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.
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.
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)
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)
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.