Radion Automatic - Staff Writer
What are you up to at the moment?
I’m not really sure, to tell you the truth. Lots of different stuff. Writing, editing, a fair amount of editorial consultancy (ie: talking bollocks)… I’m supposed to be editing a secret new magazine but the publishers haven’t quite got their shit together yet. In the meantime I’m working in a kind of creative commune with some arty folk, we just did an arty coffee table book for another artist. You know, “will bug-test for food”, that kind of thing.
How did you get involved in Mean Machines?
By accident, really. I was a Mean Machines reader at the time, working in an Orwellian book-shredding warehouse in Leeds and trying to make it as a cartoonist (hence sending in all those comic strips). One day Jaz rang to say that while MM didn’t need a cartoonist (which I probably could have worked out by looking at Gary’s illustrations), they did need a staff writer, and was I interested?
Jaz obviously liked fresh meat – I was even younger than Rich when I started, having just finished my GCSEs. The interview was a bit of a farce, in retrospect. I turned up in a home-made “Quiffy-Doo” T-shirt (coming soon to an eBay near you, if I can find it) and then sat around waiting for Jaz to come out of a meeting for about three hours. Jaz asked me, I think, two questions and warned me that the money was shit (it was – about half what I was earning stacking boxes). Then I went home to have a think about it, which I did, for about a week, for some reason. In the end I decided I wouldn’t take the job, and I still work in that warehouse today.
What was it like working on the magazine as a youngster?
It was great. Although I remember being a bit shocked by all the boozing and swearing – when I was first shown into the games room by Paul Glancey, Gary Harrod was playing Super Tennis and screaming “Fucking hardcore! Look - he’s fucking left-handed! Fucking look at that! That’s fucking fucked, fuck-knuckle! Fucky!” (or words to that effect). I was quite boozy and sweary myself, but I naively assumed Mean Machines was going to be like working at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, not a Reeperbahn speakeasy full of fishwives. Everyone was really nice to me, except Matt Regan (who was working on a PC mag at the time) – I’d sent in a kind of “bonus” cartoon with the third Adventures Of Mean Machines strip (which was never printed) which took the piss out of him being sacked, not realizing that this was actually what had happened. He wanted to punch my lights out, but thanks to Oz and some booze it all got sorted out.
Making the magazine itself was great fun. In those days, before the invention of these new-fangled “computers”, magazine production was very low-tech. Everything had to be printed out and stuck onto a page template with wax (any “furniture” on a page had to be hand-drawn), so everyone had to kind of muck in doing whatever was required. I even got to draw my own caricature. Gary hated drawing them by that point, so he let me design me own. The head was based on the logo for Aquarius from a horoscopes page. Then Gary drew on those Terminator shades that made me look like a twat. Terminator was very big in the MM office.
Screenshots were always a laugh. There were two problems with them. Firstly, not many games had what we called “perfect pause” (ie: the game just froze when you paused it). Games with a flashing logo weren’t too bad, but those with a static pause sign were a pain, and those that cut away to a stat screen or something were a nightmare. Contrary to what Rich suggests, there weren’t really any screen-grabbing programs available (at least, not for our crappy PCs). Megatech was the first mag to use one, and while there were concerns over the blocky picture quality it was still better than having a whacking great PAUSE logo in the middle of the screen. The second problem is that screenshots were filed by the designers who had, shall we say, an ad hoc approach to spelling game titles, meaning you’d sometimes have to spend about an hour searching through four filing cabinets looking for inappropriately-labelled shots with Gary listening to death metal and shouting “Get a fucking move on you fucking cock! This fucking page fucking is fucking waiting!” at you.
Anyway, it was ace. And things got even better first with the arrival of Andy McVittie and Rob Bright and then, about a year after I’d started, an influx of people about my own (mental) level namely Gus, Paul Davies and Tom Guise. We went on to have many thrilling adventures together, mostly revolving around sitting in the pub shouting about games. Like Gus says, I could tell you a hundred billion stories of what we got up to, if only I could remember any of them. I think the best part of the whole era was when I was made a secret character in Micro Machines 2. I was one of the first people to champion the original Micro Machines and I love it to this day, so I was ecstatic to actually be in it. I know every other games journo in the world is in it as well, but I don’t care. Nothing tops that. It’s even better than getting a “thank you” on that Napalm Death album.
Could you tell us a little about your time spent on other magazines, such as Jack?
Good grief. Long story. Which I will answer in a really boring, round the houses, Ronnie Corbett fashion. First off, I started writing about games for FHM who got in touch after I won an in-house EMAP award (I’ve still got the trophy – I bashed it up with a hammer for a laugh and use it as an ashtray. It wasn’t even made of real gold.) At the time, the games industry was undergoing its pupation from shed-bound hobby of anarcho-mathematicians into the glamour-obsessed festival of bollocks it is today, and looking back, FHM running a games column was a pretty big indicator of the games scene’s new pretensions. As Gus rightly says in his interview, most games producers want to work in the movies, but I don’t think it’s their acne or arse-size which prevents most of them from doing so, rather their crippling lack of imagination. What I’ve always loved about games is that they’re essentially abstract constructs, they allow you to do things you could never normally do and exist in dimensions which couldn’t physically exist, for no reason other than it’s fun. That’s why, for me, Pac Man is still the best game ever (well, I think Cutie Q actually has the edge, but not many people have heard of it – it’s on the Japanese version of Namco Museum 1 on Playstation if you want to see what it’s about). Most big-budget games now are a mess of stilted mumbo-jumbo dialogue, crappy voice acting and confused plotting redolent of a Steven Seagal performing a one-man Phantom Menace on Broadway.
