Recreated ZX Spectrum [Review]

RecreatedSpectrum

(image from official ZX Recreated website: https://sinclair.recreatedzxspectrum.com/)

Even as a dyed-in-the-wool C64 owner, I had to admit that the Spectrum – with its iconic shape, rainbow stripe and rubber keys – had a way cooler design. Whichever way you cut it, the functional beige breadbin Commodore was never going to win any design awards.

So when I read about the Recreated ZX Spectrum I was intrigued. Promoted as a Bluetooth keyboard for modern tablets designed to look like a full sized reproduction of the Spectrum, it had promise. The fact that veteran games company Elite was behind it was also promising – who better to understand what the Spectrum meant to the retrogaming community than one of its key game development companies from the 80s? Here at last was my chance to own a “Spectrum”, without feeling as if I’d betrayed my beloved C64.

Then came the price announcement: £99.95. Ouch. Way more than I was prepared to pay for the nostalgia blast and more expensive than buying a real Spectrum at the time. Still, I kept an eye on it, and when the price dropped to just under £30, I put my family on notice that it might be something for Father Christmas to stuff in his sack.

Father Christmas duly delivered and, having had a fair amount of time now to try it out, I can report that the Recreated Spectrum essentially consists of two bits. The first is the actual Bluetooth keyboard, compatible with modern devices. The second is an app that allows you to play a number of old Spectrum games for free, along with a further selection that can be purchased via in-app purchases.

Looking at the keyboard first, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to set up. Over the years I’ve had more fights than I care to remember trying to get Bluetooth devices to talk to each other, but this paired with my iPad instantly and has worked ever since. The only slight complication was that there’s a switch used to change modes, depending on whether you want to use it as a proper keyboard or play the games. Mine was initially switched to Game mode – so when I started typing, it put some very odd characters on the screen that bore no resemblance to the letters I’d actually typed! Once I realized what I needed to do (i.e. had read the instructions!), it worked with most of the apps I use with my more standard Bluetooth keyboard.

What surprised me most was how well it actually works as an actual keyboard. Anybody who ever used a Spectrum remembers how difficult it was to type properly and I was expecting this to be the same. In fact, it’s comfortable to use and pretty responsive (with less lag than my previous Bluetooth keyboard). In short, it has the look and feel of a proper Spectrum keyboard without the problems of a real Spectrum keyboard used to create. It’s not perfect – the Spectrum didn’t have all the keys expected of a modern keyboard so various key combinations have been added to give it full functionality, and these can be tricky to remember at first. It’s also not the best keyboard for very fluent typists (and definitely not touch typists because of those different key combinations). Equally, I wouldn’t want to type up long documents, but in this sense it’s no worse than my existing Bluetooth keyboard – and that cost a lot more and looked far less interesting.

Turning to the games, there’s a decent range of titles in both the free pack and the in-app purchases. Sure, there’s nothing you can’t download for free on the internet, but if you don’t own a real Spectrum, this is the closest you are going to get to recreating that full 80s experience. It’s just a shame that the choice of games is limited. The basic app comes with around 20 or so free games, with around the same number available as in-app purchase (at 79p per game). A website gives you access to a wider array of titles but sadly (as ever), there is no SD card allowing you to add more.

There were plans to develop the app and website further, encouraging more developers to make their games compatible with the keyboard, but this never happened so the device never realised its full potential.

What’s prevented this were the inevitable legal wrangles (what is it with the Spectrum and legal disputes?!) First, some developers/copyright holders claimed they were not being paid appropriate royalties and this resulted in app being pulled from the App store for quite some time. Then there was a disagreement between Elite and one of its manufacturing/distribution partners, which saw production and further development stall. By the time all this was ironed out, interest in the product had waned and the remaining units were simply sold off at a much lower price.

This lack of care and attention can be seen in the app. As far as I can tell, it’s pretty much just a legacy app – no development work, updates or new games have appeared for almost three years now. What’s there is fine, but with further development it could have been so much better. Eventually both the Apple and Android versions are going to stop working as the operating systems update, and when that happens, you’ll just be left with a novelty Bluetooth keyboard.

