can also be used. You should be able to „grasp“ history in the literal sense. Or simply reminisce.
Do you guys have a Pegasus too? That was one of the ominous Famiclone consoles that was on the market in Eastern Europe that no one knows who even made them xD
No, we do not have a Pegasus. However, it is also not our priority to have particularly rare devices. Our museum aims to show the conquest of households by computer technology – that is, the years between 1974/75 and 1989/90, and that’s when the „mass devices“ are more likely to be found on the front lines than obscure niche products. Whereby, of course, in our hearts we also love them very much.
Do your display items include various controllers and other add-ons?
Since the devices are set up usable, peripherals are of course included. This includes joysticks, controllers, cassette drives, floppy drives, printers and monitors.
Have you considered lending out your equipment for a fee to ramp up revenue?
Not so far, because such income always has to be set against costs and time for repairs. However, we once lent out our IBM PC-AT for a film shoot. Maybe we’ll do something for consoles when we have them twice or something.
Seriously, some older devices are not exactly cheap to get. Was anything stolen yet?
Even though many people had previously mockingly pointed this out to us: Offenbach is better than its reputation. So far, nothing has gotten away.
Ever heard of Retrobrain? It’s a therapeutic game console for older people to train their memory. Is something like this also possible for you or is this too special, non-commercial product?
That would be out of the question for us for the reason that it is too new. But in the context of a special exhibition (we have a room for special exhibitions) maybe interesting. Directly together with the Nintendo DS brain trainer and similar things.
You guys came up with quite a kool (not free) promotional item that sold out really fast. Namely, a homemade Game Boy game in which you explore the Digital Retro Park museum. This can even be bought from you as a cartridge with packaging and instructions (like a game from the past). How did you come up with something like that 🙂 ?
Our member Falk had the idea quite a while ago and played around a bit and started pixeling. When Corona came along, he finally had enough time to familiarize himself with the available tools and to implement the idea adequately. If people can’t come to us, then the museum will come to them. As with all of these projects, it took a little longer than planned, but we are very proud of the finished result and have made many enthusiastic new friends.
Will there be more homemade games to come?
You should never say never. Falk already has a few ideas, but nothing is ready to be announced yet.
What was your very first game system?
My first one was a Commodore C64.
I’m more of the SNES expert, what do you think of the SNES in retrospect and in the context of its lifetime back then?
I only came into contact with the SNES later, since I was very fixated on home computers myself early on (C64, PC-AT, Amiga 500). It’s a great console, especially from a technical point of view, but my heart is more drawn to the SEGA Mega Drive (SEGA Genesis), as the Nintendo games were too „childish“ for me at the time. The downside to the famous Nintendo quality control – very good games, but just what Nintendo liked. Just look at the defanged „Mortal Kombat“ on the SNES as an example. Yes, graphics and sound are better than on the Mega Drive, but neutered in a family-friendly way.
Have you ever thought about using your park somehow in combination with universities or schools?
Yes, we do. There are contacts with the HfG in Offenbach, for example, and we also had some school classes visit us before Corona started.
Now that you have a very good overview of video game history and its evolution, how do you see the future of video games?
Old wine in new bottles. The 287th re-release of Need for Speed or version 314 of Call of Battlefield Hero Warfare. And of course the NES Super Mario and Zelda for every new Nintendo console. Sorry if that sounds a bit too negative, but currently no one takes risks anymore and only sequels and remakes are produced. Higher resolution, more textures, more music. But no new game concepts far and wide. The games for VR devices are extremely far behind expectations.
Is there a computer or console system that you are extremely impressed or extremely let down in terms of quality? When I first held the SEGA Megadrive 1, I thought it was a fake because the plastic felt so cheap and light xD
Most home computers and video game consoles are cheap plastic 🙂 They are only supposed to last a few years and then you are supposed to buy the successor system. But one of my negative examples is the Philips Videopac G7000 (aka Magnavox Odyssey II). A lot of enclosed space. A completely pointless huge membrane keyboard. Speaking of keyboards – the Plus4 from Commodore with its eraser keyboard was also such a dud. And that of course brings us to the cheapo par excellence – the ZX (whether 80/81 or Spectrum). A positive example would be the Commodore PET 2001. It has a complete metal case. That lasts forever.
In your opinion, which console/computer system has been completely underrated? And which one was total garbage that should never have reached the market?
To the former: The GCE Vectrex.
To the latter: Pretty much anything from V-Tech.
Maybe a strange question but what do you think about emulation? On the one hand, it keeps the games alive, on the other hand, many do not appreciate the original devices…
This is not a strange question at all. I (and others at the museum) are big fans of emulation. Unfortunately, we all know that hardware is finite. Our equipment was designed to last 3-5 years and is still running now after 30-40 years. But there’s also a lot of organ donation and out-of-2-make-1 in there today. At some point, the last original chip will let out the smoke, and then that’s it. Meanwhile, there are modern replacements for many chips, and whole new motherboards, but once you’ve replaced all that – is it still an original? Without emulators and the resulting urge to digitize the old data carriers, many things would have been lost forever. For us as a museum, that’s a terrible idea.
Thank you and some links
Sincere thanks to Stefan Pitsch for the interview. Everyone go visit the Digital Retro Park in Offenbach (near Frankfurt) so the museum doesn’t go down, it’s too important for that. Those who will probably never visit there might be interested in ordering the Game Boy cartridge. That will probably help the Digital Retro Park a lot.
Hopefully I’ll manage to come by, that way I could directly publish another article 🙂 I am curious if more homemade cartridges will come and how the club will continue to grow and I wish Stefan and the other members of the club all the best and much success!
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