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ups: Lots of information about obscure British and Euro game history.
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The A-Z of Cool Computer Games Book Review
game: The A-Z of Cool Computer Games
three star
posted by: Shawn Rider
publisher: Alison and Busby, Ltd.
developer: Jack Railton
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date posted: 12:16 PM Sun Jan 15th, 2006

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Click to read.It\'s easy for us Americans to believe that videogames were made by and for the US and Japan. We cannot deny the Japanese influence, but we often neglect the significant impact of European and British game developers. Could we imagine a world without Peter Molyneaux\'s Populous, Battletoads, or Dungeon Keeper? Could we even think of giving up console developers like Rare (Perfect Dark, Conker, Banjo Kazooie, etc.) or Rockstar North (who created Grand Theft Auto as DMA studios before being bought out by Take Two)? I don\'t think so. It only stands to reason that these well-known developers did not rise singularly out of a barren wasteland-- there are loads of British and European developers making lots and lots of games. And they\'ve been there for ages. Who knew?

Combating this ignorance if the British and European gaming scene is where a book like Jack Railton\'s The A-Z of Cool Computer Games comes in handy. Railton\'s book is an encyclopedic collection of facts and descriptions of games, computers, console hardware, peripherals and trends in the gaming world of the UK. For some readers, this will be an enjoyable trip down memory lane. For others, it is a peek into an alternate dimension of gaming where some names and titles are familiar, but others are strange and enticing.

How do you know which group you fit into? Take Railton\'s first line from his Introduction as your barometer: "One of the strongest memories from my youth is of the day we played a game called Pangolins on our then brand new Sinclair ZX Spectrum." If this line makes any since to you at all, then you\'re probably British, and Cool Computer Games might very well evoke plenty of fond memories from your gaming youth. However, if you\'re like the bulk of the GF! Staff, the previous quote makes you scratch your head as if reading a Mad Libs version of a videogame history. You\'re also probably American.

It is difficult to get a lot of basic facts and information about videogame history, so Railton\'s book is valuable to either retro gamers or people interested in the history of videogames. Railton covers over 30 different computer and console games, plus a handful of arcade games. These range from titles that didn\'t make it much across the water, such as Pangolins, Hungry Horace, Bandersnatch, and others, to titles that are world-wide in their notoriety, such Populous, Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat and Pokemon.

Railton also focuses on the hardware used to play these games, covering almost as many personal computer and gaming console models. These also range from the (almost) strictly British to global successes. On the UK end of hardware, Railton discusses the Sinclair Spectrum series and Dragon 32. He details which stores sold these systems and how much they cost when released. Of course, as the gaming industry grows, foreign hardware, such as the Atari and the SNES, penetrates the British marketplace.

The systems aren\'t the only hardware Railton discusses. He devotes a section to arcade attractions, discussing classic arcade games such as Yie Ar Kung Fu, Spy Hunter and Zaxxon. He also discusses "Paraphernelia," which includes not only accessories for gaming, but other platforms and game types such as digital watches with games and electronic games like Simon and Tamagotchi.

Railton also goes to some efforts to contextualize all of this with a section devoted to "Social Mores," the different trends of thought and budding culture surrounding games and gaming. Entries in this section range from "bad influences" and "computer shops" to discussions of the importance of boys\' bedrooms and the movie Wargames.

As a survey of British gaming history, Railton\'s book is not so much thorough as it is representative. He seems to do a better job covering the localized UK scene, which is appropriate and more interesting. In the areas where the international gaming industry touches the book, Railton maintains the localized approach, which is good. At some point any local history of videogames is going to run headlong into the globalization of the industry and gaming culture. This globalization continues at a high rate, evidenced by the Xbox 360 worldwide launch and the lack of region encoding on PSP games, which make imported games playable on any PSP system.

Railton\'s writing is easy and mostly transparent. It is fairly colloquial, which calls attention to itself for an American reader, but that lends the history a bit of flavor that is overall appreciated. Railton\'s work here has a very strong feeling of being off-the-cuff. Railton seems to be reciting a personalized recollection. I would assume that more research has gone into the book than it might appear at first: I doubt anyone remembers how much the system their father bought cost at retail, or exactly which shops sold which systems. But Railton has a way, for good or bad, of making the research blend into his colloquial approach.

Railton is also not very interested in going the intellectual route. These games and hardware are not analyzed for meaning-- they are described and catalogued. The book makes me think of The Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments from DB Weiss\' novel, Lucky Wander Boy. In Weiss\' novel, the protagonist is working on a personalized history of games, very much like Railton\'s A-Z of Cool Computer Games. The difference, however, is that the entries Weiss\' protagonist writes do not focus on description as much as interpretation and evaluation. Weiss\' fictional entries are parodies of critical theory mixed with personal memoir. In fact, one of the most memorable (a treatise on Pac-Man as Marxist allegory) seems very much ripped from the pages of British game critic Steven Poole\'s book, Trigger Happy.

However, it is Railton\'s freedom to choose how to approach these things, and not everyone wants to read intellectual (or even humorously pseudo-intellectual) takes on their favorite games. And in the end, that\'s not the thing that most annoys me about The A-Z of Cool Computer Games. What annoys me is the organization of the book. It is put together under subject headings and then each entry is alphabetized. So under "The Games" each entry about games or a game genre (another confusing bit about organization is how Railton conflates different types of entries) is listed in alphabetical order, i.e. "Adventure games, Ant Attack, Bandersnatch, etc."

This organization prevents one from reading comfortably from start to finish: You read about a game done in 1984, and that entry refers to several games made before it, but you have not yet read about those games because their titles start with a letter that comes later in the alphabet. It\'s not unusual to yoyo from 1985 to 1976 and back to 1992 in the course of a few entries. I would much rather have seen appropriate subjects (games, hardware) organized by date, and the other subjects (social mores, paraphernelia) arranged in a sensible manner that would be more conducive to a straightforward reading.

As it is, the A-Z of Cool Computer Games by Jack Railton is decent bathroom reading. It is organized into small chunks that are quite friendly to the daily duties, and it is full of interesting tidbits about strange and wonderful games. It is a good read for anyone interested in the UK gaming scene, but will be unlikely to be found on a bibliography of must-read gaming literature.

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