Monday, June 25, 2012

Before the Crash: Early Video Game History

My review of Before the Crash is in the latest issue of Video Game Trader, which will be out soon (my article on Alien for the Atari 2600 is also in the issue). Here's that review:

Before the Crash: Early Video Game History
Publisher: Wayne State University Press
Edited by Mark. J. P. Wolf
255 pgs. Suggested retail: $27.95.
Trade Paperback
4 out of 5 Stars

Reviewed by Brett Weiss

Before the Crash is a collection of literary essays covering the exciting world of video games prior to the historically important (at least in terms of business and popular culture) Great Video Game Crash of 1983, which was caused by a number of factors, including the glut of lousy third-party software and the increasing popularity of home computers (such as the Commodore 64).

Nintendo revived (to put it mildly) the all-but-dead North American market for video games with the release of the NES in 1985, but that’s a subject for another day. For now, let’s focus on a time when the word “Atari” (as opposed to “Nintendo” or “Xbox”) was synonymous with video games.

Some argue that there are too many books on classic gaming being published these days, which is a ridiculous assertion. For every book about classic video games, there are thousands covering old movies, music, and television. With its emphasis on under-reported aspects of the industry, Before the Crash proves there can never be too much of a good thing, at least when it comes to books about our favorite hobby.

The variety of subject matter in Before the Crash is truly impressive, offering deep (relative to the subject matter), insightful commentary on such divergent topics as reading the Atari catalog, early video game audio, “The Rise and Fall of Cinematronics,” the Fairchild Channel F system (20 pages on the vilified progenitor of the Atari VCS!), and early online gaming in the form of BBSs and MUDs.

Mark. J. P. Wolf, who compiled this collection of essays, writes about The Video Game Industry Crash of 1977 while Phoenix: The Fall & Rise of Videogames author Leonard Herman contributes a chapter on ball-and-paddle consoles. Both are interesting, largely untapped subjects that most any video game fan with an appreciation for the past will thoroughly enjoy reading about.

One caveat: As mentioned in the first sentence in the first paragraph of this review, Before the Crash is a literary work, meaning the text can get abstruse at times, at least for the average reader without a PhD in cultural history or critical studies (to name the qualifications of two of the contributors to this book).

For those wanting a scholarly work on the pre-NES era of video games, especially one reporting on esoteric aspects of the industry and intelligently placing said aspects within their context, Before the Crash: Early Video Game History is well worth picking up.

You can order the book HERE.

Monday, June 18, 2012

 (Photo courtesy of Rob O'Hara).
Another OVGE has come and gone, and, as always, I had a great time. I sold more stuff than ever this year, including lots of books. Many of the attendees stayed all day, playing arcade and console games, entering tournaments, returning to the booths to buy more stuff (always a plus), and, best of all, hanging out and talking and laughing. Already looking forward to next year. Thanks to everyone who made the weekend a blast, including Jesse, Ed, Brandon, Jeff, Sean, Holt, Delf, and too many others to name.

Oh, and I checked my email on the way home and discovered I got a new freelance writing gig (more TBA).



Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Oklahoma Video Game Exhibition

My article on the Oklahoma Video Game Exhibition appeared in the latest issue of AntiqueWeek. Here's that article reprinted:

Founder and organizer Jesse Hardesty setting up a display at a previous Oklahoma Video Game Exhibition.

Oklahoma Video Game Exhibition

by Brett Weiss

TULSA, OK—Do the words “Pac-Man,” “Space Invaders” and “Donkey Kong” immediately transport you back to a simpler time (the early 1980s), when playing video games was all about munching dots, shooting aliens, climbing ladders and jumping over obstacles? Do you miss the Golden Age of home consoles and coin-op classics, such as the Atari 2600 and Frogger?

If so, then you might consider attending the Oklahoma Video Game Exhibition, a daylong tribute to gaming’s glorious past. Held at the prestigious Spirit Bank Event Center, OVGE celebrates the history, hobby, collecting and entertainment aspects of the industry, giving nostalgia buffs, casual gamers and hardcore fans alike a gathering place to buy, sell, trade, talk about and otherwise obsess over video games.

In addition to vendors selling classic video games and related merchandise (T-shirts, books, keychains, action figures, and the like) , OVGE will have numerous video game systems, arcade games and vintage computers set up on free-play. Tournaments, door prizes, book signings and a trivia contest (hosted by add to the fun.

