Note: In the light of some more recent events in the gaming world, this seems even more relevant today than when I posted it in 2011. So here it goes again.
I was looking through my old copies of Electronic Games, and I happened upon an editorial by Arnie Katz from the March 1983 issue. It lists the "standards" that the publication had decided to employ to make sure that they were creating the best magazine for their audience. IMHO, I believe these became the defacto standards for game journalism until the "preview" era of the 1990's turned everything on it's head. It did not get much at the turn of the 21st century, when the web made everyone "a game journalist". (By the way, for this exercise, the first three items, while interesting, are not as important as the last three).
By the was, we here at 8bitrocket.com are going to try to live by these standards from now on as well.
With traditional game related magazines falling by the way-side every day, why would Retrogamer magazine still be going so strong after 100 issues?
Somewhere around the middle of 2004, I was browsing the magazine shelf at the local (now itself defunct) Borders and I found a large yellow and green magazine staring back at me. It had a dvd case glued to the front cover, a classic Atari 2600 joystick in the upper left hand corner, and an import price tag of $18.99. I had already stopped buying any traditional computer or video game magazines on news stands by this time (but had a subscription to the soon the be defunct Computer Gaming World). At $18.99, it was more then three times the price of every other us-based traditional PC or console magazine, but after paging through it for just a couple minutes I was hooked. Thus began an 8 year love affair that has had all of the ups, downs and drama of a real life (some times co-dependent) relationship.
What I was holding in my hands was issue #3 of the UK Published (Live Publishing) Retro Gamer Magazine. It was filled retro ads, stories, reviews and features dedicated to classic gaming mostly from a UK perspective. This was great for me because aside from the few years we owned an Atari ST, we had not experienced much of the mainstream UK gaming scene here in the USA. I started to buy every issue I could get my hands on, some of them released here in the USA a good 3 months after publication on the UK. I was able to learn all about the Spectrum, BBC Micro, and Acorn systems as well as game franchises such as Repton that I had never experienced back in the 80's.
We had purchased an Atari ST (because we were Atari nerds and didn't understand that that the Amiga was the Atari 800 on steroids) in early 1987. There were few games for sale for the machine here in the USA and what we did find were mostly cruddy ports of older UK games along with a few quality titles from Epix and a couple other USA companies. The ST had a little "hay day" in the USA in about 1988, then fell by the way-side as the IIGS, Amiga, Color Mac, and 286 machines began to take more a foothold. When the ST started to become popular in Europe, Atari concentrated most of its limited resources in the UK, so USA-based owners had to get creative to find good software and information for their machines. Import games shops where the answer.
These shops were like an "independent record store" for Atari and Amiga owners starved for games and information for their machines. For a few years in the late 80's and early 1990's we would travel down to a tiny Orange County California store called Computer Games Plus and purchase copies of Atari ST Action and The Games Machine magazines imported from the UK. These tombs were filled with colorful images of the latest games being released for the machine WE OWNED. It was an awesome experience. The UK seemed to be able to produce a magazine for every conceivable machine while here in the USA, at the same time, magazines dedicated to individual machines (at least ones that covered games exclusively) were limited to little more than corporate-backed 60 page advertisements where "game ratings" (if they existed) started at 3 stars while most games received 4-5 stars).
The UK magazines were entirely different. They used a 0-100% scale to rate games (some USA magazines adopted this years later), and it was not uncommon to read hilarious reviews of terrible games that received scores in the "teens" because the box was colorful ans the game loaded quickly. They were not afraid to give games terrible reviews, and if you were a state-side owner of a machine that was more popular in the UK, than at home, you needed this type of honestly. There was no easy access to game demos, so reviews were what we had to go by (as well as the colorful boxes that lines the shelves of Computer Games Plus).
