The history of game hints pages, before the internet took over

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I’m ashore on Starfield. There are a actor mission icons dotted about the screen, and I accumulate accepting my ass handed to me in amplitude by a agglomeration of pirates. Fortunately, it’s 2023. I grab my smartphone, and aural a few seconds, I’m attractive at a folio from Eurogamer’s accomplished adviser to the Bethesda amplitude epic. Ah, I columnist that button – now, alone my accepted mission figure shows up. And I charge to advancement my ship. Or buy a bigger one. Here are the best ones, how abundant they amount and area to get them. Job done.

Rewind about 40 years. I’m addled on Ultimate’s latest isometric epic, Pentagram. In archetypal Ultimate style, the instructions are affecting but useless. I’m abnormality around, exploring the two-colour world, occasionally jumping over blocks and alienated the odd nasty. Eurogamer is aloof a blink in its founder’s eyes, and in any case, how would I acceptance it? The abstraction of networking computers was acquisition pace, but it would be abounding years afore the internet, as we apperceive it today, would be accessible to proles such as me.

So, we networked, old academy appearance and tips and tricks were swapped in the playground. But that didn’t consistently work, abnormally with tougher amateur like Pentagram. There was one access left. Our internet, our arrangement of (in my case) Spectrum fans, agilely agreeable with the experts and anniversary other: the amateur magazines.


Pentagram. | Image credit: Ultimate

In 1981, columnist Tom Hirschfeld appear one of the aboriginal tips books, How To Master Video Games. “I bethink account that and thinking, ‘holy shit, you can address about these video amateur and do tips for them,'” cool Julian ‘Jaz’ Rignall, one of the ancient amateur tips writers in the UK. “So back I came home from acceptable the arcade championship in 1983 and accepting this angary of actuality a acceptable player, I thought, well, I’ll alpha autograph hints and tips.” At the time, the UK’s arch amateur annual was Computer & Video Games – or C&VG. “The aboriginal affair I wrote was a adviser to arena the Atari arcade bold Pole Position,” continues Rignall. “I’d baffled the bold over the summer and wrote this corner-by-corner guide. There was no template; it was aloof about how to drive about the clue alternating with specific hints.”


The abstraction bent on, and Rignall began autograph tips for Personal Computer Games, one of the aboriginal British magazines to affection a approved tips section. By the time Newsfield began its acclaimed Commodore 64 bible, ZZAP! 64 in the Spring of 1985, anybody knew the accent of a approved area committed to allowance gamers. “It was a actual important allotment of the magazine,” addendum Rignall. “Market analysis showed that the tips were, alternating with reviews, the best accepted genitalia of the annual – but we had a gut activity it was anyway, and it meant a lot of alternation with the readers.”


A POKE calligraphy for the bold Druid Image credit: Graeme Mason

The ZZAP 64! tips page Image credit: Newsfield/Julian Rignall
A POKE and the Zzap64! tips column.


Each affair of ZZAP! 64 included four to six pages of tips, hints, cheats and POKEs, about all of them beatific in by readers. The closing – a abbreviate type-in affairs that gave the amateur absolute lives or some added advantage – was critical. “The turnaround on POKEs was quick,” recalls Rignall. “Those guys had their routine, and I actually alleged them up and would ask for some POKEs for as anon as a bold came out.”


Occasionally, the annual would alike accelerate amateur to hackers – annihilation to promptly get the POKEs into the mag.


Over at ZZAP! 64’s sister mag, Crash, its aboriginal issues had been clearly after tips. The beat administration anon bent on. “I bethink as a reader, the big accord of the Atic Atac map,” recalls Nick Roberts, who aggregate the tips area in Crash a few years later. “They ran a antagonism for readers, again Oli Frey angry these lined cardboard and pencil sketches into a map of beauty, with the award-winning of a air-conditioned ACG trophy!” In accession to accouterment the covers, a approved banana band and added titbits of art, Newsfield co-founder Oli Frey generally advised readers’ maps, converting them into aesthetic wonders that wouldn’t attending out of abode on a wall. With abounding Spectrum amateur (such as Atic Atac) active into hundreds of screens, it was accessible to get lost. Boy, we admired the maps.


A photo account of Nick Roberts in advanced of the apprentice from Lost in Space. Nick Roberts. | Image credit: Nick Roberts


Of course, it wasn’t aloof Newsfield that had a tips-related epiphany. Crash’s rival, Your Sinclair, bound realised it bare a tips section, and, typically, the skillo YS absitively to do things a little abnormally with two altered columns: Hack Free Zone for tips and cheats, Hacking Away for POKEs. “I doubtable it was because anyone can apprehend a tip and try it,” says bygone Your Sinclair agents biographer Phil South, “but inserting POKEs appropriate a bit added savvy.” Writing beneath the pseudonym Hex Loader, South opened the mail from readers, activated the submissions and transcribed aggregate into the two sections. “[It] was admired to the readers, and the added of that we could do, the added amount we would add to the magazine,” he adds. “Plus, the analysis and testing of the tips was 80 percent done, and all I had to do was acquisition out if they formed and address a few jokes in response.” Persistent mappers, such as a adolescent lad called Mischa Welsh, alike begin themselves assassin by the annual to aftermath approved content, and Your Sinclair went above the accepted bald name-checks, press photos and profiles of anyone adventurous abundant to accelerate them in with their tips.


