Tagged: Mean Machines

Shopping for Games: 1985 – 2000

WH Smith old logo

For those of us old enough to remember, shopping has changed a lot in the last thirty years. Some of the experience is still the same, but gone are the Wednesday’s of half-day closing, nearly everywhere is open on a Sunday (albeit at slightly reduced hours), and shops can stay open as late as 8pm during the week, all to satisfy our diverse lifestyles and thirst for consumer goods.

One area of retailing that has changed significantly since the mid-1980s is the experience of purchasing the humble video game. I recall, as a kid, being able to pick up a new Spectrum game almost anywhere, even my local newspaper shop could supply me the latest Joe Blade game for £2.99 or the newest shovel-wear to escape out of Codemasters. Oh yes, I didn’t need to scroll down the information super-highway, oh no, long before the mass accessibility to the internet, it was a stroll down the local high-street to get my gaming fix. WH Smith and Boots were brilliant for games in those days, and my town even had a very good independent just outside the town centre – Software City.

Software City was a goldmine. Not only did they stock all the latest releases at prices competitive with the major chains, but they also had some of the less recent titles at really good prices. I regularly walked up to their shop from Sainsbury’s car park whilst my mum did the weekly shop, and more often than not walked away with a purchase. I’ll always remember going in with my mate and seeing Ocean Software’s The Biz compilation (R-Type, Double Dragon, Operation Wolf and Batman: The Caped Crusader) on the shelf for a mere £4.99… it was supposed to retail for £14.99! Software City was a mecca to me for a good few years, right through until about 1992/’93 when more and more retailers were jumping on to the home console boom as gamers switched to Mega Drive’s and Super Nintendo’s and ditched the Amiga and Atari ST as gaming formats. Today, Software City is no more, their presence long since replaced by a hair salon. How the times have changed…

Whilst 8-Bit computer titles were an easy score twenty five years ago, console games were not. In the late 1980s video game consoles were very expensive compared to the popular Commodore, Amstrad, Atari and Sinclair home computers, and nowhere near as popular.

In the Christmas of 1988 I was very fortunate to receive a Nintendo Entertainment System Deluxe pack (the one with R.O.B the robot),  to which I was delighted, and played it constantly over the Christmas holidays much to the annoyance of my parents. However, two factors that did not particularly endear me to the system soon came to light. The first was availability. There was nowhere local that stocked NES games, the nearest place was Toys-R-Us, and that was a good forty minute drive away, assuming I could persuade my mother or father to take me there in the first place. The second issue was price. In 1988 / ’89 the average full price title for one of the 8-bit computers was £8.99, and for those who had an ST or Amiga between £14.95 and £19.95. Now, back then £10.00 for a game was a lot of money, and you didn’t want to spend that and then get home and find out it was a load of pants. NES games on the other hand were usually priced between £29.99 and £49.99 – an eye watering amount of cash for a video game back then and over £100.00 in today’s money!! Subsequently, my NES collection was very modest (at best), and I pretty much gave up on it within a few years as it was just too expensive and inconvenient to shop for.

I believe it was a copy of Mean Machines that I picked up at random one day that first altered me to the imminent arrival of the new, and powerful, 16-Bit home consoles from Sega and Nintendo. In the previews section I looked at the first screenshots I had seen of Super Mario World and Capcom’s port of Final Fight, and my jaw hit the floor at the stunning graphics. I eventually picked up a Sega Megadrive for cheap off a friend at school, but by now consoles were moving into the main stream and I didn’t have to travel to the other side of the county to buy games.

Software City stocked the latest PAL Megadrive and SNES games, and a new competitor shop, A R Computers had also opened selling console titles. The high street retailers had also jumped on the band wagon, with Dixons, Woolworths and Argos all stocking the major 16-Bit formats in the UK. I stayed loyal to Software City, other than when they didn’t have the game I wanted. I think the last title I got from them was Street Fighter 2: Special Champion Edition if I recall correctly. They closed down a short time later.

Later with the Playstation I finally got fed up with stunted PAL conversions and six-to-twelve month lead times to see the UK version of a new release, and so bought a NTSC/J Dual Shock Playstation package from Another World in Stoke-on-Trent. This heralded the last of the real games buying experiences for me.

