CU Amiga, December 1996 - September 1998
© Tony Horgan 2006
I was invited to write a bit about CU Amiga for the Amiga History
Guide, so here it is.
I was Editor of the magazine from September 1996 until its closure
in August 1998. I joined as Staff Writer in September 1991, and
prior to that wrote a number of audio-related features for the mag
as a freelancer.
I don't have much in the way of hilarious anecdotes to relay (sorry!),
but I can tell you a bit about how the magazine was when I started,
and then I'll have a go at discussing the issues that I edited.
So children, are we sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin.
Enter stage left
I was interviewed for the Staff Writer job in the summer of 1991.
That year I'd been freelancing for them, doing a regular feature
called Sound Check (later to become Sound Lab) in the Blue Pages
section at the back of the mag. Nick Veitch, then Technical Editor,
commissioned the articles. I'd met Nick and his friend John Kennedy
a couple of years before, when they were freelancers working for
Amiga User International, where I was Staff Writer at the time.
At the time, CU Amiga was run by a two-man team: Dan Slingsby and
Steve James, the Editor and Managing Editor respectively. Dan was
the young ideas man, while Steve, having recently relinquished his
editorship of the mag, lent his experience, providing a steady hand
on the tiller. For reasons unknown to me, they found themselves
having to hire three editorial staff at once, so there was quite
an influx of new faces at the time.
CU Amiga was published by EMAP, and their Farringdon Lane office
was somewhere I'd wanted to work for ages, as it was the home of
some of the best games mags of the era, including Computer and Video
Games, Sinclair User, The One (at its best in the early days, when
it covered the ST, Amiga and PC), ACE, and also around that time,
console mags such as the Official Nintendo magazine, Mean Machines
and Maximum. It was the games mag capital of the world, although
Future Publishing would no doubt disagree. For me, it represented
the spiritual home of computer and video games magazines.
At the back of the CU Amiga office we had a little room where all
the technical stuff happened. You could mess around with hardware
without incurring the wrath of the Health And Safety-obsessed HR
manager, and make a racket without annoying the rest of the office.
Needless to say, I spent most of my time in there, much to the exasperation
of Dan. Sorry Dan!
Time marched on and people came and went (but mostly went). Nick
was eventually lured down to Bath by Amiga Format, which in time
set up a great friendly rivalry between the two of us. Dan departed
a short time after, also poached by Future Publishing, to edit Amiga
Format's sister publication PC Format. With the Ed's chair vacant,
the popular vote from the team was for regular freelancer John Kennedy
to take the helm, but John declined, preferring to stay a free agent.
And so it was that Alan Dykes ("Dykesy", we called him
- what a crazy bunch we were!) stepped across from one of EMAP's
PC mags and ushered in a new era.
The Dykes Dynasty
Dykesy had more of an affinity with the games side of things than
the "serious" subjects, and was keen to advance the games
coverage in the mag, which was quite a challenge given that by the
mid-90s all of the big game publishers had cut the Amiga loose to
concentrate on the PC and consoles.
While there were still plenty of decent graphics and audio products
coming out, games-wise it was getting a bit desperate, and I felt
it became almost impossible for us to review Amiga games honestly
without upsetting the fanatical Amiga purists, who by now were feeling
threatened and didn't want to read anything negative about the format,
especially from a magazine that in their eyes was supposed to be
"supporting" the platform. I saw the magazine's purpose
as "servicing" Amiga users, which is somewhat different.
On the games front we were forced to settle for whatever Team 17
put out and a few scraps from the PC table. Ultimately, it was the
Amiga's inability to handle 3D graphics that killed it as a games
machine. Compared to the PlayStation's Ridge Racer, the Amiga's
Alien Breed 3D was a joke. It was a good job I was Technical Editor
by then, so the dirty work of reviewing substandard beat 'em ups
and ageing adventure games fell to other members of the team.
After Dykesy left to head up PC Gaming World, joining a number
of former EMAP games mag staff, I got the big chair. I had a pretty
good idea of what I wanted to do with the mag, but it was a difficult
time. When I joined CU it was at its peak, selling over 100,000
copies every month. That's a lot of magazines, and it made a lot
of money for the company from copy sales and advertising. In contrast,
the mag I took over was selling about a quarter of that, supported
by a much smaller pool of advertisers with a lot less money to spend.
Editing a magazine that's making lots of money is fun. The bosses
have plenty of time for you. They know your name. They take you
and your team go-karting in the name of team-bonding, and throw
little parties to celebrate hitting sales targets and setting up
lucrative promotional deals with big companies. The downside to
that situation is that where there's a lot of money at stake, there's
a lot of pressure to succeed, and all your bosses and their bosses
have an opinion on how things should be done.
