Rik Henderson: How we made Commodore Power magazine
Rik Henderson on Your Commodore, Commodore Power and his part in GamesMaster.
Rik Henderson on Your Commodore, Commodore Power and his part in GamesMaster.
The Your Commodore, Commodore Power and GamesMaster man talks to CF about the ’90s ’64 mag that got away.
From late 1991 to early 1992, Rik Henderson produced all three issues of Commodore Power magazine on a computer at his Dad’s house in Camden not far from the Chalk Farm school he’d once attended at the same time as Ed Milliband. His London homecoming followed a successful few years on heritage ’64 mag Your Commodore, which he’d edited and rebranded to YC – increasing the circulation in early 1990 and launching the Commodore world’s first monthly covertape.
Rik was the real deal, a massive C64 fan who’d been gripped by the randomness of events in Epyx’ Summer Games and wowed by next-level stuff like Turrican and the Last Ninja triology. His contacts book scored Commodore Power exclusives that the established Commodore Format and Zzap! would’ve bitten your hand off for: here’s John Rowlands talking about what his thinks Creatures lacked and how they’d fix it in the sequel (he’s sitting in a pub alongside the late John “Winter Camp” Ferrari as he says this). And here’s Dominik Diamond, who Rik would later commentate with on GamesMaster, hyping up the longest-overdue show in television ahead of its first episode.
So how come Commodore Power only lasted for three issues? How was the magazine influenced by its well-funded rivals? And what does Rik’s journey from C64 mag to GamesMaster regular look like? Well, we asked him.
Above: issue 3’s down-the-pub (at the old Arsenal ground!) with Thalamus is the sort of feature any of the ’64 mags would’ve killed for. Some nice info on the abandoned Arsenal game, too. Give it a read here.
Rik! Really pleased to meet you. So, the story begins quite a bit before Commodore Power, right? How did you get your break in magazines?
I first started as a games journalist in 1988 on a magazine called Computer Gamesweek – it was the sister mag of Popular Computing Weekly. In those days, it wasn’t so much about formal training or even scholastic qualifications, more about the games knowledge and enthusiasm. I had edited a couple of role-playing fanzines during my school time, which gave me some grounding, albeit a very amateur one.
When Gamesweek folded (after six months) I was switched onto Amstrad Computer User, where I ended up as assistant editor. It was a bit of a mess at the time though (I was only 19 and pretty much left on my own to get it sorted) so I soon left to join Your Commodore as editor – as one of the youngest editors in the games industry at the time. It made more sense as I was an avid C64 fan (having upgraded from a ZX Spectrum). I already had a big C64 games collection before I joined, so a good knowledge of the market.
You made big changes at Your Commodore. It became YC in January 1990, and pretty much a games mag.
When I took over Your Commodore it was mainly a serious magazine with listings and articles about home working and the like. It really wasn’t my cup of tea, but I did my best to keep it ticking over for the existing readers. However, I was personally more into mags like Zzap! 64, Your Sinclair and Sinclair User – and had friends working at them – so I was always nagging the publisher to consider a switch. Eventually they caved, not least because the more serious mags were no longer garnering the readership they used to.
In addition, it was the start of the days of cover-mounted tapes – Your Sinclair was the first to have one regularly, I seem to remember – and no C64 mag had done it yet (he’s right: Commodore Format had a monthly tape but didn’t launch until October of this year and Zzap! hadn’t started anything regular yet – Ed). We switched Your Commodore to a games magazine, changed the name to YC and popped a tape on the cover. It worked and our sales improved greatly. It also allowed me (and the editor after me, Jeff Davy) to go a bit crazy with the comedy aspect and fun of the mag. I had a smaller budget than rivals, such as Zzap! 64 and later Commodore Format, which printed in full-colour while we only had a number of colour pages, so I came up with a more wacky kind of magazine, with a lot of comic characters and the like.
So YC lasted until October 1991. There’s no mention of it being the last issue – was it unexpected?
Sadly, the publisher of YC had been Argus – a firm more renowned for its caravanning magazines and the like – so we always stuck out like a sore thumb. The same with sister magazines, Your Amiga and Commodore Disk User. Plus, the games market was becoming over-saturated and Future Publishing was seemingly launching new games magazines every month. Argus therefore decided to close its computer mags entirely in the summer of 1990.
Another small company up the road – Alphavite – decided to purchase all three magazines to continue them and hired me as group editor of the trio (here’s the first Alphavite issue– Ed). Sadly the company itself ended up going bankrupt.
Myself and Jeff Davy, who had taken over editorship of YC by then, decided that shouldn’t be then end of it and tried to purchase the YC/Your Commodore name to take it elsewhere. Unfortunately, the administrator wanted too much so we decided to launch our own replacement from scratch – in partnership with the owner of Lime Lizard, a popular indie music magazine that we were also both writing for at the time.
So this is where Commodore Power begins. Issue one is dated January 1992 – what were your goals for the new magazine, and did the rivals shape your approach?
In many ways, Commodore Power was meant to be a direct replacement for YC, with the same level of lunacy, crazy characters and sense of fun. We weren’t that influenced by the content of peers, but I was somewhat obsessed by the design language of Future’s magazines and, as we were literally just a two-man team and I handled all design duties on a Mac computer my Dad owned, it definitely looked more like Commodore Format than YC.
