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

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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.

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

c64-in-pixels-cover

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.

c64-in-pixels-hewson-article

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.

Britsoft: an oral history [Book Review]

Britsoft

If you’ve ever done any filming, you’ll know that you always end up with way more footage than you can use. This was the problem facing the producers of From Bedroom to Billions, a documentary charting the rise of the videogames industry. They conducted hours and hours of interviews, but were limited in how much could be included, whilst still keeping the film to a watchable run time. Potentially, this meant a lot of excellent footage being lost.

Thankfully, they came up with an excellent solution: produce a companion book. – Britsoft: an Oral History, published by Read Only Memory. The book publishes hundreds of additional excerpts from the transcripts of those many hours of interviews with some of the leading lights of the early games industry (Jeff Minter, Rob Hubbard, Mel Croucher, the Oliver Twins)

Let’s start with a few practicalities. This is a monster book, Published in hardback and coming in at well over 400 pages, it’s big and chunky. Yet, it’s surprisingly light. I’m not suggesting that you’d necessarily want to lug it around in a bag all day, but unlike many hardbacks of similar size, it’s comfortable to hold and read. It’s also incredibly well made. The paper feels a lot thicker and more luxurious than many books of this kind and the glossy paper used for the book’s images really help them stand out.

Indeed, design on the whole is excellent. Despite being fairly small, the text is mostly readable and the excerpts cut into variable, but sensible sized chunks. Each is well edited so that even if it talks about something you have read in one of the previous contributions, it builds on it and adds something new, rather than just repeating what has already been said. A few more subheadings to divide the interviews up into different subjects wouldn’t have gone amiss, but this isn’t a major gripe.

This use of excerpts means the book lends itself to being read in small chunks. There’s certainly nothing stopping you from reading it all in one go, but I’m not sure you’d get the best out of it that way. The book even offers two ways to read it. You can, of course, read it sequentially, in the manner of a traditional book. However, Editor Alex Wiltshire (former editor of Edge magazine) has come up with a rather ingenious second way.

Each entry starts with the name of the programmer being interviewed At the end of the entry is a number, which tells you the page on which you could find that person’s next contribution. So, if you wished, you could go through the entire book just reading the memories of one individual before going back and doing the same for the next person, effectively making the book a series of mini autobiographies. I didn’t read the whole book in this way, but I did try it for a couple of entries and found it an interesting way of tracking how the industry changed over time from the perspective of one person. 10/10 for inventiveness!

As you might expect, the book contains some fabulous illustrations – photographs, magazine adverts, cover artwork etc. – which instantly transport you back to the 80s and 90s. Whilst I would have liked a few more (and more evenly spread throughout the book), they did help to break up the text and give a more visual element to what is a fairly text-heavy book.

Most of the things I didn’t like about this book relate to one single element: the use of notes. Firstly, I felt that there were too many, with even relatively short entries often having two or more notes. Secondly, I thought they were often superfluous. If, for example, the interviewer made reference to the arcade game Donkey Kong, there were would be a note reminding you that Donkey Kong was an arcade game released by Nintendo in 1981. Now, I accept that some of these notes were informative and told me something I didn’t know, and also that they were there to make the book accessible to more casual readers. Even so, this book probably has a particular core target audience and I think you could assume a certain basic level of knowledge. Personally, I found the frequent use of notes distracting.

In addition, notes were printed in a smaller font than the main text (as you might expect) and were a garish green colour. For ancient gamers like me (who experienced childhood and adolescence during the period in question), they were horribly difficult to read, even in a good light and with my glasses on. In the end I just ignored them and focussed on the main text.

Notes woes aside, this is an excellent volume which complements the documentary perfectly. It’s well-constructed, contains an excellent selection of quotes and anecdotes and works well both as a standalone book and a companion piece to the film.

Available to buy from Read Only Memory books for £30, I’d definitely recommend this one for your bookshelves.

