News Article

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."

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User Comments (37)

CorbsAdmin

#1

Corbs said:

Sometimes I miss the days of magazines. I still remember going to the mall every weekend in junior high school and picking up all of the latest mags like Electronic Games and Diehard Gamefan. :D

edhe

#2

edhe said:

Is this the first multi-page article?

I first joined the Nintendo unofficial magazine series at N64 #28. For those who aren't aware, Super Play evolved into "N64", then "NGC", and finally "NGamer" today. I'm a subscriber, and I'm very happy to be with the magazine for so long (albeit with a few months break and my slips into the dark side with NOM and "N.Revolution").

It is one of my greatest regrets that I haven't kept hold of the issues I've read over the years, but I doubt I would have room for them. The staff writers were always so funny.

JimLad

#3

JimLad said:

Ahh thank you edhe, I do remember N64 magazine.
I was mainly a NOM/ONM/NMS reader, but my brother collected N64.
They did seem to give plenty more coverage to the lesser known third party games.
Also the first N64 issue came with a video cassette containing game footage, which I still have. :)

meppi

#4

meppi said:

Not surprised to see this article was written by Damien. :)

Terrific magazine. I especially love the focus on Japanese games and the culture surrounding it, as well as other unrelated entertainment media being talked about by them.
It's surprising and awesome at the same time to see how fun it is to get back to these classic magazines, especially if you're a retro gaming fan as well.

Oh and for the ones that don't know about us yet, you might want to check outofprintarchive.com. You might like what you find there. ;)

DazzaAdmin

#6

Dazza said:

Super Play was indeed a great magazine. I have fond memories of Wil Overton's cover art most of all. Superb stuff

@edhe - yes indeed, this is Nintendo Life's first multi-page article. @antdickens had to add the functionality because this lovely feature that @Damo cooked up is so in-depth :-p

@Kirk - Mean Machines is easily my favourite retro mag. That's why @Damo and myself set up The Mean Machines Archive all those years ago!

madgear

#7

madgear said:

I only ever had one Super Play magazine - it was the one which reviewed Turtles Tournament Fighters. Anyone know the issue number?

antster1983

#8

antster1983 said:

Super Play was the best ever games magazine, I think the massive import and animé coverage gave it the edge, along with the fantastic cover art :)

daznsaz

#9

daznsaz said:

i still get mags now but dont really need to cos the website covers everything in the mag anyway

Shiryu

#10

Shiryu said:

My alltime favourite games mag! Still have a few dozen volumes that made it to Portugal. In the time where there was no Internet, it was Super Play that allowed me to build an extensive knowledge on all things SNES outside of Europe. I would have never knew of Front Mission (among many other games) if it was not for Super Play. It is also a testament of how hard it is to be a European PAL gamer...

WaveBoy

#11

WaveBoy said:

GamePro was the magazine that I'd always get aside from Nintendo Power, ahhh I miss those days! GamePro's earlier rating system with those crazy faces out '5' were awesome! B-)

Kirk

#12

Kirk said:

@Dazza

Yeah, I've spent countless hours looking at the pages of the Mean Machines Archive and all the old scanned issues of Mean Machines.

It was easily my favourite magazine of the era and just looking at the old issues every now and then brings back some amazing memories of gaming.

TKOWL

#13

TKOWL said:

Too bad I wasn't even born yet when this magazine came out, those look like awesome reads.

GoldenAncona

#14

GoldenAncona said:

@madgear

It was issue 15 (January 1994), and a fine issue it was too. TMNT TF got 90%. Secret of Mana was also reviewed in that issue, scoring a deserved 94%.

Great days.

Bass_X0

#15

Bass_X0 said:

I loved the magazine back then and still read it sometimes even today. The only U.K. magazine I enjoyed just as much was the Sega Saturn Magazine. Many were good but only those two were my favourites. I even had a t-shirt printed of Wil Overton's Alpha 2 Chun-Li.

With some magazine reviewers, its obvious that they are paid to say that they love playing games, that its just a job for them - whether its a Nintendo magazine or Paint Drying Watching Monthly. Super Play genuinely did love playing games and got paid for doing so. I'm also thankful to Super Play for introducing me to anime and manga, I would probably not have become interested so early if it hadn't been for them. I remember one letter to CVG magazine saying how a videogame magazine also covering anime and manga would be like a heavy metal magazine also covering flowers. I disagreed with that letter back then and still disagree now.

Buying Super Play was certainly highlight of my months as a teen. Wil's covers certainly stood out amongst all the rest in my local WH Smiths and Asda.

madgear

#16

madgear said:

@GoldenAncona - the date sounds about right. I'd be interested in finding a scan of the mag as remember it pretty well even though I threw the issue out the next month. Mickey's Magical Quest was in there somewhere too I believe.