When you're editing a magazine that's on an unstoppable descent
into oblivion, as CU was (and had been since the early 90s), things
are rather different. It's not hard to imagine the downsides, but
there are positives too. If no one above you really cares about
the mag (which is understandable if it's only breaking even at best),
it's a lot easier to just get on with the job in hand without having
to filter everything through focus groups and board meetings. Fortunately
we did have a very good publisher (that's the editor's direct boss,
as opposed to the publishing company) towards the end, who let us
get on with things. Just as importantly, Andy McVittie (for it was
he) also allowed us to close the magazine properly, rather than
following the publishing convention of pulling the plug on a dead
magazine without informing either the magazine's staff or its readers.
I'll now prattle on for a bit about the issues I edited. I'm just
doing this by looking at the covers and jotting down what comes
to mind. Think of it like a Director's Commentary on a DVD. Now,
December 1996 issue
I'd already sorted out the deal with the publisher of Wordworth
to put a full version of it on the cover disks and CD, which would
have cost us a fair amount in the scheme of our budget at the time.
I wanted to make the most of it, and decided to go for a bold, simple,
type-based cover. To maximise the impact, we used what's called
a fifth colour, in this case a metallic bronzey gold. I was really
happy with how the cover came out. I think it was Helen, the art
ed, who did the design work.
In a strategy meeting held between the magazine being printed and
sales figures coming back, one of my bosses was adamant that it
was a terrible cover, mainly because it didn't use every colour
in the rainbow. When the figures came back, it turned out to be
the best-selling issue for six months.
January 1997 issue
This was supposed to be a really cool render of a drooling T-Rex,
close up, roaring like scary dinosaurs do. I'm pretty sure I even
specified to the illustrator NOT to use this dinosaur model, which
had been doing the rounds for years. By the time we got the render
it was too late to change it or get a new one done, so we ended
up with a cover that was more Toy Story than Jurassic Park.
We'd built up quite a good relationship with the Imagine people
in the States. While they were never that happy with the idea of
selling us the rights to put full versions of the program on the
disks, we came to agreements based on cash up front (and there wasn't
much cash coming into the coffers of any Amiga software publisher
at the time), backed up with coverage in the magazine encouraging
readers to upgrade to the latest version, along with long-running
tutorials to help maintain its profile.
Many people blamed the demise of Amiga software on covermounts,
but in most cases (by this time, at least), money paid by the likes
of CU Amiga for covermount rights helped keep the software companies
afloat. Unfortunately, the number of readers that upgraded to the
latest versions was often disappointingly low.
February 1997 issue
The announcement of a new Amiga, the A\Box from German peripheral
manufacturer Phase 5, gave new hope to those of us that refused
to "defect" to Windows PCs. It was a huge story, but all
we had to work with was a list of specs and a whole load of promises
from Phase 5, neither of which would look very good on a magazine
cover. We decided to create our own "artist's impression"
of how it might look.
Fortunately, this time the render was great, and most people took
it in the spirit in which it was intended, telling us they hoped
it would really look like that, rather than feeling they'd been
"conned" by a faked image. Alas, as with most big ideas
at the time, the A\Box came to nothing.
March 1997 issue
This marked a departure from the policy of themeing covers and issues
around the main cover disk content. The March 1997 issue came with
a full version of OctaMED SoundStudio, but sales data from previous
years suggested that issues that lead with OctaMED as the main cover
subject didn't sell that well, so in order to cover the bases, it
shared the limelight with a graphics feature and a Chaos Engine
The graphics feature presented another problem. Illustrating the
concept of graphics might seem simple, but actually it's not (see
the Aladdin 4D cover for proof of how it can go a bit wrong). Nobody
wants to see a graphics card on a front cover, so we went for this
idea of a bank of TV screens displaying various images. I made most
of them with ImageFX and a video grabber. I think it still looks
good today, and is certainly different.
April 1997 issue
Uh-oh, another tricky concept to craft a cover from. Directory Opus
5.11. Hmm... let's see, it's really good for copying files around
the place... you can use it like a replacement for Workbench...
it's really good for copying files around the place... Oh, we already
said that one.
We didn't exactly admit defeat on this one, but had to be realistic.
There really was no way to make it look exciting. It wasn't exciting.