Most retro video game get-togethers, such as the Classic Gaming Expo (Las Vegas, NE) and the Midwest Gaming Classic (Brookfield, WI), are held out west or up north, but OVGE gives gamers living in such states as Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas a chance to congregate and compete without racking up too much mileage on the family truckster.

“Before OVGE, people from the surrounding states had to travel across the country for a classic video game convention,” said Jesse Hardesty, founder and organizer of the event.

One question remains: Why would anyone want to play old, outdated, technologically inferior video games when there are so many new ones available for such powerful consoles as the Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360?

Albert Yarusso, co-founder of, thinks he has the answer: “Even though modern game systems have amazing graphics and sounds, the most important aspect of any video game is that it actually be fun to play,” he said. “Because classic game systems, like the Atari 2600, had very simple graphics, game designers had to focus on the gameplay. Those same games that were fun in the late 1970s and early ’80s are still just as much fun today.”

Hardesty chipped in his two-cents as well, citing the appeal of classic games’ “pick-up-and-play philosophy that makes for quick gaming without the need to invest in the large amounts of time that many of today's games require.”

A family-friendly affair, the Oklahoma Video Game Exhibition encourages gamers of all ages to take a fun trip down memory lane. “With video gaming being today’s main form of home entertainment, the history behind it should not be forgotten,” Hardesty said. “The Oklahoma Video Game Exhibition is providing the youth of today and their parents a chance to visit and interact with that past.”


Monday, June 4, 2012

D2K Arcade for the Intellivision - REVIEWED!

D2K Arcade for the Intellivision
Publisher: Elektronite
Grade: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by Brett Weiss

The follow-up to DK Arcade (also known as D1K Arcade), which was a stunningly complete rendition of Donkey Kong (1981), D2K Arcade is nothing less than the best home version of the coin-op classic every released for any system.

There are two game modes in this immensely satisfying, professionally produced cartridge (no recycled materials were used), the first of which (Game 1, natch) is an excellent rendition of Donkey Kong (the same as D1K Arcade), complete with intro, intermissions, and all four levels of play: Barrels (a.k.a. Girders), Pie Factory (a.k.a. Conveyor Belt), Elevators, and Rivets.

Yes, that’s right, ColecoVision and NES owners, your versions of the game—with their missing screen (Pie Factory) and lack of interstitial animations—now take a back seat this classy new cartridge (though, to be fair, the CV and NES versions have better graphics). And don’t get me started on the two-screen abomination that was Coleco’s Donkey Kong for the Intellivision, which galled gamers with its clumsy controls, ugly graphics, and tortured sound effects.

Speaking of audiovisuals, D2K Arcade looks and sounds better than it has any right to. From the “How high can you get?” text mantra to DK falling on his head (with eyes bulging) at the end of the Rivets screen, D2K Arcade captures virtually everything that made the original a great, fun, challenging, cartoon-like classic. (Nitpickers may point out that the blocky, mono-colored damsel in distress is only slightly more appealing in appearance than homely Mabel in the otherwise excellent Beauty and the Beast, but this is a small gripe).

In addition to the standard Donkey Kong port, D2K Arcade features an indispensable, incredibly cool Game 2 (the default mode, since it's the primary selling point of the cartridge), which consists of five new game boards (plus two standard Donkey Kong levels), each of which incorporates classic components (along with some new elements), but arranges them in decidedly different ways for new challenges and thrills. New screens include: Twisted Girders, The Mixer, The Refinery, Triple Elevators, and The Eliminator.
Another admirable, depth-infusing addition to D2K Arcade is the inclusion of three selectable characters. There’s Mario, of course, but gamers can now play as: Toni (Mario’s younger brother), who runs fast; and Bruno (Mario’s older brother), who’s a little slow, but can climb ladders while holding a hammer! For those of you wondering, Mario’s “real” fraternal twin brother, Luigi, does not appear. (In terms of visuals, Toni and Bruno are merely palette-swapped Marios).

