A beautiful - and big - retro gaming annual is available while stocks last. And Dave E is seriously impressed.
Retro computing annuals came to life three years ago in 2018. It was in that year that Fusion published its Crash Annual 2018, a hardback book which retained the style of one of the Spectrum's most beloved gaming magazines of the Eighties. And it was also that year that a small team, of which I was a part, created the 8-Bit Annual 2018, which covered a broader range of retro computers. The following year, there was an 8-Bit Annual 2019, a Crash Annual 2019 and a ZZap 64 Annual 2019, all produced just before Christmas time. Annuals make a lovely present for the man who is still into whatever retro system(s) the annual is devoted to and, at between £15-£30, they are cheap and easy for you to add to your wish list. I would imagine that unwrapping one of them on Christmas day makes for a great feeling. Indeed, I'd say it's one of the most common things that buyers say. They buy the annual, or have someone else buy it for them, and save it for Christmas.
The first two 8-Bit Annuals were pretty big and consisted of about 250 pages. Blast Annual 2020 is a continuation of the series; for some reason they've changed the name from 8-Bit Annual to Blast Annual. But this year you get over 420 pages divided between two volumes. Is that a testament to how insanely popular retro gaming has become? Well no, not really, it's more that Blast has reached its tentacles into many far-flung areas of the Internet that, say, your casual retro-gaming fan, would never find. Of course, to me, the owner of a massive game archive, that makes Blast Annual 2020 essential reading. To me, many of its articles are absolutely fascinating reads. In my wildest dreams I would never have imagined Slovakia hosted annual retro computing fairs, let alone was in its nineteenth year of doing so! Or that Double-Sided Games had sponsored an Amiga and C64 GameDev event with the specific theme of Halloween!
I mean, it's incredible, isn't it? Just stop and think about it for a moment. Before the birth of the Internet, if I'd organised a meet-up in my local Community Centre for 8-bit coders to turn up and create Amiga games and demos with a Halloween theme, no-one would have turned up. I daresay I'd have been ridiculed for creating something "too obscure". And even if I'd managed to round up a few people, there would have been no-one outside of that circle with any interest in reading about it, let alone downloading the games and demos created and making improvements or giving feedback!
And there's a wealth of these events now, all over the world, all documented and presented with full colour photographs, in the early pages of Blast Annual 2020 Volume 1. There's so much packed into the two volumes that I'm going to have to review them individually. I should also declare an interest too, because although I didn't contribute any articles to either volume, I did assist in proof-reading them before they went on general release. Which means that the spelling and grammar fluffs that exist throughout the book are the ones which I didn't catch. Which means that criticising them is actually criticising myself. Which feels a bit circular, but still...
On the whole, Blast Annual 2020 is brilliant. I do not think anyone who invests the £40 for a physical copy is going to be disappointed, and the £5 PDF version has got to be the bargain of the year. You get an absolute plethora of retro-gaming delights here, and not just on demo parties and conventions. Articles include How to convert BBC games to the Acorn Atom, what it's like as an American to discover the Spectrum, what it was like to work for the Sega Tips' Hotline, how they built The (New) C64 and even a hardware project on how to build an Arcade-style joystick. With every page in full colour - in fact, it's so colourful you almost need your sunglasses on - this is almost like a retro-gaming buffet table. There's not only going to be the articles that you cannot wait to read; there's also going to be a whole host of things you've literally never heard of but cannot wait to find out more about. And really there's little room for improvement with these at all.
And when you've digested all of that, there's the reviews to look forward to. And what a lot of them there are! However, the reviews come with this disclaimer. "None of our reviewers are professional journalists - we don't discriminate and we feel it gives a more fan-based perspective... With all reviews, software and hardware, we strive to provide positive reviews and outcomes".
I think this is a very odd thing to say. Firstly, we no longer live in an age where professional journalism trumps the opinion of the common man. You can see evidence of this everywhere you look. Today's newspapers have, at best, a few years before they disappear into obscurity. People consume their news from Facebook feeds or from YouTube. Even the BBC news, once respected as independent, no longer puts out professional journalism (for example, it kept on repeating that the President of the United States advised people to drink bleach to cure coronavirus when he did not). People are much less willing to believe 'professional' journalists these days so nothing is really implied by not being one. In addition, if you were either around in the early Eighties, or you've watched one of the splendid From Bedrooms To Billions documentaries of the era, you know that the magazines of that era (Crash, Zzap! 64, etc) were not even staffed by professional journalists. They were staffed by spotty adolescents who loved playing games. And they were popular with spotty adolescents who loved playing games for that reason.
