High Score!: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games, Rusel DeMaria & Johnny L. Wilson

McGraw Hill Osborne, 2002, 328 pages, C$24.99 tpb, ISBN 0-07-222428-2

Faithful readers of these reviews may recall my teenage fascination for video games, but they may not suspect the depth of it. Simply put, from 1983 to 1993, I knew just about everything about the subject. Blessed with ample free time and a network of like-minded friends, armed with a trusty Commodore 64 (followed by the latter succession of PCs), I devoured the magazines of the time, played games obsessively, wrote about them in the high school newspaper and basically lived a decade under the influence.

Then I discovered the Internet, went to university and, well, something had to give.

But thanks to Rusel DeMaria and Johnny L. Wilson, I now own a time capsule of the era: High Score! packs nothing less than three decades of video games in 328 gorgeously illustrated pages. Everything from Pong to the X-Box, complete with quotes from the industry’s historical figures, descriptions of games and companies and enough screenshots to make you feel as if you’re back in front of vintage games.

Roughly divided in three chronological sections (the 70s, 80s and 90s), High Score! is crammed with material, both textual and visual. The scope of the book is, admittedly, bigger than my own experience with the subject matter: It delves deep into the prehistory of electronic games (namely; arcades and pre-Atari 2600 consoles), and then goes on to do a very good job balancing computer games with the series of consoles that developed concurrently. (Not being a console fan, I could only nod in recognition at memories of my friend’s video games from Nintendos to Playstations)

The first part, “the 70s”, is the most linear of the three: Given the historical perspective and relatively uncluttered gaming landscape of the time, it’s easy for the authors to present a flowing narrative. One event clearly leads to another, copycats turn into innovators and there are so few games that they can be highlighted on a yearly basis. It’s a heroic age where personalities and individual talents are crucial.

Some of that individual heroism carries through in “The 80s”, even as the field starts to mature and define itself as an industry. Small organizations start taking on the personalities formerly held by individuals. Mentions of Epyx, Electronic Arts, Activision, SSI and others all evoke warm happy memories of seeing those logos on my plucky Commodore 64. (“Accolade Presents”… Ooh, mommy!)

Alas, the “narrative” of High Score! also starts to break down as the industry explodes in random directions. Whereas the book’s first third is linear and absorbing, it then switches to a more free-flowing approach as it tries to cover all facets of the field. Unfortunately, this leads to uncomfortable breaks; when covering a company like Sierra, for instance, there are clear differences between the King’s Quest Sierra and the Half-Life Sierra. Shovelling the entire history of the company between pages 134-143, in “The 80s”, is a jarring choice. Among many others.

Given my declining interest in computer games during the nineties, it’s somewhat ironic to read how, in the introduction to the third part of the book, the authors had a harder time pulling together the final threads. Electronic gaming has since gone mainstream, taking over pop culture as yet another entertainment option. Oh well. Unfortunately (and this will only grow worse as we move away from 2002), High Score! ends at a curious junction, barely mentioning the Playstation 2 / X-Box / Nintendo 64 platforms, as well as Grand Theft Auto and other newer landmarks of electronic gaming which, after all, always marches on.

But don’t think it’s enough to diminish my admiration for the book. High Score! and myself deserved each other. Especially noteworthy is the fantastic graphic design used to lay out the book. Every page is a thing of beauty, laid out clearly to highlight the interesting material. Screen-shots are crisp, quotes are appropriate and the material is well-written. I especially loved the profiles of specific games… especially when they matched my own favourites!

No doubt about it: For an old-school computer game geek such as myself, reading the book was like surfing from one pleasant memory to another. You can keep your high-school photo album: This is the true record of how I spend my teenage years!

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