100 Best Video Games (that never existed) by Nate Crowley [Book Review]

100 best video games

I sort of asked for this book under a false impression. When I first suggested to my nearest and dearest that Santa might like to deliver it for Christmas I thought (based on the title alone) that it was a book about games that were planned, but never saw the light of day (a print companion to something like Frank Gasking’s Games That Weren’t website). In fact, it goes even further than that. The games in question were never even floated as possible ideas. Indeed, they have never been anything more than the product of author Nate Crowley’s mind.

Let me explain. Instead of writing a proper book about proper old games, Mr. Crowley decided to take a more left-field turn and make up some games. Then he wrote some stuff about them. This probably sounds to you like a very odd premise for a book- and you’d be absolutely right. The result is an insane mix of crazy ideas, made up games, imaginary development houses and fake screenshots. It has no right to work. It should be a disaster. It should have gamers jumping up and down protesting about being made fun of. Yet somehow it doesn’t.

On the evidence of this book, all I can say is that Nate Crowley’s mind is a very odd place – and I mean that in the nicest possible sense. Some of the game concepts he comes up with are odd, surreal, weird, stupid and (just occasionally) all too plausible. He clearly has a pretty decent knowledge of both game design tropes and gaming systems, which helps the book to retain an authentic feel, even when you know it’s all completely made up.

Many of his “games” are based around well-known genres combined with a bizarre, random element (for example, a management sim that revolves around keeping both a cat and a space station happy and operational or a resource management sim based around Noah’s Ark). This mix of plausibility and stupidity helps to stop the book from ever quite becoming either too serious or too ridiculous and gives it sufficient scope to introduce some really daft ideas.

Each entry follows a similar format – a two-page profile of the “game” providing an overview of what it was about, followed by a short “verdict” on its impact, playability or importance to gaming history. The book gets extra marks because each main entry is accompanied by some spurious (and equally fake) artwork, including “screenshots”, “cassette inlays” and “adverts”. OK, so some of these are little more than photo-shopped versions of real games (Kabage, for example, looks very like a Marble Madness or Spindizzy screenshot with a cabbage substituted for the player’s avatar). Most, however, have been done from scratch.

The text itself is often very funny, although this obviously comes with the caveat that humour is a very personal thing. Happily, my brain clearly operates on a similar level to Mr. Crowley’s (this is probably a fact that should worry both of us) and I appreciated the dry, tongue in cheek, surreal (and sometimes stupid) humour. There were many, many times when the book made me laugh out loud, much to the dismay of Mrs. RetroReactiv8, who doesn’t understand the appeal of real computer games, let alone made-up ones. Not all the entries work, but on the whole there are far more hits than misses (Star Trek: Bee on the Bridge and Work Kitchen Anecdote Bastard were particular highlights for me). Some of the developer names were particularly inspired (and again, often all-too-plausible).

Of course, the crux of this book really lies in whether or not you get Nate Crowley’s humour. If you have an appreciation of gaming history and possess a slightly off-beat sense of humour (and are willing to laugh at how pointless (conceptually) the idea of gaming is), then you will find much to like. If you don’t share Crowley’s surreal way of looking at the world, the book might come across as childish or stupid (a view which is likely to be reinforced by the book’s frequent (and often unnecessary) use of profanity, particularly the “F” word). On the whole, though, I’d say that if you’re a gamer, you’ll certainly find something within these pages to raise a smile.

It’s certainly a book that benefits from being dipped into rather than reading from cover to cover. I found it best to read a few entries a day, then put the book down and read something else. If you read it like a normal book and just plough through from beginning to end, you’ll start to spot certain patterns, or be hit by the realization that some of the ideas are repeated with a slightly different focus (but then isn’t that also true of real gaming, where the same basic concepts are endlessly repackaged with new graphics, sound, characters and plots?)

I’ve read lots of books on retro gaming over the years, but this one was very refreshing thanks to its different approach and silly humour. It’s a clever title that combines plausibility with silliness and which takes a fond look at gaming, whilst simultaneously poking fun at the whole industry. Definitely worth a read.

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline [Book Review]

Ready_Player_One

When it comes to books and films, computer games often don’t translate well as subject matter. For every Tron, there’s a Super Mario Brothers, for every Game Boy, an Assassin’s Creed.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline bucks that trend, successfully tapping into the gaming culture (particularly 80s retro gaming) whilst telling an excellent story.

