Over the holiday season we’ll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!
This feature was originally published in August 2020.
If you were a North American gamer who was active during the early ’90s, then chances are, you’ve heard of GameFan magazine. The anarchic alternative to the likes of GamePro and EGM, it began life as a catalogue for a mail-order video game store before evolving into a monthly publication which became notable for its unique art style (including bespoke art by Terry Wolfinger), excellent screenshots, strong focus on Japanese gaming and obsession with anime, the latter of which was just breaking through in North America.
While it began its life during the 16-bit era, GameFan would preside over the launch of the PlayStation, Saturn and N64, charting one of the most significant and exciting periods the games industry has ever witnessed. Titles like Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 64, Star Fox 64, GoldenEye 007 and Pilotwings 64 were all covered in incredible depth, often receiving multi-page features packed with information, art and screenshots across successive issues.
GameFan has its fair share of eye-opening stories, involving racist comments, alleged drug-taking and pirated Capcom games – all of which you’re about to hear about from the people who lived through them. It eventually died in December 2000, but was replaced – in spiritual terms, at least – by Gamers’ Republic, a rival publication headed-up by GameFan co-founder Dave Halverson, an individual who has become something of an infamous figure in the realm of games journalism. With a more polished design style, Gamers’ Republic carried on much of the good work seen in GameFan, and would cover the arrival of the Dreamcast, PS2, GameCube and Xbox consoles. That too would eventually fold, with Halverson establishing Play magazine in its wake. In 2010, he would attempt to resurrect GameFan, with little success.
We sat down to speak with several former staffers to document the story of these incredible magazines. Buckle up, because you’re in for quite a ride.
Could you give us a brief history of Diehard GameFan?
Mollie L Patterson: The finer details of how DieHard GameFan came to be, in terms of the exact people involved, are a bit complex. However, the magazine spun out of DieHard Gamer’s Club, a retail and mail-order store that tended to focus on Japanese imports. A few issues of a small catalogue for the store were produced, and then that transitioned into becoming a full-fledged magazine in late 1992.
For the first two issues of GameFan, a bulk of the copies were given to shops local to Southern California (particularly the Los Angeles area) to sell, or perhaps distributed in other ways as well. It wasn’t until issue #3 that the magazine was able to secure a national distributor, which is when I found out about it. I happened upon an issue at a local Software Etc/Babbage’s (can’t remember which) store, thought it looked interesting, and then picked it up.
What was it like to work there?
Mollie L Patterson: Shocking, at least at first. I came from a history of making video game and otherwise-focused fanzines starting in junior high, and back at that point in time, even producing a publication on such a small level still took a lot of technology and know-how (outside of doing the older-school “cut and paste” style of zine). So, my expectations for what GameFan would be like were very high, since we were talking about a full-colour, professional-printed, nationally-distributed magazine.
My first day in the offices, I was dumbfounded at how “garage” the whole organization felt. There was no consistency to the types of computers being used (outside of mostly being Macs), and many of them were more out of date that I’d expected. The space that was being rented in an office building in Agoura Hills, CA, was a total mess, feeling more like a college fraternity than a professional company. I really couldn’t believe how that group of people could make a full and proper magazine every month under the circumstances.
Once the shock wore off and I got into the swing of things, there were definitely bad parts, but there was far more good. It was like a dream come true. This was long before the age of the internet as we know it now, before there were all of these huge video game-focused websites, podcasts, YouTube channels, streams, or the opportunity for anyone and everyone to get their voices out there. Getting hired on at a gaming magazine was still a huge position, and meant my writing would have a reach that few others out there could claim. And, GameFan was the perfect fit for me as a gamer. I was far more into imports, and I always considered myself more of a “fan” than a “journalist,” so I loved the excitement and enthusiasm the entire magazine always exuded.
Writing for GameFan was like having a conversation about video games with a friend, where you’d gush about the latest game you’d played that they really needed to also try, or have fun trashing some new title that was just a piece of junk. While the staff was a huge assortment of people from very different backgrounds, nearly everyone who worked there had that same passion for gaming, working there also helped cement beliefs I still hold to this day, such as how games should always be judged on their own merits, or how those of us in the media should always strive to be at least moderately skilled in as many genres as possible.
Ryan Lockhart: It was absolutely amazing, and terrifying, and horrible, and wonderful. it remains one of the most defining parts of my life, and one hell of a learning experience.
I came fresh from Babbage’s, loved to write and made some great friends online (which turned into great offline friends as well), and a couple ended up at GameFan Magazine. I was given a shot, sent in some review samples, came in for an interview and was hired that day. They fired another editor at the same time, made him clear out his office while I was sitting in there, and that evening I had a huge crack in my truck’s windshield.
