Review: The Ultimate History of Video Games

If you’ve stumbled upon this site, chances are you’re “hardcore” enough to know the basics about the foundation of the video games industry and the major consoles we’ve been treated to over the last 30 years. However, if you want to know the whole story, The Ultimate History of Video Games (ISBN: 9780761536437) is here to fill in the gaps.

The Ultimate History of Video Games is by no means a new book – not only was it published over 10 years ago, but it’s also an updated re-release of The First Quarter: A 25 Year History of Video Games, which was first published in 1999. The fact that the book is still completely relevant even a decade on is testament to the skill of its author, one Steven L. Kent, who was the premiere video game journalist in the United States until 2005, when he decided to focus on a career in science fiction.

Set out much like a history class textbook, The Ultimate History of Video Games starts out by exploring the origins of video games by examining the amusement industry with particular regard to mechanical games and pinball. It’s really interesting to read about the battles between amusement manufacturers and the ongoing quest to one-up each other using new technology, not to mention the social and legal hurdles faced by the the industry (including a ban on pinball in New York which lasted until the late 1970s).

The book begins to hit its stride when covering the early days of video game development like the origins of Computer Space and Ralph Baer’s Brown Box. Arguably the strongest part of the book comes when Kent begins to detail the rise and fall of Atari, as the author was able to interview the people who were there – Nolan Bushnell, Al Alcorn, Ray Kassar and so on. One cannot help but be drawn into the conflict between the straight-laced Kassar and the free-loving Bushnell. It is at this point, however, that the book begins to jump all over the place chronologically, with the author preferring to follow story threads, rather than sticking with the timeline structure of the earlier parts of the book. You can understand why Kent chose to do this, but it can be a little jarring.

Following its in-depth analysis of the 1983 US Video Game Crash, the book becomes a little more selective in the stories it tells, which is a contrast to the all encompassing coverage of the early chapters. The book is fixed on presenting the history of the industry from this point forward from the perspective of the American console industry, so there is little regard for the home computer scene as the book focuses on the rise of Nintendo and Sega. You cannot fault the author for this – there are a lot of stories to tell and only so many pages in which to tell them. Kent does so in a most captivating way, with the quality of his writing never faltering.

Once you get past the Senate hearings into video game violence and the fallout from the Nintendo PlayStation, the book goes into a sprint towards the finish. It’s disappointing in a way, but there are other books out there (like Game Over and Opening the Xbox) which cover some of the parts Kent chose to gloss over.

Putting those concerns aside, The Ultimate History of Video Games is easily one of the best general overviews of the history of the industry that you can get. It is required reading for anyone who wants to have an informed opinion about video games.