Part 1: Early Times

tsr: All right, so first off, tell me what you did at VG&CE.
Chris Bieniek: I started as a freelance writer; I started submitting reviews in 1989. They bought one of the ones I submitted, and I ended up with a regular reviewing gig where they would FedEx games to my house and I'd write about them. That went on until 1992, when I got a full-time job at the Beverly Hills offices. I've worked at the same company since then.
tsr: As VG&CE turned into VideoGames?
CB: Yeah, then VG&CE turned into VideoGames...
tsr: 'cos that's one thing I definitely want to ask about.
CB: Like, "What the hell happened?" (laughs) It turned into a real pile of shit.

tsr: I'll get to that later, but let's start at the beginning. VideoGames & Computer Entertainment started in the summer of 88, a little after Nintendo Power, right?
A.N.A.L.O.G. Computing, issue 27
CB: Around the same time. VG&CE was a spinoff of A.N.A.L.O.G. Computing, which was an Atari computer magazine published by the same company, Larry Flynt Publications. Arnie Katz, Bill Kunkel and Joyce Worley did a monthly feature for A.N.A.L.O.G. that covered the video game industry, because the NES had just come out and it was turning into a big deal all over again. That monthly column was turned into a monthly magazine, and that was VG&CE.
tsr: So they went from the old Electronic Games...
CB: Well, EG lasted until '84 or '85 or so, and eventually changed its name to Computer Entertainment...but Arnie and those guys left before the magazine folded. A.N.A.L.O.G. had been started by a different publisher and was actually a contemporary of EG; it was bought by LFP in the mid-'80s. Arnie and Joyce and Bill eventually reappeared as contributors to A.N.A.L.O.G., if I remember correctly.

tsr: How did you enter VG&CE yourself?
CB: There was another magazine called Computer... Fun, I think? Maybe Computer Play? I don't remember the name... anyway, it only lasted 10 or 12 issues, and this was around the time when the NES was getting hot, but there were no magazines covering it. They ran an ad soliciting reviews from freelance writers. They had done a couple of NES reviews, and I wanted to get into that, so I sent some samples.
tsr: What were the sort of reviews you submitted?
CB: It was Rad Racer and Legendary Wings...
tsr: Oh, so that would be '87 by that time.
CB: Yeah, that was right before I broke in. And they called me up and asked if I'd be interested in reviewing PC games. I had to lie to them; I told them I had a PC, but I didn't. Then VG&CE came out and I thought, "Wow! I'll try them!" Because if I had never seen that ad in the other magazine, it would have never occurred to me to try to send in submissions to a magazine.
VG&CE, issue one, Blaster Master on the cover. The
beginning of a new world of magazines.
Did you have experience with writing before?

CB: Not really. I was just a video game crazy guy who happened to be able to construct a coherent sentence. Plus, I was real careful - when I saw that first issue of VG&CE, I paid attention to the format of their reviews. I sent them the Legendary Wings review I sent to the other mag...and a buddy of mine had just got Anticipation, you remember that game?
tsr: Uh-huh.
CB: He got that for Christmas. I borrowed it, wrote a review of it, and I did it in the exact format of the way VG&CE published their reviews. And they bought it! It freaked me out because they didn't print it until the June or July issue of the following year,1989...that game was already eight months old! But I got like 75 bucks, and I was stoked because my name was in the magazine.
tsr: What was the average pay at the time?
CB: I think it was 65 bucks at the very beginning; it went up to $75 per review a few years later. There wasn't any limitation on the word count or anything, it wasn't very scientific. I would have done it for free, just to check out games and see my name in the magazine! And after a couple months, they called me and they sent me a game called The Guardian Legend...
tsr: Yep.
CB: I wrote a review of that, and pretty soon they were sending me stuff regularly. I started getting games in advance of their release, which was the coolest thing in the world. (laughs)

tsr: Did you get to keep any of those, or did you have to return them all?
CB: I tried to keep as many of them as I could! (laughs) If they called me and said "So and so is bugging us, we have to get that game back", I had to send it back, but I tried to hold on to them. And of course, when a position finally opened in 1992 and I flew out to L.A., I got to see where all that stuff was coming from...and I became kind of protective of the NES stuff.

See, when VG&CE turned into VideoGames, the guy who took over the magazine had no interest or knowledge in the NES at all, and he wanted to get rid of all those games; he thought they were just taking up space! I was grabbing boxes of them. He just wanted them all out of there. So lemme just say...if you collect video games and you work for a game magazine, it can kind of help your collection a lot. (laughs)

tsr: So you submitted reviews to VG&CE from Anticipation up until '92?
CB: As a freelance writer, yeah...and after I became Associate Editor, I continued to do them full-time until '95 or so.
tsr: And did they give you any guidelines?
CB: No, I never got any; I just tried to do what they were doing. The people who started the magazine - Andy Eddy, Clayton Walnum, Lee Pappas and the regular freelancers who they had - I was just trying to emulate what they were doing; I was trying to fit in with the "house style." If I turned in something that looked like they had written it, I figured they wouldn't have to do a lot of work cleaning it up.
tsr: Were you mostly reviewing NES games?
CB: I started out doing NES stuff, but eventually I was doing TurboGrafx, Genesis and Super NES reviews...then they gave me the monthly portable gaming column. That kind of helped me get into a full-time position, because I was reviewing every single Game Boy, Game Gear and Lynx game that came out. I could contact the companies from my house in Chicago and say "I need to know when these games are coming out" or "Send me a picture of so and so". It was very cool. At Christmas time every year I would get to do 4 or 5 games every issue.

tsr: Did you do any non-magazine things at the time as well?
CB: Before I moved out to California, VG&CE did a book called The VideoGames & Computer Entertainment Complete Guide to Nintendo Video Games; it had reviews of maybe 200 NES and Game Boy games. The way the book was done was really shitty, because they had to get all those reviews done in just a few weeks, so we were just cranking through those games.
tsr: How big were the reviews?
CB: Maybe one per page. It was aimed at parents more than kids, really.

tsr: That was what I wanted to ask about. The aim of most of the mags at the time was a pretty young audience, and it seemed that VG&CE was definitely aiming at an older one.
CB: I don't think they deliberately did that, though. Part of the thing was that - since it was a spinoff of A.N.A.L.O.G. magazine - those readers were pretty sophisticated. They were all computer users, they were usually at least savvy enough to write computer programs. I think when they started VG&CE, they just kept doing what they were doing at A.N.A.L.O.G. And that became a factor when VG&CE turned into VideoGames.