By Steve Fulton
Some of these are good, some are terrible, but all of them are memorable. Here is a run down my favorite Christmas content from classic gaming and computer magazines like Electronic Games, Joystik, Electronic Fun and Atari Connection.
#10 Subscription Pleas
Every magazine contains advertisements trying to get readers to subscribe. However, these classic video game magazine ads for subscriptions are interesting for one reason: timing. The Electronic Fun advertisement (first one above) came in the December 1983 issue. I asked for, and received, a year-long subscription for Xmas 1983. Too bad the magazine only lasted another 5 months. After that, I was treated to 8 issues of “Video Review” as a substitute for my beloved Electronic Fun published by the same company. For this video game obsessed kid, it was no substitute at all.
The second advertisement is for Joystik. Joystik was not bad, but it was never really one of my favorites magazine. It was glossy and colorful, but it never felt authentic. However, it would have been the worst magazine ever if I had followed this advertisement to subscribe, as the ad appeared in the last issue of the magazine ever published.
The last ad, for Electronic Games. I sent away for this one and was happy with the result, as it stayed in publication for another 2 and 1/2 years.
#9 Atari Checklist
This ad appeared in several magazines in December 1983. For Christmas that year, any kids who still had an Atari 2600 should have been begging for any of these games. Ms. Pac-Man alone was worth having an Atari 2600, but Vanguard and Moon Patrol were good too as was Jungle Hunt and Phoenix. It just proves that Atari, even after the disaster that was 1982, still pushed to make great games for their console, even through their last Christmas season as an intact company. On the other hand, by the end of 1983 Atari knew that had an absolute dog on their hands with the 5200. The games were good, but system itself was not selling for a variety of reasons (terrible controllers, no built-in backwards compatibility, etc.). It might seem disingenuous to push the 5200, but what else were they supposed to do? If the system caught-fire over the holiday season of 1983, things could have turned out very different for the world’s first video game company. They certainly had a great line-up of games.
#8 Atari Gift Collections
Atari Connection was a little known magazine produced by Atari Inc. in their heyday to support their line of computers. The best thing about the “winter” issues of the magazine were the Atari “holiday gifts” they sold direct to consumers. Buttons, t-shirts, money-clips, letter openers, hats, and all manner of other consumers items that could have the Atari logo slapped on could be had for Atari fans lucky enough to know where to get them. My favorite “gift” collection however is the totally sexist “Gifts For Mom” software that includes “Recipe Search And Save” as it’s main offering. If I have one pet peeve about the early days of home computing, it is the fact that “Recipe Management” was a real and serious selling point that companies came-up to try to sell computers to families. Kids could “learn” with educational software, dad could play Star Raiders, and mom’s could manage their recipes with a computer. Have fun mom. It was all laid-out like the 50’s all over again. I’m convinced that this kind of marketing is the reason women did not feel necessarily welcome to home computers in the 80’s: they offered nothing but the same crap they were already dealing with. Dads played games, kids got new learning tools, and mom got to continue doing her “work”, but now with an electronic brain to make her more efficient so she could do more. Yea mom!
#7 Find The Bug
The pages of Atari Connection were not only filled with advertisements for Atari trinkets and sexist software pitches, it also made an attempt to teach BASIC programming. The Winter 1982 issue contained this cool “Santa” themed “find the bug” puzzle. I truly believe that hobbyist computer and video game magazines lost something special when they stopped printing program listings for users to read and type into their machines. Even the video game magazine Electronic Fun printed user-made program listings for readers to type in and enjoy. We would probably live in ubiquitous STEM world where every kid could write their own software programs if if video and computer game magazines had simply continued this tradition into the modern age.
#6 Computer Game Ads
Computer game ads, for many ears, were like the “punk rock” of golden age of gaming. At the time, computer game companies were mostly D.I.Y. operations started by married couples. business partners, or single individuals who had a passion for making games for the first era of home computers. They created a market out of the ether to serve an audience growing tired of the same-old video games (see The Atari Checklist above) and wanted more and different experiences. Their advertisements were not always the most professional, but they had a flair for eye-catching visuals visuals that felt both “home-grown” and “cool” in the back pages of video game computer game magazines. In many ways, I really miss theses types of multi-game advertisements, meant to showcase popular games, but also let players know about 2nd tier titles that had not been so popular. Back then, seeing all these game images and box shots sparked my imagination. I wanted to play all these games, and discover the particular angle an view point each author/programmer/design brought to their particular piece of work. It was an era lost for many many years, but thankfully, has returned with the advent of Steam, where finding good and interesting indie computer games is just a few clicks away.
