How C+VG magazine changed the video game industry
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Computer and Video Games magazine (C+VG) ran for four decades. Originally launched in 1981, it would appear on newsstands until 2004. The online edition carried on until 2014. That makes it the longest running video game magazine in history.
But I don’t care about any of that.
I’m interested in the magazine’s early 90s heyday. A brief, chaotic period, which saw the gaming industry shed its bedroom coder origins, and start to resemble the global entity it is today.
C+VG didn’t just capture the mood of the era. It helped define it. In the process it introduced a generation of kids to import gaming, shifted the industry’s axis towards Japan, and turned its writers into schoolyard heroes.
Liminal states and boundary years
I first became aware of ‘liminal states’ in John Higgs’ book, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds.
He describes liminal states as boundary years between old and new. I’m paraphrasing here, but it goes something like this:
‘A period when the old rules are gone, but before the new order is yet to be formed. When normal certainties do not apply, when anything is possible, and the strange is commonplace.’
In the book, he argues that one such period was the early 90s. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Cold War certainties were no longer quite so certain.
But at the same time, the new global economy had yet to emerge. This was a brief moment in history when everything suddenly changed, but the future was still up for grabs.
While Higgs’ focus is on music and politics, you could extend that hypothesis to the video game industry as well. Because everything did change in the early 1990. This was the point where the patch-work of home computers that had dominated the UK gaming market was washed away by a tide of new Japanese consoles.
C+VG magazine was there to capture the drama, and the confusion. Which explains why the magazine masthead listed no less than 10 different formats in 1990. This encompassed everything from the humble Spectrum, Amstrad and Commodore 64 micros to the Amiga and Atari ST, Sega and Nintendo’s 8-bit consoles, PC titles, the newly arrived Mega Drive and the import online PC Engine.
Within 5 years that would be whittled down to just 4 major platforms — Sega, Nintendo, Sony and PCs.
Mean Machines and Mega Drives
Our story begins proper sometime in early 1990, when a young Richard ‘Rich’ Leadbetter finds himself interviewing for a writing gig with Julian ‘Jaz’ Rignall at EMAP Publishing.
As Rich explains, “The original plan was that I’d join Mean Machines magazine. But I ended up on C+VG because all of my gaming up to that point was on 8-bit (Spectrum/C64) and 16-bit (Amiga) computers.”
Whatever Rich’s previous gaming experience may have been, his new boss quickly threw a spanner in the works. “Jaz showed me Golden Axe and Afterburner 2 on the Mega Drive during the interview. At that point I knew it was game over for the home computers.”
Regardless, Rich soon found himself covering the full spectrum of gaming titles. Everything from crusty budget re-releases for the C64 to the latest Japanese imports. “In truth, we didn’t spend a huge amount of time playing the games,” he admits. “But typically that’s because the vast majority of the games out there were simple arcade conversions or very basic compared to the epics of today.”
There was also the matter of monthly deadlines, and the need to fill those pages with content. “We had a ‘flat plan’, which was essentially a layout of the magazine and what was on every page — it sat on the editor’s desk,” he recalls.
“Fluorescent markers would be used to fill in completed pages. We covered a lot of games back then and principally, it was a race to get those pages on the plan coloured in. The editors would choose the games that strongly appealed to them, but typically, the staff writers would do what the editors told them to do! We weren’t precious about that kind of stuff back then — we didn’t have time. We’d just get on with it.”
Here’s Julian ‘Jaz’ Rignall
Trying to keep on top of all those formats and curate a monthly magazine sounds like a nightmare, but as Rich explains, it actually gave the team plenty of scope to highlight worthwhile titles. “The beauty of C+VG was that it didn’t need to be comprehensive, it wasn’t trying to be a ‘gaming bible’ that covered every single release. There was a certain amount of curation.”
So let’s bring in Jaz, the former editor of C+VG, founding editor of Mean Machines magazine, and all-round industry legend.
As he tells it, “C+VG has always been about featuring the best gaming experiences regardless of platform, so we included everything in the magazine that we felt would make the readers excited. That meant covering the hottest games on the most popular domestic home micros that most of C+VG’s readers owned, as well as finding the latest import games that the readership could aspire to owning.”
