Top Five: Best Books About the History of Video Games

In case the nature of my very own overly-long writing wasn’t something like a giveaway, I’m big into books — specifically those of the non-fiction, historically-oriented sort of variety. If a book can cover that criteria and do so in a way that’s entertaining and narratively engaging, that’s all the better. And naturally, being the dweeb that I am, a number of the books on my digital bookshelf pertain to the subject of video games, and the history of their development / the industry itself. I’m sorry if that’s all, like, super predictable of me?

I believe it takes a certain skill set to be able to write about video games in a fashion that’s actually compelling or entertaining. Maybe one day, it’ll be a skill I actually pick up for myself! But until that day comes, I suppose I’ll have to settle for just recommending some of my favorite books on the subject of video games. Obviously, I haven’t yet read every last book there is about games, and I’ve currently got a queue that’s pages-long in itself, so I’m not calling this list “concrete” or “definitive” anything; It’s all just my current personal preference, folks.

Oh, and because I can’t help myself, I also went and tacked on one “Honorable Mention” and one “Dishonorable Mention.” And boy howdy, lemme tell you: The latter of those is a real doozy.

Honorable Mention: The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers

Written by John Szczepaniak. Published by SMG Szczepaniak on November 26, 2014.

John Szczepaniak’s The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers might well be one of the most important resources available to those looking for insight into the oft-shrouded history of Japanese games development. The book [and the sequels it has spawned] are the result of a truly massive undertaking: Hundreds of interviews, tens of thousands of pages of transcript, and countless questions answered and facts revealed. Whenever I start writing an article on a classic game whose developers hail from Japan, my first step is always to check and see if it was covered at any point by this series, since there’s always some fascinating insight or trivia to be found when they are. Moving forward, these compilations of interviews will surely continue to be a valuable resource to those looking to learn / help chronicle the history of the games industry.

All that being said, these books make for some intensely boring reads. Even the accompanying / supplemental DVD series – documenting the interviews in video format – are sadly so very, very dull. It’s all very no-frills save for the odd graphic insert here or there, and presented in a largely raw and unedited package. Yes, the knowledge contained within is certainly some vital, fascinating stuff. But it’s like reading a school textbook: You can’t help but feel you’d be able to retain more of what you’re learning if it was actually presented with some sort of flair or flavor. As such, it’s a resource that has proven useful purely as reference material for me, rather than something I would consider reading for leisure. And obviously, that’s all well and fine, as that purpose is obviously all it was really ever intended to serve.

But further detracting from my ability to really “recommend” buying the books is the dark cloud of the attempted lawsuit that loomed over them. Chronicled by plaintiffs Hanako Abe and Agness Kaku on a Blogspot blog simply entitled “Versus John Szczepaniak,” there is a very serious case presented here for the book’s credited author being an absolute pain to work with and interact with; as well as taking advantage of the generosity of his collaborators, abruptly severing ties with them and backing out of financial obligations to them, before proceeding to vilify them to an audience of Kickstarter backers. Unfortunately, the case never actually made it to trial, as John Szczepaniak is described by the would-be plaintiffs as “having escaped a libel trial in France,” and delaying proceedings long enough to avoid any future attempts at litigation.

So, yeah: I guess my honorable mention goes to an immeasurably informative book, but one which I can’t really suggest reading or buying for yourself. Because that makes for a useful recommendation, right?

5. WRONG! Retro Games, You Messed Up Our Comic Book Heroes!

Written by Chris Baker. Published by C-Bake Publishing on December 20, 2014.

From 2007 to 2014, Chris Baker served as Manager of Licensed Games for comic book monolith Marvel. Over the course of this career, he helped to enforce measures of quality control and brand continuity across dozens of licensed Marvel titles, which surely saw him encountering and having to fix a number of inconsistencies with his company’s source material. You can assume these experiences – mixed with a lifelong relationship with games and comics – helped motivate him in penning the book WRONG! Retro Games, You Messed Up Our Comic Book Heroes! Honestly, I’m not to keen on that title or the recurring gimmick of Chris interjecting “WRONG!” (complete with red text) whenever it comes time to point out the mistakes of the included games, but it doesn’t detract enough to stop me from really enjoying and thoroughly recommending this volume.

