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High Score!

“Humankind has gamed throughout its history. Whether we look at the dice and primitive board games from King Tut’s tomb or the graffiti representing game boards used by waiting patricians in the Roman forums, peole have left artifacts indicating play as part of their legacy.” — High Score! Prologue.

Any book that attempts to recount the history of an industry, its hitmakers and its successes will understandably opt for breadth rather than depth. The electronic games industry may only be a few decades old but there’s still too much for one book to cover to everyone’s satisfaction.

Rusel DeMaria and Johnny L. Wilson, the authors of “High Score! the Illustrated History of Electronic Games,” acknowledge this in their introduction to their book. The 392-page book is billed the ultimate history of electronic games on the back cover but it falls well short of that boast. Fans of specific titles or platforms will find plenty to rant about since a lot has been omitted or cursorily described.

The book concentrates on the US gaming scene with perhaps a slight emphasis on computer gaming. This wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the authors. DeMaria is known for his PC game guides while Wilson spent 18 years at Computer Gaming World magazine.

Although both the Japanese and UK gaming scenes get an appendix each, both aren’t very well covered. Perhaps this is for the best. I’m not sure the authors, who might qualify for senior citizen discounts by now, would be authoritative voices on the Nintendo oeuvre, for instance. (Wilson, for one, has admitted elsewhere he hates twitchy games.) To their credit, the authors themselves recognise their own lack of authority in some areas. The section on handhelds, for instance, was written with the help of Rik Morgan of the Handheld Game Museum.

The book has been patched and upgraded to a new edition but appropriately enough given the current state of the gaming industry, bugs still remain. “Mark Hamil” is a typo I found on my first browse through and elsewhere, the origin of the name of “Donkey Kong” is recounted twice in the book and it differs each time. From page 82:

The name Donkey Kong was Miyamoto’s best dictionary-aided attempt at creating an English title meaning “stubborn gorilla.”

But on page 238, Miyamoto recounts:

As for the name, I just wanted to create an English name meaning “silly gorilla.” As I consulted my dictionary, there was the word “donkey” for “silly.” Since apes were often called “kong” in Japan back then, I mixed them together.

The anecdotes are the best thing about the book and it’s likely gamers will learn something new about their favourite games of yesteryear. I was surprised to find out one of my all-time favourite PC games, Panzer General, was somewhat inspired by a Sega Genesis game from Japan.

Another interesting anecdote was about the first known controversy over electronic game content. In 1976, Exidy released an arcade game called Death Race which required players to mow down zombies. Gamers will not be surprised to learn that this resulted in a furor and mass media coverage.

(Two decades later, the developers of Carmageddon, in order to deflect criticism, would have to reskin their graphics so that players would mow down zombies instead of humans.)

High Score! is filled with graphics and photos making it a delight to simply flip through. Photos abound and among the most notable is one of a priest with an Activision patch sewed on his robes. Print ads from early videogame industry days have also been reproduced with EA’s classy “Can a Computer Make You Cry?” ad standing out. (For better or worse, a certain infamous Daikatana ad was omitted.)

The games themselves are represented visually by photos of the covers and and a screenshot or two but I find them insufficient. I’ve not played most of the games documented in the book and it’s unlikely I’ll ever have the opportunity to do so. I do wish someone would archive gameplay videos of the classic games and compile it on a DVD. An AVI or MPEG movie would do a whole lot more to convey the look and feel of a game than some brief text, a screenshot and a photo of the box cover. There’s something seriously wrong in the gaming world when there are dozens of gameplay videos of the PSP’s Smart Bomb (which, from all accounts, lives up to half of its name) and none of the classic M.U.L.E.

The book is at its best when it’s discussing the early gaming years and at its weakest during the recent years. (The Playstation 2 coverage is limited to three whole sentences and a bunch of screenshots.) This is perhaps understandable since we’ve got a lot of web sites that document recent gaming history in voluminous detail. I just wish DeMaria and Wilson had chosen to concentrate on the computer gaming scene since they seem the most enthusiastic in that area.

For all its shortcomings, however, this is a fantastic work that is worthy of the coffee table of any gamer. I paid about USD21 for the 2nd edition and would gladly buy an updated edition if and when it’s released.

Posted in Books, Games, Reviews.

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