Mean Machines is the best video games magazine ever – Reader’s Feature

A reader relives his love for Mean Machines and how it broke his fanboy mentality and helped him embrace all video game formats.

It was in the run up to the 16-bit era that I first stumbled across Mean Machines magazine, by accident really. As a 12-year-old that had owned a Sega Master System for several years, I was beyond excited for the arrival of the Mega Drive, with some not-so-secret hopes I would receive one that Christmas. Shopping one Saturday afternoon in town I decided to go to WHSmith and see if I could snaffle a mag that might quench the thirst I had to see some Mega Drive screenshots and game reviews.

I had bought some copies of ‘S’ magazine (later to become Sega Power) in the past and was hoping to pick up the latest edition but couldn’t find any as it was quite hard to come by in newsagents. Till my dad pointed out a mag with a Ninja Turtle adorning the cover: ‘This one has got some Mega Drive stuff in’. I picked it up and wasn’t particularly enamoured, I’d never heard of Mean Machines, thought the Turtles were a bit old hat and I wasn’t a big fan of multiformat games magazines like ACE or C&VG (the place Mean Machines originated as a regular console feature).

I mean, why would I want to know about games for a system I didn’t own? Plus, they often contained a lot of techy computer stuff for Amiga, Spectrum, C64, etc. Whilst I loved the old Speccy I wasn’t really interested in programming or gimmicky peripherals and only ever played games, so saw little point in buying any mags that covered those angles.

This new magazine was slightly different in that it was for consoles only, so as it was the first issue and did appear to have plenty of Sega stuff in from my cursory flick through, I gambled my pocket money on it. Once home I obviously went straight to the Sega content, the review of Revenge Of Shinobi looked immense, as did the arcade conversion of Golden Axe. So, after I had looked at the tantalising screenshots and read the reviews I settled down and ended up reading it word for word.

What became immediately apparent was this was no Sega Power, as the semi-official Sega magazine it was mild and pretty sycophantic about all the games reviewed, even the crap ones. Now that I’m a cynical adult that’s what I’d expect from an official mag, but this new read was just so refreshing to me back then, as shown by the complete 41% panning of Summer Games in the first issue.

The reviews were robust, often covering two or three pages and included a much needed ‘lastability’ element in the scoring. There was nothing worse than investing £20-£30 of hard-saved pocket money in a games cartridge only to finish it on day one, with absolutely no replay value. I do remember some criticism at the time regarding the alleged paltry amount of reviews in each issue, but I much preferred this approach of doing a thorough job of analysing each game with plenty of screenshots, rather than filling the mag with half-baked, half-page assessments.

Not only were they more honest about the games in question they also reviewed import games from Japan, which you would never get through official channels, giving a fleeting glimpse of potential future UK releases.

From that moment I was hooked by every element of it and could not wait for the next instalment. So much so I would harass the local newsagent ceaselessly around the time it was due out until that month’s issue arrived. I loved that each reviewer/staffer had their own defined personality; including their little anime caricature that meant you knew whose comment or article you were reading. Jaz, the renowned arcade champ with some seriously offensive ice hockey hair; Matt, the console-converted computer nerd (quickly replaced); Gary, whose excellent cover art alone must have sold many a copy; and Oz, who designed all the page layouts.

It was also the first time I had read games reviews which included more than one faceless person’s opinion, so was it was quite novel to have two reviewers give their take on the same game. OK, the opinions never varied too wildly, and there was an overall Mean Machines consensus when it came to the actual score, but nevertheless it was good to get some alternative outlooks on a title. Getting this kind of feedback was essential for a successful game purchase back in the day.

Too often my game choices before this had to be made on box art, screenshots, or limited prior knowledge, i.e. having played at a friend’s house or in the arcade. I always remember getting stung by spending a good portion of birthday money one year on Ghostbusters on the Master System, only to get it home and realise it was a rehash of the Spectrum game that I didn’t much care for (I didn’t want to run a franchise, I just wanted to bust ghosts!).

So in this respect, Mean Machines armed me with the necessary knowledge to invest in ‘Mega Games’. This moniker was only given to games racking up a score of 90% or more, and once you saw the Mega Game logo on a review, you knew this was a game to be taken seriously, despite the type of game it was.

This often led me to buying games within genres that I would never have considered ordinarily; I tended to stick to shooters and platformers. Mean Machines emergence resulted in titles such as F-22 Interceptor, John Madden’s Football, and EA Hockey becoming some of my favourite games of all time, which I definitively would not have bought without such glowing reviews from Jaz, Matt, and the boys.