With most of the games covered being relegated to single pages’ worth of text, don’t come to this book expecting thorough and exhausting reviews of the nearly eighty games within. That said, the book is certainly thorough in covering its specified range: Listing off seemingly every licensed comic-to-game release between the years 1978 and 1992. This doesn’t just cover the standard DC / Marvel fare, but also extends to the alternative comics / underground comix characters who saw themselves starring in their own games. And while the focus of the book is mainly on pointing out some of those inexplicably-frustrating inconsistencies, there are some nice bits of trivia as well that are sprinkled in where possible. For example: Crediting one Laura Nikolich as “almost singlehandedly programming the first-ever Marvel video game” in 1982’s Spider-Man for the Atari 2600, before noting that both of her sons have also gone on to pursue careers in game development working for EA and Bungie.

I’d have loved to see Chris go more in-depth with each piece of subject matter, but I accept that this isn’t meant to serve as a book of game reviews: It’s a short tour of the early days of licensed comic book games, and it never sits and lingers for long on any one stop. It’s brevity can be seen as inspiring readers to track down these games for themselves, and amuse themselves by having a hint as to what elements of the games are at odds with their source material. Additionally, comic fans who tend to obsess over “small details” will probably get an extra kick out of the specificity of some of Chris’ nitpicks. All in all, what I personally most appreciate the book for is it’s serving as a timeline for this specific subgenre of gaming — one that will inevitably intersect with this site in the future.

4. Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Written by Stuart Ashen. Published by Unbound Digital on December 3, 2015.

As someone who’s followed Stuart Ashen from nearly the very beginning of his time on YouTube (beginning with his 2006 upload of the original “POPstation Review”), I’ve always enjoyed his delving into the world of video games and surfacing some of the strangest oddities it has to offer. Between all the bootleg microconsoles and ill-advised licensed devices, one of my favorite recurring segments is his “Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of” series, covering – as the name would suggest – some truly terrible old games of the more obscure variety. So when he finally got around to announcing plans for a book on the subject matter, with its fate to be determined by crowdfunding campaign, I believe I was once again one of the first on-board. Genuinely, the final product did not disappoint.

Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of in book form seeks to cover a very specific range of games, qualified by the following criteria: They must have been released between 1980 and 1995, sold commercially on home computer format, and be “so utterly terrible that it would be almost impossible for a reasonable person to enjoy playing the game.” As such, this precludes the book from covering what Ashens describes as “the usual suspects like E.T. for the Atari 2600 and Superman for the Nintendo 64,” with attention paid instead to the likes of obscurities such as Bionic Granny for the Commodore 64 and License to Kill for the Acorn Electronic. I adore this premise of tackling titles that time forgot, rather than the focus on the typical “historically bad games” fare that… well, I guess comprise most of what I tend to cover on this site, huh?

Each new game that gets covered has the potential to thoroughly befuddle and confuse with their ridiculous premises and ill-conceived game designs, and Ashens serves as the perfect guide for this particular journey. His observations are generally on-point, his jokes land, and as such the book is a breeze to read through. The included screenshots and snippets from magazine reviews of the era also provide some vital context, as well as listing the original asking prices and developer / publisher credits wherever available. It all comes across as thoroughly-researched, as presented in a highly entertaining manner. Bonus interviews with other retro games enthusiasts and developers serve to fill out the book with some amusing anecdotes of “the most disappointing game” they ever bought, making the whole project feel like a community effort to help bring this odd little subsection of gaming to light.

3. Bible Adventures

Written by Gabe Durham. Published by Boss Fight Books on March 30, 2015.

I first came across Bible Adventures and the “Boss Fight Books” series while researching for our article on Super 3D Noah’s Ark, where it proved to be an immensely interesting source of history on the infamous game. I ended up using the book as my sort of primary source for that article, but beyond that, it has also proven to be a book I’ve re-read multiple times in the years since, as the story it tells is just super fascinating. It covers the full history of one of the most hated games publishers of the NES era; the team who entered the business as the pirate games company “Colors Dreams,” and later came to be known as the Christian games peddlers “Wisdom Tree.” And so, while the title of the book specifically alludes to one game in particular, the book does cover their whole company history and a multitude of their releases.

Some of the most fascinating anecdotes are those which offer insight into the technical aspects of game development and the creative process, such as the failed plans to repurpose the engine of Wolfenstein 3D on SNES for a Hellraiser-licensed first-person shooter on the original NES. Reading and learning exactly what that would have entailed and how it all came to fell apart gives a window into a facet of game design that we as enthusiasts rarely get to peer through; where ideas are thrown against the wall before ultimately sliding down to the floor. This insight is made possible thanks to interviews with many of the original Color Dreams / Wisdom Tree team, whose collective recall make for detailed stories.

