The first in a potentially regular(ish) column where I glug some wine and go gooey eyed about various aspects of the games industry, before ordering a kebab and falling asleep face down on my keyboard. This week the magazine that started it all for me.
Do you remember the first time?
I do. It was awkward and over way too soon. Embarrassing for all concerned. I’m not even sure of its name anymore. Nintendo Official Magazine, I think it was called. Or was it Official Nintendo Magazine? Those days were so long ago…
December 1997. The nation was going mad over the Spice Girls, Cool Britannia and some film about Celine Dion falling off a big boat (or something like that). The only thing on my mind, however, was the rather large, nondescript box sitting wrapped up under the Christmas tree in my living room. I’d seen the box sans wrapping paper, in the secret back drawer under my parents’ bed (natch), and so knew the riches that lay within its cardboard shell. Discounting a beat-to-shit second hand Mega Drive, it was to be my first proper games console: a sparkly new Nintendo 64.
A week to go until the big day (OHMYGOD ENNSIXTYFOUUR!) and — in keeping with the decadence of the times — my mother took us on a family trip to Pizza Hut. Displaying an adroit perception for how my sister and I interacted during every family event ever, the mother-bot bought us magazines to read while waiting for food. Perusing the shelves in the newsagents I hit upon the games section. “Hey, why not get a magazine to compliment my new console?” I rationed. “What’s the worst that can happen?” If I’d known then what it was the start of, I’d have probably plumped for Loaded.
The magazine had to be Nintendo based, obviously (ENNNSIIIIXTYFOUUUR!!1!). I chose one that said “Official” on the cover. That meant best, right?
Sitting at the cheap, lacquered table in Pizza Hut, the mag spread open on my lap, I was enthralled. I recall a preview of Zelda 64 — the best thing I had seen in the history of the world ever — and a feature of 100 Reasons Nintendo Rocked, or something. I laughed at a joke it made about the “Sony Greystation”. I was twelve. Quit touching me.
Christmas happened, Mario 64 changed my life, and my fling with Nintendo Official Magazine/Official Nintendo Magazine continued. I was young and naive, the mag catapulted me into a world I’d not known before, enticed me with its shiny pages. And such high review scores! Sure, we had our problems: it didn’t say much, the staples came loose with time, and I had a nagging worry that beneath its glossy exterior we didn’t have enough in common. But no relationship is perfect.
Then one day I got chatting to a friend in the schoolyard. I was desperate to share my secret passion with someone. This friend had once come to school in a bumbag, I knew he would not — could not — judge me. Blushing slightly, I told him of my illicit rendezvous with NOM/ONM.
His smile faltered. A pained look swept across his face. Yeah, he’d known NOMONM, and that bitch had hurt him bad. He read a different magazine now, a renegade unofficial one, beholden to no man, telling it like it was. NOMONM was for kids, he said.
Yeah, well screw him. This chump, this wearer of actual bumbags, was trying to tell me what I should or shouldn’t like? To hell with that. I didn’t need him, I had NOMONM. My beautiful NOMONM. As long as we were together nothing else mattered. Except, the nagging voice in my head was growing stronger. The seeds of doubt had been sown.
Then a month or so later it happened. I was in WHSmiths and I couldn’t find NOMONM on the racks. Things had been strained of late. I was angry over a review of a blatantly crap racing game it had awarded 85%. I couldn’t trust it anymore. Frustrated, bitter, confused, I did the only thing that made sense to me then. I strayed.
My friend’s mag was in front of me — the laconically named N64 Magazine. I picked it up tentatively, my heart thumping from fear and anticipation. The spine was so sturdy after NOMONM’s flimsy staple work. The cover was bold and inviting. Issue 19, Banjo Kazooie reviewed inside. I flipped to the review and began reading. The outside world went quiet. Jostling consumers faded out of existence. Christ. NOMONM had been fun and all, but this was different. This was love.
N64 Magazine and I stayed together every issue after that. It changed me. I turned from someone who played games into a gamer. I didn’t so much read the mag as digest it, snacking at first, going back later to gorge on the big stories, finally picking over the carcass for remaining tidbits. The process was akin to osmosis — gaming knowledge moving from the mag’s area of high concentration to the low concentration of my brain.
As the months drifted by I filled up. Knowledge began to spill over. I would discuss elements from the mag with Friend With Bumbag on the walk to school. I started to dissect the games I played, to analyse their component pieces and peel back the layers to reveal the glowing embers at their cores. I wanted to know what worked, and what didn’t, and why. It was the birth of my inner critic, and N64 Magazine was to blame.
What is there to say about that tome that I loved so much? It made me laugh. Every word got read. They were good words, too — informed and sincere, lacking affectation or pomp. The magazine was written so a child could understand, but it was never childish; only clear and enjoyable. Reviews made sense. Dense copy was balanced nicely with diverting box outs, showing an appreciation for how readers’ minds work. The art style was cheerful and vibrant. Layout served the content rather than drawing attention to itself — pages were full of information but not daunting to look at, regular features were so familiar as to be comforting. And the in-jokes — ahh the in-jokes!
It was the personality of the staff that really attracted me to the mag, though. None of Edge’s self conscious dourness, nor PC Gamer’s elitism. Just grown men and women messing about. The staff were perhaps a touch militant in their fanboyism, but it was mostly good clean fun. Wil Overton’s FuSoYa, Jes Bickham and his brilliant reviews (don’t ever want to hear about that Ocarina piece again though), the murderous gaze of Martin Kitts, sweary, sweary Tim Weaver (who’s just written a crime thriller. For real) — they all came together to create a publication that felt like one big party, and you were invited along because they liked you. However hard they worked — and they did — you were aware they were having a Good Time. That kind of enthusiasm can’t be faked.
Of course I’m rose tinting my memories somewhat. The N64 release schedule went through some pretty fucking barren patches as the years passed, and you often got the sense the staff were scraping the barrel for “exclusives” — a curse that was repeated come the mag’s next incarnation as the Gamecube focused NGC Magazine. And though the writing wasn’t as staid as Edge, it didn’t have that publication’s depth, either.
But fuck it. To risk sentimentality — and I never want to be too cold not to risk that — N64 Magazine was special, at least to me. It was the one constant in my life at a time when everything else was in flux. I read it on the train to my dad’s after my parents divorced. Coming home from school, feeling dejected and worthless because I couldn’t throw a basketball like the other kids and the girl I loved thought I was a moron, the mag would be there, waiting to envelop me in a world of Grackler Cams, Brogue Leaders and Bonus Letters. Jes, Wil, Tim, Martin, Andrea and the rest felt like my friends, and they wrote in a way that made me feel included, like the relationship was important to them as well. It never bothered me that I paid them for the service. They worked long, hard hours to entertain and inform me, and I gave them a couple of quid each month to help with their rent. Either way you looked at it, it was the least a friend could do.
So, here’s to you, N64 Magazine. Cheers.