Retro Gamer Review

By Jeff Fulton

With traditional game related magazines falling by the way-side every day, why would Retrogamer magazine still be going so strong after 100 issues?

Somewhere around the middle of 2004, I was browsing the magazine shelf at the local (now itself defunct) Borders and I found a  large yellow and green magazine staring back at me. It had a dvd case glued to the front cover, a classic Atari 2600 joystick in the upper left hand corner, and an import price tag of $18.99.  I had already stopped buying any traditional computer or video game magazines on news stands by this time (but had a subscription to the soon the be defunct Computer Gaming World). At $18.99, it was more then three times the price of every other us-based traditional PC or console magazine, but after paging through it for just a couple minutes I was hooked. Thus began an 8 year love affair that has had all of the ups, downs and drama of a real life (some times co-dependent) relationship.

What I was holding in my hands was issue #3 of  the UK Published (Live Publishing) Retro Gamer Magazine. It was filled retro ads, stories, reviews and features dedicated to classic gaming mostly from a UK perspective.   This was great for me because aside from the few years we owned an Atari ST, we had not experienced much of the mainstream UK gaming scene here in the USA. I started to buy every issue I could get my hands on, some of them released here in the USA a good 3 months after publication on the UK.   I was able to learn all about the Spectrum,  BBC Micro, and Acorn systems as well as game franchises such as Repton that I had never experienced back in the 80’s.

We had purchased an Atari ST (because we were Atari nerds and didn’t understand that that the Amiga was the Atari 800 on steroids) in early 1987. There were few games for sale for the machine here in the USA and what we did find were mostly cruddy ports of older UK games along with a few quality titles from Epix  and a couple other USA companies. The ST had a little “hay day” in the USA in about 1988, then fell by the way-side as the IIGS, Amiga, Color Mac, and 286 machines began to take more a foothold.  When  the ST started to become popular in Europe,  Atari concentrated most of its limited resources in the UK, so USA-based owners had to get creative to find good software and information for their machines. Import games shops where the answer.

These shops were like an “independent record store”  for Atari and Amiga owners starved for games and information for their machines. For a few years in the  late 80’s and early 1990’s we would travel down to a tiny Orange County California store called Computer Games Plus and purchase copies of Atari ST Action and The Games Machine magazines imported from the UK. These tombs were filled with colorful images of the latest games being released for the machine WE OWNED. It was an awesome experience. The UK seemed to be able to produce a magazine for every conceivable machine while here in the USA, at the same time, magazines dedicated to individual machines (at least ones that covered games exclusively) were limited to little more than corporate-backed 60  page advertisements where “game ratings” (if they existed) started at 3 stars while most games received 4-5 stars).

The UK magazines were entirely different. They used a 0-100% scale to rate games (some USA magazines adopted this years later), and it was not uncommon to read hilarious reviews of terrible games that received scores in the “teens” because the box was colorful ans the game loaded quickly. They were not afraid to give games terrible reviews, and if you were a state-side owner of a machine that was more popular in the UK, than at home, you needed this type of honestly. There was no easy access to game demos, so reviews were what we had to go by (as well as the colorful boxes that lines the shelves of Computer Games Plus).

Anyway, fast forward 12 years after I “moth-balled” the 1040ST and I find Retrogamer sitting on the shelf stuffed befind “MAKE” and “2600”. All of the “outcast” magazines sitting together like the land of one-eyed baby dolls and toys forgotten under the couch.  For the next 15 issues it was a scramble to run from Borders to Barnes and Noble every 4 weeks in hope of not being too late purchasing the sometimes single copy that each store would receive. There certainly were other’s like me (looking for and buying the magazine) because there were months when I would have to visit 6 stores before I found one, and sometimes I had to settle for one where the included game-filled CD was missing or broken.  Then, one month, just as suddenly as it appeared, it was gone, and I could no longer find it.

The first 18 issues were published by LIVE before going defunct and dark for a short period (October 2005), and then was purchased, re-vamped and re-launched by Imagine Publishing in December 2005.   Aside from a few hiccups in distribution, I have been able to find and purchase almost ever issue starting with that first issue (#3). I look for a new issue each month and even if the cover doesn’t contain any games or systems I am interested in, I always purchase (now at the lower price of $9.99) just to keep apprised of what is “NEW” in retro.  There was a time in 2008 when it went dark here for about 5 months, and I have never figured out what happened, but again it suddenly started to appear here once again and at a lower price.

