Category Archives: Books

Console Wars

Console WarsAs much as I love my well-thumbed copy of Game Over, it’s over 20 years old. Its account of Nintendo’s rise lacks two decades of changing perspective, context, new information that has emerged as people retire, move on and, separated from events by years and expired NDAs, give increasingly candid interviews. It’s from a world where the Atari ET landfill story is apocryphal.

Console Wars’ chosen subject is different, coming in when Nintendo has already risen to its zenith and concentrating on the competition with Sega in the early 90s. There’s none of the smart, nimble Nintendo that came out of David Sheff’s book; this is the empire whose monopolistic tendencies alienated enough third-parties to create the way in that Sega and ultimately Sony exploited.

There’s a major movie in development (at Sony Pictures, amusingly) based on this book, hence the foreword by Seth Rogen, which is extraordinary to me. There’s the kernel of a film here – indeed, everyone knows the snappy line to win an argument in a way that no one does in real life – but while The Social Network proved that the rise of a major tech company can make a fascinating cinematic experience, Blake Harris and the team behind Superbad aren’t David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin. Time will have to tell on that one.

The book itself is solid but unspectacular. The aforementioned tendency for everyone to speak like polished movie scripts can grate, as can the Hollywood stereotypes that uniformly present the Americans as hard-working creatives and the Japanese as stoic, conservative and petty. It may be true that Sega of Japan was the architect of Sega’s post-16-bit downfall, and the book makes a convincing argument for this viewpoint, but a bit more nuance would have been nice.

But I still learnt a lot, even as someone who grew up consuming everything I could about gaming in this period. Did you know, for instance…

  • …that Nintendo was once so big that it accounted for 10% of Walmart’s total profits?
  • …that Sonic 2 was both the first global launch and the first set-in-stone release date in gaming history?
  • …that Sega passed up the opportunities to release the hardware that would become the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64?
  • …that Sega’s Tom Kalinske was responsible for the Nintendo-Silicon Graphics relationship that gave us Donkey Kong Country and the N64?
  • …that Sonic’s iconic silhouette was achieved by combining Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse? And his middle name is actually ‘The’?
  • …that the born-again Christianity of Konami’s president turned Dracula Satanic Castle into the more enduring and Jesus-friendly Castlevania?
  • …that the US government’s antitrust lawsuit against Nintendo was completely by accident filed on the 40th anniversary of Pearl Harbor?

Those little snippets are the kind of things that I lapped up. There are enough of them sprinkled liberally throughout that I was willing to overlook the liberties taken by the author. Well worth a look for anyone who honed their debating skills on the school playground in the early 90s.

Game Over’s still the daddy, though.

Me and my Kindle


Despite my assurances in my last post that I’ve been gaming as much as ever, there’s one area where I’ve been letting the side down, and it’s in portables. I love my 3DS and Vita – aka Persona 4: The Console – but my omnipresent-electronic-companion-that-isn’t-my-phone has been a simple Kindle. I love the little thing.

What I like about the basic Kindle is that it’s cheap, it has a long battery life, and it focuses on doing one thing very well. In other words, it’s the complete opposite of modern portable hardware. It’s the original Game Boy reborn, minus games.

Every function of the thing is available on just about any phone or tablet, but they don’t match the experience of reading on paper like an E Ink screen, and just being on for a day will drain their battery, whereas this can last me a month. That’s why this will be going with me on holiday – it can survive a long-haul flight and a few days away from a power outlet, whereas my Vita certainly couldn’t.

Mostly, though, I like that it’s rekindled – seriously, no pun intended – a love of reading that’s been latent since I hit my teens. I cleared 46 books in 2013, my first full year with a Kindle, which is probably more than I managed in the previous decade. I’ve sworn off reading at that pace again, simply because it turns it into less a hobby and more a production line, but I’m already on my tenth book of 2014.

Unfortunately, it seems like ebook reader sales in general have been falling. The market has spoken and shown that people prefer one device that does everything – tablets, in other words. It’s not a surprise, since we’ve seen how many use their console as their primary Blu-ray player, or who prefer the ‘good enough’ phone camera to a dedicated unit. And thankfully Amazon has never required Kindles to be profitable, as they’re really a vector to sell ebooks, so falling sales aren’t the disaster they can be for a console.

It’s sad that ‘good enough’ so often trumps ‘great’, as any videophile who weeps at the thought of DVD outselling Blu-ray will tell you, but the Kindle seems to be one that’s set up to survive nonetheless, able to serve its dedicated following thanks to the fortunate position of not needing to make money. If only Nintendo could crack that one…

Is There a Better Book About Games Than Game Over?

Game OverIt’s been a while since I’ve written anything about games, mainly because I haven’t been playing them. My free time has been dominated by reading, an ancient form of entertainment made modern and more ubiquitous by the Kindle I got for my last birthday. An ill-advised Goodreads challenge to get through 40 books in 2013 – a lot when you enjoy 1,500-page fantasy epics – and the pressures of another new job have dominated my free time in recent months.

