Meet The Mags
SINCLAIR USER was the longest running of the three main Spectrum magazines, starting in April 1982 and continuing for 134 issues. It was a more serious affair in its early days, with type-in listings and technical articles prevalent, although it focused mainly on gaming in its latter years. Despite merging with one of its rivals, it finally gave up the ghost in April 1993, which was an incredible run for any magazine, let alone one dedicated to a single particular piece of technology.
YOUR SINCLAIR began its life in controversy as it rose from the ashes of YOUR SPECTRUM, a considerably drier and more technically-minded magazine. The new format concentrated mainly on games and contained an off-beat, sometimes anarchic sense of humour that appealed to many Speccy owners. It was the youngest of the three, having started life in only January 1986, and outlasted the other two, finally folding in August 1993 – which is quite amazing considering how outclassed the Spectrum was by then, with Amigas and Atari STs all the rage and of course the Sega Megadrive and Super Nintendo consoles the latest gaming must-haves.
CRASH was perhaps the most well known of the three main Spectrum magazines, and its combination of humour as well as an unashamed dedication to games endeared it to a vast mass of Spectrum owners. It concentrated chiefly on reviews, previews and gameplay tips and boasted fantastic covers thanks to the talented artist Oliver Frey. Despite its success, Crash had a sad demise: the last Newsfield issue was number 93 in October 1991; less than a year later, new owners Europress had flogged the title on to Emap who derogatorily merged it with their own Sinclair User (with little obvious internal change); fortunately this absurd creation didn’t last for long as the Crash logo got smaller and smaller until it eventually disappeared altogether after eight issues.
The Road Race Begins…
It was dated January 1986: the first issue of Your Sinclair (it had previously been known as Your Spectrum) and it held a cassette on its front cover. Within this small piece of plastic and magnetic tape was a demo of the Firebird game Rasputin, an isometric 3D game that signified a very important beginning for Spectrum owners all over the UK. Sales of this issue were no doubt higher than normal, but the publishers might have put this down to the new format and name rather than the box and tape on the cover. As a result, the power of the covertape was not realised, and it was some time before another appeared.
The May 1987 issue of the same magazine was the next time a covertape was included, and the game that was offered marked another milestone, for this was no two-level demo; this was the real deal, a fully playable 100% complete game, albeit one that original publishers Ocean had deemed unsuitable for commercial release. And indeed, Road Race was perhaps not the greatest racing game, but crucially, it was free (or rather free-ish – the price of the magazine had been surreptitiously raised), and whetted everyone's appetite for more cheap gaming.
The very next month from Your Sinclair gave us already what many regarded as the pinnacle of covertape games. The Imagine arcade conversion of Arkanoid had been around for some time, resulting in several bandwagon-jumping clones. Your Sinclair managed to bag a generous exclusive from Elite and covertape the marvellous Batty for their loyal readers. The game was an instant hit and copies of the magazine flew off newsagent's shelves up and down the country; in fact, Batty was so good, it even received a subsequent commercial release as part of Elite's Hit-pak compilation as well as the inevitable budget appearance.
Your Sinclair labelled these games their “Smash Tapes” and they had set the bar for cover-mounted games, so it wasn't long before one of their rivals had something for it's readers as well. The Crash Sampler (issue 45, October 1987) offered up a seemingly generous seven game demos, but unfortunately not all of them were playable. The best of these were one-level snippets of Imagine's arcade conversion Athena and Elite's long awaited Ikari Warriors. As was already common, there was no box for the cassette to save costs, but an inlay was provided for you to cut out and insert into a spare plastic box that most resourceful Spectrum gamers were bound to have lying around.
Finally, Sinclair User eventually entered the fray with their Megatape One proudly attached to issue 72 (already boasting of "the best tape ever"!). It offered an exclusive game called Zarjas (by Binary Design no less), although this was merely an expanded version of a mini-game from Mastertronic's Zub, and not particularly groundbreaking. A demo of Vietnam war title 19: Boot Camp accompanied the shoot 'em up and was also fun.
