“ Genre: Game Media / A guide to all classic video games of the past. A must have for all video game enthusiasts! „
"If you have to ask, you'll never know." I don't know about you, but I find that particular phrase one of the most irritating in existence; it generally comes over as snobbish and show-off, with strong connotations of superiority to the (real or imagined) questioner. So, although it is indeed hard to explain this particular publication's appeal to those too young to have been around during the home computer boom of the late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s, I'll give it my best shot. You inevitably won't benefit (or suffer) from the aching nostalgia that we greybeards do on the subject, but nevertheless that doesn't, I feel, make this magazine worthless to you.
All that said, there is no doubt that those of us who remember *are* Retro Gamer's core market. The monthly magazine has been going for six years now, albeit with a break in late 2005 when the original publishers went under, which surely proves that there is a considerable market for such things. And why not, given the number of mags on the shelves dealing with vintage cars or steam trains? Anyway, every so often Imagine Publishing (no relation to the legendary 8-bit games publisher, though I do wonder how coincidental the choice of name actually is...) put out a collection of some of their best articles, in the form of a 256-page magazine like this. Well, I say "magazine", but it's really more of a big (A4) floppy book.
This third collection stands out immediately on the shelf, and not only because of the cleverly retro-styled "Retro Gamer" logo itself. The design is that of a (slightly worn) denim jacket, on which are "pinned" a whole heap of badges bearing logos and characters from the retro era. Konami here, Mario there, Ultimate Play the Game in the top corner; it's fun to see how many you can recognise without thinking. Rather worryingly perhaps, I got the lot straight away... At the bottom there's a list of systems covered, but this should be taken only as an indication; there's very little Neo Geo coverage here, for example, but a good deal about the PC-Engine.
The contents page largely eschews gimmickry, which in my view is to be welcomed, and simply presents a clear, easily read list of what's in the collection. As you would expect given the parent magazine's title, the emphasis is very much on gaming, and over a dozen games are treated in depth, supplemented by quick summaries of several others. The game articles are mostly excellent, with detailed interviews from programmers (Matthew Smith on "Manic Miner"; David Braben and Ian Bell on "Elite") being an undoubted highlight. The standard of writing is higher than is sometimes found in games journalism; this is perhaps related to the generally older (if not wiser!) readership of Retro Gamer, but whatever the cause it's nice to see articles not being squeezed into tiny boxes to make way for yet more screenshots (though there are plenty of those).
The main reason that I bought this publication was for the coverage of five featured systems: ZX81, BBC Micro, Dreamcast, PC-Engine and Atari 800XL. I own and love the first two, and have long been intrigued by the PC-Engine, so I was hoping for some meaty stuff. I mostly got it, and certainly it was extremely refreshing to see ZX81 games treated seriously, rather than treated as a subject to be rushed through as quickly as possible so we could get to the Spectrum. (If you have the means to do so, do play "3D Monster Maze", one of the very earliest "survival horror" games - published some 15 years before "Resident Evil" appeared.) The games-centric focus does lead to some frustration - the BBC Micro's extensive hardware expansion ability is almost ignored - but it's not as if I can really complain given that magazine title.
Actually, there isn't all that much I *can* complain about. The main problem, one which afflicts far too many magazines on whatever topic, is the designers' obsession with using strange colour-schemes. Yes, it might well be a nice homage to the days of the early computers and consoles to use white text on a fawn background (as is done during an otherwise excellent and comprehensive Space Invaders article) but it makes it horribly difficult to read for those of us without RAF-level eyesight. Note to designers: please stop doing this. Now. No arguments. I don't care how cool it is. Just stop it. Got that? Right. Thankfully the images, including those all-important screenshots, are consistently produced to a high standard, which improves the satisfaction quotient no end.
This is a UK-based publication, which is immensely refreshing; how many American books or magazines would be likely to include the BBC Micro at all, other than as a Transatlantic curiosity? It may not be the case nowadays, but in the 1980s the home computer market in Britain was - largely thanks to the triumvirate of Sinclair, Acorn and Amstrad - very significantly different from that in the US, and that has to be recognised. Even consoles had their differences, some admittedly minor: the Dreamcast's spiral logo was orange in the US, but blue in Europe (because an unrelated German company already owned the rights to the orange one here). The Retro Gamer collection is good on these little details.
The cover price of the collection is £9.99, which is perhaps just a little steep, especially considering that there is no covermount of any sort. It's probably worth it if you're really interested in retro gaming, but it might well give pause to anyone who is just wondering whether to take a real interest in the subject. However, I was really lucky and found a copy in a branch of The Works discount bookshop for a mere £1.99; at that price it's very attractive if you have the slightest curiosity about the days when games were truly difficult (no web to get cheats from then!) and when a game could take seven minutes to load from cassette tape. If you, like me, are already finding yourself spending more time in the retro scene than in the modern gaming world, then this collection will do very nicely indeed.
"Hello. My name is SWSt* and I am a retro gaming addict."
