The Story of US Gold by Chris Wilkins and Roger M Kean [Book Review]

US Gold book

To anyone of a certain age, the name US Gold will trigger any number of memories – from the gold medallion badge and US National Anthem that played whilst games were loading to the games themselves that somehow seemed just a little different and more exotic than the fare offered by most British developers. Chis Wilkins and Roger Kean clearly share this fascination and have produced this Kickstarter-funded history of the Birmingham giant.

Like the authors’ previous efforts (a history of Ocean Software), the book is split into two sections. The first is an in-depth look at the company, seen through the eyes of founder Geoff Brown and other key personnel. The second contains recollections from programmers and developers associated with US Gold over the years.

I have to start off by saying that I didn’t enjoy the US Gold book as much as its predecessor. Don’t get me wrong: it remains a very enjoyable read, but I didn’t quite get the same buzz from reading about US Gold as I did from the Ocean volume. Perhaps the Ocean book was so good that my expectations were too high, but whatever the cause I finished the book with a mild, if non-specific feeling of disappointment.

Still, let’s not dwell on the negatives too early, since it’s still a great read. The history section is particularly strong, and it’s clear that a lot of effort has gone into researching and tracing the company from its humble origins through to its dominant market position. The chronological narrative is the result of many interviews and discussions with some of the key figures behind the company and is packed full of anecdotes and personal insights into how US Gold operated.

Many of the contributors are also refreshingly honest. It’s not quite a warts and all account, but neither is it an uncritical acclamation of everything US Gold did. Interviewees are candid about some of the sharp business practices US Gold pursued they are quite willing to tell stories that don’t always cast themselves or the company in the best light. There are honest accounts of some of the company’s more notorious ventures (particularly the debacle surrounding the release of World Cup Carnival in 1986). Similarly the authors are not afraid to present different accounts of the same events based on the conflicting recollections of their interviewees, which makes for an interesting read.

You do sometimes feel that you are only getting part of the story and that input is missing from several key players. In particular, Geoff Brown’s ex-wife Ann is referenced many times, but is not interviewed, whilst PR guru Danielle Woodyatt receives only brief attention, despite playing a critical role in managing US Gold’s relationship with the influential Newsfield publications, Crash and Zzap!64. I fully understand that the authors can only interview people they can track down and who agree to talk to them, but it does sometimes feel as though you are only getting part of the story.

There are a few occasions when opinions can also tip over into mild (though never anything more) unpleasantness. There are several at Walsall based Elite Software, not all of which come across as tongue in cheek and some of which seem slightly snobby and dismissive. Similarly, there were a few observations which, whilst commendably honest, might have been better kept private.

Where the book is weaker is in the seeming lack of passion for the games themselves from the interviewees either at the time or retrospectively. It’s fairly clear that for many people at US Gold games were nothing more than a product. The Ocean book dripped passion –the contributors wanted to make the best game they could and still look back on their creations with fondness. For US Gold, it was about making money. This is shown in the increased amount of business and financial information contained in the book – something that was of less interest to me personally.

The two parts of the book also didn’t quite feel as cohesive. Whilst the programmer/developer accounts are interesting enough, many of them deal only briefly or tangentially with US Gold itself and are more reflections on the 80s software scene generally, rather than US Gold specifically. This probably reflects the fact that US Gold (for much of its lifespan) didn’t employ programmers in the same way that Ocean did, relying instead on outsourcing work. As such, you don’t get the same insight from them into working at US Gold.

Visually, the book is a delight. Liberally scattered with a range of material from screenshots of US Gold games to iconic cover art and adverts; from photographs of US Gold buildings (both then and now) to pictures of interviewees (again, then and now), it looks great. Geoff Brown and his colleagues have clearly kept a lot of US Gold related memorabilia, and this is used to good effect to illustrate the book, with barely a page that doesn’t contain at least one image.

So, allowing for the fact that I didn’t think this volume was quite as good as the Ocean history, would I still recommend it? Absolutely! The weaknesses I’ve mentioned are all minor and nowhere near big enough to undermine what is remains a fascinating, well-written and well-designed volume.

If you were a gamer in the 1980s or 1990s, then US Gold titles would have been a big part of your life. This nostalgic look back keeps the right balance between honesty and nostalgia and is a must-read for any gamer in their late 30s/early 40s.

Available from Fusion Retro Books for £25

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