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Fallen Down: Heartache & Compassion in Undertale

Fallen Down: Heartache & Compassion in UndertaleOrder this bookStory: Writer Joel Couture (whose work you may recognize from Siliconera, Gamasutra, and IndieGames.com) ventures into the world of the computer game Undertale, meeting its unique cast of characters under very different circumstances, as the game allows players to remain neutral, take a pacifist stance throughout the game, or go on a blood-soaked “Genocide Run”, killing everything and everyone in sight. It’s the last of these that affects him so profoundly that he admits he may not be able to play Undertale again, and explains why the game’s varying modes of play have had such a seismic effect on him.

Review: In the interests of full disclosure, a lot of Undertale goes on under my roof. My oldest is nearly obsessed with it, we’ve both played it, and I’ve given my stamp of approval by way of starting his collection of the Fangamer “Undertale little buddies” figures (of which more another time). So far down the Undertale rabbit hole has my son gone that he’s been working on his own version of the game – except with characters and scenarios of his own creation – programming it entirely in Scratch. We’ve watched YouTube videos that put forth outlandish theories on the origins of wisecracking skeletons Sans and Papyrus, postulating that Undertale may be an offshoot of Mother / Earthbound, and so on. What inspired me to give this game my wholehearted endorsement? The tagline that sells the game – “the RPG where you don’t have to kill anybody!” – scratches the surface: very much like an all-time favorite computer game of mine, Ultima IV, Undertale has a system of morality built into it, holding the player accountable for his actions. Continue reading

The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987

The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987Order this bookStory: Video game scholar Brett Weiss nominates his picks for the hundred best console games from the heyday of the age of cartridges – from the earliest days of interchangeable cartridges in 1977 to the ascendancy of the Nintendo Entertainment System a decade later. Across a wide variety of game systems and genres, covering killer app originals and ports of popular arcade games alike, the picks represent a wide spectrum of both hardware and software. If that’s not enough for you, an appendix nominates a hundred additional contenders.

Review: In the interests of full disclosure (a dying art these days, isn’t it?), I’ll tell you that I’m quoted in several places in this book, though I didn’t know which quotes from past articles of mine would pop up, so The 100 Greatest Console Video Games was still a nice surprise for me.

The “Top [insert number here] List” format is a mainstay of pop culture retrospectives, but often falls victim to the “received wisdom” of a particular age group or other demographic. Weiss tries to touch on many genres and numerous systems here, encouraging his readers to discover gems that they may have overlooked in the past. Continue reading

Racing The Beam: The Atari Video Computer System

Book titleOrder this bookStory: In this college-level text, the authors discuss the nuts and bolts of writing programs on the Atari Video Computer System (more commonly referred to as the 2600), including the unique challenges necessitated by trade-offs that were made for many reasons – including cost – at the hardware design stage. To examine different approaches to the inherent limitations of the VCS, the authors examine the design and programming of several of its major games in depth: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars’ Revenge, Pitfall! and The Empire Strikes Back. Other prominent games are discussed, usually as sidebars to the in-depth dissection of the above games, along with commentary on trends in the video game industry at the time and eventual downfall of the industry which brought Atari’s dominance to a close.

Review: “Racing The Beam” is not for the faint of heart; this is no sweeping overview of video game history, but rather a collegiate media studies text with a healthy dose of computer science mixed in for good measure. I opened the book with the expectation that I’d hopefully find some new insights into some of the most iconic Atari 2600 games; I closed the book with an understanding of the machine’s hardware (and its legendary limitations) that I almost felt like I was closer to having the know-how to program for it. Continue reading

Invading Spaces

Invading SpacesBuy this book in theLogBook.com StoreStory: Author (and theLogBook.com contributor) Rob O’Hara discusses the basics of collecting arcade games, from acquiring them to repairing them, and along the way tells many a tale of his own adventures in arcade collecting, from acquiring the very same beloved arcade machine he played in his own youth to a few eBay seller horror stories.

