'The 100 Greatest Console Video Games' Chooses Style Over Substance

This is an accessible boilerplate encyclopedia of vintage game history that eschews analysis for rudimentary information and attractive presentation.

The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987

Publisher: Schiffer
Length: 224 pages
Author: Brett Weiss
Price: $34.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-08

If video game fans want their hobby universally recognized as an artform, the medium’s critics have a long way to go. Most gaming sites are flooded with frivolous content from barebones reviews, endless list articles, and over-the-top geek pandering -- things that overshadow their smarter and more nuanced content.

In the days before the Internet, this kind of throwaway entertainment existed in the form of glossy, hardcover “Top 100” coffee table books like Brett Weiss’s new The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987. There’s no denying that it’s a limited and dated format, but to be fair, it’s one that coalesces with the vintage subject matter. Unfortunately, it also shows that the common pitfalls of modern games journalism transcend genre and medium, and no matter how uniquely or pleasantly one packages bland, redundant material, it’s never enough to distract from a severe lack of substance.

One of the key elements of interest for readers of these types of “Top 100” books is the actual selections themselves. Weiss seems even-handed in this aspect, giving spots to standards such as Mario Bros., Asteroids and Pac-Man in addition to far more obscure titles like Cat Trax, Stampede and Communist Mutants From Space. For those unsatisfied with the already thorough selection of classics, Weiss helpfully lists another 100 games as honorable mentions in the book’s appendix.

The only drawback to Weiss’ selections is their organization in the book itself. Games are ordered alphabetically rather than by ranking or another helpful metric like release date or the system they appeared on. Ranked alphabetically, the book reads rather haphazardly, and its ordering is only helpful if you already know which game you want to read about beforehand (which would still be possible with the books index). It sets up a lack of thoughtfulness that unfortunately plagues almost every other element of the book.

The hardest hit are the write-ups themselves, which suffer from an absurd lack of content. Most damning is that Weiss adds a dry recitation of a large assortment of quotes from vintage critical reviews -- sourced from everything from professional publications to unknown blogs to even random Internet forum posters -- that read like the “Critical Reception” section of a Wikipedia page without the base level of professional standard that usually entails.

Worse is that the pull quotes used are almost always generic and vague statements of quality (things like “mesmerizing” from his Kaboom! section, or “good, cute fun” from Worm Whomper) that only reaffirms what Weiss has already written. They never add anything new of value; they only pad the word count of each game’s basic write-up. This is a lazy tactic typical of high school students that have nothing much else to say on their subject for a book report or essay. For an author who’s ostensibly hoping to tout the joy and virtue of early video games, Weiss certainly doesn’t have much meaningful content before he has to outsource for material. Given the already dire state of video game criticism -- especially for classic video games from the early home console era -- this is a huge disservice to the medium.

The big concern is that Weiss clearly has much more that he could say, but he doesn’t bother doing so. He favors fun facts and basic trivia over compelling analysis. He spends a significant portion of his Adventure write-up, for instance, talking about the origins of the hidden Easter eggs in the game rather than the game’s enormous influence on the role-playing and action-adventure genres, a subject of far greater importance and likely of far greater interest to his readers.

Over half of each chapter is even used on summary of a game’s plot -- a waste, considering whatever existed in these early days was mostly just a very thin conceit to engage the imaginations of children staring at chunky pixels and vague shapes -- and drawn-out explanations of gameplay mechanics. Of course readers should expect to learn about the core ideas of each game, but Weiss is hardly adept at making these duller sections painless, fun, or even particularly informative.

In fairness, one might think Weiss’ goal is to remain instructive and objective in his game analysis, but he occasionally dips into the personal and subjective, as well. He talks about his enduring love for pinball, for instance, and gaming with his brother and his children. Weiss hedges his bets in this way by writing the book as neither a straightforward encyclopedia of classic gaming nor a personal journey through the games of his childhood, but an unsatisfying attempt at both.

The overriding problem is that Weiss’ write-ups suffer greatly from a lack of commitment; his anecdotes aren’t detailed enough to be evocative, and his analysis isn’t deep enough to be insightful. The book’s greatest failing is that its author rarely bothers exploring anything even slightly below the surface of a game.

This is made clearer by the book’s main virtue: its attractive presentation. Glossy pages, quality color photos of game packaging, cartridges and manuals, and clean page layouts lend style to its otherwise uninspired content. The rote writing can hardly be salvaged, but Weiss’ book certainly has the potential to look good on a shelf in a bookstore or an aging fan’s game room. In the age of the Internet and the infinite resources of Wikipedia, perhaps the publishers were smart to invest in the book’s style over its substance; at least it now has a purpose.

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