Former newspaper columnist Brent Gustafson was kind enough to share some insight on the practice of video game companies loaning out pre-release copies of their upcoming titles to the press. If you have ever wondered how prototypes find their way onto eBay, or wanted to learn more about professional game reporting back in the early 1990s, I urge you to read on.

Would you mind shining some light on the reviewing process? How long before release were you typically given prototypes/review copies? Did the companies ever ask for them back?

Hey, Mike, yes, I was a video game columnist in the early ’90s (1990-1995). Myself and a co-columnist wrote reviews for Gannett News. Most of my game collection from that time are review copies of games. That said, not all of them are prototypes.

This makeshift Acclaim label is rubber cemented.

The Trog game is the only proto that I own that I know is one because I have a letter from Acclaim stating as much. Also, as you can tell, it even looks like a prototype. That said, is it different from the actual game? I do not know. I haven’t dumped the ROMs to find out, but would like to some day. I’m as curious as you are.

“The letter from Acclaim stating it’s a proto…”

“…as well as the final ‘proof’ of the instruction manual.”

I have a lot more games that have “Return to Company X” written on them (you can see the Turrican one in my Flickr stream). They have full box art and labels, so in my estimation they’re the finished game, but, again, I don’t know if there’s a difference; I haven’t dumped them.

Sometimes we would get games very early (up to two months from launch, as was the case with the SNES launch; we were one of the first people in the U.S. to play it). Other times they would send games the same time they were released to the public. It really depended on the game company in question. Some companies were much better with this than others.

Many times the company did ask for them back, and many times we’d cheerfully ignore this. Companies like Accolade kept sending review copies, so we just kept the games. Companies like Nintendo we didn’t mess around with and sent stuff back (the SNES launch above, for example). Other companies never were willing to send us anything regardless (SNK).

This is all fascinating. I had no doubt that your Trog was, indeed, a real prototype, but that letter you have is an undeniable confirmation of its authenticity. I have never seen anything quite like that before. I’m sure most of these letters were discarded right away, so you definitely have a special piece of gaming history there, especially now that Acclaim is no longer around.

I can tell you that there’s at least one other known Trog NES prototype out there, owned by a big-time collector who also used to be a professional games writer. His name is Jason Wilson.

You mentioned Nintendo. Could you tell me what its review copies looked like? Did they contain final art or white labels? How long were you able to keep them?

Heh, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of Jason Wilson. I have several friends still in the game industry who know him and have mentioned him before. I didn’t know he had a Trog proto, though.

I’m familiar with the dumping process. I’ve been part of the ROM and emu scene for the better part of 15 years (ROM emulation was my thesis in college actually). Preservation is also a big deal to me, as I worked in New Media at a large contemporary art museum for almost a decade as well.

All of the rest of the games I have from my column days were released publicly. Sure, I have lots of rare stuff, but not another proto like Trog.

The Nintendo stuff that we got was always release versions with full artwork. Even the launch stuff we got from them had the release labeling. How long we got to keep stuff depended on whether someone else needed it. In the case of the SNES, we got to keep it for two weeks. I know this because I still have the letter they sent.

In fact, I looked through a few of my old scans and found a couple more letters from companies, one from Konami and one from Hill and Knowlton (Nintendo’s PR firm). Here’s the two scans (sensitive info whited out):

Konami gave Brent one month to evaluate Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge.

Nintendo’s PR firm, Hill and Knowlton, used humor to hammer its point across.

I have other things from this time as well, lots of swag, promo stuff, fliers from CES (remember this was pre-E3), strategy guides for games so we could beat them faster and release our reviews quicker, etc. I suppose you could say it’s this stuff that is in some ways more valuable than the games I have, since much of it is so rare.

P.S. That Hill and Knowlton letter caused a lot of heat on Wikipedia over the release date of the SNES. Many websites reported August 13 as the release date, but as you can see from the letter, it couldn’t have been, as H&K say it wasn’t yet released. Wikipedia wouldn’t accept the letter because it wasn’t cited in a book or on a website even though it came directly from Nintendo’s PR firm. Only problem is, every website that used August 13 as the date just copied the date from each other. Kinda funny.

Thanks for your time, Brent!