ToThePixel, iam8bit, Gold Cartridge, CNN, the Supreme Court, and even the Smithsonian now recognize Video Games as art.  Whether you are cutting down your enemies in the latest Call of Duty, deciding the fate of the universe in Mass Effect, waging galactic war in StarCraft, immersed in World of Warcraft, or still plunking quarters into Pac-Man and Missile Command, there is absolutely no doubt that video gaming is a huge part of our culture.  Millions of gamers across the world can point to the rise of video gaming over the last fourty years and say “Yes – these 1s and 0s defined my very childhood.”  Two of those people are Chris Melissinos, and Patrick O’Rourke, the authors of The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect, and today I’m going to talk about their recently-released book.  Before we crack the cover, let’s talk a little bit about the folks behind it.

Chris Melissinos is the former Chief Gaming Officer and Chief Evangelist (where do I get that as a title?!) at Sun Microsystems, but is also the curator for the aformentioned Art of Video Games exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum.  At Sun he was responsible in part for Project Darkstar – an open-source MMO middleware that has seen action in many of the games you have on your shelf.  Put simply – Chris understands what is underneath the hood.

Patrick O’Rourke is a freelance graphic designer, photographer, video editor, and avid gamer.  His work graces every single page of this book, compositing images drawn directly from the games referenced, giving the reader a good look into the past.  Patrick understands the evolution of the visual aspects of video gaming.

It’s great to see a bright red ghost from Pac-Man (that’d be “Blinky for those who have sunk their allowances into this arcade cab) gracing the solid hardbound cover and slipsleeve.  The typeface on the title as well as our friend is decidedly 8-bit – a true celebration of the roots of our hobby.

From Art to Evolution:
Before I received the book I had assumed that this would be a simple compilation of artwork from various games.  I was completely incorrect.  The Art of Video Games goes over not only the artwork, but the actual art and practice (and sometimes science) of creating video games.  Not only that, there are some fantastic interviews and insights with some of the luminaries of our industry contained in the 212 pages of content and art.

The flow of the book is chronological, moving from Atari VCS to Colecovision to Intellivision and so on.  It then covers the 8-bit era, the war between Sega Genesis and Super NES, and then onwards to Nintendo 64, Sony Playstation, and into the current generation including the Wii, 360, PS3, and modern PC.   Interviews are similarly staged from the times and places where folks has the most impact on the development of video gaming.  These interviews include Nolan Bushnell, Ron Gilbert, Warren Spector, Jen MacLean, Jesse Shell, Tim Schafer, and many more – 15 in all.

The selection process for what games would make the cut was simple – ask gamers.  Meissinos did exactly that and got over 3.7 million voices of opinion in response.  These votes were tabulated into 80 games that make up the subject matter of this book.  How they were selected included, of course, their visual presentation, but also how they impacted gaming itself.  Did they define a generation or genre, are they synonymous as a household name, or did they permeate popular culture in a way that changed the way the world sees gaming?  All of these had to be taken into account to select the 80 finalists.

The Games:
If you check out any gaming site on the Internet, you are likely to see a pretty wide variety of what people believe are the ‘best’ games ever made.  Depending on when they entered the hobby, their opinions may go back only a few years, or it may span back into the 70s.  “Old School Gamers” have their nostalgia, and recent gamers enjoy a visual quality we could have only dreamt of when I was a kid.  Any way you slice it, no matter what Meissinos and company chose, somebody is going to think they are wrong.  Let’s look over a few of the selections (I’m not gonna spoil em all!)  and see how close they got in this old gamer’s opinion.

The book focuses on the start of gaming with the Atari VCS, Colecovision, and Intellivision.  Of these platforms they select Pitfall!, Combat, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Zaxxon from my old collection – a worthy list by any stretch.  All of these titles innovated in their own way, bringing multiplayer, adventure, and even semi-3D to the gaming space.

In the 8-bit era, Meissinos focused on the Commodore 64 (many of our readership’s first computer), the NES, and the Sega Master System.  Sid Meier’s Pirates captured my childhood (Hrrmph!  What cheek!), and The Legend of Zelda solidified me as a gamer forever.  Phantasy Star and Super Mario Brothers 3 also make the list, giving us new worlds to explore and new perspectives in which to do it.

Moving on to the War between Sega Genesis and Super NES, the games get more familiar for most folks and certainly a lot bigger.  Dune II is an easy selection as it practically ushered in the RTS genre all by itself, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is widely regarded as one of the best games ever made even to this day.  Star Fox makes the list as well, bringing with it true 3D gaming and even a dash of voice work.  (Do a Barrel Roll has become a widely known Internet Meme as well, thanks to this title)  Phantasy Star makes an appearance again with Phantasy Star IV not only for its advancements in animation, but for being one of the first titles to have a reactive soundtrack – it was one of the first to adapt to what was going on on-screen, pumping up the music during battle, or remaining subdued during more dramatic scenes.

