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.

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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.

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.