Commodore: the inside story by David John Pleasance [Book Review]

Commodore - the inside story

How a firm as big as Commodore managed to self-destruct so spectacularly has always intrigued me. I can remember reading the Amiga press at the time and wondering (as both a C64 and Amiga owner) how such a big, successful company could go bust. I’ve heard various tales over the years, but David Pleasance’s book, Commodore: The Inside Story, is the first I’ve read from the perspective of someone who was there for much of Commodore’s rise and fall.

The book is divided into two sections. The first is Pleasance’s recollections of his time at Commodore, recounting company’s successes (and latterly) many mistakes. The second contains contributions from various people associated with Commodore or the computer industry, including R J Mical whose name will need no explanation to Commodore aficionados.

It makes for a fascinating read. In the first section, Pleasance manages a good balance between the autobiographical (early chapters focus on his somewhat varied pre-Commodore career) and broader Commodore-related things. He is an engaging storyteller and (crucially) pulls no punches when it comes to his version of why the company failed. He is deeply critical of the Commodore US management, but also quick to praise some of the contributions of his fellow Commodore UK staff. Given the somewhat sad subject matter, the whole tone of the book is surprisingly optimistic. It would have been too easy to make this a negative, depressing, moan-laden read but Pleasance resists this, recognizing where mistakes were made but also highlighting the good times.

Another of the book’s strengths is in the level of detail provided. It’s much more than a superficial overview, without being too detailed. There’s a good mix of personal anecdotes and straightforward story-telling and you really get a sense of the highs and lows of working at Commodore during the period.

There were times when I thought Pleasance was using the benefit of hindsight to pinpoint what went wrong, or saying if only Commodore had listened to him, things would have turned out very differently. There’s a danger this could have come across as arrogant and egotistical, but when you read the second section many of the other contributors make exactly the same points – which suggests that they contain a strong element of truth. One thing Pleasance and many contributors are all united in is their belief that the ultimate responsibility Commodore’s demise should be laid at the feet of Mehdi Ali – the man who presided over Commodore’s transition from a multi-million dollar company to bankruptcy (an “achievement” recognized in one online biography as a period in which he “achieved a major operational turnaround”. Well, I guess that’s one way of putting it.

The hardest part to read was the one dealing with the failed management buyout of Commodore by Pleasance and others. I remember this period vividly. Pleasance and colleagues heroically kept Commodore UK going for around 18 months after the demise of its parent company and tried to put together a package that would keep the brand alive. I remember avidly reading Amiga Power and CU Amiga every month, hoping that there would be some positive news that their bid had been successful and being devastated when I heard that the bid had been withdrawn. For me, that was when the Amiga really died (at least commercially). This part of the story was new to me and learning of the skullduggery that effectively scuppered the bid left a really nasty taste in the mouth. Commodore came so close to surviving as a viable company, that you really are left thinking about how different the computer industry might be today if it had survived.

After the enjoyment of part one, I was slightly surprised to find I enjoyed reading part two just as much. Here the content is more varied (some people recount personal memories of working at Commodore, some recall how certain things were achieved with the Amiga, others are just collections of anecdotes associated with the company and its products.). Like the first part, though, it’s rarely anything less than interesting. It’s true that there were some chapters which were too technical for me (I’ve always had a strong interest in computers but my eyes glaze over as soon as anyone starts talking tech!) Such chapters are, however, in the minority, and even the most technically based chapters still contain plenty of interesting memories.

One of the book’s biggest let-downs was a relative dearth of period images and photographs. I had hoped it would provide a treasure trove of unseen or rare insider photos, Commodore memorabilia or unusual items, packed with pics of the Commodore offices at their peak or the Commodore staff in action. Whilst there is some (particularly in the latter part of the book) I would have liked more.

The wait for this Kickstarter funded book ended up being considerably longer than originally anticipated (originally due for publication in December 2017, it finally found its way into backers’ hands in September 2018), but it was absolutely worth the wait. It’s well-written, interesting and doesn’t pull its punches. You could argue that it’s only one man’s personal account and that other people might present things differently, but that doesn’t stop it from being a great read.

