Sunday, May 27, 2012

GameFan Readers of 1996: Conspiracies and Confusion

Much can be written about Diehard GameFan. Originally a catalog for Dave Halverson’s Diehard Gamers’ Club, the magazine launched in 1993 and gradually became something of a professional fanzine. It was chaotic, it was hyperbolic, and it attracted the most loyal following of any gaming mag in the 1990s. That’s probably why Halverson’s fourth and latest adventure in print is also called GameFan.

Yes, much can be written, and not all of it is positive. But for now, let’s just stick to GameFan’s letters page.

GameFan had two major mascots: a TV-headed superhero named Monitaur and his scraggly, deranged, vaguely aviator-like sidekick, the Postmeister. The two originally appeared in the magazine's comic strip, and Posty, as he was often known, ran the letters page. It was never as replete with nonsense as, say, the editorial excesses of Ultra Game Players, but Postmeister columns always delivered strange rants, genuinely interesting news, and bursts of that wacky, waffles-and-shotguns humor that seems so darned hilarious when you’re a young nerd.

The Postmeister pages were also cross-sections of just what hardcore game geeks cared about, and the April 1996 issue did something that I really appreciate now. The Postmeister (who was likely Casey “Takuhi” Loe at this point) put together a pie chart covering the reader mail.

It shows just how things were after the great game-industry upheavals of 1995: the Jaguar was dead, the PC-FX was never coming to the U.S., the PlayStation was popular enough to make Saturn fans worry, the Nintendo 64 was looming large, and RPG fans were up in arms over all of those impressive games that they’d probably never play in English. RPGs also dominate the list of most-mentioned titles, though it’s a surprise to see Samurai Shodown III at the top. Today the game is considered an unbalanced fighter that started the franchise’s decline, but back in 1996 it was riding high on the reputation of Samurai Shodown II.

The best part of the whole list is easily the “Atari Conspiracy Theories.” The Jaguar sputtered out after barely two years on the market, and some of its owners couldn’t handle that. I’d really like to read the letters mentioned, particularly the one that blames a cabal of Japanese game companies for the demise of a poorly supported Atari system. Too bad that letter is surely lost to the ages. Perhaps its writer mysteriously vanished back in 1997.

In the year to come, the Postmeister’s column would also be home to a spate of letters from women readers. The first one printed came from Jen Seng, who went on to draw Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks for several years. Here she discussed 2-D sprite art as well as the game industry’s constant fawning over “game babes.” Thank goodness we don't have that problem now!

Subsequent issues featured more letters from women, though the Postmeister’s prediction about them being “deluged with mail” proved accurate. Some readers requested the actual addresses of female gamers, and GameFan wisely declined to set up a pen-pal service for them. It’s also depressing to note that some young geeks of the 1990s considered “feminist” a negative term. Oh well, that’s another thing we never see today!

Other readers saw their loyalties tested as Square and other companies jumped from Nintendo's camp to the Sony PlayStation. The most extreme reaction, however, came from someone confused about Treasure’s latest game.

Other readers were just confused in general.

And some wrote from overseas to express their oddly translated affection.

In a strange way, that letter sums up GameFan on the whole. Perhaps it wasn’t always well-edited or coherent. Perhaps it showed little restraint. Perhaps its history is an avalanche of borderline fraud, stolen payrolls, and travel budgets spent on debauched sessions of Super Nintendo. But it was passionate.