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The Game Console: A Photographic History from Atari to Xbox (2018)
Book Reviews

The Game Console: A Photographic History from Atari to Xbox (2018)

Bad indexing and questionable data can’t derail this otherwise informative collection of gaming history.

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Earlier this year I was visiting the National Museum of American History and was genuinely surprised to see an old friend entombed behind glass, destined never to be played again. I’m talking about the Game Boy, Nintendo’s monochromed portable gameplayer whose shrewd combo-packaging with Alexey Pajitnov’s Russian sensation Tetris probably did more to help end Cold War hostilities than Ronald Reagan and Rocky did combined.

I hadn’t seen one in years, at least not physically, or even thought much about the small device that I’d spent so much of my childhood playing. So much of modern gaming has focused on digital delivery – or games-as-service – that the fancy configurations of plastic, silicon and microchips powering them doesn’t hold sway like they used to. What a shame, as the history of videogame consoles is nearly as interesting as the games themselves – sometimes even more so.

Likewise, if you’ve never been lucky enough to visit the The National Videogame Museum in Texas or see one its roving exhibits at E3 (a highlight from an otherwise turgid show) chances are the only way to actually “see” many of the classic gaming consoles in photographer Evan Amos’s The Game Console: A Photographic History from Atari to Xbox, which showcases super high-quality photos – many in Gray’s Anatomy-like cross sections – of popular, unpopular or mostly forgotten oddities throughout the nearly 50-year history of interactive electronic entertainment.

Do you remember when Nintendo first introduced their latest console, the hybrid Switch, by showing a slideshow of their greatest hardware hits through the years? The resulting machine, with its dockable controllers, was a lot closer to the original Japanese Famicom than modern consoles. Only docked controllers weren’t exclusively Nintendo concepts, as we’ll see time and time again throughout Amos’ visual stroll through gaming’s iterative history.

Actually, that title is something of a misnomer: Atari wasn’t the first gaming console and the Xbox certainly isn’t the last, either to appear on the scene or in Amos’ pictorial encyclopedia. Those honors would go to the Magnavox Odyssey (1972) and Nintendo’s Switch (2017), with plenty of other famous – and many others less so – throughout its 250+ photo-packed pages.

Retro gaming is pretty hot right now, with retro gaming consoles particularly on the radar. Any and all companies with a sizable cultural catalog of memorable hardware is doing their best to repackage and reintroduce famous designs for a new generation to get hooked on with heavy-hitters like Nintendo’s NES Classic and SNES Classic flavors, Ataris, Intellivision and Sony’s upcoming PlayStation Classic. But there’s just something about the real thing, and that’s what Amos set out to do with The Game Console book.

The genesis (pun!) of the book began as a Kickstarter campaign started way back in 2013 when Amos, chagrined at the crappy quality of most gaming console stock images, set upon an adventure to photo, catalog and share his efforts with the world in a project he dubbed the Vanamo Online Game Museum, promising potential backersan online archive of video game hardware in order to preserve the history of video games“. Essentially, this would be a more curated Wiki-inside-Wikipedia catalog of the history of gaming consoles.

As crowdfunded projects often do, the project seems to have taken longer than originally planned, with delays resulting in worried investors and broken links (if not broken promises). Still, the campaign struck gold and hit its target early on, and Amos stuck to his original intent and used the funds to preserve an impressive amount of gaming hardware in digital form, many of which have become difficult to find. It’s quite a collection which I’ll recommend fellow gaming history enthusiasts to visit at The Vanamo Online Game Museum entry over at the Wikimedia Commons.

And therein lay the dilemma inherent with published books like this: why purchase something you could easily view online? Apart from the gift-giving nature itself (hint, hint), there’s the chance to support the artist and their endeavors, in this case Evan Amos and his Pokémon-like quest to catch ‘em all. We read the word “free” so much we tend to forget such a concept is really a one-way endeavor. Somebody has to buy these consoles, clean them – and surely disinfect the grosser ones – and someone has to put in the work and effort photographing them for you to enjoy.

None of this is “free” because socialism doesn’t work and capitalism does. Profits help make the world go round, as does ungodly wealth trickling down to preserve history and help create books like this. So why not support these efforts when you can?

