I'm not entirely sure when I acquired a copy of the first edition of Gamma World, but it was likely within a year or so of my first having entered the hobby, so that places it somewhere around 1980, though it could have been as late as 1981, since my memories of the game almost always include the module Legion of Gold, published in that year. At any rate, Gamma World is, along with D&D and Traveller, one of the games I feel as if I've been playing forever. Of course, that's not literally true at all; in fact it's been quite some time since I've actually played Gamma World in any form, let alone in its first edition. Consequently, delving back into the game through this series could be potentially as eye-opening for me as for anyone reading what I write.
The first thing I notice about the first edition rulebook is its cover, which is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, Dave Trampier's illustration depicts a bunch of ordinary -- pure strain, in Gamma World's terms -- humans in what appears to be fairly high-tech gear preparing to explore a ruined city. As a kid, I found the image very powerful, but, at the same time, it's also an odd one, since the game, as written, doesn't really provide any option for beginning a campaign with the PCs as anything other than primitives with little or no knowledge of the pre-apocalyptic world. That's not to say you couldn't run a Gamma World campaign on that basis, but it isn't one the game natively supports. Second, we forget that Gamma World was the work of two authors. In addition to the more well known James M. Ward, there's also Gary Jaquet, whose name is not widely known. I certainly know nothing of the man beyond his involvement in this one TSR product and a handful of articles in the early days of Dragon.
Before getting into the text of the game itself, I think it's important to note (once again) that Gamma World self-identifies as a "science fantasy role-playing game." I think that's important to bear in mind, because, too often, Gamma World gets lambasted for not being "realistic" enough. I think such criticism misses the mark by a wide margin, or at least reveals that the critic is holding Gamma World to a standard to which it never aspired. Gamma World is a flight of fancy; it's not a scientific speculation into what the world after the Bomb might be like. Rather, it's using the collapse of human civilization as an occasion to imagine a purely fantastical world of adventure. The funny thing is that, back in the day, this wasn't a point that needed to be explained to anyone, because, frankly, most of us didn't care about "realism" -- we just wanted to blast mutants as we explored the ruins of DC. I'm not sure exactly when things changed and gamers began to need detailed explanations of what a RPG was about and how the game mechanically supported its "themes," but, at some point, it happened and games like Gamma World were among the hobby's casualties.
I find this especially frustrating because the rulebook to the game begins with a foreword by editors Tom Wham and Timothy Jones that explicitly mention the inspirations of Gamma World: Brian Aldiss's The Long Afternoon of Earth, Andre Norton's Starman's Son, Sterling Lanier's Hiero's Journey, and Ralph Bakshi's movie, Wizards. Now, if you've read any of the aforementioned books or seen Bakshi's film, you'd be hard pressed expect that Gamma World was meant to be a wholly realistic speculation about the future of mankind in a post-apocalyptic world. Even so, the foreword acknowledges that "The rules are flexible enough to allow for a variety of approaches to the game - anything from a strictly “hard” science-fiction attention to physical probabilities to a free-flowing Bakshian combination of science-fiction and fantasy," so perhaps some of the disappointment with Gamma World's approach came from the unfulfilled expectation that it provided more explicit support for a realistic take on post-apocalypse gaming. My friends and I, though, found Gamma World exactly to our liking, since it gave us a terrific springboard for wild and woolly adventures in the ruin's of Man's civilization.
(As an aside, let me note with amusement that the foreword, written in 1977, justifies the rulebook's use of the metric system, first, because it's already broadly familiar to SF fans and, second, because the United States was preparing to make the shift to it in the near future. Given that the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 declared the metric system "the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce," this undoubtedly seemed reasonable. I can attest that as, attending elementary school in the mid to late 1970s, I was taught to measure primarily according to the metric system and so shared the expectation of Gamma World's foreword. By the time I picked up the game, though, that expectation had proven misplaced, but, as an artifact of mid-70s American Zeitgeist, it's quite fascinating. And FYI: this aside is not an invitation to comment on "how stupid" it is that the US retains its customary system of measurements in 2011. I think I'd rather allow my comments to be used by advocates of ascending AC ...)