Demo games on the front cover of magazines


Madonna? Kylie? NKOTB?

Gaming cover discs and cassettes were the Real Cover Stars of the 80’s

Article by By Steven Clarke

You know what else was amazing in the 80’s? Freebies.

There was a time when free cool stuff was everywhere you looked. You had reflectors and spokey dokeys for your bike in your cereal; trading cards in your teabags; money boxes from the bank. I still remember wanting a send-away Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles watch so badly that I was stung by a wasp while trying to pick up a discarded Wotsits packet. I got the watch in the end – take that, wasp. Ha!

Crash Magazine Issue 54 July 1988

Another freebie that was everywhere in the 80’s were games on the front of computer magazines. Back then, computer magazines were like vegans are now – everywhere. You had Zzap! 64, Commodore Format, Sinclair User, Your Sinclair, Crash, Amiga Power, Amiga Format, Amiga Mania, PC Gamer... the list was endless.

And most of these publications had a free game or playable demo on the front cover; a front cover that was always a hair’s breadth away from being ripped off completely, thanks to the weight of the cassettes, floppy discs, and CDs that clung off them by a piece of flimsy, yellowed sellotape.

Age Of Empires Kelloggs

What a glorious time to be alive!

I used to stand with other swarms of snot-nosed kids in the computer magazine section of my local WH Smith or John Menzies, paws still sticky from attempting and failing spectacularly to eat an orange Push Pop with grace, all trying to decide which lucky publication was going to get their pocket money this month.

Commodore Format Magazine

And therein lay the problem.

In trying to outdo each other with what amazing freebie they could give away each month, the magazines partly caused their own downfall. Freebies, it would seem, don’t come for free; they come off the top line sales figures. There was no brand loyalty at all – kids just wanted the best freebie that was available to them that month; they didn’t care who gave it to them.

By the time the Amiga 500 and the Atari ST had shuffled off into Gaming Heaven computer magazines were closing their doors at an alarming rate. The free cover game gimmick did limp on into the PSone era for a while, but its days were largely numbered. Ironically, it would be so much easier to give away games or demos as freebies these days – just enter a code online and it could be uploaded directly to your console in a matter of minutes. Simple. The thing that has changed since those 80’s halcyon days is that gaming is now a multi-billion-dollar industry – IPs are simply too precious to put out there for free.

Playstation Magazine

The days of games being produced by kids programming in their bedrooms and then giving them away on magazine covers are sadly long gone. Nowadays, kids must be content with free stickers or a poster with their computer magazines.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s still cool and all, but it’ll never be playing Dizzy for free levels of cool.

Article by By Steven Clarke

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