Video Game Book Reviews
The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokémon and beyond - The Story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World
The Ultimate History of Video Games is a bold title for a book to carry, and as if determined to keep that promise, author Steven Kent starts his book at the very beginning - the Pinball industry. The entire first chapter is dedicated to these forefathers that paved the way for an arcade industry to blossom in their wake. Another chapter deals with those pre-industry pioneers that didn't really get the recognition they deserved until much later, Space War und Ralph Baer's Odyssey console. Then the book really kicks of with the rise of Nolan Bushnell and the founding of Atari, following the history through the crash and its revival, courtesy of Nintendo. This era is no doubt the strongest focus of the book, by the time we reach the 1990s, we're already a good 400 pages in. After that, it gets a bit more spotty. The book tells about the 16- and 32-bit console wars fueled by Sega's and Sony's ambitions, respectively, but also spends an entire chapter on Mortal Kombat, Night Trap and the debate around violence in video games. It ends a bit on a low on Sega's departure and Microsoft's entry into the industry. Those final chapters seem a bit less interesting than the rest of the book, for the sole reason that video game history had become a bit less interesting.
The biggest strength of The Ultimate History is no doubt the sheer magnitude with which Kent makes the voices of the makers heard. The man must have conducted hundreds of interviews. A page without a blockquote is a rare sight, up to three citations per page quite common. Over the almost 600 pages one learns how Ralph Baer had the first prototype for his console engineered in secret at his position as a division manager at the defense contracter Sanders; how a filthy young good-for-nothing named Steve Jobs (RIP) makes his first couple thousand bucks in the games industry by exploiting other people's work; or finds out what's the story with Shigeru Miyamoto's grudge against Donkey Kong Country (apparently his first draft for Yoshi's Island got rejected because it didn't look as good as DKC).
To fulfill the claim on an "ultimate history" inside a single volume is frankly impossible, but Kent's book doesn't just fall short on that goal, it doesn't even try. When Kent writes "video games," he has in his mind the old, more narrow definition that distinguishes coin-op and console software from home computer games, and thus safe for very few, arbitrary exceptions the latter are rarely even mentioned, disregarding the fact that many are much more inseparable from the history of video games than the generously covered pinball industry.
There's also a strong US-centered point of view. Even developments in Japan are only taken into account when they had an immediate impact on the US. Dragon Quest, for example, is only ever mentioned in passing when talking about people standing in line for the release of the seventh iteration. Rare is the only European company that gets some spotlight, and only so because it became Nintendo's second party flagship with Donkey Kong Country. Former editions of The Ultimate History of Video Games were titled The First Quarter. While that in fact would sell the book in its current form very short, it at least showed some modesty and was mildly poetic. A more accurate title would be "A mostly anecdotal history of arcade and console games, as perceived in the United States," but naming the book as such of course would be quite insane. False advertisement aside, Kent nonetheless has produced an invaluable resource of anecdotes all would-be historians should have sitting on their shelves. Though not as overarching as the title claims, it still remains by far the most ambitious work of its kind to this day.
For all readers suffering from ADD, it should be noted that it is not a very illustrated history, though. There is a collection of black&white photos on 18 pages in the middle of the book, but safe for those, the book is carried by its text alone. The strong focus on quotations and the structure broken down to very short subchapters make for an easy read, though. I also gotta nitpick about a pet-peeve of mine, namely the source notes, which are compiled at the very end. If one actually cares for them, it's really annoying to jump through the book each time a reference comes up. Even less understandable as there are frequent footnotes on the bottom of pages, only they are reserved for editorial annotations.