Video Game Book Reviews
Video Invaders may not be the oldest monograph on video games. In fact, there were literally dozens of books out before. All of them, however, were guide books of all sorts; most would teach the reader how to get the highest scores at recent arcade games, others provided maintenance aid for machines. By 1982 even the first self-help books for "arcade addicts" appeared in bookstores. Steve Blooms however, was the first (to our knowledge) who attempted to write a thorough history of the still young medium.
The book opens with a very personal introduction, a very lively description of the authors childhood/youth experiences in the 1960s-'80s arcade scene. History truly comes to live on these first couple of pages, and it almost holds up better than the rest of the book. The following three chapters are a bit more dry and make up the straight history portion of the book, "Who Really Invented Video Games" reminds us how old the dispute between Nolan Bushnell and Ralph Bear really is, and it even goes into the making of Spacewar!, which predates both their efforts. "The Games: A Chronology" gives a rundown of the most important arcade game releases up to 1982, while the third chapter focuses entirely on the Pac-Man phenomenon, which swept over America in the early 1980s. With hilariously outdated assessments like this description of Defender "With its joystick and five control buttons, it's about as close to a cockpit as amateur video pilots will ever get, these chapters are now more enjoyable for their entertainment value.
Perhaps most impressive is chapter 4, which as a collection of ten interviews with video game developers and producers is one of the biggest journalistic efforts in that field for its time. Of course Steve Bloom had no access to Japanese designers back in 1982 (although he speaks with the spokesman for Namco in America in chapter 3), but David Crane and Alan Miller, founders of Activision, Morgan Henry (Battle Zone), Donna Taylor (Centipede) and Ed Lodge (Asteroids, Centipede), Edward Rotberg (Battle Zone), Eugene Jarvis (Defender), Tim Skelly of Cinematronics (Star Castle, Star Hawk, Rip-Off), Dave Nutting of Nutting Associates, and Gary Shannon of (Sega-)Gremlin all give insights into their trade that no one had heard of before. In the case of Gary Shannon, who had programmed and published home computer versions of Othello and Chess before joining Gremlin, the book even gets subtly critical at the state of the industry: "As a hobbyist he received credit for his work (disks and cassettes are by-lined), but as a professional he must remain anonymous." Shannon even hints at his work on what might have become the first rhythm game, if only Sega-Gremlin didn't close up shop soon after:
Personally, I thing rhythm is a major factor. We have two games in development that will make players respond rhythmically to the sound pattern. If you can figure it out, then you'll be able to go for more targets, for instance. You'll almost have to be a musician to play the game well."
Chapter 5 and 6 show the less enviable tasks of video game journalism: Bloom visits the major console manufacturers (Atari, Magnavox and Mattel) as well as the first and biggest third party game publishers, Activision and Imagic, were he tries persistently to get past all the vaporous PR talk.
"The Great Debate" is an odd, but no less interesting one. It talks about various attempts of governments to try and get rid of those "non-useful commercial enterprises." For that the book goes back to as far as the 1920s, were billiards used to be the target for the war on entertainment. It is further described how more recently Mesquite, Texas banned the chain of coin-op establisments Alladin's Castle and the playing of arcade-type games. However, the bright side of the argument is also shown:
More startling news, however, was this recent development in two Milwaukee schools: Wauwatosa and Nicolet High Schools each reported earnings over $400 a month during the 1980-81 school year after installing video and pinball machines in the schools' commons.
(...) "one principal contended that the in-house arcade contributed to a decline in student vandalism and loitering at nearby stores, noting: "As educators, we're providing for the total student and part of his life is socializing and recreating. I don't know any concrete educational value in the games, but I do believe they are a good supplement to a well-rounded education."
Chapter 8 is once again reeks of nowadays involuntarily comical content, as it deals with the future of the medium. On the other hand there's a truly prophetic statement by Harold Vogel, who basically predicts the 1984 video game crash. It also contains a review of the then-recent movie Tron. For the sequel to that film author Steve Bloom has recently made a brief return to writing on video game related matters.
The remaining 60 pages all deal with winning strategies for popular arcade games, which are illustrated by nice hand-drawn representations of the game screens, followed by 20 pages with brief reviews of console games, text only. Home computer games were still an entirely different world to the arcade crowd, so the book all but ignores that phenomenon.
Video Invaders has long been out of print and might be hard to come by nowadays. Prices can range from less than a dollar for discarded library copies to high double digits from collector's treasuries. Since there's no way anyone who did any work on the book is still going to earn money with it, we're providing a full scan for everyone who might be interested in reading the whole thing. It also features some very trippy illustrations throughout, which alone are worth a look.
Steve Bloom was also an editor for Video Games Magazine, and worked for the marijuana activist magazine High Times from 1989 to 2007. Nowadays he keeps a blog on celebstoner.com.