Mean Machines magazine.
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The blueprint for video game magazines in the 90s
Julian ‘Jaz’ Rignall &
Rich Leadbetter &
Rad Automatic &
Gary Harrod &
30 years after the fact, I can still recall the staff of Mean Machines magazine like it was yesterday. I assume I’m not the only one. For a generation of kids raised on Sega vs Nintendo, the names listed above are as iconic as the ones on the bootleg NWA or Beatles t-shirts you see floating around.
Before there was Twitter, Twitch, Tik Tok or YouTube. Before the Internet. And before the media splintered off into a thousand fragments, there were magazines.
And if you’re an adult of a certain vintage, Mean Machines magazine was the authority on video games in the early 90s.
While other publications played it safe, Mean Machines filled its pages with in-jokes and irreverent humour, gleefully slagged off terrible games, insulted its readers and, most importantly, put its staff front and centre.
In other words, it was years ahead of the curve, and laid the groundwork for what games journalism would become in the 90s. So it’s no surprise that the magazine’s history has been well documented. Eurogamer has an excellent article if you want the official (unofficial) history. This isn’t that story.
Rather, this is a look back at pre-internet gaming. A time when magazines welded massive influence. And how a small cabal of writers working out of a dank Priory Court office in London shaped a generation of kids and their video game taste.
A very short history of Mean Machines
Mean Machines began life in 1987 as a column in the back of Computer and Video Games (C&VG) magazine. It was originally written by a freelancer named Tony Takoushi and focused on the Japanese video game market.
Julian ‘Jaz’ Rignall took over in 1989, just as a new generation of Japanese home consoles had begun to filter out to the wider world. The PC Engine and Mega Drive provided a massive technical leap from the home computers doing the roads in Europe. Finally, you could play ‘arcade perfect’ ports of titles like Strider, Golden Axe, or R-Type. This was the new cutting edge, and ’Jaz’ could see the writing on the wall.
By 1990 he had convinced the publisher, EMAP, that a dedicated magazine was needed to cover the emerging console market, and Mean Machines issue #1 hit newsstands in October that same year.
The magazine would run for 24 issues before splintering off into Mean Machines Sega and Nintendo Magazine System. Two publications that never managed to replicate the intangible magic of the original. But that’s an article for another time.
A shambling mockery of a parody
There was an import store near my high school back in the day. The guy who ran it had a row of Neo Geo home consoles set-up that you could play in 20 minute increments for $2 a pop. He also stocked a bunch of import and hard to find games. For a 12 year old it kid it was the centre of the universe.
So whenever I had any money I’d go hunting for strange and obscure Mega Drive titles. Sure, I had Sonic and Madden, but the allure of Japanese imports was hard to resist.
With nothing else to go on, the reviews in Mean Machines were a significant factor in my purchasing decisions. It’s how I came to own Zero Wing (review score 91%), and Rolling Thunder 2 (85%), but ignored Fantasia (61%).
The point being, Mean Machines review scores shaped the gaming tastes of a generation of kids. Here was a magazine not afraid to hand our scores of 9% (Road Fighter, NES), while describing said game as, “Appalling, ruinous, awful, dire, hideous, tragic, frightful and ghastly… a festing catastrophy of a shambling mockery of a sick parody of a game cartridge.”
As kids, we took these reviews as gospel. Because the writers weren’t just a by-line in a magazine, they were celebrities in their own weird way. Or what we might describe today as ‘influencers’.
Mean Yobs and kids illustrations
To be a 12 year old kid in 1991 was to look-up to Jaz, Rich, Rad, Gary and Oz in the same way a 12 year old today might look up to a Tik Tok or Youtube identity. Celebrity, but in a more personal, relatable way. An ‘I could do that’ kind of vibe.
Whether by design or happy accident, the magazine brought the personalities of its writers to the forefront. Each writer had their own custom illustration to accompany reviews. These caricatures were supplied by Art Editor Gary Harrod, and became one of the magazine’s most distinct visual traits.
As Jaz reflects in the Eurogamer article, “To me, the most iconic part of the magazine were the little illustrations of us that we used for the reviews. They really gave Mean Machines a unique look that no other British magazine had at the time.”
Meanwhile, the editorial page was a riot of in-jokes, photos, insults, and incidental stories. While US publications of the era took a more serious, technical tone, Mean Machines placed personality front and centre.
“We wanted Mean Machines to be as interactive as possible, so that it felt like a community of gamers,” adds Rignall. “That’s why we went to such lengths to make sure that there were always a myriad of ways to contribute to the magazine as a reader… We’d ask people to send in all sorts of stuff, from pics of crashed cars to bizarre photos of themselves and their pets. I think it helped make the magazine feel down to earth, irreverent, and funny.”
Let a thousand flowers bloom
Mean Machines didn’t always get it right. But on balance, they provided an honest appraisal of titles, and steered a generation of kids clear of some truly awful games. Which is all good and well. But it’s not the reason the magazine is so fondly remembered.
No. The magazine’s real legacy goes far beyond video games, review scores, or obscure Japanese ephemera.
Mean Machines only ran for 24 issues, but in those two years it created a new template for how we talk about video games in media. One that would be copied and aped by its peers and luminaries. A particular kind of British, irreverent writing style that would shape a generation of kids.
It did all that with a swagger in its step. Pushing the names and faces of its staff to the forefront. The fact it died young, leaving behind a good looking corpse only reinforces its bonafides.
Because every generation needs its heroes. And the Mean Machines legacy lives on in the kids it influenced.
*With apologies to Paul Glancey and the other staff writers of the era.