Welcome to part 2 of our history of PC Zone (part 1 here, if you missed it). This time, we’re into the mid-90s, and what many consider the era of peak Zone. This is around the time that I started reading, too (my first issue was Zone 24, March 1995, with Dark Forces on the cover). Right, let’s get on with it, shall we?

Part 2: 1994-96 – The Editor’s Ten Inches

Zone 20 Cover

John Davison took over as editor in 1994, with his first issue being Zone 20 (November 1994). By this point, familiar names such as Jeremy Wells, Charlie Brooker and Warren Chrismas were also appearing in the mag. (Some years ago I became aware that Warren Chrismas was studying a course at the university where I work. Upon hearing his name I exclaimed out loud (to a gathering of extremely bemused colleagues), “Is that the Warren Chrismas who used to write for PC Zone in the 90s?” thus outing myself as an Extremely Cool Dude. Needless to say, they didn’t know who he or what PC Zone was, despite my lengthy explanation name-dropping Brooker (by this time writing for the Guardian) and detailing Warren’s stint as a technical advice columnist in the late 90s).

Looking back at Zone’s earliest issues, you can see that the transition from a fairly conventional PC games mag to the PC Zone many came to know and love began in the era of Davison, which heralded a slightly more laddish, confrontational tone, particularly in the letters section. Po-faced complaints about Mr Cursor were a fairly regular occurrence, with one correspondent (Wordprocessor, Zone 25) deriding him as a “Timmy Mallet [sic] wannabe”.

“It is obliquely gratifying to learn,” continued Mr Graham Stokes of Wiltshire, that if all else fails it is still possible to eke out a living as a writer on a subject about which you know nothing.” In response, Davison appeared exasperated by the number of people who just didn’t ‘get’ Mr Cursor but still got cross enough about it to write in.

Meanwhile, Cursor continued, with memorable columns including one in which he predicts a future where the general public refers to the Digital Versatile Disc as ‘VD’ and uses this to put forward a suggestion for a one-joke sitcom (“I could afford to go out and get VD! I’d be the first person in my family to have it!”) and the one where he slags off Steven Spielberg and suggests an alternative way to play the National Lottery (at that point a vaguely new and exciting development in the UK).

For a brief while during this period, Cursor was joined by his pal Colin Culk (“Alright? It’s old Culkus, isn’t it, from London”) who appeared in a couple of videos made available on the Zone cover CD. (By this point, it had been established that CD games were definitely going to be A Thing, and those buying Zone had the option of the traditional cover floppy for £2.99 or the CD version for £3.99).

Culky’s trip to the ECTS was a personal highlight, as he wandered around bothering various industry types and showing them a poster of a wrestler: “What do you reckon to that, then?” (God bless whoever retrieved it and uploaded it to YouTube). As a northern youth, Culky was, as far as I was concerned, an entirely accurate depiction of absolutely everyone who lived in London, with the possible exception of the royal family. He also briefly had his own column at the back of the magazine, and I have to admit that his piece featuring alcoholic firemen talking about all women being mad still makes me laugh out loud to this day. Like Cursor, it all had very little to do with games, but it was very, very, funny.

Zone 43 Culky Fireman

Speaking of women, there’s no doubting that Zone was very much a boys’ club at this stage. It did have one or two female contributors around this time, such as Amaya Lopez and Teresa Maughan (both also alumni of Zero magazine) but they were primarily more involved in, respectively, the production and publishing side of things. I did rather enjoy Maughan’s review of the dreadful ‘adult’ adventure The Orion Conspiracy (“Ask Lowe how he relaxes and he launches into a blatantly sexist tirade about how Brookes likes her men hung like a horse and with the stamina of an ox. No pleasant hobbies like origami or photography for him!”) and there were other examples that showed, for all Zone’s supposed edginess, they didn’t rush to lap up any old attempt to make games seem sexy and dangerous.

You could almost hear the disappointment coming off the page in coverage of long-forgotten ‘interactive movie’ The Daedalus Encounter, featuring Tia Carrere from Wayne’s World (“There are a few sad people who might go out and buy this just because it’s got Tia Carrere in a very tight-fitting, low cut, black leather thing. To be honest, from the marketing gumph we’ve seen so far, I’d say Virgin seem to be relying on this tactic quite heavily”), while the silly soft-porn of games like Megatech’s dreadful Knights of Xentar was summarily dismissed (When you enter buildings you will sometimes encounter ‘maidens in distress’. You don’t have to do anything to save them. The computer takes over the storyline and shows a picture of you doing something heroic. The distressed maiden in question in question then rewards you by whipping off her togs and showing you what she bought from her mail-order lingerie catalogue. Brilliant! What a game.”)