While I buy each issue of the magazine, and like learning about games and systems that I never played or owned, I am an Atari guy first and foremost, and the one thing that bugs me about the magazine is the almost complete ignorance of the Atari ST. Now, I understand why they don’t cover the Atari 800 much (actually they cover it more then I would expect, as it probably only sold in the 10’s of 1000’s in the UK). The Atari 800 is a machine that very powerful and even jaded retro-gamers have come to respect its abilities expecially since few of them played it when it was originally released.  But the lack of Atari ST coverage is puzzling. Even though it was intensely popular in the UK, sold in the millions and had quite a number of quality games,  it is almost like Retrogamer has created its own revisionist history where the machine barely existed (Actually calling the era from 1989-1993 as  the “Amiga Era”). When they survey all of the versions of certain game ports, many times the ST version is either not covered or is an after thought inside the Amiga blurb, usually saying something like “mostly just a port of the ST effort”. Other times both Atari 800 and ST versions of games are completely ignored.  Now, I know a few of  the people who have written great Atari articles for the magazine, so my LOVE – HATE relationship with the Atari content is usually placated to the LOVE side when a good ST or 800 article does show up, but it is rare.

I shouldn’t complain though, owners of the Apple IIe, IIGS, TRS-80, and other USA early computer gaming machines receive little or no coverage, so my whines about the lack of Atari coverage should be taken as the fan-boy blathering it really is.  Still though, for a machine that was so prevalent in the UK for so many years, I would really like to see the Atari ST receive more coverage in the articles and surveys of software when they Amiga or Spectrum version is talked about glowingly, while the ST version completely ignored.

The magazine does go to great lengths to cover the breadth of world-wide machines and games with special features and articles, so over the years almost every machine, even if it was not popular (or even released) in the UK, it has probably received at least some minor coverage

But, aside from those minor problems with our relationship, I still run out to find the magazine every month, and make sure to buy it from the magazine rack (rather than subscribe),  even if there if nothing on the cover that grabs me right away. I care little for the Japanese-base RPG franchises and SNES games that seem to get more and more coverage, but how many times can they simply survey the best C64 games once again?

This turns out to be what makes the magazine such a great read. I get a chance to read about games and systems that I never had a chance to experience, and what is defined as classic or Retro actually increases each month. It is the only magazine that stays current by simply NOT covering new games, but waiting an undefined period for a game or system to become classic before it is covered. it has no peer and it has no competition.

That might sound odd, but with the ease of reading new game  reviews timely on the web killing traditional magazines, Retrogamer is going very strong because each month something “new” becomes retro.  By this I mean, if you consider retro anything 30 years or older (for example) then the magazine actually is more relevant and timely than any traditional gaming magazine can be. This is because 80% of what the magazine covers was released long enough ago that “previews” and paid reviews, and ads for games don’t mean much. They do cover “new” version of retro games, compilations, home brew games for older systems, re-makes, and app store items for consoles, phones and other devices, so along with the older classic content, there is always a good portion of the magazine dedicated to items that can be purchased now.

When I visit the local Barnes and Noble now, I can usually find at least 5-10 copies of Retroogamer on the shelf (on release day) and those slowly dwindle to zero as the month goes on. So, why is Retrogamer going so strong while other gaming magazines have been struggling and closing down over the same period of time? While there are a plethora of web sites dedicated to current games, there is no one web site that really is in competition with the print version of Retrogamer magazine.    Also, there also is no other print magazine that covers retro and classic gaming as well as Retrogamer.  Retrogamer also seems to have the right combination of great internal staff, combined with very knowledgeable independent writers who are experts in each niche they each cover. This, combined with the fact that retro and classic gamers like the tactile feeling of holding a magazine in their hands rather than simply reading a web site, is probably a good indication as to why Retrogamer continues to keep moving forward and gaining more fans, more contributors, and more pages while magazines dedicated to current consoles and machines are getting thinner and more rare every day.

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