['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which documents the history of video game magazines, from their birth in the early '80s to the current day.]

zzap0100001.jpg   Compute_Issue_060_1985_May-1.jpg

I got some feedback the other day that asked a question I've thought about off-and-on over the years but never seriously arrived at a conclusion for. It's a simple one, but deceptively so, and I'll paraphrase it for the purpose of this column:

Why didn't the US have any equivalent to CRASH or Zzap!64 or the other big UK computer-game magazines of the 1980s?

Someone in Europe looking back at American personal computer mags of the 1980s must feel pity for us. The UK had witty, engaging, (largely) editorially sound magazines concentrating exclusively on video games just as early as the US did.

But unlike their American counterparts, they kept growing and evolving after the Atari crash, outselling the business-oriented Euro PC mags easily and becoming immensely popular beginning in 1984 and '85. The "golden age" kept on going until well into the late '90s in the UK, and with mags like Edge and Retro Gamer still crankin' in Britain, you could argue that it's still there.

Meanwhile, for better or for worse, the dominant US consumer PC mags of the age -- COMPUTE!, COMPUTE!'s Gazette, RUN, assorted other platform-specific titles -- were all about either business or programming. Games were shunted into a small column, if covered at all, and both editorial staffs and letter-writers shunned them as a presence to be tolerated rather than to be celebrated. This despite the fact that the largest, costliest ad spots in well near every 8-bit computer mag in the US were occupied by game companies.

If the advertising was there to support a Zzap!-ish like publication in the US, then why didn't it happen? After some thought, here's what I came up with:

1. America is large. The size of the nation makes postage and distribution orders of magnitude more expensive for US magazines. This means ad rates must go higher, and a large reader base needs to be there, in order for a magazine to make money. This isn't news, of course; it's one reason modern US game mags have been thinner and sparser than UK and Japan mags for years.

A corollary to this is that America is not only large, but also sparse. If you were an early computer hobbyist, you were often pretty lonely if you didn't live near a big city. This meant that you formed user groups, you published (and read) newsletters, you got really active with computers -- and, naturally, you demanded more from the national press as a result.

2. America is rich. The 1541 disk drive, as slow and unreliable and expensive as it was, was seen as standard equipment for American Commodore 64 users -- something that never really happened in Britain, where tape-based game distribution was the norm for the computer's entire commercial lifetime. This little detail made a huge difference in the respective marketplaces.

The UK C64 scene was largely action games; in the US it switched over to RPGs and large-scale adventures pretty quickly, thanks to the benefits of random-access storage. What's more, the disk drive allows the C64 to enjoy all manner of serious applications, from GEOS to accounting and desktop publishing software, and owners demanded coverage of this stuff in their mags instead of the game reviews and strategies seen in Zzap!.

3. US publishing houses weren't interested. No US game magazine (except Computer Gaming World, which I'll get to next) survived the Atari crash. No publisher of national computer magazines in the US had any expertise or experience in the game marketplace.

They took the video game companies' ads, but never gave back, so to speak. There was no impetus for them to explore the options. Meanwhile, in the UK, the two top game-mag publishers were originally started in order to produce game magazines.

4. The only real candidate wasn't interested in gambling. Computer Gaming World gets no respect. It is one of the most influential game mags ever made and deserves to be seen as such. But throughout the '80s, it wasn't a game mag so much as a technical journal for the game industry -- the New England Journal of Medicine of games, as others have put it.

Its circulation didn't even break 10,000 until the late '80s, and serious expansion didn't happen until advertising ballooned and the magazine was bought by Ziff Davis. This conservative approach allowed CGW to survive the crash, but its pioneering efforts didn't get nearly the audience they deserved at the time.

I've always considered it a shame that there was no ready equivalent to Nintendo Power for computer games back in the day. VideoGames & Computer Entertainment's PC coverage was getting there, but it was still too text-heavy and boring for really universal appeal.

As anyone alive in 1987 with $15 and transportation to K-Mart knew, there was a huge critical mass of game software screaming for coverage -- but it never quite came to pass on a national level until the PC compatible became the de-facto platform for computer games.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a really cool weblog about games and Japan and "the industry" and things. In his spare time he does writing and translation for lots and lots of publishers and game companies.]