Issue Review: CF 1 (October, 1990)

Adverts for a new Commodore 64 magazine began appearing in the summer 1990 issues of Amstrad Action,  Your Sinclair and  New Computer Express,  taking the industry by surprise. After all, this was hardly a machine in the first flushes of youth.

CF1 mock cover

A mockup cover of the C64 magazine that was to change everything – and extend the life of the machine in the UK by some years. This advert ran over the summer of 1990 in Future’s Spectrum title, Your Sinclair.

“True. But Commodore 64 users were still out there in the hundreds of thousands and they weren’t being properly catered for”, remembers CF publisher Greg Ingham. And he was right. A C64-shaped hole in the market had appeared.

Commodore User had abandoned the ’64 entirely, and ZZAP! was by now reviewing Amiga games. The Breadbin’s news stand presence was fading. But it wasn’t just the quantity of coverage that Commodore Format launch editor Steve Jarratt would notice.

ZZAP! had lost a lot of the things that made it great. [Future Publishing founder] Chris Anderson fancied taking on ZZAP! – the magazine he had launched at Newsfield, and I still loved the C64. I wanted to play games again.”

And so it happened. On September 20th 1990 the very first issue of Commodore Format appeared. Steve hired his staff-writing sidekick Andy Dyer direct from an insurance company (“He just had so much enthusiasm. He gave us the impression that if he didn’t get the job, he’d die”), and this double-act relationship defined the lively sort of writing that shot CF to number one in the market in under a year. They were joined by deputy editor Sean Masterson, a former ZZAP! reviewer and RPG fantatic who thought Future were joking when they offered him a job on the title. “I thought, they can’t be serious. Everybody’s trading up to an Amiga or ST. In fact, I must have said something along those lines, because the next thing they were telling me was that they were certain there was still a huge market for the C64. They knew about Commodore’s plans to keep supporting the C64 and that developers were working on exciting new titles. They foresaw a new golden age for the C64. At the same time, they could see that ZZAP! 64 was wobbling.”

A NEW KIND OF MAG

If you look at CF1 now and compare it to ZZAP! of the same month, you’d think the magazines were from different eras. CF‘s Monty Python review takes the silliness of the game to the page, printing it upside down and providing the reader with explanatory thumb marks and arrows. It’s all a far cry from the templates that other mags were using on pretty much every page. Box-outs and enormous screenshots on the reviews for Time MachineLords Of Chaos and countless others walk readers through a game and bring it to life. CF was the first magazine to regularly glue together screens and show readers what an entire level looked like. “Games explained, not described” was the review mantra, with Steve keen to make each issue a real companion to come back to again and again rather than just file away.

The same approach was taken to the feature writing. CF1’s piece on the new C64GS console hangs upon a chat with the first guys to code some new cartridge games, although Steve admits “putting the GS on the cover was a mistake. I was stupidly optimistic. The machine was underpowered, ugly and expensive. But at the time I thought it would usher in a whole new era of C64 gaming!”. Vivid Image’s Mevlut Dinc is both articulate and philosophical on the failure of Commodore’s keyboardless disaster: you can read our exclusive chat with him here.

CF issue 1 cover

…and here’s how issue 1 looked for real. It was an unusually “grown up” cover – issue 2 featured a cartoon of Rick Dangerous. Issue 1 was far more like Future’s other “Format” titles, but subsequent CF’s were far more games oriented.

Elsewhere in issue 1 there are pieces about getting online, desktop publishing and even a Martin Walker guide to squeezing the most out of your SID chip. It was the classic Future Publishing “…Format” recipe, for sure – but the sort of mix that C64 owners just weren’t getting anywhere else. The October 1990 issue sold over 40,000 copies – double the number of C64GS’ sold in the UK in the first year! – “beating ZZAP! from a standing start”, remembers Steve.

Those who thought that the arrival of the 16-bits meant older machines would vanish had got it wrong: a new, younger audience was getting C64s as hand-me-downs from big brothers, or being bought one as a cheap first computer. Commodore User and ZZAP! had misjudged the market. Future’s new C64 mag was here for a surprise “second generation” of owners. Commodore Format became Future Publishing’s biggest launch to date. CF

ON CF SMASH HITS 1 

The famous covertape wasn’t called the Power Pack yet, and didn’t come in a box either. Read more about the Smash Hits tapes here. The cassette was still amazing, though, led by unreleased Simon Pick game Revolution – featuring a Martin Walker soundtrack. Then there was Tau Ceti, John Twiddy’s conversion of the Speccy shooter. John also featured later in the magazine as part of the team developing the C64 GS.

tapes1and2

The Smash Hits tapes ran for two issues, before the cassette was given its own box and renamed the Power Pack. The cardboard it was attached to doubled as a sleeve, but you had to find your own box.

Over on side 2, Rebel was a shoot ‘n’ search strategy from the guys who did Dan Dare for Virgin, and there were two playable demos. Graftgold’s Iron Man was a neat top down racing sim’, and St. Dragon was a whole level of Storm’s upcoming shooter.

The first covertape really set out Cf‘s stall as the complete C64 package, and became one of the magazine’s major draws. For some, it was the only time they got to play new stuff on their computer, and all for the price of a magazine!

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One thought on “Issue Review: CF 1 (October, 1990)

  1. A very interesting look into the mindset at the time and Steve etc we’re just right! I started buying CF from #14 a few months before I got my Commodore, and it was mainly thanks to this mag that I got into the creative side of the machine too. This is something I’m getting back into at the tender age of 37.. oh, wait… 38(!) now (and writing about on my own blog). In fact I’m about to start reading the physical issues from #1!

    Oh if only Commodore hadn’t gone the C64GS route. If they’d impressed upon the games makers that a NES and Master System beater was already there in that slot at the back of countless computers already out there! If they’d started to use and market that cartridge slot better then who knows what would’ve happened. No point in thinking about “what if” moments though, I had a wonderful time with my 64 and CF in the 90s!

    Liked by 1 person

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