Set in a bleak, dystopian future (is there any other kind?!), it tells the tale of Wade Watts, aka Parzival, a young man who seeks refuge from his awful personal life in a realistic online virtual reality world, called The OASIS (think Second Life on mega steroids). When the creator of The OASIS dies, he leaves a message stating that several riddles and challenges (“easter eggs”) have been hidden inside his world. Whoever manages to find and decipher them will inherit his entire fortune and company.

What follows is an excellent, multi-layered book that is equal parts thriller, mystery and homage to 80s culture (particularly gaming). The story itself is gripping and interesting enough even for non-gamers, although you will certainly get a lot more out of it if you are a fan of 80s arcade games. The sense of an unequal fight between a mega corporation prepared to use all sorts of dirty tricks to win and gain control of the company and the loose, uneasy alliance between Parzival and a small band of other “gunters” (“egg hunters”) is well-told. Whilst the David vs Goliath plotline isn’t particularly original and the final outcome not exactly surprising, these don’t stop making the book a real pleasure to read.

Where the book really succeeds is in creating not just one, but two imaginary worlds. The society in which Wade lives reminded me very much of the one Stephen King created in The Running Man (the book, not the film) – a society sharply divided between the haves and have-nots, where the mass population is left to fend for itself or die. It feels like a very real, unpleasant world, where big corporations rule and the quest for profit takes priority over anything else (sound familiar?). It has more than a few passing resemblances to 21st century society now and it’s not hard to see how we could end up creating this very future if we are not careful.

The world of the OASIS, on the other hand, feels much more appealing and it’s not hard to see why some people choose to spend most of their time in it. It’s essentially a cross between a VR world and an RPG game, with quests complete, skill levels to build and billions of worlds to explore. Any gamer worth their salt will read this and hope that someone builds something like the OASIS very soon, rather than the insipid VR simulations we’ve had to date.

The detail that Cline adds to both of these worlds is incredible. Within both worlds, he creates a superb atmosphere and it doesn’t take long to establish them as “real places” in the reader’s mind. This sense of plausibility is essential, because without it, the narrative would fall apart.

Using the two worlds as a solid foundation, Cline crafts an excellent book around the disconnect between reality and VR. OK, so the plot is little more than a glorified treasure hunt, but it’s so interesting, imaginative and well-written that this lack or originality becomes irrelevant. For older readers or anyone interested in retro gaming or 80s culture, it has an added dimension, referencing the films, music and (particularly) the games of that era. Crucially, these pop culture references don’t feel forced. Like the imaginary worlds, they are an integral part of the plot and critical to the solution of the riddles. Even those sections which initially appear to be diversions (a lengthy account in which Parzival attempts to play the perfect game of Pac Man, for example) eventually become relevant and it’s at these points that you see how cleverly crafted and well-told the story is. The book may be fairly lengthy, but there are few wasted words, and everything that is on the page either adds to the depth and richness of the worlds, or drives the plot forward.

It’s clear that Cline is something of a geek, and the book will really appeal to retro gamers. It’s packed with references to old hardware and games and will provide a real nostalgia blast for anyone over the age of 40. Some of the references are pretty obscure (there were several games that I’d never heard of or played) and it’s clear that Cline has done a tremendous amount of research for the book (or is a serious uber-geek!). For younger gamers who maybe don’t get all the gaming history references, the plot’s RPG-like elements will still be appealing and the plot will be just as strong.

It’s quite a long time since I enjoyed a book as much as Ready Player One. It’s a stunning work of imagination that is very different from most of the uninspired, derivative and copycat books you usually see on the shelves. Not surprisingly, it’s currently being made into a film under the auspices of Steven Spielberg. In theory, this should be a Good Thing, since both they dystopian future and VR world lend themselves to the highly visual medium of cinema. Given Hollywood’s track record with films based around games, though, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Do yourself a favour and read this before it becomes next year’s trendy “must read” book and/or Hollywood ruin it.

