The Commodore magazine story: Commodore Force (1992/3-1994)

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. 

ZZap_64_Issue_091_Commodore_Force_Issue_01_1993_Jan_0000

Issue 1 of Commodore Force came out in November ’92, but was labelled as January ’93. Word is elderly newsagents are still angry.

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 really summed up Commodore Force: a short-lived, good-natured C64 mag which had a habit of making life difficult for itself.

SOME BACKGROUND 

Force was, in fact, a rebrand of the wonderful, legendary ZZAP! 64 (feature article here). News of the change came in issue 90, with editor Steve Shields saying 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. It’s a depressing corporate reality, but advertising agencies (businesses which go out and buy space in things like magazines for clients like software houses) like simplicity. Europress could now go to agencies and easily show them how they could reach the maximum number of gamers through one simple Force brand, rather than a hotch potch of different magazine titles and designs.

Save for the change of masthead, 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 interpretation of Lemmings, and the accompanying demo on one of the  mag’s tapes was the first time C64 owners had ever seen the critters running on their machine. It was a real coup, and the sort of thing ZZAP! hadn’t managed in some time.

forcesamurai

Here’s Commodore Force issue 1’s rave review…

recklessreviewzzap90

…and a review from ZZAP! issue 90. As you can see, the page elements and a lot of the design are pretty much the same.

Lloyd Mangram was back at the helm of the letters page, too, in a concession that his removal from ZZAP! had been a serious lack of judgement. The letters section of ZZAP! 64 had always been a step ahead of the numbered questions and silliness that were common in other games mags; Lloyd’s pages had proper debate, ferocious opinion and a proper 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 titled 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”. So, for example, Amiga Format might be somebody’s regular read but 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 covertapes – and they were often spectacular. Every month the mag came with two cassettes in unique shiny red and blue and there was usually a killer program: issue 9 had awesome 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 PatrolDan 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 covertapes was a soul-fucking, spirit-crushing chore: lots of tracking people down and, as we didn’t have email at [Eurpress] Impact, endless phone conversations and bouts of fax tennis. Quite a few Commodore Force covertape 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.”

blueslevel1.PNG

The Tipster was one of the best things in Commodore Force, finally getting with the program and providing proper maps for games people actually owned – in this case, The Blues Brothers – which every reader would have after its appearance on the mag’s covertape. What a scoop!

HOLD ON A MINUTE, THOUGH

Let’s just pull back here a second, mind. Force did sometimes pull out some brilliant editorial copy even if the mag’s remembered for its tapes. Ian Osborne’s That Was The Game That Wasn’t, which searched for the stories behind unreleased C64 titles, has an amazing legacy: it was the inspiration for the hugely popular Games That Weren’t website today. 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, too, 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.

mighty brian.PNG

The Mighty Brian was a dig at Commdore Format‘s Mighty Brain. The section author was Andrew Fisher, who later went on to freelance for…Commodore Format

WUT

The title was a dig at Commodore Format‘s famous letters page, The Mighty Brain, of course, 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, in reality, 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, homebrew 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”? Ultimately, Force‘s failing was trying to be a games magazine when there were no longer any games to talk about, surely.

“It’s really easy to look back now and say that we should have been covering homebrew 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.”

reader top 100

Issue 11’s top 100 games had a surprising number 1: Ocean’s unusual adventure, Frankie Goes To Hollywood

THE END

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 asked for the specific number of issues they had orders for (ie if little Johnny in Wigan asked for Force, the newsagent could get one – but he wouldn’t buy surplus for the shelves). 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 significant profit. Force had done well.

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. Looking back, James Price gives himself a very hard time: at the age of 18, a lot of people haven’t left home or even college – 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 – yes – 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 early on. Phil King has never been given the praise or recognition he would have got if he’d been on, say, a Future title. Yes, there are LOL 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 wasn’t. On that basis alone, it’s worth revisiting the mag this summer. Let us know what you think. CF

 

Advertisements