The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L Kent [Book Review]

Ultimate history of video games

Let’s start with some bad news so we can get it over with. The Ultimate History of Video Games is a classic case of a book over-selling itself. A better title would have been The Ultimate History of US Video Games or (even more accurately) of Atari, Sega and Nintendo, since the majority book’s 600 pages focus on those companies. Whilst failed (or merely less popular) ventures like the 3DO, the Magnavox Odyssey or Mattel’s Intellivision get some coverage, it is limited. History, it is said, is written by the winners. That’s certainly the case here.

For non-US readers, it gets worse. There’s virtually no coverage of the industry outside the US (plus Japan to the extent that it affected the US market). The ZX Spectrum or Amstrad are completely ignored, despite being massively important in the development of the European videogames industry. On the rare occasions the existence of Europe is acknowledged, it merely underlines the author’s lack of knowledge. He claims that Llamasoft founder Jeff Minter was known as “The Yak” (it was just “Yak” – from the days when high score tables only allowed 3 letter names). He claims no-one had heard of Rare or DMA Design until 1995 and that Psygnosis’ only hit, pre-Wipeout, was Lemmings. This will come as quite a shock to European readers who fondly remember many of the successful early games produced by those companies!

If you’re being pedantic, you could also take issue that this book is more about the history of the videogame industry, not videogames themselves. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – the book is full of fascinating insights into how the industry evolved – but if you are interested in the history of actual games, you should probably look elsewhere.

Having been rather critical so far, let’s take a look at some of the book’s good points, of which there are many.

In the context of the US games industry, the claims to be “ultimate” can be taken far more seriously, charting the industry from its origins in the 1950s mechanical games through to the start of the 21st century (when the book was first published).

The author certainly doesn’t skimp on content and there is a great deal of depth to the text. It’s obvious Kent has done a massive amount of research and conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with key personnel. This is the story of the industry straight from the horse’s mouth and is an important way of preserving those early years. As the years progress and we sadly lose more and more of those early pioneers (like Ralph Baer), it’s important that we record and document their memories and stories. Kent’s book is an important milestone in doing that, as well as being a fascinating read.

Kent also uses the information he has gathered well and is not afraid to deviate from accepted histories or present alternative viewpoints if the results of his research demand it. If two different interviewees give different recollections of events, for example, he gives both accounts.

Generally speaking, the tone of the book is also objective, acknowledging people’s achievements, but also recognising their mistakes. Nolan Bushnell, the creator of Atari, for example, is usually held up as a gaming god, universally lauded by all. Whilst Kent accords him due respect for his undoubted achievements, he is not afraid to show the other side of Bushnell (supported by the recollections of those who worked with him) – as someone who sometimes believed too much in his own publicity and let his ego get in the way of good business. This gives the book a much more balanced feel than some similar tends which be overly sycophantic.

The book is well written and contains lots of interesting information and fascinating facts. It’s fairly informal tone makes it easy to read and, for most of the 600 pages, it will keep you entertained. Inevitably, there will be some bits you find less interesting (personally I found the accounts of endless litigation between various videogame companies rather dull), but the overall impression is very positive.

One final criticism for a book about a highly visual medium: it’s disappointing that there are so few photographs. Whilst there are a few, they tend to be rather dull (black and white) corporate shots of key figures in the industry, rather than images from the games themselves. This again underlines the fact that – despite the title – this is a book about the videogames industry rather than videogames.

In summary if you can forgive the US-centric text, this is an interesting and informative account of the early years of the videogames industry. It’s complete ignorance of the European industry undermine its claims to be “ultimate” but it’s still a good read that should be on the shelves of any self-respecting retro gamer.

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