In a section entitled “Transition” we see the first mention of DOS/Windows gaming, as well as Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast, Sega Saturn, and the Sony PlayStation.  StarCraft, and Diablo II shows just what a powerhouse Blizzard was even at this early stage, and GoldenEye 007 defines multiplayer shooters for many console gamers.  Legendary PC title Fallout makes the list as it is one of the best RPGs most of us have ever played.  Shenmue and Rez join Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast (What, no Marvel vs. Capcom or Soul Calibur?!), while Tomb Raider and both Panzer Dragoon titles shore up the Saturn.  The PlayStation foursome is an absolute lock on what defined that console – Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, Einhänder, and Final Fantasy Tactics.  All four of those titles soaked up more time than I could begin to estimate for me.

The “Next Generation” spans the previous generation of consoles as well as the current one.  From Xbox and Xbox 360, PlayStation 2 and 3, Gamecube and Wii, as well as “Modern Windows”, this represents the ‘history’ that many of the current generation can call on as their gaming past.  Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, Fable, Halo 2, Mass Effect 2, BioShock, Portal, Fallout 3, Minecraft, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Boom Blox, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Heavy Rain, and Flower all make the list.  It is in this list especially that I take a bit of issue with the selection.

Flower for the PlayStation 3 might be argued as art, but I would hardly call it a game.  How did it make the list?  It is certainly pretty, but there really isn’t much to do in this title.  Do you know anyone who owns it?  I find it hard to believe that this wasn’t a write-in candidate outside of the 3.7 million votes that picked the 80 titles in this book.  Jenova Chen makes a second appearance with his other title, flOw.  Flow reminds me of hundreds of flash-based titles I see on various arcade websites all over the Internet, so I’m not sure I  find it to be all that influential as those titles preceded it.  Similarly, Boom Blox makes the list but somehow Animal Crossing or Pokémon does not.  Certainly those two titles are far more popular and storied that Spielberg’s Jenga knock-off?  See?  I told you us older gamers would yell “get off my lawn” at this list.

All in all the list is a pretty solid representation of some of the most important games across time.  There are some very noticeably absent items though – namely the Jaguar, 3DO, and much of the rich history of PC gaming.   Microsoft Flight Simulator serves as a real-world training device iterated over many years that every flight school uses to make pilots, but somehow it doesn’t make the list.   World of Warcraft is arguably the most popular and influential MMO of today, but Ultima Online kicked it off – neither are mentioned.  In fact, the Ultima series isn’t mentioned at all – a true sadness for this Ultima Dragon.  Mortal Kombat, Tekken, Killer Instinct, and Street Fighter are the blood that powers every fighting game since their release, but none of those titles made the cut.  What happened to Missile Command, Dragon’s Lair, Rock Band, The Elder Scrolls series, the Madden series, the Assassin’s Creed series, Dance Central, the Lunar series, the Monkey Island series, any of the Jedi Knight titles or their offshoots, Knights of the Old Republic, the Thief series, Sam & Max: Hit the Road, Unreal Tournament, Tribes, Command & Conquer, Grim Fandango, any of the Dungeons & Dragons Gold Box titles, or the Call of Duty series?  Certainly some of those should make the list.  The focus on console titles does leave a lot of titles that PC gamers know and love out in the cold.   Maybe next time?  I’ll consult for a modest fee.

Buy it:
In the end, The Art of Video Games puts in a very admirable effort.  They get the list (in my humble opinion) mostly right, and they fill out a lot of interesting history about each game, often from the perspective of the developer themselves.  The interviews are top-notch, giving two full pages of insight into the past of your favorite developers, how they make their games, and what they were thinking when they did so.  Want to know just what Ron Gilbert was thinking when he made Maniac Mansion (also not on this list) or Monkey Island?  Here is your chance.

I do agree with the authors completely on one particular point, even if I find their list a bit incomplete – the future of video games is indeed limitless.  There is no telling what the next generation will bring.  New graphic engines, more immersive control types, greater storytelling mediums, and more are just the obvious things – there is no telling where innovation will take us.  I can certainly confirm one thing though – it will be fun.

You can pick up The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect from Amazon from the link for less than 24 bucks.  (Pick it up soon as it is a limited run.)  I highly recommend it – you’ll enjoy this stroll down memory lane as much as I did.  While you wait for your copy to arrive, check out this video from the Smithsonian exhibit!