It’s 2013 as I write this, which means this site’s been around for a little over twelve years now (!). That either seems impressive or sad depending on your point of view. Actual site anniversaries and milestones have been lost to the fickle, swirling sands of time (read: I forgot), but I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the various iterations of the site over the years and offer some commentary before I forget all of that too.
Just Games (’95-’96)
One of the most frequent questions I get is why is the site called “Just Games Retro” instead of “Just Retro Games” (the latter being grammatically correct). Aside from the fact that “JGR” is a snappier acronym than “JRG,” the reason lies entirely with the games magazine I wrote when I was around eleven years old. I was a regular subscriber to Electronic Gaming Monthly and Game Players back then. At some point around 1995, I thought trying my hand at reviews would be fun – and a video store membership meant I could certainly get a variety of reviews going. I conned a friend into writing too, and away we went.
Just Games was drafted up on an old Compaq 386 using Print Shop Deluxe. Reviews were restricted to one page and written entirely within that program, so it was the only time in my reviewing history that I was ever forced to be brief with my words. Various news and cheat codes were cribbed from current issues of the professional mags. We would then print out issues on regular letter paper, staple them together, and try to sell them to merciful neighborhood locals for a few bucks.
This is also entirely the reason I use the moniker “The J Man.” It’s what I used in the magazine. If it sounds like a nickname a little kid would make up for themselves, that’s because it is.
Just Games had four official releases, one of which I wrote solo after moving away (that move was the primary reason the mag died). There is a mythical “lost” fifth issue that I last saw on a 3 1/4″ floppy disk some 17 years ago, and every so often, I get cheesed at losing it and try a fruitless search to find it. The whole concept of game reviews would lie dormant for me until about five years later…
Fun Fact: Just Games frequently referenced fake characters like The Editor, Father Time, and Mr. Toothph, all named from clip art within Print Shop Deluxe. There was only a maximum of two of us writing, and I remember feeling embarrassed by that, so I made up additional writers to make us seem more “legit.”
JGR Version 1 (’00-’02)
Like every retro review site ever, JGR came about around 2000 entirely due to emulation and abandonware. For me, it was unfettered access to the entire NES library at no charge. Like a kid in the proverbial candy store, I spent a few weeks trying out games I had never played before, naturally forming opinions about them, and the concept to start reviewing games again grew from there. To me, it was obvious to resurrect the Just Games name. Slapping “Retro” onto the end would make it clear this was all about classic games.
Version 1 of JGR was hand-coded in Notepad using my very limited knowledge of HTML, culled from a high school computer class. Art was never my strong suit, so the button art and logo came from an online generator (we’re still tied to that logo and font today!) The big feature of 1.0 was the use of “cutting-edge” HTML frames to maintain the sidebar while loading review pages inside the main content window – so very “Web 1.0.” I was so very proud of that, which I’m sure I stole from looking at another page’s source or a Dreamweaver template.
Just Games Retro was initially never intended for public consumption. It was originally – and in many ways has remained – a way for me to catalog the games I play and my thoughts on them. I’m not really sure what the excitement of bashing out private reviews at 6 AM while listening to Pearl Jam was, but it was certainly there, and in no small part thanks to the feeling of endless games and worlds to explore through free emulation. I was stupidly excited to check out every NES game I’d never had a chance to play (or had even heard of), and legitimately thought I could have the entire NES library reviewed in a couple years, tops.
The early site could fit on a floppy disk, so I would often take it in to school and work on it surreptitiously when I had the time. It was there that a few friends noticed what I was doing, read the work, and responded favorably. It was the first thought I had of actually making JGR public in some way, but I didn’t have the means in 2000. It was also Static‘s introduction to JGR, which would pay off shortly.
Fun Fact: I’ve always been a sucker for holiday-themed special content, and this version of the site is the only one that’s ever changed based on a holiday. Using some found Christmas clip art, I changed the borders to colored lights, added some snow drifts, etc. for the month of December. Did I mention this was entirely for myself, and not even viewable to the public?
