By Scott Stilphen
Michael Blanchet was a self-proclaimed "video game wizard and tournament champion" who authored 2 books about video game playing strategies. His first book, How to Beat the Video Games, was a best-seller (the back cover of his second book notes 80,000 copies were sold within the first year) and led to a syndicated newspaper column. While writing the column, he released his second book, How to Beat Atari, Intellivision, and Other Home Video Games. His strategies and reviews also appeared in the magazines Electronic Fun with Computers and Games, Electronic Games (and later Computer Entertainment), Video Games, and Video Review.
The column was known by several names ("Beating the Video Games", "How to Beat the Video Games", Win at Video, etc), and the titles of each article varied from paper to paper. The length of each article varied as well, with some being only a few paragraphs, while others were longer and included diagrams or photos. Also, the date or time frame with any given article varied, with one article appearing weeks or months earlier or later with different papers, so determining an exact date for when a specific article was first printed can be difficult. All of these differences may be part of having a syndicated column, with each paper's editors having the final say. Here is a pdf file with a near-complete collection of all his articles, along with an index document.
Q: What’s your educational background?
Michael Blanchet: I graduated high school in 1978 and never attended college.
Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in writing? Were there any writers or publications that inspired you?
Michael Blanchet: I always loved to write. Throughout high school I remember actually liking term papers and composition assignments. I wrote a column for the Bernards High School student news paper wherein the editor would pretty much let me pontificate on anything I deemed interesting - within reason, of course. I was enrolled in a very tough pre-college English course - lots of poetry analysis and thematic dissection of the classics. My teacher, Mr. Guthrie, used to openly badger me about my habit of carrying around paperback copies of whatever Kurt Vonnegut novel I was reading at the time. I loved his books and couldn't get enough of them.
Q: In 1981, the first 2 “how to” video game books appeared – Ken Uston’s Mastering Pac-Man and Tom Hirschfeld’s How to Master the Video Games. I don’t have the sales figures of either, but I’m guessing both sold well enough that the following year saw an explosion of video game books on store shelves, including your books, How to Beat the Video Games and How to Beat Atari, Intellivision, and Other Home Video Games. Can you talk about how your first book came together?
Michael Blanchet: I remember the circumstances very well. A friend had told me about an Atari sponsored video game tournament being held in a nearby arcade. There I met a writer named Aaron Latham who was working on an article that would eventually be published in New York Times Sunday magazine. I was game for his questions and we ended up speaking a lot over the following weeks. He more or less made me the focus of his article about the "Video game phenomenon" and the avid players that were caught up in the hysteria that were video games in the early 80's. I was working at a video arcade at the time and used to dispense strategy tips that I had either learned on my own or had picked up from other players who frequented the place. The idea for a book was there but I didn't get moving on it until after the Times piece was published in October of 1981. That following Monday I was contacted by a man named Rob Katz, owner of a greeting card and calendar publishing company in New York. After brief formalities he alluded to a book and I replied that one was already somewhat half-written in my head. He acted as my agent after that and was responsible for the book landing at Simon & Schuster and in large part instrumental in the column that was syndicated by the Tribune Company.
Q: The linear notes for your 1st book mention you were a tournament champion for several games. Do you recall which tournaments you participated in, and your experiences with each?
Michael Blanchet: I was always uncomfortable about the lionizing that went on in the name of selling books. The fact is I only competed in the one tournament where I met the Times writer. I did very well in the first round (I was playing Atari's Battlezone which I routinely killed) but ensuing rounds were on games I was not as good at. I'm pretty sure I got slaughtered in the 2nd round playing Centipede which I understood how to beat; I just hadn't played it enough to be functionally good at it. It was put to me in so many words that accolades would sell books, hence the label "tournament champion." I guess it wasn't enough to be a kid who worked in an arcade and had strategy advice to dispense on the games he worked around everyday.
Q: The linear notes for your 2nd book mention your 1st book sold 80,000 copies within the first year, which led to your syndicated column. There you were, 22 years old, with a best-selling book and your own newspaper column. That must have been a great experience. How many copies did you eventually sell of each book, and how long did your column run?
Michael Blanchet: I never did get an accurate accounting from the publisher. I know the second book did not fare as well as they would have hoped. Part of this was timing of the book's release which was pushed back for some reason or another. The problem as I saw it was that the book was about games that were popular at one time but when the book came out other home video games were the ones that people were playing. The games that I covered were a bit dated. I also felt that the need for a strategy book on home video games was never really there. Arcades games were one thing - you're dropping tons of quarters into these things and you want to get better. A home game, however, was something you purchased, so once the commitment was made, why rush the process of discovery that unfolds as you play it? So yeah, I never did find out what the final numbers were on either book. For all I know that 80,000 number could have been yet another example of truth bent to enhance the book's performance in the market place.