The Story of the Commodore Amiga in Pixels by Chris Wilkins & Roger Kean [Book Review]

Amiga in pixels

After the Commodore 64, the Amiga is my second most fondly remembered computer (mainly because it was the one I graduated to after my C64). I was pretty loyal to the machine, initially getting an Amiga 500 before upgrading to an A1200, even investing in a massive (for those days!) 20Mb hard disk (one of the best peripherals I ever bought!) As such, I was looking forward to reading this retrospective of the machine.

It’s a shame, then, that the Story of the Commodore Amiga in Pixels didn’t quite live up to my hopes. Written and edited by Chris Wilkins and Roger Kean (who have authored a number of other Kickstarter funded retro gaming books), it certainly had a lot of promise, but for me it didn’t quite live up to expectations.

The book is split into 4 sections. The first looks at the Amiga’s development (both technical and its appeal as a mass market machine) and the fall of Commodore. This is followed by an in-depth look at the Amiga demo scene, with interviews with some of the scene’s big names, whilst the final two sections focus on some of the machine’s core games and the memories of the people who worked on them.

All this sounds pretty promising and, if I’m honest, it’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I didn’t quite like this book as much as I was expecting. In fairness to the book, it’s probably a case of “it’s not you, it’s me”, but there are a number of things that contributed to my viewpoint.

It’s the first two sections which I found to be the weakest and since I read the book sequentially, this possibly had a negative influence on my overall enjoyment.

The history of the Amiga felt a little superficial and rushed. It contains little that won’t already be known to most retro gamers, and if you’re looking for a more comprehensive history of the machine, The Amiga Years documentary offers more. In particular, it seemed to deal with the bankruptcy of Commodore (a major shock to most Amiga users at the time) far too briefly and didn’t really provide an adequate explanation for it. Slightly cynically, this led me to wonder whether the publisher was reluctant to delve too deeply into this in case it stole the thunder from the memoirs of former UK Managing Director David Pleasance (due to be published by RetroFusion Books in late 2017/early 2018.)

Equally the section on the demo scene held little appeal for me. Again, this is coloured by my own personal interests. I’ve never been interested in the Amiga demo scene, either at the time or now and I really struggled getting through this section. In fact, if I wasn’t a completist who refuses to be beaten by a book, I’d probably have skipped it. In fairness, it’s well written and researched and if the demo scene is something you are interested in, then there are plenty of fascinating anecdotes and insights from those involved. Indeed, I’ve read other reviews which say this segment was the highlight for them. In truth, though, it just left me cold.

Happily, after this the book takes an upward turn. Andrew Fisher’s look at some of the Amiga’s key games gives a sense of the impact the machine had and underlines how much of a leap forward it was in game design and aesthetic terms over the 8 bits. It would have been nice to have some insight into how the list of games was drawn up (best-selling titles? Most influential games? Author’s personal favourites? Voting amongst Amiga fans?), but I can’t argue with the games included. Similarly, recollections of Amiga programmers, artists and musicians are as interesting as ever

Crucially (the clue’s in the title!), the book is littered with plenty of wonderful images, photographs, old adverts and other things that really transport you back to when the Amiga seemed the future of gaming. These are all produced in wonderful full colour and look as good now as they did then. Despite my grumbles about some of the content, it’s mostly well-written and easy to read – just what you want from this sort of book.

I know I seem to have a bit of a downer on The Commodore Amiga in Pixels, but it is a good, solid entertaining read. It’s well put together, fairly represents the Amiga era (the highs and the lows) and secures the insights of key people directly connected with the machine. I certainly wouldn’t dissuade anyone from buying it or reading it, but I didn’t feel it ever quite hit the same heights as other books written by the author. It probably comes down to expectations: I’d have preferred the content to be weighted more towards the final two sections, with fewer pages devoted to the first two. On the other hand, I’m sure there are plenty of people who think the opposite view, arguing (with some justification) that there is already plenty of information available on Amiga games and developers, so the author’s should be applauded for taking a slightly different approach.

Either way, I’d give the book a good, solid 3.5 stars out of 5 – and if you’re into the demo scene, you can easily add another star to that.

Available from Fusion Retro Books for £24.99

A Gremlin in the Works (by Mark Hardisty) [Book Review]

Gremlin in the Works slip case

There are retro gaming books and there are retro gaming books.

