The story of 8-bit games magazine covertapes in the UK, with a particular focus on the Commodore 64 and Commodore Format.
Future Publishing built its fortune and reputation by covermounting magazines. In fact, a humble cassette is what saved the business.
The company was founded by Chris Anderson after he was sacked from ZZAP! 64 publisher Newsfield. In a Somerset garage he set about producing issue 1 of Amstrad Action. The feeling was that his former employers had the Speccy and C64 markets sewn up, and that the gap was with CPC users.
A LAST THROW OF THE DICE
The magazine didn’t go to plan. Amstrad Action issue 1 sold poorly. So did issues 2 and 3. It was make or break time, so for the Christmas 1985 edition Chris pulled out all the stops and shipped a bumper edition with a games tape, something he’d previously conceived of in 1984 at Personal Computer Games. AA‘s “Christmas present” featured two previously unreleased Ocean games – Kung Fu and Number 1. Issue 4 flew off the shelves – doubling sales of previous issues – convincing WH Smith to continue stocking Amstrad Action. It really was that close: without a covertape, Future Publishing (home of Edge, Official Playstation Mag and many others today) would’ve folded before it even got going. If you want to pinpoint the start of covertapes as we know them, this iconic moment is probably it: cassettes had appeared before, but never with full, commercial quality games.
AA‘s tapes were initially just for Christmas and “birthday” issues of the mags, but by the time Commodore Format rolled around in 1990 the trend for 8-bit mags had become to feature “free” software every month. “Well, it was never really free”, remembers Commodore Format publisher Greg Ingham. “More part of the overall monthly package.” “It was never a question of do we feature a tape or not”, says first editor Steve Jarratt. “It was always part of the business plan. The Power Pack was an integral part of making CF attractive.”
A GAMES TAPE WITH A MAG STUCK TO THE BACK OF IT
For some, the tape was the package – much to the frustration of journalists who worked hard on the magazine. Here’s CF editor Simon Forrester:
“Oh, yeah. It became horribly apparent that a big chunk of the readership only bought us for the tape, and pretty much threw the magazine away – you’d put instructions for it on a spread immediately after the contents page, or sometimes before, and you’d still get inundated with calls on newsstand day from people who hadn’t so much as opened the mag to find them. That used to get you down, because it sort of devalued the time you’d spent on the good bit – the mag itself.”
It wasn’t just the readers who loved the tapes, though. Software houses did too. Launch editor, Steve Jarratt:
“Money rarely changed hands [for covertape games] – a lot of publishers liked the idea of getting a demo out to publicise their games, and back then I think it was a much easier proposition. If you wanted C64 owners to try before they buy, what better way to do it?” Case in point, issue 3’s Midnight Resistance demo: Ocean were so keen to get that onto the cassette and reach potential customers that they gave CF the full version of 1988’s Gutz in return. Commodore Format paid out only rarely in the very early days and only if something was special. To mark issue one, £2,000 was given to Simon Pick for his unreleased shooter Revolution. As time went on, though, and the C64 market declined, the covertape market took a bit of a twist:
“There weren’t demos to bargain with any more because nobody was making games”, remembers fourth editor Andy Hutchinson. “But, a lot of publishers wanted to squeeze a final bit of juice out of their commercial titles and offered things to us really cheaply.” It’s for this reason there are some absolute stonkers on later Power Packs such as Hewson’s Nebulus and Codemasters’ Fantasy World Dizzy.
Commodore Format‘s main rival, ZZAP! 64, had slowly joined the covertape party in the late ’80s having seen the wonders Chris Anderson had worked with Amstrad Action. They’d produced some staggering ones, too, with both Doomdark’s Revenge and Spy Vs Spy appearing on the same tape in October 1991.
