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Tuesday, 17 October 2017

It was 20 years ago... Looking back at N64 Magazine Issue 8




It's time to look back on the olden days with Worldy BlokeTM ...

Seven months in, it's evident that Nintendo have scored a hit with Switch. Consolidating their software teams onto one platform, coupled with their experience from the Wii U-era, seems to be paying off. The standard post-launch drought was alleviated somewhat by Breath of the Wild’s open-form gameplay, and a slow but steady flow of first-party titles has appeared every month since. Now we’ve reached a point where each week brings a deluge of indie hits and quality ports, and with Super Mario Odyssey ready for release at the end of the month, manufacturing enough units to meet demand over the holiday season seems to be the company’s biggest challenge. A nice problem to have.

One-score and zero years ago in Euroland, Nintendo was seven months into another console – the N64. And I was starting to read the best video game magazine ever printed – the imaginatively titled N64 Magazine. I actually started with issue 12, but ordered issue 8 from the back of the mag. Having recently been reunited with my collection after 15 years in my parents' loft, I realised the two decade anniversary and decided to chronicle it here as an excuse to reread some old issues. And it holds up! It’s fascinating looking back to see the adverts, the hopes and just how the writers negotiated the drought of software that arguably characterised the console’s whole cycle. Lacking the digital distribution that now allows smaller studios to put out software on modern hardware, those expense of Nintendo's cartridges versus the cheap CD alternatives offered on PlayStation widened the lead Sony had built by launching over a year earlier. The N64 offered quality to its dedicated fans, but couldn’t compete against the sheer wealth of software put out on PlayStation (under 400 titles compared to Sony’s 2,500-odd.)

We also see a pre-Trump use of the adverb ‘bigly’.
Looking back on issue 8, Lylat Wars (Starfox 64's EU guise) is the cover star. It also features in the accompanying Gentleman Space Adventurer Quarterly poster magazine, featuring a Lylat system map and tips delivered in the style of a WW2-era, spiffing, tea-sipping gentleman Brit (splendid show, old chap – let’s get back to base for broth and medals). The headline review showcases what was special about the magazine. It’s impeccably laid out with plenty of screenshots and a variety of typefaces and colours. There is info in sidebars, breakout boxes, captions and tiny asterisked gags. While it’s obvious the writers were contending with a lack of software (something which made their focus on import games all the more intriguing to UK readers), they squeezed every last drop of content (*shudder*) from the games they had and presented it in an entertaining, non-patronising way. They make reference to the dire state of PAL conversions at the time (see 'THEY HATE YOU' sidebar) and bemoan the ‘teeth-grinding’ name change from Starfox 64 ("How would you feel if, without your permission, someone changed your name by deed pole to Millicent? Or Adolf? Or Earwax?"), which had its own import review in issue 3.

Elsewhere, the PAL version of Multi Racing Championship faces off against US version of Top Gear Rally (Top Gear wins, 86% - 71%) and…that’s it for PAL reviews! The post-launch lull pushed the team to be ever more inventive with their features. The Import Arena section helps flesh out the magazine, so we get reviews of Baku Bomberman ("Briefly diverting, but a genuine disappointment for Bomberman’s most devoted fans." – 50%), J-League Dynamite Soccer ("To start with this is about as much fun as a pulled hamstring. But after a while you’ll plod through it and maybe even enjoy it. A bit." – 66%), Konami’s Jikkyou World Soccer 3 ("Slightly inferior to PAL ISS 64 but still a breathtaking football game." – 91%) and the US version of Mischief Makers ("The banality of this [game’s] sagacity, when juxtaposed with the outright bonkersness of the game in general, serves only to heighten the lighthearted surrealism that abounds (Eh? – Ed), which, in our book, is a Very Good Thing." – 90%). There’s a massive tips section featuring Mario Kart 64 and Blast Corps. The Future Look section details San Francisco Rush, Nagano Winter Olympics and Earthworm Jim 3D, while the less screenshot intensive Coming Soon section jokes about the tardiness of upcoming 3D platformers and also looks at Zelda 64 ("Rumours abound that the Pointy-Eared One literally ‘grows up’ during the course of the game.")

In the news, Planet 64 reports Nintendo’s profits are soaring on the back of Pocket Monsters and cheaper games are coming thanks to a modest reduction in the cost of manufacturing N64 carts ($6). Elsewhere in the mag there’s Reader Tips, and the I’m The Best section pits readers against each other, competing for time/score supremacy in various games. Club 64 is the letters section and also contains the So Tell Me This… questions section – example: "My friend thinks the N64 can play SNES games. Could you tell him this is total rubbish so he can see it with his own eyes? – Robert’s friend: you’re a clot. Of course the N64 can’t play SNES games. Blimey." Topics run the gamut, from release dates and import tech queries to cooking tips. Sue Overton, ‘N64 Magazine’s culinary advisor’ (and presumably significant-other to Art Editor, Wil Overton) provides jam tart advice ("Pre-baking the pastry by five minutes before adding the jam is a useful tip if you’ve got the time.")

The letters section showcased the back-and-forth banter that gave the magazine that member-of-the-club feel. Even if your whole letter didn’t make it in, you still might crop up in the Bonus Letters section and get a badge.

A directory of every reviewed game has two sections: UK and Import games. After seven months, the UK section had just 15 titles. The Import section contained a further 21, but it illustrates that Nintendo had form with software supply long before the Wii U’s drip-feed scheduling. Of those 15 PAL games, Super Mario 64 (predictably) takes the highest score with 96%, with Turok, Mario Kart 64, Wave Race 64, ISS 64, Blast Corps and Pilotwings 64 all joining the Star Game club (85%+). The only absolute turkeys are FIFA 64 and Mortal Kombat Trilogy, coming in at 39% and 34% respectively.

The text in the Directory explanation box in no way offers commentary
on working conditions at Future Publishing in the late ‘90s
.
The whole magazine is dense and colourful and beautifully presented. It takes its cues from Super Play, the magazine from which it evolved when the N64 launched, which itself looked to Japanese publications for inspiration. It’s still a pleasure to read through, to see the care and attention which went into these 100 pages and to recall hoovering up every last detail before 24/7 internet culture started reporting when other publications award a a game top marks.

It's easy to forget that dodgy PAL conversions were still an issue in the fifth console generation.

*****

I'll be looking back at other issues over the coming months whenever I see a particularly juicy 20th anniversary or awesome cover. Can't wait to get to @Kosmikat's great work on those Double Game Guides. Top drawer.

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