Jeff remarkably handled all ad sales too – thankfully, we both had a lot of stock in the games industry at the time. It was crazy though and I remember working almost 24/7 on one of the issues over a Christmas period, including Christmas day.
We’ve got to mention Big Thrills!, the pull-out section about music and film and, er, anything except C64 games…
That can be levied at the early ’90s generally. Also, Jeff was at the time taking band and gig photos for the NME and other music mags, plus we were both writing for all manner of lifestyle outlets. We also knew a few bands of the time, such as Dodgy and EMF, and ran our own indie music club night. I hung around with the owners of Mega City Comics in Camden too (where we lived and pretty much produced the mag from), so our own interests ended up spilling into the magazine.
Looking back on it, it seems odd to have a big pullout poster that has nothing to do with games, or a lifestyle interview, but we also saw it as allowing Commodore Power to feel different to everything else out there. It also tapped into some of the zeitgeist, with games becoming more mainstream and vying for attention with pop culture. I still believe that had we continued beyond the three issues, we would have gained an underground-style readership.
What did happen? As you say, you only ran for three issues – the last one’s dated March ’92.
It could have continued, but Jeff and I were completely ripped off by the owner we’d partnered with. We never even received wages for the issues we produced.
The publisher, a man called Jonathan White who I have never seen since, kept us hanging on for payment, saying that the distributor hadn’t paid his company yet and therefore he didn’t have the money to pay us in return. That was understandable for the first issue, maybe the second too, but by the time the third had come out we hadn’t received a penny in three months. Our freelance work wasn’t really enough to live on neither, and I had a young son to support.
We decided that it was unlikely to get any better and needed to do something else, so took the difficult decision to cease producing the magazine. We could have gone on and it might have worked out, but as Jeff and I owned the rights, we withheld them to see if it would force him to pay us what we were due. Sadly, our decision meant he couldn’t continue his company neither, including Lime Lizard, and it went into administration.
The experience also meant we couldn’t afford to find a new publisher for Commodore Power – we both needed to earn money. I ended up at what was the most successful magazine in the UK at the time, Bella, as a production editor.
Not for too long, though. We can’t let you go without talking about your involvement with Channel 4’s iconic videogames show, Gamesmaster. You actually spoke to Dominik Diamond for the first time for a Commodore Power feature!
I interviewed Dominik when I heard that games were finally going to be the subject of a TV show at last. It was a phone interview on Christmas Eve that year, no less, and we had a great chat. He’d only just started on the show, so was very keen, while I was moving more into lifestyle journalism anyway.
I didn’t know at the time that I’d end up working with him a bit more than a year later – and then on TV alongside him later still.
Basically, the games industry was very close knit, with journalists on rival magazines often being friends – most of my closest friends were games journos at other companies at the time. One of them, Doug Johns, had moved to Hewland International (the production company behind GamesMaster) to work on a new show called Games World for Sky. They were looking for new researchers and as I said I was at Bella at the time, with Commodore Power having closed. He asked me to apply, I did and the rest is history.
As for being on TV itself, I was always comfortable in front of and behind camera having been to Anna Scher Children’s Theatre (acting school) when growing up – it’s the same place that provided most of the cast of Grange Hill. So, when we were looking for new Videators for the second series of Games World (characters that played games against contestants on-screen) it was suggested I played the Violet Blade.
In addition, I had become good friends with Dominik and when he decided he wanted a close team of commentators on GamesMaster, rather than the numerous games journalists who filled the role before, they asked me to be one. It expanded to also doing the reviews too, and a few other bits and bobs.
Above: Dominik Diamond’s chat with Rik, which took place on Christmas Eve 1991.
Thanks for chatting, Rik. Are you still playing games today?
These days I am the senior editor of news and features on Pocket-lint.com and still write about games on a daily basis, almost 35 years after I started. I also write about technology, cars, streaming services and a whole gamut of entertainment gadgetry, but games are still my first love.
For example, I own two PS5s, an Xbox Series X, Series S, a couple of Nintendo Switch models, and a whole stack of retro games consoles. I also built my own retro machine from a Raspberry Pi. If I’m not watching football, I play games (mainly FIFA – don’t judge me).
I also host my own gaming podcast – GamesLifer – where I interview someone else for whom games have played a significant part in their lives. Dominik Diamond was a recent guest, for example – more than 30 years since I interviewed him last. And, I regularly attend games industry events and trips. But, while I’m old enough to be the father of most of my peers these days, there’s still a warmth and friendliness amongst them that reminds me of the days when I started.
The only big difference, perhaps, is that the industry is so bigger today that there’s perhaps more professionalism and focus, maybe more cynicism too. There’s still as much booze and larks to be had though, thank the heavens. CF
POST SCRIPT: What happened to Commodore Power’s “missing” third covertape?
The last issue of Commodore Power didn’t have a tape on the front. One was planned, but you needed to send off a token found inside the mag to get it (we’ve included the token in a links list below). The cassette included Football Manager, 5-A-Side, two Richard Taylor games called Dip Diver and Gold Train and two unconfirmed arcade games.
Rik told us why you had to send off for it instead of wrench it from the front of your magazine.
“It tied in to the reason the mag folded. The publisher hadn’t paid the tape duplication company, so they refused to master them”.
It was hoped, presumably, that a solution would have been arrived at by the time the tokens started coming in.
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