Paper view: the return of video game magazines | Games
IIf you were a fan of video games in the 80s or 90s, then, along with your computer, your QuickShot joystick and your cassette player, there was another essential part of your setup: a game magazine. For me it was Zzap! 64, a glossy magazine dedicated to the Commodore 64 with brilliant and savvy writers, great features and an extensive tips section. I would rush to the newsagent on publication day, bring it home with almost religious reverence, and then read it cover to cover. And then I would go back and read it again. This is how I discovered new games such as Sentinel, Elite and Leaderboard, but also, through the letters and contests page, joined a community of players, years before the World Wide Web allowed us all to get in touch. In the 80s, video game magazines were the Internet.
In the mid 90’s I was lucky enough to get a job at Future, one of the leading games magazine publishers in Britain. It was the absolute pinnacle of the industry – as a writer for Edge magazine, I shared offices with the famous Nintendo Superplay magazine, the very enthusiastic GamesMaster, the anarchic Amiga Power and an official PlayStation Magazine in booming, which would rival FHM and even the monthly-circulation Radio Times. Producing a magazine was a labor of love – a constant battle between our desire to perform and cover all and page count and print time constraints. Conveying the excitement of a new Resident Evil or Tekken title in prose, imagery and caption, was a skill that took months to learn.
Readers weren’t just consumers, they were followers. Magazines were like football teams: if you read PC Gamer, you wouldn’t go near PC Zone; if you liked Computer and Video Games magazine, you’ve seen Mean Machines aside. Like the old rivalry between NME and Melody Maker, the actual content of the magazines was almost secondary to gang affiliation. These things mattered.
Look at newsagents’ shelves now and that’s another story. Future, still a huge force in gaming media, publishes only four print magazines in the field – Edge, PC Gamer, Retro Gamer, and Play. Elsewhere, most posts are aimed at kids and tweens – like Toxic and 110% Gaming with their caches and endless Fortnite and Minecraft features. News, reviews, communities – it’s live now in the form of gaming sites, Reddit forums, Discord servers and Twitch streams. What good is the monthly cycle of the magazine in the 21st century when everything is available online immediately?
But quietly, and away from the traditional high street newsagents, gaming magazines have started to make a comeback. This was partly fueled by a wave of gaming nostalgia, spawned 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, worn out by 100-hour adventures and endless live-service games, look back on the simpler days of the Speccy or the Mega Drive or the original PlayStation with a sense of ardent reverie – and there is a common understanding that print magazines were an integral part of this era.
Jonah Naylor runs an IT services company, but in the 80s he trained as a journalist at a local newspaper – and also loved video games. “My first computer was a ZX Spectrum ‘Rubber Key’, before switching to the Amstrad CPC range, then to the Amiga. Magazines and computers have always had an important relationship, I remember reading Amstrad Action and Amiga Format magazines religiously – print media was the only decent source of computer and gaming information back then! A few years ago he started to really miss the Amiga scene and after discovering that there were no more magazines running he gathered a group of equally nostalgic gamer friends and decided to launch one. By contacting the Amiga community online, he managed to secure enough funds to work on a release issue, which he printed through a local company. The resulting magazine, Addicted to the Amiga, is a bright and brash ode to its 90s ancestry, spanning classic titles and developers such as DMA and Psygnosis, but also reflecting on today’s Amiga community. Initially only available online, it will soon be available for sale at over 300 newsagents across the country.
And Amiga Addict is not alone. The Commodore 64 Review Freeze64, which is inspired by Zzzap!, has been around since 2017 with retro reviews and interviews from legendary developers. On the console side, Ninty Fresh has been running since a successful kickstarter in 2020, spanning Nintendo machines from the NES onwards and theming each issue around classic titles such as F-Zero, Metroid and Zelda. The last example is Powered by Sega, another Kickstarter printing project, this time led by Dean Mortlock who edited the classic Sega Power and Saturn Power magazines from Future in the 90s. criticism,” says Mortlock. “We will also be slowly going through Sega’s back catalog in the reviews section. This is where we take old games and see how well they’ve stood the test of time. Plus, we’ll cover what’s going on in homebrew games, as it makes for interesting and quirky games and casts – which often go unnoticed.
All of these magazines have their roots in old-school gaming communities, but the comeback of gaming magazines isn’t limited to industry nostalgia. The independent print publishing industry has been experiencing a revival for more than a decade, spurred by falling costs, accessible desktop publishing software, and the rise of small independent print shops ready to undertake limited print runs. “It’s often compared to the return of records,” says Daniel McCabe, manager of the brilliant magazine store. Magalleria in the bath. “Just as many young people today completely missed out on the vinyl era, they are all now discovering the joys of analogue.
“The modern, more sophisticated magazine feeds our inner thirst for tactility in the digital age. That is to say, the magazine offers touch, smell and even a change of pace – of course you can snuggle up with your mobile phone but, when practical, a print magazine is more immersive and transporting, offering a break from ‘instant’ and ‘non-stop’ media.
Now a freelance graphic designer, Caspian Whistler began creating video game zines while studying at the University of the Arts in London. “At the time, the discourse on games seemed very dark to me, so I wanted to create something celebratory and upbeat to try to reclaim some of my love for the medium. I became quite enamored with print publications during 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 were so few things that gave games the same treatment.
At first, Whistler did all the writing and design himself as a side project, but when he posted images of the zine on a forum, he was amazed at the positive response he got. In 2016 he turned to Kickstarter, looking for £20,000 to do the first issue of A deep waste of time, a beautiful contemporary gaming magazine printed on high-quality paper, with illustrations by talented designers and in-depth articles on current gaming culture. By the end of the crowdfunding period, he had raised £39,000. The second issue, published last year, was even more ambitious, with a booklet insert and prismatic holographic cover. “I’m constantly trying to find unique ways to use the physicality of the medium in ways that pixels and screens can’t replicate,” he says. “Fold-out sections, paper stocks, cut-out pages, tips… There’s a lot of work to justify the magazine’s existence in ink and paper. If we’re going to chop down a tree, I want to do something as special as possible with it.
What all of these magazines confirm is an aspect of the game that is often overlooked. It’s not a purely digital medium – it’s haptic, it relies on touch and feel – the click of a button, the flick of a spun analog stick, the rustle of a mouse. Magazines reflect this tangible pleasure. There is a sensuality to turning the pages, to running the fingers over a matte printed surface. And unlike a website or Instagram feed, a magazine offers an unobtrusive, focused experience: it doesn’t come with 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.
The power and joy of print was poignantly illustrated by Edge magazine in the spring of 2020. At the onset of the covid pandemic, the editorial team found themselves working from home, unable to compile a regular issue . Instead, they produced a special edition, a tribute to the games they loved and made them feel better. “Like everyone else, we were exhausted, terrified and wondering how we could stay focused on something like a video game magazine while all this was going on,” says Jen Simpkins, then editor. “We found that we had retreated to old favorite games in search of comfort – I think a lot of people did that during lockdown.
“Friends were calling us for recommendations, stuck inside and depressed. Suddenly that light bulb went out and we realized that we could do something that felt useful and hopeful, and totally in tune with the times by compiling this issue. It was such a joy to do – paying homage to games designed to tell stories of hope, laughter and love, to keep us fit or in touch with distant friends.
When I was on Edge magazine, the most exciting day of the month was when the new issues arrived. They came in boxes of 50, tied together with plastic ties. We would distinguish them with great care, and finally, you would see the cover, all shiny and real, and you could flick through and find your words transformed into something concrete and lasting. Every time I opened one of these boxes, it reminded me that I was 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.