Review by Jonathan Imberi
Subtitled The Fan’s Guide to the Golden Age of Video Games this book is definitely that; at 160 pages and with its glossy full-color photographs it deserves a place on every gamer’s coffee table. Author John Sellers, pop culture writer and “Donkey Kong” 1983 world champion, has done an excellent job cataloging the arcade era that lasted from 1978 to 1985.
The book does not cover much information on the industry itself; gamers can turn to another excellent book such as The Ultimate History of Video Games for that information. No, Arcade Fever is a history of the games that we saw, touched, played, and grew up with. There are interviews with programmer Eugene Jarvis and Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, among others, but the overall focus of this book is to take you back to the arcades of twenty years ago.
Fifty classic games are covered, beginning with “Pong” and “Computer Space”, the first coin-operated arcade games, and ending with “Punch-Out!!” and “Gauntlet”. Other featured titles include “Pac-Man”, “Dragon's Lair”, and “Tron”. Each entry includes a description of the game, as well as screen shots and cabinet art, when possible. Sidebars describe failed sequels and spin-offs, but there are no screen shots or other pictures to help the reader envision them.
The years 1978 - 1985 were not just about games and neither are the descriptions presented in this book. Each year of games presented highlights what was also hot that year in headlines, movies, TV, and sports. From the title to the writing, the author invokes the era he describes, incorporating aspects of popular culture such as collectibles, quotes, brand names, and themes.
The book is written from the perspective of someone firmly entrenched in the present, who is nostalgic yet realistic. Fond memories do not cloud his opinion that, looking back, some of these games did not deserve accolades. He gives honor where it’s due, but don't be shocked if the next comment slams a game, or even some of the people who played it.
One downside: the book is repeatedly disrupted by a juvenile and distracting ribald sense of humor. Two examples: the author opens the book with “I lost my video-game virginity at the age of six…” and later introduces the game “Asteroids” with “If Pong was heavy petting and Space Invaders was getting to third base, then…” His comments feel out of place amidst the wealth of worthwhile information and captivating pictures.
Arcade Fever is neither a reference nor a resource: it is a look into the hearts and minds of an entire generation of gamers. It helps the reader understand not only the roots of the gaming industry, but the people who guaranteed the pastime's place in American culture.
Review by Jonathan Imberi