As for the column, that ran for about 2 years. In its waning days, I shifted the focus towards more of a review format of games and some computer software. Clearly it seemed that software in general was going to be the big driver of computers going forward and this was our attempt to get in front of the crowd by covering this. I'm sure people smarter than I were doing the same and probably better at it, too. I don't remember the day that I got the call that the column was done but I did not take it well. I really enjoyed the work that I put into it.
Q: Most of your articles were game reviews or strategies, but a few covered news from CES shows. Did you ever attend any industry shows, such as CES or Toy Fair?
Michael Blanchet: I loved going to CES. They had them twice a year then - summer in Chicago and winter in Vegas. As a writer who covered a West Coast industry from his home in suburban New Jersey, I spent a lot of time talking to people over the phone. CES was an opportunity to put a face to the name and voice. I remember walking around my first CES. The column had started maybe a month or two prior and no one had any idea what to make of this kid posing as a reviewer who was coming around looking for review copies of games. Six months later it was an entirely different story. I had to ship back all the crap that was being thrown at me - there was no way I could have gotten it all on the plane. The attention was nice, too, since most of the year was spent indoors playing games - good and bad - in isolation.
Ad from the Chicago Tribune Syndicate promoting Blanchet's column
Milwaukee Sentinel "Win At Video" column from 9-8-83, describing a VCS Devo game.
Q: I recently started compiling a set of all your newspaper articles, and came across one that mentions a Devo video game that apparently was being planned back in 1983. The company mentioned in the article, Wizard Video, was infamous for making 2 horror movie-based games for the Atari VCS/2600 - Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They were planning on releasing at least 2 more (Flesh Gordon and I Spit On Your Grave), but they only released the first 2 games before going out of business. Do you recall anything about this game, or where you heard about it? Being I don’t have all of your articles, I’m wondering if you talked about the Devo game before, perhaps in an earlier article, but as of yet I haven’t found one.
Michael Blanchet: I wish I could tell you more about the Devo game but my memory on that one is pretty much non existent. I don't remember a lot of vetting going on by higher ups as to the content of my columns. While I wasn't trained journalist in the classic sense - one with a degree - I knew enough that lying or fabricating things was not part of my job description. A lot of my news was gathered via phone calls with publicists and for all I know, a particularly good-looking one might have told me about the Devo game and I ran with it. As far as I can recall, the fusion of rock and roll with video games produced only one title that I remember - the Journey Escape game. It wasn't until Guitar Hero that the idea got treatment that qualified it as an entertaining game.
Q: Did your success as a writer give you opportunities you wouldn’t have had otherwise, such as talking to people in the industry, or obtaining information or cartridges?
Michael Blanchet: Most definitely yes. This was pre-Internet and video game companies more or less had to go through the channels where we, the writers, stood as the gate keepers. It was easy to get anyone on the phone and the supply of cartridges to review seemed to never end. My editor at the Tribune Company once told me that I had the second-highest volume of mail sent in; the highest was Andy Rooney. Apple Computer sent me a machine (don't remember the model) and Atari sent me the 2600 and 5200. I had an Intellivision and a Colecovision console as well - all just sent to the offices at the Tribune Company.
Q: What were some of your experiences as a writer in the video game industry? Do you have any stories or anecdotes from those days that you relate for us?
Michael Blanchet: I just remember enjoying the whole experience and naively believing that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I did get to meet Nolan Bushnell and did an extensive interview with Jim Levy (CEO of Activision at about the time they were becoming the breakout success story in 3rd-party software for the 2600). I did a pilot for a TV show called the New Tech Times along with Dan Gutman. It was being produced by former FCC Chairman Nicholas Johnson. I guess I was deemed not to be suitable on-air talent since the show never went forward - at least not with Dan or I. In my defense, I remember having the flu during the taping and I'm sure I looked like death. I remember doing a series of TV spots for the New York Daily News, one of the first papers to pick up the column. They were going to serialize a couple of chapters of the book over a period of weeks and I was asked to portray myself in some corny TV spot. I'm sure the script had me making some outlandish claims about how you too could become a video game wizard by simply buying the Sunday news and reading my strategy tips. I ended up doing three of those spots over three weeks, and after the initial terror of standing in front of a camera with a bunch of people LOOKING AT ME faded, I really felt like this was something I could do. Funny, but now I don't even like to be the subject of a family snap shot. Video Review magazine hosted a sort of Oscar's for video games and I was asked to be a presenter. The event was held at The Red Parrot in New York and hosted by Sid Ceaser. I still have a Polaroid of myself with Mickey Mantle that he signed. I met him at CES where he was there as a spokesperson for Coleco promoting their home video baseball game. I had a full-time job during most of this (I was running a chain of small video game arcades that were housed inside Drug Fair pharmacies throughout New Jersey). I left the job at Drug Fair when the magazine work for Video Review, Electronic Fun, etc. became steadier and more time-consuming.
