Throughout my gaming career there have been certain programmers and musicians who have been massively influential, either on my own gaming experience or the development of the industry more generally. The Gaming Heroes series is dedicated to them
The first inductee into my personal Hall of Fame, though, is not a person but a magazine: the incredible, influential Zzap!64
Published by Newsfield, Zzap!64 operated out of the sleepy Shropshire town of Ludlow. It’s an unlikely place for such an influential publication, yet Zzap!, along with its sister publications Crash (for the Spectrum) and Amtix (for the Amstrad) arguably became the template for successful games mags for years to come.
The secret behind its success were many, but chief amongst them were the reviewers. Often, these were not much older than their target audience and so were able to speak to them directly. Many other magazines of the time had a rather pompous, authoritative tone that put off younger readers. Zzap!64 took a more irreverent attitude, mixing humour and general silliness with serious, well-written reviews.
Whilst the focus of the magazine for much of its life was obviously C64 games (barring an ill-advised 3 year dalliance with the Amiga), the real stars were the reviewers themselves. Particularly in the early days, readers felt a real connection with the Zzap! staff like Julian Rignall, Gary Penn, Gordon Houghton and the fictional Lloyd Mangram who oversaw the letters. Even though I never met any of them, they felt like real friends (which possibly tells you something about my childhood!).I can remember being genuinely sad when it was announced that one of them was leaving for pastures new because it felt like I was losing a friend. It’s clear I’m not alone in my regard for the magazine, either: a quick Google search will bring up loads of websites dedicated to it, including the excellent Def Guide to Zzap!64
The thing about Zzap! was that I felt I could trust it. Unlike other publications, they refused to give into publisher pressure. Like its spiritual successor, Amiga Power, it called a spade a spade: if a game was rubbish, it got a suitably low score and readers were told to avoid it. In those pre-internet days, Zzap!64 was a powerful magazine and its reviews could make or break a game. Certainly I relied on its advice greatly. Money was tight in my teen years, so I needed to plan my gaming purchases carefully. When each issue arrived, I’d anxiously flick through noting what had been awarded a Zzap! Sizzler (for games scoring 90% or more) or (less frequently) a Gold Medal (for scores of 96% or more). I rarely bought a game without consulting Zzap! first and when I did (as in the case of the abysmal Outrun), I usually regretted it. I can think of only two games I bought on their recommendation that led to a tinge of disappointment. The first was Hawkeye – a decent game, but not worthy of the Gold Medal it got (then Editor Gordon Hougton subsequently admitted he was pressurised to upgrade the game from a Sizzler to a Gold Medal since publisher Thalamus also belonged to Newsfield). The second was Rock N Wrestle which on cassette was crippled by a horrible multiload system that sucked the life out of the game. Two games in around 8 years of reading the mag – that’s not a bad record.
The Halcyon days were undoubtedly the Rignall/Penn years and as the years marched on (and the C64 market declined) the magazine became a shadow of its former self. It never fully recovered from the bankruptcy of Newsfield and although it quickly found a new publisher, some of the magic was lost. An ill-advised make-over led to cheap schoolboy humour taking over. In fairness, this trend had already begun under Newsfield, with the introduction of troll adventure game reviewer Chuck Vomit, but it reached its nadir when Lloyd Mangram was replaced by the execrable Lash N Bash.
The end for Zzap! was clearly nigh. As the 8 bit computers gave way to their 16 bit successors, Zzap! failed to make the transition. A change of identity into Commodore Force saw it limp on for a few more years, with the last official issue being Number 106 in March 1994. It went out not so much with a bang, but a whimper – a sad fate for a magazine that (along with Crash) had essentially created the template for gaming magazines.
Zzap!64 is also responsible for my most painful gaming memory. My first issue was issue 17 and, whilst I didn’t quite make it to the end of the magazine’s lifetime (I’d upgraded to an Amiga by then), I had a complete run of issues up to about Number 88. For years I carefully kept those issues in boxes under my bed, occasionally taking them out to re-live an important part of my childhood. Sadly, when we were moving house, my then partner (now ex, although the events are not connected) decided they took up too much room and threw them all out! Nooooooooooooooooooooo!
And on that sad and painful note: I officially induct Zzap!64 into Retroreactiv8’s personal Hall of Fame for Gaming Heroes.