One thing that’s always bugged me just a teeny bit is when folks on interweb message boards insist that nobody in the 1980s discussed technical matters about their 8-bit micros; if you listen to some of these people bang on relentlessly, you’d get the idea that magazines like Crash and Zzap! 64 were entirely focused on the games and nothing else – according to these experts, if anybody even dared to talk about something more technical they did so in the hushed tones reserved for gossiping about other people’s sexually transmitted diseases.
Of course, they’re talking rubbish. I’ve recently been doing a spot of “research” for another project which has lead to me wading through scanned issues of Zzap! 64 and the reality is a surprising distance from the aforementioned “truth”, further than I remembered it to be in fact. Along with all the adverts for programming utilities like the Laser series from Ocean and assorted adverts for productivity software such as Mini Office or Blazing Paddles and Zzap!’s own mail order service selling non-gaming peripherals like printers (unless I missed something in a text adventure somewhere that allows it to be played as though using a terminal) there were reviews for tools such as Electrosound from Orpheus, Rainbird’s OCP Advanced Art Studio or budget composing tool Ubik’s Musik.
There were also dedicated programming features over the years from Gary Liddon and others, unbridled technical discussions within the reviews and interviews or the various programming diaries from Martin Walker (for Citadel) and Andrew Braybrook (twice in fact, Paradroid and Morpheus) which were absolutely fascinating and went into at least some of what happens under the hood of their games. Add to that the swathes of type-in listings for the tips section, some of which were large production numbers which I’m sure the people who reckon that these magazines didn’t get technical will claim don’t count despite them being machine code programs in data form which were written and submitted by readers. And then there was the coverage of prototype online service Compunet (and through that, the demo scene) that could take anything up to six pages an issue including art galleries and was chock full of programs written in back bedrooms, adverts from people trying to find programmers or graphics artists to work with on games in the classifieds… the list goes on.
So by this point you’re probably asking yourselves what my point is, surely it’s not just about people whining on message boards? Well no, being told that nobody was interested in programming in the 1980s is annoying during those “platform X is better than platform Y” arguments but the problem I really have with the “it’s all about the games” attitude is more about what people expect of Retro Gamer. I’ve always been hesitant to include technical detail in reviews even when I thought it would make for interesting reading (note that I said “hesitant”, it doesn’t stop me entirely and the feedback I do get is usually positive). I believe it also makes the editors wary of accepting technically-minded articles for the rest of the magazine and to me that’s nothing short of a crying shame.