Q: You stopped writing about video games once the industry crashed, as many of your fellow writers did. What do you recall from around that time? Did you anticipate the ‘crash’ happening?
Michael Blanchet: I believe I did see it coming. I alluded to it in an interview with the Wall Street Journal where I said that the game companies are going down and they're going to take me right along with them. Leaving the Drug Fair gig was looking like a mistake since my resume was the very definition of a niche profession - video game strategist and reviewer. If the public's appetite for games was waning, my relevance would be suspect as well.
Q: You briefly talked about changing careers after the crash and starting your own business. Can you talk about that?
Michael Blanchet: The velocity of the crash really took me by surprise. It seemed like every freelance gig I had vanished within weeks of each other. I had some money saved, but little in the way of prospects where I could utilize the only skill set I had - that being an ex-video game reviewer. A couple of weeks later, a friend was opening his third video rental store and was looking for a manager to run the shop. It seemed like a good fit - I loved movies and I needed a job. Within a year I purchased the business from him with the help of a silent partner. I bought the partner out about a year later and ended up owning/running the place until July of 1997. The year prior, Blockbuster video had invaded my neighborhood and business slowly but surely declined until I was unable to justify keeping the tape rental business. I closed the rental portion of the store and continued the video transfer & production business. I made a return to writing in 1987 with TWICE magazine - an electronics industry trade magazine (TWICE standing for This Week In Consumer Electronics). Turns out that the magazine was edited by someone who I had previously worked for during the video game days. I called him and told him about what I was doing - running the video store - and he proposed an idea for an ongoing column that addressed issues in the video industry from the perspective of an independent video store operator. My work with TWICE expanded to include a regular movie review column that focused on 2nd tier or B films. The focus of the column was to weigh in on a lesser-known title's strengths (or weaknesses) and to offer some guidance as to whether a particular film was worth buying for a store's rental library.
Q: Electronic Fun featured a "gossip" page near the back of each issue. For the first 2 issues (in 1982), it was called "Random Access" and was unsigned. Starting in 1983, it was called "Top Secret" and was signed by "The Fly". The last 2 issues were under a different name (Computer Fun) and the column was now called "Random Access" again, but this time it was signed by "Qwerty". Do you know who wrote them?
Michael Blanchet: I thought it was Randi Hacker. Richard Ekstract was always seen as the big boss - the owner of Viare Publishing. I met him a number of times but never spoke with him in regards to the content of the magazine or my role in writing about the industry. The editors I answered to were Randi and George Kopp, who I later worked for at TWICE.
Q: Do you still own copies of your books, or any of your video game articles?
Michael Blanchet: Yes, I do. I've got boxes and boxes of articles but those are almost exclusively things I wrote for TWICE. I'm a big fan of used book stores and have found copies of my book at shops around the area. I almost always buy a copy when I come across one.
Q: Do you still follow or play video games? If so, which of your titles are your favorite, and what types of games in general? What is (or was) your preferred platform for gaming?
Michael Blanchet: I don't follow games at all now but I will drop a quarter (or a dollar now) into an arcade game when I can find one. The arcades at the Jersey Shore, for instance, have surprisingly few classic arcade games. They're mostly mechanical crane games where the object is to win some type of bauble or trinket. My real love all along was pinball games, which are even harder still to find. With the exception of the Silverball Pinball Museum in Asbury Park, I'm not aware of any locations that have pinball games.
Q: Have you stayed in touch with any of the people you’ve met from the video game industry?
Michael Blanchet: No, I don't and I have only myself to blame for that. I've never been a big "Let's keep in touch" kinda guy. I'm a bit too much the lone wolf type.
Q: What are your thoughts on how the video game industry has evolved?
Michael Blanchet: Given how much more sophisticated the games are now in comparison to how they were back then, it's almost comical to look back and think any kind of "expert" was needed to help people get through these things. The games of the 80's were flat, one-dimensional twitch contests where today's are multi-layered and cinematic.
These days, Michael runs a video and film transfer business called Video Express. Michael also provided me with a computer printout of the newspapers that were running his column as of December 1982, as well as a copy of a Newsweek article that mentioned his How to Beat the Video Games book.
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