We’re onto part 3 of our history of PC Zone (part 1, part 2) and it’s getting to the point in the 90s where one of those nostalgic TV documentaries about Cool Britannia (which I would try – but fail – to resist watching) might focus its attention: Britpop, Euro ’96, Tony Blair and the Spice Girls. So, what was going on in the world of British PC games coverage (the subject of precisely zero nostalgic TV documentaries) around this time?

Part 3: 1996-98 – Cruelty Zoo

Zone Part 3 Cover

The Quake issue (Zone 43, October 1996) was John Davison’s last, with deputy Jeremy Wells taking over. Wells continued in roughly the same vein as Davison (and maintained the tradition of long-haired 90s Zone editors), although his love for football and, in particular, Championship Manager was a distinguishing feature of his tenure. Towards the end of his time as editor, Wells paid tribute to the addictive qualities of the series in a feature called The Cult of Championship Manager, which featured a variety of men old enough to know better telling tales of how the game got them into trouble (“When I finally went downstairs, Janet’s parents had left and she was throwing stuff around the kitchen…It was over. And I lost the final.”)

This era was probably Zone’s phase of peak blokeishness, with letters to the editor either praising or criticising this aspect of the magazine. In truth, as we mentioned earlier, it was largely adverts for games, rather than reviews or other content, that were the main source of controversy. This was the era of Jo Guest’s notorious ad for Battlecruiser 3000AD, which was toned down (a bit) in some publications by the addition of some pants for Ms Guest. Zone published the pant-less version, earning it praise from one correspondent (“Who would dare to put the ad for Battlecruiser 3000AD on their back cover without drawing stupid knickers on the poor girl?”)

Some months later, another advert – this time an S&M themed one promoting Destruction Derby 2 – went down less well with a reader, and Charlie Brooker (for some reason in charge of responding to letters that month) found himself agreeing, describing marketing types as “a bunch of gutless, soulless, hollow-eyed blockheads who assume that every gamesplayer in the country is a drooling, Pavlovian sexual inadequate…If I could have my way, I’d like to strand the lot of them together on a remote desert island. Ideally it would be completely devoid of all foliage or animal life, so they would eventually all be forced to hunt, kill, and then eat each other in order to survive”.

Other dreadful ads from this era:

• One for Championship Manager 96/97 (not a game that needed the hard sell treatment) which tried to mine some humour from those footballers with vaguely rude-sounding names.

• Sticking with football, a promo for World League Soccer ’98 referenced the dreaded ‘post-pub’ experience (for which I suppose we have the PlayStation to blame/thank) and suggested their game might cause you to run a bath and jump in with some friends. Get the boys round for some WLS, a Boddingtons and a bath!

Zone WLS advert

• An ad for 3DO’s Strife (an FPS adventure utilising the Doom engine) seemingly involved no more thought than slapping a brain and some balls (yes, those balls) on a page and saying “this sums up our game”, although things take a slightly bizarre twist when it is suggested the two items are ingredients for some kind of meat smoothie which should be ingested during gameplay.

Charlie Brooker was particularly prominent during this period, and even featured on the cover of Zone 62, as part of a feature in which he phoned up various customer service helplines posing as various characters (including ‘Shirty’: “an aggressive, ignorant thug who doesn’t know the first thing about computers”) and tested the patience of those poor souls tasked with navigating people through the vagaries of getting software to work on a variety of PC systems. As always with Brooker, a potentially mean-spirited feature was tempered by a much more charitable coda praising the work of all the staff involved and recommending that readers did not adopt the attitude shown by any of his alter-egos.

Zone 62 Haranguing

Meanwhile, his cartoons continued, with multi-part efforts including The CyberTwats, about gaming ‘culture’ and Late Developers, set in a software house. Brooker also seemed to be the go-to guy for interviews, and I think he conducted one with Lara Croft, the fictional protagonist of Tomb Raider, by this point given real-life form by a succession of models (although I’m not sure whether a) this actually happened, as I don’t have access to any scanned evidence and b) whether it was with whoever was playing the role of Lara at the time, or simply a list of questions sent to Eidos which were answered by some marketing lowlife).

