Book Review: Classic Home Video Games 1989-1990

It has been quite a while since I’ve done a product review, but since I’ve been offered some review copies of some Retro Gaming books, I thought I’d give the concept another whirl.  Personally, I’m quite an information junkie – especially for topics I enjoy. My love for curating information is a big part of why I started this site in the first place.

Nice hardcover design, but no dust jacket - in case you like the conservative look underneath

This first book I’m reviewing, Classic Home Video Games, 1989-1990  (see previous entries in the series) by Brett Weiss covers the same type of content as we do at Racketboy, but a different approach. Instead of focusing on recommendations for certain topics or interest, Mr Weiss’s book aims to be a reference guide for complete console libraries, not a history lesson. He lays out the book’s goal adequately in the preface:

“When I talk to gamer at conventions and online, I’m sometimes asked why I write reference books instead of tips and tricks guides or historical accounts of the industry. The answers are simple. The Internet and Digital Press guides have all the tips and tricks anyone needs, and Steven L. Kent (with The Ultimate History of Video games) and Leonard Herman ( with Phoenix :The Fall & Rise of Videogames) have the market cornered on history books and do a much better job of it than I ever could.

My books contain a lot of video game history, of course, what with the retro theme and all, but the emphasis is on the individual games themselves. Each entry for the Genesis, Neo Geo, and TurboGrafx-16 includes data, description, gameplay elements, and, in most cases, critical evaluation. (The games for the console add-ons, such as Sega CD and TurboGrafx-CD, are included in appendices near the back of the book. The handheld Atari Lynx and original Game boy are also covered in the appendices)

Another reason I write reference books is that I’m obsessed with hem. It started when I was a kid during the mid-1970s and I would pore over my tattered paperback copy of the Guinness Book of World Records for hours, utterly transfixed by the world’s tallest man, the world’s longest fingernails, the world’s heaviest twins, and the woman with the world’s thinnest waist. (In the years since, I’ve read countless other reference books to pieces, including Leonard Herman’s ABC to the VCS: A directory of software for the Atari 2600, which helped me pave the way for my Classic Home Video Games series).”

I should also mention near the beginning of this review that the title of the book is a bit misleading – it was “1989-1990” in the title, but it covers games that were published well into the 21st century (like King of Fighters 2003). The years in the title simply refer to the years the hardware mentioned in the book was originally released. This includes the Sega Genesis, Neo-Geo, and the TurboGrafx-16.

The opening sections for each console has a nice roundup of info

At the beginning of each console’s section, the book includes a good summary and brief history of the console. Kind of like a paragraph style of the first few sections of our retro gaming 101 posts.

In each console section, games are listed in strict alphabetical order, which is good for looking up a game. However, being the web-connected retro gamer that I am, I’m thinking I would only jump to the book if a quick Google search didn’t do the trick.

The disadvantage to the alphabetical order was apparent when I got to the listing for The Last Blade. The first thing the summary does is call back to Samurai Shodown. This is fine assuming you are familiar with Samurai Shodown. But for a reference guide, I’d like to see fewer assumptions about what the reader already knows.

Mr. Weiss does, however, take advantage of having the games in alphabetic order by showing the progression of a series such as Baseball Stars, The King of Fighters, or Metal Slug.

Although, most series installments were written about adequately, I was surprised in particular, how little was written about Fatal Furry Mark of the Wolves. Considering how different that installment was and how much of an achievement it was for the Neo-Geo, I was disappointed that the write-up was quite brief – taking up the same amount of space as the write-up of Ghost Pilots next to it.

This book could, theoretically, be nice for discovery of new games to try as well. However, the lack of screenshots hampers this a bit. (more on that later)

Typical page: could be improved with screenshots instead of cover art

Each game write-up includes the title, publisher, genre, number of players (and if simultaneous players) and the year it was published. The write-up itself features about one full paragraph (120 words or so) that gives you the basic run-down of the game. While these descriptions are much more useful than most promotional text the games publisher provides, it would be nice to have more critical analysis of some of the games.

When I first flipped through the book, I thought that the somewhat brief write ups wouldn’t provide much useful information, however, once I really started reading, I felt like I got a good idea of what the game was like.

Fortunately, the write-ups usually gave an overall impression of if the game was mediocre, fun, or one of the best of the system. The better games of the system typically received the benefit of a higher work count, but don’t expect a full page dedicated to them. There were a number of instances where I found myself wanting to know a bit more about a certain game mechanic in a title, but it wasn’t too major of a complaint.