BulbasaurusRex

#17

BulbasaurusRex said:

Nintendo Power still manages to remain relavent through the use of exclusive reveals and other new info in their previews, exclusive interviews, and their various fun sections like the Pulse (reader questions and comments with responses), the polls, Playback (retro game spotlight), and the Community section.

GoldenAncona

#18

GoldenAncona said:

@madgear

Although it was the Jan '94 issue, it would have gone on sale in early/mid December '93.

No Mickey's Magical Quest review in that issue; Aladdin and Daffy Duck were both evaluated, perhaps it was one of those you were thinking of?

Unfortunately I don't own a scanner so I can't help on that front.

madgear

#19

madgear said:

I just remember reading it whilst my aunt was minding me over some school holidays. Might not have been a review of Magical Quest - just think I saw a screen shot of it at least. I could be wrong - haven't laid eyes on it since the early '90's lol. I'm sure a scan of it will appear online some point in the future.

MayhemStaff

#20

Mayhem said:

I was with Super Play from the beginning, and carried on through with N64 and NGC afterwards. Super Play WAS the magazine of the 90s, in the same way that Zzap!64 was the magazine of the 80s. Nothing came close to how good it was, it didn't talk down to the readership, and treated them as adults. Bit surprised to see this isn't in Retro Gamer mind you, it reads like the perfect article to have ended up there...

DamoAdmin

#21

Damo said:

@madgear - I have all the issues scanned. I'll look for the pages you want if you like?

@mayhem - Some things are a bit sensitive for RG to publish - when you're re-printing the copyrighted material of a rival publisher, you need to tread carefully...

Pj1

#22

Pj1 said:

Future should do a rom disc of all the magazines! but it proberly take ages... Shame though....
@Damo if future publishing ever buys imagine publishing (Retro gamer) then it could maybe make it's way into R.G some day but it's unlikely...

MayhemStaff

#23

Mayhem said:

What's copyrighted? The cover art? I couldn't see anything in the article copy wise that would be an issue.

CorbsAdmin

#24

Corbs said:

I still have the first issues of Nintendo Power that were just a little fold-out pamphlets. Need to dig that out some time and look at it again.

SilverBaretta

#25

SilverBaretta said:

Great article, @Damo. :) Oddly, even though I don't live in Europe, I think I have an issue of this somewhere. The anime art for the cover jogged my memory.

GoldenAncona

#26

GoldenAncona said:

@madgear

You're probably right, there may well be something Mickey related in there. I remember being particularly exited about the TMNT TF review - I'm a huge Turtles fan, I especially love the original cartoon series, which thankfully is all available on DVD.

@Damo

Every issue eh? - that pretty much makes you the man! :-)

My Super Play collection consists of issues 1 through 16, 24, 47 and Super Play Gold. I also have the first 3 issues of Control, which I did quite enjoy. By the time it became Super Control, however, I felt they had lost the magic. Unfortunately I lost my copies of Super Action and Super Pro (terrible mag IMO) some years ago.

Just thinking back, there was nothing quite so exiting as walking into the newsagents and seeing a brand new issue of Super Play waiting to be picked up.

madgear

#27

madgear said:

@Damo - thanks, but I wouldn't want someone to go through the trouble just to satisfy a nostalgic curiosity of mine. If you have them all scanned you should get in touch with a site like http://www.outofprintarchive.com/ as I'm sure they'd worship you as a god if you sent them over.

DamoAdmin

#28

Damo said:

@mayhem - Future is incredibly protective of its magazines, both past and present. Given the competition between Imagine and Future, I'm guessing the latter wouldn't have taken too kindly to the former reprinting pages from one of its old publications and selling issues off that fact.

JamieOStaff

#29

JamieO said:

Wow! Just wow! I am a big fan of retro gaming magazines and the depth of this feature is completely mint. My top two favourite retro mags of all time are Mean Machines and Super Play, I have every issue of Mean Machines, but I still need nine more issues of Super Play to complete my collection. I have Issues 1 to 36, with the first twelve issues in a black Super Play specific binder, plus I also have Super Play Gold and Issues 38 and 42.

The value of this article is sky-high to me, because its quotes from Matt Bielby, James Leach and Wil Overton bring a perspective from the original team, raising points that a retro mag fan would not have access to before. For example, anyone who has read Super Play will remember that it was hugely influenced by Japanese culture and dedicated to JRPGs, but I did not know that part of this passion came from Jason Brookes and that it was influenced by a wide variety of different Japanese magazines, too. It is also really cool to learn the origins of the distinctive ‘blob’ and kanji script on the logo, plus Wil Overton’s anecdote about the Ganbare Goemon 2 import review is great as well.

