Review: Vintage Games: An Insider Look at the History of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario, and the Most Influential Games of All Time

Most of the books we’ve reviewed here on RGA have had a historical focus, either on sole companies, the market itself or in the form of collections of capsule reviews. Today’s review is for a book that’s a little more academic in its approach to following the progression of video games development, making for a nice change of pace from the usual barrage of facts and figures.

Vintage Games: An Insider Look at the History of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario, and the Most Influential Games of All Time (ISBN: 9780240811468) is a study on video games – particularly those video games which have had the greatest influence on the market today, whether they were big successes at retail, genre-defining or even genre-creating.

The authors of the book, Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton, are noted video game historians with quite impressive resumes – the former a passionate freelance writer and collector and the latter an associate professor of English. The pair also run the website Armchair Arcade, a computer and video game history site.

Twenty five games are covered in all, with each game getting its own chapter. An additional eight chapters are available on the Armchair Arcade website. Each game has been selected as the authors feel it best represents a specific part of the video game landscape – Alone in the Dark for survival horror, Doom for the first person shooter, John Madden Football for sports and so on. Some of their choices may make some readers question their methods (Final Fantasy VII as the J-RPG representative, for example), but the authors do a mighty fine job of providing justification for their selections.

Chapters generally begin with observations about the game the authors have chosen – what it is and why it was selected – before exploring the influences on that game and/or titles which came before it that inspired that particular genre to blossom. For example, the opening chapter which covers Alone in the Dark talks about the horror games that came before it like Haunted House, Halloween, Sweet Home and Splatterhouse, breaking down the reasons why these titles failed to provide a scary atmosphere, and examining how they influenced Alone in the Dark‘s success on that front.

There’s also an examination on the technical side of these games, like how Alone in the Dark utilised 3D technology to enhance the experience. 3D tech was in its infancy when Alone in the Dark was in production, so computers were not capable of running it at great speed – the designers used the slow movement speed of the characters to build tension and execute scares.

The authors close out by looking at the progression of that particular series, and titles which it influenced – Resident Evil and Silent Hill in the case of our Chapter 1 example. In some cases, these final sections are a little bittersweet, showing how some companies let their games get overshadowed and wound up playing “follow the leader” instead of continuing to break new ground.

Vintage Games has a superb layout – each chapter is accompanied by a variety of screenshots, promotional materials and other paraphenalia, all in full colour. The text is masterfully written; it’s sharp, insightful and to-the-point and doesn’t suffer from the stuffiness of other academically focused video game publications.

The main complaint we have about the book is that it can seem a little rushed at times. Obviously the authors had limited space to deal with (as evidenced by the fact that a quarter of the book was left out and made available as bonus chapters on the authors’ website), but they do end up sprinting through the sections of chapters that deal with more modern games influenced by the game discussed in a given chapter.

That one criticism aside, Vintage Games is highly recommended reading. If you are looking to learn more about the origins of some of the most influential video games to date, then Vintage Games‘ wondeful layout and clear, concise and insightful writing make it a vital resource.