Prompted, I assume, by the closure of Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine earlier this year, a NeoGAF poster scanned the first EGM issues from 1989. They're a great read. I'm not linking it to make fun of it, or to point out the obvious disparity in the quality of criticism compared to the level expected (or not) today. These pages, 20 years old, are a kind of uncomplicated, unabashed and cynicism-free writing about games that really no longer exists.
It might not be very good, but I find its effusive wonder to be endearing in a bittersweetly nostalgic sort of way. By way of a repetitive metaphor, Editor Steve Harris suggests that the rival console manufacturers could be seen as engaging in a 'console war': "The lines have been drawn and the artillery is about to be revealed to the game playing public.... Both NEC and Sega are poised to enter a heated battle for control of the 16-bit system sweepstakes!" Even technical pieces on the Lynx, the P.C. Engine-2 and Nintendo's new "portable arcade", the 'GameBoy' are written with unbridled enthusiasm, including an exclamation point at the end of every sentence. At one point the editorial collapses into a cheer of "Games, games, games!"
EGM reveals a lot about the state of games journalism in 1989 by how it chose to promote itself. EGM, it declares, is "the magazine to turn to for the hottest new game tips, tricks and strategies!" Furthermore, its "Top Secret section is also loaded with power-ups, codes, and other tricks of the trade! You can always rely on Electronic Gaming to blast your scores to new heights and get more out of every game you own!" Pre-internet, the print media used to be exclusively privileged with that kind of inside information. The idea, insofar as it's apparent from these early issues, was that you read EGM not because you were interested in games critically but that you aspired to mastery.
Harris brags on his reviewing team, advancing their credentials not as writers but as hardcore gaming experts. The 1989 EGM reviewers are "four of the hottest players in the nation... who have what it takes to finish any game that comes along." EGM evidently hired quiz show contestants, another quirk of games journalism which (for the better) hasn't persisted. The move towards serious critique comes at the unintentional expense of the charm this early house style must have held for school kids who would read EGM and view it as a dream job. EGM positioned the responsibilities of a games reviewer as honing video game skills, with special access to awesome cheat codes, and then either dismissing or boosting games in a magazine. They didn't have to be writers, because the job was the ultimate and probably only reward for a life of playing video games obsessively to the detriment of school work. They could claim to their parents that indeed they could succeed with their specific skill set, and high scores would get them somewhere in life. Magazine writers were gaming experts, but they, and the magazine itself, would eventually be supplanted by anyone posting on a message board. I don't think that level of childhood idealisation is present anymore.
I don't remember what gaming was like in 1989, but I hope it was all like this anecdote from EGM issue #2: 300 Japanese kids skipped school to buy a Dragon Quest sequel the day it came out, and were arrested for "truency". I hope on the day that game was released that some burnouts in their parents' Cadillac passed by some nerd walking to school in the morning and told him that they were cutting class to get their hands on the newest Dragon Quest. They dare the kid to come along, and he hesitates, but then a girl with a mohawk and nose ring tells him not to be a pussy, so he agrees. 300 surly teenagers arrive at the mall and pound on the windows of an electronics store, screaming for Dragon Quest. Nervous staff freak out and call the police, who surge into the unruly mob, who yell about the pigs and fight back. The Dragon Quest riots spill out over escalators and through fountains; the perpetrators hurling trash cans through storefronts and the police neutralizing delinquent teens with pepper spray and batons.
That one kid gets pinned down on the ground with his face pressed hard against the cold tile floor. He feels a knee shoved up into the small of his back as his hands are cuffed. He hears the cop call him a stupid punk, who does he think he is? And the kid thinks: "Fuck you, man, I'm going to be a video game journalist."