Feature: The Making of TOTAL! Magazine
Posted by Damien McFerran
Nintendo Life: TOTAL! adopted a light-hearted approach that was popular with readers but often ridiculed by its rivals at the time, and this tone was slowly removed in later issues (after both of you had parted company with the mag). In hindsight, do you think your approach was the right one?
Steve Jarratt: Given how frivolous and comedic many games mags were, I’m not really sure how accurate that statement is. However, if some people did ridicule us, I never noticed, and besides, we sold loads of copies and had a brilliantly loyal fan base. I always believed we should make a magazine that was entertaining to read, as the audience was initially quite young. However, this never got in the way of us reviewing games as well as we could and providing a genuine, unbiased score.
Andy Dyer: I believe our light-hearted approach at the time was absolutely the right way to go. It was fun, it was different and crucially, it was a massive success. But the subsequent changes probably look different from the outside than the reasons actually driving them. Sega’s aggressive and sophisticated marketing of the Mega Drive matured the console gaming market to a degree, so as the 16-bit consoles grew in popularity, so a magazine like TOTAL! had to grow and mature to continue to be relevant.
Nintendo Life: How did TOTAL! fare commercially, and in terms of overall readership figures?
Andy Dyer: It did well though, and our readers were more loyal than most.
Steve Jarratt: I can’t remember exact figures but I’m pretty sure one Christmas our sales peaked over 100K. Bear in mind that some UK publishers now make magazines that can stay in business selling just 10,000 copies. So I think it’s fair to say TOTAL! was a huge commercial success.
Nintendo Life: One of the most unique elements of early TOTAL! issues was the little character images used for the staff. Many of these were produced to tie-in with individual reviews and features — did they take long to create?
Steve Jarratt: Christ, yes. We used a very talented cartoonist called Mike Roberts, who did them in an early version of Photoshop I think. He created a bunch of bodies and faces we could re-use, then after time the art team would tweak existing images for new reviews. It was pretty painstaking, but the kids seemed to love it.
Andy Dyer: Those little characters were a nightmare. Mike used to create them on an Commodore Amiga so they regularly went a bit weird in the transition to the page and needed correcting. Coming up with the ideas and captions was fun, but technically, they were a pain.
Nintendo Life: Steve: Your next launch project — EDGE magazine — couldn’t have been any more different from TOTAL!. Was it hard changing from the light-hearted tone to a more serious and mature attitude?
Steve Jarratt: Not at all. I was 30 or 31 years old by then, so it suited me to be doing a more serious take on the video game mag. My gaming tastes were starting to change from the relentlessly cartoony world of Nintendo, and I was really interested in the new technologies that were appearing, and the advent of 3D graphics.
Nintendo Life: Andy: You would go on to edit a Sega publication, something that was joked about in later issues of TOTAL!. Was it hard to ‘make the switch’?
Andy Dyer: I was a gamer first and foremost, having cut my gaming teeth in the arcades and on a string of home computers and consoles. If anything, Sega’s coin-op heritage made it the more familiar brand. But I never stopped playing Nintendo games because when Nintendo got a game right, nothing could touch it.
Nintendo Life: What are your fondest memories of working on TOTAL!?
Steve Jarratt: Having our own office space so we could noisily run riot — when Future Publishing moved to open plan offices it was the death of having ‘fun’ at work — now it’s just acres of silent people, heads down, headphones on. And, of course, I really enjoyed working with people like Andy. They were crazy, chaotic times.
Andy Dyer: The whole launch phase was thrilling. Nintendo was such a litigious company we had to launch the mag in secret, so not even our colleagues knew what we were doing. We just disappeared from the offices. It was exciting to be a part of that. After that, the day to day working on the mag was just a hoot. I’m not sure we be allowed so much freedom to fart around in the office these days.
Nintendo Life: What were the biggest challenges you faced whilst working on the magazine?
Steve Jarratt: Getting the damn thing to press every month on time (which I’m not sure I ever did). Waiting for PR packages to arrive with images or games cartridges you desperately needed was always stressful. And we were pushing the boundaries of what you could do with desk top publishing at the time on machines that were nowhere near fast enough.
Andy Dyer: Launching in secret posed many problems when it came to actually producing pages without anyone finding out. In addition we were hamstrung by being unofficial in that it was that much harder to get hold of review code in advance of release dates. I can’t remember clearly but I think we must have reviewed import games, mostly.
Nintendo Life: Do you have any amusing anecdotes to share from your time on the magazine?
Andy Dyer: I have an enduring memory of the last day of working on the launch issue. I think we’d done an all-nighter, I was writing captions, falling asleep half way through each one, with Steve elbowing me to keep me awake. But over the course of my time on the mag, there are too many amusing moments to single anything out. It was a joy to be part of.
Nintendo Life: Video game journalism has changed dramatically since the early days of the ‘90s. Do you think there’s still room on the news stands for a publication like TOTAL!, which doesn’t take itself too seriously and is aimed at a younger market?
Steve Jarratt: I think the kids of today are too tech-savvy and online-focused. The mere idea of this generation buying a paper product is weird; information is free and appears out of thin air. Which is a shame, because I think it’s harder to create such a strong sense of identity online than it is in print, largely because websites tend to be fairly anonymous. And our ugly mugs were splashed over every page...
Andy Dyer: I think even mainstream games mags are struggling to generate enough copy sales to be viable now, so I think anything as quirky as Total! is extremely unlikely. But there’s surely room for a little more creativity and personality online that’s tailored to a younger audience.
Nintendo Life: Tapping into your vast reserves of Nintendo-related gaming knowledge, what would you say is the best Nintendo game ever?
Steve Jarratt: Easy. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It’s a masterpiece on almost every level. I know it’s a cliché to keep trotting out the same answer, but Nintendo hasn’t got anywhere near it since. Well, apart from the endless bloody remakes, of course...
Andy Dyer: It’s a tricky question but in the end it has to be two Mario games. I’ll never forget playing Super Mario 64 the first time. It was such an incredible world to explore and the transition to 3D was so expertly handled it was astonishing. But for pure, platforming fun, there’s no better game than Super Mario Bros. 3.
Nintendo Life: What’s your gaming platform of choice these days?
Steve Jarratt: Living room: Xbox 360, anywhere else: iPad. I have a PS3 but I just don’t like it very much. Despite Sony’s marketing — or ‘lies’ as I like to call them — it’s nowhere near as powerful as the fanboys will have you believe.
Andy Dyer: I used to play Wii, and I enjoy some occasional DS larks. But mostly it’s iPhone and iPad gaming at the moment. However, I think Nintendo might really be onto something with their next console. I can’t wait for that.
Steve Jarratt will leave Future Publishing next month after over two decades of working for the company. During his time he was the launch editor on Future’s highly-respected EDGE magazine, which continues to see publication today after almost twenty years, and oversaw the hugely successful re-launch of Future’s Official Nintendo Magazine.
Andy Dyer is a highly respected freelance journalist and has worked on several publications since leaving TOTAL!, including PlayStation Max, T3, MEGA, Advance and Mac Format. He has also served as Creative Director of Tallhouse Media.
TOTAL! magazine lasted for 58 issues between January 1992 and October 1996. As well as featuring the immense talents of Jarratt and Dyer, the publication was also home to Frank O’ Connor, who is now Franchise Development Director for the Halo series at Microsoft’s 343 Industries.