published Tuesday, Oct 06th
Despite a long and interesting life, there are very few books dedicated to recounting the history of the humble video game, unlike other media. If you take motion pictures for example, there are thousands of books offering in-depth details of filmic techniques, the birth and life of individual studios and biographies of some of the biggest and most influential figures in the industry. Video games haven’t been half as lucky; there’s nothing to chronicle the works of Miyamoto-San, or examine the media’s influence on pop-culture in detail. Though while it’s easy to bemoan the lack of coverage in your local book store there are a few great examples already on the shelves that offer deep and fascinating insights into this past time we love and cherish. Two of the better known books we would recommend are the excellent Game Over by David Sheff, which delves into the illustrious history of the Japanese giant, Nintendo and Trigger Happy, a look at how the design of aesthetics and interaction in games has evolved since its inception, by EDGE columnist Steven Poole. Another member of the EDGE alumni, former editor Joao Diniz Sanches, will be hoping his new guide to the world of gaming will be just as essential.
The Video Gaming Manual is Joao’s second video gaming reference guide, the first being the comprehensive Driving Games Manual, which looks at the evolution of that genre over the years. Both have been published by Haynes, who are probably better known as purveyors of car maintenance books. They have a deserved reputation for providing highly detailed and easy to use car guides, and this experience has been applied to good effect in this book; alongside the clear, concise writing style you’d expect from an EDGE editor this is a match made in heaven. The influence from Joao’s work in magazines is very apparent in the book’s layout; most publications have to finely gauge the copy-to-pictures ratio to fit in with the intended audience for example, something EDGE and this book balance particularly well.
The subtitle, ‘the essential guide to modern and retro gaming platforms’ alludes to the main content of the book, but this isn’t intended to be just a breezy flick through every platform ever made. There are two sections dedicated to the history of the gaming scene and some of the terminology used in gaming. The first introduces some of the history of the gaming scene. Given that this could fill an entire publication of its own this is kept fairly brief. There is a look into the birth of the modern video game, plus an overview of the main advancements and events in each of the subsequent four decades. Strangely, most of the images used in this section a from new, or upcoming releases, rather than some of the iconic titles of yesteryear. The section ends with a look at modern games and the roles of the people involved in their creation, which is quite insightful for people looking for a career in the creation of games, or who want a better understanding of how they come to be. Section two delves into the elements that come together to make up what we call ‘gaming’. There are chapters about the technology involved (peripherals, game media, A/V solutions etc.) and the culture (online gaming, retro collections, the import scene), which rounds off the introduction nicely and gives some context to the consoles and games described in the following section.
On to the meat of the book – the look at gaming platforms through the ages. Nearly every major console or format has its own section, from the Atari VCS/2600 all the way up to the Playstation 3. Each section includes a look at the consoles history, technical specs, games released for it, and twelve key exclusive titles that provide the best gaming experiences the console had/has to offer. After every generation (8-Bit, 16-Bit etc.) there is a further look at noteworthy multi-format titles released in that era. The ‘key titles’ included may be quite contentious – as with any ‘best of’ list, which are usually very personal – but on the whole they represent some of the finest games on their respective consoles. Far be it for us to pick apart Joao’s choices but the addition of FIFA 2010 to the current-gen multi-format list is a bit odd, seeing as at the time of publication it hadn’t actually been released.
The section on individual formats is not as comprehensive as we’d hoped; obviously to include every single format would have been practically impossible without running up hundreds of pages and causing the book to weigh as much as your average stereo-typical World of Warcraft player, so wisely there are some formats snipped from the list (don’t expect to read anything about the Intellivision, Neo-Geo or Amstrad 464 here). But there are some note-worthy home consoles that don’t get any mention at all. The entire handheld scene is completely ignored for example, so there are no sections about the Game Boy or its subsequent dominance of the market, and zip about its early rivals (Game Gear, Lynx, Neo-Geo pocket) or later siblings (GB Color, GBA, DS). Likewise, PC gaming is forgotten, as a gaming format it has been around for as long as the VCS so maybe whittling down twenty-five years into six pages may have been a bit of a tall order.
The introduction acknowledges the lack of coverage, but in doing so this book misses out on the key titles, and advancements in technology and design that the PC and handheld formats have brought to the industry. It is disappointing games that gave birth to or standardised entire genres such as Doom, Command & Conquer and World of Warcraft are not included, and the popularity of handheld games like Tetris, Brain Training or Pokemon were surely essential inclusions given their impact in transcending gaming stereotypes. Perhaps these will be covered in a later edition, or given an entire book of their own – judging by the quality of this guide, we’d be very happy to see Joao tackle these formats some day.
On the whole, this is an excellent source of knowledge and really is a great read for anyone looking to further their knowledge of video game culture and its history. The writing throughout is very accessible regardless of your knowledge of the subject, and Joao doesn’t overuse techno-babble without giving a clear explanation first, so if you wanted your parents or partner to get a better understanding of your hobby, this is the book to give them. The small and exclusive group of essential video gaming guides has just got a new member.