The writing throughout the book is above average. It’s better than a lot of writing you will find on the topic through your online journeys. However, ever now and then I would run into a cliché that would strike me the wrong way. The example that struck me the hardest was the opening line to Metal Slug’s summary: “Metal Slug is essentially Contra on steroids.” Maybe it’s because the “on steroids” analogy is one of my pet peeves, but I found that sentence to be quite lazy for such an important game. (Plus, there’s that assumption that the reader is familiar with Contra.)

Even though Mr. Weiss is a good writer, having screenshots (at least for a healthy percentage of the games) would have added a lot more to the book. The only artwork is the occasional box cover (in black and white) which isn’t especially useful – especially considering most of them use up a lot of space on the page.

Many times, with games I wasn’t familiar with, my mind started imagining what the game looked like (like the pictures your mind paints when reading a novel). This is where screenshots would be extremely helpful. Imagination is great in a novel, but you don’t really want to guess what a game looks like.

I realize quality screenshots are harder to track down, but in the grand scheme of things, it would have made a huge difference in the experience. Perhaps, if they do a second edition of the books in this series, this can be the first improvement. (On a side note – grayscale screenshots would still have a hard time competing in this generation of YouTube gameplay videos.)

I would look forward to someday enjoying an e-book version that had links/embeds of video clips. It would make an amazing reference guide on something like an iPad or tablet. If I had all the time in the world, it’s something I would love to collaborate with Mr. Weiss on. (Maybe in a few years)

The book is a healthy size -- plenty of solid work went into this guide

Now, in case you haven’t already jumped over to Amazon.com, it is definitely worth mentioning that this book retails for $55. I got a review copy of this book for free and I enjoyed reading it, but I’m not sure if I would be putting down $55 anytime real soon. I totally understand all the exhausting work that went into putting this comprehensive book together, but I would only recommend this book at $55 to only the most hardcore retro gaming collectors. Fortunately, many people in that demographic visit this site, but it is worth noting.

Also, keep in mind, this book only covers three different consoles. If you collect all three of them, this would be an excellent addition to your library. If your focus is on some other older consoles, you should probably look into the earlier books in the series to see if they would suit you better.

It would be nice if collectors could choose some multiple volumes that only focus on one console at a time. I realize this concept is a harder sell to a traditional publisher, but I think this is another instance where the e-Book situation (or even print-on-demand) would work nicely. Maybe this is my business mind thinking too much, but it is something that Mr. Weiss considers in the future.

Anyway, if you’re interested in purchasing Classic Home Video Games 1989-1990, you can find it at Amazon in addition to checking out the McFarland Publishing website or call them at 800-253-2187.

22 Comments

  1. A fair and candid assessment, which isn’t always easy when you get the product for free. Nice write up. I love the premise, but that price point is a little too high. I’d pay $30 for that in hardback, with the shortcomings you listed as a given.

  2. racketboy says:

    Yeah, I hate writing negative reviews (not that it was overly negative), but I also want to stay authentic and truthful.

    And I totally understand how much work went into the book — which is one way of justifying the price. However, from the consumer’s standpoint, $55 is a hard sell for most people.

  3. Hazerd says:

    344 pages for 1 year of home consoles, and this book just is crying Sega, NeoGeo fanboyism, something im definitely not interested in, maybe if he expanded it from like 1985-1995 and wasnt so focused on Sega i would be interested, also this book is $50+, no thanks.

  4. racketboy says:

    Hazerd, this is just one volume in a series. His previous volumes covered older consoles. And I would assume the next one includes the SNES and one or two others. There is no fanboyism involved. It’s all very objective.

  5. Hazerd says:

    My bad, didnt realize he had other books in the series :x, will be looking forward then.

  6. Hazerd says:

    Here’s hoping he does all the way up to the current gen!

  7. kv says:

    “I should also mention near the beginning of this review that the title of the book is a bit misleading – it was “1989-1990” in the title, but it covers games that were published well into the 21st century (like King of Fighters 2003).”

    I was wondering about the title. Glad you mentioned this in the review.

    This book looks awesome and there probably is a dearth of this material printed about non-Nintendo systems. Interesting review; I’ll check out the amazon page now.

  8. Sarge says:

    Yeah, I saw one of these, and was intrigued, but it’s just too much to pay for something like this. I’d much rather get some of the GameSpite Quarterlies, there’s some great writing there.

  9. shallowgamer says:

    I wrote a mini-review on the first book in the series on Amazon; I had many of the same complaints. My big positive comment is that while ALL of this info can be found online in seconds, I like the thought of having a reference book at hand.

