Advantages Clearly written, generally good choice of systems, well presented, satisfying to handle
Disadvantages No index, doesn't cover handheld consoles, one or two surprising editorial decisions
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Haynes used to be known as a publisher almost exclusively of motoring workshop manuals. In recent years, though, they've branched out (too much?) and spread their famous brand (too thinly?) and the familiar logo now adorns solid, A4-size hardback books covering everything from Wallace & Gromit to bringing up babies. The Video Gaming Manual by João Diniz Sanches is one of this new breed, having been published in September 2009. The cover proclaims that it is "[t]he essential guide to modern and retro gaming platforms", which is quite a bold claim to make.That cover doesn't follow the traditional Haynes design conventions – there's no cutaway diagram, for example – but it's quite nicely done. The white background helps it to look clean and uncluttered despite the assortment of consoles and computers piled up below the title. Here is shown an example of every one of the 20 systems considered in depth inside. Perhaps mindful of the fact that buyers often assume a book like this is likely to be American, the cover designer chose to place a trusty old rubber-keyed Sinclair ZX Spectrum front and centre. There are newer machines here too, though: right up to the likes of the PS3 and the Nintendo Wii.
The book opens with a couple of general chapters. First, there's "The Video Gaming Scene", which includes a rather breathless potted history of the industry, a brief overview of the state of game development today and an explanation of the approach the author has taken. This really should have gone in a preface right at the beginning, but it's useful nevertheless. Essentially, the Manual covers games consoles and games-orientated home computers (the PC and Mac are specifically excluded). It's also very much about playing commercial games on original hardware: the sprawling and homebrew and emulation scenes barely get a mention. More controversially perhaps, handhelds are out: there's no place here for Nintendo's Game Boy!That first chapter is useful for newcomers to the scene, but can probably be skimmed by everyone else. The second is of more practical use, as it concentrates on the practicalities of owning retro gaming equipment. For example, there's a handy page comparing beigethe main types of storage media the various systems use – cassettes, disks and cards all require different assessment when considering buying second-hand – and an excellent "know your connections" section explaining the differences between the likes of composite, S-Video and HDMI cables. There's also a (probably deserved) mild dig at Sony for their actions resulting in the banning of importing their non-EU products.
Here we find the real meat of the book. Sanches covers 20 major systems, in more or less chronological order, devoting around six pages to most of them: four dealing with the console/computer itself, and then two summarising ten of the key games titles for the machine in question. All this is accompanied by a brief tech specs, a timeline of the machine's lifespan and plenty of (generally very well chosen) photographs. The narrative text is clear and fair-minded, and doesn't get sucked into adolescent sniggering at how feeble the early systems were in technical terms.The choice of machines will provoke plenty of discussion, but in truth most of the consoles pick themselves: you could hardly avoid the likes of the Atari VCS (only later renamed the 2600), the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Mega Drive, though I can't help feeling it's a slight shame that there wasn't room for one or two of the brave failures, such as the Atari Jaguar or the 3DO, perhaps in place of the likes of the GameCube. Personally I'd have liked to have seen an Intellivision or a ColecoVision in there, too.
When it comes to computers, the selection is smaller but pretty fair: Spectrum, Commodore 64, Atari ST, Amiga... and Acorn Electron. That last one is the single choice in the whole book that really startled me. Surely its big brother, the BBC Micro, has a greater case for inclusion? Sanches tries to justify his pick by telling us that the Electron actually sold more games than the Beeb... but in the first place this is hard to tell for sure (since many games worked on both machines) and, more to the point, the BBC Micro was where Elite began. That alone should have been enough!The Electron is also short-changed by only being given six "key titles" instead of ten; the Atari ST is the only other machine to suffer this fate. Had the Beeb been given its due, would the book really have failed to feature a single one of Acornsoft's outstanding arcade conversions, or classics such as Chuckie Egg? Still, for the most part the "key titles" sections are well thought out, and refreshingly willing to give a machine's early releases their due if their gameplay can make up for limited graphics. (The Spectrum's 3D Deathchase is a good example of this.)
The Video Games Manual is an attractive book, and one that's enjoyable both to handle and to read. The A4 format means that the content has room to breathe, and there's plenty of white space to stop things looking too crowded. Also avoided has been the all too common fault of text and background colours being decided on the basis of what designers think looks cool rather than whether people can actually read the text! Headings, too, are consistently used and in clear typefaces.The photos in this book are excellent. Particularly useful, if just a tad small, are the labelled shots from various angles, showing things like the location of expansion ports and giving a good impression of a system's heft, something you can't always get an idea of simply from a standard three-quarter view. Screenshots, too, are uniformly extremely clear and well chosen, giving a realistic idea of what a game actually looks like to play – even though the likes of TV scanlines and "load failed" error messages are not in evidence!
Allowing for the first chapter's definitions of what qualifies for inclusion here, there isn't a lot that Sanches has left out, considering the limitations of the 175-page format. I would perhaps have liked a little on the Game Park range (GP32, GP2X etc) of open-architecture consoles, which actively encouraged homebrew development: although never hugely commercially successful, they did offer an approach very different to the control-freakery of the likes of Nintendo and Sony. The one major failing, however, is the absence of an index. Despite the book's highly structured layout, it would still have been very useful
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Video gaming has evolved over the years to become a massive market, on course to overtake mainstream forms of entertainment such as films and music...
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