This gentle trading of blows marked the beginning of a full-scale battle that would slowly come to signify the end of the road for the ZX Spectrum games market as well as the magazines themselves.
Exclusives and Demos
Demos and magazine-exclusive games dominated the early exchanges in the covertape war. Crash continued its Sneak Preview tapes, which all contained tasters of generally high-quality games. Issue 54 had playable snippets of Incentive’s latest Freescape game, The Dark Side, whilst issue 58 boasted a whole level’s worth of fun from Ocean’s superb movie license Robocop. Sinclair User mixed exclusive games, sometimes based around the SU mascot, a rather mean-looking teddy bear, in titles such as Go, Bear, Go (a fun Pengo clone) and Bear a Grudge (a Space Harrier style effort containing digitised pics of the SU staff to shoot at) with demos of a somewhat lesser quality to Crash. Trendsetters Your Sinclair continued their one game a month policy with some original games of mixed quality: Moley Christmas, Blind Panic and The People from Sirius were all reasonable efforts but Dusko Dimitrevic’s Play for Your Life - a poorly implemented attempt at a 3-D future sports game - was disappointing, especially after its over-hyped addictive qualities.
Eventually however, the previously-released commercial games began to slip out. First Crash dipped its toes in the water with Sophistry, an oblique but polished maze game; Your Sinclair had Dinamic’s Dustin on the cover of issue 34 and Sinclair User offered a “SU Edition” of Dan Dare 2: The Mekon’s Revenge, before eventually going the whole hog and putting Hewson’s Sci-Fi adventure Astroclone on Megatape 6, issue 77.
The conflict was in full swing now and the respective publishers hounded software houses for games to put on their tapes. After time, someone realised quantity was perhaps more important than quality, and so began the next phase in the war.
Issue 65 of Crash from June ’89 was one of the first compilation-style covertapes. Under a title of “The Shape of Thrills to Come”, the editorial boasted of a policy of “GOOD games, where you don’t feel cheated after loading.” They also stuck the knife into their competitors, claiming their rivals’ tapes were full of “dull tripe” and this incendiary claim added fuel to the brewing conflict. The cassette contained four full games, a demo and the obligatory pokes that could be loaded in to the Speccy, saving all that laborious typing. Crucially, Crash’s claim was accurate, at least initially: the games were of good quality thanks to the bearded-wonder Pete Cooke’s superb Micronaut 1, followed by a Special Crash Edition of Codemasters’ popular Dizzy, fun arcade classic Moon Cresta and more platform action in the form of Wanted: Monty Mole. The demo was of the Thalamus shooter Sanxion.
Unfortunately for actual readers of the magazine, this issue marked the beginning of the “pamphlet” era, which, with a mere 36 pages (including advertisements) meant not-a-lot for you to read. Crash had been slimming down steadily from its one-thirty page average the year before, and now the focus had quite clearly shifted to the cassette on the front cover.
The Spanish Connection: Microhobby Magazine
Microhobby was a Spanish magazine that began in November 1984 and finally ceased publication at the end of 1992. Early issues of the magazine were given away with the Microhobby Semanal cassette, but the games on this cassette were always reader type-ins, and often nowhere near commercial standard.
Eventually the semanal cassette ceased publication but the magazine was popular enough to continue, and in time started its own covertapes. These were more in line with the UK Magazines, including demos, previously released commercial titles and reader games.
The standard of the Microhobby games was consistently good: classics such as Green Beret, The Great Escape, Ghostbusters, Hyper Sports, Ping Pong, Spy Hunter, Mikie and Xenon all saw action on its cover as well as the unsurprising games from Dinamic and other Spanish developers - of which the renowned La Abadia Del Crimen was a particular highlight. This was in addition to some fantastic exclusive games such as Zhak, Yucan, Ares and Frankie, all playable and colourful platformers.
But best of all, MicroHobby managed to bag some Ultimate games to put on their cassette. The classics Sabre Wulf, Knight Lore and Gunfright all appeared on their tapes in the early nineties, amazingly good bargains for any gamer. (thanks to Ivanzx from World of Spectrum)
Compilation Chaos Continues...