Between 1997 and 2001 I would regularly go into Another World to see the latest import offerings, and they would generally not disappoint. It was a great shop, hidden at the back of a rundown shopping arcade in central Hanley and just a few doors away from the legendary (and by then defunct) Console Concepts store. The downstairs was tiny, and filled with comic related stuff, but go up the narrow wooden stair case and you entered import heaven!  All the latest Playstation and Saturn games from Japan, and the odd US title as well, plus some Neo-Geo and PC Engine stuff too. It was a great place, I really miss its musty smell and grubby building it sat in (now demolished). I really hate to think about how much money I spent there, but, you can’t take it with you, right? At least that’s what I tell my wife nowadays.

Do you remember Tottenham Court Road Computer Exchange? Today they’re better known as CEX, but in the late 90s they had some brilliant shops in London, stocking all the latest import games for all the formats you could think of. I remember going into their, sadly, short lived retro shop and seeing the display of Neo-Geo AES games – I had never seen so many in one place before, and the price tags were wallet busting back then too (comparatively to today).

As we moved into the Playstation 2 and Gamecube eras, the international release dates for major titles began to standardise, and letterbox PAL games were replaced with proper full screen releases, and the import market started to rapidly contract. Who wanted to play the latest Resident Evil game in Japanese when you could go to Game and pick it up cheaper and in English?

As the sun has set over the Twentieth Century and the New Millennium marches on, the internet dominates the way we buy our games today. While some of the great names of ’80s gaming like Boots and WH Smith still permeate the Great British High Street, they have both abandoned video games retailing; Game has had some very serious issues and downsized considerably; and the independents have all but disappeared. CEX has changed beyond all recognition, almost becoming like a personal electronics (only) version of Cash Convertors peppered with a smattering of Xbox 360 & PS3 titles.

While video game nostalgia may only be a quick eBay click away, it could never replace cherished memories of going into WH Smith and picking up my copy of Elite’s Paperboy, the buying experience today is just so soulless. 

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Read All About It!

zero91mag

Times they are a changing. Go back 15 years or more, and if you wanted up to the minute news, reviews and previews of everything that was going on in videogame land then you would have to wait for your monthly rag of choice to either drop through the front door or land at your local newsagent or WH Smith. Now we can access everything at the click of a button either at home or on the move. However, I’m sure there are plenty of you out there who still read videogame magazine’s; and probably just as many who have been regular readers of the various tomes over the years that have adorned news racks across the country; and fondly remember some of those that are no longer in print.

My first foray into gaming magazines was back in March 1988 when I persuaded my mum to pick me up a copy of Your Sinclair while we were in the local newsagent’s. US Gold’s conversion of Rolling Thunder was the featured cover game and amongst the games reviewed were Karnov, OutRun, Gryzor (aka Contra), IK+ and a good number of other well known titles.

Your Sinclair (YS) was witty, irreverent, and above all, entertaining. While they may have had their own unique content, neither Sinclair User nor Crash, came close to the continuity of quality and amusement YS provided. Pssst, Slots of Fun, Future Shocks, Trainspotter Award, Tipshop, I looked forward to reading them all; even Programme Pitstop (and I had no interest in BASIC whatsoever!).

I pretty much faithfully stuck with YS for over two years, buying my final issue in late 1990 before unceremoniously abandoning the Spectrum era in favour of that of the Atari ST. However, I never really settled on a dedicated ST magazine. I picked up the odd copy of ST Format and ST Action, but neither were as enjoyable as YS in terms of overall content and “feel”. Fortunately, salvation was at hand in the form of Zero.

As some of you may remember, Zero was launched by ex-Your Sinclair staffers, (no surprise as both were published by Dennis Publishing, although YS was later sold to Future Publishing), and was very much in the YS mould, but aimed at the newly burgeoning 16-Bit home computer scene.

Zero had the irreverent feel that YS so successfully conveyed, yet managed to keep its own identity and distinctness rather than just being a 16-Bit clone of the 8-Bit classic. Cleanly presented, with some very memorable content, Zero was once the UK’s best selling 16-Bit magazine, won an Indin Award and very kindly gave me a free copy of Robocop 3 for my Atari ST when I finally decided to fork out for my first ever magazine subscription! With regular pieces from Dave Excellent, Black Shape and the Zero ST; contributions from the likes of David “Whistlin’ Rick” Wilson, Jane Goldman, David “Macca” McCandless, Duncan McDonald, Mike Gerrard et al; plus articles and interviews on all that was relevant to the Amiga, PC and ST gaming scene in the early 1990’s, it seemed Zero could do no wrong.

