Wednesday, February 21

Paper view: the return of video game magazines | Games

If you were into video games in the 1980s or 90s, then along with your computer, your QuickShot joystick and your tape player, there was one other vital component of your set-up: a games magazine. For me it was Zzap! 64, a glossy mag dedicated to the Commodore 64 with brilliant, opinionated writers, excellent features, and an exhaustive tips section. I would rush to the newsagent on publication day, bring it home with almost religious reverence, then read it from cover to cover. And then I would go back and read it again. This was how I discovered new games such as Sentinel, Elite and Leaderboard, but also, through the letters page and competitions, joined a community of players, years before the world wide web allowed us all to get in contact. In the 80s, video game magazines were the internet.

In the mid-90s I was lucky enough to get a job at Future, one of the leading publishers of gaming magazines in Britain. This was the absolute heyday for the industry – as a writer on Edge magazine, I shared offices with the acclaimed Nintendo magazine Superplay, the wildly enthusiastic GamesMaster, the anarchic Amiga Power and a burgeoning Official PlayStation Magazine, which would go on to rival FHM and Even the Radio Times in monthly circulation. Producing a magazine was a labor of love – a constant battle between our desire to play and cover everything and the restraints of page counts and print deadlines. Conveying the excitement of a new Resident Evil or Tekken title in prose, images and captions, was a skill that took months to learn.

Readers weren’t just consumers, they were acolytes. Magazines were like football teams: if you read PC Gamer, you didn’t go near PC Zone; if you loved Computer and Video Games magazine, you side-eyed Mean Machines. Like the old rivalry between NME and Melody Maker, the current content of the magazines was almost secondary to the gang affiliation. These things mattered.

Look at the news agent shelves now and it’s a different story. Future, still a huge force in games media, publishes just four print magazines in the field – Edge, PC Gamer, Retro Gamer and Play. Elsewhere, most publications are aimed at children and tweens – the likes of Toxic and 110% Gaming with their covermounts and endless features on Fortnite and Minecraft. The news, the reviews, the communities – they are now online in the form of gaming sites, Reddit forums, Discord servers and Twitch streams. What use is there in the 21st century for the monthly cycle of the magazine when everything is available online immediately?

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But quietly, and away from traditional high-street newsagents, game magazines have started to make a comeback. Partly, this has been fed by a surge of gaming nostalgia, engendered by the availability of classic titles on digital stores, as well as the craze for retro “mini” consoles. Veteran gamers in their 30s and 40s, exhausted by 100-hour adventures and endless live service games, are looking back on the simpler days of the Speccy or the Mega Drive or the original PlayStation with a sense of yearning reverie – and there’s a shared understanding that print mags were a huge part of that era.

Jonah Naylor runs an IT services company but back in the 80s he trained as a local newspaper reporter – and also loved video games. “My first computer was a ‘Rubber Key’ ZX Spectrum, before I moved to the Amstrad CPC range, and then to Amiga. Magazines and computers have always had an important relationship, I remember reading Amstrad Action and Amiga Format magazines religiously – print was the only decent source of computer and gaming news back then!” A couple of years ago he started to really miss the Amiga scene and on discovering there were no magazines still running, he gathered a group of similarly nostalgic gaming friends and decided to launch one. Reaching out to the online Amiga community, I managed to secure enough funds to work on a launch issue, which I printed via a local firm. The resulting magazine, Addict friend, is a bright, brash paean to its 90s forebears, covering classic titles and developers such as DMA and Psygnosis, but also reporting on the current Amiga community. Originally only available online, it will soon be going on sale at more than 300 newsagents nationwide.

Spread from Sega Powered magazine. Photograph: Dean Mortlock/Super8 Media

And Amiga Addict is not alone. The Commodore 64 magazine freeze64, which takes its style cues from Zzzap!, has been around since 2017 featuring retro reviews and interviews with legendary developers. On the console side, Ninty Fresh has been running since a successful kickstarter in 2020, covering Nintendo machines from the NES onwards and theming each issue around classic titles such as F-Zero, Metroid and Zelda. The latest example is sega-powered, another Kickstartered print project, this time headed by Dean Mortlock who edited Future’s classic Sega Power and Saturn Power magazines back in the 90s. “We’ll cover new titles from Sega, as well as indie releases in the reviews section,” says Mortlock. “We’ll also be slowly working our way through the Sega back catalog in the re-reviews section. This is where we take the old games and see how well they’ve stood the test of time. Additionally, we’ll cover what’s happening in homebrew gaming, as that does throw up some interesting and original games and conversions – which often go unnoticed.”

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All of these magazines have their roots in old school gaming communities, but there’s more to the return of games magazines than industry nostalgia. The independent print publishing sector has been going through a revival for more than a decade, buoyed by falling costs, accessible desktop publishing software and the rise of small-scale independent printing companies willing to take on limited print runs. “It is often compared to the return of records,” says Daniel McCabe manager of the brilliant magazine store Magalleria in Bath. “In the same way many young people today completely missed the vinyl age, they’re all now discovering the joy of analogue.

“The modern, more high-spec magazine feeds our inner craving for tactility in a digital age. That is, the magazine offers touch, smell and even a change of pace – sure, you can curl up with your mobile phone but, where practical, a print magazine is more immersive and transporting. They offer a break from ‘instant’ and ‘non-stop’ media.”

Now a freelance graphic designer, Caspian Whistler started making gaming zines back when he was studying at the University of the Arts in London. “At the time, games discourse felt very bleak to me, so I wanted to create something celebratory and optimistic to try and reclaim a bit of my love for the medium. I’d become quite enamored with print publications while on my course. Being exposed to all these amazing, high end publications for other areas of the arts and culture sector really made me wonder why there was so little out there that gave games the same treatment.”

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Spread from A Profound Waste of Time magazine
Spread from A Profound Waste of Time magazine. Photographer: Caspian Whistler

At first Whistler was doing all the writing and design himself as a side project, but when he posted images of the zine on a forum, he was amazed by the positive response he got. In 2016 he turned to Kickstarter, looking for £20k to make the debut issue of A Profound Waste of Time, a beautiful, contemporary gaming magazine printed on high-quality paper stock, with illustrations by talented designers and in-depth articles on current games culture. By the time the crowdfunding period closed he’d raised £39k. The second issue, published last year, was even more ambitious, featuring a booklet insert and prismatic holographic cover. “I’m constantly trying to find unique ways of utilizing the physicality of the medium in ways that pixels and screens can’t replicate,” he says. “Foldout sections, paper stocks, die-cut pages, tip ins… There’s a lot of work put into justifying the mag’s existence in ink and paper. If we’re going to cut down a tree, I want to do something as special as I can with it.”

What all of these magazines confirm is an aspect of gaming that often gets overlooked. This is not a purely digital medium – it is haptic, it relies on touch and feel – the click of a button, the swoop of a rotated analogue stick, the swish of a mouse. Magazines reflect this tangible pleasure. There is a sensuousness to turning pages, to running your fingers across a matt-printed surface. And unlike a website or instagram feed, a magazine offers a discrete, focused experience: it’s not accompanied by a dozen other digital apps, notifications and alerts. It’s a respite from screen fatigue, an excuse to totally indulge in something carefully edited and curated.

On Edge magazine, the most exciting day of the month was when the new issues arrived. They came in boxes of 50, bound together with plastic ties. We’d prize them out with great care, and finally, you would see the cover, all glossy and real, and you could flick through and find your words rendered into something concrete and lasting. Every single time I opened one of those boxes it reminded me of cycling home with the latest copy of Zzap! 64 in my bag, wondering what games I would discover, and what worlds would open up in its pages.

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