Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Atari 2600 Encyclopedia Volume 1 -- Book Review

The Atari 2600 Encyclopedia Volume 1
Author: Derek Slaton
Publisher: The VGA
Hardcover, 410 pages, full color, $50
Also available via PDF ($9.99) and Apple iBooks ($12.99, both iPad and desktop Macs), the latter of which includes gameplay footage

Gamers have been cataloguing the library since at least the early 1980s. This phenomenon kicked into overdrive during the video game fanzine explosion of the early 1990s and the proliferation of the Internet during the mid-1990s. Things got especially serious in 1996, when historian Leonard Herman self-published : A Directory of Software for the Atari 2600, a labor of love that describes every release in encyclopedia-style form.

Now, thanks to such platforms as Lulu and Amazon CreateSpace, self-publishing is easier than ever, resulting in such titles as Classic 80s Home Video Games Identification & Value Guide (2008) by Robert P. Wicker and Jason W. Brassard and The A-Z of the Atari 2600 (2013) by Justin Kyle. Works backed by professional publishers have hit the market as well, such as my own Classic Home Video Games: 1972-1984: A Complete Reference Guide, released by McFarland Publishers in 2007.

Enter Derek Slaton’s The Atari 2600 Encyclopedia Volume 1, the first of a proposed four-volume series. Slaton’s massive tome, which has the heft and binding of an oversized text book, is gorgeous at first glance. It has a tastefully designed, shiny black cover and is fully illustrated throughout in full color. Each game, from Activision Decathlon to Double Dragon, has a description/review with data (publisher, release date, etc.), complemented by such tasty visuals as box scans, screen shots, catalogue pages, cartridges, and manuals (though you might need a magnifying glass to read the interiors of said manuals).

Unfortunately, upon closer inspection, the paper and printing quality come up lacking. The book is generous in its use of colorful screenshots, but they would benefit from glossy paper, as would the rest of the images. I assume glossy paper would have made the book cost-prohibitive (it’s already $50 as is), so it’s hard to blame Slaton for wanting to keep the price down to an affordable level. There are cropping issues as well, as the text edges up too closely to the left side on several pages.

Speaking of the text, Slaton describes and reviews each game in a breezy, informal, readable style and oftentimes includes humor, which is a little odd for something called an “encyclopedia.” Slaton writes to entertain, which is fine, but there are times when he uses humor and vague information in place of detailed history, such as in the entry for , a.k.a. Pelé's Soccer. Instead of explaining that  was one of the first celebrities to endorse a video game, or that most previous soccer video games were  clones, Slaton writes that “there weren’t a lot of soccer video games on the market and Pelé really wanted to endorse something, or Atari drove up to Pelé’s front door with a dump truck full of cash.”

Each game catalogued in The Atari 2600 Encyclopedia Volume 1 is given four pages, which is more than enough room to include information about sequels, arcade originals, and the like, but much of this type of history is missing. For example, nowhere in the  review does it say anything about the cartridge being a clone of Exidy’s Circus (1977) arcade game. Worse, the  entry doesn’t mention Millipede (1982), the Centipede sequel that was ported to the Atari 2600 in 1984. Further, the  chapter doesn’t mention Stargate…well, you get the idea—the book simply needs more detailed information about each game.

Another problem with the book is that Slaton is repetitious in expressing his opinions. There’s an old joke about the movie reviewer who quit because he ran out of adjectives. It appears that the same thing has happened to Slaton. For example, he uses the word “solid” and the phrase “worth a look” way too much, sometimes in back-to-back reviews. In addition, he should have trimmed an adverb here and there, such as when he called Crackpots “very solid” and the graphics for Centipede “very underwhelming.” There’s no need for “very” in either case.
Along the bottom first two pages of each game entry, Slaton lists such data as publisher, release date, and genre. He also includes alternate titles. In his review of Dark Cavern, he says that the alternate title is Night Stalker, but he doesn’t explain that Dark Cavern was adapted from Night Stalker for the Intellivision. In the Astroblast entry, the book fails to mention that Astroblast was adapted from Astrosmash for the Intellivision.

On a more nitpicky note, Slaton ends the Custer’s Revenge (1982) chapter with: “While this is an absolutely terrible game in terms of content and gameplay, it must be played by everyone at least once. If for no other reason than to see the beginnings of controversy-causing video games.” While Custer’s Revenge did indeed raise a stink (as a pixelated General Custer, you rape an Indian woman), “controversy-causing video games” go back at least as far as Exidy’s Death Race (1976) arcade game, which was vilified on such programs as 60 Minutes and in such publications as The National Enquirer.

So far I’ve dwelt mostly on the negatives, but there are some things I like about the book, such as Slaton crediting obscure programmers for their work, such as Mike Schwartz, who developed Chase the Chuckwagon, and Robert Weatherby, who developed Chuck Norris Superkicks. Slaton also nails the appeal of certain games, such as the “mano-a-mano” action of Combat, which he correctly calls “one of the earliest death match games” (Midway’s Gun Fight predates Combat by two years, but the latter game is nevertheless an early example of the genre). And, yes, I did chuckle on occasion while reading the book.   

