The ZX Spectrum's a relic, tech trash by yesterday's standards - but the legacy of its leading magazine is immeasurable.
Nostalgia's not what it used to be. In the cold light of 2015, the humble Sinclair ZX Spectrum is tech trash by any logical analysis: games would take several minutes to load from cassette, assuming they worked at all; the standard 48K or 128K memory limited their scope; and the octo-coloured palette meant that games tended to look at best atmospherically minimalist or at worst as garish as having Enter the Void injected directly into your retinas.
But if the Spectrum represented your thrillingly flawed introduction to gaming, you'll remember the positives: programmers who could triumph over its inherent shortcomings; the diverse range of gaming styles; and, above all, how often a simple idea could prove to be surprisingly addictive.
By the mid-1980s, the Spectrum was booming. Computing magazines at the time were often very serious – buying guides, tech advice, programming. Your Sinclair, however, was different. It was a bright and brash explosion of anarchic humour and surrealism that naturally appealed to many a game-playing teenager. It was a golden age for the industry, in which game companies and magazines alike were experimenting with commercialising from their independent roots.
"Games at that point weren't mainstream, although we could tell they were going to be," explains Teresa "T'zer" Maughan, who edited Your Sinclair at its peak, between 1987 and 1989. "The big magazines at the time were Smash Hits and Just Seventeen. They were very upbeat and they were quite cult-y, so we started looking at those for inspiration. Humour was quite important, and as our target audience was primarily teenage boys, we also became quite juvenile."
The magazine's anarchic vernacular – think "fnar", "hatstand", "yibble" and "skillo" – seemed to infiltrate every paragraph. With the help of Maughan's editorial sidekicks Marcus Berkmann and Phil South (most of these phrases were sourced from South's family, a self-confessed "long line of word munglers"), plus an army of freelancers, the magazine's writing oozed personality which set it apart from competitors such as Crash (Berkmann: "It was sort of alright, but written by people who couldn't really write") and Sinclair User (Maughan: "It was a bit boring").
In a review of movie tie-in A View to a Kill, Berkmann wrote: "Now everyone thinks that every Bond game is going to be a pile of jobbies, so it doesn't matter how brillsville it turns out to be – no-one's going to want to know."
"I wouldn't write anything like that now," he protests. "I wouldn't have written anything like that since I left the magazine. The weird thing was that you could write complete drivel like that, and it was fine: no-one took out the jokes." It was that balance of blunt honesty and precise comic flair that made YS such an engaging read.
"We wanted it to have Viz-style swearing, but we were constrained by the fact that parents bought it for their children," South recalls. "We had to be more arch about it, so there was a lot of veiled profanity."
He continues: "You can't underestimate the contributions of the art people, not only to the look and feel of the magazine but also to the ambience of the office. They were all very skilled artists who laboured for weeks on end to craft something that looked thrown together."
Vital to such ambience was booze. Unsurprisingly, if you put a bunch of young people together in a profession in which a drinking culture is entirely accepted, they'll take advantage. "It was unbelievably boozy," emphasises Berkmann. "We drank at lunch and we drank after work and we drank Lucozade in the morning to ward off our hangovers."
The magazine's growing profile was helped greatly by giving away the unreleased Batty game as a free cover tape, while its repositioning was assisted by including a watered-down mini-edition of Viz ("Bundling a free sampler of the lewd adult comic was, from a kid's point of view, the best thing ever in the history of ever," says tribute site YSRNRY) and upping the ante with its covers. Your Sinclair had sought to link youth culture and gaming before by splashing the likes of the cast of The Young Ones and Max Headroom on its frontage, but the summer of 1988 presented a boundaries-pushing double-bill of sex and violence.
Vixen came first, with the YS cover featuring Page 3 girl Corrine Russell clad in a leopard-print bikini. Such was the furore that Felix Dennis, founder of the magazine's parent company Dennis Publishing, was quizzed about it on national television.
"My view at the time was that it was going to be a big game, that was the marketing material that they were using and we were aiming at teenage and upwards boys," states Maughan. "She was wearing a bikini and that was what the game's content was about, and we were in the business of selling magazines that would appeal."
The magazine soon achieved monthly sales in excess of 80,000, which ratifies Maughan's logic. The following month's cover illustration was of a blood-splattered oinker chainsawing an off-page foe to death in the name of promoting Psycho Pigs UXB.
"I don't think you'd get away with some of that stuff now," Maughan says. "I think things are a bit more PC. We had stickers saying things like, 'The mag that put your brain in the blender,' because at the time there were all those jokes about putting a frog in a blender – 'what's green and goes red at the push of a button?' If you're going to push boundaries, you will offend people."
It was around this time that Duncan MacDonald joined the YS ranks. MacDonald's input was to heighten the magazine's surreal excesses: his comic strips possessed the black humour of a PG version of Cyanide and Happiness, and his reviews would feature non sequiturs like "Crikey, I wouldn't send you out to buy a pound of sausages." He reviewed Skate Crazy from the perspective of a monkey named Pippo, and introduced a preview of Human Killing Machine with "I've always been nervous of sewing machines".
"He was a world class loonbag," chuckles South. "He was a genius, but like many a genius he was overwhelmed by his ideas."
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MacDonald's finest moment was one of the strangest incidents in mainstream publishing. He created a game called Advanced Lawnmower Simulator – a sort of spiritual prankish precursor to Goat Simulator – that he then hyperbolically reviewed. Writers and readers alike continued this April Fools' joke for months on end, until the game itself was given away as a cover-mount cassette 18 months later. South still plays it to this day: "It's a work of minimalist genius."
Throughout such hijinks, however, lurked the awareness that the Spectrum had a limited shelf life. "We thought if we could write for the magazine for two or three years, we could then go off and become serious writers like we once said we wanted to be," laughs South. Even as early as September 1987, Berkmann's comparison of the Spectrum +3 with the Sega and Nintendo consoles of the time noted, "Both machines boast graphics and speed that, at their best, make the poor old Speccy look like a pocket calculator."
By the summer of 1989, Your Sinclair's golden era concluded when Maughan moved upstairs to become associate publisher, by which point South and Berkmann had both flown the nest to become freelancers. And yet, under new editor Matt Bielby, the magazine continued to remain credible as its frenetic writing and daft antics (including trying to make a pop star of writer David "Whistling Rick" Wilson) continued unabated.
The Spectrum was wheezing its final breaths come 1993, and Your Sinclair had inevitably become a shadow of its former self, hindered by a dwindling supply of games to cover. It's last hurrah came in September '93 with a sentimental celebration of its past – albeit one undermined by numerous Amiga ads and a classifieds page that was full of Spec-chums optimistically trying to offload their machines.
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Your Sinclair writers often branched out into other publications and platforms over the years, and Maughan's publishing career maintained some of the mag's spirit with the likes of Zero, Game Zone, Nintendo Zone and PC Zone. She's since had strangers trace her through Facebook to pay compliments, and Berkmann has met people who were inspired to go into gaming journalism because of their love of the mag. "People thought, 'These guys are writing fun stuff, maybe I could write fun stuff, too,'" says South. "That legacy is immeasurable."
It would return, briefly, as a one-off tribute supplement in November 2004's Retro Gamer, whose then-editor Martyn Carroll concluded: "Of all the early computer magazines, Your Sinclair is perhaps the best remembered and best loved."
But it was the final words of Your Sinclair itself that summed up its weirdly wonderful run: "Remember folks! Be crap to each other! In a funky skillo sort of way."
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