A selection of vintage videogame magazine covers
Stories & Ideas

Sat 20 Aug 2022

The golden era of videogame magazines

History Pop culture Preservation Videogames
Mikolai Napieralski

Mikolai Napieralski

Writer & founder of forgottenworlds.net

Providing more than just gaming news and reviews, videogame magazines opened our eyes to the wider world.

Videogame magazines are often viewed as cheap and disposable; a monthly burst of previews, reviews and features wrapped in technicolor hyperbole. They represent a moment in time – obsolete as soon as the next issue rolls off the print press. But for a generation of kids raised in the pre-internet 90s, they were more than a source of news and entertainment: they helped lay the foundation for our worldview, whether we realised it or not.

From the ads to the editorials to the articles about Yakuza gangs stealing shipments of Nintendo consoles in Japan, these magazines provided many of us with our first taste of social commentary, geo-politics, marketing and more. In the process, they helped us understand the world and our place in it. For that, they deserve to be celebrated.

A high-tech fever dream 

Like many kids, I couldn’t afford to buy a whole heap of games, so, magazines were the next best thing. For a few bucks you’d get 100+ pages of gaming news, previews and reviews to pore over.

Whenever I had spare change, I’d duck down to the local newsagents and search for one of my favourites. High on that list was the UK’s Computer and Video Games (CVG). Edited by industry stalwart, Julian ‘Jaz’ Rignall, CVG was one of the first UK publications to champion the burgeoning Japanese import scene and give readers a glimpse of what lay on the horizon with consoles like the PC Engine and Mega Drive.

Reading about these games and consoles offered suburban Australian kids a glimpse into a parallel universe, a high-tech fever dream that made the local Kmart with its budget Commodore 64 titles look distinctly underwhelming.

The December 1990 issue of Computer + Video Games magazine featuring Shredder and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the cover.

As Jaz explains, “I think we definitely helped readers discover a gaming world beyond Britain and Europe. We opened the readers’ eyes to Japanese gaming, which was where most of the cutting-edge software was being produced during that era. The most exciting consoles were Japanese, and we were very enthusiastic about that.”

That enthusiasm wasn’t just limited to games, and magazines like CVG began showcasing broader aspects of Japanese culture. “During this era, we also began to see the emergence of Japanese anime and manga,” continues Jaz, “which was very positively covered in gaming periodicals. This further helped advance interest in Japanese culture and pique Western gamers' interest in that part of the world.”

The new global economy 

If the Japanese import coverage provided a welcome contrast to the drab suburbs of middle Australia and made the world feel a little more connected, US publications like EGM (Electronic Gaming Monthly) were a sobering reminder of our place in that global pecking order.

While gaming release schedules are mostly homogenous these days, that wasn’t always the case. Back in the day it wasn’t unusual to see lengthy delays and price hikes before a console or game made its way to Australia. Or they never made the jump at all, and were forever consigned to blurry photos in import magazines.

These delays and associated issues were never attributed to global logistics, supply chains, or 4th quarter earnings reports; none of those words meant anything to a 12-year-old. But if you read between the lines you started to see the bigger picture.

Selection of Electronic Gaming Monthly editions

EGM’s February 1993 editorial goes into significant detail about consumer price points while discussing the upcoming 3DO system and its USD$700 retail tag. Ostensibly this is all about games, but there’s a deeper marketing lesson to be learned for those paying attention.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t unusual to see references to Chinese factories, microchip shortages, or licensing issues in EGM’s industry gossip section. These hints about the emerging global economy made you realise Australia’s bit-part in proceedings. We were a nation of 20 million people cast adrift at the end of the Pacific Ocean. That made homegrown titles like Aussie Rules Footy for the NES feel more special, but it also showed that the real action was elsewhere.

All that glitters 

Videogame magazines also taught us about the dark art of marketing – and if this generation is more cynical and warier than the last, some of that blame can perhaps sit with Rise of the Robots.

Heavily promoted throughout 1993 as a breakthrough in animation and gameplay, Rise of the Robots made the covers of several high-profile magazines, with plans for toys, comics and a feature film all touted before anyone had a chance to play the finished game.

