The Commodore magazine story: Commodore Force (1992/3-1994)
The history of Commodore Force, which replaced ZZAP! 64 in 1993 and ran until March 1994.
The history of Commodore Force, which replaced ZZAP! 64 in 1993 and ran until March 1994.
It was the spiritual successor to ZZAP!, and it was actually better than late issues of the old Sizzler. But Commodore Force was very late to the party, and Europress Impact’s good-natured C64 mag lasted just 16 issues.
Commodore Force issue 1 appeared on 26th November, 1992. It was billed as the January 1993 issue, leading to months of confusion for both readers and newsagents. Its Christmas content, for example, appeared in a magazine cover dated February. This was fixed by calling issue 11 an “autumn special”, but the situation summed up Commodore Force to a tee: the short-lived, colourful, good-natured C64 mag always made life difficult for itself.
Force was a rebrand of the legendary ZZAP! 64 (feature article here). News of the change came in issue 90, with editor Steve Shields telling readers that the world had moved on from 1985 and it was time for a more modern Commodore magazine. This wasn’t strictly true. In fact, the switch to the Commodore Force name was to bring Europress Impact’s C64 mag in line with its other titles like Amiga Force and Sega Force. Advertising agencies like simplicity. Europress could now easily show them and their clients how they could reach the maximum number of gamers through one simple Force brand, rather than a hotch potch of different titles.
Commodore Force issue 1 wasn’t aesthetically that different from ZZAP! issue 90. The content took an upswing from late era ZZAP!, though, there’s no doubt. The cover was Oli Frey’s Lemmings painting, and the accompanying demo was the first time C64 owners had ever seen the critters running on their machine. It was the sort of coup ZZAP! hadn’t managed in some time.
Lloyd Mangram was back at the helm of the letters page, in a concession that his removal from ZZAP! had been a serious lack of judgement. The letters section of ZZAP! 64 had always been better than numbered questions and silliness that were common in other games mags; Lloyd’s pages had proper debate, ferocious opinion and a right to reply. Mangram was fictional, usually played by whoever was editor of ZZAP! at the time. But the image of this elder statesman of the C64 who’d spend all day replying to letters about the machine had become something of an institution, and his return was a sign the publishers weren’t taking the title for granted. It had been a monumentally stupid decision to remove him from ZZAP!. As the title had flailed in the face of competition from Commodore Format, Lloyd was one of the things they did well.
THEY’VE GOT IT TAPED
Lloyd wasn’t what Europress were pinning Force’s hopes on, though. Privately, the publishers believed they couldn’t compete with the likes of Future and considered their products “secondary purchases”. Amiga Format might be somebody’s regular read but the belief was they’d buy Amiga Force for a specific USP: in AF’s case, they tried to have the best tips section out there. For Commodore Force, the reason for purchase was the cover tapes.
Every month the mag came with two cassettes in unique shiny red and blue and there was usually a killer program. Issue 9 had critically acclaimed The Blues Brothers which Titus had been selling at retail for full price just 18 months prior; issue 5 had Football Manager, issue 11 included both Star Paws and Ghostbusters and the tenth Force had Barbarian 2. The main attraction was backed up with PD, text adventures, a mixed bag of ’80s re-runs including Park Patrol, Dan Dare and Nosferatu and an extremely useful games cheating app every month called Easy Lives. The tapes were very, very impressive – not that the journalists working on the magazine remember them so fondly. Instead of writing, the pressure was there every month to fill the cassettes. Here’s James Price, who was editor from issue 10, speaking back in 2003:
“Arranging cover tapes was a soul-fucking, spirit-crushing chore: lots of tracking people down and, as we didn’t have email at [Europress] Impact, endless phone conversations and bouts of fax tennis. Quite a few Commodore Force cover tape games were bought in a deal Steve Shields arranged with Beau Jolly – remember their compilations? There were a few real gems, but many of the titles were substandard, and some were embarrassingly shite. I arranged to buy a few more of their (better) games when Steve left to launch Mega Machines. 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’s here – Ed) It was either that, or have the Barbarian 2 issue pulled from the shelves.”