For my part, it mostly confirmed the view I’ve always had of David Pleasance – that he was one of the good guys in this tale. It’s just a shame it couldn’t have had a happier ending.

Available for £30 from Downtime Publishing (hardback)

Advertisements

Zzap!64 Annual 2019 [review]

Zzap 2018 cover.jpg

(c) Fusion Retro Books 2018

Like so many C64 owners, I was an avid Zzap!64 reader in the 80s. My first issue (attracted by the stunning Oli Frey artwork) was number 17 (1986) and from the first page, I was hooked. I bought it on a monthly basis, initially from the shops then as a loyal subscriber until just before the title morphed into Commodore Force.

Sadly, all good things come to end. With the end of the 8 bit era, I thought I’d seen the last of Zzap!64. It turns out (as with so many things in my life), I was wrong.

Hopes were raised in 2017 when Crash Magazine was successfully re-invented as a Kickstarter-funded annual from Chris Wilkins and Fusion Retro Books. The success of that brought a similar (also wildly popular) 2018 Kickstarter campaign for Crash’s younger, better looking sister. History was repeating itself – Crash came first, closely followed by Zzap!

The big question, of course, was could the new book live up to the hype? As many 8 bit fans will know, the Newsfield mags are still fondly remembered, and the team would face a tough challenge producing the magazine we all remembered (sometimes with a hint of rose tinted glasses), whilst updating it for the modern market.

Early signs were good. In addition to Chris Wilkins, original editor and artist Roger Kean and Oli Frey were on board and former Zzap! Writers Julian Rignall and Robin Hogg (along, of course, with the ever-mysterious Lloyd Mangram) also signed up. The fact that there was no Gary Penn disappointed some, but it was a strong line-up.

Then came the fateful day when the actual item was delivered. I opened it up nervously and carefully – exactly as I previously did with the magazine and my initial reaction was…

“What sorcery is this?” Apart from the fact that the book was hardcover and not magazine format, I could have time-travelled back over 30 years. The Oli Frey cover art was as fresh and exciting, the flashes on the front cover promised exciting articles inside and the layouts looked spot on.

Then I started reading it, and that’s when things went… even better (ha! Bet you thought it was all going to go horribly wrong there, didn’t you!). The writing, from both old hands and newcomers alike, is excellent. It captures the style and sense of fun of the old Zzap! without following it too slavishly or feeling outdated. Just like the old days (in a way that perhaps hasn’t been seen since the demise of Amiga Power), the enthusiasm of the reviewers creates that sense of common interest with the reader, re-kindling that old Zzap! community spirit.

The layout of the mag is also spot on. It’s instantly, recognisably a “Newsfield” publication, but given a slight tweak so that it doesn’t look too old-fashioned or dated. The colours are right, the text layout faithful and (most important of all!) Rockford and Thingy appear in the margins.

The content is a good balance between retrospective and new stuff. One of my concerns before I got hold of the book was that it might read like a C64-themed issue of Retro Gamer magazine, and I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted. Once again, I was wrong (spot a theme here?!). There are certainly some articles looking back at the old Zzap! days (Jaz Rignall’s retrospective of early Zzap! Gold Medal winners and his views on them today is particularly interesting), but there are also plenty of new reviews of games that have been released for the C64 over the past decade or so. Just like the Zzap! of old, these make up the bulk of the magazine and are as readable and informative as ever.

I do have a number of small gripes. First up is the pen portraits of the reviewers as they give their individual verdicts on games. In the old days, each reviewer had several portraits, indicating whether they thought the game was incredible, terrible or just average. I used to love flicking through the mag looking at these, as you could see at a glance which games were worthy of consideration and which were stinkers (or sometimes, where the opinions of reviewers differed drastically). In Zzap! 2018, the reviewers have only one portrait, so you can’t gauge opinions at a glance.