It should be noted that the book doesn’t just address everything from an entirely “secular” perspective: It delves into the author’s own history with Christianity in some detail, and does discuss the actual religious connotations alluded to by the games at hand. That isn’t to say it’s “preachy” or overbearing or anything. As a matter of fact, I feel like it really adds a lot to the book to see takes on the material that aren’t just purely technical, and which actually address the religious connections that the games serve to take advantage of. And when you learn that the developers were largely self-identified “atheists, agnostics, or whatever,” who effectively tricked an ostensibly devout audience, the book allows you to form your own opinion and make your own judgements rather than tell you how to feel about it.

2. Service Games: The Rise and Fall of SEGA

Written by Sam Pettus. Published on December 28, 2013.

Have you ever wanted to learn practically everything there is to learn about Sega’s history as hardware manufacturers? Sam Pettus’ Service Games: The Rise and Fall of SEGA has got you covered. It’s got everything from the days of 1952’s Nifun Sashin “Photorama” booths to the death of the Dreamcast — complete with overviews of all the major releases and analysis of every major business move in-between. I reckon this has to be one of the most well-researched books on the subject of the games industry, and I’d go so far as to call it a “must-read” for anyone looking for a crash course in games history.

Service Games is probably the most “dry” entry on this list, in terms of presenting facts and history without much in the way of flavor. That said, it’s still a book which surprised me in how much information I was able to immediately retain from it, and how successful it is in conveying history concisely and efficiently. My problem with so many of these books that try to serve as timelines and company histories is that I honestly don’t walk away from them remembering any of the names or dates or major policy shifts — all the “corporate” stuff, effectively. But Pettus in his writing manages to cover these points in a fashion that is both highly comprehensive and relievingly brief, and gets them to stick better than in similar books I’ve read. I reckon I lack the writerly talent to really describe exactly how he manages this, but I did still want to mention it and how much I appreciate it.

1. Masters of Doom

Written by David Kushner. Published by Random House on April 24, 2003.

John Romero is maybe the most fascinating figure in the wacky world of video games. His philosophy on “iterative play design” should be taught in games development courses, and his games deserve to be displayed in museums. His fellow id Software co-founder John Carmack is a certifiable genius too, as it turns out: Perhaps the most gifted programmer who has ever contributed to our industry, and most certainly one of the most determined individuals in looking to push the medium of games forward.

We are lucky enough to exist in the timeline where these two minds met and decided to work on some games together, and wouldn’t you know it? A few of those games ended up being some of the most influential and important ever made! But inquiring minds may like to know: How exactly did “The Two Johns” come to meet in the first place, and what would it have been like to be a fly on the wall of the early id Software offices? Naturally, this book serves to answer those questions and more, and manages to offer one of the most insightful books on the subject of games development in the process.

At times, it reads like a dual biography of two brilliant minds, and how their contrasts came together to create art. At others, it serves to cover the creative process behind game design and programming in such detail, it genuinely inspires. But the stories of Doom, id Software, and The Two Johns aren’t just stories about video games: They’re stories about perseverance, well-placed stubbornness, and dedication to a craft. And while the stories of Romero and Carmack are still as of yet unfinished, the chronicles of their time spent working together in the 90’s are certainly historic on their own. In the immortal words of Carmack: “If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization: You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it.”

And hey, if a length of roughly 370 pages of text is perhaps too daunting to you, there’s an available audiobook version of Masters of Doom! Unfortunately, it is not narrated by the dulcet tones of one John Romero himself: Instead, you may find yourself having to endure nearly thirteen hours of Wil Wheaton. Oof.

Dishonorable Mention: Nintendon’t: 25 of the Worst Video Games Ever

Written by J. André Bardin. Published by Twilight Foundry on September 9, 2011.

I reckon it’s high time we end on a low note. I bought J. André Bardin’s Nintendon’t: 25 of the Worst Video Games Ever shortly before starting up the Bad Game Hall of Fame — you could even say it was something like an influence on my decision to start writing about bad games myself! And it’s all thanks to the thought that kept running through my head the whole time I spent reading Nintendon’t: “I could write something so much better than this.”

Nintendon’t is a vulgar, juvenile, completely non-critical look at 25 video games that the writer didn’t particularly care for. The opener, as it were, is an article on Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA); wherein the author proceeds to misspell Shigeru Miyamoto’s name (as “Sherigu”), makes the obligatory / unfunny series of trans jokes at Birdo’s expense, and generally fails to go into any sort of technical detail about the game itself or why exactly he doesn’t like it. This sets the tone for the rest of the book, where other offensive slurs and pointless tangents take the place of actual pointed complaints for the vast majority of the text. In another example: He somehow manages to make it through an entire review of The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning without even once mentioning the actual gameplay, opting instead to go on a tired rant about the furry fandom and “sexual deviancy.”