  10. JerkFace Killah says:

    “I would look forward to someday enjoying an e-book version that had links/embeds of video clips. It would make an amazing reference guide on something like an iPad or tablet.”

    Someone needs to start on this ASAP. Now that iBooks Author is out on the Mac, anyone can make their own interactive guide for iOS with embedded video and external references. I mentioned it in the forums, but no one seemed interested, http://www.racketboy.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=35696

    As a side project, I am re-making an NES instruction manual in iBooks Author just to see how it comes out. I’ll keep you guys posted.

    Oh, and great write-up Racket! I look forward to more book reviews.

  11. BRIK says:

    Looks like a great book, but I lost all interest in purchasing it once I saw the price. Sorry, but it’s a bit too steep for me.

  12. Hugo Gonzalez says:

    Not bad for a reference book on all three books and the information they contain. Could not afford them, had to loan them from my library where I work. Worth looking into, it helped my listings of games I am still looking for. Good thing for (I.L.L) Inner Library Loan program; Perhaps 30 dollars it be worth it, but need 55 dollars to buy certain games. I really recommend these books to the superfan gamers out there.

  13. I would absolutely love to browse through this book but coming in at nearly $60 is just way out of my range for a book that only covers three systems. Even if they’re three systems I do collect for.

  14. Brett Weiss says:

    Thanks to racketboy for taking the time to review my book.

    My goal with Classic Home Video Games is to make a comprehensive movie review type of series for videogames–something that has never been done before–and I think I’m succeeding in this regard.

    As for the pricing, that’s out of my hands. McFarland publishes niche market books with textbook-style binding and has the prices to match. My first two books (1972-1984 and 1985-1988) are available on Amazon Kindle for $19 or so each if anyone wants to go that route.

    Thanks for reading and happy gaming!

  15. Brett Weiss says:

    Oh, and by the way, if any of you wants to take a look at some of my creative writing, check out my
    Amazon Kindle book of short stories, which sells for just $2.99 and includes a 7200-word story about a classic arcade:

    http://www.amazon.com/Filtered-Future-Science-Fiction-ebook/dp/B00723OO1E/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1327722260&sr=8-1

  16. racketboy says:

    Thanks for being a good sport, Brett.
    Very cool about the Kindle Editions — I’m a Kindle addict anyway.
    I might have to give those a look and eventually do another review 🙂

  17. Brett Weiss says:

    No problem–all’s fair in love and book publishing.

    If anyone wants to read sample pages from any of my books, here are the links:

    http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/contents-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4172-3

    http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/contents-2.php?id=978-0-7864-3660-6

    http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/contents-2.php?id=978-0-7864-3226-4

    And, just to show that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, here’s a very different review of my first book (which has the same basic format as my new book) from the noted film critic John Muir. It appeared in the Vol. 1 No. 4 of the GameCulture Journal.

    Review by John Muir

    In 2008, it will be thirty years since the Atari VCS made the brand name Atari virtually synonymous with the term “video game.” With this cultural milestone on the horizon, it is the perfect time for author Brett Weiss to unleash this mammoth guide of home video games marketed in the heyday of the 2600.

    Classic Home Video Games, 1972-1984 (2007; McFarland, $55.00) includes detailed chapters on every game console released during this epoch. That’s sixteen systems in all; from Adventure Vision and the Atari 2600 to Telstar Arcade and Vectrex. The text also includes a thorough catalog of every cartridge released for each system, including ports of popular coin-operated arcade games. The appendices offer a useful and highly detailed glossary as well as a brief look at homebrew games.

    In a personal and well-written preface, Weiss introduces the reader to the subject matter while pinpointing the historical context; the birth of video games in the seventies and the early Age of Reagan. The author discusses Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s assertion in the eighties that video games were “hazardous” to the health of children. Weiss then proceeds to explain in convincing terms why this was a bum rap.

    Weiss’s argument begins with a bit of industry background (especially regarding video game pioneers Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell), but ultimately it is the author’s sense of personal connection to the format that points to the inherent value of the games and consoles of the era.

    Just as many film writers gaze upon the maligned format of the horror film as a healthy avenue of catharsis, Weiss convincingly suggests the same is true for the video games of the Golden Age. “Video games give players control of a closed, finite universe, governed by a specific set of rules, as opposed to actual life, where we often wing it as we go along,” he writes. “There’s rational, almost sympathetic logic to video games that reality lacks…Video games are no substitute for real world pleasures…but they do provide a nice reprieve from real world woes.”

