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Column: Game Mag Weaseling

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 6/11/11

June 15, 2011 2:00 AM |

['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. This time -- an analytical look at the latest video game magazines released in the last couple of weeks.]

I know it's post-E3 and few people may care very much about print mags that came out before the event, but if you buy one mag on the shelves right now, I recommend this one:

GamePro July 2011

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Cover: Street Fighter X Tekken

I think I'm starting to repeat myself in these descriptions, but I'm starting to think that GamePro, more than any other US mag at the moment, knows how design spreads well.

This is worth pointing out, because while advertising pages have plummeted in game mags over the past five years, a lot of mags are still designed on a page-by-page basis in order to make it easier to insert a page ad without screwing up the design. For most US mags, this (for better or for worse) isn't much of a worry any longer.

GamePro's art folks realize this, and their mag just looks different as a result of it. It's still under 100 pages, but every two-page spread is stimulating enough that it seems like you're getting a lot more out of it. It works to the mag's advantage, making readers stop and look at pretty much any feature, from the cover bit to the preview of Skyrim to the high-end PC hardware guide that'd be pretty boring in nearly any other situation.

I say that even before getting to the "Periodic Table of Computer & Video Games," a look at the "fundamental elements" (the genre pioneers) of gaming. It's a hell of a thing from Julian Rignall, well-researched and well-written. Rock on to him for that.

I'd write more (haven't even gotten to the cover yet, either, which rocks), but I think you get the idea. I love GamePro.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Young Nintendo Love

June 5, 2011 12:00 AM |

['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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One of the (many, many) things that make me feel old these days is looking at letter sections in old video game magazines. Letter writers had panache back then. It felt much more like a community, which makes sense because for a lot of readers, this really was the only community for their chosen hobby. That spirit is largely gone from modern print mags, an unavoidable byproduct of being able to yell at people all you want to on message boards and get much more gratification out of it.

I don't think many US game mags had very strong letter sections. That was much more of a UK mag thing, where letter pages were often five or six pages and arguments between readers would sometimes extend on for months.

Nintendo Power's "Player's Pulse" throughout the '80s and '90s is memorable, though, for the sheer goofy enthusiasm bursting out of the pages. You had pudgy kids taking pictures of themselves in front of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out, sending in Zelda-themed rap lyrics, showing off their best magic-marker envelope illustrations, and generally being goofy kids. That, and asking girls out.

This page, from Volume 70 (March 1995) of NP, features an Okahoman boy asking a girl out -- I blocked out their names, but you can look it up yourself on whatever copy (physical or digital) you have handy. Back in February, someone on a message board thought this message was charming enough that he decided to track down the girl on the Internet and see whether the date proposal -- which, keep in mind, was reprinted approximately 1.3 million times, Nintendo Power's average circulation in 1995 -- actually went anywhere.

What happened?

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': When Strategy Guides Ruled The Earth

May 29, 2011 3:00 PM |

['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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How popular did Nintendo's Family Computer become after Super Mario Bros. was released on September 13, 1985? So popular that, as it turns out, a third-party Super Mario Bros. strategy guidebook was the top selling non-manga book in Japan for the entire year of 1985. And 1986.

Super Mario Bros.: The Complete Strategy Guide (スーパーマリオブラザーズ完全攻略本, pictured at left) was produced by the editors of Tokuma Shoten's Family Computer Magazine, the highest-circ game mag in Japan until Famitsu hit it big in the late 1980s. Simultaneous day-and-date guide releases alongside games didn't really happen until later, so this book didn't hit shops until October 31 -- and still it managed to sell 630,000 copies before the end of the year. What's more, the 10th best-selling book of 1985 in Japan was another SMB strategy guide -- Futami Shobo's Super Mario Bros. Secret Tricks Collection (スーパーマリオブラザーズ裏ワザ大全集, pictured right).

(In what was perhaps a sign of the times, the book that Tokuma's Mario guide beat out to be #1 in 1985 was the Japanese translation of Iacocca: An Autobiography.)

Mario Mania didn't truly take hold in Japan until 1986, though. In that year, Tokuma's guide was again the top-selling book in the nation, with Futami's getting bumped up to third place. What's more, those two books were joined by five other guides in the top 25 -- strategies for Twinbee, The Goonies, Spelunker, Ghosts 'n Goblins, and Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken. In 1986, you could sell anything Famicom-related and rake in massive profits, basically -- and then it happened all over again in America two years later. I knew I was born too late.

