COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 10/21/06
['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which covers video game magazines from the late '70s all the way up to right now.]
This doesn't have much to do with game mags per se, but I thought I'd update you on the status of my collection. Since I got paid for some freelance work I did long ago, I splurged a bit and bought a couple of historically important items I've been lusting after for a while. First up, there's the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, the issue that introduced the Altair 8800 (the first really useful and successful home computer) to the world. I got this as part of a package that also included a practically mint-condition issue of "Radio & Television News" from 1952, which has enough awesome advertising to be worth a column all to itself. (Both mags were from Ziff Davis Publishing, by the way.)
Second up is Computer Lib/Dream Machines, a seminal, Whole Earth Catalog-style book from 1974 that takes a counterculture approach to the computer industry and successfully predicted such technologies as hypertext, versatile home machines, and a worldwide information network freely accessible by anyone. This printing dates from 1978 (my birth year), and I guess I'm not the only one who thinks the book is kinda neat, because the bidding on eBay went up to a figure I'm a little embarrassed to admit. (You can go search for it if you're really curious. I ain't telling.)
Enough bragging for now, though -- let's take a look at all the game mags that hit US store shelves in the past two weeks. The biggest surprise this month: Apparently nobody's reviewing Bully or GTA: Vice City Stories early. Did Rockstar turn everyone down, or was it the other way around?
[Click here to read further.]
Cover: Alan Wake
As discussed at length last week, this issue of CGW is special for several reasons, the chief one being that this is the last issue ever of the longest-running game mag still alive. Snif. Sure, it'll be back next month (as Games for Windows: The Offical Magazine) with the same staff and largely the same content, but it still feels like the end of an era somehow.
CGW's staff obviously realized this, because they took eight pages out of the last issue for a final, ultimate retrospective on the past 25 years of publication. It consists of two parts -- a spread of 18 covers that defined their era (from Ultima IV to The Sims), and four essays from the four past (and current) editors of CGW: Russell Sipe, Johnny Wilson, George Jones and Jeff Green. All four are absolute must-reads if you're interested in CGW's tumultuous history (and yes, it was pretty tumultuous, especially in the pre-Ziff era). It's not until you go through them when you realize that while CGW was a pretty low-key mag for much of its existence, it was still one of the few constants in an industry that changed wildly not just from year to year, but month to month.
Retrospective features are easy to write and fun to read, but it's rare to find one with as much depth as this one.
As for the rest of the magazine: To be honest, I think the Alan Wake cover looks a little busy and lifeless -- it may have been better to stick to a single shot, like the picture in the table-of-contents page with Alan framed by a beautiful sunset. Still, the feature's quite nice, all written in a crazy first-person perspective as "Alan" discovers a car accident, finds himself in Helsinki, and runs into the kind folks at Remedy Entertainment. Interesting features always beat boring features.
News pieces include a bit about the necessity of violence in video games, as well as a feature on Chinese gaming and outsourcing that has possibly the best symbolic insert illustration I've ever seen -- a bald eagle looking somewhat concerned as it presides over a nest with two baby Asian dragons inside.
The letters section: Is a huge treat this month, as some people took the feature two months ago about the Middle East game-development scene the wrong way. "Never before have I been so motivated to express my extreme disappointment with a magazine as I am today," fumes one. "I don't think you know your target audience very well. Either that, or you've officially and openly joined the political left," whines another. This issue is nostalgic enough as is, but all this rage on the letters page also harkens back to another age -- a time 15 years ago when readers would (sometimes literally) curse off CGW about anything and anything that bothered them about the mag.
There is also a letter from a "Jack Kahn" who starts out by claiming "I am not a furry" then spends about 500 words telling CGW to stop picking on the furry community. Mm hmm.
Cover: Some army dudes (x2)
This month's EGM is also something of a turning point, as the mag readies a large-scale redesign for the December issue. Kind of a shame, really -- I'm going to miss that really weird curly "T" in the font they use now for coverlines.
The November issue offers a choice of covers depending on which species of Gears of War hominid you'd prefer to see curb-stomped -- human for mamby-pamby environmentalists, or Locust for real American men. The feature inside goes for 14 (!) pages as Shoe visits Epic and gets his arse handed to him by Cliffy. While the screenshots are as gray and dark as you'd imagine, the designers got around this by including a bunch of spiffy time-lapse photo sequences that effectively show off the game's visceral graphics in action.
Other exclusive bits: Include a preview of Sony and Factor 5's Lair and some new info snippets from Heavenly Sword.
That coverline: You know, the one up top that says "How one kid got a videogame job by being good...at videogames". EGM's got a history of occasionally printing offbeat coverlines like this (I still remember the "PEE TO PLAY" cover from 2003), and this one is pimping a spread on Andy Gentile, a designer on the Tony Hawk games who got his job by living out the teenage dream of beating the developers in online THPS3, then getting hired as a beta tester for the summer at age 16.
The back cover: May be a first for EGM, because while it is a game ad, it's for a PC game -- namely, free Korean MMO MapleStory. Nexon didn't put ads for MS in CGW or PC Gamer this month, so you have to wonder why they were so eager to get on the back cover of a mag that'd never ever cover their game in a million years.
