Review: Classic Home Video Games 1985-1988

Last week, I gave a somewhat harsh (but utterly deserved) review to The Video Games Guide, a compilation of capsule reviews of video games from the last 40 or so years. This week, we’ll be looking at Classic Home Video Games 1985-1988: A Complete Reference Guide (ISBN: 9780786436606), a similar book which features quickfire reviews of video games from the third generation of video game consoles.

This is the second volume of a series of books written by Brett Weiss, an accomplished US-based freelance writer. The first volume, Classic Home Video Games 1972-1984 (ISBN: 9780786432264) covered the second generation of video game consoles (Atari 2600 VCS, Intellivision, Colecovision et al.), but I am more personally attached to the third generation, so I’ve jumped ahead (a lack of understanding of the second generation wouldn’t exactly make for a fair assessment, either).

The book is a quality production, made with the intent of being something of a collector’s item. It’s a hardcover tome with high quality paper, but keep in mind that you do end up paying for it; the cover price of the physical edition is $US55, but digital editions can be had for less than half that price if you’re just chasing the information. There are occasional photos in the text, but they’re black and white (colour printing is prohibitively expensive). There is also a neat foreword in there by Bill Kunkel, one of the driving forces of the early video gaming press.

Weiss breaks the book up into three distinctive parts, covering the Atari 7800, Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System. The “Complete Reference Guide” subtitle of the book is quickly clarified, as only the complete US-released licensed libraries of the three consoles are covered. It’s someone disappointing for readers based outside of North America, as there were a substantial number of games that were not released there (particularly for the Master System), but the US base of the writer makes the purely American focus understandable.

Each section introduces the system and its heritage before discussing the software. Every game gets the same degree of coverage – a quick breakdown of publisher, developer, genre, number of players and release year followed by a 100-200 word description and evaluation of each game. Most of the game information is correct at face value, though Master System obsessives may be quick to point out that not all games credited to Sega are necessarily developed by them (they outsourced many projects to SIMS and Sanritsu).

Reviews are generally well executed. Weiss’ experience as a writer has obviously helped in keeping each entry concise, precise and free from the waffle that plagued The Video Games Guide. Occasional entries seem to lack opinion and critical evaluation, but the vast majority deliver exactly what readers of a reference guide are looking for; a quick note on what the game is about and whether it is any good. Occasionally, you will find yourself disagreeing with what Weiss has to say on each game, but he’s generally in touch with what most knowledgable readers would accept.

In a departure from the usual capsule review standard, Weiss has made the conscious decision to omit a score from each review. Personally, I think it is better to be encouraged to browse the text to see what the writer thinks, rather than to look at a number and be on your way, but your mileage may vary.

Ultimately, Classic Home Video Games 1985-1988 offers exactly what you want in a collection of capsule reviews; well-written text that is clear and to the point. High price tag (which can be alleviated with an e-book version) and US-centric coverage aside, this is the current gold standard for video game reference guides.