It wasn't fun. It was serious, and useful, so we went for a serious
and useful-looking cover. It was as dull as dusk in Dulwich, but
then so were a lot of Amiga users. Joke! (not really)
May 1997 issue
This cover upset a lot of people who saw the image and headline
as a rather too tenuous link to the main story. To be fair, it was,
but the main story was another confusing ragbag of promises and
specifications from various companies all doing their own bit to
create some sort of next-generation Amiga platform.
I'll throw the ball back at you. Find a headline and a means of
illustrating a story based around these elements: A\Box, Amiga buyout,
P.OS. Pios, QuikPak, Power Amiga (and more). Answers on a postcard...
Inside the mag, we reported on internet radio (this was 1997, remember!),
with Mat Bettinson writing a great forward-looking piece that, unlike
all the hot air that came from the gaggle of well-meaning but hopelessly
ambitious companies in the cover feature, actually turned out to
be a true vision of the future!
June 1997 issue
American PC retailer Gateway somehow ended up with the Amiga patents,
describing their acquisition - not entirely encouragingly - as "a
large box with 'stuff' in it. You have an idea of what the stuff
is, but no clue what the details of the contents are". Yay!
So that trumped the cover disk software to gain prominence on the
cover. I think Mat rendered the Gateway "G" logo in Imagine,
while Anthony, who was in charge of the magazine's design, showed
that those years at art college weren't wasted, drawing the black
and white cowhide backdrop that was Gateway's trademark.
July 1997 issue
It's been said (on this website ;-) that we shot ourselves in the
foot by telling our readers how to get onto the net. I can see that
logic, but when you're struggling to sell enough copies just to
survive from one month to the next, you have to give people what
they want, and this is what they wanted.
Getting connected to the net was a complicated job at the time,
and it needed something like this cover feature to make sense of
it all. It was all TCP/IP stacks and that sort of nonsense that
these days is all done for you.
This was an issue in which you can see we were facing up to the
truth, tired of all the broken promises, tired of telling the readers
everything will be OK. The "What Went Wrong?" feature
went against the rulebook of the sort of things you should flag
on a cover, but what the hell, it needed to be said!
August 1997 issue
I finally crumbled after months of pressure to lead with a programming
feature and cover disk. I was convinced those calling for such a
thing were a vocal minority, and was concerned about how we'd illustrate
Most programming features were illustrated with wooly, bland abstract
montages of ones and zeros that just wouldn't work as a cover. I
decided to go for a Max Headroom-inspired image of a robotic, "computerised"
face (textured, of course, in the obligatory binary code). I think
we did as good a job as we could with the subject matter. It didn't
sell brilliantly, but then mid-summer issues never do.
September 1997 issue
A decent bit of graphics software on the disk (it rendered 3D landscapes)
demanded that it be used to create the cover to have any credibility.
So we rendered this rather rubbish moonscape and put an Imagine-rendered
earth in the background. The final result was very disappointing.
I seem to remember the original render was somehow corrupted, and
we had to do this one again at the last minute. It needed a subject
to work, but ended up just being a featureless background. Never
We also had a great DIY hardware feature, based on a General MIDI
soundcard from Yamaha.
October 1997 issue
This was a great moment for the mag, as we finally got to publish
the unreleased TFX, a great flight sim from the creators of F-29
Retaliator. We managed to winkle the code out of the original programmer
and set up a deal for some free ads in some other EMAP magazines.
A triumph! Well done us!
November 1997 issue
Not my favourite cover. In theory it should work, as it illustrates
a review of a 3D rendering package called Aladdin with a 3D render
of Aladdin, but it just looks like a bit of artwork from a game
about a magic carpet.
Elsewhere, we had Mat's brilliant AIR Link DIY hardware thing,
a sort of remote control gizmo. I still use mine to operate the
automatic doors and air conditioning system in my subterranean recording
December 1997 issue
As if by magic, a game appeared! Well, sort of. Myst arrived on
the Amiga via ClickBOOM and made us all feel a little less abnormal.
I never really liked the game, on any platform, so it was just as
well I didn't write anything much about it. Not a great issue overall,
with a selection of pretty boring software and hardware on test.
January 1998 issue
Increasingly, it became a requirement for us to make our own news.
Nothing was happening, and Gateway had put their "box of stuff"
in the loft. There are two indicators of the state of the market
here. The first is the cover feature, which was our attempt to draw
together the best shareware utilities to create someone approaching
a modern operating system - seeing as there was no sign of an update
from Amiga Inc. The second was the feature called "1997: We
Made It!" The mere fact that we (the magazine, the readers,
and the few advertisers) were still around was seen as a big enough
achievement that it warranted a self-congratulatory feature.