Hints & Tips for Videogame Pioneers by Andrew Hewson [Book Review]

Hints & Tips for Videogame pioneers

A while back, Hewson Consultants kindly sent me a review copy of their rather excellent audio CD, showcasing some of the superb tunes that accompanied their 80s 8 bit games. Whilst on their website doing a bit of background research for the review, I came across a reference to Andrew Hewson’s forthcoming book, Hints and Tips for Video Game Pioneers, recalling his early days in the nascent videogames industry. I paid my money and eagerly awaited the book’s publication…

… And waited

… And waited.

For perfectly understandable reasons (which Hewson explains in the book’s introduction), it took rather longer to publish the book than expected. Happily, I’m able to report it’s been worth the wait.

There have been a number of recent books looking at the development of the early software houses (Chris Wilkins and Roger Kean’s books on US Gold and Ocean spring to mind). However, the Hewson title has a distinct advantage: we are getting the information straight from the horse’s mouth (with apologies to Andrew Hewson who, I am sure, has no equine characteristics!) Whereas other books are composite histories based on interviews with many different people this is the recollections of one man – the founder of Hewson Consultants.

This makes for a fascinating read, as you really get the sense of what it was like to be involved in those early, heady days of the industry, and how things changed (and became more difficult) as the decade progressed. The sense of fun gradually giving way to a more professional, business-like approach, which stifled creativity (Discuss). Hewson doesn’t just focus on the games that his companies produced, but looks at the development of the whole company, its ethos, expansion, relationship with the computer press, Hewson’s rise to prominence and gradual decline. Of course, there is plenty of information on their most famous titles, together with quotes and insights from some of the developers behind them, but the majority of the book is Hewson’s reflections on his time in the industry.

Hewson is very honest in his account and sometimes fairly forthright in his views (his views on software piracy are, understandably, pretty strong). He is open about the highs and lows of running Hewson Consultants, outlining where he made good decisions and where he made mistakes, as well as acknowledging the role that luck (as well as a lot of hard work) played in Hewson’s success.

Hewson himself has a scientific background and this comes across in the book and helps set it apart from other, similar titles. The focus is not just on the aesthetics of the games or the PR side of the industry (although both feature). He also understands and considers the problems that faced coders (beyond the obvious “early machines were limited in what they could do”) and the more technical aspects of the industry. In my (all too rare) idle moments, I’ve often wondered how a professional tape duplication plant worked. Now, thanks to this book, I know (at least in a general sense).

The text is well written with an engaging and easy-to-read style. Where there are occasional forays into more technical areas, they remain readable for the layman. The book is mostly arranged chronologically, giving it a clear structure, whilst individual chapters are broken down into various shorter sub-sections. This makes it easy to pick up and read when you have a few spare moments or it can be read from cover to cover in a few hours.

Turning to the downsides, there are a couple that stand out.

First up, images: or rather, the lack of them. For a book that is about a highly visual medium, it’s a real disappointment that the book is more or less image free, with no screenshots of any of Hewson’s games. In fairness, Hewson addresses this point in the introduction, arguing that the company produced so many games that selecting just some would have been an impossible task. Images (particularly full colour ones) also drive up production costs, making the final book more expensive. Even so, a couple of images per chapter would have brightened up the book a little and demonstrated how Hewson’s games evolved over time.

The second issue is that the book rather fizzles out towards the end. The section on the Hewson Consultant days feels very thorough, giving a rich, detailed account of the company’s highs and lows. By contrast, the section on 21st Century Entertainment (Hewson’s successor) feels a little superficial and lightweight. It feels like an add-on – something the author had to include because it was part of his experience in the industry, but that his heart was not really in it. Again, in fairness, Hewson acknowledges this in the introduction, noting that he found this part the hardest to write – partly because of personal circumstances during the writing process, but also because he could never (even at the time it was operating) muster the same enthusiasm for 21st Century Entertainment as for Hewson. This clearly comes through in the text, but it does leave the final few chapters with a slight sense of anti-climax.

