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Bicentennial ManBy Charles Ardai

Okay, Charles Ardai Hasn’t Written For All 200 Issues -- But Pretty Close

(originally published for CGW's 200th issue in 2001)

It’s funny, the things you remember fifteen years later. The first time I heard of Computer Gaming World was when a marketing guy from the magazine called me to say he’d seen my reviews in some other game magazines, and how would I like to write for the granddaddy of them all? His name was Bill Oxner. I never heard from or of him again.

I did say yes, though, and after a few months of on-and-off conversations with CGW’s founder, Russell Sipe, I found myself launched on a course I could not possibly have imagined I’d still be pursuing in the year 2000.

This was in 1986, and by then I’d already written about games for more than a dozen publications, most of which had since gone out of business (no connection, I hope). I’d lived through the first two boom-and-bust cycles in the game industry, and at the ripe age of 17 I was something of a grizzled veteran. I ended up assigned to write CGW’s first “Year in Review” cover story, followed by a 5-part series called “Titans of the Computer Gaming World.” “Titans” was supposed to deliver the definitive opinion about the five biggest companies in the industry at the time. As I recall, Activision was furious that our definitive opinion was that many of their games sucked.

They weren’t the last. That’s the thing I remember most about the past 15 years: not the handful of games we adored, but the piles and piles of them that we hated, the ones so bad they weren’t worth the magnet-swipe it would have taken to erase them. What I loved about CGW -- and still love -- is that no one has ever been afraid to shout loudly in these pages when he saw a naked emperor. Theodore Sturgeon famously said that “90 percent of everything is crap,” and this is certainly true of computer games. At CGW we always viewed ourselves as the most fearless crap-spotters in the industry.

Polishing Our Crystal Balls

This doesn’t mean we always got it right. In my first article for CGW, I wrote this: “Clearly, 1986 has been a good year for computer games. New innovations kept surfacing throughout the year and changing the way we look at our software. For instance, this was the year we introduced the third dimension to computer chess.” It was also the year Ultima IV changed computer role-playing games forever -- but chess, apparently, was what stuck in my mind at the time.

I also called a number of major trends wrong: I thought text adventures would come back, for instance, and that “interactive movies” would go away. Which taught me an important lesson -- never bet against the newer, better, sexier technology.

This was the big trend we called right: technology kept improving at an accelerating pace, and every year that passed saw more barriers broken down and more previously impossible goals met. When games started talking, it was a big thing: in the early nineties, I wrote review after review of CD-ROM “upgrades” of earlier titles, with the one added feature being digitized speech. When games incorporated cinematic “cut scenes,” it was a big thing. When adventure games switched from showing a side view of small, two-dimensional characters to showing Lara Croft from every possible camera angle, it was a big thing. (Two big things, come to think of it.) Every time gamers thought the industry had reached a stable stopping point in terms of what games looked like and how they worked, some innovation came along and changed everything.

Tomorrow’s Games Today

It’s easy to think that tomorrow’s games will look a lot like today’s, only maybe a little faster and slicker -- but this is always wrong. Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine showing one of today’s games to a kid from the Atari VCS era. Now try to imagine what sort of quantum leap forward a game would have to represent to fill you with a comparable sense of awe and disbelief today. That quantum leap game you’re imagining? Twenty years from now every ten-year-old will carry one like it in his pocket and think it’s old-fashioned.

It’s been a fun decade and a half. Many millions of words later, we’re still finding new ways to say, “This game sucks” -- and, more rarely, “This one’s really worth your time.” I look back and I can’t believe how many of those words I wrote, starting with longhand manuscripts (yes, really) submitted to legendary CGW editor Johnny Wilson while I was still in high school.

George Jones, CGW’s current editor, pointed out to me the last time I visited the CGW offices that I’ve been writing for this magazine for half my life. I don’t know why this startled me. I do know why it made me proud. In this age when most games are hopelessly out of date in 15 months, the idea that one magazine could establish itself as the leader in its field and then hold onto that position for half a lifetime is inspiring.

Happy Birthday, CGW. And thank you Bill Oxner, wherever you are.

