The Commodore 64 in Pixels by Chris Wilkins [Book review]

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Reading retro books can sometimes start to feel a little repetitive and predictable. The best articles and books focus on the memories of people actually involved at the time and inevitably, there are limitations on who you can talk to. Some people aren’t interested in engaging with the retro community, some can’t be easily traced, others have, sadly, died. As such, the same names and the same tales tend to crop up time and time again.

Chris Wilkins, then, should be applauded for trying to find a new way to present a retro gaming publication. Whilst the Commodore 64 in Pixels has interviews with many of the people you would expect (Geoff Brown of US Gold, the late Fergus McGovern, The Oliver Twins, Archer Maclean), it also features articles on subjects that aren’t written about as frequently: the C64 demo scene, people involved in developing the hardware of the machine or the more modern phenomenon of remixing old SID tunes for CD compilations and live performances.

He should also be applauded for not just focussing popular games, as many other retro publications have done. The Commodore 64 in Pixels, to a large extent, lives up to the breadth of coverage suggested by its title. Sure, it has mini features on some of the best-remembered games and interviews with top programmers. However, it also doesn’t neglect the hardware sign of things, with a section tracing the origins of the machine and the various iterations of C64-based hardware and another on the famous SID chip. This, however, proves to be something of a double-edged sword.

Presentation throughout is excellent. There were a few minor typos which caused me some minor irritation (mostly because 2 fairly obvious ones appear on the same page right at the start which doesn’t build a great first impression. Putting that aside, though, the book is well put together and carefully edited. It is split into different sections (the games, the hardware etc.), with each section containing a series of articles or sub-chapters (typically 6-8 pages long) looking at one particular element. This proves to be an excellent way of splitting the book into very readable sections, whilst also allowing the reader to skip over anything which doesn’t interest them.

The stand-out element is, undoubtedly, the images. The book is full colour throughout, with huge numbers of screenshots from games, together with pictures of some of the hardware and a selection of magazine adverts from those 8 bit days. The images all look gorgeous, faithfully recapturing the colours of the C64 and inducing a real sense of nostalgia in the reader.

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The articles too are informative. Whilst I have enjoyed Bitmap Books’ similar titles, they have sometimes felt a little light on content – lots and lots of images, but little in the way of text (although this has been addressed to a degree in later publications. The Commodore 64 in Pixels maintains a nice balance between longer interviews and shorter 2 page spreads that showcase the machine’s graphical capabilities. On the whole interviews are interesting and informative and the sheer number of people interviewed means you get a really broad perspective on what life was like as a programmer in the 80s. You sometimes get the impression that a couple of the interviewees are on autopilot, trotting out the same anecdotes you’ve probably read in other retrogaming publications, but this doesn’t spoil the overall quality of the book.

What might be a little more of an issue is that focus I mentioned earlier on some of more esoteric elements of the C64 scene. I’m about as technical as a donkey and even though technical discussions have clearly been simplified and limited as far as possible, I still felt a little lost when things like raster interrupts and sprite multiplexing were being discussed. The article on the SID chip, whilst clearly very well researched didn’t really engage my interest, whilst the sections on the CompuNet demo scene and the revival of 8 bit music through CD compilations and remixes felt a little dull. I admit that this is probably down to personal preference. I’ve never been involved in any of those activities, so they don’t bring the same nostalgic buzz that I get from reading about the games or programmers of the time. Those who were/have experienced them probably got a great deal from them.

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That’s why the variety I mentioned is something of a double-edged sword. The Commodore 64 in Pixels aims to cover all aspects of the machine (during and after its commercial life) and capture why people still have such love for it today. That does inevitably mean that some sections will be more appealing to some people than others. As I mentioned at the start, though, Chris Wilkins should be applauded for trying something different and not just sticking to a tried and tested formula. And for the most part, the format works well.

So would I recommend it? Without a doubt. Whilst I might have enjoyed some articles more than others, there wasn’t a single section which I skipped over and didn’t read. For every one article or interview that I found less interesting, there were 10 that I really enjoyed. That’s a hit-miss ratio I’m more than willing to put up with.

At £20 it’s on the expensive side, but the cost is reflected in the production: high quality, full colour images, glossy paper and an impressive array of interviewees, guest authors and subjects covered.  Available from Fusion Retro Books, if you’re looking for a last-minute Christmas present for the retro gamer in your life, this is well worth considering.

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