Far East of Eden
Console coverage in C+VG began as a separate section in the back of the magazine titled ‘Mean Machines’. It was originally written by Tony Takoushi and ran about four pages. That was quickly ramped up and eventually the console reviews and news were incorporated into the broader magazine.
Also, Mean Machines eventually became its own off-shoot magazine with Jaz at the helm, but that’s a whole other story.
In the meantime, there were commercial opportunities to address…
Back then it wasn’t uncommon to wait two years or longer for the latest Japanese console or game to make its way to western PAL markets.
Or it just didn’t see a local release at all — like the PC Engine and the NEO GEO. So while you might be able to read about the latest Japanese shoot-em-up or scrolling beat-em-up, you couldn’t buy them locally.
That was solved by the sudden appearance of ‘grey importers’ — shops selling the latest Japan releases at a healthy premium.
As Rich explains, “The excitement was infectious, and it basically sealed the fate of the old computers both in terms of coverage and their broader market appeal. It [also] kick-started the whole grey import scenario, where small firms sprung up to bring over the latest consoles and games from the Far East. You can see it in the kind of advertising that sprung up in C+VG in that period. We were showing the world a big bunch of amazing games that they couldn’t play — and absolutely they wanted to. Things wouldn’t change for years — right up until PlayStation 3, Japan would get the new kit first, followed by the USA and then finally Europe.”
“I think we definitely helped readers discover a gaming world beyond Britain and Europe,” says Jaz. “We opened the readers’ eyes to Japanese gaming, which was where most of the cutting-edge software was being produced during that era. The most exciting consoles were Japanese, and they featured all sorts of amazing games, arcade conversions, and original properties that we were very enthusiastic about.
“I do think our early console coverage hype helped pave the way for the import scene to grow, and later when consoles were officially released [the imports] continued to grow in popularity because they represented the most exciting part of the gaming market.”
Cigarettes and alcohol
While Jaz, Rich and the rest of the C+VG team were pushing cutting edge technology, the day-to-day office conditions were defiantly lo-fi. As Rich recalls, “The working conditions were pretty disgusting, the office was a mess, there was no air conditioning, probably about a quarter of the people smoked in the office — and the games room was stiflingly hot in the summer. I was pretty surprised at how bad it was when I went to interview for the job. The funny thing is, of course, that the stuff piled up in there (most of which ended up in a skip), would likely be worth a lot of money now.”
Rich is still involved in the games industry these days, and is one of the co-founders of Digital Foundry, a company best known for its in-depth tech analysis of games. Compared to the old days, he says, “The business is orders of magnitude larger and more mainstream than it was in the 90s — and also a lot better from a quality perspective. It’s rare that you’ll find an actual bad product these days — whether it’s a console, a PC component or a game.”
“The industry was still finding its feet in the 1990s and the kind of fanzine-like mentality that we brought to journalism reflected that. That approach may have been somewhat unprofessional, but its appeal was its authenticity — and I expect that’s exactly why YouTubers and Twitch streamers are so popular today. [Plus] they have the advantage of cheap tools and global platforms that give you everything you need to publish yourself. If there’s a regret looking back, it’s that the success of those magazines was entirely down to the staff and EMAP exploited us.”
Uncertainty, confusion. Wild and fierce fanaticism
I had mostly stopped buying C&VG by 1992. I’d upgraded from a Commodore 64 to a Mega Drive by that point and was more interested in console specific magazines, like C+VG offshoot Mean Machines, and later Mega Tech.
But it’s also fair to say that the moment had passed. C+VG had done its job. It had provided a bridge between the old home micros of the 80s and the new generation of Japanese consoles. In the process it had recalibrated the industry towards the east — a path it would travel unchallenged for the next decade.
While new console generations and new battles would play out in later editions of the magazine, it was never the same. The industry became a four-horse race between Sega, Nintendo, Playstation and the PC.
Which meant the confusion and chaos of the early 90s was replaced by an arms race between a handful of contenders. The future had been decided.
That brings us full circle, and back to the idea of liminal states.
J. Calhoun, a former U.S. Vice President once wrote, “The interval between the decay of the old and the formation and establishment of the new, constitutes a period of transition which must always necessarily be one of uncertainty, confusion, error, and wild and fierce fanaticism.”
I can’t think of a better description for the console and computer wars of the early 90s…
Forgotten Worlds: A magazine about old video game magazines coming soon.