It has been a while since we did a book review on the site, as books about the subject of arcades are not exactly plentiful. That changed slightly this weekend after David L. Craddock released his new book Arcade Perfect to the world.
As a disclaimer, I was given the chance to read the final copy of the book to be able to review it; nothing else was exchanged for this review post. I also don’t personally know the author.
The title and theme of the book stems from something that we used to be a topic of frequent discussion in gaming, as arcade ports used to be so common on home gaming systems that they were expected. Many consoles were judged on the quality of said ports, and how “arcade perfect” they happened to be.
Now if the book was nothing more than reviewing a bunch of ports, then I wouldn’t find it terribly interesting. Fortunately, it is not that kind of work. Instead, the author picked a number of popular arcade titles and delves into the history of how they transitioned from coin-op to home play. This is done in an engaging narrative style that combines history, interviews and dialogue. Those interviews involve the people directly involved in the chosen ports(the “unsung heroes” of the work on these ports as the author calls them), primarily from the United States and the UK, which provides a “from the horse’s mouth” perspective on the titles.
The titles that the book provides this detailed “behind-the-scenes” look on are: PONG, Space Invaders, Missile Command, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac-Man, Double Dragon, Tetris, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Street Fighter II, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, Mortal Kombat II, Street Fighter Alpha, and San Francisco Rush 2049. Granted, with so many games out there that have been ported over the decades, I’m sure that there will be complaints about “why was this game included and not that one?” I suppose that leaves space for a sequel.
As it is, the book takes 595 pages (per the PDF) to cover these sixteen titles. It wouldn’t work for the author to tackle every single port, as that probably would have quadrupled the size of the book, if not more, especially when it comes to ubiquitous titles like Tetris. For the “why” certain games and ports were chosen over others, David states in his opening that following:
“I chose games to write about based on several factors: critical and commercial success; favorites from my gaming history; and who was available to talk. I’ve written a lot of these narrative-style history books about games, and my objective with this one, as with all that came before and all that will come after, was to talk to people rather than regurgitate Wikipedia. I like telling stories no one has either heard, or heard in detail. What that means, in short, is if a developer could not be reached for interviews, or declined to talk, you won’t read anything—or as much—about their game in this book.”
Any author is going to have their own preferences, which shapes their focus, so I find it to work for me as I read. Granted, Atari might be among those preferences for Craddock, as the company and their games gets a lot of the love. I’m not complaining about that though; As readers of this site know, I have quite the soft spot in my heart for Atari’s games and consoles, so that really appeals to me. But other popular consoles are not forgotten, so if you’re curious as to how the port of Double Dragon came to the Sega Genesis, Tengen Ms. Pac-Man on the NES, or NBA Jam landed on the Sega Game Gear, then you’re in luck.
As mentioned, I found this book to be engaging. Some of that is certainly due to me being an arcade & Atari nerd, but it’s not just because of that. I like to hear stories of how someone created something, and had to overcome various difficulties in doing so. You learn about how having tenacity pays off, along with a plethora of tidbits on game history, small business and product manufacturing operations, coding and how tough it can be to manage life and family while working in the business.
To the point of challenges, in most cases of these ports, the developer didn’t have the original source code to work with. Sometimes they even had to create their own hardware to be able to get their code working on the intended platform (as is demonstrated in the Donkey Kong chapter, and Garry Kitchen had to come up with his own Atari 2600 development kit to be able to get the code from his Apple II onto a 2600 ROM). Thanks to how Arcade Perfect is written, it often sounds like you are sitting there with the developer as they faced the challenges back in the 80’s or 90’s.
Do note that while the sixteen games take up most of the book, there is a section called “Attract Mode” that covers dozens of pages of additional interview material. There you can read Ed Logg discuss his work on Gauntlet, John Tobias on Mortal Kombat, Susan McBride at Atari, and an interview with a game shop owner by the name of Nicholas Paul.
If I had anything negative to say about the book, it’s that I find the stuff about Arcade 1up to be out-of-place with the “spirit” found throughout the rest of the work. That journey of chasing licenses down and making a popular product might be cool in it’s own right, but it’s just not as fascinating or triumphant as reading about how David Leitch managed to make Double Dragon work on the ZX Spectrum or Donkey Kong turned into a playable work on the 2600. That might just be my personal preference, but it didn’t capture my attention like the other stories. As for typos or inaccurate info, there isn’t anything major that I came across, overall it’s a clean book that’s easy to read. Granted, I don’t have the time to verify if all of the technical info presented in the book matches up, but I didn’t come across anything that made me think “oh that’s just wrong!” It is apparent that Craddock took his time to research the subject and get the info, something that I appreciate as an indie author myself.
If you have any interest whatsoever in the history of arcade games, video games, or game development, then I would highly recommend Arcade Perfect.