['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which documents the history of video game magazines, from their birth in the early '80s to the current day.]

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For a magazine collector, there few greater challenges than trying to collect all the assorted mags and one-offs with the Game Players name on them. Why? Complexity. Signal Research (the Greensboro, NC-based publisher behind the Game Players name) was the first company to get a Nintendo-specific magazine out on newsstands in the summer of 1988 -- Nintendo Power was still subscription-only at the time, and the other mags were still a few months or so away. They tried to make the Game Players name a universal brand for kids, and along those lines they put out a dizzying array of magazines, specials, books, videotapes, and other merchandise.

The resulting output dwarfs that of any other publisher at the time, and yet the early era of Game Players titles (up to around 1995) is really, really hard to find nowadays. Looking at the mags today, the reason behind this is pretty easy to deduct -- the paper's cheap, the visual design is boring, and the screenshots are tiny and lack detail. About the only thing GP had going for it was that it (a) covered unlicensed games aggressively (b) wasn't afraid to spoil endings in strategy guides, which sounds evil but was really a breath of fresh air considering how hard a lot of NES games were.

Myself, I'm at the point where I only have a few holes to fill before completing my collection (with the exception of their PC games magazine), and that took me a couple of years and more money than I'd like to admit. If you'd like to try collecting them yourself, here's a quick tour of what to look for. (Click through to read the full column.)

Signal Research was founded in 1988 by Robert Lock, the former publisher of COMPUTE!, who set up the outfit in the same town as his old company. Game Players was the flagship title of the outfit, and much like early issues of Electronic Gaming Monthly, it was heavily text-oriented with only a few screenshots and other art. This gave it an extremely bland look that was improved upon only slightly in later issues, making it look outdated compared to the competition in 1991. This led to the curious situation of Game Players (the alleged flagship magazine) being outsold by its Nintendo sub-magazine, Game Players Nintendo Guide.

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Nintendo Guide got its start in 1988 with two separate titles: Game Player's Nintendo Buyer's Guide, and Game Player's Nintendo Strategy Guide. The exact timeline of these publications is sketchy, as publishing dates generally do not appear in Signal magazines until late 1989. However, judging by advertisements and editorial coverage, it seems that Signal began with a one-off Buyer's Guide sometime in the early summer of 1988, then launched both Buyer's Guide and Strategy Guide as regular publications just a month or two later.

Until early 1989, Buyer's Guide and Strategy Guide were separate magazines, with Buyer's Guide coming out semiannually and Strategy Guide coming out quarterly for a total of six issues per year. (In practice, however, both magazines had a fairly haphazard schedule until mid-1989.) The former offered capsule reviews of hundreds of NES games, while the latter was filled with in-depth strategies. After three (?) Buyer's Guide issues, the two magazines were officially merged in the spring of 1989 and became a single magazine, Game Player's Strategy Guide to Nintendo Games. (One more buyer's guide, the Game Player's Buyer's Guide to Nintendo, was published in October 1989, but this was counted as a regular issue of Strategy Guide.)

In terms of coverage, the magazine's early issues were very close to the Nintendo Power of the era, with heavy emphasis on strategy and very little critical coverage of games or industry news. With the launch of the SNES in 1991, the magazine's name was edited down to Game Players Nintendo Guide (no apostrophe) and adopted fuller reviews, features, and numerical ratings for games.

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In 1990, Signal followed up the success of Nintendo Guide with a few other platform-specific mags. The first one I have is Game Player's Strategy Guide to Game Boy Games, which worked pretty much the same as Nintendo Guide and lasted (I believe) only six issues.

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Fall 1990 saw the launch of Game Player's Strategy Guide to Sega Games, a Genesis-specific publication. Structurally it was the exact same as Game Players Nintendo Guide. The main emphasis was on strategy and cheats, although reviews were published in the rear of the magazine. These reviews began to be numerically scored in mid-1992 in a redesign to bring it up-to-date with the rest of the mags in GP Publications' stable.