There is so much in here that is spot-on, Wil’s cover art was a huge factor in making the look of the mag so distinctive and it is worth reflecting that Super Play was written with a sense of humour, the rumour section ‘Blabbermouth with Kris and Tel’ used to crack me up. Their dedication to Japanese imports was an important element of the magazine, which is why I consider the ‘What Cart?’ A-Z database of games which ran until Issue 25 to be of huge value. As a result of details like this it is important that the work of folk like @meppi and the team at Out-of-Print Archive preserve the coverage in these magazines, there is a lot of knowledge and information of historical gaming value in these pages.

It is no secret that I also love the work that @Damo and @Dazza have put into The Mean Machines Archive, for the exact same reason that it is historically important that these brilliant retro gaming magazines are archived and preserved. I am glad that @Kirk brought CVG, Mean Machines and MAXIMUM into the conversation on this comments board.

If @madgear has any more questions about Super Play it will be a pleasure for me to flick through my mags to help, but @GoldenAncona is spot-on, TMNT: Tournament Fighters was reviewed in Super Play Issue 15 (Jan 1994) on pg.54 by James Leach and was awarded 90%. Mickey’s Magical Quest was reviewed exactly one year before in Issue 3 (Jan 1993) on pg.36, it was given 89% by Jason Brookes. Both Issue 3 and Issue 15 were the Christmas issues of the magazine.

Ristar42

#30

Ristar42 said:

I never got this as never had a SNES, went from the legendary Zzap! to SEGA Force. Years went by before I bought another games magazine, until the excellent Retro Gamer came along (and even occasionally put Oliver Frey's art back on the cover). Nice article!

MayhemStaff

#31

Mayhem said:

@MadGear - Mort scanned all the issues of Super Play along with the Gold magazine quite a while ago, and I threw in scans and photos of all the extras and freebies as I still have everything given away. If you contact him you might be able to get a DVD of them. Naturally it was one of the titles Future insisted he stop selling...

JamieOStaff

#32

JamieO said:

@Mayhem This comment is a bit out of context, but it was cool to see that you were involved with Retro Gamer's recent 'Collector's Guide' on the Commodore 64, Mat. I read the Q&A about your collection in Issue 89, too.

Nice one!

gingerbeardman

#33

gingerbeardman said:

I loved Super Play. Getting each new issue was like getting a letter from a Japanese pen pal. So good!

Also, I've got the DVD of Super Play scans. They're good, but it's a real chore to find anything as the scans are low resolution JPGs with no index or contents, rather than PDFs with full text search. I'd love to see the project redone in a way that makes the material searchable so it's easier to find that elusive review/advert/article. Or at least an index of all the content generated and merged with the JPGs to create PDFs. Any chance? I'd be willing to help.

madgear

#34

madgear said:

Well I only ever read one Super Play so that'd be the one I fancied seeing. It was definately a review of Tournament Fighters - could have been a player's guide of Magical Quest or something, if it was even in there. I could have just seen screenshots of that in a friend's magazine at school or something.

Anyway thanks for all the offers of a scan but I'll just wait until I come accross it online some point in the future. Mags are popping up online all the time so I'm sure I'll see it again at some point.

WhiteSpyderZero

#36

WhiteSpyderZero said:

Great work as always, Damien.
I completely missed out on Super Play (I had a subscription to TOTAL! at the time, and my parents wouldn't get me get another sub for another mag), something which I truly lament.

Anyone know a good place to get digital versions of old issues?

TheYorkMan

#37

TheYorkMan said:

Super Play was one of the pivotal monthly experiences of my late teens. But it's a shame that as a 'moment' in time, the magazine (running for 47 issues) serves to highlight just how short the SNES's lifespan was.
In the UK the SNES was the the 'forefront' console for a fraction over three years, as the Sega Saturn was released July '95.
However, this hindsight doesn't diminish the fact that Super Play introduced the UK gaming fraternity to games which never got an official release here.
(Several friends who didn't own a SNES would always read the magazine for the sections on Anime and Japanese culture, and 2 die-hard "I'll never own a Nintendo console" friends decided that they MUST get one, and a copy of FFIII, only because of the Final Fantasy Forum and the revelations about the depth of the game which went so far beyond anything on the Megadrive).
To put it simply, it was something that (for those who read it) part of a life experience that youngsters today can't get by 'LOL'ing on some meaningless gaming forum about how a review on a certain website is all wrong.....

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