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If I was to say to you “a magazine changed my life”, what kind of publication would you expect me to be talking about? Rolling Stone, maybe, or Time, or The New Yorker, or (of course) Playboy—beacons of generation-defining journalism that attracted titans like Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal or Margaret Atwood to fill their pages.
Another hypothetical: would it sound strange if I said to you—with a straight face—that a video game magazine changed my life? It would, wouldn’t it?
Hear me out please. I’ve got a story to tell. It’s the story of a British publication from the now-distant 1990s; a magazine that most of you—and almost certainly all of you “digital native” millennials—will never have heard of.
And yet it changed my life. How about that? Gather ‘round, everyone, as I tell the tale of Sega Power.
A DIFFERENT TIME
In an age of digital media, those of us of a (ahem) certain age often can’t help but reminisce to a time when print was king in the world of video game journalism—when the latest news, reviews and previews of your chosen hobby were only available through a monthly dispatch of inky goodness. Wanted to hear the verdict on Virtua Racing? Wanted to strategize your way through Mortal Kombat 2? Wanted, in fact, to read anything about gaming whatsoever? You had to be patient, kid.
And what exactly were you being patient for? Dry, almost academic posturing that read more like an instruction manual than a magazine. In our present-day landscape of gaming podcasts and high-profile personality journalists, it’s easy to forget that writing about gaming was once a purely utilitarian exercise: you press these buttons, you complete that level, you input those cheat codes. No need to be creative about it.
Occasionally there’d be some ill-judged ‘90s youthspeak thrown in—terms like “radical” and “awesome,” embarrassingly pitched—but video game magazines generally all took the same bland approach. If you wanted verve or excitement or—most importantly—humor, then you had to go somewhere else for your thrills.
Until Sega Power came along. Or rather: until Sega Power reinvented itself.
Launched in 1990 by Future Publishing for the UK market, S: The Sega Magazine began life as a tepid, corporate-slanted look at the latest Sega Master System releases. Once the Genesis came along and Sega began their never-to-be-repeated ascent into becoming one of the super-selling “Big Two,” alongside Nintendo—the magazine was rebranded as Sega Power.
While slightly more effervescent in tone, Sega Power was still nothing special. Tonally, it often felt like a drudge. Towards the end of 1994, however, Andy Lowe—fresh from his gig as editor of corporate TV tie-in GamesMaster Magazine—was looking for a new creative outlet. Sega Power would be just that.
“I’d been editing GamesMaster for about a year,” Lowe recalls. “It was fun but a bit restrictive. We had to get everything signed off by Hewland, the TV company. Sega Power’s circulation was stuttering and so they wanted a fresh approach—technically, a relaunch. They asked me to have a go at Sega Power.”
“I was told to make it “younger” and so I thought the best way to do that would be to cut down the word-count and pump up the energy and contemporary references. It always seemed to me that video game magazines were a bit too insular—the journalists a little too impressed with their “access” and their free trips. I thought it would be fun to do something broader that just used video games as a backdrop—a jumping-off point—rather than an all-consuming “serious” subject.”
And then—essentially almost overnight—Sega Power lost its freaking mind. In the best possible way, of course.
INSANE IN A GOOD WAY
Let me be clear—this fanboy appreciation isn’t just rose-tinted nostalgia. Having picked up a few copies of Sega Power from eBay (from the ’95 to ’96 period when it was at its craziest) I can confirm that it was definitely the hilarious and anarchic magazine I remembered it to be.
Take a look at your average video game magazine from the same period: a hundred-odd pages of reviews and cheats. Then take a look at an issue of Sega Power. Within roughly the same page count, a young reader could find a treasure-trove of madness: mock articles from made-up reporters, bizarre captions, weird competitions (win a prize by sending in pictures of your friends’ bad haircuts), preview sections on games that didn’t exist (“Micro Machines 3: Drive-By Edition”), reviews that barely even mentioned the game under review, countless pop-culture references, and lots of needlessly offensive ranting about anything the writers decided to turn their gazes to.
I was a 12-year-old boy in a quiet town in Northern England. Sega Power opened my eyes to a simple fact: writing could be fun. News and reviews didn’t have to be dry or flat: they could bristle with clever jokes and funny language and screw-you rebelliousness.
While I heard the previous generation wax about the “importance” of the Sex Pistols spitting in people’s faces, I can honestly say—without hyperbole—that Sega Power was my punk moment. I’ve carved out a fairly successful career as a comedy writer (among other things) ever since, and it was those hallowed pages that influenced me to do so.
Thought I was exaggerating when I said the magazine changed my life? Think again, you dastardly cynics. But how did it all come about?