Next up is the lack of prices on game reviews, which used to feature in the original. I guess the reason for this is that, in the digital age, prices can fluctuate wildly, so any price provided could be completely wrong by the time the reader has the book. However, I’d like to have seen an indicative price, even if this was qualified by a disclaimer stating “prices correct at the time of printing”. It’s just a tiny area where the accuracy with the original mag isn’t quite there.

My two last criticisms are by far the most serious and, frankly, everyone involved in the book should hang their heads in shame. Firstly: where is my cover tape packed with free games and the latest demos? And secondly, I used to get Zzap!64 coming through my letterbox every month. Now I have to wait a whole year at least until the next instalment. Come on guys; get your fingers out. What are you playing at?!

Seriously, though, this is almost the perfect retro product. It provides a huge blast of nostalgia, but has been sympathetically modernised. It’s as informative and entertaining as ever, without falling prey to the worst excesses of silly humour that marred later editions. Most crucially, it really captures the old Zzap!64 spirit and creates that connection with its readers – just like the old days.

Zzap! Lives!

Available from Fusion Retro Books for £15

Attack of the Flickering Skeletons by Stuart Ashen [Book Review]

Attack of the Flickering Skeletons - cover

Not too long ago, I reviewed Stuart Ashen’s book Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of – a book which probably should carry a government health warning for its embarrassing tendency to make you uncontrollably laugh out loud in public. Now he’s back with more of the same in the intruiguingly (if long-winded) titled Attack of the Flickering Skeletons: More Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.

Quite sensibly working on the premise of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, the book mostly provides more of the same. Pretty much the same rules are applied when it comes to game selection (none of the usual suspects like ET or C64 Chase HQ, computers only; no consoles) but (perhaps depressingly) this still leaves a very broad selection of games from which to choose.

The format, too, is on the same lines. Ashen reviews a number of games in his own inimitable style, pointing out why they were so bad and generally giving them the mockery they deserve. This is backed up with full colour pages containing lots of images, making the book visually appealing, as well as funny. To give Ashen a break (and presumably allow him to go off and play something half decent), there are also occasional contributions from other gaming people (such as fellow YouTubers or former game developers). And just in case you think Ashen is unfairly picking on certain games, he also includes some review scores, showing his views were also shared by professional reviewers at the time the games were released.

On the whole, this format works well. The book looks good, there’s a varied selection of games across multiple systems (8 and 16 bit) and the short, pithy entries are very readable. Ashen has a way with words and manages to write about some fairly mundane things in a funny and engaging way…

…And yet, despite all these positives, I didn’t enjoy Flickering Skeletons anywhere near as much as the first book, and I’m not really sure why. Possibly it’s because I read both books fairly close together so maybe I’d just had enough by that point and should have left a longer gap before reading the sequel. Possibly it’s because I was more familiar with Ashen’s style so wasn’t caught quite so unawares by his sometimes wacky, sometimes wry observations, meaning they elicited fewer belly laughs. Possibly it’s because you could argue that this book is essentially “The Second Most Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of” and the titles that really deserved ridicule had already received their comeuppance in the first book (although given how much dross was released, this is probably not the strongest argument!)

Don’t get me wrong: Flickering Skeletons is not a bad book by any means; in fact it’s a great one. It’s just that the bar was set so high by the first book that it was always going to be a tough ask to follow it up. It’s not that I didn’t find it funny – I smiled and sniggered my way through it; I read out occasional short snippets to Mrs RetroReactiv8 and even she (as a non-gamer) smiled at some of the absurdities. But there’s the thing: I only smiled and sniggered; with the first book I frequently laughed out loud. I only read occasional snippets to Mrs RR8; with the previous book I read whole chunks or even complete entries. Somehow, it just felt a little bit less than the first one in every department.

Do I regret buying it? Not for a second. Would I recommend it for purchase? Absolutely. Just be aware that (for whatever reason) you might not find it quite as hilarious as the first entry. If you bear that in mind, you’ll be fine. And just to emphasise the point that this is not even close to being a bad book: if a third title in the series were to be announced, I would pre-order it like a shot.