#5 Electronic Games : You Can Be a Game Designer
The first “Christmas Issue” of Electronic Games also had the most iconic “holiday” cover of any classic era video game magazine. However, the most memorable part of this magazine was not the cover, or the gift guides inside, but the story “You Can Be A Game Designer”. I was twelve years old when I read this story, and it was one of the first times I realized that I wanted to make games for a living. It was a long road to get there, but in retrospect, this story, in the 1982 Xmas issue of Electronic Games was one of the best presents I ever received.
#4 Wizard Video Games
Wizard’s “violent” and “adult” Atari 2600 games were truly awful. However, the fact that they made a special “Christmas” advertisement in 1982 from Electronic Games to try to sell them is pretty special in my opinion, especially considering the fate of the games advertised. “Flesh Gordon”: was never released, and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was a buggy mess. However, they gained press because they were banned at many stores, and saw a few protests by concerned citizens. No kid wanted these games. We wanted “Pitfall!” and “River Raid” for Xmas 1982. However, it’s still an interesting footnote in video game history to see a full-page Christmas advertisement for adult content in the industry’s best publication.
#3 Electronic Fun’s “Phantom” E.T. Cover
Electronic Fun was an upstart video game magazine that was inspired by the format and content style from Electronic Games. Bill Kunkel dismissed it many times, and on the surface, it was a flattering copy of the first video game magazine. However, after the first few issues, Electronic Fun grew into it’s own, competent publication. I never learned the names of people involved, like I did with EG, but EF brought some very interesting concepts to the video game periodical table. They used a ” number of joysticks” rating system for reviews, featured some very in-depth interviews with game programmers and designers, and even featured short BASIC games for people with computers to type in and play.
However, they also appeared the partake in some editorial shenanigans. This cover was from their 2nd issue, and it says a lot about the industry at the time. There is E.T. on the front cover playing what appears to be a “Santa” themed video game. However, the most interesting part of the magazine is what is not inside. There is almost no mention of the E.T. game for the Atari 2600 (or the 8-bit computer version) in the magazine at all. The cover and the words “E.T/ Ready for Xmas” appears to be an endorsement for a video game the magazine had not even seen yet. Did Atari buy the cover? Was this an advertisement masquerading as editorial? I do not know the answer. It could have been completely on the up and up, but there have been hints otherwise.
The “real” concept of “Ethics In Game Journalism” has been around since 1982 (by “real” I mean large companies and organizations colluding in big way that hurts consumers, not indie gamers trying to get nominal press for their games-as-art style creations. Both are an issue, but one is much more impactful than the other one.), Electronic Games actually went ahead and covered the situation in their March 1983 issue with Arnie Katz’s “Switch On” editorial named “Setting Some Standards” (you can see it above) Magazines at the time had 3-month lead-time, so this editorial was probably written at just about the same time this “Phantom E.T.” cover hit the news stand. The 4th item on the list appears to confront this situation directly:
Arnie Katz described their main competitor , Electronic Fun this way ” they had some writers reviewing games at times from photos of the screen shot. I remember a review (from one of their writers) about Kaboom! It was a review of Kaboom!, but he had never played it, apparently — just seen a picture. He described it as “flaming bowling pins.” I mean, there was some not very well done stuff in that magazine“.
Electronic Fun was run by magazine industry professionals who were not necessarily fans of video games. Randi Hacker, the Senior Editor has admitted as much, as has Dan Gutman, the Managing Editor who told 2600 Connection that he wrote for Electronic Fun ” for career reasons rather than for the love of it” . This was in contrast to the creators of Electronic Games, who truly loved the field of video games and wanted to see the medium proper and grow. No wonder they were not big fans of Electronic Fun magazine.
I still have no real clue why this E.T. cover appeared on a magazine with no coverage of the game inside. Imagine the “******gate” if that happened now!