That being the case, I just cannot see any reason to start 'disclaiming' anything. I haven't seen any other magazines or annuals do this. To me, the very essence of a review is that, as long as it's coherently and logically argued, it's the opinion of the reviewer, and that speaks for itself.
But what's more disturbing is that tail-end... "We strive to provide positive reviews and outcomes"? It sounds like they are saying that, even if a game is rubbish, they will do their best to say it is good. Indeed, there are 90 games reviewed in Blast Annual 2020 and 65 of them score 70% or above.
It's somewhat unfortunate that this disclaimer gives me a quite uneasy feeling, because I couldn't get it out of my mind when puzzling over the high marks some games receive here. Spies In The Night 2, for example, for the Atari 2600, is awarded 97%. Jaywalker, for the Atari 2600, is awarded 85%. Really? As a console with very limited graphics capability, Atari 2600 games will always appear as low resolution blocks. Yet you flip the page and find Amiga games in glorious high definition, with sampled sounds and sophisticated controls, games like Black Dawn Rebirth... awarded 85% (on a par with Jaywalker) and Bridge Strike awarded 79% (less than Jaywalker). I can well imagine the authors of those Amiga games scratching their heads in bewilderment.
Now I suppose one argument against this might be that that's really just the result of publishing a 'multi-format' publication. You need to have the ratings reflecting the actual potential of the host machine. But when you place such reviews side-by-side, the results seem ludicrous. Spies In The Night 2 is better than Black Dawn Rebirth? Hmmm, right...
There's also a real disparity between the quality of the writing in the reviews themselves. Some reviews are good; they discuss the game, how well it plays and the reviewer tells the reader whether he liked it or not. Some reviews barely scratch the surface. But some really aren't reviews at all. They just tell you what the game is about and then give it a score. I suspect that this is because the team in charge of putting together the annual does not subject the reviews to any editing. Indeed, you sort of get the feeling that that is the purpose of the disclaimer. That, in effect, Blast Annual lets its reviewers write what they like. They don't edit it, they don't change their scores and they encourage them not to be overly critical. To Blast Annual, that's a laudable purpose. And I get it.
I write reviews all the time. Sometimes, if a game is, in my opinion, dreadful, I say as much. For years and years, I got no feedback on my reviews. People (presumably) read them and either agreed or disagreed. But over the past few years, something rather disturbing has happened. If I give a game a particularly low score, people who have nothing at all to do with the game itself contact me to say either (a) "Your review is crap and you're a jerk", or (b) "You should not be so critical when you're not a professional journalist", or (c) "You should not be so critical because you may dissuade the author or publisher from releasing further games". Or worse, they go off on a vociferous campaign to tell everyone to keep well away from my reviews because "Dave E's reviews only deserve a 2 out of 10", or "this guy doesn't know what he's talking about".
The trouble is that, once this minority has made its presence felt, if one is about to criticise any game, one cannot help but think about their reaction. Now maybe I'm way off-base, but I cannot help but think some perceived 'blowback' might have impacted the reviews in Blast Annual 2020. Good scores have been given to risk not 'offending' the game's author and, as a result, the quality of the review suffers instead.
One must always speak the truth. Frankly, that honesty is what made the old magazines so appealing - Sinclair User said, of Central's Dungeon Dare "A waste of time and money, and is comparable to one of the more professional magazine listings". ZX Computing said, of Indoor Soccer, "I would like to be able to say something good about this game as I do like soccer simulations but this one just doesn't have any redeeming features."
Now, perhaps all of the reviewers who are scoring all of the games in Blast Annual 2020 so highly really do think the games they are looking at are the best things since sliced bread. But I doubt it. Instead, the "strive to provide positive reviews and outcomes" is, to me, rather too obvious. In fact, the Atari 2600 scores are so high, I'd imagine they'd give E.T. a mark in the high nineties. And, sorry, that might suit a lot of people but it just won't do for me.
(Just as an aside, reviewers weren't kind to my first book, published in 1999. Amongst the gems of literary criticism, I recall it proclaimed "Raw and basic" and a particularly damning review ending with "This is a first novel, and a lot of writers would know to keep it in a drawer, which is where it belongs. Edwards needed nurture, not exposure". As a result of this criticism, I worked harder, and did better.)
