The Ultimate History of Video Games

A Book Review By The Video Game Critic

2 Feb 2010

book cover

I've read my share of video game books, but The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent is by far the most riveting and insightful. I consider myself an expert on classic games, but I never knew the story behind the games. If you love video games, you owe it to yourself to buy this book.

Ultimate History details the modest origins of major industry players such as Atari, Nintendo, and Sega. You'll read about the age-old struggle between passionate programmers and businessmen who only care about the bottom line. You'll learn about ridiculous licensing agreements and court cases that resulted in bizarre settlements. You'll understand the management decisions that propelled some systems to greatness and doomed others to failure.

The book's text is easy to read and often very funny. It does a great job of balancing minute details, like personality disputes, with broader issues, such as the impact of video games on culture. It's loaded with frank quotes from the very people who shaped the industry. It's especially interesting to hear how these people would have done things differently in retrospect.

Here a just a sample of the interesting stories covered in the book's 600+ pages:

  • Steve Bristow was paid to collect the quarters from Atari's Pong machines in the mid-1970s. The games were so popular that the quarters would amount to hundreds of dollars. He would take his wife along with him. Since they could not obtain a permit to carry a handgun, Steve and his wife carried a hatchet around on their collection route.
  • In an attempt to cash in on Donkey Kong's success, Universal Studios filed suit against Nintendo and Coleco, contending infringement on the King Kong license. Universal also threatened dozens of retailers who carried Donkey Kong products. When the dust settled, it was discovered that Universal didn't even own King Kong, and they eventually had to shell out millions of dollars in damages to all the companies involved.
  • Before Nintendo hit it big, they actually approached Atari and offered them the opportunity to market the NES console in America under the Atari label. The deal fell through. Atari later had a similar offer from Sega regarding the Sega Genesis! Imagine how different the video game landscape might look today if Atari had a clue back then.
  • Nintendo's original licensing agreements stipulated that game companies could only publish five NES titles per year. Prolific game makers Konami and Acclaim felt they had more to offer, and requested an exception be made. As a work-around, Nintendo gave each company a second license, requiring them to publish their second set of titles under a different name. Acclaim used the name LJN, and Konami used the name Ultra. Sound familiar?
  • When the Genesis was new Sega needed a football game but none were available. Electronic Arts agreed to help, despite the fact that they were already making Madden for the Genesis. They developed Joe Montana Football, but allowed Sega to publish it under their own name. Thus, Electronic Arts actually developed two football games released in 1990 for the Genesis.

Is there anything wrong with the book? Well, one thing that initially bothered me was how the stories are not necessary told in chronological order. Sometimes the book seems to double-back on itself, giving you a sense of deja-vu. In retrospect however, this was probably necessary to maintain the narrative flow. Since many of the storylines overlap by several years, the author probably did the best he could to keep things readable.

Ultimate History of Video Games focuses on the 1970's and 1980's, but covers up to the early 2000's. It debunks a lot of the rumors you've heard over the years, and corroborates others. Enjoyable to read from cover to cover, this book has given me a new perspective on video games. I highly recommend it!