If you were a console owner in the UK back in the early '90s, then there's an incredibly high chance you'll have read at least one copy of Computer & Video Games, Mean Machines, Nintendo Magazine System or one of the many other magazines touched by the genius that is Julian 'Jaz' Rignall. From his modest beginnings working on the Commodore 64 mag Zzap!64 to his role of overseeing publishing giant EMAP's video game output, Rignall was a crucial figure in the rise of arcade, home computer and console gaming in the UK during the 8 and 16-bit eras, and would eventually move even deeper into the industry by joining Virgin Interactive in the middle of the '90s.
I’d known about Panini since I was a kid as I’d bought the football cards they were famous for producing
However, while he was still ensconced at EMAP and editing some of the best-selling video game publications in the United Kingdom, Rignall found himself in high demand when it came to commercial opportunities – one of which involved a 1992 series of Sega-themed trading cards produced by the famous Italian sticker and card manufacturer, Panini.
"I’d known about Panini since I was a kid, as I’d bought the football cards they were famous for producing," Rignall tells us today. "[They] literally called me out of the blue one afternoon and told me that they’d put together a deal with Sega to produce a set of officially-licensed trading cards based on their games – and after doing some research, thought that I’d be the ideal person to produce them. It sounded like a great idea. We set up a meeting and brainstormed ideas. The Panini folks had a rough idea of what they wanted, but between us, we added additional details like little factoids and mini-tips to make the cards interesting to look at and feel like they were packed with info."
Dubbed the 'Sega Super Play' series, a range of 120 cards were produced, split into three main categories: 'Game' cards (which would feature artwork, information, related trivia and also gameplay hints), 'Game Play' cards (which also featured information and tips, but were more focused on showing two screenshots from each game) and 'Character' cards (which would pick out a famous face from a particular game).
Since this was the olden days before the Internet, if that info wasn’t in my head, I’d had to call around to figure it out
While these cards were considered officially-sanctioned Sega product, Rignall reveals that the video game behemoth – which was enjoying considerable success in Europe at this point via its Master System and Mega Drive consoles – was happy to keep its level of input to a minimum. "They supplied us with art and reviewed the final product to make sure everything read well and was correct, but other than that, we were left to our own devices. I think that was part of Panini’s plan anyway; by hiring me to write the cards, they created a level of trust with Sega because the team there had worked with me for years and knew I wasn’t going to create something lame or inaccurate."
Indeed, taking into account that this was long before the internet became a journalist's most valuable tool when it came to research and fact-checking, Rignall's considerable experience in the games media was pivotal to getting the Sega Super Play series completed. "It was pretty fiddly as each card required its own screenshot, character art, bio, factoid, ratings, and hints or tips," he explains. "And since this was the olden days before the Internet, if that info wasn’t in my head, I’d had to call around to figure it out."
Amazingly, not only did Rignall write all of the text for each of the 120 cards, he also designed them, too. "We’d gone full digital design at that point, and I’d spent time learning how to use the desktop design software we had – stuff like Corel Draw and QuarkXPress – so the Sega cards provided me with a great excuse to put that knowledge into practice," he says. "The cards aren’t the most wonderful-looking things, it must be said, but they aren’t terrible either. They pack a lot of info in them, so at least they’re interesting to look at!"
The cards aren’t the most wonderful-looking things, it must be said, but they aren’t terrible either
Still, it was worth the effort for Rignall, at least from a financial point of view. Games journalism wasn't exactly a quick route to riches back in the early '90s, but Panini paid him handsomely for his efforts – so much so that it eclipsed what he was getting for EMAP-related side-jobs, like the beloved 'Complete Guide to Consoles' mini-series of magazines that had laid the groundwork for the console-focused Mean Machines, one of EMAP's most successful publications of the period.
What's interesting about the Sega Super Play series is how few people seem to remember it today; compared to Rignall's magazine work, which is famous to any British gamer who grew up during the '90s, the Panini collection has gone under the radar somewhat. Did they sell well, and was the Italian company pleased with the commercial performance? "No idea, to be honest," replies Rignall. "I think they sold reasonably well anecdotally, but I never got any sales info from Panini. Once I’d produced the cards, they paid me my fee and sent me several boxes of cards when they were printed, and that was pretty much it."
You'd assume that, after dipping its toe into the world of video gaming with this series, Panini would have been keen to explore the idea of doing similar collections – but if those conversations happened, Rignall says he never heard about them. A Nintendo series of cards would have made perfect sense, right? "Knowing how fussy Nintendo could be – I was producing the official Nintendo magazine at that point, so I knew them only too well – I’m pretty sure they would have been demanding to work with," Rignall contests. "Plus, everything would have had to be run through the US office, which would have slowed production down considerably."
The Panini people were really nice to work with, too, because they thought the project was an interesting and exciting experiment
Fast forward to the present day, and complete collections of Sega Super Play cards are exchanging hands on sites like eBay for hundreds of pounds – thanks, one would assume, to the Rignall connection and the enduring popularity of Sega in general. It's clear how much time and effort must have gone into making this series, and each card feels packed with information, making the collection a real treat for those who didn't discover it the first time around.
While his career has evolved in many different ways since the early '90s, it's reassuring to learn that the man behind these cards still has fond memories of their creation. "It was a really fun project to work on – something that I hadn’t done before," concludes Rignall. "The Panini people were really nice to work with, too, because they thought the project was an interesting and exciting experiment for the company, since it was a huge departure from their usual football stuff."