ZZAP!-y Birthday!

by Paul Morrison


Today is the 30th birthday (or anniversary, if you want) of the first issue of the legendary Commodore 64 magazine, ZZAP! 64.

That was a bit of a dull way of putting it, wasn't it?  Let's try again.

TODAY IS ZZAP! 64'S 30th BIRTHDAY!!!  YAAAAYYYYYY!  PARTY!  ICE CREAM!  CAKE!  JELLY!  GAMES!

OK, well, maybe just games, from that lot.  And games of the 8-bit variety, at that  (although I think I have some cake up in one of the cupboards... must check).

I thought I'd write about this anniversary (is it really 30 years?) because of all the games magazines I read back in the day, and there were a lot of them, ZZAP! 64 is the one that means the most to me.  In fact, if ZZAP! 64 hadn't existed, I probably wouldn't be writing this book.

Let's go back a bit.  ZZAP! 64 started, obviously, in April 1985.  At that time, I was probably still playing on my Atari VCS.  Most of my mates had computers at this point... I'd had hands on experience with the ZX81, the 16K Spectrum, the 48K Spectrum, the Acorn Electron and the Commodore Plus 4.  It was inevitable that I'd get one, but which one?

I was actually leaning toward the 48K Spectrum.  In fact, one of my mates was selling his so that he could buy a Commodore 64.  I was pretty much dead set on getting my parents to buy it for me.

Then, one fateful day, I was sitting in a taxi office on Consett, waiting for my turn on whichever arcade game was flavour of the month.  To pass the time, I borrowed a computer magazine off the kid I was sitting next to.  It was called (and you might have guessed this) ZZAP! 64.

I was immediately hooked.  Everything about this magazine was so much better than the others.  The cover art, by Oliver Frey, was stunning.  To be fair, other mags had some good cover art but this was something else... and the best part was, this art continued throughout the pages of the mag.  It was an essential element in the definition of ZZAP! 64.

The best part about it, though, were the reviews and the reviewers.  Much like its elder sister mag, CRASH, it rated games using a percentage system.  To most of its readers it made perfect sense and nobody could understand why the other magazines didn't use the same system!

What made ZZAP! 64 stand out even further, though, was its use of a reviewing team.  Or, to be more accurate, its championing of the personalities of its reviewing team.  Thanks again to Oli Frey, each reviewer had their own "heads", which would adorn their personal comments box on each game.  They had three heads, each of which reflected their mood when talking about the game.  It was a stroke of genius, and before you'd even read anything you could tell how each reviewer felt about the game.

This had another effect... you actually identified with the reviewers.  Every reader had their favourite, someone whose gaming tastes were most similar to their own.  You would tend to buy games based more on their opinion than the other reviewers.  That's not to say you would consider the other reviewers opinions irrelevant... they all had merit and they were all entertaining.

That year, I ended up as the proud owner of a Commodore 64, and a regular reader of ZZAP! 64.  I'd been buying it for months before then anyway, as I found it so entertaining.  I ended up having it delivered from my local newsagent... but as I was the paperboy for my own house, it meant that my round took considerably longer on ZZAP! days!  I'd read the entire issue on my way around... bits of it more than once!  Then I'd think about it at school, before diving right back into it as soon as I got home.

ZZAP! 64 made me want to write about games.  I actually applied for a Staff Writer's job, back in the Phil King/Stuart Wynne days.  I was turned down... correctly, as it happens.  All I had was a good vocabulary, a love of games and an interest in writing.  I didn't have any experience or qualifications.  I still don't have any qualifications, but I've done quite a lot of writing in the last fourteen years or so, even if you wouldn't think it from this piece!

I did end up writing for ZZAP!, as it happens.  Some years ago, there sprouted forth from the internet a "final issue", number 107.  The brainchild of superfan Cameron Davis and edited by ex-ZZAP! ed Gordon Houghton, it featured several ex-staffers and a number of fans like myself.  It was something of a dream come true, and the crowning glory of my writing to date.  But now, with this book, I hope to top that as a personal achievement...

I could write a lot more about ZZAP! 64, but it would just feel like waffle.  It already does... I always struggle to successfully capture my thoughts and feelings about it, for some reason.  Still, it remains my favourite ever magazine, and its reviewers (and Oli!) are my Gods.  I've got Jaz Rignall in this book already, but I certainly want more of them.  Let's see who I can get before this is all done and dusted...