Feature: The Making of Super Play Magazine
Posted by Damien McFerran
The hitherto untold story of the UK's finest SNES-focused publication
As much as it pains us to admit it, print media is slowly coming to the end of its relevance in the video game industry. Although some pockets of resistance still exist and continue to fight the good fight, the truth is that magazines have been usurped from their position on the cutting-edge by internet sites (such as the one you're reading now) and other online portals. The printed word simply cannot compete with the web when it comes to timely news, reviews and multimedia content; in an era where people want information the moment it becomes available, video game magazines are finding it increasing hard to stay in contention.
To many of you, that will come as no great shock — in fact, the average gamer these days isn't old enough to recall the era when newsagents were packed with video game publications that regularly shifted hundreds of thousands of copies a month. However, it's worth remembering that prior to the online revolution, print media was the one and only way gamers could connect with their hobby; magazines were the single source of news, rumour, imagery, critique and user feedback, and when you consider the power these publications had, it's hardly surprising to find that many continue to be regarded as relics of almost holy magnitude.
One magazine which most certainly fits this bill is Super Play. Published by UK-based company Future, it made its debut back in the early '90s and as the title suggests, was focused exclusively on the (then) shiny new Super Nintendo console. Matt Bielby was the launch editor, and recalls the period vividly. "It was towards the end of ’92 and Future Publishing had been going about seven years, but it had only relatively recently become crushingly obvious that the backbone of the company was going be single format video game magazines of every stripe. So when a new generation like the Sega Mega Drive (known as the Genesis in the US) and Super Nintendo Entertainment System came along, clearly we needed two new magazines. With the official licenses elsewhere, both Mega (for the Sega) and Super Play (for the SNES) reveled in being 'as unofficial as reasonably possible', which resulted in a couple of quirky, individual magazines."
"Pretty much the entire launch team were fresh to the company, Future having completely run out of people to staff their mags at this point"
Bielby's previous experience was vital in securing the helm of this exciting new venture. "I'd been editor of Your Sinclair a few years before – and had recently launched Amiga Power, which had been a fair-sized hit – so I had something of a background in slightly more left-field games mags," he remembers. "Once the button was pressed, Super Play was all systems go: we only had three months to find a team, decide what this mag should be like and get our first issue out the door, so it was a race against time from day one."
Getting the magazine off the ground was far from easy, but Bielby was able to secure some significant talent. "Pretty much the entire launch team were fresh to the company, Future having completely run out of people to staff their mags at this point, it was growing so fast," he remembers.
"The semi-exception was Jonathan Davies, who'd never been employed full-time at Future before, but who'd been freelance writing for Your Sinclair and others since school, and was now out of university and looking for a job. He become the writing machine of the early issues, his style shaping much of the tone of the mag: it's hard to think of a more reliably entertaining writer than Jonathan. Jason Brookes was the other crucial find; he was so in love with Japanese culture and he brought hardcore Nintendo knowledge in abundance. Whereas I'd just rung up Jonathan and offered him a job, Jason originally come in for an interview on Mega, but Neil West, that mag's launch editor, pushed him straight at me instead, saying he'd be way better for Super Play. It's hard to argue: the magazine wouldn't have been half as good as it was without Jason's telling contributions."
The speedy genesis of the magazine was demanding on the launch team, but it had benefits. "We were given pretty much a free hand, so every creative decision on the mag – from the idea to really push the Japanese thing as far as we could to finding Wil Overton to do the covers – came out of me and the team," reveals Bileby. "Good job we got most of the important stuff right, then: if we'd messed up badly, there would have been pretty much no time at all to fix it."
Still, some elements of Super Play's creation caused headaches — the name being one of them. "The mag couldn't be called anything 'Nintendo', because we didn't have the license, and so 'Super' became the important word," explains Bielby. "It took some persuading to get anyone to agree to Super Play – my deliberate attempt at a sort of 'Japlish', copying the not-quite-right English phrases that occurred throughout the Japanese magazines and Japanese culture in general. Then a number of designers struggled with the logo, not quite understanding the idea that we wanted it to look sort of Japanese and weird, until our most junior guy at the time, Jez Bridgeman, finally nailed it by putting that utterly meaningless blob thing between the U and the P. Last, we got the name translated – semi-accurately, I believe – into kanji, which was a further carry-on. I don't think I've ever gone quite that close to the wire with a logo before or since – I'm sure we weren't, but it feels like we were still designing the damn thing in press week."
"When Wil Overton’s first cover design came in it all suddenly made sense"
Right from day one, Super Play boasted a unique eastern feel. "As with any magazine, the format of the thing comes from what you've been given to work with," explains Bielby when quizzed about why this stance was taken. "It became clear to us pretty early on that the Mega Drive was going – on the whole – to serve up an American/Western-style gaming experience, with a wide appeal in the UK, while the SNES was going to be a tad more peculiar." It was a bold move, and one that even some of the core staff were unsure of. "Introducing UK gamers to the esoteric world of Japanese cartoons was something Matt came up with," recalls Jonathan Davies. "We weren’t quite sure what he was on about to begin with, but when Wil Overton’s first cover design came in it all suddenly made sense."