Sadly, the guidebook boom faltered in subsequent years as competition increased. From 1987 onward, the only strategy guides that made Japanese bestseller lists were Enix's official guides for whatever Dragon Quest title they most recently released. (There has been a bit of an uptick in recent years, though, thanks to the massive influx of Pokemon guides that hit with every new game release.)

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 5/21/11

May 22, 2011 12:00 AM |

['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. This time -- an analytical look at the latest video game magazines released in the last couple of weeks.]

Welcome to Mag Roundup for what's always the most awkward time of the year for print magazines -- that period in spring just before and right after E3.

Game mags always have the disadvantage when covering this event. If a publisher or developer is saving some big secret for E3, then print editors won't be able to talk about it until the next issue comes out, long after the fact. What's left until then it to talk about...well, less exciting stuff. It doesn't help that May and June are traditionally pretty dead times for new game releases, either. (No offense meant to the games discussed below, of course. But you know it's true. Wa ha ha.)

Be that as it may, here's the new mags I've received over the past two weeks, starting with:

Game Informer June 2011

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Cover: Assassin's Creed: Revelations

GI goes Ubi-mad this issue, with Creed taking the cover and Rayman Origins -- latest in a series that Americans have aggressively refused to care much about for nearly two decades now -- getting the follow-up feature. Both pieces are mainly text, which serves the Creed article well (all those odd story and background details to talk about), but not even Michel Ancel showing up in the Rayman bit keeps it from seeming a little overlong.

Otherwise, there isn't a ton to this issue that really sticks out in my mind. There's a spread talking about the games that tormented GI's editors as children (Super Pitfall makes an appearance, which is good), and I sort of which it had a bit more real estate in the mag.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Amiga Computing Resurrected

May 16, 2011 12:00 PM |

['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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Mort, the guy in the UK who's made it his mission to digitize as many old UK game and computer mags as he can, has just wrapped up his latest project -- Amiga Computing, one of the first Amiga-exclusive magazines in the UK and also one of the longest lasting.

Launched by Europress in January 1988, AC debuted at a time when the marketplace for personal computers in Britain was still squarely focused on 8-bits. The Commodore 64 and Sinclair ZX Spectrum were kings, and for a lot of home users, the Amiga was too expensive to seriously consider. That didn't really change until 1991 or so, when Commodore released the cut-down Amiga 500 and sold enough of them across Europe to make it the most important game platform in the PAL region for several years.

Until then, the 16-bit market was devoted more to the cheaper Atari ST in the UK, something you can see in the number of European ST mags that launched very early on in that system's history. (Future Publishing's Amiga Format, the last major Amiga mag to die out in 2000, originally started out as a combination ST/Amiga publication. The two mags weren't split up until 1989.)

From the beginning, AC had a reputation for technical coverage. Every issue has game coverage, but that was in the back of the mag -- the front side is more devoted to hardware reviews and tutorials on topics like programming, graphics and modem communications.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 5/7/11

May 9, 2011 12:00 PM |

['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. This time -- an analytical look at the latest video game magazines released in the last couple of weeks.]

May is here, and with it come the pre-E3 print mags. It's a delicate time to be in the game mag business, since any really major E3 bombshells aren't going to be revealed for another couple weeks or so, leaving the print mags to scrounge around for what they can find for this month. It ain't all bad of course, to wit...

Edge May 2011

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Cover: Max Payne 3

A very somber theme for this month's issue, what with the cover feature devoted to a progress report on Rockstar's other big IP and an equally feature on alien shooter Prey 2. It's to the point where the editors feel the need to point out in the intro that there's some "warmer" content too, including features on meta-parody-monster Cow Clicker and Double Fine's new Sesame Street game.

The dark broodiness extends even into the "think" features this time around, which are devoted to gamers' fixation with killing in games and the pains users (and devs) have with online and co-op play. Both features are typical Edge at their best, covering everything you can think of and speaking with everyone pertinent you can think of. It's not cover fodder, exactly, but it's the sort of thing I remember the most.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Selling Out, Part 2

April 30, 2011 12:00 PM |

['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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When I wrote in this column a month ago about how I wanted to give away my collection of old video game and computer magazines, I wasn't expecting much response. I never found that many people interested in my collection before, after all.

Back a few years ago, when I was accumulating the majority of my collection, which spans around 8,000 magazine, I felt like I was very much on a solo mission. Lots of people collected classic video games, but I only knew one other person in the US who specialized in game magazines and he didn't live anywhere near me.