Anyway, fast forward 12 years after I "moth-balled" the 1040ST and I find Retrogamer sitting on the shelf stuffed befind "MAKE" and "2600". All of the "outcast" magazines sitting together like the land of one-eyed baby dolls and toys forgotten under the couch. For the next 15 issues it was a scramble to run from Borders to Barnes and Noble every 4 weeks in hope of not being too late purchasing the sometimes single copy that each store would receive. There certainly were other's like me (looking for and buying the magazine) because there were months when I would have to visit 6 stores before I found one, and sometimes I had to settle for one where the included game-filled CD was missing or broken. Then, one month, just as suddenly as it appeared, it was gone, and I could no longer find it.
The first 18 issues were published by LIVE before going defunct and dark for a short period (October 2005), and then was purchased, re-vamped and re-launched by Imagine Publishing in December 2005. Aside from a few hiccups in distribution, I have been able to find and purchase almost ever issue starting with that first issue (#3). I look for a new issue each month and even if the cover doesn't contain any games or systems I am interested in, I always purchase (now at the lower price of $9.99) just to keep apprised of what is "NEW" in retro. There was a time in 2008 when it went dark here for about 5 months, and I have never figured out what happened, but again it suddenly started to appear here once again and at a lower price.
While I buy each issue of the magazine, and like learning about games and systems that I never played or owned, I am an Atari guy first and foremost, and the one thing that bugs me about the magazine is the almost complete ignorance of the Atari ST. Now, I understand why they don't cover the Atari 800 much (actually they cover it more then I would expect, as it probably only sold in the 10's of 1000's in the UK). The Atari 800 is a machine that very powerful and even jaded retro-gamers have come to respect its abilities expecially since few of them played it when it was originally released. But the lack of Atari ST coverage is puzzling. Even though it was intensely popular in the UK, sold in the millions and had quite a number of quality games, it is almost like Retrogamer has created its own revisionist history where the machine barely existed (Actually calling the era from 1989-1993 as the "Amiga Era"). When they survey all of the versions of certain game ports, many times the ST version is either not covered or is an after thought inside the Amiga blurb, usually saying something like "mostly just a port of the ST effort". Other times both Atari 800 and ST versions of games are completely ignored. Now, I know a few of the people who have written great Atari articles for the magazine, so my LOVE - HATE relationship with the Atari content is usually placated to the LOVE side when a good ST or 800 article does show up, but it is rare.
I shouldn't complain though, owners of the Apple IIe, IIGS, TRS-80, and other USA early computer gaming machines receive little or no coverage, so my whines about the lack of Atari coverage should be taken as the fan-boy blathering it really is. Still though, for a machine that was so prevalent in the UK for so many years, I would really like to see the Atari ST receive more coverage in the articles and surveys of software when they Amiga or Spectrum version is talked about glowingly, while the ST version completely ignored.
The magazine does go to great lengths to cover the breadth of world-wide machines and games with special features and articles, so over the years almost every machine, even if it was not popular (or even released) in the UK, it has probably received at least some minor coverage
But, aside from those minor problems with our relationship, I still run out to find the magazine every month, and make sure to buy it from the magazine rack (rather than subscribe), even if there if nothing on the cover that grabs me right away. I care little for the Japanese-base RPG franchises and SNES games that seem to get more and more coverage, but how many times can they simply survey the best C64 games once again?
This turns out to be what makes the magazine such a great read. I get a chance to read about games and systems that I never had a chance to experience, and what is defined as classic or Retro actually increases each month. It is the only magazine that stays current by simply NOT covering new games, but waiting an undefined period for a game or system to become classic before it is covered. it has no peer and it has no competition.
That might sound odd, but with the ease of reading new game reviews timely on the web killing traditional magazines, Retrogamer is going very strong because each month something "new" becomes retro. By this I mean, if you consider retro anything 30 years or older (for example) then the magazine actually is more relevant and timely than any traditional gaming magazine can be. This is because 80% of what the magazine covers was released long enough ago that "previews" and paid reviews, and ads for games don't mean much. They do cover "new" version of retro games, compilations, home brew games for older systems, re-makes, and app store items for consoles, phones and other devices, so along with the older classic content, there is always a good portion of the magazine dedicated to items that can be purchased now.
