If they spend any amount of time browsing through Wings over Sealand, alert readers may well find themselves noticing a number of recurring themes popping up throughout its pages, and one of the commonest is a violent contempt for nearly all videogames journalism. This is because, not to put too fine a point on it, nearly all videogames journalism is a crime against humanity. (Either in the literary, ethical or sociological senses, and usually all three.)
Practiced largely by cynical-yet-incompetent careerists who regard themselves as essentially the games industry's door-to-door salesmen – rather than as a safeguard standing between the industry and the public, protecting consumers from wasting their money on terrible products – the dismally low standard of nearly all videogames journalism was and remains the reason why your correspondent felt the need to take the job on for himself, so that at least on occasion it might be done halfway-properly.
And if the 21-years-and-counting career that followed that decision isn't a reason to hate videogames journalists, then this reporter doesn't know what is.
(And you can take that sentence – and indeed, the word "career" – any way you like.)
Anyway, such a decision wasn't made hastily. It took several years of cowardice, incompetence and stupidity on the part of the nation's gaming hacks to drive your reporter to such drastic action, and in particular a handful of cases representing such a gross dereliction of journalistic duty in their discrepancy between the published reviews and the actual truth that no conscientious human being could allow the situation to continue without trying to do something about it.
So if you ever wanted to know who to blame for WoSland and everything it stands for, here (in descending order of hideous evil) they are.
1. Kick Off 2 (Atari ST, 1990)
Well, duh. This one's been covered in some considerable detail on WoS already, of course, but I'd actually forgotten that my first encounter with the Kick Off series was with the Atari ST version, which is a whole additional world of pain compared to the more successful Amiga incarnations of the game.
Along with the Amiga, the ST represented the cutting edge of computing technology at the time, so you wouldn't imagine that a simple overhead-view football game – a slab of green, a few white lines and two or three small sprites – would make excessively onerous demands on its state-of-the-art hardware. You'd be wrong, obviously.
Kick Off 2 on the Atari ST represents perhaps the most inept standard of programming ever seen in a chart-topping game. The demands of drawing any curved lines were far beyond its capabilities, so the pitch was rendered in straight lines only. (As if the zoomed-in viewpoint didn't make it hard enough to tell where you were already, the lack of a centre circle, penalty-box arcs etc left players with the impression of being lost in a dream sequence from The Prisoner.)
Even then, depicting more than one white line at a time threw the coders into a panic, so the goals were drawn as wireframe boxes to reduce the workload on the poor straining CPU, a measure which still didn't enable the ST to produce a steady picture.
WoS would recommend that you play the Atari ST version of this awful, awful game for yourself in order to fully appreciate the incompetence on display, but doesn't want to be sued for the cost of new glasses when the strain destroys your eyesight, or for the horrible trauma of playing Kick Off 2 generally. So just take our word for it.
2. Rick Dangerous (Amiga, 1989)
Ah, good old Rick Dangerous. Beautiful graphics, buckets of character, wonderful atmosphere, clever and smooth controls - the sort of game you're absolutely desperate to love. What a bummer, then, when it turns out to be one of the most contemptibly badly-designed videogames in the history of the universe.
Though it looks like a platform game, there's no running-and-jumping skill required in Rick Dangerous at all. What happens is that you walk along for a bit, something appears out of nowhere and kills you, and then you get sent back a few screens and play it again, this time remembering not to climb up that particular ladder, jump across that particular gap or whatever.
Since there's no skill and hence no fairness, the player is in effect reduced to the status of one of Pavlov's dogs, punished or rewarded at random for illogical and inconsistent actions. (On one screen, pressing a button will cause a lift to operate, carrying you to the next area. On the next screen, pressing an identical button will cause a giant spike to spring straight into your head.)
Of course, games being rubbish is just one of those things that happens. Luckily, we have professional reviewers to warn us that lurking behind the pretty graphics on the adverts is a wretched, miserable, frustrating cheat of a game, and save us from wasting our hard-earned cash. Phew!
Rick Dangerous scored an average review mark of 89%.
3. Rick Dangerous 2 (Amiga, 1990)
And then when the sequel came out – implicitly admitting the failings of the original by, for example, allowing the player to play in any of the game's five areas to avoid the murderous frustration of being repeatedly unfairly killed on Level 1, (but leaving the central crippling flaws of the gameplay completely intact) – the useless, cretinous morons of the games press still didn't pick any of it up, and gave Rick 2 even higher scores. Gah.
4. Zoids (Spectrum, 1986)
The review of Martech's toy-licence Zoids in the February 1986 issue of Crash is one of the longest-enduring mysteries of the 8-bit era, and another event which cemented your reporter's determination to infiltrate the world of games journalism and bring JUSTICE to the GUILTY within it.
Crash was famously the most strict-marking and ethical of the Spectrum magazines. Martech were a small company who didn't have a noticeably large advertising budget with which to threaten the mag's editorial integrity. And Zoids is completely shit. So where the Jesusing frig did a review score of 96% come from? To this day, nobody knows, but rest assured that your reporter's lonely 18-year quest to find out will continue, until enlightenment or death.