Version 1.5 (2002)
When I made the move to college/university, I found that I had been granted free server space to do with as I pleased. You can damn well bet what I pleased.
With JGR live, I was able to convince others to get involved in writing reviews. Static came on board, along with another friend and a friend-of-a-friend who took the names Cloudrulez and Wedge Antilles, respectively. We were still focused on 8 and 16-bit consoles, and I was still doing all coding by hand in Notepad. Why I would download old NES games, but not a copy of Dreamweaver, I’ll never know.
It was also the sole time JGR had an intro, animated in Flash by my roommate. Music from the game Interstate ’76.
Looking back, I was much… erm… “sassier” during this time. As Static likes to point out, the 2002-2003 period is where we were wont to end our reviews by just getting tired of writing and giving up. I also clearly hadn’t found my “voice” yet, and needed to learn that not everyone needs to channel Seanbaby (or can) and being dismissive did not necessarily make one cool. I think I’ve gotten better over the years at balancing entertainment and history, and hope that thorough, honest examinations are more beneficial than something exaggerated for comedy. It’s so easy to trash a game having not even picked up the manual (as YouTube still needs to learn!) – it’s annoyingly harder to actually do the research. Also, age and experience have shown me that very, very few games have literally no redeeming features whatsoever.
Though I admit, I still laugh at the line “Where’s Waldo? Who fuckin’ cares?”
Fun Fact: This version was the only time actual features were found in the “Features” section. I had plans for a few, but only three articles were written. “Face Off” compared two versions of the same game (the Genesis and SNES versions of RoboCop vs Terminator). The “Retro Collection” gave mini-reviews of Star Wars and Friday the 13th-themed games. I would eventually drop the features altogether, as I felt they took my time and attention away from the real reviews, for what turned out to just be mini-reviews of the same thing.
Version 2.0 (’03/’04-ish – 2009)
Inspired by my swanky new site, I wrote and wrote and wrote. Most of the currently existing reviews come from this fruitful era. It’s also the point that I started to consider actively promoting the site in some way. Promotion was not something I previously was at all interested in, and I remember taking a “if you build it they will come” approach. My thinking was that if I had a built-up repository of content, then so much the better if someone eventually stumbled upon it. There would be so much for them to read!
But I eventually took what I consider to be light steps into this arena – joining prominent Abandonware rings and getting listed as an official review source on MobyGames (a story for another day). Through this, I met fellow ruffians Rik and Stoo (A Force For Good), Mr. Creosote (The Good Old Days), and Mu’addib (the lost Abandonware Blog, for which I wrote a few good articles). I also found out that, basically, there were a whole bunch of people doing exactly what I was doing already, and in many cases better.
This was also when I made the difficult decision to include PC game reviews. This honestly caused me a lot of soul-searching, because I knew exactly what it would mean – a loss of focus on 8 and 16-bit games, and a further dilution of content. It made more sense to me to focus in one area, review all the games for one system (a reason why Jaguar reviews were added – the library was small, and I thought I could do it) and then “close” that system out before adding the next. I had this sense that a random, slipshod variety of reviews, years, and systems would turn people off from the site.
Ultimately I went with it because I knew it would keep the site going. Freeing myself and Static up to ramble about whatever had interested us enough to play it at that moment is what made somewhat weekly reviews possible. It also brought in Ubergeek for a time (bringing us up to three reviewers), who produced some great articles for the site. We’re getting close to having more PC reviews than all the other categories combined, but if it keeps the writing going, it keeps you coming to the site. It may not even be as “controversial” a decision as I felt/feel like it is.
Fun Fact: At some point here, I saw that my web hosting granted me a free blog. I half-heartedly opened something called “The Grog” (a nod to Monkey Island) and might have mentioned it in a news post or two. I had planned to use it for side stories and comments, but ultimately didn’t do a damn thing with it. I blame my general aversion and distaste for blogs at the time. Though it did inspire the great line: “It’s not called a blog, because ‘blog’ sounds like something you do when you chug a gallon of milk.”
