Commodore 64: A visual commpendium vol. 2 [Book Review]

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One of Bitmap Books’ earlier titles was the pun-tastic Commodore 64: A Visual Commpendium. Funded via Kickstarter, it focussed on showcasing the graphics of the Mighty Breadbin and was, essentially, a picture book for adults.

Such was the success of the first volume that Bitmap recently returned to the title to produce a second volume. If the original was good, this one is better. Although it follows essentially the same format as the original, it makes a few small tweaks that address at least some of the reservations I had about volume 1.

This is a real feast for the eyes. The main focus is on the graphics: each two page spread covers a single game, and the vast majority of the space is devoted to a single screenshot. As we’ve come to expect from Bitmap Books products, this feels like a premium quality publication. Images look stunning and the colours just explode off the page. They renew your appreciation for how good C64 graphics could be (particularly as the machine got older and programmers learned how to squeeze every last byte from it) and remind you how talented the artists were to produce such good looking graphics within such massive technical constraints. Stick this on your table when friends come around and I guarantee they won’t be able to resist picking it up and flicking though it – even if they don’t have much of an interest in gaming.

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With volume 2, the content has also been beefed up, so that it complements the gorgeous looking images and gives the book a bit more substance. One of my reservations about the original volume was that the text was very sparse – often just a single paragraph containing someone’s recollections of the game. Whilst this allowed the graphics to speak for themselves, it did mean that the book itself felt a little light and could easily be read from cover to cover in around 30 minutes.

Volume 2 strikes a much better balance between content and visuals. Although the format for most entries remains the same (double page spread with a brief paragraph of text), there are some longer pieces, including interviews with programmers and features on particular software companies. There’s a section on the Compunet demo scene that took off in the 80s, although personally, I found this the weakest section – mainly because I never had the chance to be involved with this, so wasn’t particularly interested in it, either at the time or now.

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For the most part though, the interviews and features are both interesting and well-written. Sure, it was noticeable that many of the interviewees and the anecdotes they shared were very similar to those in Chris Wilkins’ Commodore 64 in Pixels, but I guess there are only a certain number of people willing to talk about their time in the industry and only so many anecdotes they remember. In that sense, this publication perhaps suffered a little in that I read it so close to Chris Wilkins’ book, but really that was my fault, rather than that of the book.

The other slight niggle was something I moaned about with volume 1. The selection of games included appears pretty random, with no explanation as to why they were selected. Are they particular favourites of the author(s)? Were they selected by a group of people and if so, what criteria were used to decide whether a particular game was included or not? Are they just the ones that didn’t fit into volume 1? I know this is a minor point, but I’m a bit geeky like that and I like to know this stuff! On the other hand, the authors should be praised for including a massive range of titles. Whilst many of the usual suspects appear, there are some more unusual, left-field choices, which gives the book a broader scope and can even introduce you to games you weren’t aware of.

The book is available in two versions from the Bitmap Books website. You can buy either buy both editions (i.e. this book and its predecessor) as a single 476 page hardback volume (for £29.99) or, if you already have the first book, you can buy volume 2 for £24.99, together with a card case that will house both books. Either offers great value for money for anyone who owned a C64 in the 80s or who has developed a love for it since.

If you have the original, buying volume 2 is a no-brainer. If you missed out on volume 1, don’t make the same mistake again! A beautifully designed, well-written love letter to Commodore’s best-loved machine, this belongs on the shelf of any self-respecting retrogamer.

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