The cover didn't quite come off the way I'd hoped. It was supposed
to be a simple, smart, stylised icon that represented a new operating
system, but the execution was poor.
February 1998 issue
Scala, the video-titling system, was another great bit of software
on the cover disk that really played to the Amiga's strengths, and
in many ways still out-performed anything you could get for a desktop
PC at the time. This was pretty tough to get, as I remember. It
was something we pursued for quite a while before bagging it. We
used its own, bold artwork style for cover, which I think came off
Other features in the issue tended towards the technical side of
things. Anyone for OpenBSD or a CDDA mixer? We were scratching around,
to be honest. Does it show?
I tried to make CU's covers as simple and striking as possible.
Some subjects were better suited to this treatment than others.
The release of Quake for the Amiga (via ClickBOOM), almost two years
after its PC release, was a certainly a big enough story to warrant
the entire cover. We hadn't done many games-related covers because
the Amiga had ceased to be primarily a games machine a long time
ago. However, this worked on a few levels. First of all it was a
big, important game. Second, it was a major morale-boost for Amiga
enthusiasts, as its very existence on the Amiga platform was like
sticking two fingers up at the mainstream games industry. Third,
it was a technical curiosity, working on relatively low-spec machines
but also taking advantage of the best graphics cards.
It's a great cover, even if the other coverlines are pretty bland
in subject. User groups? Well, if you'd had as many emails asking
for a big list of user groups as I had, you'd write "user groups"
on the cover too. We used that metallic bronzey gold colour again,
which was an unexpected extravagance by this stage.
April 1998 issue
Here's another cover that worked well in that simple, iconic way.
The theme was Mac emulation, so the idea was to combine the Amiga
and Mac logos into one. The Amiga never really had a strong logo.
The original rainbow-striped letter "A" had been ditched
a while ago, and the red and white chequered Boing Ball had become
the most recognisable Amiga logo.
By this time, all the permanent art staff had left the magazine
and we were using freelancers to lay out the pages and create the
covers. I had wanted a proper 3D apple to be rendered with the red
and white pattern as a texture, but limitations of budget, time
and staff meant that we had to take a short cut. In the end, this
was made by rendering a Boing Ball (in Imagine, I think), then using
a simple 2D Apple logo to "mask" it into the apple shape.
The leaf and shadow where then added separately.
The Millennium Bug feature was interesting at the time, although
the other coverlines tell the story of how was going on aside from
May 1998 issue
Digital cameras were in their infancy at the time. Long-time contributor
John Kennedy had been telling me about how you can put a digital
camera on a kite and take aerial photos of your house. Fantastic!
Let's do a feature!
A bright fluorescent orange ink helped the cover stand out, but
it wasn't one of the best. A picture of a camera would have looked
pretty boring. Maybe it's what the readers would have wanted though.
This was one of those covers that provoked peeved responses from
readers who didn't see the connection. Fair enough, there's really
no connection between a snowboarder and a digital camera. It was
an attempt to create what appeared to be a "digital photo".
Oh well, you can't win them all!
Two other good features in this issue helped though: The Big Amiga
Poll (for which I rendered a red and white chequered pole as an
illustration - hilarious, eh?), and one about Interactive Fiction
(that's text adventures to you and me) which also had a nice illustration
that I got the freelance designer to do using bits of old artwork
we found lying around the place.
June 1998 issue
The controversial Spaceboy cover! This is easily the best cover
we ever did, despite and partly because of the amount of debate
it caused. Some people loved it, some hated it, seeing it as childish.
I commissioned Rian Hughes to do the illustration along with some
supporting artwork to accompany the feature in the mag. Not only
is the cover art incredibly eye-catching and stylish, but it works
with the theme of the cover CD (a DIY game creator program), and
is also totally brilliant. Fact.
The supporting coverlines also show that this was a pretty good
issue for the time, with decent products in for review and a couple
of handy features.
July 1998 issue
The Bombshell Issue - this is another great cover in my opinion.
Designing interesting covers was never easy, but then easy isn't
fun, so that's OK. The problem we had here was that we had to send
the magazine to the printers a few days before the World Of Amiga
Show, being held in Hammersmith, London, in May. Amiga Inc, then
part of Gateway, had promised to "drop a bombshell" in
their press conference at the show, but they wouldn't be drawn on
the matter before then.
We found out that we could squeeze details of the announcement
into the magazine via a flyer printed right after the announcement
and inserted into the magazines as they came off the presses.