My initial apprehension about the magazine covering multiformat consoles was short-lived, I actually really enjoyed reading reviews for Game Boy, NES, Atari Lynx, etc. Granted, I never read them with the same scrutiny as I did for Sega games, but it was good to keep up to speed on some of the systems my friends were playing and allowed me to engage in playground discussions about Super Mario Bros. 3 or Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu. Prior to this I had been a bona fide Sega fanboy, denigrating my NES-owning pals for their limited colour palette, poor graphics, and lack of decent arcade titles.

I started to appreciate these other machines; I mean if Jaz Rignall said something was good, who was I to argue, having never played it? This breaking down of the fanboy barrier was massive for me, as Mean Machines was the overwhelming reason I craved a Super Famicom/SNES once some of the early screenshots and features began appearing. I would have never considered soiling myself with a Nintendo console in the past but now the thought of owning one was all consuming and led to the greatest coup of my childhood – persuading my parents to buy me one whilst simultaneously keeping my Mega Drive.

There was a catch, I had to get a good report in school, needless to say I had all the motivation I needed to smash the remainder of Year 8. I even aced Home Economics for god’s sake, just in case a bad score would jeopardise the deal. So I ended up being one of those smug, spoilt little geeks who had both consoles and got to enjoy a whole host of new games and characters. Although my dad was slightly unimpressed, saying the graphics on Super Mario World were no better than Castle Of Illusion.

I suppose he did have a point, it wasn’t a huge leap in graphics, it was still a 16-bit machine after all. As we all know there was much more to it than that though, six buttons for a start, plus exclusive games and he had not seen Mode 7 in action yet…

Mean Machines also had a great sense of humour and never took itself too seriously, like some of the more geeky, hardcore computer mags. Smutty innuendos, dad joke puns, and the relentless trolling of Jaz’s mane were all par for the course. These were especially present in ‘Ask Yob’, a fictional character designed to basically take the proverbial out of all the letters being sent in by what mostly appeared to be pubescent boys like myself. Still being fairly naïve at this stage, some of this humour was a little lost on me, but my older brother could quite often be heard ‘fnarring’ at some of the double entendres in this section.

The fact they took the rise out of themselves as well as readers gave you the impression they were on your level, even more so when they took on a new reviewer. Radian Automatic was a young edition to the team who was not much older than most readers. So it’s pleasing to hear in a recent interview Jaz Rignall gave to the BBC that the decision ‘not to talk down’ to readers was intentional. The tone of the magazine very much made you feel like part of a secret club. A few of us hardcore geeks used to discuss the latest edition at break, draw doodles of Yob and compose letters each of us hoped would feature one day (but sadly never did). It would have been classed as a badge of honour to one day be on the receiving end of Yobs ‘abuse’.

The magazine also had a very nifty tips section and an opportunity to write in for advice if you were stuck on a particular part of game. OK, it may take a few months to get any feedback but it was a valuable service nevertheless. As alluded to in my previous Reader’s Feature on the SNES, in the days of no Internet cheats, tips and walkthroughs were all reliant on magazine coverage and Mean Machines was as good as any in this department. I still remember the revelation of putting the code ‘three shredded wheat’ into European Club Soccer on the Mega Drive. This increased the shooting power to a ridiculous level so you could unleash Le Tissier-esque worldies on Rotheram United, literal game changer!

Oh, and who could the forget freebies! Most months there was something good to give away, dodgy Sega rap tapes, your very own Jaz figure, the amazing Super Mario Bros. 3 hologram picture and I still have my Contra jigsaw… somewhere.

I was devastated when the news came out that Mean Machines were breaking up the band and splitting into two mags: Mean Machines Sega and Nintendo Magazine System. I understood it to a degree, a lot of the other multi-consoles such as Atari Lynx, Amstrad GX4000, and PC Engine had died a death and it was a straight fight between Sega and Nintendo at that time.

Nevertheless I was still gutted, I couldn’t afford two mags but opted for NMS as I mostly just bought Super Nintendo games at that point. It was still a good mag and maintained the high quality of Mean Machines, but my interest had waned a little as I headed for my mid-teens. I probably didn’t buy another game mag until the PlayStation era arrived, when ‘demo discs’ brought a whole new reason to spend £5 on a wad of paper. However, for me those two years and 24 issues of publishing genius will always be the halcyon years of gaming magazines.

Big props to Damo and Daz at The Mean Machines Archive for keeping the dream alive with their excellent homage to all things Mean Machines.

By reader Ben Parker (@CitizensBandz)

The reader’s feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.

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