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!