Friday, April 4, 2008

Nostalgia Trip: Zzap! 64

For this week's nostalgia trip, I knew I wanted to do something about computers. I've been playing some flash games while browsing the net and it reminded me of how much fun we used to have back in the days of the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad 464. In 1985 64k seemed like a lot of memory - now even one small picture holds more information than that.

My difficulty was in choosing what to blog about. One game, or several? One platform, or all of them? In the end I decided that the subject was far too large to be covered properly in one post. So I'm going to start by reminiscing about the one constant element that I remember throughout my game playing days, the Commodore 64 magazine, Zzap!64. Zzap! was a special magazine in many ways. Firstly, the covers were all gorgeous, designed by Oliver Frey, a well-known fantasy artist and cartoonist. Nothing else on the racks looked as good.

Secondly, while some magazines tried to include games for different computers, Zzap! was specific to the C64, and therefore every word was relevant. Third was the magazine's style. The reviewers were much more than names at the bottom of the page, they were shown as real people, celebrities in themselves, with differing opinions and a lot of personality. When all the reviewers praised a game, you knew it was going to be good. There were also a lot of in-jokes and unusual features. The first 16 or so issues featured a unique comic strip, you could order games, magazines, and T-Shirts (now where did my Eidolon T-Shirt go?) and many of the programmers dropped in for competitions or to talk about their latest games.

Fortunately, there is an excellent internet site dedicated to the magazine. The Def Guide to Zzap!64 includes scans of many of the issues (running from 1985 into the 90's) and lots of other articles, photographs and such. The website also produced a unique anniversary issue (issue 107) which can be downloaded in a PDF document).

Looking through these magazines again certainly brings back a lot of memories for me. Like I said, I'm not going to get into all the games we used to play in this post, but suffice it to say all my friends used to spend a lot of time in front of the TV set, twiddling on a joystick.

One other interesting facet of the computer magazine layouts back in those days was the question of advertising. Ads took up a lot of space in the magazines, and because the actual games had very poor graphics, companies used interesting methods to sell their products, often having very little to do with what you were actually buying. (It's nice to know that in twenty years, some things haven't changed that much). Often, the ads would appear two to three months before the game was released, and all the excitement generated by the ads would fizzle out once the (generally) poor review appeared.

Most of the ads were designed to appeal to young teenage boys, featuring lasers, spaceships, explosions, monsters, and such. But when the fighting game Barbarian came out, instead of featuring a cartoon warrior swinging an axe or sword, the ad-men chose a picture of a non-very-convincing caveman with the current Page 3 lovely, Maria Whittaker, wearing a skimpy costume. Over the next year or two, publishers used increasingly risque tactics to attract sales.

It was during this period that the (other) infamous 'nipplegate' happened. Imagine Software tried to slip (ahem!) the outline of a female nipple into one of its ads, actually based on an existing fantasy art print. The outcry was immediate and vociferous. The offending ad was hastily re-designed for fear of scarring teenagers for life. Obviously the damage was done, because twenty years later, I can still remember it! You can read all about it here. Those were the days.

Purely in the interests of academic research, you can see another Maria Whittaker poster given away with copies of Barbarian 2 here.

A collection of Oliver Frey's artwork is available here.

1 comment:

Miss Parker said...

Off-topic from the great tutorial on vintage graphics...this whole posting transported me back to a day in 1985 when a Tandy 2000 found its way into my home. I was told to become familiar with using it because one day, all banking, shopping and communication would be done over computers that were all inter-connected. When I stopped laughing long enough to pick myself up off the floor, I said, "That's silly, stupid, science fiction stuff - it will never happen in my lifetime."

Guess I was wrong. Sheesh.