The Tale of the Tape

Total years writing about gaming: 20
Started writing for CGW in: 1986
Contributing Editor since: 1995
Number of pieces written for CGW: 174
Number of issues CGW has published since Ardai started: 168
Number of publications for which Ardai has written about gaming: 18
Number that are still being published (other than CGW): 2
Estimated total words published on the subject of gaming: More than 250,000
First game ever reviewed: Kangaroo, for the Atari VCS
First game reviewed for CGW: Prince of Persia, for the Apple II
Best chotchke received from a game publisher: Can of vienna sausage from Accolade, 1987
11 Strangest Software Titles in 15 Years of Reviewing for CGW

Lane Mastodon vs. The Blubbermen (Infocom, 1988)
Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (Lucasfilm, 1988)
Cybergenic Ranger: Secret of the Seventh Planet (Symtus, 1991)
Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist (Sierra, 1993)
Day of the Tentacle (Lucasfilm, 1993)
Metal & Lace: The Battle of the Robo Babes (MegaTech, 1994)
The Psychotron (Merit Software, 1994)
Hodj ‘N’ Podj (Virgin, 1995)
Endorfun (Time Warner, 1996)
The Dame Was Loaded (Philips, 1996)
Star Trek: The Game Show (Sound Source Interactive, 1998)
Days the Magic 8-Ball Was Working Well...

  • 1988, science fiction writer Steven Brust on future uses of computers: “You’d carry around what looks like an Etch-a-Sketch...and you’d just plug in wherever you are -- or maybe you don’t even plug in, maybe it would be over the airwaves -- and there you’d have access [to a library].”

  • 1992: “According to the game’s literature, Ultima VII is the first installment of the ‘third trilogy.’ If installments eight and nine are as good as number seven is, there should be no problem; the danger is that it will be increasingly difficult to do something new each time.”

...and Days it Wasn’t

  • 1986: “Electronic Arts...has been instrumental in getting the Amiga past a very shaky start.”

  • 1986: “Games are already being prepared which will knock your socks off. Think holograms, voice-recognition...and laser disk adventure games.”

  • 1993: “Island [of Dr. Brain] is as rich in puns and gags as Castle was, and most are pretty clever (though some, such as a reference to a ‘Presidential Bush,’ are likely to go stale quickly).”
So You Liked the Game, Right?

From a 1992 review of a game based on Stephen King’s novel The Dark Half: “Turning The Dark Half into a computer game shows a degree of sensitivity and savvy unseen since Data East decided that Platoon would be a good license under which to release one of its jungle shoot-em-ups.... it is hard to drum up much sympathy for characters who are visually only one step up the evolutionary ladder from the Mario brothers....the look of the game will not knock anyone’s shoes off, much less their socks....the game has more bugs in it than John Gotti’s dinner table....[changes to the novel] have been made with all the delicacy one would expect from teenage vandals finger-painting on the Mona Lisa....The Dark Half is not only a bad game, it is easily one of the worst games I have played in the last ten is an insult...”
Will Someone Just Buy This Guy a Meal?

  • “Return to Ringworld reminds me of a bowl of raisin bran: the raisins are tasty, but unless you have the stomach to digest all the bran surrounding them, you’re probably better off ordering something else.”

  • “It takes a lot of energy to eat one’s way through a bag of unshelled peanuts, but if peanuts are something one likes, the effort is worth it. Anyone who can get past the shell of Mean Streets will find a tasty kernel indeed.”

  • “[Breakthru!] reminds me of those placemat puzzles you used to find in diners: fun while you’re waiting for your pancakes to arrive, but it doesn’t break your heart if you spill syrup on them.”

  • “[Cybergenic Ranger’s] serviceable but forgettable soundtrack does its bit, too: like MSG on Chinese food, it is of dubious value on its own, but it highlights everything it touches.”

  • “The weakest puzzles in [Gateway] are the logic puzzles in which the designers indulge much too frequently....It doesn’t help that they are all painfully simple, too much like breadcrumbs in a too-small meatloaf, trying desperately to act as ‘stretchers.’”

  • “If King’s Quest is the vanilla ice cream of computer games, at least this particular scoop comes with some interesting toppings...”

  • “If you ever have a chance to try mashed potatoes laced with grated truffles, you will taste the culinary equivalent of Beneath a Steel Sky. At first all you taste is potato...Just before you swallow, though, the mushroom tang sneaks in, sluicing over your tastebuds and tickling the back of your throat.”

  • “A puzzle compilation is a fragile thing, like a souffle. With a slight variation in temperature and improper blending of the ingredients, the tantalizing confection you were counting on can come out a soggy mess....But once in a while, a chef comes along who knows the difference between puff and pastry. The designer of Smart Games Challege #1 is one such...”

  • “Discworld is a double helping of a meal we’ve all eaten too many times, a juicy Roast of Middle Earth with a helping of corn on the side. It’s cooked up well and the first few mouthfuls are tasty, but after a while it’s hard to work up enough of an appetite to finish what’s on your plate.”

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