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The Magazines That Were Video Gaming's Original Clickbait

Screaming headlines, outrageous proclamations, and many exclamation marks were part and parcel of 90s British gaming magazines.

Analysis by Jaz Rignall, .

Oh good! You clicked on this article and are now reading it. Hopefully it wasn't accidental, and you were actually lured in by the headline, which was created specifically to attract the attention of someone like you. I'm also hoping that the title of this feature isn't misleading, and that reading it won't be a waste of your time. In other words, I don't want this article about oldschool clickbait to feel like a piece of modern clickbait.

That's because I believe clickbait is the scourge of the Internet. We've all seen it – pieces of content that make outrageous claims, or feature sensational or salacious headlines that are just too temptingly juicy to ignore. They can be seen pretty much everywhere, and we even have a selection of clickbait articles on USgamer. Just scroll down the page, and you'll be presented with a selection of "From the Web" pieces postulating all manner of incredible, amazing, and unbelievable things that you just won't believe, must be seen, or may surprise you. Like most, you'll ignore them, but every once in a while, you might see something that you just can’t resist clicking on – and then swiftly realize as you peruse the vacuous article that you've been had.

While the term "clickbait" is relatively new, the concept of using tempting headlines to persuade people to read something is older than print itself. In his book A History of News, Mitchell Stephens notes that sensationalism was used in ancient Roman Actua Diurna – the official notices and announcements that were presented daily on public message boards – as far back as 130 BC. Books teaching moral lessons in the 16th and 17th century often featured sensationalist covers, and during the Victorian era, "penny dreadful" periodicals and certain newspapers of ill repute leveraged exceptionally lurid headlines to attract the attention of potential readers.

This practice continued to evolve during the 20th century, with pulp books, magazines, and tabloid newspapers in particular leading the way when it came to the use of loaded headlines, exaggerations, and startling, often eye-catching imagery. And as we've entered the digital age, these methods have essentially transitioned into the clickbait we see strewn across the web today. Indeed, these days clickbait has become a fine art, and there have even been psychological studies dedicated to why clickbait works – which is explored in this rather interesting Wired article.

But what has all this got to do with video games magazines? Well, that's the story that I'd like to regale you with today – a very personal tale of how I managed to get mixed up in producing some of the most clickbait-y headlines ever seen on the front of games magazines. It's not something I'm particularly proud of, but I nevertheless look back on it with some measure of fondness and amusement.

As some of you might already know, I first started working on computer games magazines in February 1985, when I was still living in Britain. At that point, it was early days for gaming periodicals. The very first one had been launched a little over three years earlier in the form of Computer and Video Games. Over subsequent years, several other gaming magazines followed in its footsteps, and by the time I joined ZZAP! 64 – a new publication dedicated to the Commodore 64 – there was a small, but fervent market for enthusiast gaming periodicals.

Back then, with computer games looking as primitive as they did, magazine covers tended to feature illustrated renditions of games. These often eye-catching images were prominently featured as the primary selling point of that particular issue, and were coupled with fairly minimal headlines that articulated the key games being featured in the magazine that month. Oftentimes, these main headlines were supported by additional lines of text that outlined what you could win in that issue's contests, or perhaps revealed some of the more interesting articles featured in that issue.

To be blunt, it was fairly mundane stuff. While the cover images themselves could sometimes be a little controversial for their depiction of violence, none of the coverlines were particularly sensational or outrageous. They were mostly factual in content, and were written under the assumption that potential readers would be excited enough about those particular games to be persuaded to pick up and hopefully purchase the magazine.

This kind of cover format philosophy continued throughout the mid-80's, but as we began to move into the latter part of the decade, headlines slowly began to escalate as more and more gaming periodicals entered the market, and competition between them began to heat up. I remember in 1988 being asked by the co-owner of ZZAP! 64 magazine to juice up the coverlines to make them more interesting. The featured game was a port of the Sega coin-op, Alien Syndrome, and so I penned the words "Sick and Horrific SF Violence" to articulate what the game was all about. It's hardly a clickbait-quality headline, but it was my first step down that path.