When I visit the local Barnes and Noble now, I can usually find at least 5-10 copies of Retroogamer on the shelf (on release day) and those slowly dwindle to zero as the month goes on. So, why is Retrogamer going so strong while other gaming magazines have been struggling and closing down over the same period of time? While there are a plethora of web sites dedicated to current games, there is no one web site that really is in competition with the print version of Retrogamer magazine. Also, there also is no other print magazine that covers retro and classic gaming as well as Retrogamer. Retrogamer also seems to have the right combination of great internal staff, combined with very knowledgeable independent writers who are experts in each niche they each cover. This, combined with the fact that retro and classic gamers like the tactile feeling of holding a magazine in their hands rather than simply reading a web site, is probably a good indication as to why Retrogamer continues to keep moving forward and gaining more fans, more contributors, and more pages while magazines dedicated to current consoles and machines are getting thinner and more rare every day.
The back pages and new products sections of Electronic Games magazine in 1982 and 1983 were filled with all sorts of products, services and offers that were dubious at best, and possibly, criminal at worst. It appears that in the very early years of video games all sorts of people jumped at the chance to try to sell all manner of items to the newly minted audience of "arcaders" and "joystickers" (the terms Electronic Games editors used to refer to "gamers" in the early days). Below are some the most useless/interesting and bizarre products that we could dig up in those pages:
Asteroids Halloween Costume
Vinyl Halloween costumes emblazoned with brand-names of major products and characters were one of the very first ways kids were subjected to product placement advertising in 70's and 80's. At the time, parents willingly let their kids become walking billboards for major corporations, and paid good money for the privilege. While Halloween is an even bigger party in 2011, at least the costumes have become a subtler mix of licensed characters and zombie fantasies with a bit less over-the-top advertising.
However, in 1982, Asteroids made a terrible costume. Atari never created many proper characters that could be licensed for costumes (the Adventure dragon perhaps?), and trying to make a "space rock" into a viable Halloween monster was not a good choice. In fact, in 2008, Topless Robot named this costume the #1 on the list of the Greatest/Most Pathetic Old School Halloween Costumes. Why? Here are their words: "A clever bully could—and would—also use it as an excuse to play Asteroids by repeatedly punching you in the face" Need we say more? Even if you badly wanted this for Halloween, it was still an awful, miserable choice.
Video Maniac Sports Accessories
Believe it or not, while video games were popular in the 80's, I don't recall video game t-shirts and other related clothing to be popular at all, at least not among my friends...the super nerds who played tons of video games. In fact, I didn't own any kind of video game related t-shirt until a friend of mine found a Dig-Dug shirt at the thrift store in early 90's and gave it to me. T-shirts in general were not a big fashion item at the time, as most of us were wearing O.P. shorts and shirts.
However, this did not stop multiple companies from advertising all manner of t-shirts they hoped would appeal to the "arcaders" of the golden age. Video Maniac was one of the most enduring, with ads that ran through nearly every issue of Electronic Games. (By the way Ugo.com once named Video Maniac one of the "scrubbiest" video game advertisers of all time). The ad featured here (from 1983) is my personal favorite because the photo looks like it was taken directly from back pages of my 9th grade year-book.
These products must have been selling, but to whom? A t-shirt sold for $11.95, which was not cheap back then. Almost 30 years later,(thanks to you: systematic corporate globalization, out-sourcing, off-shoring, and world-wide labor exploitation) I can get an Atari t-shirt at Target for only $9.99 . Furthermore, who , in the totally serious, non-ironic 80's, would have worn a shirt with the words "Video Maniac" on it without the same bullies to played Asteroids on your face, using your new Video Maniac t-shirt to hang you from top of the ball cage in the boy's locker room?
The Gobbler Is Gonna Get You!
Before I leave the video game clothing aisle and more onto accessories, I would be remiss to not mention The Gobbler, a product that is wrong in so many ways, it's hard to get the point across without a good picture. Oh good, we have one. Take a look, then come back over here after your eyes have properly adjusted to the horror they have witnessed.
