Earlier in the year, we had a request from our reader Nick, who asked if we might consider a feature on old PC magazines. Although there were quite a few around at various points in the 90s, there’s really only one that we could ever really write about. PC Zone magazine may not be familiar to our non-UK readers, which is a shame – as Stewart Lee might say – because we’re now going to publish several thousand words which will go into the history of PC Zone in some detail.

When publication eventually ceased in 2010, there were plenty of tributes from the gaming world, and the story even got a mention on the BBC website, but a quick search for “PC Zone history” bears very little fruit, with this site’s own perfunctory ramblings from more than 10 years ago disturbingly prominent among the results.

I suppose that piece does serve as a reasonable overview up to a certain point, albeit one that couches its praise in terms of slagging off all other magazines (especially PC Gamer). But I was surprised there wasn’t anything more significant out there. Perhaps it’s appropriate, given the irreverent and slightly too-cool-for-school attitude that characterised Zone, that no-one has undertaken such detailed and slightly nerdy work. And there’s always the danger that raking through years and years of old issues in such a way may not actually make for very interesting reading, instead descending into extremely dreary analysis punctuated by supposedly amusing quotes that, robbed of all context, actually mean very little on their own.

PC Zone Logo 93

But that’s the risk we’re going to take! I should perhaps at this point mention the fact that this is going to be an incomplete and extremely subjective history of the magazine (as suggested by my chosen title), with particular emphasis on the periods when I was a regular reader. There were times when I didn’t read Zone at all for a while – the longest spanning several years – and I’m not sure there’s much mileage in trying to catch up with those years in retrospect, even if I could. We’ll get to that, though.

Even though I obviously didn’t feel strongly enough to maintain my Zone subscription throughout its life, and despite the fact that print is fighting a losing battle, I still love to buy magazines. I buy three or four every time I go on holiday, and I’ve kept pretty much every one I ever bought, certainly in the last 15 years or so. Unfortunately, as far as this piece is concerned, that doesn’t include PC Zone, and most of the old issues I did hold onto are in my sister’s loft. (And I’ve come to regret turning down a friend’s offer to take a complete collection of 90s Zones off his hands some years ago).

The complacent modern assumption is that some enterprising soul with plenty of spare time has inevitably uploaded the whole lot to the internet, which sadly proved not to be the case. Having said that, I am grateful to those who have made scans available, particularly to the proprietor of Pix’s Origin Adventures, whose comprehensive collection of late-90s scans meant that I didn’t have to ask Jo to go scrabbling around in her loft. Together with the physical copies I do still have, there was a fair amount of source material to go on, and more than enough for our purposes here.

Hopefully, if you share my fondness for looking back at things like this, there’ll be plenty of interest regardless of whether you were a fan of Zone or not: apart from the magazine itself, we’ll inevitably also be covering other stuff along the way, be it long-forgotten games, impractical hardware innovations, or daft advertising campaigns.

So, let’s begin, as is traditional, at the beginning…

Part 1: 1993-94 – The Lakin Years

Zone 1 Cover

Launch editor Paul Lakin introduced the magazine as “the first UK magazine devoted solely to the world of PC games” and it was perhaps fitting that the cover game was X-Wing. Rightly or wrongly, I always thought of X-Wing as one of the first games to really establish the PC as a gaming machine in its own right. Looking through the early issues, though, I was surprised at just how high a proportion of the games covered were multi-format releases, games that were just as good or better on the (cough) Amiga. Now we know how it turned out for the PC as a gaming platform, a dedicated gaming magazine seems like an obvious move, but looking back at these early years, things don’t seem so certain. Let’s get excited about Zool, everyone! According to an advert for Gremlin’s ass-kicking ninja alien thingy he’s “bad news for hedgehogs”. But what about moustachioed plumbers?

Zool Advert

X-Wing aside, there were plenty of other signs of the PC’s potential, with Ultima Underworld 2 receiving high praise, a score of 94% and a PC Zone ‘Classic’ award that went to all games scoring 90 and above (although it didn’t stop reviewer David McCandless getting in a dig at RPG fans, something of a running theme for Zone writers) and flight-sim/editing suite Stunt Island also receiving a solid recommendation.

The début line-up of reviewers was: Paul Lakin, Laurence Scotford, Mark Burgess, David McCandless, Andy Butcher, Patrick McCarthy and Duncan MacDonald. A few of them had previously written for Dennis Publishing’s Zero magazine, which focused on the 16-bit computer market and was supposedly a spiritual precursor to Zone (although I never read Zero back in the day). McCandless, McCarthy and MacDonald would all still be writing for Zone five years later, and the humour that would become the magazine’s trademark was certainly evident at this stage, although in many other respects Zone had a more conventional feel in these early days than when I first started reading a couple of years later.

Zone Bods 1993

MacDonald, of course, was also the author of the Mr Cursor columns which filled the back page for the first few years of Zone’s existence. The first incarnations of Cursor definitely focused more on his supposed fear of computers, although these pieces sort of ran out of steam a bit too quickly. An early piece featured a half-hearted gripe about oddly-shaped game boxes preventing effective stacking (seriously, though, does anyone remember the box for Comanche: Maximum Overkill? Anyone?) but he hit his stride a few issues later, when this theme was largely abandoned in favour of talking about pretty much anything he wanted.