The history of videogames, the culture, players and those vital individuals and teams who helped create the industry itself are criminally neglected as an academic subject, the bulk of which is often left to fans able to hunt down fast-disappearing hardware and software, salvaging them from landfills (literally) or rescuing them from moldy basements before their sensitive electronic internals deteriorate or parts become too damaged to save. Honestly, this isn’t all that different from the history of art collecting – though good luck finding a saintly patron willing to plunk down 400 million for a crusty old Pong machine.

As with the Smithsonian Game Boy, it was nice seeing many of the classic gaming consoles listed in Amos’ collection, including personal favorites like the original Nintendo Entertainment System (1985), Sega Master System (1986) SNK’s Neo Geo (1990) and so many others. The definition of a gaming ‘console’ becomes a little complicated at times, such as the Atari 800 (1979) or Commodore 64 (1982), leading to some glaring omissions I’ll touch on below. Then again, is this any different from how today’s gamers see the divide between consoles and high-end gaming PCs? For some, them’s fighting words!

The photos themselves are quite lovely as Amos arranges them in highly visible positions that wouldn’t look out of place in an old Sears Catalog (remember those?). Unlike Sears, however, he takes us inside many of them in interesting isometric vivisections detailing many of their component parts showing off their increasingly smaller motherboards, microchips and other internals that made the magic happen. As if that wasn’t enough, Amos showcases their controllers as well, slicing and dicing up available gamepads, paddles, joysticks into their base parts and individual components. Not every console and controller gets this cool x-ray treatment, but it’s a fun way to look at familiar designs from a new perspective.

It’s also wonderful to see the evolution of the game console itself, expanding and contracting over the years as the hardware manufacturers play with concepts that would become staples (flat gamepads) or discard others entirely (paddles). As with the automobile, it’s also interesting to notice how the shape of what we’d call a “game console” itself seems to have been self-evident from the start: the rectangular or square box, controller ports jutting out with the necessary AV connecting cables in back. Features come and features go, as exhibited in Sony’s disappearing connector ports in their original PlayStation models.

One thing that stands out: while flipping through the Pong derivatives it’s evident from Amos’ photos that even when they were releasing what amounted to little more than Pong clones, such as the Color TV-Game lineup, early Nintendo hardware were still strikingly beautiful.

Of course, one of the joys in a collection like this are seeing those rare oddities and failures that never quite stuck in the public consciousness; the freaks! Often, this was due to either bad planning or lack of innovation; other times it was pure stupidity, both with crazy designs or ridiculous names on the part of their respective manufacturers.

Those of you who still have nightmares when thinking about the glut of worthless Wii peripherals should take a look at the XaviXPORT, which predated Nintendo’s console by two years and featured even more worthless motion-controlled peripherals! Or how about the Mega Duck, a 1993 Taiwanese Game Boy ripoff? Or 1989’s LEGO-inspired View-Master Interactive Vision? It’s hard to beat 1995’s Casio Loopy, a thermal printer-based console where dress-up and romance games ruled the roost, but enter the VTech V.Smile, a 2004 orange-colored box that made the GameCube look positively manly by comparison.

That’s another thing; why does a company like VTech get so many entries (I counted four) when other, certainly more deserving companies, get single mentions – or none at all? No single book could contain every single game console ever made, but there’s a lot missing – more than you’d think considering the scope of the project.

Amos does include a page of excluded game consoles and game-centric computers, many of which you probably never knew existed in the first place. Still, something doesn’t feel right about an authoritative book on game consoles (and gaming computers) that doesn’t include the Apple II, Commodore Amiga, or even MSX computers – yet dedicates several pages to VTech junkware.

For example, we don’t have any of Valve’s SteamOS boxes (but their SteamLink accessory is here), or the Apple TV, or any entries about VR hardware. Both Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony’s PSVR were released before this collection’s publication and their absence is notable. Nintendo’s Virtual Boy gets a nod, as does the yucky Tiger R-Zone, but where’s Sega’s SegaScope 3D for the Master System? Or the aborted Sega VR headset? That baby made the cover of Popular Mechanics!