“I’ve just had a look at a few copies too,” Lowe says, “and found it all really funny. I think it was just a combination of personalities—trying to make each other laugh, trying to shock and surprise each other, and often taking an idea that one of us had come up with and pushing it even further. I would often hang around the offices of the other magazines and think, ‘this is all very efficient, but it doesn’t feel like anyone’s really enjoying themselves.’”
“We would take a convention—usually something another mag was doing—and come up with an idea that referenced it, took the piss out of it, took it to a stupid extreme, highlighted the ‘industry-ness’ of it,” he continues. “I think we just quickly got bored with all the standard page-filling furniture and were constantly asking ourselves how we could put fresh twists on established regulars. Not all of it landed—and, when it didn’t work, it was horribly self-indulgent—but we couldn’t stand anything that felt like we were serving an overall industry PR agenda.”
It was an exciting time for Lowe—and an even more exciting time for Sega Power’s youngest writer, who wasn’t even out of school at the time. Danny Wallace—then just sixteen—has since become a major broadcaster and bestselling author. His book Yes Man was adapted into a Hollywood movie starring Jim Carrey, and Wallace wrote and starred in his own ABC comedy pilot Awkward Situations For Men. He even starred in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, as snarky scientist Shaun Hastings.
Fair to say, then, that Sega Power had a life-changing effect on someone else too?
“We had to do work experience at school,” Wallace remembers. “I was heavily into Sega at the time. I landed a week’s work experience [at Sega Power], and the then-editor asked me if I’d like to have a go at writing a review. I played the thing to death, wrote my review, and was then called into a side room, where I thought he was going to tell me they couldn’t run it because it was terrible. Instead, he offered me more work.”
Wallace stayed on under a couple of other editors and was there when Andy Lowe began to shake things up. “That’s when things went a little crazy, editorially. It felt like when I started there, it was a magazine aimed at kids…like when the pop star Cathy Dennis agreed to voice a cover-mounted tips cassette. You had this pop star, reading out ludicrous tips for odd games like James Pond or whatever. Why? And then suddenly, overnight, Sega Power grew up.”
“Andy Lowe let people push things quite a bit.,” Wallace continues. “This was in the days when you didn’t really get much feedback from readers. There was no social media, no one had email. You got the odd letter, or phone call, but really the readership was silent. They couldn’t stop us. All you had to go on was circulation. And at the same time, you had a bunch of young people in an office, most of them in their early twenties, allowed to make whole magazines which had circulations in the hundreds of thousands. It’s amazing there was that much trust. I’d go in whenever I could. After school, lunch breaks, holidays, weekends, whatever.”
If that sounds like anarchy—like undistilled creative freedom, the kind you’d expect to see in a rock band rather than a gaming magazine—that’s pretty much because it was.
“I just wanted to mess around a bit, try things out,” Lowe explains. “[Other magazines] were all about being smart. I wanted us to be smart and strange—and a bit surreal.”
“We sort of just did whatever we wanted,” Wallace agrees. “There was space to fill, and no one wanted to just fill it with what the reader expected—or even wanted. You could clearly tell that other magazines thought Sega Power had gone mad. They didn’t get it. They thought we were drunk. Or we were just being stupid, and not taking things seriously enough. They were like your older brother, who’s studying for a degree, and grows a moustache and no longer has time to crack jokes or ride bikes. But for us it felt incredibly freeing. We loved games—but we also loved going out, music, comedy, the broader life. That whole period was during the Britpop explosion. Everything felt brilliant.”
“I couldn’t keep away from the office,” he continues. “First of all, these guys were my heroes. They were older than me by eight or nine years, they were assured, they were funny, and they totally accepted me. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to write about games, but I just loved being part of it. I suppose I was trying to impress them, and make them laugh as much as they made me laugh. It made me realize what you could achieve in a short piece through writing. If you could write about parallax scrolling in an entertaining way, hopefully you might be able to apply that to anything.”
This spate of self-confessed madness produced many of Sega Power’s finest moments, of which both Lowe and Wallace have fond memories. A feature called “Generation Games” remains a favorite of Lowe’s (“we took light-gun games to an old people’s home”) as does the “Most Wanted” section, a part of the magazine which saw Sega Power ditch gaming altogether and skewer random parts of pop culture instead. “I think if I’d stuck around,” Lowe muses, “I would have probably taken the Most Wanted section and found a way for it to take up most of the magazine.”
“I wanted to have random dead people—using photos of real gravestones—commenting on games they wouldn’t be seen dead playing,” Lowe recalls. “Sort of, ‘this game is so bad, I wouldn’t want to be seen playing it—and I’m dead.’ The sub-editor convinced me that families of the dead people might take offence!”
And then there was The Lion King.