Version 3.0 (Unreleased): HTML Strict
Up until around 2008, JGR’s code had been the Wild West. It was a loose combination of functional code scraps, hacked templates, and me generally not knowing much of what the hell I was doing. I remember the early days being marked by throwing out lines of unfamiliar code and keeping them out if the page should load successfully after the change. This was my idea of “tidying up.” JGR up to this point didn’t even have a doctype defined in the header, and I’m pretty sure every browser had to run it in Compatibility Mode.
This sloppiness eventually bothered me strictly on principle. I’d heard no complaints, nor did the site seem to have issues running in various browsers, but I felt it was time for a change – and that change should be orderly!
My first goal was to throw out Space Invaders. It had served its purpose, and I no longer liked the idea of inviting Taito to fire their lawyer missiles at me. I wanted to keep the color scheme established by the previous template, as well as the fixed width layout, but make the whole thing look sharper and cleaner (as well as more reliable on the code side). As I recall, I went back to mining for templates and found a nice, clean one with viciously strict HTML code. I changed around the color scheme, got a higher-res version of the logo courtesy of Static, and started the process of converting every page to the new format.
There were about three hundred pages. I did not consider the task I had signed myself up for.
Each page would get copied over to a template page by hand, paragraph by paragraph, HTML tagged/coded by hand, and the final page run through an online code checker to confirm its conformity. It was laborious as all hell. At the same time, I was playing fewer “retro” games, writing less reviews, and generally getting tired of the whole thing.
Fun Fact: I had long considered building the site around the concept of a computer or game console. The page would be like the frame of a monitor or television, the font would be retro-appropriate, and the navigation would be similarly authentic. I, of course, did not possess the skills to even remotely pull this off. I dropped it in favor of something more standard.
Site Closes (Dec, 2009)
So what “killed” JGR? I’m finding it surprisingly difficult to answer that question. I really feel like I’m in a different place than I was when I made the decision, making it a little hard to retroactively understand and then put into words. For starters, the issue with too many system categories definitely never went away – I was always disappointed with letting some reviews (NES, Genesis, SNES) languish while focusing “too much” on others. But forcing reviews for those systems became a chore, which I felt produced bad reviews.
I was definitely disappointed with the lack of steady content. I remember specifically feeling “like a bad host” for letting weeks or months go by without updates. I mean, we don’t and never have hosted ads or see a cent of revenue per visitor. I don’t even track the analytics stats today. But it was this sense of a commitment to the readers I knew were showing up – if I was going to have this site running, then it was my responsibility to provide content. Trying to balance real life with personal life, and this unpaid hobby on top of that, was getting to be a bit much.
Finally – and one of the biggest reasons – I wasn’t playing that many retro games anymore. The achievements system on the Xbox 360 was inspiring me to squeeze more value of out each game than I ever had before – playing on the hardest difficulty, finding all the collectables; all that kind of Tony Hawk “unlockables” bullshit that I never bothered with in the past. Somehow, with a little virtual shelf showing off what I had done, I felt like I was walking away with something – anything – that then made the effort worthwhile. This meant more time with modern games, and less time with retro titles. Hadn’t played an adventure game in years. Hadn’t booted up an emulator in about as long. I just wasn’t as passionate about the classics as I used to be.
And thus, it seemed like a good idea to call it off. If I couldn’t keep up, I felt like I owed it to the readers to make a decision. I didn’t feel great about it, but it felt like the right thing to do. I then spent the next few months trying to negotiate a new home for the reviews (which, luckily, didn’t pan out). Wrote a few things for a friend’s site, but lost interest when his focus shifted drastically to streaming video game “Let’s Play”s. Reviewed a few MMOs on MobyGames, which are still there, as well as one or two on A Force For Good. But mostly, I languished and came to realize that not directly running a site in fact did not make things easier or “better” after all.
Fun Fact: I tried my hand at writing more modern reviews during this period, and confirmed that I absolutely hate it. I think it’s a nagging sense that everyone has an opinion on modern games, so even trying is a waste of everyone’s time.