So, bearing in mind those issues, would I recommend you buy it? Absolutely! Whilst images would have been nice, they are not a deal breaker (we can always look them up on the internet). Similarly, if I’m honest, I was more interested in the Hewson Consultant side of the story anyway, so the greater focus on that was fine by me. Hints and Tips for Videogame Pioneers is a fascinating read and I would definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in retro gaming or the early years of the industry.

The book is available from the Hewson Consultants website for around £15 + delivery(paperback) or as a special hardback edition for £24.99 + deliv. A Kindle edition is also available for around £7.

The A-Z of Cool Computer Games by Jack Railton [book review]

A-Z of Cool Computer Games

A while ago I noted that book reviews on my blog consistently attract more hits than other  posts. As a result, I asked readers to suggest other titles I could try out. The one suggestion I received (you miserable lot – there must be more out there to recommend!) was the A-Z of Cool Computer Games by Jack Railton.

The book (first published in 2005) takes a nostalgic look at the computer games of yesterday, particularly those of the 8 and 16-bit era. It takes us on a random tour of titles that are deemed to be “cool” (dreadful word) in the eyes of the author – whether because he has fond memories of playing them, or because they became mega sellers, or because they had a lasting influence on the development of gaming. So far, so good.

The book is arranged alphabetically (well, sort of – more on this later) with short entries focussing on a particular topic or game. Typically, entries will be 1-2 pages long making it easy to pick up and read a bit at a time or just sit and read the whole thing. Providing a mixture of factual information and anecdotes about the games and their influence, entries contain a decent amount of information, without bogging the reader down in too much detail.

Despite this, I found it rather difficult to read. Normally with books like this, I’ll read a few entries a night before I go to bed and get through the whole thing in about a week. Cool Computer Games probably took me closer to six months. I just couldn’t seem to get into it . It wasn’t that I didn’t like it exactly; I was just ambivalent about it and so it remained unopened on my bedside table for days (even weeks) at a time.

Part of this was down to the organisation of the book, which I felt made it a little disjointed. Rather than a straight alphabetical listing (as the title implies), content was  split into a number of different chapters. One looked at computer games; one at “amusement arcades”; another at the machines prevalent at the time etc. This was fine to an extent, except that some text was frequently highlighted in bold (indicating that it had its own entry somewhere in the book). If you wanted to go off and read that entry, you couldn’t just flip to the appropriate place in the alphabetical listing, you first had to decide which of the book’s sections it might appear in. Similarly, some entries didn’t refer to specific games, but game genres, which I felt was cheating a little. If you’re going to call your book the A-Z of Cool Computer Games, you really should focus on specific titles and not try to sum up entire genres in a couple of hundred words. Somehow, this had a greater impact on the book’s readability than you might expect.

Some of the issues I had were down to weaknesses in the book itself, although in fairness, many more were probably due when I actually read it. For example, I felt it had dated rather badly and some of the terminology used was definitely early 21st century. For example, the author frequently refers to “amusement arcades” – a term that was still just about current when the book was written in 2005, but which sounds horribly dated ten years on (and, depressingly, many younger readers possibly won’t know what they are!). In fairness, this is more my fault for leaving it 10 years to read the book, rather than a failure with the book itself.

Equally, some of the content felt dated. Whilst the information and anecdotes were readable and interesting enough, if you’re an established retro gamer, there is scarcely any information that you won’t already know. In fairness, the book is probably aimed more at the general interest reader, rather than the avid retro gamer – and again, when the book was first published, many of the stories in it probably were less well known.

Perhaps a fairer criticism relates to the lack of images. Whilst there are a few glossy full-colour screenshots part way through the book, the majority of the entries are just text. Presumably this was done to keep costs down, but given that an important aspect of computer games is their visual appeal, it would have been nice to have more images, spread more evenly throughout the book.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I can see why it is so highly rated and I genuinely wanted to like it, but for some reason I couldn’t. I can’t even really say why that was, since most of the issues I’ve outlined are minor niggles rather than major problems… but there was just something that stopped me from enjoying it as much as I should have done.

