|In reviewing this book, I
was reminded of advertising for the movie "Ace Ventura Pet Detective."
If you recall, it read "He's the best there is...He's the only one there
Despite the fact that home videogames have been around for at least 25 years now, no major book publisher has yet devoted a tome to their history. I've found books on neckties of the 40's, board games of the 60' s, art deco lamps of the 50's, Cracker Jacks, and just about any TV show, toy, novelty or other pop culture item you can remember-except for videogames!
Other than strategy guides, there have been only a handful of videogame-related books released over the years. "Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari" is an excellent historical account, but it deals only with one company and it ends in the pre-Nintendo era of 1983. "Hackers" contains a lot of information, but it mostly deals with computers and the colorful personalities who brought them into the mainstream. "Game Over" deals with the business side of Nintendo's domination of the industry. "Joystick Nation" tries to relate videogames to primal instincts and mythology. None of these books present a fact-filled, unbiased history of all the companies and their systems and games.
So when I say that Leonard Herman's book is the best account of the history of videogames, I am not being sarcastic. I realize that "Phoenix" is the only one there is, but it is exactly the sort of book that mainstream publishers should have released a long time ago.
"Phoenix" traces the history of videogames from computer history, Space War and Pong through the Atari 2600 age, the dawn of Nintendo, and the latest 32-bit and 64-bit machines Every year after 1976 has its own chapter detailing the systems, the games. the company mergers. the press releases, and any other videogame-related history which occurred that year The fact that the index at the back of the book is 11 pages long gives you some idea of how in-depth this book gets. Anyone and anything related to videogame history which deserves a mention gets one. There is also a bibliography listing the few mainstream books and magazine articles concerning videogames which can be found.
The book reads like a school textbook, which is appropriate since it details the history of videogames. There are no direct quotes from or interviews of those involved in the industry. Mr Herman does not add his own asides or show bias towards or against any particular game, system, person or company
There are no "grand predictions" of the future of videogames or any personal "what I would do if I ran a videogame company" essays Instead of such distractions, the book simply reports who did what and when. People who are not as interested in videogames may find it a bit dry perhaps, but its purpose is not to entertain but to inform. Those of us who are intensely involved in playing, collecting, and writing about videogames will find the book to be an indispensable resource.
For those of you familiar with the first edition, as I was, you might be wondering what's new about the second edition. Is it worth it to buy another copy?
Well, for starters, the original book ended in 1993 Even though this was a scant four years ago in real time, it seems like decades as far as videogames are concerned In 1993, none of the current next generation systems-the Sony PlayStation, the Sega Saturn, and the Nintendo 64-had been released. Now-defunct systems such as the Atari Jaguar, 3DO, Sega CD. and CD-I were just starting their brief lives The second edition of "Phoenix" brings the history of videogames up to date by including chapters on 1994, 1995, and 1996
The original edition also lacked pictures The second edition contains some 134 pictures including photos of such rarities as the Atari Mindlink, the Ultravision VAS, and the RDI Halcyon. While the pictures are quite small, and only in black and white, they do add another dimension to the book.
The first edition had appendices dealing with Multimedia and Virtual Reality-probably the most overused words of the 1990's. The problem with writing about a subject based on ever-changing technology is that you never know where it is going to go. Many things that seemed like the next wave in the early 1980's, such as laserdisc arcade games, fizzled while others, such as gaming by phone, took a lot longer to catch on than people expected. Mr Herman has therefore replaced the Multimedia and Virtual Reality appendices with ones on game playing computers and the Internet. He has also included a list of videogame-related Web sites and newsgroups.
Finally, the official title has been changed from "The Fall & Rise of Home Videogames" to "The Fall & Rise of Videogames." Although the emphasis is still on home systems, Mr Herman now acknowledges the impact of certain coin-op videogames and computer videogames. Aside from the new chapter on computers, there are additions to earlier chapters relating to games and systems which may have been neglected in the first edition.
Of course, what book review would be complete without a little criticism? I understand that color pictures would be cost prohibitive, especially on an independent project like this one. However, in my review copy some of the screen shots were too dark to be seen.
As mentioned earlier, the first edition covered the history of videogames through 1993. The second edition includes chapters covering 1993 to 1996, photographs, and expanded coverage of computer/game machines and arcade games yet is still the same length-292 pages. How? The font size has been decreased so that the book has 45 lines per page instead of 28. While the font still is legible, it is not as easy to read as the first edition. In this case, that is the sacrifice which must be made for the new chapters and pictures. However, if there is to be a third edition, I can't imagine the font getting any smaller! Mr. Herman will probably have to break his work into two volumes-the first 25 years (1972-1997), and the next 25 years (1997-2022). May we all live that long to see it!
The occasional spelling or grammatical errors that crept into the first edition have largely been corrected. However, one or two small errors were found in my review copy. I do note, however, that the final copy is subject to change. These criticisms are all minor and do not detract from my enjoyment of the book.
I do have a few suggestions for a future edition. however. In the foreword by Videotopia's Keith Feinstein, he notes that when the mainstream media happens to mention videogames, they usually get their facts wrong. Along those lines, I would welcome an Appendix of "firsts"-the first programmable system (Channel F?), the first arcade game licensed for the home (Taito's Space Invaders?), the first coin-op to use a trak ball (Atari's Football?), the first game to use shadows to simulate 3-D (Sega's Zaxxon?), the first game system to use CD-ROMs (NEC TurboGrafx 16?), and so forth. Although most of these "firsts" will relate to coin-op games and not home games, it would still be a great reference. Most of the information can probably be gleaned from the book itself, but it would be nice to have a specific page to refer to.
My last suggestion relates to the preservation of videogames as history and culture. Mr. Herman gives credit to Ed Federmeyer for creating new 2600 games and the Cyberpunks for preserving the Starpath Supercharger games through "Stella Gets A New Brain." He also refers to Videotopia, the traveling exhibit on the history of videogames. Perhaps he could also include an appendix listing other organizations or projects and how readers can get involved. The untimely death of Digital Press Senior Writer Kevin Oleniacz caused me to think about what would happen to my collection if I also passed away. Rather than throwing everything out, I'd prefer my wife to donate everything to an organization devoted to preserving videogames. Who knows? I may have something quite rare that people would be interested in seeing years from now.
In the absence of a permanent videogame museum (in Silicon Valley where it belongs), and until the mainstream press decides that videogames are a subject worth writing about, the best source of history and information continues to be Leonard Herman's "Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames." Mr. Herman ought to be commended for his efforts on behalf of our hobby. If you don't already own a copy, you owe it to yourself to get one. If you already have the first edition. the new additions and changes in the second edition make it worth a look.
reviewed by Mark Androvich