Zone 24 Daedalus Special Reserve

Still, they weren’t entirely innocent, and readers may remember the regular full-page ads for Dennis Publishing’s lads-mag, Maxim magazine. That tone crept into Zone at times, and complaints about a Destruction Derby cover featuring a scantily-clad model were dismissed with the usual stuff about how Zone wasn’t aimed at kids, although Davison also pointed out that the images were from the official PR campaign of the publisher. In fact, publishers and advertisers were the main source of the worst stuff, looking back: some of the adverts back then were really fucking awful. (We’ll get to that a bit later, in Part 3).

There were also plenty of ads that were reassuringly nerdy, too. Most people will remember the bigger mail-order companies of the 90s, like Special Reserve or Gameplay, but how many recall Sinclair Direct, whose frankly weird adverts featured the disembodied heads of Clive and Crispin Sinclair? (Not being much of a follower of the Sinclair family, I’d always assumed, based on the fairly unflattering illustration of the two bald and bearded men, that Crispin was Clive’s less-famous brother. Turns out he’s his son, poor bugger).

Sinclair Direct Advert

Regular sections such as Off The Boards, covering shareware, and the Buyer’s Guide had gone through a few different iterations during the earlier Lakin years, but both had settled into a familiar format by this stage: indeed, the Buyer’s Guide helpfully reproduced the percentage score every game reviewed in Zone had received, along with a brief review summary, although this was subsequently shortened due to space restrictions and then re-worked altogether.

Onto the games, and the reviews section remained much the same as before, although the decision to superimpose the reviewers’ heads onto a Red Hot Chilli Peppers ‘socks on cocks’ picture is surely an image that took many a Zone reader some time and effort to scrub from their memory. Disturbing imagery aside, the reviews intro during this period also featured a brief ‘Looking Back’ section, in which reviewers either added further praise to, or back-pedalled away from, their original verdicts.

Zone Bods 1995

The PC Zone ‘Pants’ award, given to all games receiving 20% or under, was also introduced during this period, remaining in place for some years. Many years later, a reader wrote in to say that pants were in fact useful, and so a competition to find an alternative was launched, culminating in Steve Hill half-heartedly sifting through numerous terrible suggestions and declaring none of them the winner. At some point in the 00s it became the ‘Dump’ award, although I’m pretty sure that was one of the previously rejected suggestions.

Charlie Brooker reviewed System Shock, awarding a whopping score of 95%, which was sort of what he did with a lot of big releases over the years (before Stoo whacks me on the head I should point out that a game like System Shock was certainly deserving of such praise). Later he saw fit to give two scores to Wing Commander 3, reasoning that the punishing system requirements meant that those with a modest PC were unlikely to experience the game as intended, but those fortunate enough to own a powerful (or, to use the Zone terminology of the day, ninja-scopic/ninja-bastard/turbo ninja-nutter) machine would find a game well worth playing. (It’s worth recalling that according to ads and features in 1995 a 486 DX2 would set you back £1000, while said turbo-bastard P90 with all the trimmings would be at least double that).

Ninja Bastard PC

Elsewhere, both Doom II and Ultimate Doom received the two-score treatment, reflecting a view that both were good games but offered too little in the way of genuinely new and exciting content for owners of the original. However, Zone’s devotion to Doom was well-established, and Zone 25 featured a cover CD with 1,000 user-made levels, although it landed them in some trouble when it was discovered that one of them contained some pixelated boobies (true story: someone from my Dad’s office asked to borrow this CD and never gave it back. Although I think perhaps I agreed to trade it for a copy of Audiogenic’s Brian Lara’s Cricket, which kind of shows what my priorities were back then).

Later, Quake would also receive some fairly fawning coverage in the form of a 16 page review from the überfragmeister, culminating in a score of 96% and the epitaph ‘Fucking Brilliant’. In the post-Doom world, discussion centred on the merits of Quake vs Duke Nukem 3D, and in one of my less-fondly remembered Zone moments, their over-zealous promotion of iD’s shooter led to the phrase Quake pour hommes, Duke pour femmes” being used repeatedly around this time. (I’m not convinced ‘femmes’ would appreciate Duke’s gender politics, actually, but there you go). Also, it was suggested that people who complained about Quake‘s system requirements used their PCs to download pictures of naked men from the internet.

