Feature: The Making of Super Play Magazine
Posted by Damien McFerran
"We were very much influenced by Japanese magazines – not just games mags, but women's mags, car mags and anything else we could get our hands on too – as well as Japanese comics, anime, the whole caboodle," Bielby says. "The Super Play I had in mind from the start was, if you like, ‘mid-Pacific’, combining – I hoped – the dry English wit of the mags I'd worked on before with a loud, dizzying enthusiasm for anything Japanese. This was before the internet had arrived in any useful form, remember, and still a time when the only anime most folk had ever heard of was Akira; with nobody else really pushing the Japanese angle at all, we suddenly found we had this whole fascinating, largely-unknown culture to explore more or less by ourselves."
Super Play's adoration of Japanese culture culminated in its extensive coverage of Japanese animation, or 'Anime' for short. It was a logical progression. "With the Japanese theme kind of established we needed material to fill Super Play, and one crucial find I'd recently made was a little independent-mag-cum-fanzine called Anime UK, tucked away in some dark corner of comic retailer Forbidden Planet," states Bielby. "That's where I found both Helen McCarthy, who became our anime expert, and cover artist Wil Overton, whose fabulous anime-style art – I'm sure there was no-one else in the country who came close to him at the time – became such a memorable part of the magazine. I couldn't begin to claim Super Play introduced anime to a UK audience as such, but thanks to guys like these I think we did our bit to popularise it."
"I couldn't begin to claim Super Play introduced anime to a UK audience as such, but I think we did our bit to popularise it"
Wil Overton's distinctive cover art is unquestionably one of the reasons that Super Play stood out on newstands back in the early '90s, and why it's remembered so fondly today. "These days every games magazine runs a glorious piece of game art on the cover, often created exclusively for the magazine by the development team," explains Beilby. "Back then that simply didn't happen, and games mags would commission artists to do their own version: a risky/exciting business, no matter how talented the artist. I'm sure Wil's style brought a few confused and perhaps concerned looks at Future's boardroom level in the early days, but it wasn't long before everyone bought into what I thought self-evident: he was very much the best — and perhaps, at the time, the only — man for the job."
Overton would eventually join the Super Play team as a staff writer, and illustrated each and every one of the magazine's 47 covers with exclusive artwork. His involvement with Super Play was largely due to this anime background.
"As I was doing the covers to Anime UK at the time Matt asked if I’d be interested in doing the cover to the first Super Play," he fondly recalls. "Surprisingly, he came back and asked me to do issue 2 and from then, we were off! Things had moved on a little by the time I was asked if I would be interested in joining the team. At that point I had moved to working from home as a freelancer, doing various bits of artwork but the idea of working on a mag that combined games — I was still knee-deep in, and obsessed with Super Famicom imports at the time — and anime was too good to pass up. I went down to Bath, had a chat and a few weeks later was offered a job on Super Play."
Overton's commitment to the magazine's cover artwork meant that he was producing mini-masterpieces on a monthly basis — a demanding schedule for any artist. "It was more of a physical challenge once I had joined the team full time," he explains. "I don’t know whether Matt had any grand plan that I would do the covers every month or whether it just ended up like that but I do think it helped make the magazine stand out. There aren’t many ‘angles’ a video games mag can take (from both a visual and editorial standpoint) to make itself distinct but I think Super Play hit on a good one. I guess you could argue that the more specialist you make a mag, the more you limit its audience but I think Super Play managed that fine line between the niche Japanese stuff and still having all the normal games mag contents, too."
Overton was (and still is) an avid gamer, and he readily admits that his love of games did manifest itself in somewhat awkward ways. "I do remember laying out an import review of Ganbare Goemon 2 by Jon Smith (now Lego supremo at Traveller’s Tales) and basically being annoyed that it didn’t appreciate where all the references in the game came from and the history of the character. I ended up doing all the captions myself so that they were factually correct rather than just variations on ‘Ha! Those wacky Japanese’ and then got told that I couldn’t just do that stuff myself and had to change them back."
As well as championing Japanese culture in all its shapes and forms, Super Play was arguably the first place many UK gamers were exposed to SNES JRPG classics such as Final Fantasy and Secret of Mana; the genre had, by and large, been unfairly ignored by other publications. Tackling Japanese role-playing games — as well as other import releases — naturally fitted in with the theme of the magazine, but there were more practical reasons for the extensive import coverage.
"There were only going to be six or so officially released games for us to review each issue – as opposed to a dozen or so coming into the country as grey import – and we quickly decided we might as well play to our strengths," says Bielby. "The big issue was to fill the magazine, and if there were only ten games out one month then nobody was going to moan at a one page review of anything, even if it was some utterly baffling strategy game from Sunsoft or Enix, heaving with near-untranslatable Japanese text. It was all part of the magazine's mad mix, part of what made us different – and part of the appeal of the SNES too. Even if the average Super Play reader was never going to buy Super Wagan Island or Zan II, the fact that it existed and we could tell people about it added to the unique feel of the magazine."
It also helped Super Play seem cutting edge when compared to its competitors, covering games that wouldn't see the light of day in the west until much later. "These were the days when it could take months, or even years, for a game to make it over from Japan to Europe via official channels – if it ever made it at all – and the slow-motion, 50Hz PAL conversion tended to be a pale shadow of the NTSC original," adds Davies. "So a true SNES fan sought solace in playing imported games on an imported console — or via a UK console and one of those wobbly adapters."
Given the niche nature of the games Super Play was covering (and putting on the cover, no less), one would assume that some degree of friction existed between the editorial staff and Future Publishing. Thankfully, this wasn't the case. "I don’t think there was ever a time when we didn’t have the full backing of our publisher," says James Leach, the man who succeeded Bielby as editor of the magazine in October 1993. "We did discuss whether to feature some of the most esoteric RPGs but the consensus was always that we should. Part of the mag’s remit was to really delve into the Japanese games world, rather than just pick and choose from the more accessible games. It’s a bit like car magazines reviewing Aston Martins. People want to read about them, even if they aren’t going to be buying them."
"Getting reliable info on Japanese games became a painful, time-consuming business"
Covering exciting import titles wasn't all plain sailing, however. "Getting reliable info on Japanese games became a painful, time-consuming business, involving late-night phone calls to the other side of the world, local language students doing half-arsed translations for us from Japanese magazine articles, and all sorts of palaver," winces Bielby. "In some ways the magazine doesn't look too impressive now, but just thinking of the hoops we used to have to jump through to get anything to fill the thing at all still sends me into a cold sweat."
There were headaches for the reviewers, too. "Back then you hadn’t lived till you’d battled against hordes of fire-breathing mutant super-demons from the year 2026, entirely in Japanese, without having a clue what was going on, knowing that your review had to be handed in the next day or you’d be answering to fire-breathing production editor," laments Davies with a wry smile.
Super Play quickly established itself as one of the UK's finest video games publications, and rose above the competition. However, as James Leach admits, rival magazines such as Super Control and Nintendo Magazine System helped keep the Super Play team on its toes.
"We respected other mags, and sometimes they ran features or reviewed stuff we didn’t know about," he reveals. "One thing nobody likes is to be copied, though, and we did get miffed on the occasions when others pinched our style and ideas. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it caused a few Gundam models to be thrown across rooms in annoyance."