Video Game Book Reviews
While Video Invaders had some interesting illustrations, it did shine with content rather than flashy imagery. Invasion of the Space Invaders on the other hand was the original coffee table book on video games. With supersized photos of suave teens in front of arcade machines and beautiful colored screenshot reproductions (and some not so beautiful real screenshots), the look and feel of the period is documented here more than anything else.
It's surprising to see an English literature fixture like Martin Amis credited for a rakish account on video game mania in his early career, especially since he was already in his thirties then - Invasion comes off as a peer-written teenage lifestyle book, full of casual expressions and forced sexual innuendos. ("If Jumpman gets to the top a certain number of times, Jumpman saves the Lady. You have to be over eighteen to see what he does to her next.") At the same time the author is painting himself as a penniless loser who "can't seem to find any girlfriends." Opening with a somewhat awkward foreword by Steven Spielberg, the whole book seems to buy into the "video games are a dangerous addiction" thing, all the while being really hypocritic about it.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? It's the sort of talk you hear from a "reformed" alky, as he braces himself to describe his latest relapse.
The narrative itself is a very personal one, to the point where it's almost proto New Games Journalism. Most of the time Amis talks about his own experiences, so half of the text is anecdotes with whole pages of weird tangents, like the philosophy of high score table initials (COQ, FUC, BUM) or analog cheating by messing with the machines with electric cigarette lighters or "battery-run kitchen gizmos." There is a bit of history, but it's little more than "Nolan Bushnell invented video games, but they were boring. Then came Space Invader. The End." The strong bias for Namco's hit in particular and space games in general is found throughout the book. Video ping-pong was a "moronic fad," and his opinion on the new cartoonish games like Frogger and Donkey Kong is equally dismissive:
In acquisitive panic, the video moguls decided to go for the banal fantasies of the nursery, the cinema and the grandstand. I venture to suggest that these games will not last. They will not last because they are boring games."
He does kinda like Pac-Man, although he describes its thrills as short-lived too, likens the yellow protagonist to a lemon rather than a pizza and doesn't go much into the American Pac-Man craze. The game is only really mentioned in the second of three chapters, where individual arcade games are described together with some winning strategies. Among all the famous classics, one also finds some now obscure games no one remembers, like Gorf and Pleiads. With 45 pages, this section is the longest of the book.
Home console games once again get the shaft, as now all the images are merely black&white, and the focus is on how much inferior the games are to the arcade experience. Mr. Amis also had some trouble setting up the whole thing: "Now you plug in the game power cord, monkey with the aerial switch box, and 'tune' your television to an unused channel. Abracadabra! The word Pelmellivision, or whatever, appears on the screen!" They also have to share their space with LCD handhelds and chess computers.
Rather arbitrary appear the two BASIC source codes for the Sharp MZ-80K, especially since once again commercial home computer games are ignored entirely. The final two pages about video game competitions are interesting (and prove that retro game shirts are older than the NES), but are also oddly placed. If you're hunting down a copy of Invasion of the Space Invaders today, you'd probably do it just for the images. The text is not as informative and doesn't hold up too well, but at least it's funny, in a very '80s sense. The language is very colorful, sometimes almost poetic, like in his closing paragraph on Galaxian:
Now, of course, in the bars of Paris (cheap and exotic drinks, pinball, space games - heaven), the Galaxian machines themselves cringe unused in the corners, rejected, gestured at. How far away their proud dawn now seems! They are leaned on and eaten off, like any old Space Invader. People stub out butts on their screens. Everyone is playing PacMan, or Defending. Soon the machines will be shipped off to some seaside arcade, to wait out their days - slapped to pieces by children, their wires fizzing from the damp air, and dreaming of the great day in '79 when they invaded the space of the Space Invaders.