['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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It's the worst of the summer doldrums right now in lovely East Texas, and so I'm curling up with some of the computer magazines I had in my youth in hopes that the nostalgia will keep me in reverie until wintertime.

Chief among them at the moment is Compute!, a magazine that ran from 1979 to 1994 and, alongside Creative Computing, was one of the first really big multiplatform personal computer titles. As I've written before, much of Compute!'s charm has been necessarily lost to time -- it's from an era where programming the hardware, not simply using software written by someone else, was something all PC owners were expected to do; it was part of the whole fun of the computer hobby.

To hobbyists like that, Compute!'s in-depth programming discussions were gold in their mailbox every month. A modern-day college student, meanwhile, will likely look at the page after page of machine code printed in most mid-1980s editions and wonder why anyone paid money simply for the right to spend hours typing in programs. And I can't blame them. It was simpler times back then, we worked 13 hours in the coal mines and begged for the chance to play text-mode clones of Pac-Man, etc.

I had dropped off my readership of Compute! in the late 1980s, like I suppose a lot of people had. PCs were shifting from hobbyist toys to honestly useful things for normal consumers, and Compute! was slow to adjust. The magazine ceased publication in the summer of 1990, but started up again after a shirt hiatus when the title was purchased by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione's General Media.

I started reading Compute (minus the !) again in 1992, just before I finally convinced my parents to upgrade from a Commodore 64 to an honest-to-goodness PC clone. The magazine had changed a lot from how I remembered it, and to me -- just as it does today -- it seemed like a mag trying and failing to find an audience.

On the one hand you had very dry and utilitarian reviews of business software that the nerds wouldn't be interested in; on the other, you have listings for DOS-based "utility programs," either batch files or machine code you use DEBUG.EXE to type in, that didn't have much utility for anyone besides the submittor.


Plus, as you can see in these two scans from the March 1993 issue, Compute's parent company occasionally tried to tie the magazine in with their other products in very odd ways. Penthouse Online is like a lot of proprietary online services available at the time, charging $5.95 a month plus 20 cents per minute of usage -- a pretty hefty amount to spend for a few pornographic pics, even if there was "NO 9600 BPS SURCHARGE!"

And speaking of which, one wonders how dedicated to nude women you have to be to think that purchasing a Penthouse-branded modem like the one pictured below would be a good idea. Imagine going to a garage sale today and seeing that pop up. How would the seller explain it? ("Well, I was going through this extremely randy period in the early '90s, and I wanted to show off my brand loyalty, so...")


Compute's fate was one shared by a lot of other computer magazines around this time: the name was bought by Ziff Davis, who promptly closed the mag and started sending Computer Life or Family PC (both beginner-oriented PC mags) to the subscriber base. Compute had a circ of around 248,000 by that time -- compare that to the 1.2 million Ziff's PC Magazine was boasting -- and the purchase was made for an estimated $250,000, according to Folio magazine.

That's pretty darn cheap, which makes me wonder if General Media's thought process was "OK, the times have changed, nobody wants a mag like this anymore, let's get what we can out of it and run." It's speculation on my part, of course, but I think I'm right. At least they produced a kick-ass modem before they folded, though.

[Kevin Gifford used to breed ferrets, but now he's busy running Magweasel, a really cool weblog about games and Japan and "the industry" and things. In his spare time he does writing and translation for lots of publishers and game companies.]