Sadly, Zero was not to have the longevity of its legendary 8-Bit progenitor, despite its awards, droll style and well written copy.

Videogame consoles had never been overly popular in the UK during the 1980’s. The scene was dominated by the Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad CPC; and consoles like the Sega Master System and Nintendo Entertainment System were seen as niche, probably due to the cost of the games (£30 – £40) and in-part, poor distribution (only a select few stores stocked these consoles & games back in the ’80’s). However, with the launch of the Sega Megadrive in late 1990, and an aggressive marketing campaign for the system, home computers started to lose ground to this new breed of home entertainment and its “arcade” quality graphics. Plus, at £199 it was cheaper than the 16-Bit home computers of the day and, it has to be argued, did offer an experience closer to the arcade than any home conversion the Amiga or ST could muster.

With the shift in games moving from home computers to home consoles came a shift in our reading habits, and with the UK launch of the Super Nintendo, the year 1992 became something of a watershed moment for videogame magazines in the UK.

After 55 issues, ACE was discontinued by EMAP, and the first magazine to really embrace the 16-bit home computers of the late 1980’s faded into history during the spring of ’92. My beloved Zero was axed in the Autumn to be replaced by Sega Zone and, the now Nintendo only, Game Zone. The brilliant Mean Machines, (launched by Julian Rignall), which really captured the new 16-bit home console and early ’90’s import scene so well, was also axed; replaced by Mean Machines Sega and Nintendo Magazine System.

Ironically, while all this upheaval was going on, Your Sinclair soldiered on to the Autumn of 1993 when Future decided to finally put the legendary Spectrum mag out to pasture after a run of 93 issues.

1993 also saw the launch of Edge. Intrigued by the plastic bag masking the magazine within, Edge was very different to the other videogame magazines about at the time. With an almost industry like slant on its editorial, clean precise presentation and a mature style Edge was a videogame magazine for adults, and I loved it! With the 32-Bit era dawning, Edge really captured the exciting technological changes superbly, as we said “goodbye” to sprites and “hello” to polygons. Perfectly encapsulating the end of the 16-Bit era, the swift arrivals and departures of the CD-32, Jaguar and 3DO, while showcasing the rise to dominance of the Sony PlayStation and Sega’s fumbling of the Saturn. Those first few years of Edge were brilliant, and make a fascinating read today of the rise to prominence of the 32-Bit machines and how videogames became more culturally acceptable and not just the domain of children and nerds.

With the launch of the PlayStation in the UK in 1995 I started reading the Official PlayStation Magazine (OPM), but my interest with this tailed off as I started getting more and more into importing. OPM was a good read, and the cover disc was always useful for the demo’s included, but it catered strictly for the UK domestic market, and to be honest, I completely lost interest in the magazine the moment the Japanese PlayStation scene became more important to me.

OPM was the last (to date, anyway) dedicated games magazine that I’ve read on a regular basis. Edge continued to be pretty much my staple read until 2012, when, after a 12 year subscription, I reluctantly cancelled my sub and stopped reading the magazine. Edge was, and still is, a very well written magazine, but for me the articles were either becoming too heavily industry focused (in a way I just did not find interesting as I, sadly, do not work in the games industry), or were becoming re-hashes of themes and articles written years previously. Too often I was finding myself just flicking through the pages and then tossing the magazine to one side until the next issue arrived in the post. A great shame really, but for me, editorially speaking, Edge’s heyday was the mid-late nineties where by it covered the games scene in a way that no magazine had really done before, or since. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with me, but, it’s only an opinion and I do hope Edge goes on for another twenty years or more!

Today, print media is slowly becoming a dying trend. Why wait once a month for the latest videogame news and reviews when you can go online and get it now? Still, I look forward to the postman bringing me my monthly dose of videogame retrospectives from Retro Gamer, and with the console market entering its eighth generation, there’ll be no shortage of games and systems to cover as Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, Gamecube and Xbox all now qualify for “retro” status.