HOLD ON A MINUTE, THOUGH
Let’s just pull back here a second. Force did sometimes put out some brilliant editorial even if it’s remembered for the tapes. Ian Osborne’s That Was The Game That Wasn’t searched for the stories behind unreleased C64 titles, and has an amazing legacy. It was the inspiration for the hugely popular Games That Weren’t website and book. A month-by-month diary on the creation of Lemmings was a real scoop, too, and Chris Hayward’s games tips section – The Tipster – could actually be laugh-out-loud funny (it was the Commodore Force team’s favourite section of the whole mag). The ZZAP! spirit was still there as well with at least two people reviewing most games, and there was a nod to a changing C64 world with the introduction of a techie forum hosted by – groan – The Mighty Brian.
The title was a dig at Commodore Format‘s famous letters page, The Mighty Brain, and Force would often prod Format in the way only an underdog can. They’d call CF a “PD fanzine” and themselves the “world’s biggest C64 magazine”, but on the whole it was good natured if a little one-sided. In Ludlow, they knew the score. Here’s James Price again, who joined ZZAP! at age 17 and was Force editor by his 18th birthday:
“I felt like a fraud, a textbook example of the Peter Principle: promoted to my level of incompetence. I just didn’t have sufficient experience or knowledge, and the gradual haemorrhaging of staff didn’t help. It was a struggle to put each issue together, hence the number of meaningless retrospective pieces. It’s not that the team didn’t want (or couldn’t be arsed) to take the magazine in the direction in needed to go in; just that we didn’t have the time or resources.”
Around the same time, Commodore Format was moving into “knowledge mag” territory, focusing on games creation, home brew and programming. Couldn’t Force have done the same instead of (as James memorably said in Force’s final ever editorial) “rounding up the round ups”?
“It’s really easy to look back now and say that we should have been covering home brew games, software produced in other countries, the demo scene, and so forth, but we just didn’t have the contacts. If so much was happening in the off-the-radar C64 world, why was no one getting in touch? Lacking internet access – we didn’t even have email at Impact – how could we find out? I’ll gladly hold my hands up in a mea culpa style and admit the absence of such content was ultimately my fault, but I really can’t see how a small and inexperienced team could have done more.”
By the beginning of 1994 Force had been put on “firm sale” to newsagents in the UK. This meant that sellers couldn’t return mags back to the publisher if they were unsold, so only tended to get it if you ordered one. There’s some confusion around the dates, but it does appear that on at least one occasion around this time the mag was given an official final issue but got a reprieve when firm orders exceeded expectations; in the end, Commodore Force closed at issue 16 – March 1994 – after Europress Impact went into administration. It later emerged that the magazine had been only one of two Impact titles (along with Amiga Force) to make a profit.
It would be interesting to know if any of the team’s feelings about the mag have changed since those initial raw years after its demise. Unfortunately, everybody we wanted to talk to for this piece either wouldn’t take part or hasn’t answered our calls. James Price gives himself a very hard time. At the age of 18 most of us haven’t even left home, let alone edited a national magazine with limited resources. Force has some great humour, a clear love of the Commodore (have a look at any of the Back To The Feature installments, for example) and some wonderful covertapes. A hell of a lot of games got an Indian summer thanks to Force and most people were buying it along with Format in 1993. After all, it’s not as if C64 products were spilling off the shelves, is it?
There are also some really thoughtful reviews, particularly in early issues. Phil King has never been given the praise or recognition he would have got if he’d been on a Future title. Yes, there are face palm moments – like the time they got the dates on the 1994 Oli Frey calendar completely wrong, for example – but Commodore Force was here when almost everybody else had abandoned the C64. On that basis alone, it’s worth revisiting the mag. Let us know what you think. CF
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