A year later, I'd moved on from ZZAP! 64 and was at the helm of Computer and Video Games magazine, and it was here that the volume of the coverline sell began to be dialed up. The thing that's important to consider is that in the US, most gamers subscribed to their favorite publications. Not so in the UK. Strangely, subscribing to a British magazine was really expensive, and it was actually cheaper to go out and buy it from your local newsagent. As a consequence, it was all about selling off the newsstands, and with the magazine market exploding – Computer and Video Games had 55 different competitors at this point – we really began to escalate the headline rhetoric.

We still continued to use an attractive illustration as the main focus of the cover, but the sheer number of coverlines that accompanied it began to exponentially increase. Not only that, but they started to become exceptionally sensational, and packed with hyperbole. Everything was incredible! Amazing! The best game ever! We used exclamation marks everywhere, and generally did everything we could to make our magazine as irresistible as possible. I mean, look at the following examples of covers from this period, and read the ridiculous proclamations.

This issue of Computer and Video games from August 1989 highlights exactly what I'm talking about. Look at some of these ridiculous headlines. The Lynx beats the Commodore Amiga? Sure it does. Power Drift the Xmas number one? A bold claim from a magazine that actually went on sale in July. Was Stunt Car really the best race game ever? It was definitely very good, but it was a question whose answer was ultimately "no". Two other commonly-used words of the period that helped dial up the hype were "mega" and "exclusive", with three of the former, and a rather ridiculous seven examples of the latter littered around this particular cover.

Although the coverlines on this issue of Computer and Video Games are a little more restrained than usual – they're nevertheless still quite sensational – I'm using this August 1990 magazine to highlight the editorial team's seemingly endless love for exclamation marks. There's an utterly ludicrous fourteen of them dotted around this cover. To be honest, I think this cover pretty much sucks though. I never really liked the illustration, and the use of color is just really bland. Still, the magazine's content was fairly strong during the traditionally quiet summer period, and while Thunderforce III on Genesis mightn't have been the best shoot 'em up ever, it was still really damn good.

A year later – this issue of Computer and Video Games dates from September 1991 – and the words "mega" and "exclusive" are still being used to help create excitement about the magazine's content. I particularly like the cheeky question about whether the Atari 7800 is the next super console. Sure, it's a pertinent question to ask, but the answer was never going to be anything other than a resounding "no". While we essentially rinse and repeat ourselves asking whether the classic Amiga shooter Xenon II is the most amazing shoot 'em up ever, I do like how we hype up Dynamite Dux with the kind of clickbait-y headline that is commonly used today.

Computer and Video Games wasn't the only periodical that leveraged screaming headlines and emotive questions to persuade potential readers to pick it up. I also produced the consoles-focused Mean Machines during the same period, and it featured cover promotions that were of similar bombast. The April 1991 issue of the self-proclaimed "Best Consoles Magazine in the Universe" packs a trio of highly-charged headlines designed to attract the eye, some of which are just plain BS. Sure, Actraiser's graphics and sound are excellent, but the finest ever seen? Gimme a break! And Dick Tracy being the best Megadrive (Genesis) film tie-in of all time? Well, there's probably an element of truth about that, but that's only because most games-of-the-movie were pretty hopeless.

I thought I'd highlight this one final British example to show that it wasn't necessarily ALL about hype-loaded headlines during the very early 90s. This cover of the May 1991 edition of Mean Machines actually holds back, and uses a striking image of Sonic to sell itself. Yeah, we couldn't resist asking whether it was the best game ever, but other than that, this cover is very clean and surprisingly devoid of the usual raft of screamers. Even though this is one of my favorite magazine covers, the publisher of Mean Machines – who really pushed us to promote the magazines as hard as we did – absolutely hated it. I remember arguing with him to keep the cover fairly clean, but he wanted more headlines. Fortunately, I managed to persuade him to go with it as is, and it ended up selling really well. Just goes to show that a great image can do just as good a job as over-the-top text.