Its main competition on the stands was Mega Play, and that competition often became heated -- editor-in-chief Firme pointed out in one editorial that it was the "real" number-one independent Sega magazine and that it knew its readers "don't want a screenshot and a paragraph on every Mega Drive game in Japan". While its screenshots were lower-quality than Mega Play's and its coverage generally more outdated, it was the clear winner in feature stories and strategy.

In addition, there was also Game Player's Sports for Kids, a non-video-game mag devoted to sports and aimed at a pre-teen reading audience. I've never seen one of these mags, but I'd love to get my hands on a sample. If you got any issues, let me know.

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Finally, there was Game Player's PC Buyer's Guide, which later became Game Player's PC Entertainment. This magazine apparently started up in 1989 right alongside Nintendo Guide, but I'll be damned if I can find any examples from that early on in the run -- all of my issues are towards the end of the run, just before Future bought the publisher and changed the magazine to become the US edition of PC Gamer. But now I'm getting ahead of myself.

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In October 1991, Signal defaulted on a loan from one of its venture-capital investors, thanks to over-optimistic sales expectations, mounting printing costs, and the 1991 recession. The company made a last-ditch attempt to save itself by canceling three titles (Sports for Kids, Game Boy Guide, and Game Players itself), but this didn't stave off its creditors, and it was officially foreclosed in February 1992.

This means that the October 1991 issue of Game Players (which, ironically, is a redesign-launch issue) is the last known edition of the first era of the mag. A November 1991 issue was almost certainly completed, but it is unknown whether it was actually published.

The Game Players multiplatform title was resurrected in 1993 with the merging of Game Players Nintendo Guide and Game Players Sega Guide, the two surviving magazines of Signal Research, which was bought out by its creditors in 1992 and renamed GP Publications. The two magazines were continued mainly so the creditors could find a buyer for them, and they found it in Chris Anderson, founder of Future Publishing in Britain. Searching for an entry into the US magazine market, Anderson bought GP in 1993, eventually leaving the UK to work at GP full time and moving the outfit to Burlingame, CA.

Under his guidance (which had already began with the Nintendo and Sega mags), Game Players became a far more professional and well-written magazine. Writers like Chris Slate, Jeff Lundrigan, Mike Salmon, and Bill Donohue turned GP into a reader-oriented magazine filled with offbeat and engaging humor -- a very UK-like product in the US marketplace.

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This new Game Players was renamed Ultra Game Players in 1996 following a redesign, then renamed once more to Game Buyer in 1998. This final redesign was fairly drastic and launched in a last-ditch attempt to save the magazine -- by this time, PSM and PC Gamer were much better sellers for the publisher, and it was obvious that UGP would never compete with the GamePros and EGMs of the time as it was.

However, Game Buyer aimed for an "authoritative review resource" bent, trying to outclass EGM with exhaustive reviews of nearly everything under the sun. Even in 1998, the audience for this sort of reference magazine was satisfied with web sites -- and the remaining non-online readership was satisfied with EGM's multi-reviewer system over Game Buyer's over-designed approach.

More importantly, however, Game Buyer was the successor of a magazine that built a cult following through its sense of humor and extraordinary level of reader participation. Game Buyer had neither, and as a result, its alienated audience became a perpetual machine of bad word-of-mouth for the mag -- just like what had happened to VideoGames magazine, although that title lasted a great deal longer.

Strapped for sales, Imagine slashed the title's newsstand price to $1.99 in Issue 3, making the mag cheaper than even Mexican publications but guaranteeing that the operation would never sustain itself in the long term. Issue 4 was the last, and Imagine closed the magazine without any notice in the final number. Subscribers received Next Generation starting with the November 1998 issue, and most of the staff moved on to other magazines or Imagine projects. (It can be argued that the old Game Players spirit lives on in most Future publications -- especially PSM, which has been packed with GP alumni since practically its inception.)

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He owns enough magazines to smother himself with should the need arise, and his secret fantasy is for someone flush with game-publisher stock options to give him a monthly stipend so he can spend a year researching their full history and finishing the site. In his "off" time he is an editor at Newtype USA magazine.]