If there’s any one credit I can give to Mr. Bardin’s book, his game selection is at least unique — covering some titles that rarely see mention in the typical “worst of all time” lists. Of course, this also means seeing some picks that seem more personally motivated rather than due to any objective awfulness. This would be fine if he could at least muster up some decent reasons for his choices, but of course, his criticisms largely seem to amount to “this game sucks because I hate it.” In ranking Pokémon Snap at the number one spot in his list, he even concedes that his “placing it at the top of [his] list isn’t a declaration that it is the worst game of all time, but at the same time it’s certainly nowhere near being the greatest game ever either.” And that’s basically as deep as he goes in providing any sort of reasoning for its placement?

I wish I could say that the amateurish nature of the writing here at least lead to some unintentional comedy, but that’s not really the case. For me, the whole affair was largely just frustrating; seeing the potential being wasted right before my very eyes, enduring the shitty slurs, and generally being bothered by the fact I actually spent money on this awful little thing. Someone really ‘ought to step up and write a better book on bad games. You know, come to think of it, I might know a gal who’s up to the task…

Cassidy is the curator of a bad video game hall of fame. Whether you interpret that as "a hall of fame dedicated to bad video games" or as "a sub-par hall of fame for video games" is entirely up to you. Prefers "She / They" pronouns. Genuine cowpoke.

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3 Comments

  1. Sean says:

    First of all, great blog. It’s a fun read, and I appreciate your willingness to understand the history and context of terrible games. Too much of the bad game criticism online is focused on emotional reactions, not actual critical analysis of why games do or don’t work. Keep putting up great content, and I’ll keep reading it!

    Those 5+1 are all great books (and I agree on the dry qualities of “Untold History…” – it’s a snoozefest). A few others I’d recommend:

    THE ULTIMATE HISTORY OF VIDEO GAMES: I almost passed on this one due to the cover and format, but don’t let appearances fool you, as this book is well-researched and covers a LOT of territory regarding the early days of video gaming. It’s definitely worth a read.

    CONSOLE WARS: SEGA, NINTENDO AND THE BATTLE THAT DEFINED A GENERATION: This is one of the most readable and engaging books written on the 16-bit era, largely from the perspective of Sega. It brings characters to life through some creative license and really makes you feel something for the people involved.

    GAME OVER: HOW NINTENDO CONQUERED THE WORLD: And here’s Nintendo’s side of the story, written at a time when Nintendo’s top managers would still participate in interviews. It’s also extremely well-written and makes a nice counterpart to “Console Wars.”

    REPLAY: THE HISTORY OF VIDEO GAMES: Video game history is often told through the lens of hardware and software in the Japanese and American markets. But what about the rest of the world? This book does a great job of covering the stories behind game development you’re probably not so aware of including UK, Spanish, French and Australian developers and phenomenons like MUDs and dial-up services.

    DEUS EX MACHINA: THE BEST GAME YOU NEVER PLAYED IN YOUR LIFE: A very funny retrospective written by game developer Mel Croucher about the creation of one of the most ambitious video games of the 1980s, a game that fused music and life cycles and surrealism to create a strange but compelling game experience light years ahead of its time.

    PHOENIX IV: THE HISTORY OF THE VIDEO GAME INDUSTRY: This is the holy grail of video game histories, over 800 pages of detailed reporting on everything video game related. It’s dense and detailed, but it’s still highly readable and filled with pictures

    I’m also a big fan of anything Jeremy Parish (of 1UP.com / USGamer) writes, though his books (particularly the anatomy of games series) can get a little tedious if you don’t love the games he’s discussing as much as he does.

    Hope those suggestions are useful for anyone reading. Keep up the great work with the Bad Game Hall of Fame!

  2. Frump says:

    Great list. I’m really glad to see the Bible Adventures book on it. It’s a quick read but really made me think about unlicensed games differently and humanized the people who made the games. Even my partner who doesn’t have any interest in video games really enjoyed the book.

    It also introduced me to the song “Cars With The Boom” by L’Trimm, which I now listen to far more than anyone should.

    1. Cassidy says:

      ♫ WE LIKE THE CARS, THE CARS THAT GO BOOM
      WE’RE TIGRA AND BUNNY AND WE LIKE THE BOOM ♫

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