5. Turrican (Amiga, 1990)
Look, it's not that Turrican is rubbish. It's okay. It has lots of stuff to commend, like the neat weaponry and all the secret bits to find. It's just that it's not that good. It's huge and it's bland and it's repetitive – what's the point in having a level 1000 screens big if they all look the same and you never know where you are, and hence never feel like you're getting anywhere? So the extraordinary regard in which it was – and often still is – held, by reviewers and geeks alike, demeans us all. Somebody had to say it.
6. Golden Axe (Amiga, 1990)
The ruin of the arcade game started here. Trudge trudge trudge, fire-button fire-button fire-button, trudge trudge trudge, die, insert coin, trudge trudge trudge, repeat until game complete or your money runs out. The cynical shift in the concept underlying arcade games went completely un-noticed by anyone in the games press, either on Golden Axe's original arcade release or when it came to the home machines.
The Amiga port is actually a faithful and competent conversion of the coin-op – the accuracy perhaps blinding the era's reviewers to whether the thing that was so accurately replicated was deserving of replication in the first place – but it makes this list anyway because (a) the votes of others embarrassingly got Golden Axe into the first-ever Amiga Power All-Time Top 100, and (b) the home-only sequel Golden Axe 3 (exactly the same game with new graphics) was subsequently reviewed by Mega magazine in the same issue as the toweringly fantastic Gunstar Heroes, and to the shame of everyone on Earth got a better score.
Neither of which reasons are particularly fair on Golden Axe, but that's life.
7. Xenon 2 (Amiga, 1989)
"Hey! These guys are wearing shades! They can do shiny metallic-looking graphics! They've copied the music from a cool film! They must be the videogame version of rock'n'roll stars! Quick, pretend that we haven't noticed what a slow, dull, unbalanced and unfair nerd's idea of a vertically-scrolling shmup they've written! Give it 94%!"
8. Out Run (Spectrum, 1987)
Here was perhaps the first example of the games press proving itself unable to stand up in the face of a major hype campaign. Out Run, US Gold's big hope for the 1987 Christmas rush, had more money spent on its marketing push than any game before it in British computing history, with months of advertising working magazine readers into a frenzy with what turned out to be mocked-up screenshots.
The game itself was a near-unplayable disaster – catastrophically slow, with a nightmarish multiload system. Yet all the mags bottled out of upsetting US Gold's expensive applecart, and bowed down in front of the then-mighty publisher with 80% reviews proclaiming that the conversion was, while imperfect, the best job the poor little Speccy could be expected to make of such advanced arcade hardware.
(An assertion which would later be comprehensively destroyed by Ocean's magnificent port of Chase HQ, voted by Your Sinclair readers the best Spectrum game of all time.)
Your correspondent would subsequently personally encounter several of the intimidatory tactics US Gold's senior executives used to employ to try to ensure favourable coverage, but none of them justified the cowardly treachery displayed by the reviewers of Out Run.
(To be fair, many of Crash's reviewers were unpaid schoolboys and can be forgiven for lacking some steel. The adults, on the other hand, have no excuse.)
9. 1943 (Atari ST, 1987)
This one's a little different from the other games in this feature, in that it didn't score especially well in reviews (just 45% in The One, for example), and in fact it's not all that bad a game. The aggravating thing about 1943 was that, like Out Run, it was blatantly fraudulently advertised, to the considerable detriment of anyone who forked out their money for it (there were no 10-day refunds in 1987), and nobody in the games press seemed to either notice or care.
The "Atari ST screenshots" in the 1943 ads showed a much better-looking version of the game than the one you could actually buy, and most strikingly of all the ads showed the conversion in action complete with the coin-op's simultaneous two-player mode, a major selling point of the game which in fact didn't make it to the home ports. So what the heck happened between the preview shots and the real release? As a disgruntled gamer I wanted answers, only to find that the magazines I was trusting as my protectors weren't even asking the questions.
10. Nightshade (Spectrum, 1985)
Something different again with this one. Until late 1985, Ultimate Play The Game (the company who'd later go on to become Rare) could do no wrong on the Spectrum. Every game they'd ever released had marked a new pinnacle of Speccy coding and game design, and they were the uncontested masters of all they surveyed.
And then they released Nightshade.
An awful, tedious plodaround of a game (walk around slowly on a 2D plane, collecting different kinds of bullet to shoot at different kinds of baddie, and that's about it), enlivened only slightly by Ultimate's trademark graphical skills (and even those were largely nullified by a display system which as often as not meant most of the screen was simply inky blackness with a few diagonal lines across it), Nightshade was the start of a long and steep slippery slide which would see the Ultimate name almost completely devalued before it was obliterated entirely as the company sold up to US Gold and scurried off to make cart games for the NES as Rare.
Unfortunately, though, the videogames press seemed unable or unwilling to acknowledge that their kings had stepped out for a stroll in the buff. While the words of the reviews seemed to tell a different story, all the games mags poured praise on Nightshade anyway, with Crash giving it 91% (Your Spectrum made it Game Of The Month, which meant – as was the mag's odd custom at the time – that it didn't actually get a score), and such criticism as there was was being cretinously stupid (one Crash reviewer, for example, complaining that it was just like Knight Lore and Alien 8, two games which Nightshade resembles by being displayed in isometric 3D and in no other way whatsoever).
Clearly, the games press needed someone who could review games, not reputations. And I had such a cushy career all lined up in the Diplomatic Corps, too.