They fired another editor at the same time, made him clear out his office while I was sitting in there, and that evening I had a huge crack in my truck’s windshield
My original job was to help launch GameFan Online, which was a mess from day one – they had this Shockwave homepage that would take over a minute to load – but most of my day-to-day was begging Nick Des Barres and Casey Loe to translate Famitsu articles that we’d scan pictures from to make news stories. On the side, I wrote reviews and previews nobody else wanted, and eventually, I became managing editor of the magazine, which was sort of just herding cats (and having Nick run away from me when he saw that I was coming down the hall).
Most of my time there is a bit of a blur, but I remember the pure creative chaos that was Nick working – his office was covered with Japanese game posters, and he would lock himself in for hours, always seeking perfection in his screenshots and layout. Casey was always playing RPGs or watching Anime for articles; his office was barer, but that guy was a writing and layout machine. He and Nick were sort of the Yin and Yang of the soul of the magazine back then. And Dave’s office… it was like a Japanese game goods store; shelves covered with games and toys and stuffed animals and systems. Our hours were pretty nuts – the week before publishing many of us would stay awake for days, fuelled by chugging powdered tea for the caffeine spikes. We were young and crazy, but also had a passion for this magazine we loved.
I learned a lot of bad lessons there, though, and let stress overtake me more than a few times, which I’m sure burned some of my coworkers (Mollie, who took over GameFan Online after I dumped it on her, likely still holds some negative feelings for me to this day). My favourite personal screwing up story? Let’s just say don’t ever be involved in firing somebody if he’s also your roommate. I fought hard to get him back, though. Hah.
Can you give us some insight into the “Little Jap B*****ds” incident?
Mollie L Patterson: The incident happened a little under a year before I started at GameFan, so what I know I know from asking about it when I got there. (I remember hearing about the whole thing, and then running to a local store to grab a copy of the issue before they were gone.) From how I always understood it, it’s a less exciting – and far stupider – answer than some might expect.
Basically, one of the people that worked on the issues during the process of putting them together thought it was cute to use that text as the filler for figuring out how a layout would work, and how much text would fit into that layout. It’s not my place to say who it was, but it was someone that I never really knew too well, and someone that readers would probably have zero knowledge of. They weren’t a bad person from what I knew of them, just someone who had a regrettable sense of humour at times.
Casey Loe: Since GameFan prioritized the graphics of the page so much, pages often started with the layout. The layout person for that one just wrote a little blurb of text and copy-pasted it to fill out the page to get a feel for what the page would look like, and then sent it on to the writer to fill in the text. The problem was, the writer never actually replaced it with the real text.
GameFan had a real frat house vibe in those days. The assigned writer was a Japanese American and had a good relationship with the layout guy, and they were constantly ribbing each other, and the layout guy probably thought the writer would find it amusing. That was basically standard practice – the layout guy would always try to shock or amuse the writer with the placeholder text. Ironically, the guy who got burned by this was one of the more reserved and polite members of the staff. Had a different layout guy’s placeholder text slipped through, this would have been a very different scandal. I remember how stunned I was when I saw the official “hacking” explanation – it seemed like the truth would have been much more understandable and believable.
There are also stories that the GameFan offices got raided after a staff member pirated a review copy of Resident Evil 2 – is there any truth in this?
Mollie L Patterson: I’m actually not sure how much of this I’m allowed to talk about, but I’ll say that it wasn’t a staff member who pirated the game from how I know things to have gone down. It was someone outside the company who had access to our copy of the game for a short amount of time, which they shouldn’t have been given access to. There definitely was some fallout felt in the office, but for us editors, it was more in terms of how it complicated our relationship with Capcom for a while.
Ryan Lockhart: Yeah, I don’t want to get into the exact details, but somebody might have been “less than careful” with a review copy of the game, and Capcom digitally signed the discs, so it didn’t take long to figure out where the leak came from. All I remember for sure is one morning we arrived at the office and it was locked down for the day, somebody was arrested, and future review copies had to be literally microwaved or something once we were done to destroy them.
Another story involves drinks being spiked with acid – are these tales simply exaggerated or did they actually happen? Was drug-taking commonplace on the magazine?
Mollie L Patterson: The acid-spiked coffee definitely happened, but it was before my time. I was present for drug use in the office, but only to the extent that some of the guys would go up on the roof – we had access to it from part of our office – and smoke pot sometimes in the evening. Beyond that, though, I never myself saw any heavier drug use. Really, the biggest violation I knew of along those lines was one of the staff would constantly smoke cigarettes in their office, which was (and obviously still is) illegal in California.
There are a lot of stories from the office that were totally true, which, being fair, I think was probably the same for all similar publications back in that era. It may sound silly, but it was kind of a “rock and roll” type of vibe working for a magazine, since there wasn’t anything else out there gaming-related that could come close to the reach and exposure you were able to give video games. Publishers knew that, developers knew that, and we knew that.