Zone 43 Quake

Ahem. Well, we can all quibble with reviews, especially with the benefit of significant hindsight, but I have to take particular issue with the praise given to 3D beat-em-up FX Fighter: supposedly the PC’s answer to the best console beat ‘em ups, it was absolute bum. Also in this period: several mentions for the dreaded Zone Raiders – first, as a technically impressive shareware title in need of some further development, then as a full-price commercial title in need of some, uh, further development. 65% PC Zone? What were you thinking?

More serious controversy came in the form of Zone’s coverage of Gremlin Graphics’ Euro ’96 tie-in, a sequel of sorts to Actua Soccer. Zone secured an exclusive, published a lukewarm appraisal with a score of 70%, then apologised and said this wasn’t a review of the final version, before eventually reviewing that final version and giving it the same score. I never played Euro ’96, although if it was based on Actua Soccer then I think 70% was pretty generous.

This period also saw the release of Windows 95, which was the subject of some ludicrous rumours and claims, some of which turned out to be true (Charlie Brooker, who was contributing cartoons – of, it has to be said, variable quality – around this time, did a pretty good one on the subject in Zone 29). Most significantly, it meant weird things for the world of games: some would only work in DOS, some needed Win ’95, some claimed they’d work in both, but wouldn’t (or the sound wouldn’t work, or something). To have everything working, you needed a dual-boot system. True story #2: I attempted to setup a dual-boot on my friend Peter’s PC and buggered the whole thing up.

Zone 29 Win 95

Other random thoughts:

• The news section often read like a selection of press releases, complete with telephone numbers for the relevant publishers. Admittedly, this was in the pre-internet world, but still, I can’t imagine who would ring up about a game: “Hello, can you tell me about your new game please?” “Yes, it’s great, and it will cost £39.99.”

• In the world of largely standardised joypads you tend to forget just how many different joysticks and controllers were available in the 90s, and features on the subject appeared in fairly rapid succession around this time, with one effort notable for the accompanying pictures of models dressed up as nuns and each peripheral being given a rating for “phallusticity”. (Cure more complaints from readers).

• What happened to Power Sports Soccer? Did it later become Onside Soccer? Or Adidas Power Soccer? Here’s another one I never heard of: Phoenix Soccer, apparently featuring motion-capture from top Norwich and Ipswich players. Stick that on the box.

• Anyone remember Blender, the CD-ROM magazine?

Quotes:

“You can harp on as much as you like about how you played Doom to death because it was a technical marvel, or had wonderful gameplay, but really, deep down, one of the main reasons it kept you hooked was because…for the first time in your whole, weedy life, you were a Hard Man. Remember how you could never catch the ball properly during cricket lessons as school – you were scared because it “stung your hands”? Ha! Never again.”

Charlie Brooker tries to pinpoint what Doom had that Heretic doesn’t (PC Zone 25, April 1995)

“The commentary [is] provided by the admirable Barry Davies. There are those who prefer John Motson, but then there are also people who like to buy their clothes in the local Woolworths and drink Carling Black Label.”

Patrick McCarthy nails his colours to the mast in the FIFA vs Actua debate (PC Zone 34, January 1996)

“While lesser, ill-informed magazine were pushing Premier Manager, with its sneakily-misleading title and tedious gameplay, bases around saving up some really nice formica for your stadium’s pie-stall, we stuck by [Championship Manager 93] – the purists’ choice.”

McCarthy again, this time on the wonderful Championship Manager (PC Zone 29, August 1995)

“Person One: Well, that’s Magic Carpet squeezed dry, time to get our thinking caps on again. How about a futuristic sports sim? Based on golf? You have to kill your opponents or something?

Person Two: Not so fast! We can make some extra money first …the easy way.”

Duncan MacDonald imagines the discussion that led to the release of Bullfrog’s Hi-Octane.

“Two years after we got it, those wet, pastel-coloured thickos we call Mac users are finally to be exposed to the greatest game in the universe.”

David McCandless announces the arrival of MacDoom.

 

Next time: Part 3 – Dodgy ads, Haranguing on the telephone and Cruelty Zoo…