hen I was around seven years old, there was nothing I loved better than going to the grocery store with mom and dad. Not because they let me pick out my own cereal (they didn’t) and not because the supermarket was some center of cultural activity (it wasn’t). The reason I loved going to the store was for the hulking cabinet filled with electronic gadgetry that sat in the front. It was a game called Zaxxon, and my brother, sister, and I all vied for the chance to shove our hard-earned allowance money into the slots and try to pilot our virtual plane to victory.
In Supercade, Van Burnham and various other contributors offer insights into the formative years of the videogame industry. The book starts out with a brief history and then covers 1971 to 1984 year by year, highlighting cultural events, industry developments, and most important of all: the games. Zaxxon is here, as well as other favorites like Dig Dug, Asteroids, Pac Man, and of course the game that started it all: Pong.
Besides sheer nostalgia value, Supercade also points out the impact videogames have made on our culture as a whole. A little more than thirty years since the appearance of the first game, the industry is a billion dollar giant. Some people argue that videogames have contributed to the increased tolerance for sex and violence in our modern society, even claiming they have caused it. The debate started in the seventies with Death Race (based on the movie Death Race 2000) and continues through the modern era with games like Quake and Mortal Combat. The industry “voluntarily” instituted a rating system in response to these concerns. There is no end in sight to the controversy, and no clear-cut answer either.
Supercade covers all the major home systems to come out during the “golden age” of videogames, from the Colecovision to the Atari 2600 and NES (Nintendo Entertainment System). It tells the story of the rise of many of the major videogame producers, including Atari, Nintendo, and Sega. It details the advances made in each year, as well as showing the major videogame releases of that year through full-color photos and write-ups. Perhaps the best effect of the book is the “I remember that” sense the reader derives from it. Although I was too young to remember the full impact of the golden age, when a quarter could last an afternoon and your high score was everything, I still found myself growing misty-eyed (well, almost) as I read about some of my favorites of years gone by.
The book also shows the gradual shifting of the industry, from independent proprietary systems to platforms allowing interchangeable games and third-party offerings. It tracks the development of trademark charactersPac Man, Mario, Sonicand the brand marketing tactics that ensued (including bootlegged Pac Man t-shirts). It talks about movie tie-ins, such as the “Cloak and Dagger” game, released by Atari, which was closely tied to a mid-eighties movie. The Hollywood screen version of the game contained many special effects that were impossible, given the technology of the time, and so resulted in some disappointment for fans. Still, the silver screen and the pixel-based industry have maintained close ties over the years, inspiring movie/game tie-ins like Tron and Star Wars. Even popular music has been influenced by electronic games, with acts from Buckner and Garcia (“Pac-Man Fever”) to the Beastie Boys referencing the phenomenon.
There are some minor editing mishaps, such as a continued sidebar that doesn’t restart on the page specified and a few typos. Overall, though, the book is sheer enjoyment for anyone who ever spent an afternoon sitting in front of the TV trying to beat his high score, or stood in line at the arcade to spend her allowance on the newest game.