(c) Fusion Retro Books 2018
Like so many C64 owners, I was an avid Zzap!64 reader in the 80s. My first issue (attracted by the stunning Oli Frey artwork) was number 17 (1986) and from the first page, I was hooked. I bought it on a monthly basis, initially from the shops then as a loyal subscriber until just before the title morphed into Commodore Force.
Sadly, all good things come to end. With the end of the 8 bit era, I thought I’d seen the last of Zzap!64. It turns out (as with so many things in my life), I was wrong.
Hopes were raised in 2017 when Crash Magazine was successfully re-invented as a Kickstarter-funded annual from Chris Wilkins and Fusion Retro Books. The success of that brought a similar (also wildly popular) 2018 Kickstarter campaign for Crash’s younger, better looking sister. History was repeating itself – Crash came first, closely followed by Zzap!
The big question, of course, was could the new book live up to the hype? As many 8 bit fans will know, the Newsfield mags are still fondly remembered, and the team would face a tough challenge producing the magazine we all remembered (sometimes with a hint of rose tinted glasses), whilst updating it for the modern market.
Early signs were good. In addition to Chris Wilkins, original editor and artist Roger Kean and Oli Frey were on board and former Zzap! Writers Julian Rignall and Robin Hogg (along, of course, with the ever-mysterious Lloyd Mangram) also signed up. The fact that there was no Gary Penn disappointed some, but it was a strong line-up.
Then came the fateful day when the actual item was delivered. I opened it up nervously and carefully – exactly as I previously did with the magazine and my initial reaction was…
“What sorcery is this?” Apart from the fact that the book was hardcover and not magazine format, I could have time-travelled back over 30 years. The Oli Frey cover art was as fresh and exciting, the flashes on the front cover promised exciting articles inside and the layouts looked spot on.
Then I started reading it, and that’s when things went… even better (ha! Bet you thought it was all going to go horribly wrong there, didn’t you!). The writing, from both old hands and newcomers alike, is excellent. It captures the style and sense of fun of the old Zzap! without following it too slavishly or feeling outdated. Just like the old days (in a way that perhaps hasn’t been seen since the demise of Amiga Power), the enthusiasm of the reviewers creates that sense of common interest with the reader, re-kindling that old Zzap! community spirit.
The layout of the mag is also spot on. It’s instantly, recognisably a “Newsfield” publication, but given a slight tweak so that it doesn’t look too old-fashioned or dated. The colours are right, the text layout faithful and (most important of all!) Rockford and Thingy appear in the margins.
The content is a good balance between retrospective and new stuff. One of my concerns before I got hold of the book was that it might read like a C64-themed issue of Retro Gamer magazine, and I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted. Once again, I was wrong (spot a theme here?!). There are certainly some articles looking back at the old Zzap! days (Jaz Rignall’s retrospective of early Zzap! Gold Medal winners and his views on them today is particularly interesting), but there are also plenty of new reviews of games that have been released for the C64 over the past decade or so. Just like the Zzap! of old, these make up the bulk of the magazine and are as readable and informative as ever.
I do have a number of small gripes. First up is the pen portraits of the reviewers as they give their individual verdicts on games. In the old days, each reviewer had several portraits, indicating whether they thought the game was incredible, terrible or just average. I used to love flicking through the mag looking at these, as you could see at a glance which games were worthy of consideration and which were stinkers (or sometimes, where the opinions of reviewers differed drastically). In Zzap! 2018, the reviewers have only one portrait, so you can’t gauge opinions at a glance.
Next up is the lack of prices on game reviews, which used to feature in the original. I guess the reason for this is that, in the digital age, prices can fluctuate wildly, so any price provided could be completely wrong by the time the reader has the book. However, I’d like to have seen an indicative price, even if this was qualified by a disclaimer stating “prices correct at the time of printing”. It’s just a tiny area where the accuracy with the original mag isn’t quite there.
My two last criticisms are by far the most serious and, frankly, everyone involved in the book should hang their heads in shame. Firstly: where is my cover tape packed with free games and the latest demos? And secondly, I used to get Zzap!64 coming through my letterbox every month. Now I have to wait a whole year at least until the next instalment. Come on guys; get your fingers out. What are you playing at?!
Seriously, though, this is almost the perfect retro product. It provides a huge blast of nostalgia, but has been sympathetically modernised. It’s as informative and entertaining as ever, without falling prey to the worst excesses of silly humour that marred later editions. Most crucially, it really captures the old Zzap!64 spirit and creates that connection with its readers – just like the old days.
Available from Fusion Retro Books for £15