Review of Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames

November 9, 2009

Leonard Herman’s book, Phoenix:  The Fall and Rise of Videogames, is an exceedingly detailed compendium documenting the history of the video game industry from its infancy through the year 2000.  It leaves no stone unturned – seemingly every company which had anything to do with video games and their development is mentioned, from Atari to Nintendo to Sony.  If a company made a briefly-seen peripheral for the Mattel Intellivision, it is mentioned.  If IBM joined forces with Atari in 1993 to manufacture Atari’s last console, the Jaguar, it’s mentioned.  There are so many dates and product names floating around that sometimes it’s hard to keep track of it all, even to one experienced in video games.

Herman starts with the absolute beginnings of all things which related to video game development.  From the abacus he works  his way up through the first computers, detailing everything from vacuum tubes to transistor radios.  As computers got smaller and more efficient they led to the first video game being developed by Ralph Baer.  One of the first primitive games, Space War, was noticed by a young college student named Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari in 1972 and helped to launch the video game industry.  At first Atari took over the arcades, but later they moved into the home video game market with their 2600 console.  For the first ten years of the industry’s existence, Atari dominated all things gaming-related.

Then, in 1983 and ’84, due to a glut of cheap, terrible  software overloading the fledgling industry, video gaming and Atari collapsed.  For two years sales slumped before Nintendo and its NES revitalized things, and they would come to dominate the industry for the next ten years to come.  During the early to mid-nineties Nintendo and Sega battled things out with their 16-bit SNES and Genesis systems, respectively.  Then, in 1995 Sony launched their Playstation console, which was CD-based, and effectively took Nintendo’s crown as the king of the video game market.  Sega, with their Saturn, struggled in third place from then on.  The book ends with the discussion of the Playstation 2 launch, Sega’s Dreamcast launch, and plans for Nintendo’s Gamecube and Microsoft’s XBox.

For the most part I was engrossed in reading Phoenix.  I genuinely feel that, after gaining such detailed knowledge of my industry’s background, I have another depth of understanding and appreciation for the field and the companies who contributed to it.  As I read, Herman’s writing style helped with my absorption of the information.  The book reads very much like a history textbook, with almost every single sentence containing information and events, but Herman wrote it in a balanced, flowing manner.  Throughout each chapter, which represent a year in the world of video gaming, he would also add commentary just enough that it guided the reader along and helped coalesce some of the info they just read.  Pictures of each relevant console and peripheral are included as well, helping to visualize some of the more obscure products.

Yet at the same time Phoenix is not without faults.  Firstly, the sheer density of the material and the sometimes overly-detailed histories of a product or company may lose a lot of potential readers.  Some of the depth to which Herman goes is excruciating, telling us about all the various lawsuits the major players were involved in or every random controller that came out for the Atari 2600, or even the game parks that Sega built.  It also is a bit too focused on the companies and consoles, mentioning only the most important of games if they helped or hurt a company in a big way.  Examples of this include how the Atari 2600 E.T. game was devastatingly bad for Atari, and how Mario 64 helped establish the Nintendo 64 as a powerful 3D system.  But many other major games are merely mentioned in passing, if at all.  In fact, for such the breakthrough game that it was, Final Fantasy VII was mentioned in one sentence.  Also, a lot of the book is very American-focused, not giving much detail at all to Japanese companies (with the obvious exceptions of the major console manufacturers).  Big companies like Namco, Konami, Capcom, and Squaresoft were barely there.

So, in the end, Phoenix is easily recommendable to anyone who wants to know about the video game industry.  It has every detail about the major companies involved and the major consoles which shaped the industry today;  so, if one is prepared to absorb the onslaught of information, look no further for the Video Game Bible.  It is well-written, engaging, and so knowledge-packed that even the harshest of video-game critics will be wowed at its contents.

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