Given the lack of development and new content, it’s a shame the creators are still choosing to charge for the additional games (adding a further outlay of around £10 if you buy them all). As a gesture of goodwill to the retrogaming community, it would have been nice to make all the games free (although in fairness, that might be tied up with the rights issue mentioned above).

The good news though, is that whilst the app does work, you can pick one of these up for about £30 – £70 less than its (rather optimistic) original RRP. At that price, it’s probably just about worth it, although I do live in fear of the day my operating system updates and the app no longer works…

[Note: since writing this review, I’ve discovered that the device is apparently compatible with the FUSE Spectrum emulator. I’ve not had chance to check it out yet, but if it is, this breaks it free from the limited number of included titles and opens up a whole new world of gaming possibilities!]

 

 

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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.

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.

3D Deathchase (ZX Spectrum) Review

deathchase-title-screen

Mostly on this blog I’ve written about C64 and Amiga games because those were the systems I had growing up. However, I also had a friend who had the misfortune to own a Spectrum and occasionally humoured him by going round to his house to play his games. As a Commodore owner, I always felt superior… until one fateful day when he showed me 3D Deathchase.

You rode a motorcycle through a rather dense and inconveniently placed forest. For some reason I can’t remember, you were chasing 2 other motorcyclists that you had to track down and kill (I think they were criminals or drug barons or something) In order to do this, you had to drive at considerable speed, weaving your way between the trees and avoiding crashes. Succeed, and you got to do it all again – only at night time, which made it even trickier.

Of course, no-one really thought they were on a motorbike. Surely it was a speeder bike from Return of the Jedi (released the same year). Incredibly, in just 16k of RAM, this game captured the same sense of exhilaration and speed that Jedi’s (far more expensive) gave you on the big screen. This was better though, because you actually got to control the bike, rather than watch someone else do it.

It’s hard to overstate just how impressive 3D Deathchase was. Hell, it’s still impressive now, over 30 years after its original release. Back in 83 few thought that any 8 bit machine (let along the humble 16k Spectrum) could do convincing 3D, yet here it was. Nor was it just a tech demo – 3D Deathchase was a damn good game to boot – in my humble opinion, it was the Spectrum’s finest hour.

deathchase-game

Of course, to achieve this, the graphics were pretty basic, the sky was basically a solid blue (or black) background, the playing area was mainly green and the trees bore more of a resemblance to telegraph poles than real trees. Yet like so many 8 bit games, they did their job. They were sufficient to paint a broad picture of the game’s setting and, with Return of the Jedi fresh in our minds, our brains filled in the detail.

Sophisticated or not, they worked and were an integral part of the game’s success. As the game got tougher, the number and density of the trees increased and the game got faster and faster, increasing your chance of a collision. It made for a brilliant, breath-taking ride as you wove through the forest, flying past the trees and often only avoiding collisions by the skin of your teeth.

The tight controls and collision detection really helped here – both were spot on. As the game got faster, you had less and less time to react. Sometimes you seemed to be in a pretty impossible situation yet right at the last minute you’d take evasive action and avoid a seemingly inevitable collision with a tree. It’s hard to describe how good this felt. I can remember my friend’s parents coming to see what on earth we were up to as we were both so caught up in the moment that we screamed and whooped in delight every time we skimmed past yet another tree or caught up and killed another rider.

3D Deathchase is the perfect example of more is less and a very clear demonstration of something that I’ve often written about in this blog – the critical importance of gameplay. Get that right and you don’t need fancy graphics or sound, or even a particularly complex game; get it wrong and all the graphics in the world aren’t going to help. Apart from its impressive 3D effect, 3D Deathchase is about as simple as a game can get and yet it is the single best game on the Spectrum. Fun and frustrating in equal measure, it is the textbook definition of “just one more go” gameplay.