If you’re relatively new to the field of retro gaming, then this is a decent place to start, providing a readable, interesting and easily accessible way back into the games you remember fondly from your childhood. If, you’re a more seasoned retro gamer, then it’s unlikely it will tell you anything you don’t already know.

I don’t regret adding it to my collection and I’ll be keeping hold of my copy, but if I ever wrote a feature on my top 30 retro gaming books, it’s unlikely this would make the cut. Still, it’s not expensive to buy (hardback copies go for about £2.80 on Amazon, delivered ) so it’s not going to break the bank if you prefer to ignore me and make up your own mind.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum: a visual compendium [Book review]

When it comes to coffee table books showcasing graphics from old 8 bit systems, Bitmap Books have form, They have already produced two excellent titles featuring the Commodore 64 and Amiga and now turn their attention to the ZX Spectrum.

Spectrum Visual Compendium - cover

Whilst the Spectrum was clearly wildly inferior to the Mighty Commodore, I have to grudgingly admit that the programmers of the time did an impressive job squeezing some stunning games and graphics out of such limited resources.

As with previous books in the series, this volume celebrates those graphics, giving an instant blast of nostalgia. Over 100 different Spectrum games are included, with at least one full page (more often a double spread) dedicated to showcasing some the best graphics the machine had to offer. Images are produced in full colour, with a single image usually forming the basis for the entire page.

The reproduction is superb. Despite blowing images up to far greater than their intended original size, there is no blurring and screenshots look crisp and sharp. A particular difficulty with this Spectrum volume was always going to be how to capture the bright colours of the original machine. Spectrum games are instantly recognisable by their vivid (some might say garish!) visuals and the ever-present risk of colour clash imposed by the machine’s graphical limitations. Happily, thanks to some technical gubbins (which I won’t even pretend to understand) this problem has been solved and the screenshots really capture the essence of Spectrum graphics, reproducing them brilliantly. It’s not quite the same as looking at the images on a TV screen, but it’s probably as close as you’re going to get on paper.

Spectrum Visual Compendium - Deathchase

3D Deathchase – probably my favourite Spectrum game ever.

 Each image is accompanied by a short piece of text (typically 100-200 words), Some of these are reflections on the game by the original programmers or artists, some are from other industry names reflecting on why that particular game was so important, a few are from ordinary gamers reminiscing about why they loved particular titles. Whilst these are interesting enough, many are too brief to give any real insights and a few are either downright uninformative or so tantalisingly brief that they leave you wanting so much more (this is particularly the case with the comments from the rarely interviewed Stamper Brothers).

The book does have a couple of longer textual pieces which contain either a series of short reminiscences from programmers on why the Spectrum was their favourite machine, or focus on particularly influential software companies. These are much more satisfying as they provide greater detail and more insight. In fairness, though, this is not meant to be a history of the Spectrum or its games, rather a celebration of its graphical capabilities. As such, it’s right and proper that text is minimised and the graphics are allowed to speak for themselves.

Where the text is more of an issue is that it is quite small and often superimposed on the brightly coloured graphics. Being such a crusty and ancient gamer who is increasingly reliant on glasses of all descriptions to see, I did find this difficult to read at times. In low light conditions, it could be hard to make out, whilst in bright conditions, the glare of the glossy paper could present problems. Still, this is more a sign that I’m getting on than the fault of the book itself!

Spectrum Visual Compendium - Ant Attack

Bitmap Books have produced three of these visual compendiums now. All have been excellent, but each one has been better than the last as the editors find their feet and learn what works and what doesn’t. Despite a couple of issues, this Spectrum edition is the best so far and (it goes against the grain to say this) even better than their Commodore Compendium companions. If you were being particularly churlish, you could argue that the series is starting to feel a little safe; sticking to a tried and tested formula. But hey! It works, so I don’t have an issue with that.

Like its predecessors, the Visual Compendium originated as a Kickstarter project, but is deservedly available to a wider audience and can be bought from Funstock Retro. At £27.99, it’s not the cheapest book you’ll ever buy, but if you appreciate the beauty of 8 bit artwork, it’s well worth adding to your collection.