John Sweeney




John Sweeney







In 1983 I had a hernia operation.  In those days they recommended you rest for six weeks afterwards.  One of the games crowd at work had been telling us about his new Atari 400 and adventure games.  As he was moving house and wouldn't be able to use it for a bit he let me borrow the machine and a copy of Zork I.

I played it non-stop for days and loved it.  When I got to the end and entered the barrow where a big neon sign lit up and said "Now go and buy Zork II from your local dealer", I was completely hooked.

I had always loved puzzles and games, and had been into computers since 1967 when we went on a school trip to Nottingham University and were taught a little Fortran.

My love of metagrobology (the study of puzzles) started when I was very young - I used to do jigsaw puzzles upside down (the puzzles, not me) since they were too easy if you could see the pictures.  Then my father started bringing me back Japanese cube dissections, pentominoes and other estorica from Hamleys whenever he had a business trip to London.  I still collect three-dimensional puzzles and have many hundreds in my collection.  Through Pentagle I befriended James Dalgety who gave me a Rubik's Cube long before they were in the shops over here.  James' collection dwarfs mine he now has around 38,000 puzzles, having been bequeathed some of the largest collections in the world.  If you are interested in puzzles check out his site:

I grew up in Nottingham, starting on the first day of Spring in 1949, from good Irish (County Galway) stock.  All of my family loved playing board games and card games and I became an addict at an early age.  I learned Go (nearly made shodan) at Cambridge University in between rowing and playing croquet; the Mathematics wasn't anywhere near as interesting and I didn't do anything like as much academic studying as I should have until I managed to switch to the first undergraduate offering of Computer Science in my third year (1970-71).  By this time I had already worked for IBM as a student for nearly a year, and took a job with them in Nottingham when I left university.

I was extremely fortunate that IBM Nottingham managed to attract half a dozen other games fanatics and we started regular games evenings which ranged from "Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire" and Diplomacy to Sardines and Twister, depending on who turned up!  Sadly IBM had a habit of moving people around and by the early eighties there were only a few of us left in Nottingham.  Fortunately it was just around that time that I discovered adventure games and found a new friend to play games with: the Atari!

I worked my way through countless adventures, puzzle games and D&D implementations.  Somewhere along the way I submitted an article to Les and discovered that I could not only get paid for writing about one of my favourite hobbies, but that I was also able to get review copies of games for free!  Paradise!

I couldn't afford to buy a computer since it was an expensive time of my life with two young children, so I entered the Games Workshop Christmas competition.  Having made over 800 words from the letters in "GAMESWORKSHOP" (about twice as many as the nearest competitor!) I won 500 pounds worth of goods: an Atari 800XL and hard disk drive.  Les later lent me an ST so that I could review games for that as well, and I managed to get a good deal on a Lynx.  I played countless games and wrote an enormous number of reviews.  Here's a "Thank You" to all you games-players who wrote to me with kind words and queries!

Once I started receiving review copies of games and the accompanying promotional material I realized that many of the reviews in other magazines were quite obviously just copied from the promotional material, and in some cases it was equally clear that the reviewer had never even loaded the game!  I also discovered that the quality of many games (or their conversions to the Atari) was less than desirable; there were games which were insoluble, games which were incomprehensible (especially French translations!) and games which worked OK for the first half hour of play (enough to fool the average reviewer) but deteriorated rapidly into unplayable as you progressed further.

As a result I tried very hard to ensure that I had actually completed a game before I wrote the review what a deadline nightmare that sometimes was.  I hope this showed in what I wrote, especially my marathon review of Ultima IV.  I think that was the longest review Les ever published!

Those were wonderful days, but as time passed I was sad to see a deterioration in the quality of the gameplay.  Too much of the games-creation budget was spent on new features and multi-media content.  Very few of the games that came on half a dozen CD-ROMs matched the Infocom text adventures for intelligent gameplay, puzzle-solving and humour.  I loved the innovation, depth and quality of Ultima Underworld, but was extremely disappointed with Doom they took the same basic idea but stripped out everything apart from the shooting: if it moves shoot it, if it doesn't move shoot it anyway!  Sadly Doom sold far better than Ultima Underworld.  As time went on I found fewer and fewer games worth playing and as the Atari faded I moved on to other things.

All the machines and games are in the loft now.  One day I would like to play some of them again.  I still love games and puzzles, but spend most of my time these days dancing another love of my life.  You can check out what I do at

John Sweeney, June 2005