['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.]


I find myself up against the wall timewise this weekend. This is the sort of thing that happens when you work freelance for a living. It's always feast or famine that way.

So instead of me prattling on about my collection and so on (I'll have something to announce about that before very long, by the way), why don't we take a look at some real history: the first review of the first British periodical to be a "game magazine" the way we define it today?

This is page 8 of issue one (February '84) of Crash, the first really “modern” video game magazine, and it happens to be the very first review they ever printed. Naturally, it's for 3D Deathchase, a late-'83 game that ZX Spectrum fans hold in such high regard that Your Sinclair called it the “best Speccy game ever” in a 1992 feature. I can sorta dig it.

Certainly it's the best game reviewed in this issue, and it's a classic example of the pre-Atari-shock “play forever” action genre — gradually increasing challenge, simple rules, just enough visual splendor to keep your attention, a just-one-more-game addiction level (98%, if this review's to be believed) that's out of sight. Yes, even today. It's particularly amazing because it's only 16K long; if you were too cheap for a 48K Speccy model in '83, no worries.

Apparently 3D Deathchase is set in the year 2501. North America is lookin' pretty good, huh?

Crash began much the same way that Die Hard Gamefan started nine years later. It was an extension of a mail-order game catalog produced by a company of the same name based in Ludlow, Shropshire, England (pop. 10,500).

Crash was far from the first game-exclusive mag in the UK -- Computer & Video Games debuted in late 1981 -- but it was by far the most influential one within the industry, dropping things like BASIC game program listings in favor of long strategy guides, maps, and extremely in-depth reviews that didn't talk down to their audience. The formula was a big success, and by the time of Crash's heyday in late 1986, the title was literally the top-selling computer magazine of any sort in the UK.

This review pretty well exemplifies how Crash handled reviews for the first few years — description of the game, then two or three paragraphs with criticism from different reviewers. (The reviewers, who went without bylines at the start, were mostly kids and other local Ludlow residents who hung out at Crash's storefront -- another parallel to Gamefan there.) At this point, Roger Kean, Oliver Frey, and Matthew Uffindell were the entire editorial team. I don't know how they did it.

You can also see how the review gives you a very quick outline of how to control the game. This was a standard feature in all Crash reviews for many years. They never said this outright (and I think denied it when called out on it in a letter several months after), but I'm sure this was meant to be a service for readers who got their Speccy games exclusively from copied C-60 tapes passed around during lunch break, something that was pretty much epidemic among British kids at that time.

I will eternally have a place in my heart for the 8-bit computer game scenes of the early to mid '80s. This was the era when literally any old teenage computer nerd could come up with a game concept in his basement, do all the code, graphics and sound by himself, sell the results to a publisher, and sustain himself for the entire year off the royalties if the game was enough of a success.

The era of the one-man game maker could never have lasted (although you very occasionally see exceptions, like with Cave Story and Minecraft), but to me it's a time filled with romance.

[Kevin Gifford owns over 8000 video-game and computer magazines. Despite this, he is capable of sustaining a conversation with a woman for at least three minutes per go. He runs Magweasel, a really cool weblog about games and Japan and "the industry" and things, and in his spare time he does writing and translation for lots of publishers and game companies.]