A folio from the Dear Keith cavalcade in PC Zone Dear Keith. | Image credit: Dennis


As readers, we would blemish all these hints, maps and cheats, agilely blazon in the POKEs – sometimes, they would alike assignment – afore adequate a beginning charter of activity with the corresponding game. While every added area of the magazines was anxiously complete by its agents writers and freelancers, this was one of two genitalia (together with the belletrist pages) that was added reader-created. “The action started with a behemothic postbag,” smiles Roberts. “We accustomed hundreds of belletrist a month, and it was my job to analyze through them and acquisition some absorbing ones for the Playing Tips pages.” Using a green-screen Amstrad PCW8256, Roberts typed up anniversary tip with a baby anterior branch and a name-check for the appointment reader. “I was told how abounding pages I had in anniversary affair and fabricated a collapsed plan, ambience out what went where. If we had a acceptable map, we could use that as is, while POKE routines were the bread-and-butter of the tips pages.” As for all these tipsters, Roberts had to locate the POKE’s bold and analysis the accepted afore accounting it up – anxiously – for the magazine. The final allotment was the addition paragraph. Muses Roberts, “Looking aback now, those Playing Tips pages act like a account of my boyish years – there’s allocution of my apprentice DJ career, dalliances with the ladies, what I was up to at Christmas and the holidays. Great fun to attending aback on.”


Not anybody feels the same. “As a journalist, it wasn’t agreeable at all,” grimaces Rignall, who endured stints as tip adept at both ZZAP! 64 and Newsfield’s Amstrad magazine, Amtix. “All you were accomplishing was copy-pasting, artful people’s belletrist and attractive at POKEs – it was abundantly tedious!” Timing was an issue, too; the annual would crave long-form guides for amateur that wouldn’t alike be on the shelves back the reviews came out. That job, inevitably, fell to agents writers. Your Sinclair’s Phil South echoes Rignall’s thoughts. “It was a breeze, afar from the arduous re-typing of everything. All I had to do was appear up with some acceptable jokes. Actually, that appealing abundant sums up my absolute journalistic career.” Eventually, Your Sinclair alloyed its two sections into one august Tips spread: with South affective to added duties, aide Marcus Berkmann stepped into the apple of hints and POKEs. “He was a actual accurate cove, old Berkbilge,” action South. “He had actual tiny absolute autography that looked like addendum taken by miniature spiders.”


The Hack Free Zone tips folio from Your Sinclair magazine. Hack-Free Zone. | Image credit: Dennis


Coveted by readers, the tips pages engendered alloyed affections for the journalists abaft them. As the 8-bit era subsided, amateur became beneath abstruse but added complex. Long-form guides became the adjustment of the day as that mainstay of the Eighties mags, the apprehensive POKE, boring achromatic into obscurity. “I account it ailing about 1994,” says Rignall, “and again aloof boring achromatic at the end of the ‘nineties. As anon as I saw Gamefaqs, I anticipation it was aloof ablaze and would nuke the charge for annual hints and tips. You could get them beeline away, and bodies were accomplishing it for free, these awfully abundant argument guides.”


Having cut his teeth as a ‘Games Counsellor’ on the Nintendo Hotline, an official account run by Nintendo to accommodate tips and advice for its games, announcer Keith Pullin abutting PC Zone in the backward ‘nineties. Incredibly, one of his aboriginal roles was autograph an ‘agony aunt’ appearance tips area alleged Dear Keith. “The awe-inspiring affair was, it was mostly still letters, absolute snail mail,” he tells me. “There was an art to award the ones to broadcast and acknowledge to, and the angelic beaker was award a bold that was analytic accepted and current, so bodies would be absorbed in it.” This was allotment of a beyond tips section, and agnate to Crash’s adventitious cavalcade in the Eighties: readers requested a adumbration or tip, and Pullin responded. Well, if he could. “Quite generally [the letters] aloof didn’t accomplish sense,” he grins. “The one allotment of advice that bodies tended to balloon to acknowledgment was the name of the game!” Pullin additionally took over the guides section, autograph astronomic pieces committed to one bold in particular. “You’d acquaintance the administrator or developer to try and get cheats, akin skips, bold saves – annihilation to addled the pain. Then, you had to get absolute screenshots of the exact affair you were talking about. It was apparently some of the best backbreaking assignment I’ve anytime done.” And that wasn’t alike the best arduous part. “That was alteration it all bottomward to 2500 words. It meant that a akin on article like Carmageddon 2 would be distilled bottomward to ‘Kill everyone. Jump the gap. Enter the arcade mall. Kill everyone. Exit the mall.’ I generally wondered if this akin of vagueness absolutely helped anyone.”


A photo account of Keith Pullin, speaking into a mic Keith Pullin. | Image credit: Keith Pullin


Critically, while the tips pages persisted in magazines such as PC Zone, they weren’t admired as basic as in antecedent years. Keith Pullin wrote his final Dear Keith in 2001; the aforementioned year saw his aftermost adviser for PC Zone appear, and by this stage, he was affairs abundant of the advice from the internet. Cheat codes and guides persisted throughout the ‘noughties in assorted amateur magazines, and there were alike committed tips mags such as the long-running PowerStation. But it wasn’t to last. The internet had won.


Tips and guides are now instantly accessible, but it wasn’t the tips that admired these sections to us aback in the day. It may accept been a complete affliction testing those POKEs and accounting them all out for journalists such as Julian Rignall – but for us readers, it was the interactivity with the magazines, our aqueduct into the apple of the ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64. “Magazines were consistently about actuality allotment of a club,” adventures Nick Roberts. “So I feel that for a continued time, readers accept connected to appetite to be a allotment of that club. The internet has never absolutely replaced that.”