“I remember the Lion King game,” Wallace says. “Now, that was not a game that excited anyone. I mean, a Lion King game? So what? But it was an exclusive, and the PRs made a huge deal about it, so it was going to get the cover, as well as about eight pages inside. A big deal. Anyway…the review was written from the point of view of a man who’d been bitten by a mosquito and given the power of metaphor. I don’t think in eight pages the game was mentioned once. [There were] a lot of great metaphors though. And I’d rather read that than almost anything about a Lion King game.”
“The Lion King issue,” Lowe also recalls. “Reading it today, you can definitely see that we were, uh, heavily sedated. Me and two of the other writers had taken LSD the night before and spent most of the evening constructing an enormous ‘art installation’ out of various household objects. I told the publisher it had been someone’s birthday and we’d overdone it a bit. For the rest of that morning, we completed the mag still half-tripping, trying to act normal.”
Yet, as with all fun times—and no matter how much the young readers were lapping up this hitherto alien world of grown-up fun—Sega Power’s ‘crazy’ period had to end sometime. Rebelliousness is very rarely encouraged in the workplace by the higher echelons—something the Sega Power team would soon discover.
THE FUN IS OVER
There’s no use in denying it (and, indeed, it was part of the magazine’s appeal to sheltered teenagers like myself): Sega Power regularly overstepped the boundaries of taste for a magazine ostensibly still aimed at children. Foul-mouthed spine quotes from movies like Full Metal Jacket often popped up, and the pages were often overflowing with similar “adult” references to sex and violence.
Readers like me found it funny. Had my parents glanced over a copy, I presume they would have found it far less amusing. Such was the case with an unfortunate young girl whose parents—appalled at the “adult content” of an issue that was given away in a Pizza Hut promotion—went screaming to the tabloid press. “The article said something like “PIZZA HUT HANDS OUT TEEN SEX TALES TO TEN YEAR OLDS”,” Danny Wallace remembers. “I can assure you that’s not what happened. But it was great seeing one of those pictures of a sad-faced parent holding up a copy of the magazine, thoroughly disappointed in us. I suppose that’s all we ever aimed for, summed up in one photo.”
The executives at the publishing house, however, weren’t so happy.
“There was an angry, sometimes sad-faced man called Colin who had a small office nearby, who I didn’t talk to much because he wore a tie and he scared me,” Wallace recalls. “I don’t think he found any of it very funny at all. He would sometimes read things out loud and you got the sense that he was struggling to make sense of the sentences. He once called people into a room, and said ‘this has got to stop’. He read out a section which compared a game’s playability to the veins on an old man’s withered hand, and I think he had to stop before he had a stroke or something.”
Andy Lowe has similar memories. “One time, the publisher called me in to go through an issue. He said—and this is a quote—’you don’t have carte blanche to amuse yourself and your friends.’ I remember thinking, ‘really? It certainly feels that way.’ What annoyed him was that the circulation was rising, the readers loved it, we seemed to be having a great time—but he just couldn’t understand why. It didn’t make sense to him.”
Soon enough, the pressure to normalize—which the writers even poked fun at in the magazine itself, often writing deliberately dreary captions—made Sega Power regress into more middle-of-the-road territory. “I left,” Lowe explains, “and I took a couple of the writers with me. I think those kind of periods come in waves, and the sheer energy and alchemy involved means that they can only really persist for a limited time. The Lion King LSD incident was probably a classic attempt at self-sabotage, because we were getting a bit bored with it all.”
A LASTING IMPACT
While a British video game magazine from the ‘90s might seem an odd thing to reminisce about—“it was a lifetime ago,” Wallace reflects—the legacy of Sega Power’s weirdest eighteen months can still be felt to this day. “I do get the odd email and see references,” Lowe explains. “I remember Edge making a snooty comment in a gaming history feature a few years ago—about how self-indulgent Sega Power was. Maybe it was written by our old publisher!”
Lowe is now a novelist and editor, and is currently working on a new gaming project with writer Paul Rose (“one of the few writers I looked up to at the time of Sega Power, and whose Digitiser site has plenty of the old surreal Sega Power spirit”). And while Sega Power itself rebranded as Saturn Power in 1997, before folding after just ten more issues in 1998, the effect it had on sharp, witty video game writing may well be of bigger cultural impact than anyone realIzes.
Back then, no one had talked about video games in the same cool, hip and rebellious way as Sega Power. Now lots of people do. Gamers on YouTube—reviewers and presenters and players whose irreverent tone and quick wit has seen them gather millions of followers—perhaps owe a large debt to a bunch of young journalists circa the mid-nineties who were “just trying to make each other laugh.”
“It’s lovely to hear how inspired you were by what we were doing,” Lowe says. “It was a fantastic time; creative and playful.”
As for whether he ever played The Lion King again? We’ll leave that to the imagination.
Christopher Davies is a writer and journalist in London. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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