Situated in the heart of the United Kingdom, Leicester is a city with hidden talents. Casual observers might go as far as to suggest it's a bit bland and boring, but it has hit the headlines for a wide range of more positive reasons over the past decade or so. The discovery of the remains of King Richard III, slain at the nearby Battle of Bosworth in 1485, underneath a Leicester office car park in 2012 was an internationally-reported event, and a few years later in 2016, Leicester City Football Club achieved what some pundits have called one of the greatest sporting shocks in history by claiming the Premier League title – despite being given 5000/1 odds of winning the league at the start of the campaign (in 2021, the team also won the FA Cup).
Leicester is also something of a famous place for gamers, too. Not only is it close to the legendary studio Rare (and the birthplace of Rare's predecessor, Ultimate Play the Game), but the city was also home to Virtuality, one of the first companies to commercial Virtual Reality units back in the early '90s.
More recently, Leicester has been placed on the map by the existence of the Retro Computer Museum, which houses thousands of games, systems and rare items, and is situated on a rather unassuming industrial estate not far from the city centre. More recently, the museum has become home to Rare's Playboy handheld, which was once assumed to be lost in the mists of time, and more Rare-related items are expected to join the collection over the next few months.
We got the chance to visit the RCM recently and speak to founder and chairman Andy Spencer, as well as explore its stunning collection of games, magazines, hardware, arcade systems and much more besides. This really is a 'living' museum, with visitors able to interact with systems and items, and we were keen to know more about it from Spencer himself – the man who made it all happen.
Time Extension: Before we get into the history of the RCM, what's your personal history with gaming?
Andy Spencer: My personal history of gaming started with an Atari 2600 that belonged to relatives of mine. This was closely followed by a Sinclair ZX81 which belonged to my Uncle Roy. This really got me ‘into’ computers in a big way, so much so that my Mum and Dad purchased a Sinclair ZX Spectrum which I truly thought was wonderful. This was then closely followed by a Commodore 64! At this time, lots of my friends had different computers too, namely ones like the Acorn BBC Micro and Amstrad CPC464. I'm so glad I was there for the birth of 8-bit micros!
When did you decide that you wanted to establish a gaming museum, and how did you get started in the beginning?
It was very early in 2008 that I said to my wife, Linda, "I have quite a lot of computers with a ‘lot’ of games, I wonder if anybody else would be interested in them?" I went on to create a really (really!) bad website that attracted very little attention; however, a good friend of mine called Nick offered to assist in creating a better website – he even got one of his friends from the demoscene to create a logo – this is how the RCM logo (that we still use today) was born. We did an event later on in 2008, and over 60 people attended.
How has the RCM evolved over time to its present form?
The Retro Computer Museum grew from those very humble beginnings into something quite magical. It has always taken its own course; many people have come and gone, but the core team pretty much remains the same. Things changed in 2012 when we became a registered charity, and from then on our move to Leicester has really made us grow at an exponential rate.
What's the most notable item (or items!) in your collection at the RCM?
We have way too many items to mention them all; obviously our CD1200, the one-Millionth Amiga off of the production line and more recently being allowed to show off the Rare Playboy. The two latter items are on loan to the museum not actually ‘owned’ by us. Another worthy note has to go to our library (books, magazines and software), a newly acquired Amiga 1200 that was once in use at Psygnosis along with our collection of VR Machines. Can you see what I mean? There are so many items we have that are very special.
How many staff do you have at the RCM, and what kind of roles do they have?
We don’t currently employ any staff, we are all volunteers! With age ranges from 17 all the way up to us ‘oldies’ in our fifties. We use people's skills wherever we can so we have volunteers looking after the libraries and others looking after the arcade area – we do try to move people around, too, so that they can enjoy all aspects of our awesome place.
How reliant are you on donations, and does the RCM ever purchase items for its collection?
We are very privileged to receive a lot of donations which obviously has made our collection grow well beyond anything we could possibly have purchased. We do occasionally purchase items – the most recent being the Psygnosis Amiga 1200 – but I must say at this point that this was actually purchased by a lot of the volunteers at the museum that felt we couldn’t let it go anywhere else!
You've managed to highlight local video game stories at the RCM via your connection with Virtuality (a Leicester firm) and Rare (just down the road in Twycross); how important is it for you to spread the word of these midlands legends?
It is so important for us as a museum to spread the word of any legends wherever they come from – the RCM will never leave Leicestershire as it is our spiritual home – one we are very proud of. We get visitors from all around the world – many of whom are coders, graphic designers and musicians from the '80s onwards... we never take any visitors for granted; you never know who you might be speaking to!
What's the biggest challenge of running the RCM?
The biggest challenge with running the RCM is time, money and space – all of which are very important (and precious).
What's the most rewarding thing about running the RCM?
The most rewarding part of running the museum is meeting some absolutely amazing visitors, as I mentioned above, many of whom come from all around the world. The most important thing at the museum, though, is the volunteers – without whom it just wouldn’t work.
How do you keep the organisation running in terms of finances?
We rely totally on visitors, birthday parties, corporate visits and external events to fund the museum. We do have monetary donations from various places that obviously help fund it, too. I won’t mention anybody by name, but they know who they are.
Why are organisations like the RCM so important?
All museums, whether they be retro computing or otherwise are important – I feel we are preserving our heritage – something we take very seriously, we are still cataloguing our collection (and will be for some time). It will last for a long time for future generations to see how it all started.
Could you give us a rundown of some of the most notable video game figures you've had visit the RCM over the years?
The list would be way too long. We have had so many I would be afraid of missing somebody… I class all visitors as friends once they have visited – many of whom visit many times.
Where do you see the RCM in five years' time?
I hope to see us in a much bigger building, we never want to be a corporate entity, but we might need to gain some extra funding to be able to expand. We have so many unique machines that need to be seen (and played on) by lots of people. Our aim is to be one of the biggest retro gaming museums in the world.
What big events do you have planned for the near future?
We have lots planned over the next few months, with the next major event on the 24th of September – tickets are available right now for that one. To everybody that has been to one of our ‘legendary’ events, you know what to expect, for those of you that have never been… think special guests, retro gaming, live music, a bar, hot (and cold) food and many wonderful like-minded friends.