Full disclosure: I’ve spoken with Derek Slaton in person several times—he’s a super nice guy with a sincere appreciation for playing classic video games, and for writing about classic video games (he’s also the author of The Sega Master System Encyclopedia). I truly wanted to love this book, especially when I saw the full color sample pages online. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t merit the $50 cover price, and the title is a little deceiving. I can live with the visuals, but there’s just not enough raw data and history, especially given the ample space given to each game.

If you decide to purchase the The Atari 2600 Encyclopedia Volume 1, skip the expensive hardcover version and download a digital copy—you’ll get more value for your hard-earned dollar.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library - by Pat Contri - With Contributions from Brett Weiss

YouTube superstar Pat Contri, a.k.a. , has a video about his soon-to-be-published book, which I contributed to. I wrote more than 60 of the 750+ game reviews. Further, I wrote 60+ reflections on the games featuring anecdotes, memories, and the like. So, obviously, I'm pretty excited about this project, and I consider it an honor that he asked me to be involved.

What is this book about?

Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library 1985-1995 is an expansive and thorough look at one of the greatest video game libraries of all time - the . This 450 page book covers all licensed and unlicensed games released during the system's lifespan, and features information and reviews on hundreds of classic (and not so classic) 8-bit games.

The "just about final" book cover!
The 30th Anniversary of the just passed on Oct. 18, and the NES is still played and remembered fondly today. Why? It might just be because the NES helped save the video game console market in North America. But more importantly, it’s beloved for its great and diverse library of games. Super Mario Bros.TetrisCastlevania,Punch-OutMega ManDuck HuntThe Legend of ZeldaNinja GaidenTecmo Bowl -- what do they all have in common? They were all great games released on a single system. And many great game franchises still around today, had their start way back on the NES! The had nearly 800 unique game cartridges released for it during its lifetime. While almost every video game fan has played or at least heard of the more famous titles, there were many, many games that weren’t as popular or well-known. This book features all of them, with detailed information such as the release date, developer, publisher, genre, availability, and more, as well as a review and rating for each title. There's also a separate "Reflections" section for each game where the author of that review can expound upon the game more, comment on interesting aspects of the game, or even go off on a tangent about video game history, or muse about childhood memories or a humorous anecdote the game may have conjured up.

(the text looks blurry on the screen, but it will be crystal clear in the book)

Sample page layout - most contain two games per page.

Both licensed and unlicensed titles are covered!

The entire library of NES games is covered!

About the reviewers

Pat Contri is a retro video game aficionado and collector who also produces various web shows including Pat the NES PunkThe Video Game YearsFlea Market Madness, and more. He also is on the Completely Unnecessary Podcast, runs, and is a guest at several video game conventions each year. Besides editing/compiling the book and designing the layout, he is responsible for the majority of the book’s reviews, clocking in at nearly 450.
Ian Ferguson spends way too much time researching games instead of sleeping and is the general manager of Luna Video Games. He is also well-versed in pinball, synthesizers, and the Peanuts comic strip. He currently resides in San Diego with his wife Vani and their cat Spike and eats all of the breakfast cereal as they sleep.
Asheton Phinney, AKA "Ashi," is an interstellar bounty hunter, a princess-rescuing plumber, a whip-wielding vampire slayer, a writer residing in Delaware, a brave blue robot, a bubble-blowing dragon,a cute pink gourmand, a summa cum laude graduate of Dickinson College, and a sword-swinging, boomerang-flinging, studio art-majoring, creative writing-minoring hero with a lot of heart(s).
Jim Evans is a self confessed know-it-all when it comes to 8 and 16-bit gaming. With a strange fondness of playing rubbish video games for the fun of it, there is no stoop too low he won't go to for entertainment. Find more of him at
Brett Weiss is the author of the “” series, and of The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987. A gamer since 1974, Weiss has had articles published in Game Informer, Classic Gamer Magazine, Retro magazine, Video Game Collector, and Video Game Trader. Find Brett at
Karen Niemla grew up in Pennsylvania and enjoys vintage computers, retro gaming, drawing, and writing. Currently she is a reference librarian at The University of Louisiana at Monroe and Web Administrator for the Association of College & Research Libraries Louisiana Chapter.
Joey “Roo” DeSena co-founded the geek-centric website, Clan of the Gray Wolf, in 2009. He has two flagship web series: 16-Bit Gems – spotlighting under-appreciated video games from the 90s – and The Way Games Work – explaining video game technology to the layman. Additionally, he has produced original content for Vsauce3 and RetrowareTV.
Joe Pingree is a thirty-something college student in Detroit. A lifelong NES fan, he has spent nearly three years building a sizable collection of boxed and loose game cartridges, his favorite of which is Mega Man 2. He enjoys reading, writing, and retro gaming on a variety of platforms.
Stephen Wilds is a writer in the dirty South. A recovering internet addict and freelancer, he wakes up every morning grappling with nightmares of Silent Hill and Battletoads that fuel his fiction and desire to create, when comics and wrestling aren’t taking up his spare writing time. Find him on the Twitter machine: @StephenWilds.