Attack of the Flickering Skeletons is available from Amazon for around £8 (hardback) or £6 (Kindle).

Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of by Stuart Ashen [Book Review]

Terrible Old Games

I don’t know about you, but writing a bad review always seems so much easier and more fun than writing a good one. I’m not a nasty person (honestly!), but it is a lot simpler to heap ridicule on something truly awful than to write a more balanced review about something that is good (or even just mediocre). It’s a shame really, as no-one ever sets out to release a poor game (except perhaps US Gold with World Cup Carnival) and ridiculing their efforts does sometimes seem a little harsh.

That aside, I suspect that Stuart Ashen, author of Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of, would agree that bad reviews are fun to write. After all, he’s managed to get two books out of it.

When I first got hold of the book, I was a little concerned. The book is pretty small (about the size of a Mr. Man book) and I was worried that the actual coverage of the games was going to be pretty superficial. This volume, however, proves that size isn’t everything, it gives a decent amount of in-depth coverage to each game, with typically 3-4 pages devoted to each one. Each entry is also well-illustrated, with several full colour images for every game featured, usually accompanied by an amusing caption. It’s a really well put together book, visually appealing and well-written.

The selection of titles is impressive. Ashen has deliberately avoided the usual suspects (ET on the Atari, Superman on the Nintendo) and cast his net wider. Most of the games featured are from the popular 8 and 16 bit systems (C64, Spectrum Amiga, Atari ST), although a few titles from more minor systems are included (Dragon 32, Oric etc.) Some will be disappointed that the book only covers actual computers (automatically excluding bad console games), but since this is my own gaming heritage, I preferred this approach.

Each entry contains Ashen’s own musings on his experience (either at the time of release or subsequently) of playing the game, together with his observations on just how bad it is. To say that these are funny is something of an understatement. He has a brilliant turn of phrase and, as the mood takes him, can be funny, absurd and sarcastic about the titles he has selected. Moreover, despite the book’s subject matter, it never feels nasty or mean-spirited. Whilst Ashen certainly makes it clear just how bad some of these titles are, there’s always a sense that he retains an underlying fondness for them on certain levels, despite their awfulness.

When I say this book is funny, I really, REALLY mean it. Frankly, it should come with a government health warning not to read it in public for fear of embarrassing yourself. It didn’t just make me laugh out loud, there were several times when I could actually hardly breathe for laughing so much. The humour is also pretty universal. Whilst it’s obviously going to appeal mainly to gamers, you don’t have to be one to find the book funny. I read several passages to Mrs. RetroReactiv8 (who has never played a computer game in her life) and they made her laugh out loud too. Just taking one random example, I defy anyone to read the Highlander review and not find it funny.

Interspersed amongst the entries are a number of articles written by other contributors, recalling the games they most regretted buying. The range of authors is decent, including both people with the industry (Jeff Minter, Violet Berlin) and ordinary gamers. However, these entries are actually rather variable in quality, and none are as good as the main entries. I’d much rather have read more of Ashen’s own reviews than some of these guest articles. In fact, I felt they worked to the detriment of the book, breaking the flow that Ashen has created with unwanted musings. It’s also true that I felt that the book fizzled out a little towards the end, with some of the later entries producing smiles rather than belly laughs, this is a minor quibble.

Ashen might be an expert on terrible old games, but he’s also a dab hand at writing excellent new books. I’ve already got the sequel (the brilliantly named Attack of the Flickering Skeletons) and will no doubt soon be annoying Mrs. RetroReactiv8 all over again, by laughing out loud and reading out random passages to her, whilst struggling to breathe!