Then in 1994 it was released, and people quickly discovered it was, to use the language of the day, “a shambolic parody of a sad mockery”. The reviews, ultimately, were scathing, but since magazines were monthly and there was no Internet, most kids wouldn’t read the critiques until it was too late, and they had already paid their hard-earned cash for a dud.

Rise of the Robots is one of the more infamous examples of marketing being used to sell a dud product, but it’s certainly not alone. Gaming history is littered with the corpses of over-hyped and under cooked titles. Which begs the question – if game developers could lie to us, and magazines could promote questionable titles, what else was up for sale in the modern world?

It was a sobering life lesson, and one that has continued to manifest itself throughout the industry. Perhaps, most notably, in the darker recesses of the Internet, and the ‘Gamergate’ controversy that enveloped the online world back in 2014.

Shouting, “Lager, lager, lager” 

Speaking of marketing, the arrival of the Sony PlayStation was like nothing the gaming world had ever seen. Sony didn’t just introduce a groundbreaking console; they created a whole new market for videogames. By targeting an older demographic and aligning its imagery and tone with the nascent clubbing and rave scene, Sony made videogames cool. Or cool enough to have Lara Croft appear on the cover of The Face magazine.

This new audience saw many videogame magazines ditching their juvenile, pre-teen tone for something more closely aligned with the ‘lads mags’ that had recently popped up. As Paul Glancey, the founding editor of MegaTech explains, “Sony took games fully into the mainstream and magazine publishers started chasing a new audience. The supposed ageing-up of the audience and the rise of lifestyle ‘lads mags’ like Loaded and Maxim also had the effect of giving editorial teams license to use more expletives, more football, more motoring references and more pictures of young women in lingerie.”

This realignment of editorial and audience was a delicate balancing act. While the market had expanded and the average age of gamers had gotten older, the magazines were still primarily being purchased by a subgroup of teen and pre-teen males.

On the home front, Australia’s Hyper magazine was pushing for a more inclusive audience. According to founding editor Stuart Clarke, the magazine’s 1993 debut – with Street Fighter 2’s Chun-Li on the cover alongside a splash about ‘virtual sex’ – was a deliberate response to the industry’s increasingly narrow focus.

As he explains, “Gaming was fiercely male at the time, and I thought that was problematic. The cover was a deliberate attempt to broaden the audience of games magazines.”

Despite Stuart’s best intentions, Clarke was fighting a losing battle, and as the decade progressed, videogame magazines began to embrace an increasingly one-dimensional view of what gaming meant. This reached its apex and spilled over into the real world in the early 2000s, when online shooters soundtracked by misogynistic live chat became the public face of gaming.

A design for life 

The metaphorical glue that held all this together, and gave the magazines their power, was the sense of camaraderie they inspired in their readers.

Long before we had influencers and social media, we had magazine editors and staff writers with dramatic haircuts and exaggerated personalities serving as role-models for a generation of geeky kids. This wasn’t an accident. Showcasing the staff and building a community around a publication inspired loyalty and helped the bottom line. That same loyalty meant these publications became a trusted source of advice for more than just games.

While teenage girls had Dolly Doctor to turn to, we had Mean Yob’s advice column in CVG – which was just as crude and subversive as the name suggests. Other magazines had their own takes on the advice column, with everything from fashion to music creeping into the mix.

Jaz was one of several people who wrote the Mean Yob column and admits that it probably wouldn’t fly these days. “I imagine the sort of rhetoric we got away with back then would be very poorly received today. In the 80s and 90s, people were far more tolerant to that sort of humour and understood that while it may have sometimes been a bit cruel, it was not spiteful and was ultimately being made in jest.”

Artifacts of a forgotten age

German philosopher Georg Hegel popularised what we now describe as ‘the zeitgeist’ back in the 19th century. In short, he argued that ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. That the prevailing attitudes and views of any era will be reflected in the media that it produces. If that’s true, then the videogame magazines of the early 90s deserve a closer analysis.

For those of us growing up during this time, a liminal state that connected the old analog world with a digital horizon, these magazines provided us with more than just gaming news and reviews. They gave us a framework for understanding and navigating the modern world, and looking back, they serve as cultural artifacts, of what was and what could have been.

– Mikolai Napieralski is the founder of Forgotten Worlds, a website dedicated to telling the stories behind vintage videogame magazines.

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