Supercade and High Score!
A Double Header Review
Review by James McGovern
Resistance is Futile
Ok, first off let's get the formalities out of the way. You want these two books. Reviewing books like these for a community of retro-gamers becomes less about the buy/don't buy comparison and more of an, "here's what to expect when you do buy them." exercise. If you are a video game enthusiast nut-job like I am that is interested in all things related to video gaming, the fact that you want these books or, if you have a truly unhealthy obsession as I do, need these books is a forgone conclusion. So let’s just dispense with the niceties and say you need to start dropping hints to your local gift-giver(s) to get you these tomes as soon as you’re done reading this review. Heck, just buy them as gifts for yourself; remember you need them.
Why a 2’fer?
I decided to review the two books; Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984 and High Score! The Illustrated History of Electronic Games 2 nd Edition, in one double-header article. This is not to pit them against each other, but rather to illustrate what you can expect from each and show how they compliment each other in many ways. If the holidays have you in a pinch and you can only secure one initially, maybe you can get an idea of which you need to finagle first.
The first thing to realize is that while Supercade covers this history from 1971 to 1984, High Score bites off a bit more of the gaming chronology. High Score’s narratives begin with a brief piece on games from the ancient world such as Senet and ends with discussions about console games of the late 90’s. High Score comes in at 391 pages while Supercade is a bit longer at 437 pages. High Score is covering more ground in less space so look for more detailed treatments of the various topics in Supercade than you might see in High Score.
Also, be aware that while both books stray from the arcade to chronicle various console and electronic games, Supercade avoids most PC games aside from assorted treatments of the classic computers such as the early Commodores and Apples of the day. High Score again dives in head first covering an enormous amount of ground discussing PC games as well as the topics listed above.
Image is Everything
Supercade and High Score are billed as a “visual history” and an “illustrated history” respectively. They both deliver a host of images related to the topics at hand, but in different ways. Supercade is the primarily the work of Van Burnham, a contributing writer for Wired magazine. There is most certainly a graphic design influence from Wired for Supercade . Many of the images are displayed at odd angles, with varying zoom factors, and other contemporary design elements. Don’t look for pictures to scan for your next marquee, as most of the images in Supercade have been highly modified to create a uniquely stylish package. High Score takes a more traditional approach in its overall graphic design. Screenshots, packaging artwork, and other gaming images are displayed in their entirety and sans the unusual angles and resolutions.
The Meat of the Matter
A look at the respective timelines represented in the two books illustrates best how they compliment each other as video game compilations. Supercade stays true to its advertised scope by taking the reader through the early years of video game development and discovery with the meat of the discussion focusing on the heyday of classic arcade systems from 1971 to 1984. Van Burnham’s work focuses primarily on the coin-operated games but also peppers the timeline with discussions about the related console games released during the various years.
High Score spreads its effort out much more beginning with a brief discussion of gaming in ancient times circa 2000 B.C. and continues through to the console and PC based games of the current century. The subject matter discussed in Supercade is covered in roughly 1/3 of the High Score material. Especially regarding coin-operated games, High Score contains essays and discussions about the most popular and notable titles, while Supercade tends to hit the highs and lows covering more games overall during the 13 year period. Again, look for more in-depth discussions of the topics within Supercade, but more topics overall in High Score.
Both books offer some goodies outside of the respective scopes. The primary author of Supercade, Van Burnham is a self-professed video game junkie. Her earliest memories are of the Odyssey system she had as a child and the hours spent playing it. She grew up in the heyday of the coin-operated games and went on to become a reviewer of video games for Wired magazine and many other publications. I have read that she is still an avid collector with a worthy assortment of classic games. It is fitting that she has included a section devoted to other collectors discussing their obsessions as well. Also in Supercade, you will find a section devoted to classic video game gatherings such as the Philly Classic and California Extreme as well as exhibits such as Videotopia. A quick goggle reveals that she has recently married Seamus Blackley, the co-creator of the x-box system showing she has more than a passing interest in current console gaming and thus the future of video games is discussed as well in a small section with comments and quotes from various players past and present of the video game industry.
High Score's authors, Rusel Demaria and Johnny l. Wilson , two very established gaming aficionados and writers of many game strategy guides include sections on two often-overlooked subjects. They included comprehensive essays regarding gaming across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans looking at the histories and current state of gaming culture in Europe and Asia. These sections focus mainly of console and PC based games of these regions as a counterbalance to the discussions regarding the same formats in US culture.
Supercade covers what I would consider my fondest gaming remembrances as a child of the 80’s and a confirmed Gen-X slacker. My personal interests in collecting and playing video games reside in the coin-operated games of the late 70’s and early 80’s. That said I found the bulk of the discussions in Supercade the most interesting though I lamented the choice in overall graphic design. I found it a bit out of context that the most of the images within Supercade were highly stylized and modified in more of a late 90’s fashion. I enjoy the artwork and related graphic elements of the classic video games and feel the artwork is best displayed in its entirety for maximum effect. Supercade makes up for this choice in my mind through the depth of the discussions within. Truly, Van Burnham and the other contributing writers within Supercade have done their homework, as the level of detail in the game descriptions and histories is well researched and presented. The book’s timeline-based format does an excellent job of framing the advances in technology and offerings as well.
High Score provides a much broader scope of
subject matter, though again with limited treatment of each. Roughly 2/3
of the book is committed to console and PC based games of the late 80's
to the present. Roughly, 2/3 of the book is committed to PC and console
based games of the late 80's to the present. While this is not my specific
area of interest, the content in these sections is very well researched
and presented. The more traditional graphic presentation of High Score fared
better on my eyes that did the same
Why are You Still Reading This? Go Get ‘em!
For the gaming geek in need of reading material to grace the coffee table in the game room, these books are a must-have. The scope and depth of material found within each is awesome and I found myself discovering new tidbits of video game trivia each time I picked them up. Once you work through each of these books, you will be the uber-geek of the street with more facts and background on games and the gaming industry than anyone else in the arcade. No doubt, you too will re-discover games that made brief appearances in the arcades or PC games that you have long forgot. Like having to forego a trip to the arcade as a youth, if you don’t get these books, who knows what else you might miss.