CGW Archive

I’m sure this has probably been mentioned here before, but I recently stumbled upon the Computer Gaming World Archive, and I’ve been having a blast reading through old reviews of some of my favorite games as well as developer interviews at the time, etc. Thanks, Jeff - and pass on my thanks to whomever else it should be directed.

One thing hit me pretty early on in my reading that I thought might be worth discussing here. It’s how reviews have changed over the years. The Ultima II review, for instance, was as much (if not more) about how to play the game as it was about the game itself. There was little to no critical examination of the title, either. I think we’ve made great strides in reviews compared to the Ultima II review, but compared to Scopia’s review of Ultima VI, for example, we’ve taken quite a lot more steps backwards.

She talks in detail about the gameplay and mechanics, improvements to the series, downsides to this or that, etc…and then she goes into the plot and the rest of the game and how it all fits together. We so rarely see any of this type of examination of a game anymore that it bothers me a little.

I realize that space is a large concern, so long verbose reviews are out. Still, I would love to see a magazine that offers full critical analysis of the games it reviews.

I’m not saying it’s all the journalists’ fault, however. Maybe there’s less time spent on gameplay mechanics today, as an example, because so many games play so much the same. There’s not much to talk about between the gameplay mechanics of FPS X and FPS Y, after all.

So which is it? Have the games themselves moved us towards the thumbs-up/thumbs-down review pattern we’re in now, or has the changing marketplace of gaming periodicals and the perceived demand of the public had more to do with it?

Thoughts? Opinions? Piercing barbs of hate and consternation fired at my heart?

I also loved the more detailed analysis. Even within a genre, looking at the gameplay/story/whatever differences can help make a buying decision for me.

This is definitely true. In the old days there was so much that was new and different that the reviewer viewed his job as explicating the new and different for his ignorant readers (I don’t mean “ignorant” in any derogatory sense). Today, it’s a safe bet that close to 100% of his readers will already be familiar with games very similar to the one he’s reviewing, thus freeing him up (or restricting him, depending on your point of view) to talk about only those aspects that are really new and/or different. Of course, if there are no aspects that are new or different, the reviewer spends his time talking about that.

You see the same thing in reviews of books and movies. Since something new and different rarely comes along, most reviews amount to comparisons of this current work with past works–for instance, whether DeNiro’s accent is as convincing in this film as it was in his last 12 (and thus, whether his performance was good, and thus, whether the movie is worth watching).

Why are only the first 100 issues of the archive searchable?

Yeah, I dunno. I’m sure there’s a good reason, but it doesn’t help me not want the whole catalog any less.

I’d love to see a return to more detailed reviews, if for no other reason than I like reading and writing 'em, but you’ve hit the nail on the head here – the average space for a review these days is 500 to 700 words. That’s hugely constraining compared to the 2200-2800 days of yore.

It kinda depends on what you mean by “critical.” But I think reviews need to get farther away from just describing the game in relation to current and past games and into cultural territory as well. For example, my favorite film reviewers understand movies in a broader cultural context than just “movies.” So they usually describe a film, what worked and didn’t work, and make a couple observations that situates a film in larger cultural dialogs.

Woah. That’s what, two, maybe three paragraphs tops.

A lot of the descriptive stuff you find in many of the older CGWs is rendered almost entirely irrelevant by the preview business. PR companies, wall to wall coverage of all major titles and feature stories about games months before their release make description of mechanical and story related stuff superfluous in many cases.

Screenshots are a bigger part of coverage now than they were in the 80s and early 90s, too.


This is true, but where a lot of current writers fail is reiterating all that preview stuff in their 500-700 word reviews.

The screenshots tell the story of the graphics. You just don’t need to talk about them unless they’re remarkable or play an important role in the way the game plays. Explaining the mechanics of a game without at the same time giving the pros and cons is also a waste of space, yet you see that all the time. Explaining the story too… ugh… I can’t stand that.

You have to figure that by the time you’re writing the review and someone else is reading it, they know what the game is about and have seen a picture or two. That’s why they’re reading the review in the first place. So you really don’t need to waste your word count on all the facts. That stuff is on the box or in the ad copy. You have to get right to heart of the game and explain what’s good and bad. Tell people why they need to play this game and what holds it together. What’s the game’s soul for lack of a better word.

Yet, many reviewers can’t do that. They just mechanically go down a checklist of graphics, sound, controls and story and you’re lucky if they say anything more than, “This game is fun.”

Regarding those very early reviews in CGW, the uncritical examinations could stem from the relative lack of precedents compared to the rich gaming history we now have. An early wargame review could draw upon tabletop experience, but someone playing, say, Lode Runner would have a tougher go at evaluating its place within its genre. Assuming that genre could even be identified properly.

I tend to agree with the others that much of it is down to a loss of space, which has hurt pretty much all US magazines -except stuff like Vogue- since the 2001 advertising slump. Then there were all the visual revamps, which traded away text for bigger screenshots.

So there’ve been sacrifices in what aspects of a game are reviewed, and the best reviewers just seem to know which bits are most relevant for a particular game. That’s why I get annoyed when I read a half-page review that wastes a couple of paragraphs on in-game fiction (“Frightened by the Kraut MG, my boys huddled in their muddy foxhole, praying for reinforcements.”) or useless background material (“In Lords of Slashing III, the land of Endurion is under attack from the Furbraks, led by the Ghost-Mage Zirkonius.”)

That really depends on where the review is being published.

Only the first 100 issues of CGW have been fully scanned. The rest of the archive is cover shots only, which doesn’t require much searching.

If I remember right, it’s a fan who has scanned the issues from a personal collection, and he or she is slowly working on more recent issues. I hope the archive expands, but there’s a lot of good stuff there already.

Yep. The average PC Gamer review I do is 300 words.

Wow, my appreciation also, and thanks for posting this. I probably heard about this on the CGW podcast, but hadn’t checked it out. As someone who loves going back and playing old games I missed (somehow I missed about everything, even though I was there at the time!), this is a great resource and very interesting reading.

And a well-done translation too…they went so far as to put bookmarks in the PDF, which is often not the case when old stuff is poured into PDF.

This is going onto my set of reference bookmarks for frequent reading…

I had to move all of the .PDFs over to my Mac, though. I just don’t have the storage space on my PC box. I should get another hard drive, but I’m lazy, and since my Mac is a video editing setup, it has oodles of space just waiting for me to consume.

I really like reading through the old editorials and stories the most, and sometimes the previews are fun because you know how the game eventually turned out. I never met a preview I didn’t like, so to speak…now the actual game? That’s usually a different story.

I didn’t even think of just downloading them all…great idea, and on my Mac I can then search them easily.