Your Sinclair appeared not to be perturbed by Crash's compilations and continued to release one game per month with issue 36’s double cassettes a rare exception. Sinclair User’s better efforts included the superb Magic Knight Trilogy with issue 81 (December ‘88) and Beach-Head 1 and 2 with issue 82; these two rivals kept the page count generally around the one-hundred mark but a 50% price increase to cover the cost of the cassettes was now standard: the February 1988 issue of SU was just £1.00; ten months later the price had swollen to £1.60. YS was in line with this, except when two tapes featured and a pocket-money busting £1.95 was levied.
Things calmed down temporarily and there were some great classics to be had for a time. Your Sinclair scored big with a brace of classic Julian Gollop strategy titles, Rebelstar 2 and Chaos. However, even they succumbed to compilation fever in 1990 with issue 58 which contained three excellent games (Feud, Tau Ceti and Rebel) as well as a demo of Ivan Iron Man’s Off Road Racing. Sinclair User offered a break from all the gaming with a tape containing arcade soundtracks with issue 92 from November 1989, but as they moved from their self-titled Double Hits – of which Terra Cresta coupled with Flashpoint was a highlight – to “Six of the Best”, the quality began to dip as the quantity began to rise.
Meanwhile, Crash had continued to publish its Crash Presents tapes, which unfortunately tended to disappoint more often than not as the initial wave of excellent games faded out. Issue 70 from November 1989 was particularly poor featuring Ocean’s ancient Q*bert clone Pogo, Gremlin Graphics’ slightly more modern but no better Sam Stoat, Mastertronic’s unplayable Chiller and an awful game-designer shooter called Action Farce 2. The next issue improved considerably on this with Ocean’s Cosmic Wartoad and Codemaster’s Super Stuntman amongst others, but overall after the promise of their first compilation cassette from issue 65, Crash’s reliance on creaking titles and old Mastertronic games contributed to the disillusion that was slowly beginning to creep in to readers of the famous magazine.
With the onset of the compilations, the first homebrew games began to appear thanks mainly to necessity and external pressure from ELSPA who were understandably concerned regarding the impact that all these “free” games would have on software sales. Whilst in theory homebrew games were a good idea as it gave young programmers a chance to show off their work, generally these titles were poor, sub-commercial efforts, usually produced on limiting game designer software. There were exceptions, of course, with a young Jonathan Cauldwell and the first of his Egghead games well worth playing. And on that note...
The Best Original Covertape games*
*as voted for by the World of Spectrum forumites
Egghead was written in four weeks by a young Jonathan Cauldwell in November 1989. He had originally intended to sell the game via mail-order but on a whim decided to submit it to Crash Magazine instead. Editor Richard Eddy liked what he saw and subject to Jonathan completing a written declaration that the game was 100% his own work, bought it there and then for a future covertape. It’s a nifty, playable little game and an interesting pre-cursor Jonathan’s consistently playable later efforts. Incidentally, Newsfield were late paying the author for his work: a reminder letter from Jonathan promising a sequel soon sorted that! (thanks to JC)
4.Moley Christmas (Your Sinclair)
The Monty Mole games were famous for being of high quality yet rock-hard, and this six-screen bonus Christmas special, written by the original Gremlin team for Your Sinclair, was no exception.
DM_Boozefreek: I loved the Monty games so this was one of the best games that YS gave away for me.
Boulderdash games have always been popular, and Earth Shaker was a super clone from Your Sinclair and author Michael Batty.
Dave_Fountain: Earthshaker was top notch.
The dearly-missed Jonathan “Joffa” Smith coded several famous titles for the speccy including Green Beret, Cobra and Hypersports and this was another quality game.
Greencard: I'm gonna have to go with Hyper Active, played it loads back in the day.
1.Batty (Your Sinclair)
Neat, clear graphics, an interesting two-player co-op mode and a professional piece of work that set a benchmark Your Sinclair never quite lived up to.
