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Column: Game Mag Weaseling

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Selling Out to My Digital Overlords

April 3, 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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Apologies if this seems a bit sudden, but I'm looking to offload nearly all of my 8000-volume magazine collection.

Wait! I can explain! Don't get the wrong idea!

My basic stance -0 that print magazines can and do produce deeper, better researched, more entertaining reading about games than online sites (though not as much as I'd like them to) -- hasn't changed a bit. I still subscribe to every US mag and a couple UK mags, and I plan to keep that up until the last print title shuffles off this mortal coil. There's too much good stuff that I'd miss otherwise.

However, I'd definitely like to get rid of a lot of the older magazines in my collection. The reason: now that I've got an iPad, I'm at the point where storing them digitally is far more convenient for my needs.

By now, I have a fairly large collection of old video game and computer magazines in digital format on my computer. They've come from assorted sources over the years -- some official releases from the old publishers, some from sites like Retromags and zzap64.co.uk, and many from some random place or another that's long slipped my memory.

For many years, this repository has rested on my hard drive, growing to a fairly vast size but only rarely getting much actual use. The reason? Reading digitized print media on a computer just isn't fun, for the same reasons reading longform articles on game websites isn't fun -- you're sitting uncomfortably at a desk or in some similarly awkward position in front of a laptop, reading text off of a screen that seems intent on causing you eyestrain until the end of your years.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': How to Hack the World

March 28, 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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Most NES and Famicom collectors around the world are probably aware of Hacker International, the Japanese bad boy publisher of 8-bit consoledom and distributor of titles such as Soap Panic (Bubble Bath Babes), by this point.

I (like a lot of NES fans, I suppose) first heard about Hacker from David Sheff's book Game Over, where he mentions that the company attempted to defy Nintendo's third-party licensee system for the Famicom, was sued, and went out of business shortly thereafter.

The only factual part of that synopsis is that Nintendo sued Hacker, but it wasn't for anything related to publishing unlicensed FC porn games and it was settled out of court before a verdict was reached.

What's more, Hacker had a very long history -- long enough to result in 16 Famicom games, 22 Famicom Disk System titles (more than most legitimate FDS licensees), 13 PC Engine games (seven on CD-ROM), 15 licensed PlayStation releases under the name Map Japan, and even a handful of Windows titles.

That's not bad for a company so associated with 8-bit pornography, the producer of such illustrious titles as Sexy Invaders, Miss Peach World and the unforgettable Strip Fighter II.

Hacker was founded and led by Satoru Hagiwara, an entrepreneur and former music producer who thought he'd cash in on the personal-computer boom when it hit Japan in the mid-1980s. Their first product was a monthly PC magazine titled Hacker (above), as he explained in a 2005 issue of Game Labo:

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Sir Clive Sinclair And Futures Past

March 22, 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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One interesting thing about poking open a random issue of some ancient, long forgotten computer magazine is that oftentimes, it gives you a window to what the future looks like -- or looked like, anyway, from the era when 16 KB was a lot of memory.

Clive Sinclair maintains an odd presence in computer history. At his prime, he's like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs all rolled up into one person -- never missing a chance to bathe in the spotlight, yet far more interested in inventions and tinkering than market share and profit margins. In the '70s and early 1980s, nobody in the European electronics industry was more respected -- and reported upon -- than he was.

Sinclair got his start producing audio gear in the 1960s and branched out to pocket calculators (1972) and microcomputer kits before kicking off the ZX series of personal computers in 1980. The ZX Spectrum, despite having an abortive and unnoticed launch in America, sold in the millions in Europe.

It provided fierce competition for the Commodore 64 and was the 8-bit system that many of today's game designers and programmers first cut their teeth on. His successes earned Sinclair a knighthood and made him a household name in the UK, but his company was never far from financial ruin and, tiring of having to support a personal-computer business, he sold it to a rival in 1986 and went back to inventing.

He's still at it today, nearing 70 and working on fold-up bicycles and such, although you can't help but think he's a little daft when he talks with the press about how he doesn't handle his own email.

At the height of his public career, in mid-1982, Sinclair gave a speech to the British chapter of Mensa where he discussed his vision of the future. The speech would've been perfect as a TED Talk if such a thing existed back then. Reading the article about it (above, from the October '82 issue of Sinclair User) is pretty neat just to see how tuned-in and far-out he was, nearly three decades ago:

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Compilation Complication

March 6, 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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After a month spent skiing in Colorado and a week spent regretting that I wasn't back in Colorado skiing some more, Game Mag Weaseling is back.

Apologies if you thought I spent my sabbatical in remote corners of China or Europe, excavating national libraries like some kind of sweaty-nerd Indiana Jones in search of rare magazines and the mummified remains of fabled editors-in-chief of antiquity. I didn't touch a one. The lone Borders within 100 miles of my ski lodgings went out of business in mid-February.

What I did bring along with me, though, are these two Japanese one-off "mooks" (magazine books). "Chou-fami: The Complete 1445-Title Emulator Book" (top right) was released in 2004 by Aspect, a publisher that started off as a computer-specialist press but nowadays produces books in a variety of fields.

