A while ago I noted that book reviews on my blog consistently attract more hits than other posts. As a result, I asked readers to suggest other titles I could try out. The one suggestion I received (you miserable lot – there must be more out there to recommend!) was the A-Z of Cool Computer Games by Jack Railton.
The book (first published in 2005) takes a nostalgic look at the computer games of yesterday, particularly those of the 8 and 16-bit era. It takes us on a random tour of titles that are deemed to be “cool” (dreadful word) in the eyes of the author – whether because he has fond memories of playing them, or because they became mega sellers, or because they had a lasting influence on the development of gaming. So far, so good.
The book is arranged alphabetically (well, sort of – more on this later) with short entries focussing on a particular topic or game. Typically, entries will be 1-2 pages long making it easy to pick up and read a bit at a time or just sit and read the whole thing. Providing a mixture of factual information and anecdotes about the games and their influence, entries contain a decent amount of information, without bogging the reader down in too much detail.
Despite this, I found it rather difficult to read. Normally with books like this, I’ll read a few entries a night before I go to bed and get through the whole thing in about a week. Cool Computer Games probably took me closer to six months. I just couldn’t seem to get into it . It wasn’t that I didn’t like it exactly; I was just ambivalent about it and so it remained unopened on my bedside table for days (even weeks) at a time.
Part of this was down to the organisation of the book, which I felt made it a little disjointed. Rather than a straight alphabetical listing (as the title implies), content was split into a number of different chapters. One looked at computer games; one at “amusement arcades”; another at the machines prevalent at the time etc. This was fine to an extent, except that some text was frequently highlighted in bold (indicating that it had its own entry somewhere in the book). If you wanted to go off and read that entry, you couldn’t just flip to the appropriate place in the alphabetical listing, you first had to decide which of the book’s sections it might appear in. Similarly, some entries didn’t refer to specific games, but game genres, which I felt was cheating a little. If you’re going to call your book the A-Z of Cool Computer Games, you really should focus on specific titles and not try to sum up entire genres in a couple of hundred words. Somehow, this had a greater impact on the book’s readability than you might expect.
Some of the issues I had were down to weaknesses in the book itself, although in fairness, many more were probably due when I actually read it. For example, I felt it had dated rather badly and some of the terminology used was definitely early 21st century. For example, the author frequently refers to “amusement arcades” – a term that was still just about current when the book was written in 2005, but which sounds horribly dated ten years on (and, depressingly, many younger readers possibly won’t know what they are!). In fairness, this is more my fault for leaving it 10 years to read the book, rather than a failure with the book itself.
Equally, some of the content felt dated. Whilst the information and anecdotes were readable and interesting enough, if you’re an established retro gamer, there is scarcely any information that you won’t already know. In fairness, the book is probably aimed more at the general interest reader, rather than the avid retro gamer – and again, when the book was first published, many of the stories in it probably were less well known.
Perhaps a fairer criticism relates to the lack of images. Whilst there are a few glossy full-colour screenshots part way through the book, the majority of the entries are just text. Presumably this was done to keep costs down, but given that an important aspect of computer games is their visual appeal, it would have been nice to have more images, spread more evenly throughout the book.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I can see why it is so highly rated and I genuinely wanted to like it, but for some reason I couldn’t. I can’t even really say why that was, since most of the issues I’ve outlined are minor niggles rather than major problems… but there was just something that stopped me from enjoying it as much as I should have done.
If you’re relatively new to the field of retro gaming, then this is a decent place to start, providing a readable, interesting and easily accessible way back into the games you remember fondly from your childhood. If, you’re a more seasoned retro gamer, then it’s unlikely it will tell you anything you don’t already know.
I don’t regret adding it to my collection and I’ll be keeping hold of my copy, but if I ever wrote a feature on my top 30 retro gaming books, it’s unlikely this would make the cut. Still, it’s not expensive to buy (hardback copies go for about £2.80 on Amazon, delivered ) so it’s not going to break the bank if you prefer to ignore me and make up your own mind.