Chop983: Of course, Batty is the greatest covertape ever.
NickH: The best Breakout game you'll find on the Spectrum – and it was free!
As the commercial life of the ZX Spectrum slowly ebbed away, the three main Sinclair magazines got more and more desperate in their attempts to shift units. The tape was now paramount, although both Your Sinclair and Sinclair User kept commendably high page counts compared to Crash Magazine’s massively reduced written content. Tape boxes were always included now; no more cutting the inlay out and ruining your magazine, not that anybody cared much for the paper element anymore.
Crash’s descent began early as issue 90 (July 1991), with number 26 of their “Presents” tapes representing something of a nadir. One serviceable, but six-year old game (Hewson’s Dragontorc), one, again very old, but average game (Design Design’s 2112ad) and a slew of demos, budget games and homebrew efforts spread over 2 cassettes was a poor offering, despite superficial good value. The cover price of Crash had also now risen to £2.99 despite its anorexic content which meant you could get a pretty decent re-released budget game for the same amount.
Sinclair User fared somewhat better that year with issue 108 continuing the “Six of the Best” theme, and whilst the name remained inaccurate, it at least offered some gaming goodness in the form of the excellent shooter Bedlam from Go!, supported by Ocean’s Gutz and the elderly, but still playable Dynamite Dan from Mirrorsoft. Your Sinclair bumped up their efforts and nicked one of Ocean’s compilation titles to boot: The Magnificent Seven featured every month and mixed up demos with original and ex-commercial titles. Issue 64 is probably the best if only because it contains the wonderful Bumpy by Loricels, ably supported by Spindizzy and the Street Fighter-esque beat ‘em up Human Killing Machine.
The end was in sight, though, and Crash was the first to go with issue 98 of April 1992, Crash Presents Tape 34. Its final cassette perhaps summed up its attempt at covergames: Mind Games’ reasonable but little-known puzzler Pi-R Squared; Quicksilva’s pretty, but frustrating Glider Rider; a demo of an obscure budget game entitled Biff and the obligatory Poke Zone.
Sinclair User, after the 12 pack of issue 112 in December 1991, settled down to a mere eight programs for the majority of 1992. As many of these eight consisted of music demos, pokes, tape magazines and utilities, the title was a bit disingenuous, and the quality of games noticeably poorer. It was also painfully obvious how the page count had been drastically cut as well, with the last few issues coming in at under forty pages. Cheap text adventures and game designer efforts were common as budgets were slashed thanks to a fast-disappearing readership. Perhaps even more tragically, titles that had appeared on previous covertapes began to re-surface, a sure sign that the magazines were struggling to fill their strips of tape every month.
Your Sinclair braved it alone for a few more months, but in the end even they faced the inevitable, and the penultimate issue, number 92 from August 1993, contained a tape quite clearly aimed at a younger audience. A demo of Playdays by Alternative, a limp shoot ‘em up and CRL’s seven-year old graphic text adventure Bugsy completed the games, with a geography program and music demo thrown in to boost the total count. An article in the magazine detailing how to play Spectrum games on an Amiga and other superior formats just about summed up the state of affairs and it was a very sad end, not least to the magazines that gave all Speccy owners such entertainment over the years. Of course, thanks in no small part to websites such as World of Spectrum and the thousands of fans all over the world, we now know the computer lived on; but this scenario would have been impossible to visualise back in 1993.
The Spectrum magazine covertapes are often held up as all that was wrong in the Spectrum’s final few years; yet conversely, many a Spectrum gamers’ best memories come from the titles featured on them. Whether it be the bat-and-ball action of Batty, discovering old classics such as Chaos or Beach Head or the endless replaying of one-level demos of Ikari Warriors, Midnight Resistance and Robocop, at the time there was no internet therefore no on-line community spreading remakes, or demos and original games to download and sample. A cassette mounted on the cover of a magazine was the best way of trying a game for yourself before shelling out your pocket money or for getting cheap entertainment to go along with your monthly fix of Speccy news.
And for that, we should be thankful.