I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast the above UK-produced magazines with their American counterparts to show how different their approaches to coverlines were. To that end I've highlighted a couple of issues of EGM and Gamepro below. Hopefully they'll induce some pangs of nostalgia to readers of a certain age.

This is about as clickbait-y as Electronic Gaming Monthly got. This issue from September 1997 edges a little towards salaciousness with, "Lara Croft gets wet and wild" and includes a teaser that states, "What everybody else didn't tell you about E3." But other than that, the cover is visually crisp and makes good use of its image, even if Lara Croft's legs look like there's something seriously wrong with them. Maybe it's an optical illusion, but it appears that her left thigh is actually coming out of her stomach.

Published seven years prior to the above issue, this November 1990 cover of Electronic Gaming Monthly almost buries its central image of a Super Mario World screenshot under an absolute mountain of coverlines. Plenty of exclamation marks are used to promote its content, but the overall tone of the text is quite restrained, largely relying on the use of game names to help attract readers to the cover. Though good luck picking them out from the paragraphs of dense text.

Good grief. This cover of Gamepro from July 1996 is such a mess. While it does follow the traditional magazine format of having a main central image, it bombards the reader with a veritable smorgasbord of promotions. All are fairly innocuously written, with a main focus on the number of reviews and previews, coupled with the most compelling games from the issue being used to sell the magazine off the cover. The trouble is, the sheer number of different fonts, random screenshots littered everywhere, and three different angles of text result in a cover upon which your eyes just don't know where to rest. It does make for an issue that feels exciting and packed full of stuff, but it's not particularly aesthetically pleasing.

This second example of a visually over-stimulating cover comes from February 1997. Again, it's a bit of a mess, with headlines and screenshots littered liberally around the main cover image depicting Killer Instinct Gold. As was the case with almost all Gamepro covers of the period, the number of "hot games" covered in the issue is highlighted as a main selling point, along with a selection of the most interesting game names. What strikes me as a contrast to the British magazines is that the coverlines are so matter-of-fact. There really isn't anything in the way of hype – it's all quite understated in some respects. Yes, it's very promotional, but it avoids the kind of outrageous questions and statements that dominated the covers of the magazine's transatlantic counterparts.

I hope you've enjoyed this little insight to the hype and craziness that drove certain British magazines during the late 80s and early 90s. If you grew up in the US during the period, I very much doubt you'd have been exposed to the kind of over-the-top gaming rhetoric that graced their covers. American video games magazines were ultimately a lot more conservative in the way that they sold themselves. I looked at old issues of Nintendo Power hoping to see something sensational, but – perhaps rather unsurprisingly – I couldn’t find anything that pushed the promotional envelope. The same goes for other market-leading magazines of the period such as Diehard Game Fan, Game Informer, and CGW. All followed EGM and Gamepro's philosophies of heavy coverline usage combined with largely factual articulations.

I don't think that makes them any better or worse than British magazines – they simply represent a different kind of editorial gaming culture. One that was a little more restrained and measured than comparative British periodicals, which were generally far more enthusiastic and hyperbolic in their tone and style, and used pretty much every trick in the book to sell themselves to their readers. Yes, in many respects they were "clickbait", but they must have been doing something right – Mean Machines and Computer and Video Games were both best-sellers in their respective markets, and I'm sure that wasn't all down to their crazy coverlines.