A Guide to ZX Spectrum Games 1982-1984 [Book Review]

Spectrum games book

A Guide to ZX Spectrum Games 1982-1984 by Shaun McClure and Hilary Wells was one of the many retro gaming goodies Father Christmas brought me this year. As an active combatant in the Playground Wars of the 80s (on the side of the Mighty Commodore 64, of course), I tended not to pay much attention to the Spectrum gaming scene (unless, of course, there was a really rubbish game with which I could taunt my Spectrum owning friends). As such, I missed out on many decent Spectrum titles and was looking forward to reading this book to find out about them.

It has to be said that the book is a bit of a curate’s egg. There are some (many) great things about it… and then there were things that infuriated me. Perhaps the worst thing is that many of the things that infuriated me could easily have been fixed with just a little more care and attention.

There certainly can be no doubting the books ambition. The Spectrum was a long-lived machine and, thick though it is, this book covers just the first two years of its commercial life. It’s packed with mini reviews of over 200 titles and each game has a decent amount of space dedicated to it. Entries are typically 2-3 pages long and usually comprises of a screen shot, an overview of the game alongside the author’s opinion of how the game plays or what it looks or sounds like. It’s a shame that all the screenshots are monochrome, but given how many images there are, it’s entirely understandable that this decision was taken in order to keep the book affordable (a colour version is available, but costs twice).

One of the book’s real strengths is that it displays an impressive breadth of knowledge of the Spectrum scene. Most books of this nature tend to focus in on the usual suspects – the big name titles with which we are all familiar. And sure enough, many of those games appear. At the same time, however, so do more esoteric titles that won’t be as familiar to many readers – and these are given the same 2-3 page coverage. It’s good to see lesser-known games get their moment in the sun, and the authors should be applauded for the broad approach to selection that they have taken.

This does bring me onto Frustration Number One though: which is a long-standing complaint of mine with this type of book. How were the featured games book selected? It doesn’t appear to be an exhaustive list of every Spectrum game released in that year, nor the bestselling ones. Apart from adventure games (which are perhaps disproportionately represented, reflecting the self-confessed love of them from one of the authors), they don’t appear to be the author’s favourite games (since they freely admit to only playing some of them for the first time in order to write this book), so how was the final list arrived at? I don’t have any issue with the titles selected but it would have been nice to learn more about the thought process behind why this game was included, or that one excluded.

Alongside these mini reviews, there are also several developer interviews, which are fascinating to read. Moreover, like the games themselves, the developers themselves are not necessarily the ones you usually see interviewed and it’s good to hear some different voices from the Spectrum scene. McClure and Wells should be congratulated on producing a book that is both comfortable and familiar, yet offers something new.

The entries themselves are good to read. They are informative and often wryly amusing. It feels like the book is a collection of blog entries written by a talented amateur writer. And that is not in any way meant as a criticism: it means that the entries are easy to read and accessible and not too pretentious or academic. Whilst some of the entries might lack a little polish, the passion of the authors for their subject shines through and at the end of the day, that’s what I care about.

True, there was some repetition (I lost count of the number of times the author criticised a game for its graphics with “This is a Spectrum, not a ZX81”; and there were far too many repetitions of how the verb/noun parser of text adventures worked), but this wasn’t too annoying. It could also perhaps have done with some more careful proofreading (particularly someone who knew how to consistently and correctly deploy an apostrophe), but that’s probably just the pedant in me talking!

In fairness, some of this repetition is because it’s not really a book that’s meant to be read from cover to cover, but is better read a few entries at a time. Equally, there is genuine pleasure from taking a more serendipitous approach, just opening the book at a random page and reading whatever you find. Taking this approach makes the repetition far less noticeable (or at least more understandable, since the author doesn’t know what you have/haven’t read at any point which explains the need to describe what Scramble or Berzerk were again much more natural.)

Despite these various gripes, this was a book I enjoyed reading. I learned about many games I’d never played (indeed, often never heard of) and it’s a brave and impressive undertaking with far more to like than dislike. I’m assuming that there will be more volumes covering the Spectrum’s later years and, having read this, I’m certainly looking forward to the next instalment and will be buying it once it’s available.

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.

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.