It's always been a quixotic mission, one that a lot of people don't understand. Let's say, for example, I took my girlfriend home for the first time. If I had a large collection of NES games, maybe my girlfriend would look at them on the shelf and say "Wow! I had one of these as a kid! Do you have [game name]?" and I'd say "I sure do" with a smug look on my face. (Dork fantasy fulfilled.)

That same person, face to face with a room full of 25-year-old computer magazines and ferret toys -- her reaction could very well be "You must be one of those hoarders like I saw on TV," and her stance would be completely justifiable. Average people my age see value in old games, but not so much in the assorted ephemera that comprised the game scene as it existed in the past.

That's why I was surprised at the large response I received nationwide after writing that column, which described how I wanted my collection to be handled in the future. I'm talking, like, dozens of people, from large research institutions to university libraries to commercial outfits to random collectors asking of my complete GameFan run was for sale.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 4/23/11

April 25, 2011 12:00 PM |

['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. This time -- an analytical look at the latest video game magazines released in the last couple of weeks.]

Welcome to the first Mag Roundup in a while, a biweekly feature where I dissect and discuss the game magazines that have hit my mailbox over the past little while. Apologies for being lax about this bit -- I got distracted, repeatedly.

One modification that I should note is that I'm not going to be covering Beckett Massive Online Gamer in the future. Why? Chiefly because I got a renewal notice and it made me realize that I have not enjoyed reading a single issue of that magazine since its debut. Yes -- Beckett MOG is so bad that I am willing to resist my obsessive completionist ways when it comes to magazine collecting, just to starve the publisher of their $15. I have to draw the line somewhere.

Kicking off:

Game Informer May 2011

Cover: Mass Effect 3

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I got into a discussion with a colleague of mine over this cover. I have an aversion to bald space marines on the covers of game magazines, something that longtime column fans might've noted once or twice over the past half-decade.

My friend, on the other hand, hailed this cover as iconic and a sort of culmination for the series -- which, admittedly, it very well could be, if you were familiar with the Mass Effect games in the first place. However, in the end, it's still a bald space marine. (This is not GI's fault, of course -- most of their covers are first looks at upcoming AAA titles, and most upcoming AAA titles have starred Vin Diesel-ish dudes for the past 2 or 3 years.)

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Crashing Into The Future

April 17, 2011 12:00 AM |

['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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I find myself up against the wall timewise this weekend. This is the sort of thing that happens when you work freelance for a living. It's always feast or famine that way.

So instead of me prattling on about my collection and so on (I'll have something to announce about that before very long, by the way), why don't we take a look at some real history: the first review of the first British periodical to be a "game magazine" the way we define it today?

This is page 8 of issue one (February '84) of Crash, the first really “modern” video game magazine, and it happens to be the very first review they ever printed. Naturally, it's for 3D Deathchase, a late-'83 game that ZX Spectrum fans hold in such high regard that Your Sinclair called it the “best Speccy game ever” in a 1992 feature. I can sorta dig it.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup, Sorta

April 11, 2011 12:00 AM |

['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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I've received a couple of letters asking why I haven't done a "Mag Roundup" lately, a rundown of all the video game mags that have hit my mailbox in the past couple weeks. The reason's been threefold: One, I went skiing for a month and fell out of the habit; two, I keep on having trouble with my subscriptions as of late (my latest issue of Retro Gamer arrived only as a ripped plastic bag and I have yet to find success contacting any human being about a replacement); and three, ongoing news in the mag business keep on distracting me. Case in point:

- I just whined last week about how slow the game press has been to experiment with iPads and other tablets, and now along comes Atomix, a new project that's a co-production between a large Mexican game-media site and Area 5, the video guys at 1UP before the 2008 layoffs. Atomix was originally a print magazine in Mexico, launching in May 1999 and proceeding along until 2009, when it successfully made the switch to an online-only presence. Its main competition in Mexico was EGM en Español, which started in 2002 and closed up in late 2008, just before the Ziff Davis-owned US parent.

I admit to not knowing much about Atomix's past. I met the staff briefly around 2004, when I was attending a THQ press junket in Cabo San Lucas and us Californian game nerds got a chance to hang out with the Mexican press a bit. However, the iPad package is aleady looking pretty sweet -- fun-looking, interactive, and most importantly engaging. I may have to start covering this regularly, because while it's entirely digital, it's really a print magazine in spirit.