Speaking of Lara, she – or, rather, her absence – was the source of one of Zone’s most notorious incidents: the Cruelty Zoo cartoon, which caused the magazine (Zone 60) to be pulled from the shelves. The general idea was that this would be a zoo in which kids could murder animals, and the cartoon featured some fairly gruesome images. The original version of the piece included Croft, and her removal was the only change suggested by editor Wells. Part of the problem was that, with Lara, the piece had a certain satirical edge (as early Tomb Raider games involved quite a lot of animal slaughter) and without her, well, it just seemed like a load of kids chainsawing a monkey in half. I have to say, as a reader at the time, it didn’t particularly stand out as something that would cause trouble (indeed while researching this feature I came across a CyberTwats cartoon featuring the Spice Girls which seemed potentially more controversial), but it still goes down as a landmark Zone moment, prompting repeated reminiscences during retrospectives:

“I suppose we were all used to my sick sense of humour and hadn’t had any complaints…The Cruelty Zoo edition of Zone went on sale – for about ten minutes. I think HMV pulled it from the shelves first, then Woolworths, and before long no-one was stocking it.” (Brooker, Zone 100, March 2001)

“Actually, I was more worried that someone would notice that I’d scanned the children out of the Argos catalogue, which I never told anyone at the time. And the monkey was from Encarta.” (CB again, Zone 172, October 2007)

“You had to have been there. And I very nearly wasn’t for much longer.” (Tim Ponting, Zone’s publisher, Zone 200, December 2008)

Zone 60 Cruelty Zoo

Elsewhere, Zone stalwarts were starting to move on. Mr Cursor disappeared following Zone 54, while Patrick McCarthy and David McCandless had left by the end of the 90s. The Cursor page was replaced for a while by a column called Looking Back, in which various Zone staffers provided a running commentary on whatever had been happening in the office that month. It was better than it sounds, but still not a patch on Mr Cursor’s surreal humour.

McCandless lasted a little longer than the others, although not long enough to ever see the final release of Daikatana, much-previewed in Zone during this period. This was in the days of the “John Romero’s going to make you his bitch” adverts, and suffice to say Zone’s interviews with the man himself around this time do little to dispel the notion that his eventual comeuppance was richly deserved. After the massive indulgence that was the 16-page Quake review, Macca had to make do with four pages for Quake II, but was similarly effusive in his praise for iD’s sequel, awarding it a massive score of 97%.

McCarthy’s role as grumpy reviewer of sports games was soon taken on by Steve Hill, who was given the unfortunate task of trying to prise an interesting conversation out of Alan Shearer, who was at this point attached to Gremlin’s footie sequel, Actua Soccer 2. During the course of the interview, it soon became apparent that not only had Shearer not played Actua Soccer 2, he hadn’t really played games of any kind, and seemingly viewed them with the suspicion of a concerned parent. Hill: “Having…Shearer make me a brew was a bit special. Unlike the interview, which was a predictable series of yes and no answers. Rapidly running out of questions, I asked him if he based his interview technique on the equally terse Kenny Dalglish. Shearer’s swift denial left me no option but to ask the question again, at which point England’s most dour footballer bared his teeth in something approximating a smile” (Zone 100, March 2001). Other significant writers to join in this period included Paul ‘Mallo’ Mallinson and Richie Shoemaker.

Zone 60 Shearer

Speaking of Actua 2, Zone inexplicably preferred it to the actually quite decent FIFA: Road to World Cup ’98. The mysterious Sensible Soccer 2000 also appeared around this time, and following receipt of a glowing review, secured a place in the PC Zone Buyer’s Guide. Despite this, and several adverts for the game as Sensible Soccer 2000, the game didn’t see the light of day for months, during which time it was also known as Sensible World Cup ’98 and then, when it missed the boat for a World Cup release, simply Sensible Soccer ’98. (They should have kept the original name, methinks).