Casey Loe: Incidentally, the person who spiked the coffee was the same person arrested for the mishandling of the ROM in the previous story. You have to understand that the people who founded the magazine were all old friends, many of whom had worked together, I believe, selling used cars. When Dave Halverson started his import game store, he hired his old friends to work at the warehouse and man the phones. Some of these people had never had a job outside of Dave Halverson’s orbit. When he transitioned to the magazine, he brought them along and found things for them to do. One of these people, in particular, was a very nice guy, but he had some issues and made a lot of poor choices. (By which I mean, multiple felonies.) He was fired from GameFan repeatedly but always ended up being rehired because of his friendship with Dave. He single-handedly generated most of GameFan’s most colourful stories.
(Since you didn’t mention it in the question, the acid story is this person drugging the office coffee pot, Dave Halverson unknowingly drinking it, and then writing an insane review of the Atari Jaguar game Cybermorph which ultimately went to print as-is. This happened before my time but every member of the staff from that time, including the culprit, agrees that it happened.)
Is it true that GameFan employees would race to the bank the moment they got their paycheque because often there wasn’t enough money in the account to cover everyone’s wages?
Mollie L Patterson: It really did happen that way. I used to describe it as something like the old American movie Cannonball Run, because at times it would be this race between a bunch of different cars, each of which had its own “team.” Since not everyone in the office had a car, and it’d be better to get you and your closes friends to the bank together, the staff tended to break out into small groups when it came time to go to the bank. For me, I was the closest with Mike Griffin (Glitch), Michael Hobbs (Substance D), and Dan Jevons (Knightmare), so we were always one group that made the runs together.
I don’t remember it being right away after I started, but more and more it ended up that, when our paychecks were handed out, we’d know they were probably worthless at that point. We’d call the bank to see how much money was in the account that our checks drew from – so often, in fact, that most of us came to remember the phone number and account number by heart – and it ended up that it’d be zero for at least the first half of nearly every payday. We’d keep pretending to be working hard, but we’d be calling the bank over and over, everyone in the office outside of the higher-ups like Dave, hoping to hear that money was now available.
The problem was, for whatever reason, it became routine that nowhere near enough money would be in the account. So, the moment you found out that money was in there, you needed to get to the bank as soon as possible. The other problem was, you’d need to get out of the office without raising suspicion. It sounds so ridiculous to write, but it was absolutely true – people would try to sneak themselves and their group out and into the car to head to the bank with as much of a head start as possible. If others caught on, or happened to call the bank at the exact same time, then it’d quickly turn into a race.
I remember standing in line at the bank, and the feeling of dread that’d come over me. Maybe I’d be in the back of the line, see other coworkers ahead of me, and know that there probably wouldn’t be enough to cash my check by the time I got up to the front. Maybe I was upfront, knowing I’d get money, but seeing all of my coworkers who might not. If you weren’t ahead of enough others to have your check go through, you just didn’t know when more money would be there – it might be later that day, maybe the next, maybe not for days.
It was always a competition to see who could get to the bank first to hopefully get paid, but you never hated anyone else if they got there first and you were left with nothing. None of the people having to do that were the reason our paychecks were screwed up, and everyone had to take care of themselves first. It was really awful for morale, though, especially the days when the first infusion of cash was low. There was no reason we should have had to fight over getting to the bank like that.
It was always a competition to see who could get to the bank first to hopefully get paid, but you never hated anyone else if they got there first and you were left with nothing
Casey Loe: This began in the period after the magazine was purchased by a company named Metropolis, which was a massively sleazy lad-mag publisher that promised to massively expand the business and was constantly playing the staff off one another. They were always asking us to expand into new ventures, which led to GameFan creating a lot of spin-off publications that only lasted a few issues. Magazine publishing, in the US at least, lends itself to sleazy business practices because newsstands pay you a percentage of the sales for whatever you ship to them at the point when they receive the product, so you can generate short-term revenue by “stuffing the channel” – sending lots of copies of magazines and strategy guides and whatever to newsstands – get the initial cheque, and then leave the newsstand with a bunch of junk they’ll never sell that ultimately gets destroyed. (Of course, it cost money to get all that content printed, but you can always switch printers and leave the first printer to try to collect.) I suspect that there was a lot of that sort of thing going on to try and make payroll.
Ryan Lockhart: Oh man, the bank run was the greatest (and also, frankly, the very worst) thing about working at GameFan during this time – payday was energetic, and I remember trying to hang out with people with the fastest cars (Terry and Waka, iirc) around the time checks were distributed to have the best chance of getting to the bank on time.