It was followed up in May 2005 by "The Complete 1236-Title Game Boy Catalog" (top left), whose cover boasts that the authors spent over 4000 hours playing the games that comprise the volume. (When it comes to black-and-white Game Boy titles, I'd probably quit at around the first hundred hours or so. I can only enjoy Batman and Revenge of the 'Gator for so long.)

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 1/22/11

January 23, 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.]

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Woe seems to befall me whenever I mention Tips & Tricks Video Game Codebook in this column. Two weeks ago I remarked that I hadn't seen a new issue come out since November or so. I didn't have any further information, but anything I may've been insinuating with that observation proved to be completely incorrect last week, when I found the latest issue in a supermarket in Austin. I promptly purchased it, and...um...then I lost it someplace.

It's got to be in the car, or on a table somewhere in my house, or something. But it's stubbornly refusing to turn up, even after an extensive search. So I looked around Houston for another copy...and damned if I can find one now. Part of me wants to think I just imagined the whole Austin episode, but...but that's crazy. I had it, in my hand. There were tips, and tricks. And pencil puzzles.

So I apologize that I can't show you the new issue of T&T here, but rest assured, the mag's still around and it's going along fine. To make up for it, why don't I link to Video Game Ephemera, the website run by T&T editor Chris Bieniek? It's filled with neat stories and collectible junk from video games of the past, and it's worth anyone's time to read. (The above photo, showing Howard Phillips 'rapping' with some of his 'homies,' comes from an educational pamphlet Nintendo distributed to parents.)

Now, on to the rest of the mags that came out over the past couple of weeks. I am taking off from this column for a few weeks in order to bum around Colorado ski resorts for a while, so I'll see you on the other side, eh?

COLUMN: Game Mag Weaseling - 'Pelaaja On!'

January 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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A lot of people are pessimistic about the future of game mags these days, so why not talk about a real, current success story for a change? Of course, pessimists will likely have all their convictions confirmed once they learn that I've had to go all the way to Finland to find the story.

Pelaaja, or Player, is in the midst of celebrating its 100th issue. It launched in October 2002, an independent operation founded by a group of gamers who thought -- I'm quoting from the email I got from them -- "why not work for ourselves and make a great videogames magazine since there really were no good ones here in Finland."

The 100th issue has the expected "best 100 games of all time" feature, but it's also got a series of "Icons" interviews with folks like Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright, Warren Spector, and the heads of BioWare -- a pretty mean lineup, and even more impressive considering the mag's written in a language understood by a grand total of 6 million people worldwide.

To find out more about Pelaaja's story, I spoke with Thomas Puha, the title's editor-in-chief and a guy who's contributed to a fair number of English-language mags and websites over the years.

Q: What sort of magazines did you follow in Finland growing up?

A: Scandinavia has traditionally been a very computer-oriented scene, so it was difficult to be a fan of console gaming when it was all about the C64, Amiga and then PC. I was always more inclined to read English-language games magazines, which had much more passion and information -- plus they didnt dis consoles, which was the vibe in Finland.

You couldn't get all the foreign magazines in Finland. Strangely enough, we received most of the US magazines like GamePro, GameFan and EGM, but not all the British ones. So whenever our family would take a cruise holiday to Stockholm (that's the thing you do in Finland), I always bought the english mags from their much better selection. I think the United Kingdom produces the best magazines; most of them have great writing style and really good art direction, though there's some rather horrible ones out there as well. I still remember how badly Tim Boone fucked up Computer & Video Games.

Mean Machines, with folks like Julian Rignall running it, really became my idol and inspired me to start my own magazine later on. The humour, insight and the passion evident was just something else. It was a brilliant magazine and I was devastated when they split it into Nintendo Magazine System and Mean Machines Sega. Neither was anywhere near as good as Mean Machines. I remember meeting Gary Harrod, the art director of Mean Machines way back in the day. That was amazing to me. Dude's a hero.

Q: Your first paying job was writing things like the "Europa" news column for GameFan.

A: I cant remember how, but I found the #vidgames IRC channel and met some folks there. I struck up a conversation with a dude nicknamed Flynn, who was working on this VHS-based game magazine in the US, and a few weeks later he asked if I wanted to help out on their website. So I started writing for them covering the European games scene. He ended up working at GameFan, a magazine that I had bought religiously and was a huge fan of. So then I started writing news for their website and trying to build contacts in Europe.

When I went to E3 I visited the GameFan dungeon in Woodland Hills. The place really was a dungeon. Everybody was so passionate about videogames there, which I really loved -- I didn't have that in Finland. I was really jealous of the atmosphere, even though it was a pretty dysfunctional family. Everyone just loved games there, and I really wanted to be a part of that. I was based in Finland while freelancing for them, but I heard a lot of what was going on and most of what you heard was true...it was an, uhh, intense place!

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 1/8/11

January 9, 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.]

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Happy New Year! Or, if you're a magazine editor hurriedly trying to wrap up the January issue so he can get out of the office and into his customary seat at the bar, happy Thanksgiving!