I find it extremely rewarding to play new games for old systems, especially ones as high in quality as D2K Arcade, which has crisp controls (even with the sometimes-problematic Intellivision control disc), stunning graphics, faithfully recreated sound effects (plus some added surprises—the game talks WITHOUT AN INTELLIVOICE), and endless hours of entertaining and challenging gameplay. Excellent production values for the packaging (box, color manual, labeled cartridge, keypad overlay) add to the fun and collectability of this quality release

If you’re like me and still have an Intellivision, I can’t recommend D2K Arcade highly enough.

For more information, check out the following websites:

Games for Your Intellivision 



Friday, June 1, 2012

Interviewed in Classic Gamer Magazine

In Classic Gamer Magazine  Vol. 3 #1, I was interviewed by Chris "Cav" Cavanaugh, my friend and former editor at the All Game Guide. Here is that that interview (conducted in 2010), reprinted for your perusal:

Pop culture expert Brett Weiss has written numerous articles that have appeared in the Comics Buyer’s Guide, Fangoria,, and past issues of Classic Gamer Magazine. Brett recently authored two books: Classic Home Video Games: 1972-1984 and Classic Home Video Games: 1985-1988 and agreed to talk to us about the challenges of writing, getting published, and how mowing lawns is good for the game collector’s soul.

CGM: Convincing a major book publisher to publish a book isn’t easy. Can you tell us how the initial deal happened? Did you approach them or was it the other way around?

WEISS: McFarland Publishers, which publishes a variety of scholarly entertainment books, had a booth at Comic-Con International in San Diego in 2006, and I introduced myself to one of their editors. I gave her a business card and told her to contact me if I could contribute to any of their books. Three days after I returned home, I received an email from that editor, asking me if I had any interesting book ideas. I quickly pounded out a proposal and some sample entries, emphasizing that a book like mine had never been done before: descriptions/reviews/data for every single game for every U.S.-released classic programmable system. They approved the idea pretty quickly.

During the early-to mid-1990s, I worked up a proposal for a similar book, but I couldn’t find a publisher.

CGM: How much influence does the publisher have on content? Did you have to make
WEISS: The publisher was very receptive to my original proposal, and both books are pretty much exactly like I conceived and wrote them. During the editors’ meeting, my proposal was approved unanimously. They loved the nostalgic content, the quality of the writing, and the comprehensive nature of the books. The only sticking point was their insistence on spelling the word “videogame” as two words.

CGM: What are the challenges associated with writing these books?

WEISS: Condensing a long RPG or point-and-click adventure down to a clear and concise, yet detailed overview. Trudging through horrible games. Getting far enough into really hard games to describe and review them accurately and fairly. The sheer exhaustion of having to write about the games in addition to playing them. Not having enough time to play new games because I’m so busy with the old systems.

Luckily, I largely prefer older games, but I’d love to have enough time and energy to pick up a PS3 and play through God of War III and Batman: Arkham Asylum. On the other hand, I love discovering obscure gems that I had never played before, such as the wildly inventive and hugely entertaining Killer Bees! for the Odyssey2. That was the last game I wrote about for my first book—I had to buy the game on eBay.

CGM: What was their reasoning for wanting to release the books in hardcover? Did you try to convince them otherwise? Do you think the decision has helped or hurt sales?

WEISS: I had absolutely no say in the matter. I was flattered that the books were published in hardcover, but I have met resistance by some potential buyers because of the hardcover pricing. On the other hand, everyone I’ve talked to who has bought either book is very happy with their purchase(s). People tell me they refer to my books again and again, and that’s the best compliment I could ever get. I’m also frequently told that the books are well written, which is always good to hear.

CGM: Is there talk about making these books available in paperback?

WEISS: Nothing yet, but hopefully some day. (NOTE: Classic Home Video Games, 1972-1984 and Classic Home Video Games, 1985-1988 have since come out in softcover).

CGM: What percentage of research goes into your books vs. how much you just know off the top of your head?

WEISS: I wouldn’t quite say that the books wrote themselves, but I have been playing these games nonstop since they came out. The first system I actually owned was a ColecoVision when I was 15, but prior to the release of the ColecoVision, I was constantly going over to friends’ and relatives’ houses to play their systems. In fact, my two best friends each had a Fairchild Channel F of all things.

After I got my ColecoVision for Christmas of 1982 (I actually had to kick in $100 of my lawn mowing money to make it happen), I began collecting games like crazy (my second system was an Atari 2600 with 10 games that I bought off a classmate
for the incredibly low price of $10).