Review: Rob O’Hara knows a couple of things about collecting arcade machines. I knew that before reading this book – there’s something about his back yard outbuilding full of working classic machines vs. my one broken-down machine uselessly taking up a refrigerator’s worth of space in my game room that says he’s definitely got the jump on me in this hobby. “Invading Spaces” is where he shares that obvious wealth of knowledge with coin-op newbies like myself. Continue reading

ABC To The VCS – Second Edition

ABC To The VCS - Second EditionOrder this bookVideo game historian Leonard Herman takes on the unthinkable task of cataloguing every Atari 2600 game known to exist at the time of publication, offering brief directions, notes, and – in most cases – a screen snapshot of the games discussed. Rather than an alphabetical list, games are organized by broad genres.

It should be virtually no secret to anyone who can actually read that I’m a video game collector. Now, compared to some of the guys out there in the hobby who drop hundreds and hundreds on a single game, I’m pretty lightweight, because my deal is that I like to have plenty of games available to play. But when you’ve got drawers and drawers full of cartridges that, at least on the label end, all look more or less alike, and even worse, if you’ve got an emulator directory full of names that tell you next to nothing, there’s an overriding question that curses anyone with such a collection: what do I want to play?

When I first opened the cover of “ABC To The VCS”, flipped through it and saw how it was organized, I’ll admit that my first thought was that it was incredibly silly to do it that way. Now that I’ve had the book for a couple of weeks, I’ve reassessed that view. “ABC” divides the Atari 2600 library – which is already hundreds of titles deep, and replete with titles that tell you absolutely zip about the game itself – into more manageable chunks of dozens. Space games (specifically, those based more or less on the basic mechanics of Space Invaders, sports games (subdivided by sport), puzzle games, maze games, military/war games, games involving animals…broad categories, sure. However, I’ve found myself turning to “ABC” with almost alarming frequency because, within that organizational structure, I can come closer to answering that daunting question, What do I want to play?

The author’s dispassionate, concise take on each game is commendable: he’s not here to “sell” any of these games to you. He describes the game play (including briefly covering variations and settings), and may briefly mention any major innovations that the game is known for. No ratings are given for quality or rarity, and there’s not even the hint of a whiff of “ABC” being a price guide. (One thing I really would have liked would have been an end-of-book checklist of all known titles, something which “ABC” just can’t do within its body copy due to its unique structure, but again, that might’ve brought it closer to being a book about collecting rather than a book about games.)

Recently discovered unreleased prototypes and amateur-programmed homebrews are also included, and they’re given no more and no less coverage than any major commercially released games. This book covers the Atari 2600 library even-handedly, and that’s it. I could count off points for the lack of coverage of hardware items such as third-party controllers and the like, but that again is more up the collector’s alley. Almost every game is illustrated with a screen shot.

It’s hard to stare at a stack of recently-acquired cartridges and decide where to start, but “ABC To The VCS” makes it easier. It doesn’t quite answer what game do I want to play?, but it certainly helps me cut back on second-guessing and spend more time playing. That alone makes this book worth its price tag.

Year: 2005
Author: Leonard Herman
Publisher: Rolenta Press / Good Deal Games
Pages: 338

Videogames: In The Beginning

Videogames: In The BeginningOrder this bookStory: Inventor Ralph Baer, creator of the very first home video game system and the man who holds the patent on interactive games that can connect to an everyday TV (as well as literally dozens of other creations), lays out a detailed chronology of how and when he came up with the idea for “TV games.” Also covered is how he’s dealt with those who have tried to stake their own claims on authorship of the idea, and how he has remained involved with the industry since then.

Review: In this book, Raph Baer grabs the title of “father of video games,” and spends much of the book backing the claim up with ample evidence. It’s amusing and sometimes a bit enervating to see how many attempts have been made to unseat him from that throne, for a variety of reasons. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell seems to have tried staking his own claim for PR purposes, but that’s not as eyebrow-raising as, say, attempts by Nintendo attorneys in the late 1980s to challenge Baer and his authorship of numerous seminal video game patents so they wouldn’t have to pay hefty licensing fees on the NES. (In the end, Baer says Nintendo settled out of court for a cool $10 million.) Continue reading

Supercade

SupercadeOrder this bookStory: Through descriptive text, occasional product shots, and tons of emulator screen shots, formed Wired editor Van Burnham takes us on a journey from the days of the protozoan Pong prototype developed at M.I.T. in the late 1950s straight through to the Xbox, with a focus on the 1972-1984 epoch of the early video game era.