What. Is. THAT? Is that supposed to be a cheap Pac-Man rip-off? But, but, is that some kind of mustache...or...? I imagine that this thing had some kind of string that hung down, when pulled, made the mouth open and close to pretend to Gobble? I would then guess the idea would be to go to the arcade and chase one of the girls from the Video Maniac ad around while pulling the string and saying "The Gobbler Is gonna Get You!" Ooops, I guess you forgot that her boyfriend is one of the guys who kicked your ass for wearing an Asteroids costume over your Video Manic Muscle-T. Time to run home as fast as possible to put on your...
You know, to "improve your scores". For $2.50 plus $.50 shipping and handling you could buy... something. Thank god Koal sales in Torrance, CA registered that trademark, Whew! They saved themselves a lot of legal headaches trying to stop the massive hoards of other companies rushing into the same space and taking away their business using similar names. Oh look, they have a left hand version too. Isn't that just the same as the right-handed one, but turned over to the back-side? By the way, have you noticed that your Asteroids costume has short sleeves and no hands? You better buy a pair of Bat Mitts to make up for it.
So let's suppose that you are a tired Video Manic "arcader" who has had enough of masquerading as an Asteroid, while playing with your Gobbler and wearing a pair of Bat Mitts, and you just want to challenge your friends to a few games of Combat! in the privacy of your own house? Was there some kind of product that would help you play better? Of Course there was! You could have your "Arcade Action At Home" with the Stick Station, a $15 (or so) piece of...wood! Yes, this amazing piece of wood could do what only your left hand could do, and that's hold the base of your joystick. How did that help you? Well, you could yell "No Hand Cramps Biatches!" at your friends, while blasting their bi-planes out of the sky as they rubbed their sore mandibles and wondered just how you got so good so quickly. What was your secret? It couldn't have been the giant block of walnut finished wood in your lap, could it?
The Grand Stand
Not to be outdone, after being embarrassed by your block of wood, one of your buddies pulled the perfect gift, a " Grand Stand Joystick Stabilizer And Score Enhancer" out of his duffel bag, and the pendulum of awesome started swinging in his direction. It was a battle to the walnut finish as you struggled to fight off his Combat! jets, hand cramp-less for sure, yet still playing with your joystick in your lap with nothing for your left hand to do except hold onto its' Bat Mitt and pray for success.
You see your friend didn't need a lap any longer. The Grand Stand sat between his legs, supported by his feet, allowing him to sit comfortably and fight off your attacks with ease. Even your attempt to thwart him by making him use an oddy sized (yet superior) Wico joystick didn't help since The Grand Stand "Adapts To All Popular Joysticks", unlike your block of wood.
Back in 1982-1983, there were scores of these types of "enhancer" products designed to take your $34.95 + $2.50 shipping and handling in the hopes that they would improve your ability to play home video games. I, like others, have always wondered just how many of these types of products were sold back-in-the-day. However, what if there was a product that made all of these products moot, one that went full circle, and really brought the "arcade to your home?"
Family Arcade Enclosure
A real arcade cabinet in your house! This was the dream of many kids at the time. An arcade machine with multiple games of your own that you could play without quarters.
Of course, we already had that with our game consoles, but it didn't "feel" the same while sitting on the couch with a Grand Stand between our legs and a Stick Station in our laps... and that's because we were not standing!
You see, apparently, the most comfortable way to play (mostly) 2-player, single screen, video games for hours at home was not sitting comfortably on the couch 6 feet (at least) from your radiation spewing, electron gun equipped tube TV, it was crammed together, right next to it, trying to control your side with a joystick clamped to hunk of wobbily plywood your dad hastily constructed from $50 worth of products (oh, and $1500 worth of power tools) from Builder's Emporium specified in a set of $9.95 instructions sent from Beltsville, Maryland.
A Video Games Club
OK, so now that you have an amazing arcade at home, it's time to get some games...for free! You could do that by joining a video game club.