Mollie hit the feeling perfectly; it was Cannonball Run with all of us racing there, and then we’d be in the bank line counting staff in front of us, anxiously watching each person as they approached the teller. And more than once we’d see the sign, them leaving the counter and staring at us, head shaking, meaning it was time to leave and try again when David said there were more funds.
Most of the time it ended up fine, but there was one month when we had gas shut off for a day or two…
Despite the issues, GameFan remains a stand-out piece of video game history – what do you think made the magazine work as well as it did?
Mollie L Patterson: I think it was a few factors, really. If you look at some of the magazines that existed before GameFan, there was more of a slant toward “adult” publications – as in, magazines with a heavier amount of writing, deeper articles, and more of a focus on older readers, since I believe that was the market more tech-oriented publications were naturally slanted toward. Then, we started to see the market diversity, as new magazines cropped up that targeted different markets. You had EGM with a more “teens to 20s” type of edge to it, GamePro geared more toward younger readers, magazines specifically focusing on tips and strategy guides for the booming NES market, etc.
The thing about GameFan was that it was, as its name implied, about being a fan of games. GameFan was about having a deep passion for video games, and giving a chance to everything, even those games that a lot of other magazines quickly wrote off. Sure, it meant that, at times, we went way overboard in our hype or adoration of a particular title or franchise, but it also meant we’d often be the only one to appreciate a game that didn’t get the credit it deserved otherwise.
I’d always rather spend my time focusing on a great lesser-known game you might not hear about otherwise, than spend that time throwing another review for a bad game on the pile
One of the personal beliefs I took away from GameFan was the idea that, at its best, gaming media – the type not heavily focused on hardcore journalism – can be about leading gamers to games they never would have played otherwise. I definitely believe in giving honest reviews and knocking games that deserve it, but I’d always rather spend my time focusing on a great lesser-known game you might not hear about otherwise, than spend that time throwing another review for a bad game on the pile.
That, I think, was the heart and soul of GameFan; wanting to share that passion for video gaming with our readers, and hopefully expanding both their knowledge and horizons on what was out there. That especially came out through our deep focus on Japanese gaming, which rarely got attention outside of the big games and franchise. We covered games in our issues that you’d never have heard about otherwise in the West in that era, and that’s a huge part of why I myself became a reader before being staff. I remember finding out about barely-known import treasures like Keio Yugekitai through GameFan, and being blown away at some of the great games I’d never experience if I only focused on what was released in the States.
So, I really think it was the combination of strong, stand-out personalities, our passion for gaming as a whole no matter the franchise or genre, and our focus on imports. Oh, and probably also the fact that we took pride in having a staff of people who were great at gaming. For example, we had a number of hardcore fighting game players on staff, and I think that helped us shine a spotlight on some great fighting games that lesser-skilled media at other outlets would have been quicker to write off.
Casey Loe: When all of the other magazines were desperately fighting over Halo and Tony Hawk cover stories, GameFan always had a bunch of weird games on the cover you’d never heard of. Our fans tended to have what were considered niche interests at the time (RPGs, obscure platforms like the Atari Jaguar, anime-inspired games, etc.) and since we were on that same wavelength, we made the whole magazine about that. It turned out to be a pretty huge niche.
When I started there, I was kind of embarrassed by the magazine’s relentless positivity, but in time I came to understand that was one of its strengths too. Our readers were excited about games and wanted to see their own excitement for them reflected in the magazines they read.
Also, we simply had the best methods for capturing screenshots (some magazines eventually caught up over the years, others never did), we took a ton of pictures, and Dave insisted on printing on good quality paper, so the games looked fantastic. As much as I’d like to think the readers bought the magazine for our writing, the pictures were probably the real star of the show. I’m less sure about the benefits of its garish layout, with white text printed on colourful backgrounds and such. I remember proudly showing one of the first articles I wrote and designed to my elderly grandfather and him saying “I’m sorry… I can’t make any sense of this.”
Ryan Lockhart: Just to put a button on what was said above, at the end of the day GameFan was overly positive – it celebrated why we loved games and what made them fun – but there was another side to this too.
I personally had one of my very first reviews taken away from me, because it wasn’t positive enough – and the quote yelled at me “Do you know how many copies of these we have in the warehouse?” is still burned into my mind. You have to remember this magazine started out of the back room of a game store, so it always had a double purpose.
All of that said, 95% of what you read came from the heart – Dave, for all his faults, was truly a fan of the medium, and hired people that felt the same way. We loved games, and imports, and – hell – the idea of the magazine itself. It was unique and special; the magazine was heavy, the paper was thick, the layouts were beautifully garish with huge screenshots, and it covered these amazing games with such zeal – it was like having your best friend tell you about this incredible release they just played. It was made for us, for game fans.