It’s hard to believe it now, but back in the early ‘90s, Nintendo was not the dominant force on UK shores. That accolade went to Sega, whose 8-bit Master System and 16-bit Mega Drive were the driving force behind the console revolution in that region of the world.
However, with the release of the Game Boy and SNES, Nintendo started to claw back market share in the United Kingdom, aided by brilliant magazines such as Super Play and TOTAL! (and yes, the upper-case letters and exclamation mark are intentional).
TOTAL! lasted for 58 issues between January 1992 and October 1996, and, as well as featuring the immense talents of Steve Jarratt and Andy Dyer, the publication was also home to Frank O’ Connor, who is now Franchise Development Director for the Halo series at Microsoft’s 343 Industries.
We sat down with Jarratt and Dyer to discuss the creation of this legendary magazine. Enjoy!
Time Extension: How did you become involved in video game journalism?
Steve Jarratt: I’d been buying ZZAP!64 for about a year, when the position of staff writer on the team came up. I simply applied, hoping I might get to visit the offices to meet the guys on the team. I wasn’t first choice, but the others didn’t work out, so sometime later – when I’d given up hearing from them – I actually got the job. That proved to be a huge, life-changing event.
Andy Dyer: It was pure luck for me, really. I’d always been an avid gamer but never thought for a moment I’d end up working in the industry. Then, one day, a housemate who happened to work in publishing told me about a staff writing vacancy on a new launch called Commodore Format. I applied, and miraculously got the job.
Time Extension: Can you give us a little background on how TOTAL! was conceived?
Andy Dyer: I’ve no idea who came up with the idea to launch a Nintendo magazine, but as far as the content was involved, Steve was really the driving force, and I just sort of gave the thing another voice and, of course, chipped in ideas for individual features and elements.
Steve Jarratt: Knowing how Nintendo might have stopped us had it heard about the project, we developed it in secrecy. The first most people heard about it was when it appeared back from the printers.
Time Extension: When TOTAL! was launched, Sega was very much the dominant force in Europe as far as video games were concerned. Were you ever worried that the magazine might not find a large enough audience to succeed, given Nintendo’s second-place status in this region of the world?
Andy Dyer: The NES had long been a presence in the high street, and Game Boy was popular so we knew people were playing Nintendo. It turned out over 100,000 people were waiting for a mag like TOTAL! to arrive.
Steve Jarratt: The Game Boy had just launched and was a huge success from day one, and our first issue coincided with Super Mario Bros. 3, which was just fantastic. Certainly on the team, we never once questioned the decision.
Time Extension: TOTAL!’s production values were noticeably superior to rival magazines of the era. From a publishing standpoint, were you doing anything different, or using new technology and processes on the mag?
Steve Jarratt: I’m not sure they were that superior. We had a decent-sized art team and spent money on illustrations and so on, but it wasn’t much different from other titles of the day.
Andy Dyer: Steve – and consequently I – were fastidious about the quality of grabs and images used. I was particularly pleased that by using a system of angle-poise lamps, a cardboard box and a decent camera, I was able to get significantly better Game Boy shots than anyone else.
Also, our art editor, Wayne Allen, created partially bespoke templates to suit the content of our reviews, which was time-consuming but made things much more interesting than the largely fixed templates you see in mags now.
Time Extension: TOTAL! was launched just in time to capitalise on the UK release of the Super Nintendo, and this machine would go on to become the focal point of the mag. As gamers, were you excited about the new system at the time?
Steve Jarratt: I still remember a guy bringing in a Japanese Super Famicom for the first time and playing games like Pilotwings and F-Zero with the Mode 7 graphics, which totally blew me away. I adored the SNES. I spent a fortune on an import system and Japanese games.
Andy Dyer: I was a home computer and Game Boy fan at the time, so largely unaware of the upcoming console before joining TOTAL!, but yes, the moment I saw Pilotwings running in Mode 7 on an imported Super Famicom, I couldn’t believe my eyes, or my luck.
Time Extension: TOTAL! adopted a light-hearted approach that was popular with readers but often ridiculed by its rivals at the time, and this tone was slowly removed in later issues (after both of you had parted company with the mag). In hindsight, do you think your approach was the right one?
Steve Jarratt: Given how frivolous and comedic many games mags were, I’m not really sure how accurate that statement is. However, if some people did ridicule us, I never noticed, and besides, we sold loads of copies and had a brilliantly loyal fan base.
I always believed we should make a magazine that was entertaining to read, as the audience was initially quite young. However, this never got in the way of us reviewing games as well as we could and providing a genuine, unbiased score.
Andy Dyer: I believe our light-hearted approach at the time was absolutely the right way to go. It was fun, it was different, and crucially, it was a massive success. But the subsequent changes probably look different from the outside than the reasons actually driving them.
Sega’s aggressive and sophisticated marketing of the Mega Drive matured the console gaming market to a degree, so as the 16-bit consoles grew in popularity, so a magazine like TOTAL! had to grow and mature to continue to be relevant.
Time Extension: How did TOTAL! fare commercially, and in terms of overall readership figures?
Andy Dyer: It did well enough, and our readers were more loyal than most.