Perhaps it’s because I was no more likely to buy a lot of new games back then than I am now, but the fact that Zone used to publish reviews that I didn’t agree with (or “wrong”, using modern parlance) didn’t bother me in the slightest. I’m also not one to excuse glaring oversights in the name of nostalgia (“Ah, we weren’t so bothered about details back then…”) but I do sort of miss the days when the odd slip or a slightly flippant review wasn’t met with a hailstorm of correspondence questioning the integrity and/or competence of the writer. I mean, I was a bit bothered when Chris Anderson seemed to forget about the events of Wing Commander IV in his review of Prophecy (“The war with the Kilrathi is finally over. At the end of Wing Commander IV, Christopher Blair destroys the planet Kilrah.” That’s the third one! What about the Border Worlds, and Malcolm MacDowell [redacted]?!) but, you know, it didn’t stop me buying the next Zone for £4.99. Nowadays, such an omission would no doubt prompt a below-the-line commenter to announce that he would not be returning to a website to which he contributed no financial support.

Getting into mid-1998, the edgy 90s look of the magazine was ditched in favour of a cleaner redesign (Zone 65). A number of new features made their debut in the previous issue: a new page for technical queries (following in the footsteps of Bits and PCs) called Ask Dr Spod and one for game hints called Dear Chimpy, later retitled Dear Keith (Pullin) and Dear Wazza (Warren Chrismas); and Charlie Brooker’s Sick Notes, in which CB sort of challenged the readers to a fight via the medium of written correspondence. Which would produce some memorable moments in the next chapter of Zone’s history.

Zone 65 Cover

Random thoughts:

• This was the era of early 3D accelerator cards, and coverage focused on the two main big hitters, 3dfx and PowerVR. I think like many ancient tech battles, who ‘won’ had little to do with the quality of the hardware, although I do remember 3dfx gradually becoming the standard for a while. As ever, early adopters could get quite frothy-mouthed about the whole thing, with angry PowerVR owners writing in to complain about ‘pro-3dfx bias’. It was the better card though, wasn’t it? Or was the games media biased against it from the start? Or was it the better card though? Or was the games media biased against it from the start? Or…[that’s enough – Ed.]

• Compilations! Why spend your money on one good new game when you can get a load of old ones of variable quality for the same price? I once purchased known as The Big 6ix, an eclectic mix featuring the PC versions of Mortal Kombat 3 (I always was rubbish at beat ’em ups); Sensible World of Soccer (trying and failing to like that damned series for the nth time); Bedlam (sort of looked like Syndicate without the thinking – it was boring); Enemy Nations (some strategy game I played for 10 minutes); Battlecruiser 3000AD (terminally complicated and boring and not at all as enjoyable as the advert implied it would be) and Stargunner (perhaps unfairly, dismissed it as amateurish-looking and never played it).

Zone Big 6ix

• One hesitates to praise Microsoft, but their Sidewinder joypads were the controllers to have during this period, because they had lots of buttons and you could use more than one on the same PC, making them the ideal choice for anyone who wanted to play football or racing games.

Quotes:

“Me: While you were in active service, did you ever launch a torpedo or missile at a real threat?
Terry: Ho ho ho. No!!!
He was looking at me as if to say, “come on, ask another one.” (I don’t think he liked my ear-ring). So I re-phrased the first question…
Me: Okay, then, but while you were in active service did you ever find yourself in a stand-off position where you thought “This is it?” Did you ever find yourself with your finger on the button? Whether you pressed it or not?
Terry: (Shouting) You’ve just transgressed the boundaries of your review brief, MISTER!!!
Jesus! I nearly shat my pants. It was like being court-martialled.”

Duncan MacDonald‘s extremely brief interview with retired US Navy Officer Terry Jones, promoting 688i Hunter Killer (Zone 50, May 1997)

“Thanks for putting us straight on all of that, James. We weren’t aware that the Star Wars Trilogy is actually a documentary series. Next time, instead of writing in to correct us, why not just get in touch with the National Association of Uptight Cranks (they’re in the Yellow Pages, under ‘Oddball Services’)? It’s an independent body dedicated to ensuring that all UK coverage of fictional, made-up, not-at-all-real entities is fair, accurate, and then it goes into arse-achingly trivial detail about absolutely bloody everything. Okay?”

Charlie Brooker responds to a letter from a Star Wars fan (Zone 50, May 1997)

 

Next time: Part 4: What’s On Your Hard Drive, the Supertest, Sick Notes and Croc’s willy…