Hater of the Month: Jennifer Tsao for her 3.5 (Touch Detective) and two 6.5s (Magical Starsign and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon).
Game Informer November 2006
Cover: Dark Sector
Do you remember Dark Sector? No? Well, does the two-year-old headline "Indie developer announces first game for Xbox 2 and PlayStation 3!" ring any bells? Yes, it's that game -- and developer Digital Extremes has convinced D3 Publisher that they're still all the business, although the game's still not due out until fall 2007.
The 10-page feature is far more interesting than you'd expect because it devotes so much time to the project's history -- everything from the initial 2004 announcement to the shift in visual design that delayed the game to near-oblivion. There's a lot of backstory behind this feature that makes it fun to read, but personally I was most impressed by the hero's weapon, which looks exactly like the Glaive from top '80s fantasy flick Krull. Right on!
GI News: The best news section in game mags kicks off with 12 pages on the Tokyo Game Show (compared to Jack in EGM), covering all the top hits and making liberal use of Cooper Black (my favorite font!) in the headlines for some reason. It continues with a spread on "the top 10 cult classics of the 21st century" (Shenmue #1? Psssht! Please!) and bits on the art behind God of War and THQ's business practices. GI also has a Gears of War spread of its own, this offering only four pics and a whole lotta CliffyB quotes.
Cover: Medieval II: Total War
Merry Christmas, I guess! The "December" issue of PCG is all about Medieval II -- a game I will freely admit to not giving two bits of a sow's ear about, but if you do, you'll probably dig the seven-page review treatment it gets this month.
Review surprises: PCG really loves Just Cause, giving it 93% and calling it "the James Bond action-fest for the PC that we've been craving." It seemed like the console outlets were a lot rougher on the game. Not so lucky is Bad Day LA, which gets 20%. (CGW's review had better quotes, though. Example: "Bad Day's idea of social commentary would elude even the Farrelly brothers."
Strategy surprises: In a suspiciously GamePro-like move, this issue has a six-page except from Prima's official Battlefield 2142 strategy guide, a bet of pseudo-advertorial that seems so out of place in PCG that they don't even mention the section in the table of contents.
Similarly out of place: An interview with Hilary Duff (?!) for The Sims 2: Pets. Jeez, I better check to make sure I'm not reading GamePro by mistake.
Essential reading?: The news piece on Goozex, an online game-trading site that aims to take the place of retailers who no longer buy back used PC games.
Play November 2006
Cover: Lunar Knights (not pictured) or Army dude
Play hasn't shown up on newsstands yet, so I don't have both covers at the moment. I'm definitely going to track down the Lunar Knights issue, though, and not just because I worked on the game's localization -- this title (which only the most hardcore of Nbots seem to care about at the moment) has a ton of neat art behind it, and that's more than enough for Play to make a crackin' good feature out of. The Crackdown feature's a lot more subdued but no less visually interesting. Play has a knack for extracting the most vibrant screenshots out of developers -- I bet they'd manage to make even Gears of War look colorful.
TGS: Play's got arguably the nicest-looking coverage out of all the mags, although the 10-page feature is primarily a screenshot gallery.
Odd pt. 1: An advertorial spread for Final Fantasy V Advance that looks almost exactly like a typical Play spread. You wouldn't notice unless you took a close second look at it.
Do you like posters, son?: This month must be Play's poster issue or something, 'cos there're five of them inside -- one each for GTA:VCS, Medieval II, Xenosaga III, Warhammer: Mark of Chaos and .hack//G.U.
GamePro November 2006
Cover: One of three sweaty men or the erudite, charming Tracy McGrady (Level-2 edition)
GamePro is available now on newsstands, but if you think I'm gonna shell out for all three covers of a wrestling game, man, you've got several hundred other thinks comin'. (The other covers are John Cena and Triple H, if you're keeping tabs.)
Features: This issue is list-heavy, to say the least -- top 20 cool missions in GTA:LCS (yes, LCS, not VCS); top 50 memorable game moments (#1 is "Aeris dies"? Psssht! Please!); and top 20 quests in Oblivion. There's also a PS3 buyer's guide that spends a page discussing how much you'll get burned by taxes on the system depending on where you live. Erm, thanks? I dunno, I'm pretty sure most consumers are pretty aware of what the sales tax is where they live, but...
Odd pt. 2: There's a Final Fantasy XII preview when every other mag (including Hardcore Gamer and -- yes -- Newtype USA) is reviewing it this month.
Hardcore Gamer November 2006
Cover: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories
Now this is a bit of a surprise. You'd think every other magazine but Hardcore Gamer would be falling over themselves to have a Rockstar title (either VCS or Bully) on the cover this month, but here it is on HCG alone -- and in a special crazy color-embossed printing, too. The feature is actually pretty cool too, coming complete with a "fan" interview with the associate producer where all the questions are posed by (I'm guessing) forum posters.
Odd pt. 3: Hardcore Gamer hardcore hates on FFXII in their review, giving it 4 out of 5, but the strange thing is that nothing really bad is said about the game other than the pedestrian story. Huh.
[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also an editor at Newtype USA magazine.]