Since you spent all the game money you saved up to help buy the parts for (and more parts to repair) your Family Arcade At Home, there was not much left over to buy any new games. Near the end of 1982 and into 1983, most of the best Atari 2600 games were released (Pitfall!, River Raid, Vanguard, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Demon Attack ,etc.) and you needed a quick way to get the best games for your console.
A video game club where you could get free games, and discounts, plus trade games would seem like a great choice, right? Almost a dozen of these clubs appeared in the back pages of Electronic Games magazine during the first year of publication, and after reading the fine print, nearly all of them appeared to not quite be the amazing "deal" as they might have appeared at first. Video Fun and Games Inc. offered you a "free" game plus the very tangible benefits of "coupons, contests, and newsletters" all for the cheap price of $35 (and 4-6 weeks for delivery). At the time, many games cost about $24.99 $29.99 each, and shipping from mail order catalogs was $2.00-$4.00, so in essence you got a game for a bit more than it cost to buy one at the store (with tax) or mail order with shipping. Actually, this club was one of the better deals going. Others cost $20 and you got a t-shirt and coupons, but no game, and still others were a bit less with the offer of membership cards and little else.
A Job Working For The Ultimate Wiz
So after you had spent the rest of your money on that video game club, if you really wanted new games it was time to get a job. The good news was, the pages of Electronic Games magazine, while not "over-flowing" with job listings, did offer some very interesting employment opportunities. There were job listings to work at Atari, Fisher-Price, 20th Century Fox, and even offers to teach you how to repair arcade games. However the most interesting opportunity was none of those. It was a one-time advertisement offering the amazing opportunity to work with The Ultimate Wiz as an executive assistant. Apparently The Ultimate Wiz promised to be "The Master Of All Technology" and was going to create his own (uh oh!) "Club for computer WizKids." We've searched high and low to find some reference to the Ultimate Wiz other than this advertisement, but we have not found anything. Who was the Ultimate Wiz, or did his Club For Computer WizKids ever came to fruition? We just don't know. However, if the Ultimate Wiz was the Master Of All Technology, one wonders if it was he (or she) who came up with the final item on our list...
Space Willy was less a product, and more an idea or a licensing play. Aimed, by their own admission, at "Young Adults" Space Willy just might be the worst idea ever conceived.
At at time when the average age of subscribers to Electronic Games magazine was 21 years old, and even most kids who played video games (at least in my experience) played them with a ferocity and vigor as if they were striving to be adults at the same time, creating an uber nerd that looked like he could be beat-up by a 4 year old girl was not a good idea.
Space Willy looks like he just removed his Asteroids mask and was getting ready to put on his Gobbler for some "action"...and are those "Bat Mitts" he has on each hand? It appears that Space Willy was destined for a life as a major character in arcades and restaurants, but surprisingly, it never happened. Why? Because, again, it may have been the worst idea ever conceived.
In a way, Space Willy is the perfect "product" to end this list as it sums up everything about the golden age video games and how they were created, marketed, and sold. For the most part, video games became popular, not because they were marketed well, or because someone came-up with a great pitch or slogan that caught-on and swept the masses. Video games caught on because, at their core, they were a revolutionary and enjoyable way to spend time alone or with your friends. In fact, the best years of the golden age of video games were almost over when the first mass market advertising appeared in on a regular basis in Electronic Games magazine (March 1982).
Space Willy in fact, who appeared in late 1983, proves (to me anyway) why golden age video games failed in the early 80's: the business world still did not "get" what games and gamers were all about. The whole business world was not ready for the rise of video games, nor were they prepared to alter or change plans based on on the idea that they were an ever changing entertainment medium, instead of a fad to milk until kid's pockets were dry. Most video game companies did not really know what games to make, retailers didn't know which games were good, or how much of each one to buy, and marketers had no idea what or how to sell to the masses of hardcore video game fans. Thus ideas like Space Willy, video game clubs, Asteroids Halloween costumes, Batt Mitt, and the Ultimate Wiz, filled the void instead of real, solid ideas on how to move the medium of video games forward. Instead, it took a massive crash, shake-out, and financial melt-down for everyone to wise-up, get serious, and start creating the right products for the right audience.