Edge, for its Christmas 2010 issue, has obliged with its customary end-of-year present for subscribers -- a full-sized poster/2011 calendar and day planner, complete with the newsstand release dates of every issue of Edge for the coming year. This year's poster is decidedly Mario-themed, with the reverse side done up like a timeline depicting the plumber as he appeared in nearly every game he's starred in.

I've actually taped Edge's calendar posters up to the wall every year since I began subscribing to the mag in 2006 or so, mainly because their compact, fetching design is actually pretty useful when (like me) you've got multi-month project schedules to follow for your job. Thanks for the present, guys. It's not money, but it'll do.

The magazine the poster comes with ain't terrible, either. It's got an MMO bent this time around, between the WOW: Cataclysm cover and an internal follow-up feature on Guild Wars 2 that talks about how the sequel's for people who hate MMOGs because it's got a "bold plan of reinvention" -- a line I've heard before about all manner of MMOs, but at least the devs interviewed in both features are honest and upfront about their games.

A lot more interesting to me is a piece on how modern shooters affect the general public's perceptions of modern war, which gets takes from everyone from Randy Pitchford to US/British soldiers and vets. It's the sort of thing GamePro's been doing a lot of lately, but it's more than welcome here, too.

Click past the fold to check out the other mags that have hit stores lately.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Where Are We?

January 3, 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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It being the new year and all, I think it might be a good idea to step back and take in the situation print mags find themselves in right now.

I'm inspired to do this thanks to two things I happened across today. One is a thread in the games section of the Something Awful Forums about people's favorite game mags. As usually happens in threads like these, someone wondered why they still exist at all:

"[W]hy would you guys pay for a magazine for one set of opinions when the internet has dozens of gaming websites, both coming from paid journalists and blogs alike and they are all free? Magazines were nice back then, I had a PC Gamer subscription for years but only because the internet had no real alternatives to gaming magazines at the time and demo's were much easier to obtain on a CD.

In this day and age it just seems like a waste of money, unless magazines have gotten really cheap in order to compete."

This was followed by the answer that always comes when that question's asked online: It's toilet reading. This I never understood -- how much time do people spend sitting on the john, for Chrissakes? There was at least one other intelligent response, though:

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Marching Past Xmas

December 26, 2010 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.]

Merry Christmas to everyone! I don't have much to say this week -- I am at the ol' family home at the moment, and I want to save my remarks on the game-mag business in 2010 for next week's column. (The short version: Not stupendous, but a great distance healthier than I had imagined 12 months ago.)

For today, then, why not enjoy a game that (in my opinion, anyway) is one of the best cover-disk giveaways of all time? Xmas Lemmings 1991 made its debut on one of the disks mounted on Issue 30 (Jan 1992) of Amiga Format, the most dominant "general-purpose" Commodore Amiga mag (as opposed to games-only publications like Amiga Power and The One) in the UK for most of its existence. It covered games, productivity applications, and the user scene all in one book, and at its peak was a pretty enormous mag that had major clout across the entire European computer business. That, no doubt, is one reason the editors were able to nab this exclusive four-level mini-game set in a wintry Lemmings universe.

Like a lot of Future Publishing mags, Amiga Format lasted far longer than an outsider would expect -- the final issue was published in May 2000, a full six years after Commodore International declared bankruptcy. (The last Amiga mag to get distributed to newsstands was Amiga Active, which toiled on in the UK until November 2001.)

[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.]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 12/18/10

December 19, 2010 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.]

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Happy holidays, gentlemen and ladies! "'Tis the season to be sharing," as Santa told Fred Flintstone countless times on TV throughout my childhood -- and plainly Official Xbox Magazine is in a sharing mood, because page 25 of the January 2011 issue features this wonderful, informative, uplifting article that put me in the Christmas spirit like nothing else before.

Previous issues of OXM have taught me how to excel at online Call of Duty, what games to look out for this Christmas, even how to pad my Gamerscore with the least amount of actual gameplay. Now they're going a step further and actively trying to help me with my sex life!

This in-depth feature tells the inspiring tale of John Alanis, a man intent upon imparting the secrets of a "short, fat, dumpy guy" who taught him how much of a "paint-by-numbers, step-by-step, brain-dead simple process" it is to deal with women. Such a wonderful piece of affirmation to all males everywhere! And there's a handy URL to consult for all the secrets, too!

(On his website, Alanis asks $9 for shipping/handling in order to send the report with the really, really big secret to scoring chicks, but what the hell, I need all the help I can get!)

Although the Great Magazine Die-off of 2009 appears to be over (there are actually more mags being printed in the US this year than last), advertising continues to be pretty slow in the gaming genre. I noted a couple columns ago that ESRB filler ads (which get printed for lack of actual paid advertising, sort of like public-service announcements on TV) were popping up in the Future mags a fair bit lately, but I think I may still prefer those ESRB ads over weaselly airline cabin magazine-style ads like this one. What pays the bills pays the bills, though, eh?

Regardless, let's move on to covering the mags that made it under my door in the past two weeks. It may be my last Mag Roundup of the year, so enjoy the rest of it!