Review: “Supercade” was being hailed as the definitive, end-all and be-all of classic video game books…at least by some people. I’m not sure if Van Burnham ever made that claim, though she did come kinda close to saying so in her web site almost a year ahead of the book’s release. Continue reading

Steve Jobs And The NeXT Big Thing

Steve Jobs And The NeXT Big ThingOrder this bookStory: Steve Jobs, once one of the wonder boys who created the now-fading legend of Apple Computer, later became more of a liability than a boon to the company with his unusual – and some would say ineffective or even counterproductive – management practices. Forced out of Apple in 1985 by John Sculley (the former Pepsi CEO who, ironically, Jobs had hired into the same position at Apple), Jobs convinced a small key group of Apple employees to follow him away from the company to start a new silicon valley venture, NeXT. Apple promptly sued, which gave the outgoing group a notoriety within the industry – maybe these people, with the legendary Jobs at the wheel, were a serious threat to Apple, and maybe NeXT would be a contender to be dealt with. With this kind of rumormongering working to his advantage, and with his own celebrity status also lending him credibility, Jobs sought investors with tons of money – including Ross Perot – and prompty proceeded to waste their money on such luxuries as a $100,000 corporate logo, a custom-designed headquarters building and manufacturing plant, and high-speed data lines running not only to the office but to his own home as well. NeXT did eventually turn out a computer, years late, millions over budget in R&D (not to mention more unnecessary expenses like those listed above), and thousands of dollars over the budgets of their target consumer demographic.

Review: Boy, I’d love for someone to update this volume…but perhaps not its original author. Published in 1993, it doesn’t cover such later developments as Jobs’ re-emergence as a savior of Apple, his humbling acceptance of investment money into Apple from the coffers of one Bill Gates, and the recent release of the Macintosh PowerCube – bearing a striking resemblence to NeXT’s flop of a computer, which also flopped on the market. Continue reading

Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Video Games

Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Video GamesOrder this bookStory: In the 1960s, a government contractor working with computer display systems figured out how to get a game of video tennis going on a television monitor. But that game, which would later be reproduced by an enterprising programmer named Nolan Bushnell at a young company called Atari, would give rise to one of the fastest-growing sectors of the entertainment industry. Companies such as Atari, Coleco, Mattel, Magnavox, and Bally would ride that wave into the first home video game console era. Fortunes were made and lost by gambling on licensed arcade and entertainment properties, and a flood of mediocre software brought the video game market to its knees. And then a relatively obscure Japanese company changed the rules forever. Originally planning to license its technology out to Atari, a legal misunderstanding convinced Nintendo to go it alone in an uncertain market that they would later dominate alongside Sega and Sony. This is the nuts-and-bolts story of the video game industry.

Review: A great, in-depth book about the history, the swells and ebbtides, the fortunes and failures, and the numerous litigious episodes of the video game industry is long overdue. And after reading Phoenix, I’m sad to say that the book I’ve been hoping to read is still overdue. Continue reading

Leaving Reality Behind

Leaving Reality BehindOrder this bookStory: eToys.com was one of those great success stories of the late ’90s internet boom, a company whose IPO made almost everyone working there instantly rich – and then it faltered and crashed, taking that value with it. But was it the work of a group of art students from Europe – known collectively as etoy – who refused to admit defeat when eToys.com’s lawyers demanded that they surrender their internet presence for fear of hurting the online toy store’s trademarked name?

Review: This is a fairly well-written book, with lots of documented material to back it up. But “Leaving Reality Behind” quickly became a somewhat difficult read when I discovered that I couldn’t bring myself to root for Toby Lenk and eToys.com or his nemeses, referred to frequently in the book as the “etoy boys.” So much of what’s at the heart of this story is pure vanity and arrogance that it’s nigh-impossible to pick out an actual protagonist. I suppose the authors are to be commended for portraying both sides with all of their respective warts, and yet it seems clear that the authorial tone of the book favors the disharmonious group of self-styled artists from Germany and other countries, over the equally troubled would-be e-commerce giant. Continue reading