I’m all about efficiency, though, so why not combine my twin loves by gushing over Game Over, David Sheff’s wonderful book about the rise of Nintendo. It’s both, for my money, the best book ever written about games and surely the greatest free gift to accompany a magazine since that before-they-were-popular pack of Pogs I got with the Beano. Like most who’ve read it these days, I got my copy on the cover of the tragically short-lived Arcade magazine in the late 90s.

The rate at which I burn through books and a surfeit of great literature to read means that I rarely read them more than once. The small list that I still return to occasionally goes like this: Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Lord of the Rings, The Lord of the Flies, and Game Over. Spot the odd one out.

Only I don’t think it is out of place there. We have two greats of speculative fiction with important things to say about human nature, a towering giant of fantasy, and a top-tier non-fiction book about business. It being about games dovetails wonderfully with my tastes, of course, but such an engrossing account of any industry in its heyday would be worthy of praise. It’s a comprehensive account of how Nintendo built up the industry as it exists today, the glorious 8- and 16-bit days, and the inner workings of a notoriously secretive company.

In that respect, it’s at least as good as, say, Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography – a far better-known account of the rise of a technology giant, but one that’s been documented at least as well elsewhere.

Even speaking as someone without much stake in Nintendo these days, a proper follow-up to Game Over would be one of my dream announcements. An account of this quality to take us through Nintendo’s part in the rise of the PlayStation, the commercial decline of the N64 and GameCube years, and the boom-and-bust DS/Wii-Wii U era would make for arguably more fascinating reading than how Nintendo built the modern industry in the first place.

Now, though, GTA V is here. Finally, a game worth talking about…

On Spoilers: Stop Being So Sensitive

I don’t think it’s my imagination that there’s been a marked increase in the absurdity of the lengths people go to to avoid spoilers, and it has to stop. It’s stifling conversation and making the discussion of current media more and more difficult as people try to accommodate those for whom so much as the name of a character can ruin the enjoyment of a game, movie or TV show.

Darth Vader

It’s The Hobbit that’s inspired this rant, for much the same reason as I was annoyed back when Lord of the Rings was being adapted. Back then, a book written when Hitler ruled Germany, Britain governed India and the United States had 48 states and whose ending had been a popular slogan that you could literally see painted on walls for decades before was suddenly a closely guarded secret. Nobody cared what happened to Frodo and co in, say, 1999 and it could be thrown around with impunity, but then reality itself has to be warped for people who suddenly care.

All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again. Continue reading On Spoilers: Stop Being So Sensitive

BioShock: Rapture – A Review

BioShock: Rapture Tasked with lifting a story saddled with Ayn Rand philosophy above the levels of mediocrity that many videogame tie-in novels can only hope to achieve, it’s hard to believe that John Shirley had a chance.

The tale of Rapture’s inception, construction and fall contains some interesting moments, but the best of them have already been heard in the game’s audio diaries, only stretched beyond the breaking point to fill a chapter rather than a 30-second audio clip. By the end almost every event has been taken from them, even going so far as to paste the dialogue from them in verbatim, leaving few surprises for anyone who was paying attention when they played through the original.

Characters who worked as enigmatic cameos feel like parodies when they and their philosophies are expanded like this; a feeling only enhanced by the author’s bizarre insistence on rendering every verbal tic and dialect on the page. Bill McDonagh, for example, is a working class bloke from Lahndahn, and then you’ve got the guido stereotypes for New York gangsters and, just in case you forget that the book is set in the 1940s, it’s loaded with deliberate archaisms so that people actually use words like ‘swell’.

Even if Andrew Ryan was less a nuanced personality and more a… well, an Ayn Rand character in the game, here he’s a pantomime villain. He takes every single opportunity to start monologuing about parasites, taxes and the Great Chain™. Within the first chapter he compares, completely without irony, Hiroshima and Nagasaki to socialism, and it’s downhill from there.

Fontaine, too, if he has a moustache would spend every scene twirling it. His character is built from the big book of villainous cliches, with an uncanny gift for disguise thanks to being brought up in the circus. No, really…

One thing the book does share with the games is that the true star is Rapture itself, and for those who gorged themselves on the details in things like the BioShock 2 ARG, the material here will delight. It still doesn’t make much sense if you think too hard about it, but moments like seeing the undersea city for the first time are nearly as potent as they were when you saw it for yourself. The game’s opening is still one of the best ever, and the book enjoys some of the reflected glory.

It’s not enough, though. The narrative and visuals in the games were strong enough to make you forgive some occasionally clunky mechanics, but this is just a bad reprise weighed down by dialogue and character development from a bad fan fiction. Fans will find a lot more canonical depth by spending a few hours exploring the BioShock Wiki.