Super Play's distinctive covers helped it carve out a profitable niche in the market

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.

Spot the difference: On the left is what was nearly issue one's cover, and on the right is the (far superior) published edition

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."

Big releases such as Star Fox were given massive amounts of exposure

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."

Members of the Super Play team indulging in a spot of SNES-related tomfoolery

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."

Super Play even ran a competition to send a reader to Nintendo's HQ to meet Miyamoto and the late, great Gunpei Yokoi

"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."

RPGs often adorned the cover of the mag - an amazing event when you consider most other UK publications largely ignored them

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."

Anime was a major focus in Super Play, and the magazine did much to increase the profile of Japanese animation in the UK

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."

Wil Overton's brilliant original artwork gave Super Play an identity all its own

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."

UK SNES owners discovered a whole world of Japanese gaming action they never knew existed

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."

Wil Overton is the only member of the Super Play team to be there from start to finish, and his artwork was never less than amazing

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."

Technical features were commonplace; this example illustrated the differences between the SNES models

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."

Naturally, during the course of a magazine's history staff changes are inevitable, and Bielby was to vacate the editor's seat after 12 issues to move into other projects. I loved and enjoyed Super Play, it was time to move on. Anyway, I left it in safe hands." As we've already mentioned, those safe hands belonged to none other than James Leach, already something of a veteran at Future by this point.

"I’d been working as Deputy Editor on GamesMaster since it launched," Leach explains. "The magazine covered all the major games platforms, so I’d kept my beady eye on the SNES world during my time there. Then one day I was marched into an office and ordered to edit Super Play. It was arguably the coolest mag Future published, and had a great team. I was therefore delighted, and danced a sort of Spice Girls-y jig later than evening."

Throughout its 47 issue run, Super Play saw many different staffers - here's a selection of the most important people (click to enlarge)

Leach would edit the magazine until issue 30, when Super Play's third (and final) boss took over. Alison Harper's reign would last for another seventeen issues, and during all that time the quality of the publication never faltered once. Sadly all good things must come to an end, and by the middle of the '90s it was clear to even the most stubborn Nintendo fanatic that the Super NES was on borrowed time. The N64 (then known as the Ultra 64) was looming on the horizon, and the effect on Super Play's long-term chances was predictably dire.

Many key staff members had moved on by this point in time, and Overton recalls the day he had to vacate his desk. "I didn’t want to move but Super Play was coming to a natural end," he says. "I guess you could see it in the releases the UK was getting and the lack of stuff on the horizon so, despite me trying to last it out until we could transition it to the N64, the powers that be moved me off to GamesMaster magazine — which, in reality, was just upstairs in the same building. It was a good team but I didn’t have any interest in it and fortunately, in the end, it was just a stop-gap before N64 Magazine came along. In hindsight, it was probably the best thing. N64 was able to start anew and make its own identity." Indeed, many hardcore Super Play fans consider the magazine that accompanied Nintendo's 64-bit console to be the spiritual successor to Super Play — but that's another story entirely.

"Super Play is thought of fondly because the writing was great and what came over was that we really did love the games we covered"

Like so many magazines of the era, Super Play was a breeding ground of industry talent and many of its former staffers can now be found in high places. Overton only recently parted company with UK studio Rare after a decade of employment, and Davies is in charge at highly respected video game PR resource site Games Press. Beilby has enjoyed an incredibly productive career, too. "I left Super Play to launch PC Gamer, then went to the US to do the American version of that, then came back to launch .net magazine and UK sci-fi publication SFX. As you might have guessed, launching magazines is one of my things."

The last issue featured extensive N64 coverage - a hint of things to come

Although it seems like a trite question to ask at the conclusion of a feature which (hopefully) has explained the magazine's intrinsic appeal, but we have to ask: why is Super Play so fondly remembered today? "I like to think that while Helen’s Anime World and stuff like the RPG Fantasy Quest pages gave an insight into a games world that no other UK games were covering at that time, Super Play is thought of fondly because the writing was great and what came over was that we really did love the games we covered." comments Overton.

"Super Play didn’t try to be all things to all people," adds James Leach. "The more specifically you target an audience, the happier that audience is. However the audience needs to be big enough to sustain you. Luckily we had enough people who liked us, and wanted us to be different and weird and cover odd Japanese stuff which nobody outside the country had ever heard of. I think people liked that quirkiness. Plus it looked distinctive and different, too. There was a lot of white on the pages, at a time when most mags were garishly printed on full colour backgrounds. And also there were some very humorous writers working on it – I’d like to think that people remember Super Play as being funny, too. Certainly it was meant to be."

"I’d like to think that people remember Super Play as being funny, too. Certainly it was meant to be"

"I think what made it unique is what makes so many of the best magazines unique: they do more than was expected of them, pursue interesting avenues other magazines might not think of, provide an individual rather than generic take on whatever it is they're writing about," contributes launch editor Beilby. "With Super Play, in particular, I think it was that whole Japanese thing that made it, the excitement of this weird and wonderful new culture we were writing about. Today, Japan can still feel a bit odd, but anime, the internet and generations of Japanese games mean that when you visit there, a lot of it is surprisingly familiar. Back in 1993, not so much. I think that's where we got lucky with Super Play."