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

YouTuber Pat Contri, a.k.a. The NES Punk, 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.

*In the time since I published this post, the book has been released, and my reviews/reflections were in the first two editions. However, Pat deleted my writing  in the third edition, probably because of the competition from my Super Nintendo books.

The "just about final" book cover!
Here are bios on all 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, Console Wars!
  • 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

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.



Thursday, November 19, 2015

World’s Largest Library Comic Book Collection

EAST LANSING, MI—Anyone who goes to the Michigan State University library can check out the prose of such literary legends as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Proust. They can also read the works of (Carl) Barks, (Stan) Lee and (Marv) Wolfman, writers of such four-color masterpieces as Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, The Amazing Spider-Man and The New Teen Titans (respectively).

With more than 250,000 different issues, MSU is home to the world’s largest comic book library, eclipsing even that of The Library of Congress. Further, MSU’s system is more reader-friendly than the library in our nation’s capital.

“The Library of Congress doesn’t have as many comics, but they’re working on it,” said Comic Art Bibliographer Randy Scott, who catalogs, curates, and solicits donations for MSU’s massive collection. “Our procedures can be a little intimidating—written requests, no food or drink at the tables, etc.—but The Library of Congress is more difficult to use. A few years back, they wanted requests three days in advance of use. [Editor's  note, the LOC does not currently require this waiting period.] Our pledge is to get any comic to your reading table in 60 seconds.”

A man who truly enjoys his job, Scott has been with MSU for more than four decades.

“I was working in a comic book shop and couldn’t pay the bills,” he said. “Got a big raise to $3.15 per hour in 1973 by moving to the library.”

Thanks to a beloved family member, Scott began reading comic books from an early age.

“Uncle Eddie worked on the lake freighters, and when he came back from a couple of weeks on the boat, he’d bring a pile of comics,” Scott said. “This was from around 1954 to 1959. The cousins, my brother, and I would spend hours reading everything from Little Lulu to Strange Adventures. I remember reading the first issue of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane [1958] in my uncle’s living room.”

These days, Scott, who donated his personal collection to the library during the 1980s, reads a little bit of everything. “It goes in streaks,” he said. “Avengers for a couple of years. Legion of Super-Heroes. A whole decade reading westerns from Europe: Lucky Luke, Lt. Blueberry, Tex Willer. I read a lot of very small press stuff (minis) because I'm cataloging them and it’s easy to get through them. I almost always find something to enjoy.”

The MSU comic book collection, which MSU professor and pop culture enthusiast Russel Nye started in 1970, boasts many prized rarities, including Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories #1 (1940) and Wonder Woman #1 (1942). However, it does lack some of the most valuable comic books ever published, including Action Comics #1 (1938), Detective Comics #27 (1939), and Marvel Comics #1 (1939). Fortunately, you can read those stories in some of the library’s many reprint editions.

Scott isn’t as concerned about the monetary value of the comics as he is the cultural and literary importance of the medium.

“Comics are a literature, and like all literature they help us know ourselves,” he said. “Literature records our acts and thoughts and feelings like nothing else, and comics have their part to play.  In comics’ characteristic word-image combination, we see unique efforts to combine right and left brain perceptions, and/or visual and verbal comprehension, and we get the chance to identify with ducks and mice and galaxy-spanning surfers and stuff.  Just figuring out what makes that all so cool seems like a life’s work to me.”

In an article published on, Ray Walsh, owner of a nearby store called Curious Book Shop, referred to the incredible comic archive as “Michigan State University’s best kept secret.” He also said that “many local comic book fans don’t realize this trove exists.”

Which may be explain why the library within a library is underutilized, at least relative to the fantastic wonders contained within.

“We get maybe between 5 and 20 readers per week,” Scott said. “Most of it is research, in that they’re doing it for classes. And 10 or so people per year actually come here from out of town to work on dissertations or books.”

Scott said the comics draw “recreational readers” as well, whose tastes are “all over the map,” from historical to funny animal to superhero.

Cynics may wonder why you should include comic books, which for decades were looked upon as throwaway reading for sub-literates, in the library of a university as prestigious as MSU.

Scott believes he has the answer.

“Comics have been a big fraction of American literary production since at least the mid-20th century,” he said. “We just have never counted them as part of the literature, but they are. I think if you could figure it out, by number of pages of original material produced, comics are probably a least a quarter of American literature. So why the heck wouldn’t a library collect comics?”

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Countdown to Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- Advent Calendar

The countdown has begun! 
Countdown the days to : The Force Awakens with my advent calendar, which is in today's Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Just click HERE.

The Time Machine - Antique Mall Booth - Fort Worth, Texas

If you live in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, drop by Lone Star Antiques and check out my booth.

Located in:
Lone Star Antiques
5605 Denton Hwy
Haltom City, Texas 76148
BOOTH #1320

The Time Machine is booth 1320 in the Lone Star antiques mall. The booth features comics, records, action figures, Hot Wheels, vintage paperbacks, Star Trek, Star Wars, X-Men, Batman, the Beatles, laser discs, DVDs, and various other items.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Defending the Galaxy -- Twin Galaxies, Walter Day, and Ottumwa, Iowa

I recently picked up another cool old video game book, this one from 1982. Defending the Galaxy includes a chapter on Ottumwa, Iowa, the "Video Gaming Capital of the World." According to the Twin Galaxies website, this was the first book to call it that. Enjoy these pages!
(Click on each page for a closer look.)