News Article

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."

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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...

WaveyChristmas

#11

WaveyChristmas 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.

LeeGarbuttStaff

#36

LeeGarbutt 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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