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Comments 37

  • Avatar for metal_maniac #1 metal_maniac 9 months ago
    I always did love the Zzap covers by Oliver Frey, they were truly a work of art. And one of the reasons they still look so darn good today.
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  • Avatar for DC--R1D3R #2 DC--R1D3R 9 months ago
    Just created this account to personally acknowledge and thank you for all your work over the years Julian "Jaz" Rignall. I don't know what accolades you've collected over your career but you deserve 10X more!
    CVG was a good read, Super Play and Edge were epic but Mean Machines?? Mate, the best gaming publication ever!! You, Oz, Gary and Richard seemed to have great rapport, wit and fun during those days and were pioneers in the way electronic gaming is perceived today. TBH the end of MM was a real gut wrencher!

    Anyway just want you to know you're a legend, wish you all the best!
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #3 riderkicker 9 months ago
    Were you competing against 2000 AD or something? Those are some really effed up covers for a video game magazine.
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  • Avatar for Thetick #4 Thetick 8 months ago
    Great write-up
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  • Avatar for mikelarkin89 #5 mikelarkin89 8 months ago
    Personally I found the British magazines far more intriguing. They also engage far more with their target audience - boys and teens. They communicate the same way we did about games in the playground.

    In contrast the American magazines were far less fun to read, which is reflected in the covers.

    Personally, Mean Machines is still the best magazine of its type for me. It was most provocative and, most importantly, fun. Things were never really the same when the magazine fractured into the Sega and far more boring Nintendo versions.

    The covers were also usually very good, and, if memory serves, my first ever copy featured Cody from Final Fight brandishing a large knife. No wonder as a young lad I couldn't resist!

    The work of Jaz and the lads even inspired me to become a journalist, even if I ended up taking a different path to the one I dreamed about as a kid!Edited 4 times. Last edited March 2017 by mikelarkin89
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  • Avatar for WiIIyTheAntelope #6 WiIIyTheAntelope 8 months ago
    The Gamepro covers being a complete mess is pretty representative of the magazine as a whole. I specifically recall them handing out perfect scores like they were candy. Which their scoring system was different than most everyone elses. It was a 1-5 star system, with graphics, sound, control, and fun being rated independently of each other. But nary an issue ever went by without at least 1 (and usually more) obtaining the fabled perfect score. Which seemed pretty shady even to me in grade school.

    Oh god why do I remember this stuff. Why didn't I apply myself to anything other than completely pointless video game trivia?
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #7 SatelliteOfLove 8 months ago
    "To that end I've highlighted a couple of issues of EGM and Gamepro below. Hopefully they'll induce some pangs of nostalgia to readers of a certain age."

    I have that first EGM somewhere in storage, probably well-dog-eared. Jawnny Aynglish did a great job pushing that mag up from Raditude of the article's era to a very self-aware dumb college-age audience with just the right amount of personality coverage.
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  • Avatar for otenko #8 otenko 8 months ago
    The only clickbait on USGamer is that "From Web" above the comments gadget. That's the reason I love this site. This article is really​ great and your experience, Jaz, ilustrate pretty well how headlines were created back in the day.
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #9 Monkey-Tamer 8 months ago
    I remember that issue with the Robotech preview. The game never made it through development and was never released. It was years until we got a proper Robotech game.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #10 VotesForCows 8 months ago
    I miss Mean Machines. Such a long time ago now - I had that Sonic issue. We didn't have a lot of cash to spare, but got that in anticipation of buying the Megadrive + Sonic 1. There was always great excitement in buying and sharing a games magazine back then. Thanks for the memories Jaz!
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  • Avatar for Nuclear-Vomit #11 Nuclear-Vomit 8 months ago
    I miss Ultra Game Players and the fantastic humor. Bill Donahue, come back. Why have you forsaken us!!!???
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  • Avatar for Nuclear-Vomit #12 Nuclear-Vomit 8 months ago
    I was almost reduced to tears until i found:

    http://imgur.com/a/he3L3

    All is better in the world
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  • Avatar for SuperShinobi #13 SuperShinobi 8 months ago
    I was an avid reader of gaming magazines back in those days and I still own a large collection of CVG & Mean Machines mags and browse through one or two of them occasionally when I'm feeling nostalgic.

