The Story of Special Reserve

One of the great things about being a video-game writer is that if there’s a question you want to answer, you have a legitimate excuse to track down people and ask them about it.

Right around the start of the year, I was reminded of Special Reserve as I was digging through some old games magazines while researching a feature. Special Reserve was a mail-order company that ran adverts in many of the major games mags throughout the nineties, and I vaguely recall being a member for a while. The idea was that you paid £6 a year to join, and then you’d be able to buy games at heavily discounted prices, as well as receive a regular magazine (although really it was more of a catalogue). Often, the games were way cheaper than they would be in the shops – and remember, this was long before discount internet shopping took over.

Seeing this old advert got me thinking. Where did Special Reserve come from? Where was it based? And what happened to it? So I did a little digging, and found an old Eurogamer forum thread where a few ex-employees had reminisced about their time at the company. I managed to get in touch with them and ask a few questions, but they had mostly worked at Special Reserve right at the end of its life, not long before the company shut in 2005. That gave me an idea of how Special Reserve ended, but I also wanted to tell the story of its heyday and how it all began.

Unfortunately, this is where I ran into a brick wall. My internet searching brought up very little on the firm, save for a few articles about its closure, and my efforts to contact Tony Rainbird, the company’s former head, came to nothing. So the potential article was put on the back burner for months – although I didn’t give up on it entirely.

Then came a breakthrough. Richard Hewison runs a website called Bird Sanctuary that is dedicated to the old Telecomsoft publishing labels Silverbird, Firebird and Rainbird – where Tony Rainbird used to work. I got in touch with Richard on the off chance he knew something about Special Reserve, and he was incredibly helpful in filling in a few gaps in my knowledge. Most importantly, he pointed me in the direction of Dave Carlos, who founded Inter-Mediates – Special Reserve’s parent company. Not long after that I had a long chat with Dave, who told me some stories about his amazing life as a primary school teacher, union rep, magazine editor, PR head and Christian missionary worker, along with the series of chance events that led to the creation of Special Reserve. Finally, all of the pieces of the puzzle had fallen in to place.

Well, almost. One thing I hadn’t realised was that Special Reserve also had a sister mail-order operation at the start called Official Secrets, which was a sort of club for adventure-game fans. Members received a really rather cool bi-monthly magazine called Confidential, scans of which you can find with a quick internet search. It was a wonderfully niche fanzine of sorts, although excellently written, and I wanted to put something about it in the article. Happily, right before my press deadline, I managed to track down one of the writers, Nick Walkland, and squeezed in some of his fascinating insights into how the magazine was made – under the stewardship of former Crash editor Graeme Kidd, no less.

So there you go. All in all, The Story of Special Reserve took the best part of a year and half a dozen interviews to put together. That’s a lot for a four-page article, and probably the longest time I’ve spent working on a single story from idea to publication, but it was worth it to finally answer the questions that have been bugging me all this time.

Check out the full feature in issue 215 of Retro Gamer – and if you can’t find it in the shops, you can order single issues or subscribe here. And huge thanks to Richard Hewison, Dave Carlos, Nick Walkland, Richard Hull, Ali Gray, Joe Hull and all of the other people I spoke to for this article!

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