All the video game magazines you and I grew up with were crap. We were robbed. Dealt a poor hand. Okay, that might be a little extreme, they were not crap per se - we just never had it as good as our friends in Japan. Sure, many a mag tried and came very close - Super Play immediately springs to mind with its wonderful pro-NTSC-J angle - but I feel that we in the West really did miss out on the super juicy good stuff. The kind of stuff that dreams, quite literally, were made of.
Had Backup Technique and Game Lab found their way over to Western shores, localized, I strongly believe they could quite easily have changed how many folk this side of the globe would go on to hack, crack, investigate and explore computer and console hardware and software. Sansai Books published Backup Technique (バックアップ括用テクニック) which made its debut on Japanese newsagent shelves around May 1991 and ran for 38 issues. Initially focusing mainly on the Nintendo Famicom, Backup Technique would evolve to cover, quite literally, every console and computer currently available. From PC-8801 to MSX, to Game & Watch to Bandai Playdia and beyond. You name it, this little magazine covered it.
'Little magazine' is an understatement and an insult. Every month readers would receive a, thick, A5 format, 200-plus page hunk of pure, invaluable gold. For Backup Technique was not your average magazine. The Japanese were feasting, nay, gorging themselves ragged on the hottest in computer and console modifications, chip swaps, programming hacks, scripts, GSM tinkering, wiring diagrams and so much more I'd need to change my trousers several times over just during the process of listing them for you.
Meanwhile, we in the West were busying ourselves scouring for mere scraps of import news buried deep amongst the latest game reviews, screenshots of Axelay, mugshots of the late Sir Patrick Moore and mailed-in drawings of Ranma 1/2 characters that looked like a cross between Arthur Scargill and an absolutely hammered Ted Nugent on a camping holiday somewhere between Luton and Stevenage lovingly recreated with the finest in supermarket brand felt tip. But I'm not bitter! Honest.
Part 38, which arrived in July 1994, would be the last issue of Backup Technique before it was rebranded and relaunched as Game Lab (ゲームラボ). Rumour has it that the magazine was retitled so as to not attract unwanted attention from the authorities. Though I have yet to find 100% confirmed proof of this it does appear to add up when you take into consideration the magazine dipped a toe or two into the waters of hacking and phreaking years before those concepts were even on the radar of mainstream western gamers.
Game Lab would pick up where Backup Technique left off and continued to produce a stellar monthly read. Having amassed a small collection of 50+ volumes of both titles in my personal collection ranging from 1993 up until 1999, it is great to get such a lengthy overview of how the magazine evolved as consoles and computers became ever more sophisticated and eventually moved toward exchange of information online. These magazines provide some degree of historical significance in that aspect. Yet, even today, you can pick up a volume, flip through and almost instantly find a page with something unique. A program, a modification, a diagram, a photo. Something you've never seen the likes of before.
For example, one issue of Backup Technique contains photos and schematics to add composite inputs to a Nintendo Virtual Boy which is in turn connected to a camcorder presumably as some sort of portable home theatre. Keep firmly in mind that this is going on decades before your Google Glass and PlayStation VR thingamyjigs!
A lot of focus would be placed on duplicating and dumping games. Attention in particular would be paid to cartridge systems such as the Game Boy, Super Famicom and Nintendo 64. Can't afford to buy a copier device? No problem, build your own for a fraction of the price! One particular issue of Game Lab contained a magnificent feature on creating your own Super Famicom reader/writer device. Build instructions, components lists for Akihabara shopping trips and so on were provided including pages upon pages of typed-up programs to get you off and running. Pales in comparison to Western mags with their PEEK, POKE and BASIC typo fiestas, doesn't it?
It gets better. Think you've seen every modification possible for your favourite retro console or computer? Think again! So far I've seen detailed articles and full programs for a Capcom Q Sound player. Full programs (presented over a couple of issues) to make your own Sega Saturn BASIC games. Neo Geo and Super FX chip 400 line modifications. A Super Famicom Super Scope sound modification complete with diagrams. A Super Famicom UHF signal transmitter, again complete with schematics and instructions. Some sort of bizarre GSM-related Sega Saturn credit card reader (an equally bizarre PlayStation memory card and GSM phone tutorial was featured in the same issue). The list is quite literally almost endless.
So what happened? Where is this fabled bible of gaming greatness today? Game Lab is still in print, still under the Sansai Books publishing house. Yet the magazine is virtually unrecognizable today, with no real trace of its hacking legacy to be found. Even if you delve deep into the most obscure online research you won't dig up that much.
As time marched on and technology evolved rapidly, computers and consoles became less accessible and therefore tougher nuts to crack. When all you have to write about is using Linux on a PlayStation 3 and the death of the Sega Dreamcast you really need to fill your pages up with something else to fulfill your criteria. The staff at Game Lab decided the best path to go down would be that of porn, dating simulators and other such seedy smut. Gone were the game reviews, the schematics, the wild manga strips and obsessive chatter about diodes, capacitors and crystal oscillators. Dismissed were the wild and crazy modifications that brought about whole new ways of thinking about using and interacting with your computer or console. Forgotten were the pages upon pages of detailed machine code, complex programs, hacks, tips and cracks. All of this was phased out to be replaced by cartoon boobs, pixelated willies, slimy tentacles and schematics for sex toys. Urgh.
It is highly likely in this modern day of tough copyright laws, restrictive DRM, lawsuits, general big business and corporate greed that we will never again see the likes of Backup Technique and Game Lab. Certainly, information of this ilk can be found and made readily available online. But nobody would dare put into print the kind of information you could find readily available betwixt those glorious pages that for decades have been kept hidden away from inquisitive eyes outside of Japan.
Ian Cortina is a 37 year old curiosity from the UK and Catalunya. He likes computing, attempting to solve complex problems and anything analog. He made a 'zine once in 2013 and sold over 500 copies though he's not sure if that qualifies him as a published author. Probably not. You can check out his site here.