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A Brief History of Gaming
When Did Classic Gaming Magazines Get Their First Cover Girl?
By Cyril Lachel     |   Posted on May 27, 2014   |   Episode 30 (Show Archive)  

Women had it rough in the 8- and 16-bit era. While it's easy to point to Metroid's Samus Aran or Alis from Phantasy Star, it's clear that the early days of video gaming was largely a boy's club. Female characters were often treated as the prize, while the male hero ventured off to save the day and prove their manhood. This meant that women in retro games were rarely seen or heard from, and even when they were, most female characters were under-developed.

But were classic video game magazines as unbalanced as the industry they were attempting to cover? Is it possible that print media -- which has a long tradition of using attractive women to sell issues -- would buck the trend? Curious by the question, I decided to dig through a dozen old school magazines to see how long it took each to feature a woman on the cover. Big, small, pixel or artwork, all I'm looking for is a cover that features something other than a man. See for yourself how Electronic Gaming Monthly, Nintendo Power, Game Informer and other classic magazines fared.

Number of Issues = 13

Of the twelve magazines I studied, Game Informer was the most disappointing. The long-running publication didn't feature a woman until their thirteenth issue (November/December 1993). After more than two years, Jasmine (Disney's Aladdin) became the first woman featured on a GI cover. Even more depressing, it took the magazine another 11 issues before featuring their second woman (Shadow from Eternal Champions).

Number of Issues = 7

Electronic Gaming Monthly fared better than Game Informer, but it still took the magazine more than half a year before a single woman showed up. Not only does issue 7 feature badass artwork of Mary from Alien Syndrome, but it also goes by a different name: "Top Scores! Video Game Tricks, Codes, and Strategies!" The first proper issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly to feature a woman? Number 11, featuring The Mafat Conspiracy.

Number of Issues = 7

Oh no, the Princess is in trouble! No, it's not another Aladdin cover, but rather Prince of Persia on Sega Force. Much like Electronic Gaming Monthly, it took this UK magazine more than half a year to feature a woman on their cover. In this case she's in the distance, obscured by our hero's slack jaw and a very bloody sword. It does not go unnoticed that the Princess is only wearing a bra.

Number of Issues = 7

Bucking the annoying damsel in distress trope, Nintendo Magazine System features an attractive young lady who can kick your ass. Meet Kotono, a 19 year old ninja from Kyoto. She's rocking a serious mane and a look that suggests she's about to rip your throat out. This 1993 cover suggests the 16-bit era may be more welcoming to women. This magazine may be more inclusive, but it seems to have come at the price of being able to spell.

Number of Issues = 6

There's a scary dude with a chainsaw, a kid with an ax, toxic waste, a giant baby, zombies and skeletons walking around for no reason. I think you're going to need something stronger than a water gun and fire extinguisher. It doesn't matter if this Die Hard Game Fan cover makes sense, because Zombies Ate My Neighbors is one of my favorite 16-bit games. It may have taken Game Fan six issues to feature a woman on the cover, but it opened the floodgate for many others.

Number of Issues = 6

Technically, Sarah Bryant's elbow is visible on Next Generation's first issue. While some may consider that good enough, I have set the bar slightly higher than an elbow. Ironically, it was another Sarah that ended up being the first woman on a cover of Next Generation magazine. This Fade to Black design is featured on the sixth issue, using the irresistible line, "Graphics to die for." We can dispute the validity of that claim, but this is one of the few classic magazines to feature a woman by herself on the cover.

Number of Issues = 5

And we're back to the damsel in distress. The Games Machine wasn't known for having memorable covers, and this fifth issue is no exception. For reasons I will never understand, this magazine merged The Three Stooges with Rocket Ranger, featuring a sexy woman in a tight sweater and short skirt. Two issues later, The Games Machine featured a woman playing cards in lingerie.

Number of Issues = 4

It only took Nintendo Power four issues to feature a woman on their cover. Unfortunately, the woman in question is stuck in a coma and requires a strong man (in this case Richard Marx with a lot of netting) to save her. I'm not even convinced that's a real woman in the picture. For what it's worth, it took Nintendo Power twelve more issues before they featured another woman -- Razor from Maniac Mansion. Samus didn't show up until issue 31.

Number of Issues = 4

People often forget how great GamePro's covers were in the early years, and this one is no exception. Forget damsel in distress, because this female barbarian is ready to kill a fanged monster with little more than a small dagger and mini-skirt. Best of all, this ferocious woman isn't actually connected to a game. She's certainly not part of Super Mario Land or River City Ransom, and I don't remember Gauntlet on the side of a snowy mountain. GamePro just decided it was time to have a woman on the cover. Cool.

Number of Issues = 1

Speaking of women that can kick ass, here's Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman on the cover of Mean Machines Sega #1. That's right; the magazine's very first issue featured a woman by herself. Even more impressive, it was a Batman Returns cover without Batman. That's almost as bold as her lipstick. Speaking of bold, this debut issue states that it is "The UK's No. 1 Sega Mag." That's what I call optimism.

Number of Issues = 1

Here's yet another Sega magazine featuring a woman on the debut cover. And it's not just any woman; it's Shadow from Eternal Champions. With her generous proportions and revealing costume, it's no wonder Shadow was featured on so many magazine covers. Beyond the sexy woman, Sega Magazine chose to attract readers by making hyperbolic statements about mediocre fighting games.

Number of Issues = 1

Women were not exclusive to Sega magazines, as you'll see from this adorable first issue of Super Play. The UK-based magazine features a blonde girl playing games with an a blue-haired boy in the midst of overacting to a loss. Behind them is a pink monster, as well as a very small Link. Also, the TV is floating and I'm pretty sure the boy is wearing Google Glass. I don't know what any of this means, but I think I've been staring at old game magazines for too long.
CLOSING THOUGHTS: While it's fun to look back at these old magazine covers, we shouldn't read too much into the findings. Sure, it was a sausage fest for many years, but that doesn't make it sexist. They were a product of their time, and that was an era when women didn't play much of a role in video games. They were the prize or some secondary character, rarely the leading star. The balance started to shift as the industry became more mass-market and major publishers began courting gamers of both genders.

Going into this study, I was convinced that most magazines would opt for the usual video game cliches, such as the damsel in distress. I was pleased to discover that only four of the twelve magazines used this trope, while another four featured the counterbalance -- women locked in battle. There were also three covers where a woman was featured alone, usually staring at the camera. For my money, the most refreshing magazine cover was Super Play. Instead of choosing an action shot or something sexy, the UK magazine decided to go with a simple picture of a boy and girl playing video games together.

Across the board, there were very few women on video game magazine covers in the 1980s and early 90s. On average, there were a dozen men to every female character. Regardless of whether this is a problem associated with the magazines or the video game industry at large, it's a shame it took so long to notice women in games.



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