Sadly, games mags got swept up in all of that, too. This is when I think both the personality and the passion started dropping out of games mags (except Paul Davies-era CVG). I felt that the management at EMAP were ignoring the writers (and readers) of the magazines and were too busy chasing this non-existent “lifestyle gamer’s” dollar. After the big circulation explosion which occurred around the time time MM split, the publishers didn’t know how to deal with the ensuing decline, despite the fact the mags were still selling more than they used to at the start of the 90s. It was around this time I developed the distrust and disrespect of marketing departments that has served me so well to this day. I started getting fed up with EMAP Images (the games wing) – I wasn’t very popular with the management anyway – and looking for a new job.
So…er… where was I? Right. Yes. I was wearing an onion on belt – which was the style at the time – when I was offered a job on my then-favourite music mag, Select, which I took. It was ace. The music industry is every bit as rapacious as the games world, but at least you get sent finished copies of records without having to beg for them. For the next six years or so I wrote and edited for a veritable fuckload of magazines, spent three happy years a Music Editor of the Big Issue in London (that was a bit like a socially-conscious intellectual version of MM, actually, but with even more drinking). And no, I never saw Gary Harrod hanging around with the vendors.
Apart from the Big Issue, the only mag I’ve worked on which compared to MM in terms of creativity, camaraderie and pants-seat-flying-by has been Jack. It also had a similar editorial cycle of a fortnight’s drinking followed by two weeks of utter hell. I was features editor there, which meant I got to do lots of fun things like meet my old skate hero Tony Alva and go to North Korea with the US Army. Mean Machines never sent me anywhere except Derby to see Core Design. I was the games editor at Jack, too, and it was great fun to get back into writing about them regularly. I was absolutely gutted when it closed. Like Maximum, it was basically down to the publishers not really understanding what we were doing and collectively having no balls.
What are your thoughts on the recent demise of Computer & Videogames?
I think it’s very sad. Not least because I had friends who were still working there when it went down, but also because I think you have to be some extra-special kind of moron not to see the potential in CVG. There are very few other brands in the world of games with the kind of longevity and pedigree that CVG had – closing it was like canceling Top Of The Pops. It was my favourite games mag (apart from maybe Sinclair User) back when Mean Machines was a just single page slot written by Tony Takoushi. If it had closed in the days of Paul Rand running “Fit Sister” (send in photos of your attractive sibling for the staff to perv over – entries received: none ever.) I wouldn’t have complained, but after Paul, Tom etc resurrected it I thought it was brilliant. EMAP should never have let it go, but I guess they’d just had enough of the games market, as did Dennis later down the line. I think it was ultimately the victim of dotcom economics – the management’s idea was to run all of the mag’s content online and phase out the printed version entirely over a few years. Unfortunately no-one could think of a way to make it pay, which is what doomed a lot of 90s start-ups. CVG was established enough to survive, but after that experiment didn’t work it seems the suits lost interest in CVG entirely, as they do. Its closure means we’re all doomed to suffer shitly-produced games mags sold by the CDs on the cover forever and ever, amen. I remember when Sinclair User decided to covermount a free tape on every issue – there was a big debate about how that was effectively giving up on editorial quality and selling the free gift instead of the mag. If only they taught that in history lessons.
Do you still keep in touch with any other ex-MM or EMAP staff?
Yes, indeed I do. I made many of the best friends of my life working there. Oz, Paul, Tom Cox, Sam Hickman,I’m still very good mates with Tom Guise and Ed Lomas despite them being deported, I saw Dave Kelsall at a party last week (he was in a gorilla costume)… loads of them. I had a pint with Rob Bright a couple of weeks back (he’s working on Top Gear magazine now, he left MM when he was accepted onto a swanky university course). I even saw Bung Fight Man from Sega Mag on the tube a while ago. He turned his back and pretended he hadn’t seen me. Actually, thinking about it, maybe that wasn’t Dave Kelsall. Maybe it was a gorilla. That would explain why he threw his faeces at me.
On second thoughts it probably was Dave.
Are you still creating those crazy cartoons?
Current console of choice?
My head says Xbox but my fingers say PS2. I just like the joypad better, it reminds me of the MD SF2 pad, my all-time favourite controller (apart from the Cutie Q paddle). I love the GBA as well, its comparative technical limitations mean producers can’t cover up gameplay flaws with snazzy presentation (“graphics maketh not a game”, as a wise man said). Oh, and I’ll always love the Aquarius and Rowtron.
Current fave game?
GTA San Andreas is the tits. Advance Wars 2, although I’m pretty shit at it. Battletoads.
How do I get to play as Shen Long in Street Fighter II? My mate says he's done it but you have to get 10 double KOs or something. I called him a liar and said his mum smells.
No, no, no, no, you got to do five dragon punches when the woman on a bike is going past on Chun Li stage – you can tell you done it cos when you get to the bosses they all got the original names (Balrog = M Bison etc).