I’m clearly not alone in my love for 3D Deathchase. Co-incidentally, this month’s Retro Gamer has a feature it and agrees that it is one of the Spectrum’s best games. There have also been a number of remakes over the years by other fans, but whilst these are good, the original remains the purest and the best version. Given the advances there have been in both technology and game design that gives you some idea of how big an achievement this 3D Deathchase was.

Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got a rogue speeder bike (sorry, motorbike) to catch.

Jungle Trouble (ZX Spectrum) Review

As a teenager, life is full of uncertainties with all those hormones rushing around and tricky adolescent rites of passage to navigate. Growing up in the early 80s, though, I had one truth I could cling to: Spectrum owners had been put on this Earth to be laughed at by us superior Commodore 64 owners. The poor things thought they had a computer; what they really had was a glorified calculator with colour clash and a beeper. Clearly with its excellent sprites and SID chip, the C64 ruled the world and was owned by the better looking and more intelligent teenagers.

Except sometimes even that truth failed me. Not that we’d ever have admitted it publicly, of course; but if we were being honest, we had to occasionally agree that the Spectrum wasn’t quite as rubbish as we liked to pretend. Sometimes it could actually produce games that even we superior C64 beings had to admit were, well, actually quite good.

Some of these are well known. Chase HQ was surprisingly good on the Spectrum, but notoriously dreadful on the Commodore. Match Day and Head Over Heels were great games on both computers, but the Spectrum originals were the definitive versions.

Sometimes such titles came out of left field and caught you by surprise. One game I remember fondly is Jungle Trouble, released by Durrell Software in 1983.

jungle-trouble-title-screen

The game itself was incredibly simple. The action took place on a single static screen consisting of horizontal levels. In the first section, you had to jump safely from rock to rock, avoiding the lurking crocodile. Then it was up a ladder where you had to chop down 4 trees that were inconveniently in the way, returning to the start to get another axe when your existing one became too blunt and also having to watch out for the monkeys who would steal it if you didn’t frighten them off (again requiring a trip back to the start to fetch another). Trees dispatched, you climbed another ladder to the final level where you had to swing across a fiery pit and run hell for leather to the top left of the screen and safety.

As you would expect, the graphics were pretty basic with stick-man like figures. On the basis of the loading screen, I always thought the main character was another monkey but in retrospect, it actually turns out to have just been a generic stick man (which I guess shows how much the imagination was used to fill in the blanks on those early games). The rest of the graphics could have been drawn by a 10 year old, but the point was they worked. Even the bright yellow background didn’t hurt the eyes as much as you might expect.

jungle-trouble-main

Like so many simple games, though, where Jungle Trouble really delivered was in the gameplay. It might have been straightforward and repetitive and easy to complete, but it was surprisingly good fun. Once you’d worked out that the first thing you needed to do was collect the axe from the wall at the start, completing the level simply became a question of timing. The whole thing was played against the clock, with the goal of completing the level in the fastest possible time. Despite this, my friend and I spent days over our summer holiday in 1983 totally addicted, each trying to shave that vital second off the best time, taking more and more risks to try and outdo the other and record the fastest run. It’s probably the first example of a speed run game I remember playing.

Jungle Trouble isn’t often mentioned when the best Spectrum games are listed which is understandable given how later developers really pushed the system. Yet, as a simple pick up and play title, it’s hard to beat. The gameplay is straightforward, the controls easy to master and the basic objective instantly clear. All of this gives the game instant “hookability” as Zzap! 64 used to call it; but it also pulls you in for longer gaming sessions. The lure of trying to beat your best time is strong. It becomes even stronger if you invite a friend round and take it in turns, introducing a competitive edge that sees you trying new things or taking risks – which might pay off with a new fast time… or might see you make a mistake which cripples your chance of beating the record.

Jungle Trouble might not be the most advanced or sophisticated game in the world and its long term appeal is limited, but while it lasts it offers a short, sharp blast of fun that will appeal to gamers of all ages.

I clearly wasn’t the only one who rated it, since it was awarded Game of the Month by Crash in its very first issue. It might not be remembered so much now, but it’s a game for which I still retain a certain fondness for… and one that shows sometimes even the Spectrum could produce a good game 🙂

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.