#2 Twelve Days Of Gamesmas
I loved Arnie Katz’s articles and editorials in Electronic Games Magazine. They were always heart-felt, and never fan-boyish. He covered many of the same issues that plague gaming now, and foresaw many of the problems and issues that still exist today. Bill Kunkel, on the other hand, was the fan-boy who loved gaming for games-sake. (I loved his stuff too). Joyce Worley was the news editor and stamped the whole opoeration with a sense of professionalism. The January 1985 issue (published December 1984) of Electronic Games was the last Christmas issue of the magazine. It was also either one of the final issues, or the final issue that any of the original creators of the magazine had control over the content. Any gamer who read this in 1984 would have understood most of the references, but 30 years later, you’d be hard-pressed to find any gamer who could name some of them much less all of them. Here is a quick list to help you decipher what it all means.
- Twleve Kings A Questing: (Sierra’s King’s Quest) (
- Eleven Froggers Hopping (Frogger)
- Ten text adventures (Infocom games. You know, kinda like Depression Quest. We liked those back then. We still like ’em now)
- Nine Runner’s Loding (Lode Runner)
- Eight Jacks Attacking (The Commodre 64 game Jack Attack? Maybe the most obscure reference possible.)
- Six Games A-booting (games took a long time to load from 90K disk drive. Even longer from cassette tape)
- Five Gourmet Sticks (he’s referring to joysticks. Expensive, quality joysticks, probably from Wico)
- Four monitors (It was cool back then to have a dedicated monitor instead of having to play computer games on your TV)
- Three disk Files (no computer files, but those plastic disk boxes that held 5 1/2 inch floppy disks)
- Two Stand-Alones (Dedicated table top game consoles. The best at the time was the Vectrex)
- And A Lifetime sub to E.G. (Another subscription plea. This time for magazine that only had 2 more issues)
I’m not sure if Katz knew it at the time, but this parody of “The Twelve Days Of Christmas”, while it hasn’t aged particularly well, certainly earns its’ place a piece of bona-fide video game history, as it sets this issue of the magazine in a definitely place in time that has been buried and forgotten. And that’s too bad, because it was an important time, and Katz, Kunkel and Worley chronicled the whole era. Excuse me if I get a bit teary-eyed when I look at picture to right, as it shows the staff of the first great video game magazine. When I was a kid, these were the people that led me through the darkness, and told me about everything video games were and could be. The gentleman in the middle, holding the “gourmet stick” is Arnie Katz. The guy lying on the floor in Bill Kunkel (RIP). Joyce Worley is the woman on the far right in the back. At the end of 1984, this was the final goodbye from the first era of video games. Everyone else had left the building, literally, and figuratively.
It is an era forgotten by most, and dismissed by many.
A time buried away under the sands of time and Alamogordo.
A time I will never forget.
#1 Atari Christmas Morning
Finally, I just love the cover of this magazine. It’s an Atari Christmas morning, and it reminds me distinctly of the early hours on Xmas 1983, when my brother and I received our first computer, and Atari 800. It’s difficult to describe that morning in words, although I’ve tried, because it meant so much then, and the meaning has only increased over the years. It was the single most important life-changing event of my young life.
Over the years, it has affected my brother and I in couple ways. First, we tried to recreate the feeling of that morning on numerous times by buying each other computer and video game products , but it never works. Whether it was with an Atari 7800 in 1986, a Sega Master system in 1989, a slew of Atari ST computer games in 1990, A CD-ROM drive in 1992, a flood on Atari Lynx Games in 1993, etc., it was ever been the same. It just goes to show that “magic” has a way of existing in it’s own space and time, and sometimes you need to simply experience it, and try to remember it, because it’s unpredictable, and no easy to conjure on your own.
The other thing it has done, at least for me, is to try to get me to give that same feeling to my own kids. Although I’ve tried many times, this Christmas was the first time any of my children expressed emotions close to mine from that Christmas 31 years ago. My middle daughter asked for a sewing machine this year, and I my wife and I decided to not cheap-out, and get her a decent machine, and everything she needed to get going. Neither if us are into sewing, and neither are her sisters. It’s her thing. Just like computers were for me and borther back in 1983. Yesterday in the car, as we drove to get hamburgers she said this to me: “daddy, that as the best Christmas ever.”
Mission, finally, accomplished.