All very well, but how would we sell this on the cover? We decided
to take Amiga Inc's promise literally, with the coverline "Amiga
Drops The Bombshell" illustrated by a bomb falling over a city
centre. We rendered the bomb ourselves and combined it with a background
from a photo library, using a metallic silver/grey ink for the logo
and a deliberately limited colour palette to create a quite austere
As it turned out, the "bombshell" was a confusing, somewhat
vague list of promises mixed in with a bunch of technical specifications
that never came to anything. After that press conference we were
shown "the new Amiga", which was actually nothing but
an empty wooden prop with a flashing LED stuck onto it.
We also managed to get some "Powered By Amiga" stickers
out of Petro Tyshchenko as a little free gift, which further added
to the issue's novelty value.
August 1998 issue
Wow! How tenuous is the link on this cover? Again, the task of illustrating
a concept on the cover threw up a hefty challenge. The concept here
was a big music and audio feature, backed up by some audio software
on the disks. I seem to remember I was quite into The X-Files at
the time, which is probably why this cover looks like something
from its title sequence. So, somehow I got to thinking that scanning
someone's hand would be a good idea, then bridged the huge chasm
between the image and the subject matter with the coverlines "Audio
Magic! It's in your hands" and put a little speaker over the
palm of the hand for good measure.
A picture of a synthesiser keyboard, a mixer or a soundwave would
have been more conventional, and certainly would have got the message
across more directly than this, but that would have been boring.
Retracing those thought processes, I suspect this may have been
done the Monday after a particularly active weekend's clubbing.
September 1998 issue
How To Illustrate Apparently Boring, Non-visual Computing Concepts
On Magazine Covers, Part 251: Networking. Go on, you try it. See,
it's easy to mock those "Future's Bright" and "Audio
Magic" covers, but what do you do?
I think this one worked really well, even though the colours are
a bit garish. With the Amiga platform becoming increasingly isolated
from the rest of the computing world, the idea of connecting it
up to a network - either harnessing the power of multiple Amigas
or talking to PCs and Macs - was very inviting. However, it was
a technical minefield and needed a lot of explanation. The concept
of "coming together" seemed more tangible than simply
"networking", while the slightly risque double-entendre
of the coverline was a good fit with the sperm and egg imagery,
which also suggested the potential of two things combining to create
something more than the sum of their parts.
October 1998 issue
The end. I knew it was coming, fortunately. I say "fortunately",
because the standard practice for closing a magazine is for the
editor's boss to call the editorial team into a meeting room one
morning out of the blue and announce that the magazine has been
closed. Then someone asks, "You mean, after we've finished
the issue we're doing now?" and the editor's boss says, "No,
as of this moment. Thanks for your time, clear your desks, and the
HR manager will see you individually after this meeting to discuss
alternative employment redundancy options.
Then there's this depressing realisation that the issue you're
halfway through making will never be printed. The current issue
will then sit on the shelves of WHSmith for the next six months,
until someone in the shop realises that the next issue is never
going to turn up and sends the remaining copies off to the big pulping
machine in the sky.
But this is not what happened with CU Amiga, thankfully.
We were given the chance to complete a final issue. It was a tricky
thing to decide how much of it should be a "proper" issue,
with all the usual news, reviews and stuff, and how much of it should
be a bookend to the magazine's existence. I think we got most of
it right, although as has been said by others, it would have been
nice to have included a complete history of the magazine from the
start. The trouble with that was that we simply didn't have anything
like a complete archive of the magazine. It had been through so
many guises, involving so many different editors and staff that
each time the magazine had moved, say, from the second floor to
the fourth, loads of the magazine's history, contained in filing
cabinets and random boxes under desks, had been lost or thrown out,
partly because most of the people working on the mag at any one
time had no particular connection to its past, and so nobody was
ever compelled to oversee a proper archive. We did what we could
with the old issues and team photos that remained.
It was nice to be able to direct readers to other Amiga mags as
well. EMAP didn't own any rival mags to those we recommended, which
As for the cover, it was fitting to go out with a bit of humour,
and as it really didn't matter if the magazine sold one copy or
sold out (as far as the team were concerned), it gave us an opportunity
and legitimate excuse to do our most self-indulgent cover of them
all. It's based on Terry Gilliam's Monty Python foot, of course.
It seemed a fitting way to illustrate the end. I think, also, all
of us on the team quite liked the quirky Britishness of the humour,
knowing that CU Amiga was read quite widely around the world, and
that the Monty Python imagery was also well known internationally.
For the benefit of anyone who never saw an actual copy, I should
point out that we printed the cover upside down, so that the squashed
logo was at the bottom of the page. It was just another nice little
quirk that under normal circumstances we'd never have been able
to get away with.
And then that was that. The End.
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