By Marshall Garvey
If one were to ask me what my favorite kind of book is, I’d have to go with encyclopedia and guide books. Which isn’t to say I don’t love novels, biographies and whatnot. Perhaps it’s just because I’m a historian and love soaking up facts, but these kinds of books had a significantly greater impact on me growing up. Anytime I fervently undertook a new passion, such as baseball or movies, it wasn’t long before I had stacks of giant encyclopedias to help calcify that obsession even further. I’ll never forget the company Heroes of the Hall provided during a family trip in the summer of 2002, filling my geeky little mind with facts about baseball legends like Sandy Koufax and Ted Williams as the Garvey van thundered across Wyoming and Illinois. Four-Star Movies, an impassioned guide to 101 classic films, inspired me to write a similar tome of my own when I was 14, A Teenager’s Guide to Movies.
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While these are admittedly personal recollections, I feel they nonetheless reflect the crucial purpose that encyclopedic publications serve. When done right, they can bring specific subjects to life for novice fans, while providing a convenient information source as the fan becomes an aficionado. Having reference books becomes all the more important as a given field accumulates more history, even with the abundance of quick research and references the internet provides. They give future generations a chance to navigate older history much more smoothly, and perhaps find things from bygone eras more accessible.
As the field of console video games unspools through its fourth decade, it’s high time we had an author take on the task of definitively cataloguing console gaming’s highlights in book form. Luckily, that torch was recently taken up by Texas-based freelance writer Brett Weiss, who as of this writing has published four books about classic games that cover specific eras. The most in-depth of these volumes is 2014’s The 100 Greatest Console Video Games, 1977-1987, which honors the cream of the crop of early systems like the NES, Atari 2600, Odyssey2, Intellivision, Colecovision, and Vectrex. Weiss acknowledges in the book’s preface that despite the abundance of “top 100” lists and articles, there had really yet to be a printed book of 100 greatest games. Utilizing an extensive knowledge of video games and the best features of some of his favorite “greatest” guide books on other subjects, Weiss has created an impeccable standard for all subsequent books about gaming of this ilk.
To start with, Weiss picks the ideal approach for organizing the book. Rather than attempt an opinionated ranking of the 100 games, they’re instead listed alphabetically, which also makes for easier referencing. More importantly, Weiss writes the book exactly how a guide to great video games should read. Each title included, no matter how simple or complex, is detailed in great length. Even the most enjoyable lists of greatest games on sites like IGN usually only devote a paragraph or two to each game, mostly due to the relatively fleeting nature of online reading. But reading a book is a much different experience, especially a guide for a niche subject. You don’t just quickly read something like this while fervently browsing the net…rather, you sit down with it and soak it in.
Fortunately, Weiss takes full advantage of the extra real estate a book provides. All 100 chapters are deliciously replete, detailing the game’s distinguishing features, release history, technical specs, relevant franchise history, fun facts, and more. Each chapter is strengthened considerably by the inclusion of quotes from other game reviewers, industry experts, and sometimes even the game developers themselves. (Additionally, prices are provided for everything from the game’s actual cartridge to its manual, making this book a trusty guide for diehard collectors.) The “fun facts” at each chapter’s end are absolutely delicious. One example: When The Legend of Zelda hit the NES in 1987, Nintendo was worried many Americans wouldn’t be able to figure out its pioneering role-playing gameplay. To address this predicament, the company included a toll-free number in the game’s manual so players could call for help.
One trait that truly makes 100 Greatest Console Games excel is its consistency throughout. There could have easily been an imbalance between the chapters for universally known classics like Mega Man, Dig Dug, and Mario Bros., and decidedly more obscure ones such as Miner 2049er, Fortress of Narzod, and Bounty Bob Strikes Back. Luckily, Weiss deftly avoids this problem, as each entry is thoughtfully researched and similar in length. By not giving preferential treatment to the more popular titles, the reader is more inclined to read up on less familiar ones, thus expanding their knowledge and appreciation of classic consoles.
Just as satisfactory as the in-depth writing is the plethora of visual gems. Every single chapter contains not only the game’s cover art and gameplay screenshots, but also pictures of cartridges, instruction manuals, magazine ads, keypad overlays, and other minutia. It’s a treat to absorb the vibrant plethora of old-school cartridge and box art in particular. Am I the only one who thinks there was more effort put into cover art back then than there is now?
Inevitably, any “top 100” list is bound to have its share of snubs. Thankfully, an appendix gives an “honorable mention” to 100 other stellar titles from the ‘77-’87 era. In this section, classics like Montezuma’s Revenge, B-17 Bomber, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, Wizards & Warriors, and plenty of lesser-known but just as worthy games are given a paragraph summary. The inclusion of this bonus list not only covers more ground concisely, but also strengthens the book’s value in helping to navigate the thicket of games released on the first wave of consoles. Given the flood of cheap, awful games that oversaturated the market and led to the infamous collapse of 1983, Weiss’s discerning eye in picking the best titles of this period is all the more crucial. Many chapters note inferior knock-offs and sequels (or lack thereof), so as to make finding the true classics easier.
Most crucial to the book’s success, however, is Weiss’s passion for video games. While the careful organization of facts and quotes gives 100 Greatest Console Video Games an authoritative feel, it wouldn’t be fun to read if everything was written in a detached, matter-of-fact style. Weiss has been an avid gamer for decades, and he infuses every single page with genuine love and reverence for the subject matter. From time to time, he even inserts personal recollections to give his assessment even more dimension. (My personal favorite was his memory of never being able to beat his older brother at Frogger when they played it at a local mall arcade in Hurst, Texas.) At the end of each chapter, you’ll want to pick up whatever title you just read about and play it anew.
Whether you’re an avid collector, or even just casually interested in gaming history, 100 Greatest Consoles Video Games is a must-own. Weiss has written exactly the kind of guide knowledgeable enthusiasts will savor as a handy reference, while those with a budding passion for console gaming will find it a revelatory guide for navigating through the format’s incipient offerings. If he has any intention of doing so, I certainly hope he takes on subsequent eras of consoles leading up to the present day.