Steve Jarratt: I can’t remember exact figures, but I’m pretty sure one Christmas, our sales peaked over 100,000. Bear in mind that some UK publishers now make magazines that can stay in business selling just 10,000 copies. So I think it’s fair to say TOTAL! was a huge commercial success.
Time Extension: One of the most unique elements of early TOTAL! issues was the little character images used for the staff. Many of these were produced to tie-in with individual reviews and features — did they take long to create?
Steve Jarratt: Christ, yes. We used a very talented cartoonist called Mike Roberts, who did them in an early version of Photoshop, I think. He created a bunch of bodies and faces we could re-use, then after a time, the art team would tweak existing images for new reviews. It was pretty painstaking, but the kids seemed to love it.
Andy Dyer: Those little characters were a nightmare. Mike used to create them on a Commodore Amiga, so they regularly went a bit weird in the transition to the page and needed correcting. Coming up with the ideas and captions was fun, but technically, they were a pain.
Time Extension: Steve: Your next launch project — EDGE magazine — couldn’t have been any more different from TOTAL!. Was it hard changing from a light-hearted tone to a more serious and mature attitude?
Steve Jarratt: Not at all. I was 30 or 31 years old by then, so it suited me to be doing a more serious take on the video game mag. My gaming tastes were starting to change from the relentlessly cartoony world of Nintendo, and I was really interested in the new technologies that were appearing, and the advent of 3D graphics.
Time Extension: Andy: You would go on to edit a Sega publication, something that was joked about in later issues of TOTAL!. Was it hard to ‘make the switch’?
Andy Dyer: I was a gamer first and foremost, having cut my gaming teeth in the arcades and on a string of home computers and consoles. If anything, Sega’s coin-op heritage made it the more familiar brand. But I never stopped playing Nintendo games because when Nintendo got a game right, nothing could touch it.
Time Extension: What are your fondest memories of working on TOTAL!?
Steve Jarratt: Having our own office space so we could noisily run riot — when Future Publishing moved to open plan offices, it was the death of having ‘fun’ at work — now it’s just acres of silent people, heads down, headphones on. And, of course, I really enjoyed working with people like Andy. They were crazy, chaotic times.
Andy Dyer: The whole launch phase was thrilling. Nintendo was such a litigious company we had to launch the mag in secret, so not even our colleagues knew what we were doing. We just disappeared from the offices. It was exciting to be a part of that. After that, the day-to-day working on the mag was just a hoot. I’m not sure we would be allowed so much freedom to fart around in the office these days.
Time Extension: What were the biggest challenges you faced whilst working on the magazine?
Steve Jarratt: Getting the damn thing to press every month on time (which I’m not sure I ever did). Waiting for PR packages to arrive with images or game cartridges you desperately needed was always stressful. And we were pushing the boundaries of what you could do with desktop publishing at the time on machines that were nowhere near fast enough.
Andy Dyer: Launching in secret posed many problems when it came to actually producing pages without anyone finding out. In addition, we were hamstrung by being unofficial in that it was that much harder to get hold of review code in advance of release dates. I can’t remember clearly, but I think we must have reviewed import games, mostly.
Time Extension: Do you have any amusing anecdotes to share from your time on the magazine?
Andy Dyer: I have an enduring memory of the last day of working on the launch issue. I think we’d done an all-nighter; I was writing captions, falling asleep halfway through each one, with Steve elbowing me to keep me awake. But over the course of my time on the mag, there are too many amusing moments to single anything out. It was a joy to be part of.
Time Extension: Video game journalism has changed dramatically since the early days of the ‘90s. Do you think there’s still room on the newsstands for a publication like TOTAL!, which doesn’t take itself too seriously and is aimed at a younger market?
Steve Jarratt: I think the kids of today are too tech-savvy and online-focused. The mere idea of this generation buying a paper product is weird; information is free and appears out of thin air. Which is a shame, because I think it’s harder to create such a strong sense of identity online than it is in print, largely because websites tend to be fairly anonymous. And our ugly mugs were splashed over every page...
Andy Dyer: I think even mainstream games mags are struggling to generate enough copy sales to be viable now, so I think anything as quirky as TOTAL! is extremely unlikely. But there’s surely room for a little more creativity and personality online that’s tailored to a younger audience.
Time Extension: Tapping into your vast reserves of Nintendo-related gaming knowledge, what would you say is the best Nintendo game ever?
Steve Jarratt: Easy. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It’s a masterpiece on almost every level. I know it’s a cliché to keep trotting out the same answer, but Nintendo hasn’t got anywhere near it since. Well, apart from the endless bloody remakes, of course...
Andy Dyer: It’s a tricky question, but in the end, it has to be two Mario games. I’ll never forget playing Super Mario 64 the first time. It was such an incredible world to explore, and the transition to 3D was so expertly handled it was astonishing. But for pure, platforming fun, there’s no better game than Super Mario Bros. 3.
Steve Jarratt left Future Publishing in 2011 after over two decades of working for the company. During his time there, he was the launch editor on Future’s highly-respected EDGE magazine, which continues to see publication today, and oversaw the hugely successful re-launch of Future’s Official Nintendo Magazine.
Andy Dyer is a highly respected freelance journalist and has worked on several publications since leaving TOTAL!, including PlayStation Max, T3, MEGA, Advance and Mac Format. He has also served as Creative Director of Tallhouse Media.