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A Brief History of Gaming
In the Beginning There Were No Reviews
By Cyril Lachel     |   Posted on June 16, 2008   |   Episode 7 (Show Archive)  

devil may cry 4 art
While Game Player's may get the bulk of my scorn, there's still plenty of blame to go around!
Given today's world of review aggregators and blogs, it's hard to imagine a time when people weren't giving their opinions about video games. But you don't have to go back too far in our history to find exactly this, magazines that were too sheepish to actually come down with a real score. These magazines felt like it was more important to promote these products than review them, especially since the companies that made these games were the same companies paying for advertising in their magazines. So, for the first few years of the video game magazine industry, most magazines decided against giving us actual reviews, instead settling on a more strongly worded preview.

It's not hard to find examples of this kind of practice. Perhaps the most well-known magazine guilty of this was none other than Game Player's, one of this industry's earliest video game periodicals. In the early days Game Player's (which would
Total Recall
Yeah, this pretty much sums up my experience with Total Recall on the NES!
later be called "Game Players" and "Ultra Game Players") would devote a full page to a game review, and mostly talk up why this game was worth checking out. No scores and very little actual criticism, this was the standard procedure at Game Player's magazine.

There's no need for you to take my word on it, this is how Game Player's magazine ended their Total Recall review in their September 1990 issue: "Total Recall, more than many other games based on movies or TV shows, offers a real taste of the story which inspired it. For anyone who has seen the film, it's familiar territory. For those who haven't, it's still an exciting and entertaining game."

Unlike Game Player's positive review, EGM opted to give their honest opinion!
That's right; Game Player's said that Total Recall was an "exciting and entertaining game." The same Total Recall that is widely considered to be one of the worst games of all time. By contrast check out what Electronic Gaming Monthly (a magazine with a scoring system) said about the exact same game: "In the movie of the same name, Arnold's character's memory was erased! This game based on the movie, should also have its "memory" erased! Total Reject! (2 out of 10)."

The difference is obvious. Game Player's review (like most early reviews) pretty much said what the game companies PR wanted. It talks about the exciting action, crazy levels, and fact that fans of the movie will probably get a kick out of "reliving" the movie again. By contrast,
Total Recall
Ah yes, the days when Nintendo actually spent some extra time on their cover art!
EGM actually voiced their real opinion, writing a scathing review for a game that was and still is a terrible piece of supposed entertainment. And it's not just Total Recall, nearly every game reviewed by Game Player's was written as a positive piece about how great games are. EGM, on the other hand, pushed this industry forward by showing other journalists that they could do more than just recite the PR contacts talking points.

But let's not spend too much time picking on Game Player's, they certainly weren't the only magazine writing non-review reviews. One of the more notorious examples of this is Nintendo Power, a magazine that was, above all else, about selling Nintendo games and systems. Nintendo Power is the closest thing the video game industry has to a state-run news network, and you could definitely see that when looking at their reviews. Like Game Player's, Nintendo Power was extremely positive about even the worst games, doing everything they could to convince their readers that they needed to buy each and every one of the games put out by Nintendo and their third parties.

Total Recall
Sorry Nintendo, but not only are games like Big Rigs bad, but they are fundamentally broken!
"There are no bad games," Nintendo Power once said. They concluded that games aren't bad; it's just that people have different opinions. While he (speaking on behalf of the magazine and, you have to assume, Nintendo itself) may believe that there are no bad games, the truth is that when game developers knowingly publish broken games you sometimes need to call them on it. But they didn't, instead they made it sound like every game was golden and that you could never go wrong when you bought an NES cartridge. And if I remember correctly they too liked Total Recall.

Now, keep in mind that not every magazine in the late 1980s was trying to pass off PR as an opinionated game review. The truth is, there were a number of publications that tried to have it both ways. One of those magazines was GamePro, the longest running multi-console magazine in the United States. It was clear from the start that, like Game's Players and Nintendo Power, GamePro wanted to offer up something similar to a review score, but
Total Recall
This is a sample review from GamePro, I don't advice you trying to read it (because it sucks and will hurt your eyes)!
also wanted to give an overly positive account of all of their games (so not to upset the video game companies that they needed for advertising). In other words, they wanted it both ways.

To do this GamePro devised a scoring system that didn't score the actual game. That's right, they opted to score the graphics, sound, gameplay, fun factor and challenge, which gave them enough wiggle room to explain that the game is still fun, even if the "scores" at the bottom of the page were low. For years GamePro used these faces to indicate how good each of these sub-categories was, and then they replaced them ... with another set of faces. Eventually GamePro would finally man-up and give the games a real score, but not before redrawing those GamePro faces several more times.

Even Electronic Gaming Monthly hesitated a bit when it came to reviewing games in their premiere issue. Instead issuing a number grade to each game, EGM originally used a
Total Recall
In this very first EGM issue the review crew actually reviewed games for the PC and Commodore 64!
"hit" scale (similar to what we would eventually see used by While this certainly sounds like a score, the truth is that no game ever received anything loser than a "near hit," which is still considered an above average score. The only other two scores EGM handed before switching to numbers were the "hit" and "direct hit" grades, so we'll never know if there was a "miss" or "not even close" score they were just waiting to use. Thankfully one issue later EGM opted for scored reviews, which included games received everything from 3s to 9s.

In fact, in nearly every instance, when a game publication has moved from a scoreless review system to one with numbers, the game reviews seem to go from mostly positive to being a little more even handed. This is certainly true with Game Player's and Nintendo Power. These days Nintendo Power is ready and willing to give a bad game a low score, and the same was certainly true when Game Player's retrofitted their review section. Perhaps all it
Total Recall
This terrible scoring system was adopted by DailyRadar a decade later ... I'm not sure why!
took was one or two magazines jumping in to prove to the rest of the games industry that you could write a scathing review and still make money from advertiser dollars.

Sadly, the need to kowtow to these game company's PR demands hurts a lot of early game publications. With no difference between a review and a preview, practically every page of these early game publications was the same. Some previews would have more pictures, there might have been a code section and most magazines featured a letters column, but by and large most game magazines were just repeating the PR line. It's hard not to feel sorry for the early games journalists, even if some of these wounds are self-inflicted.

By the early 1990s these non-review reviews were a thing of the past. With Electronic Gaming Monthly paving the way, magazines like Die Hard Game Fan and Video Games & Computer Entertainment followed suit. These days it's impossible to find a game review that isn't about that's writer's opinion, which is definitely a good thing. The world of 1988 was a confusing time I don't want to go back to; I would much rather live in a time when people aren't afraid to say what they really feel about a game.



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