Book Sections

Foreword: graciously written by Blake Harris, author of the hit video game history/drama book !
  • 750+ North American game reviews and reflections  
  • 30+ PAL exclusive reviews 
  • 10 HES exclusive reviews 
  • Test cart overview 
  • Promo/special game carts 
  • North American game cart variants 
  • Popular NES controllers and accessories 
  • Supplemental Articles

A page from the PAL review section.

A page from the cart variant section.

A page from the controllers/peripherals section.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Brickout and Copter Command - Intellivision Review

Brickout and Copter Command

I recently picked up two new Intellivision games from IntellivisionRevolution: Brickout and Copter Command. The former is a clone of Atari’s Breakout while the latter is a cleverly titled riff on Activision’s Chopper Command for the Atari 2600.

If you have an Intellivision Flashback or a copy of Intellivision Lives! for the DS, you’ve probably played Brickout, which was originally programmed in 1981 for Mattel by Rich O'Keefe of APh Technological Consulting. It was supposed to appear on the Triple Action cartridge (meaning that cartridge would have had a different name), but Mattel, fearing legal action from Atari, shelved the game. (Mattel shelved a Pong-like game called Hockey as well).
Now, thanks to IntellivisionRevolution, you can own a copy of Brickout for your Intellivision, complete with retro style box, manual, cartridge, and two keypad overlays. You guide a Pong-like paddle horizontally along the bottom of the screen, rebounding a ball into a wall of bricks near the top, and you should avoid missing the ball. When the ball hits a brick, it disappears, and when the ball breaks through the wall, it can ricochet off the top of the playfield and back into the wall. Your goal is, of course, to knock out all the bricks. As in the Progressive mode of Super Breakout, brick walls descend as you play.

Brickout is certainly a playable and even entertaining game, but it comes up lacking when compared to the obvious: Breakout and Super Breakout for the Atari 2600. Unlike those games, Brickout lacks the rotary control offered by Atari’s indispensable paddle controllers, meaning Brickout doesn’t have the speed or precision of control of the Atari games. 

Many Breakout clones have incorporated a speed button to make the paddle go faster when desired, but, unfortunately, Brickout doesn’t add this feature. The back of the Brickout box calls it a “one player action game,” but the manual rightly says it’s for “1 or 2 players.” In two-player mode, the second gamer controls another paddle, and the two of you cooperate for a high score. There is no competitive option. The game has simplistic graphics and sounds and no music.

If you are a huge Intellivision fan and love to collect boxed games, then by all means grab a copy of Brickout. If you just want to play a brick-and-paddle game on a vintage console, stick to Super Breakout for the Atari 2600. It has more options and far superior controls.

Unlike Brickout, which was programmed decades ago, Copter Command is an all-new creation. According to the back of the box, “You are the pilot of a helicopter gunship. Your mission is to provide cover during a counterattack deep into enemy territory. Watch your long-range scanner and destroy the enemy squadrons intent on eliminating your convoys of supply trucks, ambulances, tanks, and ships. You must act quickly or fail your mission!”

What this amounts to is a Defender-like, wraparound side-scroller in which you fire a steady stream of lasers at airborne enemies, which you can monitor on a radar at the bottom/center of the screen. Meanwhile, said airborne enemies fire bombs at vehicles that move along the ground to the left. After you destroy all the airborne enemies to complete a level, you get extra points for any remaining ground-based vehicles, which are “rescued convoy.”

There are two modes of play: Classic and Remixed. Classic mimics Chopper Command pretty well, though the gameplay is not quite as dynamic—it’s hard to capture that certain magic something that makes most Activision titles special. Even so, Copter Command is a fine, fast-action, rapid-fire shooter that any fan of the genre should enjoy. The game is a lot of fun, and the controls are surprisingly tight and accurate, which isn’t always the case with the quirkily designed Intellivision control discs.

Also unlike Brickout, Copter Command has lots of options, including the aforementioned Remixed mode, which offers additional themes. In addition to the standard Desert environment, the game cycles through Snow, Night, and Ocean, which is pretty darned cool. (This reminds me a little of Left Turn Only’s Space Patrol, a Moon Patrol clone for the Intellivision that lets you travel on different planets in addition to the moon.) Other options in Copter Command include two difficulty levels (Cadet and Commander), fast or slow fire, begin with 3-7 lives, autofire on or off, and invincible on or off.

Copter Command has larger, slightly blockier vehicles than Chopper Command, and it’s not as colorful—it’s missing the multi-color gradations found in the mountains/horizon at the top of the screen in the Activision game (again, more Activision magic). On the other hand, it has great title screen music, something you won’t hear in Chopper Command.

In summary

I love so-called homebrew games, and I think it’s awesome that programmers are creating new titles for the consoles I grew up playing. Anytime I receive a new game for the Atari 2600, ColecoVision, or, in this case, Intellivision, it’s Christmas in the early ’80s all over again.

Regarding the two titles in question, Brickout, with its bland controls and lack of options, may underwhelm all but the hardiest of Intellivision collectors, but Copter Command, an expanded take on an Atari 2600 favorite, will entertain most anyone with a healthy hankering for a hardcore shooter.