Issue Review: CF 53 (February, 1995)

cf53_Feb1995

No bespoke artwork on the cover again this month – the second issue in succession. Whilst it’s fair to say the move towards more serious and adult covers was intentional, this also saved a few quid to pay for freelance content inside the mag.

So a recap, then. How did we get here? Commodore Format was launched in the late summer of 1990. Even then, a new magazine for the C64 raised eyebrows. But Future Publishing proved the doubters wrong, selling 60,000 copies of the 100 page thick mag every month for over two years. And that had been the original plan for CF: to ride the wave of Commodore’s last big push with the C64 for about 24 issues, make some money on the advertising by being better than the once mighty ZZAP!, and then get out.

CURVEBALL!

Except something curious happened. The software houses and shops (and ZZAP!) stopped supporting the C64, but a significant number of users did not. Even those who had upgraded to an Amiga, PC or console were often keeping their 8-bit computer on the go and buying Commodore Format in big enough quantities to make it viable. That isn’t to say the magazine wasn’t in decline, though, with circulation dropping from the high of 60,000 to 50, 40 and 25,000 copies a month by the time Dave Golder was in the editor’s chair in mid 1994. Future’s new owners, Pearson, cut the magazine to just 22 pages at Christmas that year with the intention of closing it if sales didn’t make even such a slimline operation worthwhile. It did well enough, though, and a mag that had been launched when Margaret Thatcher was (just) still Prime Minister was sitting here, in February 1995, in a very different world. Powerful PCs were being used at home to access the new World Wide Web, Sony had launched its Playstation 1 in Japan and the UK was undergoing something of a cultural revolution. “Cool Brittania” encompassed the music of Britpop, films like Trainspotting and even soon-to-be Prime Minister, Tony Blair. In North London, Simon Fuller was busy putting together a girl group called The Spice Girls.

Glastonbury had a website for the first time that summer. Text and photographs were uploaded live from the site, fuelled by a solar powered generator. Oasis, Radiohead and the Prodigy were as triumphant as expected on stage, but it was the last minute headliners Pulp – parachuted in to replace the dissolving Stone Roses – who stole the festival. Their songs about British life and its youth were a world away from anything that had come before. The C64 had arrived in a Britain full of strikes, racial divide and unchallenged Tory rule. Now, a more compassionate message of hope and a new, liberal generation of adults was coming of age, one which was embracing the internet, cheap air travel, left-wing politics and a wave of new technology. In short, if the C64 looked old hat in 1990 then then mere presence of a magazine for it was borderline comical now.

IT’S NOT HOW BIG YOUR MAG IS…

Over the last two issues of the new downsized CF new editor Karen Levell had essentially hat-tipped this, with numerous references to the machine’s “retirement” and even a look at emulating the computer on a more modern PC. This month’s CF really sees Karen hit her stride, with a much more effective use of the limited space. Most of the features occupy a single page, and a cleaner approach to the design – rather than just using the nuts and bolts intended for a much bigger magazine – make CF at least an attractive and varied offering, if not a huge one. This month’s main feature – Sshh! Listen – is all about making quality sound effects for your games, a specific subject that hadn’t been covered in the previous 4-and-a-bit years. Jon Wells notes that the C64 was one of the best computers out there for in-built sound, and shows you how to POKE the SID chip into life. StormLordIK+ and Turbo Outrun are all used as examples to keep things interesting – but unfortunately the article suffers from one of the worst production errors in Commdore Format history, with the choice of white text on a largely light blue background making it almost impossible to read. D’oh!

cf53inside

It’s not just the covers that are more grown up around this time. Inside, many spreads were not dissimilar to Amiga Format. The use of charts and boxouts was really effective.

No such problems elsewhere, with the two pages you see above looking very smart. The first is Jon Wells’ ninth update on the making of beat ’em up Tenth Dan,  featuring a couple of very nice explanatory boxouts and a diagram to split up the information. Directly opposite, drawing app GeoPaint is given the same clear treatment with a couple of lovely screenshots and a very clear design. It’s this era of CF at its best and actually has shades of Future’s more serious mags of the time like ST Format.

Software wise, a whole page was dedicated to Visualize’ Bomber clone Blitz 2000. In a lot of ways, the 20-level game sums up many of the well-intended but rather limited indie releases of the time. “It’s like going back in time to play some of the really early C64 stuff”, noted Rod Lawton. “It’ll take two minutes to pick up and another ten minutes to put down. Sort of tea break game, really”. Still, at £1.99 it wasn’t too bad a bet – it notched up 69%.

A CRISIS OF IDENTITY

One notable omission from this month’s mag is a credits and contact section. Normally lurking around the letters page, it was dropped this month to make room for a half-page ad for Wizard Games. In itself, you might think no big deal. But in reality, it is something of a metaphor for CF in these early months of 1995: efficient, professional, but faceless. For a magazine that had built success on its closeness to readers and being the “cooler older friend who drops ’round to play on your computer”, to quote Simon ForresterCommodore Format had – by its own high standards – lost its voice. Karen Levell was editing, but not writing, merely compiling the work of other freelancers. There was thus no distinctive tone throughout the pages, and whilst what we’ve got here this month is of a great standard it’s noticeably more distant from the reader than the magazine of its heydey.

We’ll see that change in the coming months, though. The re-introduction of the news page certainly helps, and makes CF seem less like a mere collection of articles and more “of the moment” again. And it would need to be:  next month no less than five new games arrived for review, and there were some twists in the C64 story to come yet. See you next time. CF

ON THE POWER PACK

Commodore_Format_PowerPack_53_1995-02A really nice collection this time out: first up was 1993’s slick puzzler Mind Maze. Next was part one of the text adventure The Darkest Road. It’s a big old beast with its roots on the Spectrum. Then, from Poland, is a peek at Tetris clone Artris – and completing the tape is a demo of Bee 52. Originally reviewed back in issue 36 (September 1993), it had been intended as Codemasters’ C64 swansong. In the end, they didn’t bother – so programmer Nick Taylor was making it available himself by mail order. Our feature on this neat shoot and collect-’em-up with a twist is here,  You can also read there how CF repeatedly confused matters around its release!

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