As evidenced in recent years by the likes of outstanding authors like Brett Weiss and Patrick Hickey Jr., the time for writing video game history at a high level has truly arrived. Yet as more books come out, it’s becoming a bit too obvious to merely say that. While gaming may now be more profitable than cinema and music, its lineage isn’t anywhere near as extensive, thus making it easier for exhaustive accounts to accumulate.
If anything, it’s now more the time than ever for writing video game history with wit, originality, and pizzazz. In Versus, author Nick Nelson and illustrator Jerrald Spencer Jr. have found perhaps the freshest gimmick conceivable to parse through the medium’s evolution: head-to-head competition. It is, after all, the essence of gaming: Player 1 vs. Player 2, huddled around the arcade cabinet or controllers in hand in front of the TV, ready to assert their 8-bit supremacy.
Factionalism in video games can admittedly have toxic associations, i.e. console/franchise fanboy wars, Gamergate, and so on. In the eyes of Versus, however, competition and rivalry are the engines that drive innovation throughout the years, and that’s why people into gaming can enjoy a lot with this, even more if they get a gaming merchant account, as they can get a lot from this. Starting with Pong vs. its many copycats during the ‘70s, Nelson and Spencer evaluate 25 head-to-head battles with a liveliness that makes the reader invested in the outcome with renewed curiosity.
Each contestant is introduced with “traits” like strengths and weaknesses, which sets up the stakes perfectly. Picking a winner is often difficult, but Nelson lays down a judicious examination and verdict in each case. Every chapter is further augmented by sidebars with lists and trivia that make the passages more replete (for example, in Arcades vs. Consoles, one listing the worst arcade ports to consoles).
Versus benefits from having a fluid definition for what qualifies as a “duel.” The selections aren’t limited to obvious franchise rivalries like Mario and Sonic, but also different kinds of conflicts of substantive consequence to gaming’s trajectory. Hideo Kojima and Konami’s acetous divorce, Grand Theft Auto’s eternal war with political and ratings authorities, and Shigeru Miyamoto’s defiance of conventional wisdom are presented as battles. These not only make for a more complete accounting of game history, but reflect a creative way of evaluating it.
Page by page, sentence for sentence, Versus brims with alacrity on the writing front. Nelson has honed his writing chops for years as a dedicated baseball blogger, chiefly about the Minnesota Twins. He proves himself to be just as up to the task of arbitrating gaming’s biggest schisms, backing up each case with a blend of nostalgia, analysis of industry context, and wit that makes the reader care for the matchup in question.
Yet the writing’s impact wouldn’t stick the landing quite the same without Spencer’s accompanying illustrations. Sightly as the artwork is, it’s entirely in service to the text, with simple doodles and dashes of color that both inform and keep the pages turning. One of the best examples comes in the “The People vs. Video Game Violence” chapter, where the well-worn dissection of the medium’s signature controversy is made fresher and more digestible with a simple flow chart.
From its front cover to the last pages, where both men select the top 10 best games of all-time, Versus is a spirited triumph. It’s assembled with a verve that will hopefully attract legions of mimics. Simple as it is to say, you have to more than just enjoy video games to write well about them. You have to immerse yourself in the medium to the point where detailed chronicling feels almost second nature. Versus is an enlivening testament to how passion and creative talent can make learning the history of video games as fun as actually playing them.