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Book Review: The Ultimate History Of Video Games by Steven L Kent

The Ultimate History Of Video Games by Steven L Kent (2001). Published by Prima Publishing

In general, you will not find too many academic books explaining about video games. Sure, there are several useful books for programmers and developers to help with creating games, but not that many that discuss the industry and its past; generally magazines and the internet are the go to sources for this. However, while trawling through my University library the other day, I came across this promising looking book. Considering that I study History, this book covers two of my great interests, and I thought that I should give it a read.

Being published in 2001, it obviously does not give a completely up to date view on the gaming world, but focuses on the time span from the early 1970’s and the birth of arcades all the way to the end of the fifth generation of consoles in2001. Indoing so, the book covers a vast array of issues and stories from the video game industry, following the story of the birth of Atari and Nolan Bushnell and its rivals such as the Colecovision and Magnavox Odyssey, before covering the ‘golden age’ of the arcades and fall of the industry before 1983, the birth of Nintendo and Sega into the industry and the subsequent 16-bit war, before focusing on the death of Sega and the emergence of Sony as a major player. Now I’ve read a lot of history books, and can safely say that this is one of the most engaging reads I have ever had; Kent writes in a fluid style that appeals to all and gives a great deal of thoroughly referenced evidence and factoids to cover all his points (for example, explaining the origins of Easter eggs in games, how the ‘The’ in Sonic The Hedgehog is trademarked, and the legal cases surrounding Mortal Kombat). The book is also exceptional in portraying the thoughts of several important individuals from the industry whom Kent interviewed in detail before writing; Nolan Bushnell, Shigeru Miyamoto, Howard Lincoln, Trip Hawkins and Dave Rosen amongst several others provide captivating insights into what was going on at the time. Reading through this book provided me with much more information that I thought was possible to collect on the subject area. You will also be getting your moneys worth: at over 600 pages this book will provide plenty of enjoyment over a long time.

I would like to point out a few personal criticisms that I have with the book however. Kent gives much more focus to the period of the arcades than to the modern era (especially the fifth generation which for the large part is skipped over), and often he will explain a point in brief detail before covering it in much more detail in a later chapter; a bit less repetition would have been nice. Also Kent omits several important games or does not give them enough credit; obviously the big titles such as Pong, Super Mario Brothers, Sonic The Hedgehog and Donkey Kong are covered, but major RPG titles and franchises such as The Legend Of Zelda and Metroid are given brief mentions at best. I get the feeling that Kent wanted to highlight the consoles and the development behind them more than anything else, but considering this is a book covering the history of ‘video games’, then some successful titles should receive a bit more credit.

As an overall judgement, The Ultimate History Of Video Games is a fine book and an engaging read. Arcade enthusiasts in particular I feel will relish the information in the book, and anyone looking to get an overall view of the industry can’t go wrong with using this as a starting point. Very much recommended.