    In other words, Weiss finds order (and thus comfort) in the world of classic video games such as Space Invaders, Zaxxon, and Defender. He also notes the interactivity of the video game as an improvement over television, which he sees as a more passive experience. Perhaps the video game is indeed as close as we can get to playing God. Here, as Weiss suggests, we can re-boot existence if we make a mistake. Here, we control the fates of armies and spaceships, men and Pac-Men.

    The Book’s sixteen game system entries follow the same easily-digestible format. The entries commence with a detailed description of the console/joysticks and usually feature a black-and-white photograph of a system in question. Then Weiss runs down a history of brand (for example, the Astrocade): when it was released; how many game cartridges were available; success or failure in the marketplace; and the limitations and strengths of the system as a vehicle for game play.

    After a discussion of the console, Weiss launches into wide-ranging alphabetical surveys of every cartridge available for the system, noting publisher, developer, and year of release. Following this data is a paragraph-long critical assessment. There are hundreds of game reviews in the Atari 2600 section alone.

    Weiss’s deep familiarity with his chosen subject matter is an asset of the text, and as a writer he conveys information clearly and without pretension. The author makes readers aware of games that became notorious in their day; whether for reasons good, bad or obscure. The Atari 2600’s misbegotten E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and port of Pac-Man are two of that console’s most notorious failures, for instance, and Weiss explains why this is so and how each Waterloo contributed to the “Video Game Crash” of 1984.

    But Classic Home Video Games also delves deeper, and Weiss’s reviews of obscure games make the book a treasure. He remembers, for example, Spectravision’s 1983 Chase the Chuckwagon—an Atari 2600 game based on a Ralston Purina dog food commercial.

    Individual game cartridges in Classic Home Video Games tend to stress playability. Weiss also spends much time comparing and contrasting port games with their coin-op antecedents, noting for instance, how the original, real-life Cold War/nuclear war context was removed for the Atari 2600 version of Missile Command, replaced with a remote science fiction setting on another planet.

    If anything can be determined lacking this impressive and fun book, it’s only this: a clearly-defined set of aesthetics rigorously and objectively applied to each game. This isn’t a rap on Weiss or his work: the aesthetic criteria of video games have not been adequately codified given the relative youth of the form and the hesitancy on the part of some to consider video games an art form. That established, this book—though undeniably smart, historically valuable and wide-ranging in coverage, doesn’t pick up that gauntlet to a significant degree.

    Still, the breadth of coverage here is astounding. The text’s organization (by game system, and alphabetically by cartridge) permits for quick, easy reference, and I was delighted to find included here games that I had only hazy memories of from my youth, such as the Atari 5200’s Astro Chase and a highly frustrating game called Beam Rider. I was also tantalized by the fact that there were Atari 2600 video game versions of horror movies such as Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that I never even heard of, much less played. The latter allows a person to play as Leatherface! What I wouldn’t do to pop those game cartridges into my refurbished Atari 2600 today.

    For those who lived through the Atari-Intellivision-ColecoVision-Vectrex “Golden Age,” Classic Home Video Games is a fun read and a nostalgic trip supreme. For those who arrived on the scene later, this book still fulfills an important purpose; charting the pre-history and trajectory of the video game boom, the opening chapter of a medium that continues on a blazing ascent.

  18. Alex says:

    the 85-88 sounds good,, I cant afford though

  19. Phillyman says:

    I have his book covering the 1972-1984 systems, but these books are really expensive. In the past few months I have picked up probably around 20 different video game books on all types of topics. I am close to finishing “All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture”

  20. Widgetcraft says:

    It sounds cool, but $30 would be the maximum I would want to pay for it. I would also much prefer it in ebook form for my Kindle, as I really don’t like dealing with physical books anymore. This would be a book that I would really enjoy reading on-the-go, so the hardback is a definite no.

  21. Brett Weiss says:

    My first two books are available on Kindle for less than $20 each:

    http://www.amazon.com/Classic-Video-Games-1972-1984-ebook/dp/B004V9MVQM/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2

    http://www.amazon.com/Classic-Video-Games-1985-1988-ebook/dp/B002U0KDP0/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2

    And I learned earlier this week that Classic Home Video Games, 1989-1990 will be available on Kindle within a month or so.

  22. Brett Weiss says:

    Classic Home Video Games, 1972-1984 is now available in soft cover for only $25, pre-ordered through Amazon. I got my copies yesterday, so the wait shouldn’t be long if you decide to go ahead and pre-order it:

    http://www.amazon.com/Classic-Home-Video-Games-1972-1984/dp/0786469382/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1331653131&sr=1-5