Then there’s A Gremlin in the Works by Mark Hardisty; the Rolls Royce of the genre

Thanks in part to Kickstarter there have been quite a few recent retro gaming titles focussing on specific software houses or publishers: 2 on Ocean (from Chris Wilkins and Bitmap Books), 1 on US Gold (Chris Wilkins again) and Gary Penn’ Sensible Software retrospective, just to name a few. All are excellent titles, but future publications will need to up their game if they want to match Hardisty’s effort.

The publication just oozes quality. It comes in a cardboard slipcase that holds not one, but two hardback volumes. Volume one covers the early years of Gremlin up to 1990, whilst Volume 2 charts the later years, up to Gremlin’s sale to Infogrames in 1999 and beyond and covers some of the publishers lost or unreleased titles.

Gremlin in the works books

From the very first page, it’s clear that this is no cheap cash-in job. It’s officially endorsed by Gremlin co-founder Ian Stewart and has a lot of input from him and other influential members of the Gremlin team. It looks at some of the development houses whose games Gremlin published and includes the recollections of the in-house programmers from the very earliest recruits, through to those who joined Gremlin when it was already established. Hardisty has even gone to the trouble of tracking down people who only stayed with Gremlin for a very short time or developers who only ever wrote one game for them in order to ensure this is as complete a history as possible.

The length of the book (over 570 pages across the two volumes) means that you never feel short-changed in terms of the content. Different elements of Gremlin’s history are covered in appropriate depth so that you never feel that an issue is being skirted over, but neither do you get bored by too much detail.

The content is presented in a Q&A interview format which works well, making the text short, punchy and very readable. It means that Hardisty can pose a question and then intersperse it with recollections from several of the contributors at once. Hardisty’s input is suitably anonymous – he simply poses the questions and then lets the interviewees speak for themselves.

Of course, this is a celebration of Gremlin as a publisher, so the general tone is pretty upbeat. That said, you don’t’ get the impression that it is a whitewashing of history and (as far as you can tell) the interviewees are being pretty honest. There are several occasions when various personalities admit that they didn’t get on particularly well in the past, or where they criticise some of the Gremlin management’s decision making, or the way they occasionally treated their staff. This tension is perhaps particularly apparent when US Gold’s Geoff Brown (who acquired a majority stake in Gremlin in the late 80s) enters the conversation and it’s fairly clear that his ideas for Gremlin were pretty divisive. There are also occasions when people provide different accounts of the same events, or contradict what someone else has said, demonstrating how people can perceive or experience the same events in very different ways.

The text is nicely broken up by various archival images, including old photographs of the Gremlin offices and teams, contract letters to publish games and royalty statements (if I’d know how much money there was to be made in those days, I might have made a bit more of an effort to learn programming sooner than I did!). These really help to capture the spirit of the times and the extent to which the industry was making things up as it went along, as how it changed over the course of Gremlin’s lifespan.

Moreover, the book is the gift that keeps on giving. A Gremlin in the Works is still a live publication and as Hardisty secures more interviews or writes new content, he sends out periodic updates (appropriately called “an expansion disk”) to new online content.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I really, really, REALLY like this book. I am sitting here genuinely wracking my brains for something negative to say about the publication (just for the sake of balance, you understand). So, for once, I’m going to give up on the negative stuff and stick my neck out and say that A Gremlin in the Works is the best retro gaming book I have read by some distance. If you don’t enjoy it, then you probably owned a Dragon 32 or something.

A Gremlin in the Works is available from the Bitmap Books website for £24.99 which makes it incredible value for money. As I said at the start, from both a content and quality point perspective, it is far and away the best retro gaming book I have read and it’s going to be a hard act for future retrospectives on the 8 and 16 bit software houses to follow.

In summary? Best. Retro. Gaming. Book. Ever.

Sensible Software 1986-1999 by Gary Penn [Book Review]

sensible-software-logo

Readers of a certain age will get a warm glow on hearing the name “Sensible Software”. From the late 80s-mid 90s, you could pretty much buy any Sensible game, secure in the knowledge that you would be buying a good quality (often slightly quirky) game.

Sensible’s bizarre budget take on Galaxians – Galax-i-Birds – was one of my more leftfield choices in my Top 10 C64 games post. Knocked out in just a couple of weeks by the sickeningly talented duo of “Jovial Jops” (Jon Hare) and “Cuddly Chrix” (Chris Yates), if this been their only release Sensible would be little more than a footnote to gaming history. However, they were also the brains behind some of the most recognisable titles of the 8 and 16 bit era, including Wizball, Parallax, Cannon Fodder and, of course, Sensible Soccer. This book, written by ex-Zzap!64 writer/editor and released by Read Only Memory books charts their rise and fall.