You see, what's totally brilliant about Blast Annual 2020 (and the 8-Bit Annuals that came before it) is it almost totally encapsulates the entire year in a very attractive fashion. There are now so many retro games being released, both digitally, physically or via forum posts, that no-one can keep track of all of them any more. You may have read about the release of the tremendous Old Tower on the Spectrum, but before you could check it out, your new Spectrum Next had arrived and you'd got your face buried in Crowley World Tour, and Old Tower got forgotten. But the Blast Annual jogs your memory, and off you go (finally) to get it. That's the great power of Blast Annual 2020. It is a comprehensive encyclopedia of what you might have missed in 2019, and where you can get it.
But the trouble is, because its reviews are so enthusiastic about almost everything, you might well find the game doesn't live up to the expectations the review instils. I'm looking at you: Cheman, Dead Zone, Vegetables Deluxe and Tombstones. Alright, you're not dreadful, but you've got to admit you're only average.
There's also the fact that certain reviewers always award games much higher marks than others (for example, me) would. Magazines in the past solved this problem by having at least two people review each game and either divided the reviews into game information followed by the thoughts of each, or by having a 'Second Opinion' after the main review. Blast Annual 2020 doesn't have this and it probably should have. It would likely keep the scores under a bit of control. And whilst we're talking about scores, the design for the Graphics, Sound, Fun Factor and Overall marks box looks very amateur indeed!
One more problem. Back in the day, I used to write a Retro Computing News column for the high street magazine Micro Mart. Blast Annual 2020 falls into the trap which I also stumbled into. Retro games disappear from the Internet very quickly indeed. Physical releases sell out. Forum posts get updated and/or removed. Links break. I used to write my articles a month before they were published. In the case of Blast Annual, the lead-in time is about nine times that. The result is often very frustrating for the reader. The most extreme example here regards the Sega Master System release of Sydney Hunter And The Sacred Tribe. There's a full review of this platformer in Blast Annual 2020, it gains 86%, and it's the only Sega Master System review in the Annual, so any collector of Sega games might rush off to track it down... only to find that (a) it was a physical only release, (b) it came out on 14th July 2019, (c) it sold out within five hours and (d) no further releases of it are planned. If that's the case, then it might be advisable to note all that in the review itself rather than leaving a hapless reader to bash his head against the wall in frustration afterwards!
Those, however, were my only criticisms, and, to be fully fair to Blast Annual 2020, I could make them against the annuals produced by Crash and Zzap too. In fact, what's even worse with the Crash and Zzap annuals is that, if the original 80's teams had gotten hold of some of the games from 2018 and 2019, they would probably have laughed them out of the office, whilst of course, these 'modern' reviews try not to be too critical. Blast Annual just has the disadvantage of being the first annual I've really considered in this way. And perhaps it's too much to hope for totally honest reviews in the circumstances... If I'd spent three months writing an Amstrad game and Blast Annual's reviewer came along and bashed it, perhaps I wouldn't feel like buying subsequent annuals. The scene has changed because it is now the very people programming the games who are the ones buying the annuals reviewing them, whereas in the Eighties there were publishers and consumers. But then, it's also hard for me to think that any of these annuals are run for profit. So either I, and the magazines of the day, are and were just hyper-critical, or all of them are indeed infected with this fear of 'offending'. Hmmm, not good, but I have more than exhausted myself thinking about this now.
Overall, you just have to get yourself a copy of this. Presentation-wise it's not quite as polished as Crash or Zzap, but then it doesn't really need to be. The odd high mark and over-exuberant review aside, this is just page after page elbowing you in the ribs as to what new games have just been released for old systems. If you get both volumes you could read a page a day and still not get to the end by the time the New Year began. It's got beautiful cover art, and advertisements from every publisher currently supporting the scene. It's like a Eighties fanzine maxed up with caffeine and given the production facilities of a full-blown creative arts department. As someone who has put together my own publications, I can well imagine that over six months of man hours has gone into creating this. Conclude that my criticisms of its reviewing style indeed are "crap" if you need to, but at least bung the team a fiver to ensure they keep these amazing annuals going for as long as they possibly can...!
You can buy the Blast Annual 2020 Volume 1 from Blast Annual's shop.