Story: Along with Arnie Katz and Joyce Worley, Bill Kunkel created the idea that an entertainment feature magazine could focus entirely on video games, and after a “trial run” column in Video Magazine, Electronic Games Magazine was born. Here Kunkel talks about the trials and tribulations of the magazine’s history, and how they paralleled the ups and downs of the video game industry itself. He also tells plenty of equally outrageous-but-true stories carrying the story forward from the end of Electronic Games’ publication to the present day, stopping along the way to comment on the state of the game industry as well as the game journalism industry that Kunkel helped to create.
Review: You’ll have to forgive me if I can’t be completely objective about Confessions Of The Game Doctor, when it’s written by one of a handful of folks whose writing I read in my idealistic youth and thought, “Hey, that looks like fun. I’m going to become a writer when I grow up.” To put it mildly, I was a faithful reader of Electronic Games magazine, and very probably owe a healthy amount of my knowledge on that topic to its articles and reviews. But how fun was it to be a writer for EG? To hear Bill Kunkel tell it, both nerve-wracking and an absolute blast.
Electronic Games came about at the dawn of third-party game software, when it seemed like the only games being reviewed were the those being released by the makers of the hardware, for their own machines. With the birth of Activision, there was suddenly more competition than just which hardware was better. Companies were at each others’ throats in terms of innovation, game play and even legal saber-rattling, doing anything and everything to take each other off the map. Suddenly, a newsstand periodical specializing in video game reviews was needed (where, before, no one could see why Reese Publications, who had launched Video, would bother) – and Kunkel, Katz and Worley were in the right place, at the right time.
Kunkel tackles the EG years pretty quickly, though it’s what many of the book’s audience will know him for best. But the anecdotes following that rapid-fire history frequently connect to Electronic Games, or Kunkel’s post-EG activities with Katz and Worley. In a lot of ways, that inseparable friendship is a running theme, surviving the test of time, the test of constantly working together, and the inevitable strains that arise. While the book is largely anecdotal, the Katz-Kunkel-Worley partnership is woven throughout and becomes its own narrative of sorts. Along the way, respects are paid to video game innovators who are no longer with us (including M.U.L.E. author Dani Bunten), Kunkel recalls expert testimony in such landmark industry lawsuits as the Atari-Magnavox dust-up over K.C. Munchkin‘s similarities to Pac-Man – oh, and there’s a little story about Arnie Katz flipping off the president of Activision mere moments after Electronic Games presented the company with an award, and Kunkel’s doomed quest to design a decent game based on Batman Returns. While so many stories of the video game industry’s early years have been told to the point that they’re answers to trivia questions, you haven’t heard these stories before – and you really should.
The book wraps up with a look at the current state of game journalism, and here Kunkel all but declares the industry he co-founded to be comatose. As a former writer for Classic Gamer Magazine, I was gratified to see that retro-themed publication get one of the chapter’s few nods of approval. But when the magazines covering current product are increasingly full of reviews so snarky that you can’t really tell if the reviewer actually liked anything he’s played, it’s easy to see why the author laments the modern game magazine.
If anything, I almost would’ve liked to see more of Kunkel’s memories outside of the game journalism industry – an all-too-brief mention of working at Marvel Comics with the likes of the late Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson got my attention, and I’m not even what I would consider a great comics connisseur. But this book is aimed at the gaming audience, so the minimal detours are understandable – and it’s still a fascinating story. After reading both his adventures and misadventures, Bill Kunkel still makes me want to be a writer when I grow up.
Author: Bill Kunkel
Publisher: Rolenta Press
Pages: 180 pages