    I think the somewhat hyperbolic headlines also capture the tremendous excitement around video games in those heady early days. Sonic 1 for example was incredible and in many ways the best game ever made up to that point. It played so well, looked so great and ran so well on the Mega Drive that it really did seem to possess a kind of magic that they famously tried to put into words with the term "blast processing".

    Thunderforce 3 was also very close to being the best shoot'em-up up to that point, I'd put only the original R-Type ahead of it. Same with Stunt Car Racer, you basically had to go to the arcades to find a better racing or driving game back then. The headlines about the Lynx or Konix beating the Amiga were in retrospect mistaken however.Edited 2 times. Last edited March 2017 by SuperShinobi
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  • Avatar for TheSensationalSean #14 TheSensationalSean 8 months ago
    I read a lot of British gaming magazines during my formative years, I loved their tongue in cheek tone. I miss those days, when a magazine could pop off the stands to me!
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  • Avatar for atrb79 #15 atrb79 8 months ago
    What I remember most about the British magazines was the letters pages. Kids (I hope!) used to send in pictures they had drawn of stuff like Sonic chainsawing Mario's head off. Fanboys were different then.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #16 LBD_Nytetrayn 8 months ago
    @Nuclear-Vomit He is with Gazuga now. With Skull-Bats, long may he reign.
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  • Avatar for ob1 #17 ob1 8 months ago
    I fondly remember this Sonic Mean Machine (Consoles Plus in France) cover. Thanx for the memories.
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  • Avatar for paulhurt95 #18 paulhurt95 8 months ago
    Zapp 64!!! I Loved it! Can we have some Gamesmaster stories now?
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  • Avatar for NotCarolKaye #19 NotCarolKaye 8 months ago
    Video game magazines were dumb. What's the point of reading about games when there's no comments section? Frustrating! There was no way to accuse the writer of click baiting or to be a dick to people for liking stuff.
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  • Avatar for Mooglepies #20 Mooglepies 8 months ago
    I loved games mags back then. Haven't bought one in several years now but still happy with my collection of Edge and Super Play. Cracking reads.
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  • Avatar for Jaz_Rignall #21 Jaz_Rignall 8 months ago
    @NotCarolKaye People used to write letters to the magazine with comments, ideas, pictures and all sorts of stuff. We certainly weren't immune from what the readers thought of what we wrote about!
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  • Avatar for Jaz_Rignall #22 Jaz_Rignall 8 months ago
    @VotesForCows Cheers! Glad you enjoyed the piece. It was a lot of fun digging through these old mags looking for classic covers!
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  • Avatar for Jaz_Rignall #23 Jaz_Rignall 8 months ago
    @DC--R1D3R Thanks a ton for the kind words! What you read in the magazine was very much how we were in real life - ridiculously enthusiastic about gaming, and always making jokes and fun of each other. Working on Mean Machines was a ton of fun. We worked crazy long hours, but I think the effort was well worth it!
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  • Avatar for Mixingmetaphorsoup #24 Mixingmetaphorsoup 8 months ago
    This was really neat! I always like looking at old video game magazines, as by the time I was reading about games, everything had moved from print to web. Some of these were also hilariously funny in retrospect. The Atari 7800, a great console? No way!
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #25 VotesForCows 8 months ago
    @Jaz_Rignall I'd say so. You know, its mad to think that 25 or so years later I'm able to have an exchange with a staffer from Mean Machines. That would have blown my 10 year old mind back then!
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  • Avatar for Dwyane-Minton-of-Wes #26 Dwyane-Minton-of-Wes 8 months ago
    Hello Jazza, yes it is me. My family lost their jobs at Listerine but I am happy let bygones be bygones. Looking forward to more articles like this from you, inside the cover, hopefully next time. All the best.
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  • Avatar for Jaz_Rignall #27 Jaz_Rignall 8 months ago
    @VotesForCows I'm just as amazed that people still remember Mean Machines a quarter of a century later. By luck, more than judgment, it seems that we managed to become part of the gaming culture of the period. I'm so glad our sometimes very strange ramblings and odd sense of humor are so fondly regarded.
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  • Avatar for Jaz_Rignall #28 Jaz_Rignall 8 months ago
    @Dwyane-Minton-of-Wes Ah! So lovely to hear from you, my much-maligned old friend. I'll definitely be writing more articles like this in the future, so keep an eye out for them on USG! Maybe I'll even get around to talking about you at some point! =)
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  • Avatar for Jaz_Rignall #29 Jaz_Rignall 8 months ago
    Deleted March 2017 by Jaz_Rignall
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  • Avatar for Dwyane-Minton-of-Wes #30 Dwyane-Minton-of-Wes 8 months ago
    @Jaz_Rignall Much obliged Jaz. Looking forward to more articles very much. There was more than a hint of truth to the rumours published in MM, if truth be told. Regards to Yob. P.S. I have just realised I misspelt my own name. Ha! Silly me. All the best, Dwayne.
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  • Avatar for Brotoles #31 Brotoles 8 months ago
    I live in Brazil, and that EGM with the Super Mario cover was the first imported videogame magazine I've ever bought!