FEEL THE FORCE (FOR 16 ISSUES)
It was when ZZAP! rebranded as Commodore Force in January 1993 that things got interesting. With C64 software becoming very hard to find, Force opened its cheque book and moved itself into a central position in the market, publishing not one but two tapes each month, immediately becoming the biggest C64 games source of the moment. Force had some wins – The Blues Brothers was given away in full less than two years after its £10.99 release, for example – but editor James Price recalls the slog, to the detriment of spending time on the actual magazine:
“By the end, the covertape budget was tiny; I’m pretty sure it had been reduced to around a thousand pounds per month, maybe less. A significant amount of my time was spent tracking down people who owned the rights to old classics, then trying to persuade them that it was worth their while to accept five hundred quid in return for the non-exclusive right to publish Game X. In the vast majority of instances, it wasn’t. It was a soul-fucking, spirit-crushing chore: lots of tracking people down and, as we didn’t have email at [publishers] Impact, endless phone conversations and bouts of “fax tennis”. Quite a few Commodore Force covertape games were bought in a deal with Beau Jolly – remember their compilations? This deal included Barbarian 2, which seemed a bit of a scoop, but we discovered after the issue hit the stands that Kixx – US Gold’s budget label – was still selling it at retail. Moreover, Beau Jolly wasn’t technically in a position to sell it to us. Remember that abysmal Kixx advertorial? It was either that, or have the Barbarian 2 issue pulled from the shelves.”
Back in Bath at Commodore Format, the publishers refused to be drawn in to the sort of covertape wars that had descended into a farce in Spectrum world just a few years’ earlier (with the mags competing for sheer volume of titles, regardless of quality). Commodore Force was nudging itself ever closer to losses for little obvious gains, and was getting a reputation for substandard offerings. CF’s single tape continued to carry some classics like Dropzone and issue 19’s Jeff Minter double bill. But third editor Trenton Webb recalls that they had their horror stories too:
“Preparing the tapes was horrible. The stuff would always arrive late and have to be compiled at the last minute. They’d be late back from the duplicators and go out with less testing than we’d have liked… We were magazine folk and never really had the technical skill to make them and so they still give me the fear to this day. We knew they were powerful, and I’m glad you all liked them, but I still get shivers whenever I see a C15.” CF even had their Barbarian 2 moment with Lunar JailBreak on issue 38. It appears the game – sent to CF for consideration – was published without permission or payment. The case ended up in Manchester Magistrate’s Court, and the programmers won a payout and expenses (more on that in our ish 38 feature here – Ed) .
CF was the last 8-bit magazine in the UK and the last commercial micro mag on earth carrying a cassette, so when it died in October 1995 so did the covertape – and in controverisal circumstances again, with author Jon Wells claiming Future didn’t pay him for Escape From Arth or Treasure Isle; a sour end to a wonderful innovation. It is difficult to articulate to younger people just how important these bits of plastic were, or the monthly build up and excitement which went right to the wire of the newsagent’s shelf when you’d see for the first time what you’d be playing all month. For many, it was the only opportunity they got to regularly mess about with something new on their C64. Little wonder, then, that the memories are so vivid and fond:
Daniel Dearlove CF18, Firelord. The unforgettable Daglish theme and the evocative atmosphere, walking around the countryside and exploring the towns and cosy little houses. I was a new C64 owner and I don’t know how else I would have experienced such a gem from yesteryear, at just the right time for it to get its hooks in my imagination. One of my favourite games to this day.
Paul Edward Morrison Vidcom with CF3. It blew me away that I was getting a powerful art package for free! I didn’t use it for more than about half an hour because I’m terrible at anything like that, but that wasn’t the point. Not long after that, the tape with Bounder and Beyond the Forbidden Forest was an absolute stunner. I owned both of the games already, but what a statement that made.
Sean O’Neill Have to say CF2 as it was my first issue. Really enjoyed playing Empire, Couldn’t believe a game with that much depth was given away.
Robby Boey The best tape in my book was the one that featured Slicks and John Lowe’s Ultimate Darts. Two great titles, one a full playable demo, the other a full game that captured the excitement of the darts games on the Beeb. My Dad and I played it for hours and hours, both competing in the Championship mode, and ending up in the finals. So many great memories.
IN PART TWO
Here are five big Power Pack moments and a more detailed look at what made them so great. READ IT NOW! Thanks to Frank Gasking and Damian McKeon for their help with this piece. CF
- Games Of The ’90s homepage
- Every Power Pack box and a link to the contents
- We loved covertapes so much we made three more, and you can download them for free here.
- Some James Price quotes from ZZAP! 64.