Version 4.0 (May, 2011 – Feb, 2021): Enter WordPress
Static had long been suggesting to me that I should port the site to WordPress, but I wouldn’t hear it. Part of it was because I was so invested in knocking together my own clean code. Another, much larger part was my aversion to anything related to blogs. I did not want the site called, thought of, or associated with a “blog” because blogs seemed so unprofessional. Despite the fact that the label surely fits (mostly run by one person, no financial backing, very loose deadlines with no oversight), I believed anything I wrote would be outright dismissed if it was on “a blog.”
Bear in mind, I also thought that blogs were basically LiveJournal – like randos talking about recipes, or moms writing daily updates about their kids – so I mostly had no idea what I was talking about.
It was also dangerous, because it meant going back to the laborious work that had helped burn me out in the first place. I was a little worried that the process alone would squash any lingering desires to start the site back up again. However, I finally did some initial investigation into the software and liked what I was seeing. I was most impressed with the system’s flexibility, and the ability to literally “drop in” new functionality without having to write a lick of code.
I laid out many of the reasons for the change in this post, and stand by them today. I know I’m not going to be learning high level coding or paying for a developer to knock out something custom, so the “hands-off” functionality of WP is ideal. Adding professional quality features is a widget search away. Sorting reviews is better and easier than it ever has been. There’s comments sections now! A version of the site automatically optimized for iOS/Android! And I must admit I’m quite fond of not having to hand-edit HTML files for every new review.
Uncle Dave joined as a reviewer May 11, 2013. His first review – and the addition of an N64 section – went up on the 17th. He’s brought many more reviews to the site, become a voice for sports games that’s better than my halfhearted interest, plus added invaluable knowledge of cricket and wrestling. It’s a better site thanks to his work!
Fun Fact: Once I saw that WordPress was going to work out, I quietly changed the existing front page to tease the changeover. The fraction is roughly how far along I was in porting the reviews over.
Version 5.0 (Feb, 2021 – current)
JGR coasted for ten years, which is pretty stunning when looking back. My first thought is that it’s impressive. My second is shame that there should be so many more reviews posted to show for that time. But, coming to terms with not having weekly or daily output has been what kept the site going.
A lot happened in those ten years. I got married in 2016, and (happily!) checked out of the site for a few years. I came back as the stability of a good married life settled in. Uncle Dave definitely kept the site going for those years, for which I thank him endlessly. He is now distracted by his own lady-friend, and so the cycle begins anew. 😀
Meanwhile, the underlying code sort of languished. The site was hacked with SQL injections at least five times. Now that we’re off it, I can admit we stayed on PHP 5 for a length that would make security professionals nauseous. I was dimly aware things needed to be improved, but also stuck in a 5-year contract with my webhost who would require a new purchase to update to PHP 7. Reverting the site once a year seemed okay compared to hundreds of lost dollars.
Then there was a little pandemic and I had lots of time to look into web security and such (as well as do slightly mad deep dives into Wizardry and Phantasy Star Online). My hosting contract was coming due, I knew a long time ago that I was ready to jump ship, and the stars aligned in such a way that it was a great time to give JGR some much-needed upkeep.
PHP was upgraded. SSL was now implemented – even though there’s no private data captured or stored here, Google apparently likes an https. Visitors can now rate the games alongside the review. Mobile versions of the site were added through the WPtouch plugin, but are now native. Navigation options were expanded greatly. And a whole lot of older reviews had to be touched up (usually with new screenshots) to match current standards. Plus, I took steps to learn WordPress’ wacky “Gutenberg” block editor, which is probably overkill for these basic review pages.
And so, here we are today. It’s been a long journey, and will no doubt continue to be. I’m coming to terms with the realization that I won’t be reviewing every game ever made after all, but the process of discovery is still enjoyable, and still often fascinating. I hope that level of curiosity makes it into the reviews, and will continue to on down the line. I don’t know if what I’m doing really will continue to survive and be useful to future generations, but I do treat it as such, and the moment that commitment dies is the moment JGR really will shut down.
In closing, as always, thanks for reading! I hope you get something valuable out of our musings, and hope we’ll continue to deliver on down the line!
Feel free to throw some thoughts down about all this here.