    It really induced some pangs of nostalgia to me! :-)
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  • Avatar for mikelarkin89 #32 mikelarkin89 8 months ago
    Ha ha - regards Mean Machines, I notice Jaz still uses some of the same stock phrases such as 'veritable smorgasbord'.

    My personal favourite was the liberal use of the word cack....Edited March 2017 by mikelarkin89
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  • Avatar for mikelarkin89 #33 mikelarkin89 8 months ago
    BTW fellow Mean Machines fan - this a great website for a trip down memory lane....

    http://www.meanmachinesmag.co.uk/
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  • Avatar for RobertPaulson #34 RobertPaulson 8 months ago
    It was never the publisher-placating quips on the cover that made me buy Mean Machines. I never paused to read them before I bought it. It was the fantastic and hugely appealing layout, the well-chosen screenshots that showed the games at their most stylish, the reviews from like-minded perspectives and also the shared sense of humor, but most of all it was the palpable warmth, excitement and shared love for games on every single page. It was obvious that first and foremost it wasn't a bunch of publishing people doing the games thing -it was a bunch of gamers doing the publishing thing.

    If you'd told me back then that emulation would be a thing, I'd probably still be in a mental institution as a result of the 'episode' that would have occurred. I also wouldn't have believed that my future retro gaming sessions would include me perusing scans of my favorite Mean Machines reviews! But there you have it. Awesome mag, and such a huge part of gaming at the time for me. If the publishers honestly thought it was the words on the cover that sold it then they were as dim-witted as Dwayne Minton himself!
    Cheers for the memories, Jaz!Edited 4 times. Last edited March 2017 by RobertPaulson
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  • Avatar for airbagfin51 #35 airbagfin51 8 months ago
    Great blast to the past. Love it.
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  • Avatar for mganai #36 mganai 8 months ago
    I remember even early EGM wasn't immune to said sensationalism.
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  • Avatar for scottmcphee #37 scottmcphee 8 months ago
    Some good memories here, since I read both CVG, and Mean Machines, and you were my favorite writer.

    I enjoyed the irreverent humor. I understand more about writing these days. What you wrote about the use of exclamation marks, and words like MEGA, reminds me of the techniques used in catalogues for electrical stores.
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  • Avatar for GFoppy #38 GFoppy 8 months ago
    I write headlines for online sports videos for a living and I can totally emphatise with everything in this article. From excessive exclamation points, hyperbole, and the strange urge to attract the attention of the viewer with questions (eg. Is Harry Kane going to Real Madrid next season?!), my colleagues and I are all guilty of these clickbait-ish headlines at some point.Edited March 2017 by GFoppy
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