The publishing world has recently seen a steady stream of tomes cataloging the history of video games. A recent example is the new coffee table book A Handheld History: A Celebration of Portable Gaming. A Handheld History’s presentation grabs one’s attention with its hefty size and cover illustration. The book’s graphical layout is also equally alluring. No doubt, A Handheld History is a good-looking book. However, don’t judge a book by its cover.
A Handheld History is the brainchild of Brandon Saltalamacchia, founder of the retro video game collecting website Retro Dodo. Saltalamacchia describes Retro Dodo as a “…brand that entertains retro gamers.” A Handheld History is published by Expanse, a publishing wing of HarperCollins UK that focuses on gaming, television, and movies, in collaboration with the indie publishing imprint Lost in Cult and the aforementioned Retro Dodo.
A Handheld History‘s structure is split into dozens of sections discussing handheld video game consoles, like the Nintendo DS (Dual Screen), the Game Boy, and the Sony PlayStation Portable, just to name a few. The structure follows a simple logic: each section is dedicated to one handheld console. Some of these are widely known and have sold tens of millions of units (e.g., the Game Boy and the PlayStation Portable), while others are obscure novelties mainly relegated to the homes of diehard collectors (e.g., the FunKey S). This structure is best utilized in the book’s first sections, where Nintendo and Sony consoles are covered. It’s also where the coffee table format is best served with sleek graphic design joining words and pictures in an attractive way. Indeed, A Handheld History looks great on top of a coffee table.
Each console is introduced with a short essay detailing its history and unique technical specifications. This is followed by a spread of photographs of different variants of the console and some of its peripheral hardware and software (the games). The collection of photographs is preceded by essays detailing the memories that fans have of the console in question and certain games. The quality of these essays varies drastically from the entertaining “Captured Memories” by Laurie Eggleston on the Game Boy Camera peripheral to the repugnantly derisive “Educating Switch” by Shaun Hughes, a half-baked rant on why video games, specifically the Nintendo Switch, should be used in as an educational tool. Hughes unironically demands that “…there is absolutely no reason why bringing Nintendo Switch consoles into schools shouldn’t be a global priority.” The author clearly isn’t aware of the growing challenges in global education.
Finally, most sections of A Handheld History end with a few notable games discussed. However, the essays written by James Mielke on Gravity Rush (2012), Lumines Electronic Symphony (2012), Tearaway (2013), and Wipeout 2048 (2012) for the PlayStation Vita are highlights. With only a few exceptions, the writing in A Handheld History offers little in the form of insight into the topics presented.
A Handheld History plays it safe in its formatting and content; nevertheless, even this eventually proves too much for the book. Towards the book’s final sections, the consoles listed only receive an introduction essay and a few photos or sketches. This begs the question of why go to the trouble of trying to cover something that even the writers don’t have the knowledge or interest to write substantively on the subject. Are consoles like the Steam Deck and the WonderSwan less worthy of being discussed and researched than the Nintendo Switch?
A Handheld History began as a fan-backed project. Its initial publishing run was funded via crowdfunding—all this is well and good. Yet, I’m just surprised by how sterile and unadventurous this effort is considering the passionate affection held for the history of handheld video games. Portable games increasing due to the ubiquity of smartphones and the popularity of the Nintendo Switch. A Handheld History makes no attempt to elucidate or contribute to the discourse of video games as cultural articles.
Ironically, there is little actual history conferred in A Handheld History. Those looking for alternatives should read Jeremy Parish’s books on retro video games and his YouTube channel Video Works, a survey of video games. For those not limited to just reading English, the French book publisher Pix’n Love Editions publishes authoritative books on various video game topics, including Gunpei Yokoi: Vie Et Philosophie du Dieu des Jouets Nintendo (2010) – which translates to The Life and Philosophy of Nintendo Toy God – by Takefumi Makino and Florent Gorges. This book is a tribute to the late great engineer Gunpei Yokoi, a key figure in the development of portable games.
At its best, A Handheld History provides barebones descriptions of the hardware technology used to play games on the go, served with personal anecdotes, but it is uncritical of consumer culture around video games. In the essay “Take Us Back”, Scott Russell muses that nostalgia “… is a therapeutic reaction to ‘fast technologies’ and the emotional or psychological pain they envelop… This process involves seeing or even feeling aspects of the past in a very tangible way.” I can’t wrap my head around what Russell means here, but one thing is clear: A Handheld History is comfortable following trends and indulging fans’ collective desire for escapism.
A Handheld History tries to be an almanac of sorts. The attempt is hampered by its adherence to the ongoing and fervent nostalgia-fueled content that is rampant in much of the popular discourse surrounding video games. In A Handheld History, well-argued and researched opinions are rare. Instead of discussing games on their own merit, many of the contributors cite Metacritic as the authority of a game’s importance. Thus, in lieu of concise and well-presented arguments, the wistful affection of those championing a work, in this case, video games, is corroborated by the sterility of data from sites like Metacritic.