It may sound strange to you, but there is a massive community out there who can't be doing with your Bioshock 97 and Call of Duty 72 on yer newfangled X-Station 3 and yer MicroSony Wee. For them, the games of the 80s and 90s are best. What they lacked in graphics and sound, they made up for in game play and imagination.
And, like any specialist interest group, there is a monthly magazine - Retro Gamer - to cater for them. Every so often RG produces a "bookazine" - a compilation of selected articles from previous issues. The latest is Retro Gamer Collection Vol. 3, which contains articles from issues 35-54 of the magazine. Priced £9.99, it is available from selected high street stores, such as WH Smith.
One of the most pleasing aspects of RetroGamer is the sheer diversity of the articles. You might be wondering what on earth could be left to write on 30 year old games, but Retro Gamer keeps things interesting by mixing up the types of article it publishes. As well as mini reviews, there are retrospective looks at specific consoles or machines - how they came to developed, how successful they were etc.; there are interviews with programmers of classic games or coin operated arcade machines, looking at how the ideas for the game came about. This bookazine contains 256 pages, which represents pretty good value for money and has a large spread of articles which will appeal to followers of many different machines or game types. If you're not interested in a particular subject, youy can easily skip that article without feeling too guilty.
At this point you might be thinking that there is nothing here that you couldn't find on the internet and, in some cases, you might be right. Where RG stands out, though, is in its unrivalled access to the people behind the games and machines. Over the years it has scored a number of coups, securing interviews with people who usually refuse to talk about their creations, but will happily open up to RG. This is where it succeeds over your average website - RG gets the information direct from the horse's mouth.
Overall, the quality of writing within this volume is very high indeed. The passion of the authors shines through. These are not professional writers writing about games; they are professional writers, who just happen to be writing about something which is also their hobby. That passion shines through. The enthusiasm of the authors is contagious, whilst the high standard of journalism makes the articles highly interesting and accessible.
The one downside to the writing style is that they are very attached to the phrase "back in the day" when referring to the past. This peculiar little phrase arises at least once every issue. Normally, it's not a problem because it's fairly limited. In a 256 page compilation, however, it crops up a fair bit and becomes a minor irritant.
The bookazine is also visually appealing. The front cover will instantly attract the attention of retro gaming fans, featuring badges showing the logos of old (mostly sadly defunct) software houses. The strong visual style continues inside, with lots of photographs, screenshots and other visual elements to break up some of the wordier articles. Sometimes, screenshots are virtually full page, with just limited text, so the magazine is both informative and pleasing to the eye.
I do sometimes have issues with the choice of colour schemes, however. Some page backgrounds in this collection are coloured blue or green, with a different colour font for the main text. The contrast between the two is not always very well defined and can make some pages difficult to read (particularly by electric light). I honestly think a colour blind person would struggle to read it at all. Whilst I understand it's done to try and liven up the pages (and is something many magazines do), they need to be a little more careful with the colours they choose!
There are a couple of other downsides too. The Retro Gamer collection is all about old games, so if you're not interested in those, you'll wonder what bunch of sad sacks read this(!). But then, if that's the case, why would you look at it anyway? That's ;like buying a magazine all about fishing and then complaining it was full of pictures of fish. So, who's the sad sack now, Fish Boy (or Girl - delete as appropriate to gender/preference)?
More seriously, the bookazine can be hard to get hold of. It only has limited high street distribution and even in shops which supposedly stock it (such as W H Smith), it's not carried by all branches and you may need to make a special trip to a larger branch to get hold of it. You can buy it direct from the publisher, but even they tend to run out of copies fairly quickly, as there is only a fairly limited print run. Oh. And good luck finding one now. Volume 3 was released in August and I suggested it to Dooyoo back in early September... it's been added to the site today. Thanks to that delay, you might find the only way to get hold of one now is to pay eBay's inflated prices. So much for Dooyoo providing timely consumer advice.
There are also slight problems over the binding quality. Because the bookazine has so many pages, but is bound in the same way as thinner magazines, you can sometimes find pages start to come loose if you don't treat your copy with the utmost care. True, no pages have ever actually fallen out on my copies, but I always feel it's a distinct possibility.
Finally, if you subscribe to the monthly magazine, there is a question mark over whether this is worth the money as it contains no new articles, just reprinted ones. This is a deliberate decision by the publishers, as they don't want completist subscribers to feel they have to buy this for the sake of couple of new features. So far, I've bought these collections, as they mostly contain articles from before I read the magazine. Now I subscribe, I would have to think long and hard about whether any future Volume 4 would be worth the money.
If you're a fan of Retro Gaming this is a fascinating read providing real insights into games and gaming "back in the day" (sorry!). £10 might sound a lot for a collection of reprinted articles, but for that you get a high quality, well written and well-designed publication. Worth considering as a stocking filler for that Retro Gamer in your life (providing you can find a copy now).
Retro Gamer: Volume 3
Imagine Publishing, 2009
© Copyright SWSt 2009
* Obviously my name's not really SWSt as that would be the product of some seriously cruel and deranged parents and my mum and dad are lovely people (although they are slightly deranged)!