Zone 2 Mr Cursor

For all that MacDonald’s reviewing style might have been a little unconventional, his reviews weren’t uninformative or quite as throwaway as you’d expect, and I’d forgotten that for a period he was actually one of Zone’s go-to reviewers for flight sims (thus earning the sobriquet ‘propellerhead’, or ‘prop-head’, in Zone terminology).

David McCandless always gave off a slight impression of being Zone’s rock star prima donna, perhaps due to his superior Doom skills which earned him the tag of überfragmeister, although this was slightly undermined by his love of Star Trek (about which he later wrote a very fond and funny piece in the build up to the release of Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Final Unity). Patrick McCarthy, meanwhile, was one of my favourite Zone writers in the early days, and he was often tasked with ploughing through the mountains of sports games of variable quality that were released back then, a task later bequeathed to Steve Hill.

Other familiar names appearing in the earliest issues: long-serving veteran Paul Presley; hardcore wargame/RPG/strategy nut Andrew Wright; flight sim expert Simon Bradley and future editor Chris Anderson.

For the first issue, all the reader correspondence was made up entirely, and included a letter from a Mr B. Moore of West Ham, London, which expressed “strong yearnings” for Mavis Beacon of Teaches Typing fame and some dismay at rumours that Mavis might not actually be an actual person. (This was of course true: the smiling picture on the box was of a model whose aptitude for touch typing was unproven). A follow-up was received a couple of issues later from someone claiming to be Ms Beacon, which was indicative of the adolescent level of wit often present in this section, although the responses from the Editor were usually worthy of a smirk (Lakin: “I was slightly worried that such an icon of the keyboard should have made two typing errors, but I’m sure you’ll soon be back in the swing of things”).

Zone 3 Wordprocessor

The general letters page (known as Wordprocessor) wasn’t the only section of the magazine where reader correspondence was sought, published and responded to. PC gaming being the minefield that it is (and was, and forever will be), there was a technical support page, Bits and PCs, which endeavoured to provide general technical advice to readers on all matters autoexec.bat, config.sys and all the other horrible problems DOS could throw up for readers who didn’t have access to the internet. The tips and cheats section soon also introduced a letters page so people could write in with their “I’m stuck on a Sierra adventure” type queries. Proving that gamers being a bit whiny and stupid isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, people soon wrote in to complain that the cheats section somehow compromised their potential enjoyment of new games. How inconsiderate!

Mention must be made of a couple of long-standing features we, er, borrowed at various points here on FFG: the ‘In Perspective’ bar charts which provided a quick overview of how the game in question stood in comparison to genre rivals (or, occasionally, to other things you could do with your time and money, like going to the dentist or buying a CD by Lenny Kravitz). I think we abandoned that in 2003 or so, when we finally realised our virtual art and design skills were sorely lacking. Also the style of keeping some specific information about particular features in boxouts away from the main review was sort of an inspiration for the supplementary bits we staple onto some of ours.

Some other things that really struck me, on reading these early issues:

• There’s a peculiar amount of comedy mileage for British people in slagging off random towns and cities as depressing shitholes, and this is a topic Zone returned to time and again.

• Jesus, there are a lot of old games here that I’ve never even heard of.

• CD-ROMs were a thing in 1993 but on this evidence they weren’t that prominent, and no-one was really that sure whether they were a significant development or a passing fad.

• McCandless having to review James Pond 2: Robocod, a sugar-coated, multi-coloured platformer (“I know this all sounds ridiculous and embarrassing. It is ridiculous and embarrassing”) sort of summed up Zone’s approach: yes, we are grown ups, we play games, we’re not ashamed, and we don’t look down on them, but…sometimes games are a bit daft.

• I really had to laugh at a preview of a game called CyberRace (Zone 5), in which the developers talked up their vision for the game, the fact that Syd Mead was involved, along with professional scriptwriters and actors, only to agree for the following publicity picture to be taken and published:

Zone 5 - Cyberdreams

• I’d forgotten how popular hacks using hex editors were at one point – Stoo, if you ever get stuck on Wizadry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant again, there’s a great hack for you in issue 9.



“Anyone who knows the entire history of Britannia is to be found at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, alongside train spotters and people who use the word ‘quintessential'” 

McCandless on Ultima Underworld 2 (PC Zone 1, April 1993)

“Highly original idea, or an exceptional, near ‘definitive’ version of an old idea. Flawless in all departments and crammed to overflowing with long-term playability. Alternatively, the software company took the reviewer to Paris for the weekend.” 

 Zone’s reviews section on the definition of a ‘Classic’

“Tony La Russa has successfully managed the Oakland Athletics for some time and has the reputation in baseball circles of being a bit of a computer whizz-kid as well as a modern, trendy manager. (You have to remember that to be a trendy baseball manager you merely have to be under sixty and still able to see your own penis without a mirror.) Try not to judge him by his picture on the cover, where he looks like a hitherto undiscovered Osmond having a one-to-one chat with God.” 

Patrick McCarthy provides British gamers with some much-needed context for his review of Tony La Russa’s Baseball II (PC Zone 3, June 1993)

“If you see this game in the shops you’ll notice the quote: ‘You’ll love it to bits’ from the late and much-lamented Zero magazine. ‘What tosser wrote that?’ I cried, flicking through some back issues. What tosser was it? It was this tosser.” 

Paul Lakin provides an early example of reviewer’s regret (PC Zone 5, August 1993)


Next time: Part 2 – The Editor’s Ten Inches, Brooker, Culky, xxxdoom.wad and Quake ‘Pour Hommes’…