It's fun to read angry reviews of rubbish things. But enthusiasm reads great, too. 'Valve just hit the high note no other developer could reach,' from Edge's Half-Life 2 review has stuck with me since I first read it (thank you nameless Edge contributor!).
It's why all those annual Best-Ofs or All-Time Top Tens are so satisfying. Yes, it's often the usual suspects of Halos and Dark Souls, the sequence lightly tossed. But it's a thrill to see someone take things so brilliant and familiar, and coil them into two or three sentences that spring on reading. Here's another from Edge (thanks again anonymous wordsmith!), from their Metroid Prime entry in their 2003 round-up: 'Even if you gouged the game out of the middle, the game would still recommend itself. The gorgeous mapping system, the glory of the visors, the convincing decay of a civilisation.'
Which I suppose is a bit like my love for video game magazines in general. Because even if you gouge the video and the game out of video games, reading about them is still a pleasure. Not just a proxy fun of games relayed and recounted, but games refracted - through an old-school static of fixed words and printed pictures - into something different and awesome and new.
I think the oldest one I still have is a copy of N64 Magazine (issue 17), and up until recently (Edge Magazine issue a-couple-of-months-ago) game mags have been a once-a-month vertical slice of the gaming landscape. I used to eagerly anticipate release dates of new issues as much as much as anything else in my younger calendar (Sonic the Comic issues, Goku going Super Saiyan, Fillet-O-Fish etc.). In those pages all of gaming's variety was rendered as flickable and exciting and incongruous as a paper Wario Ware. For me, magazines have always been a flip-side of my gaming coin, as core to the experience as electricity.
Of course, this symbiosis affected and changed the games I played, often in ways unique to magazines and print. I've written before about how screenshots are often strengthened by their stillness. Ryu Hayabusa crouching beneath a shuriken canopy. An R-type explosion frozen in a moment. Fleeting things made vivid and definite, detached from continuity of play and the practical concerns of sneaking and ammo-seeking.
And there's the way I'd use magazines as a supplement in my gaming, re-reading pieces alongside playthroughs as if just the playing wasn't engagement enough. I wanted the perspectives of opinion, words and context, too, multiplying my experience like a hall of mirrors. I wanted to fix the transience of play in the permanence of the page. And every time a new Zelda game was coming I'd go back to reviews and previews of older games; Kokiri-Green page-spreads and familiar words of excitement. Re-reading as a type of reverence.
But there have been so many more games I've enjoyed knowing about, but never actually played. The Dark Souls and The Witcher 3s; towering Kaiser Soze names referenced so much they're basically adjectives, standing for whole concepts in their own right. Or the less famous examples, the Rakuga Kids or Billy Hatchers that were really just aesthetic short-hand to me, their bright magazine spreads that evoked an old-fashioned gaming innocence and optimism.
Never mind the end-of-preview-section oddities like Seaman or Ka. So much stranger before the days of developer diaries and excited Youtube videos about Upcoming Releases. Before games had as much context as made things, reassuringly constructed by relatable people. Instead they arrived spontaneous and fully formed: Weirdo, unplaceable creations immaculately conceived.
There are just so many games that have only ever existed to me as screenshots and sentences. Whose games proper might have been disappointingly literal, game-y and systems-y and not whatever other thing games can be when untethered to the actuality of their playing. What do I call these things, anyway? This sheet music without sound? This bank of games never actually played, but still with their own mental presence. Defining the edges of the games I have played with their own weight and association, a counterbalancing negative space.
Either way, magazines have been my window into all of it. My hub levels, whether the bustle of picture boxes and captions (and Exclamation Points!) of NGC - the video game magazine as a noisy arcade of exciting things - or the sometimes self-serious Edge, gallery-hanging its screenshots in white space and 'name-checking Kandinsky' when describing Rez. Magazines make sense of gaming. Categorizing and compartmentalising and making it explorable.
But I think most of all, they worked outwards. Fixing not just games into place, but also me as a Gamer-Capital-G. Validating the intensity of my interest with moody Red-Eye pieces. Teaching me a language of references - to bloom lighting or bump-mapping or Miyamoto - that would register with frictionless familiarity. Fostering a general attention to the particular, an enthusiast's eye for the detail and specifics that makes things good and some things bad. Even opening my mind to types of good and bad that I hadn't considered before. And all this interspersed with Mr Biffo humour and inter-team jibes about Jes Bickham's bald head. Magazines gave me a community of words and pieces that felt and thought like I did about games, but probably also changed the way I thought about things in general.
And until two weeks ago I had a huge pile - mainly of NOM, NGC, N64 and Edge. It's always been a persistent, ever-growing piece of furniture in any place I've lived in. There'd usually be a satellite pile in the bathroom, too: another stack of tracks to be withdrawn on shuffle. To be flicked through and perused, re-read and revised again, fixing words and page-spreads in the mind like layers of lacquer.
But somehow I got it into my head that I needed a change, and that my magazine collection needed to be part of it.
First I threw away the straggler magazines that I never really liked, bought when I couldn't get a copy of one of my faves. This left big, satisfyingly consistent collections of Edge, N64 and NGC - treasured in their aggregate. But discarding things has its own momentum, and I quickly decided that I'd only keep the issues I liked. This was hard because some covers were great, but had content that I no longer cared for. Others looked naff but had some pieces on games I'd loved, triggering a cascade of memories like a holiday snap. Some things just looked brilliant.
So I tore it all apart, page-by-page and cover-by-cover. I kept only the things that gave me an unthinking spark of Marie Kondo joy. Like the Fez review kept for the 'clear, wordless chunks' line. Or the Here Be Dragons feature page. The rest I threw into the recycling skip at the local waste disposal centre. Watched the papers fan out like casino cards, then disappear from sight.
And now I'm left with my very own uber magazine, of Crystal Chronicle rivers and golden Street Fighter 5 covers and the rest. And of course there's me, sitting here, trying to write about games at all.