The book looks at each of Sensible’s major games (including those which were never completed or released) which gives the book a logical (Sensible?) chronological approach helping you to understand how the company developed. It’s mainly a two way interview cum conversation between Penn and Sensible co-founder Jon Hare. The two have clearly been good friends since the Zzap!/Sensible days, and this comes across in the text, but is actually both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, there is clearly a level of trust which results in a very open, honest and affable account. On the other hand, there were times when it felt a little bit too cosy – as though you were eavesdropping on a private conversation between two mates down at the pub. As such, the reader can sometimes feel a little excluded.

The Q&A format does make for a very readable book. It is never less than entertaining and frequently revealing and informative. Hare is an engaging interviewee and it’s interesting to read his thoughts on Sensible almost 20 years after it closed its doors (can it really be that long??!!). Whilst seasoned retro gamers will have heard some of the anecdotes before, plenty of new material is brought to light or certain aspects are covered in considerably more depth than in your average magazine article or webpage interview. I particularly enjoyed reading about the games that never were (particularly “Have a Nice Day” and of course, the infamous “Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll”) and seeing some screenshots from those games which I’d never seen before.

Speaking of screenshots, how good is the artwork in this book? With pages and pages of full colour, glossy photos taken from Sensible’s full catalogue of games (released and unreleased) together with various design documents that Hare has dug out of storage, it’s a real feast for the eyes. True, I’d have preferred the pictures to be interspersed throughout the text (they are all presented together at the end of the book); partly to break up the text, partly so that the screenshots sat with the games under discussion, but this is a personal thing. What’s not up for debate is how great those sprites still look, even in today’s world of photorealistic graphics.

Although Gary Penn was a hero of mine growing up (which of us didn’t want to be a reviewer for one of the Newsfield mags?), there were times when I found his style a little irritating. Sometimes his use of language felt a little too self-consciously “hip”, as if he’s still trying to get “down wiv da kids”, even if “da kids” in question are now mostly be in their mid-late 40s. In fairness, this could well be his normal style of speech (he was always an outspoken and enthusiastic individual), but there were times when it felt a little contrived. There’s also a fair amount of bad language, some of which felt unnecessary. I’m certainly no prude and I accept that this is probably a verbatim transcript of what was actually said, but there were times where the language could easily have been edited out, without having any impact on the overall sentiments expressed.

The book scores highly for being a warts and all account of the Sensible years. Hare is open about Sensible’s successes and his (and the company’s mistakes); and about the things that he would do differently with the benefit of hindsight and greater experience. This is no whitewashing of Sensible’s History, but an at times painfully honest appraisal of the company’s highs and lows.

Where it falls down a little is that, for the most part, it offers a single perspective: that of Jon Hare. True, there are probably around 20 other contributors with connections to Sensible (including collaborators, publishers and competitors such as Stoo Cambridge, Chis Chapman, Gary Bracey and the Bitmap Brothers,), but the majority of the content is provided by Hare. And for all his honest about the Sensible years, you have to recognise that other people’s recollections of those same events might be very different – either because they remember them differently, or because they experienced them at a different level. So, whilst this is certainly not a whitewashing of Sensible’s history, it is mostly a single perspective. In particular, the voice of Sensible Co-founder Chris Yates (who apparently isn’t interested in being involved in these things) is missing. As such, the book is perhaps more A history of Sensible Software, rather than THE history.

But don’t let that dissuade you from buying this book. It is a comprehensive, honest, entertaining and informative look at one of the most quintessentially (or “quintessensibly” as the book would have it) British software houses of the 80s and 90s. As a massive fan of Sensi’s output over the years, I found it a fascinating read and anyone with an interest in old games will too.

Sensible Software 1986-1999 is available from Read Only Memory Books, priced £25.

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

c64-visual-commpendium-vol-2-cover

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.

c64-visual-commpendium-vol-2-mutant

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.

c64-visual-commpendium-vol-2-interview

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.

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.

c64-in-pixels-art-article

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.