Retro video gaming, as I’ve mentioned before, is big business these days. Not everybody seeking to capitalize on nerd nostalgia is making retro hardware, though; many are the books coming out on the subject, as well, including today’s offering: Bitmap Books’ The Unofficial NES/Famicom: a Visual Compendium. It’s a big title, but that’s only fitting, since it’s a big book, measuring 9.75 x 7.25 x 2 inches and weighing just over four pounds. This is a hefty tome, and it comes inside a sturdy and attractive slipcase, fronted by a neat lenticular "A to Z" graphic celebrating many of the NES’ most famous games. The graphic is sharp and attractive, and the lenticular effect is fun (and appropriately 80s!); the only problem with the case itself is that the lenticular panel is pasted on to the front of the slipcase rather than embedded into it, meaning that it does have a bit of a hard ridge around the edge that can foul other books it’s shelved next to, potentially even being torn off if you, for whatever reason, jam it onto a shelf particularly violently. So don’t do that.
Oddly enough, the book is contained within both the slipcase and a dust jacket, which is an odd setup I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before. The dust jacket has exactly the same design as the slipcase (minus the lenticular panel, of course), even down to the bar code and MSRP printed on the back. Charmingly enough, removing the dust jacket reveals a third instance of the exact same design printed on the covers of the book itself, with yet another copy of the bar code and price tag. This is not a problem in any way — it certainly doesn’t interfere with one’s enjoyment of the book — but it is a bit of an oddity.
Three hundred words into the review, it’s time to open the book. Between the covers the reader will find 536 glossy pages filled with stunning full-bleed fan art, box art, system schematics, and, of course, two-page screenshots from more than 170 NES games, with accompanying explanatory text. The artwork is nothing less than gorgeous, and really drives home the fact that style and design vastly overwhelm raw graphical power in terms of making games that are a treat to look at. In addition to the normal two-page spreads, the book features eight gatefolds, each of which reveals a continuous four-page image often depicting an entire level of a game. The gatefolds are reserved for especially notable games, though, oddly, there is no gatefold for The Legend of Zelda — the very first thing I would think to do with a gatefold in a book like this is depict the entire Zelda overworld!
Each game’s artwork is enhanced with a few paragraphs describing the game — how it plays, the circumstances surrounding its release, what makes it noteworthy, and so forth. A great many people contributed to these descriptions, ranging from developers who worked on the games to legendary figures in the game industry to game journalists to game enthusiasts. Rumor has it that even a humble Libertarian Nerds columnist is featured somewhere in this book! This range of contributors helps the text to stay varied in tone and interesting; the same writer attempting to summarize 170 games in one go would probably become highly formulaic after a while, so the constant influx of fresh blood is definitely a plus. In addition to these game summaries, there are several feature articles such as histories of major companies that were heavily involved with the NES, interviews with NES developers, an in-depth look at the process of brand localization (complicated by Nintendo’s stubborn insistence on launching right into the teeth of the Atari meltdown), and more. Fascinating stuff, really.
Bitmap Books is a British outfit, and it shows; great emphasis is placed on Rare (by far the most significant British NES developer) and its employees and contractors. Fully half of the book’s interviews are with people who worked either with or for Rare in the NES days! This is not a bad thing, mind you; the interviews are interesting, and Rare is definitely an important part of Nintendo’s history, but one can come away from this book with a bit of an outsized opinion of Rare’s importance to the NES years (the N64 years are a story for a different book!). On the other hand, one also comes away from this book with amazing stories about how David Wise was recruited directly from his job on the sales floor at a music shop, and if Ste Pickford’s statement that he thought the NES was "just awful" when he first encountered it doesn’t make you smile, something’s gone missing from your charm receptors.
The overall quality and presentation of the writing are quite strong; there are some minor problems with color choice for game titles, which are occasionally hard to read against the associated background color (the choice of navy-on-indigo for Hogan’s Alley, for instance, is questionable), but the body text never suffers from this issue. There are few, if any, typographical errors to be found, and only a few minor factual errors (including at least three instances of two different dates for the same event being given on the same page), but nothing of significance. There is an odd section near the beginning where the same block of text is repeated nearly verbatim in two different places, but that’s the only textual gaffe of any substance — not too shabby for a book of more than five hundred pages. The quality of the writing is variable, as is to be expected when so many different writers are involved, but is generally strong, and almost never descends into political pandering, dipping a toe ever so gingerly into the bottomless morass of third-wave feminism in a tiny handful of places, but usually taking the high road.
The construction of the book is quite solid, using medium-weight, high-gloss paper that feels good in the hand and really makes the images pop (though the price paid for the glossy images, of course, is that the text is a bit harder to read than on matte paper). The binding is properly stitched, rather than being a cheap-o paste job, and the margins are square when they exist and entirely absent on the full-bleeds, just as they should be. There are two ribbon bookmarks bound into the book, one in silver and one in gold, and the book makes relatively extensive use of metallic gold and silver inks.
Which leads into the first significant problem with the book: the metallic inks caused some wrinkling of the pages. This wrinkling is not extensive, and mainly impacts only the first section of the book (where the metallics are used most heavily), but it is certainly noticeable. It doesn’t make the book materially harder to read, nor does it seem likely to be a progressive problem, but it does mar the overall package a bit.
Another issue — which may or may not be a deal-breaker, depending on your position — is with the fan art section. Specifically, page 207 does include a nude of Samus Aran, in three-quarter view from the back, with a fully exposed breast. This may not bother you (it doesn’t me), but it’s something people may wish to be aware of.
In terms of the game selection, perhaps a surprisingly large number of the featured games were never released outside of Japan. This is, again, not necessarily a problem (they’re still interesting and still look great), but it does shift the book’s target demographic somewhat away from the "NEStalgia" crowd and more toward the hardcore retro enthusiasts. Overall, the game selection does a pretty good job of encompassing both the heavy-hitters (Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, Contra) and the obscure, niche titles (Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom, Little Samson, Vice: Project Doom), and even manages to work in sections on unreleased games and homebrew, so there’s certainly something for everybody here, but it must be admitted that the relatively large selection of games you didn’t play when you were a kid might dull your enthusiasm somewhat if you’re just looking for a nostalgia fix.
In the end, The Unofficial NES/Famicom: a Visual Compendium makes for an excellent read and a fantastic artbook. It’s designed to be something of a "coffee table book" for retro gaming fans, and its few flaws don’t keep it from achieving that goal spectacularly. Just make sure you have a sturdy coffee table!
The Unofficial NES/Famicom: a Visual Compendium can be preordered for £10 in PDF format, £24.99 in softcover, or £29.99 in hardcover from Bitmap Books. It will probably be available from Amazon as well, but not as of this writing.
Disclosure: the author of this piece contributed an essay to the book in question, but has no financial stake in its sales.