Speaking of Sega, I can’t help but notice that Amos lists variants of both the Sega Genesis and Sega CD instead of their more popular, iconic versions instead. I’m fine with listing the variants as options (such as the smaller Model 2 Genesis and CD attachments) but most would have owned the original models instead, which makes the entries here slightly misleading. The original Sega CD, in all its fatter, squatter glory, isn’t even listed (or mentioned) while prototype vaporware like the Neptune is included but real hardware like the Genesis/CD combo CDX is not.

Also, as Amos intends his photos to become the stock images on Wiki articles (as many already have) it’s critical these individual listings reflect their chronological releases, especially as there were software incompatibilities between some hardware models in the same generation. I get that Sega overloaded the market with more system variants than Barbie had outfits, but those eager to learn their gaming history need to have it presented accurately.

Two notable omissions are the Sega Nomad or NEC TurboExpress – both portable variants of the Sega Genesis and NEC TurboGrafx-16 consoles that were compatible with each respective console’s existing cartridges. Failures both, yet Amos ignores them while giving four full pages to worthless Android boxes like the Ouya, GameStick, Nexus Player and even a first-gen Amazon Fire TV. None of these duds have the cultural cache or legacy of the Nomad or TurboExpress – except for possibly the Ouya, a failure so immense it should taught in economics classes as a cautionary tale about the excesses of crowdsourcing and bad investments. Also, you could probably fill an entire book with failed Android boxes alone.

A more recent omission is Microsoft’s Xbox One X, released a year before this book was published – and just months after the Nintendo Switch – and should have been included as an Xbox One variant like the PlayStation 4 Pro was.

Again, I want to stress that not having every single gaming or gaming-centric console and/or computer included in this book isn’t a dealbreaker by any stretch; there’s far too many to list in any one volume printed on such nice paper. But there’s a real problem with how the hardware itself is catalogued and presented.

Anyone who’s ever studied Chinese can commiserate with the wonky decision to only list each console by its generation only, and not in any alphanumeric order; this means looking up hardware requires you already be familiar with the console and what generational epoch it arrived. So if you’re not already well versed in differences between 3rd Generation (NES, Atari 7800, Action Max) and 7th Generation (Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, HyperScan) hardware, good luck.

Not only is this counterintuitive, it’s also confusing, as was the bizarre decision to not list every console chronologically. There’s also no glossary, a huge omission only exacerbating the lack of proper indexing. I counted three entirely blank, lonely pages at the end of the book all just waiting to be filled with useful numbers and reference pages. Surely, if you can give an entire page to a stinker like the Tiger Game.com we could at least get one with a proper glossary?

Another gripe is with how Amos presents vital statistics across each console’s 6-cell header. There’s no consistency between them, instead just random factoids that made comparisons between the hardware difficult to appreciate. For example, in Pong you have the creator, year of creation and different model types, while the NEC PC Engine lists its launch price, processor, coprocessor and available color palette. Others include the number of available games, operating system (if applicable), battery type, or even the type of video-out signal used.

Sometimes some of this info is listed in the brief descriptions, but even this is hit-or-miss. Sometimes Amos will give vague explanations about one hardware outselling another, or suggesting one machine came in ‘second’ or ‘third’ place without context. I sense these info dumps were drafted in the spirit of the senseless “Console Wars” meme so many amateur gaming academics use when discussing the game industry. Again, not a dealbreaker for those of you considering buying the book, but some homogeneous details would have been far more helpful for those hoping to compare specifics between the different hardware.

It’s difficult to recommend The Game Console: A Photographic History from Atari to Xbox on the basis of its scholarship alone, which feels well-intentioned but, ultimately, poorly executed. Honestly, having a physical book of exquisitely photographed gaming hardware feels like a crucial step in the right direction towards legitimizing their study, and there’s no question Evan Amos is passionate about them. But there are seriously lapses in how the hardware is presented, with several entries either incomplete or listed incorrectly; the lack of basic indexing alone is problematic. The answer for these gaps can’t be to simply visit its tie-in website as that diminishes the book’s rationale for existing in the first place. My gut feeling, however, tells me that buying The Game Console will help support a larger, more important cause. Let’s split the difference and call that a cautionary recommendation.