Ever since my parents gave me an issue of “Electronic Gaming Monthly” 25 years ago, I’ve been reading about video games.
There’s a lot of good video game history out there, and I spent far too many hours of my college career reading books such as the bluntly titled “The Ultimate History of Video Games” and “Game Over, Press Start to Continue: How Nintendo Conquered the World.”
Believe it or not, there’s some good video game fiction out there as well. Current “Game of Thrones” producer and writer D.B. Weiss penned the David Lynch-esque “Lucky Wander Boy” back in 2003, which tells the story of a man obsessed with a fictional video game. That obsession leads him on a dark, metaphysical journey that I won’t spoil here.
Odds are, you’ve seen ads for the 2018 film “Ready Player One” — based on the 2011 novel of the same name. It looks to be the first high quality video game film since “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” (2010) and “Wreck-It Ralph” (2012), and I have good reason to be invested.
My wife convinced me to read “Ready Player One” late last year, and it’s far more clever than I thought it would be.
This week, I’m taking a look at not only “Ready Player One,” but the 2014 non-fiction/dramatization “Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation.”
Neither are perfect, but both are worth a read.
Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle that Definded a Generation: By Blake J. Harris
Latchkey video game kids who grew up in the 1990s (like me) remember the console war between Sega and Nintendo all too well.
After dominating the video game industry in the the late 1980s with the Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo found themselves on the back foot after Sega beat them to the 16-bit punch with the Sega Genesis in 1989.
I remember the first time I saw a Genesis game — “Altered Beast” — playing on a big screen TV inside Montgomery Ward. I had never seen anything like it.
The Genesis was slow to sell at first, but that changed when the company introduced the seminal platformer “Sonic the Hedgehog” the next year. Nintendo responded with the more powerful Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991, and the war was on.
While “Console Wars” does a nice job of telling that story with fascinating insight from the company employees, it also dramatizes that story with the narrative structure of a novel.
Unfortunately, that dramatization is the book’s biggest strength and weakness. Harris interviewed more than 200 employees who worked for Sega and Nintendo at the time, and their personalities shine through as they would in a novel.
But their quotes are often painful and silly, and the manufactured banter between company executives is cringe worthy. Harris rides a thin line of recreating compelling history while protecting his sources, but many of the sugary passages detailing their accomplishments is laugh-out-loud absurd.
The writing is often amateurish, and a few unnecessary chapters feel like never-ending public relations press releases.
It’s worth grinding through to get to the good stuff, such as the time Nintendo bought the Seattle Mariners baseball team, or the year Sen. Joseph Lieberman investigated the threat of “joystick violence.” Then there’s the disastrous filming of the “Super Mario Bros.” movie, which is rich enough for another book.
“Console Wars” is a good start for curious gamers thirsting for video game history, but its obvious bias in favor of Sega of America left a bad taste in my mouth. Thankfully, the end of the book (spoiler alert) sets the stage for the competing Sony PlayStation in 1994, which ended up toppling both Sega and Nintendo.
The only real winners of any console war are the gamers.
“Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline
Though this video game fantasy novel is one of my favorite books in recent memory, I wasn’t too impressed with the opening chapters.
Taking place in the dystopian future of 2044, “Ready Player One” is the story of a high school student growing up in the trailer park slums. Most of the world’s inhabitants escape their dystopian reality through cheap, readily available virtual reality headsets, all of which connect to a shared virtual world.
The creator of this shared world was obsessed with 1980s pop culture and video games, and upon his death, he opens up a scavenger hunt that will bestow the winner with riches and everything that goes with it. He views 80s video games and movies as a religion, and the canonization of that pop culture thrums through the book like an absurd biblical hymn.
Of course, the only way to find the grand prize is through cryptic clues that point toward more cryptic clues, ala “The Da Vinci Code.” I’m not a big fan of that type of story-telling, and when I saw where it was going, I almost put the book down entirely.
But rather than follow the standard “cryptic mystery” tropes, “Ready Player One” subverts them, focusing more on the characters and the unique world they live in. I wish virtual reality was this immersive in real life.
Cline was a first time author with this book (he has since written ‘Armada’), and it shows in the clunky, overly descriptive opening chapters. Stick with it, though, and you’ll discover some of the best video game fiction this side of “Lucky Wander Boy.” It really is a joy to watch Cline improve as a writer over course of one novel.
If you have a chance to listen to the audiobook version, give it a shot. “Star Trek” alum Will Wheaton indulges in an over-the-top performance that encapsulates the nerdy nature of the novel, and he’s already a proud representative of geek culture.
Will Smith is a reporter for The Hawk Eye, a GateHouse Media Company in Burlington, Iowa. His column is printed each week in the Sunday edition of The Hawk Eye.