I would get new systems as they would come out, but I never got rid of my older systems. I simply kept adding to them as I would find older games on clearance and at garage sales, flea markets, and thrift stores. Despite my familiarity with old games, I still do tons of research to make sure I get everything as accurate as possible, and to refresh my memory for games I haven’t played in a long time.

CGM: Do you use any magazines or websites for research? Which ones?

WEISS:  Thanks to their instruction manual scans, AtariAge and Nintendo Age were absolutely invaluable when I was writing my first two books. As everyone knows, it’s much tougher to find manuals than game cartridges. I also used gamefaqs walkthroughs a few times when I had trouble getting past a certain area or level in a particularly hard or confusing game.

Digital Press has been helpful as well. When a game’s manual or title screen doesn’t mention who the developer is, and when various websites have conflicting information, I sometimes ask on the Digital Press message boards, and I usually get a response. Of course, I will then do more research to determine if the information they gave me is accurate.

CBG: Just to get inside your head a little bit, can you tell us about what goes into your writing process?

WEISS:  I play the games in the evening and wake up early the next morning--oftentimes as early as 3 or 4 a.m.—to write about them. Prior to sitting down to my desk, I’ll fire up a steaming hot cup of Earl Grey tea. I tried Earl Grey back when Captain Picard would order it from the food replicator on Star Trek: The Next Generation (yes, I’m a geek), and quickly became addicted to it.

I’ve been a freelance writer for almost 20 years, so I’ve got a pretty good routine in place. Comfortable pants/shorts and a good, sturdy chair that supports the back are absolutely essential. I write most every morning (and most afternoons), but I sometimes take Saturday morning off if my kids get up when I do.

CGM: How long did it take to write each of the books?

WEISS: The first book took about a year. Classic Home Video Games, 1985-1988 took over two years, partly because most of the games from that era are longer and more complex.

CGM: How has the feedback been from those who've purchased the books? Have there been any interesting suggestions?

WEISS: The feedback has largely been terrific. Both books have reviewed extremely well. The most frequent comment I get is that people use the books when they are looking to purchase some older games they may enjoy. This is followed closely by people using the books because they can’t remember a specific fact about a particular game, or just because they’re fun to flip through. Some readers comment that they wish the photos were in color, but that is entirely up to the publisher.

CGM: Approximately how many copies have the books sold?

WEISS: I would tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. I can tell you that the first book has almost sold through its first printing, which is nice. With the new book, it’s too early to tell.

CGM: What era of gaming do you enjoy most and why?

WEISS: While I’ve had a truly great time with such titles as Halo, God of War, Wii Sports, and Burnout, my favorite games are from the late ’70s and early ’80s. Games like Dig Dug, Galaga, Super Pac-Man, Zoo Keeper and Phoenix are simple, but challenging, intense, strategic, and endlessly replayable. Mr. Do! is my all-time favorite game. I still keep records of my highest scores on many of my favorite old games (again, the geek factor rears its ugly head).

CGM: In another interview, you said that your favorite platform was the ColecoVision. Of all the platforms you've written about, what makes the ColecoVision so special in your eyes?

WEISS: I love how Coleco took such second (and third) tier arcade games as Frenzy, Carnival, Lady Bug, Pepper II, Space Panic, Slither, and Mouse Trap, emulated them beautifully, and made them available for home play. These were great games that were unfairly overlooked until they made it into gamers’ living rooms. Since you could play the games again and again without having to put in a quarter every time, you could take the time to truly discover how great these games were. Plus, there are great third-party titles like Jumpman Junior and Miner 2049’er. Some complain about the controllers, but I like them.

My favorite modern system is the PS2, partly because of its many arcade classics collections, but also because of some great modern games like Lumines, REZ, and Maximo: Ghosts to Glory.

CGM: Can you tell us anything about the third book you are currently writing?

WEISS: Absolutely! It will cover the Genesis, Neo Geo, and TurboGrafx-16. Hopefully, it will be out some time in mid-late 2011. (NOTE: Classic Home Video Games, 1989-1990: A Complete Guide to Sega Genesis, Neo Geo and TurboGrafx-16 Games was published in Aug., 2011).

You can down the entire issue for free HERE.