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The Atari Book - 40th Anniversary Special

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Publisher: Retro Gamer

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      04.01.2013 12:34
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      Another excellent niche publication from the Retro Gamer stable

      If you are looking for something to blame for my long-standing devotion to computer games, then you should probably start with the Atari 2600 console released in the late 70s. Although I never owned one myself, a friend did and I lost track of the hours we spent after school playing things like Space Invaders or Pitfall II.

      For ancient people like me who remember the dawn of the computer games industry, it's hard to believe that it's now 40 years since one of the industry's early stars - Atari - was formed. During that time it pretty much invented the computer console, contributed massively to the video game crash of the early 80s, produced some decent 8 and 16 bit computers and consoles before declining into bankruptcy (although the name lives on through French company Infogrames which bought it. It's been a real roller coaster of a ride!

      Celebrating that journey is this new publication from the people behind the monthly Retro Gamer magazine. It is a collection of articles on the consoles, computers and games from this iconic company and a fascinating glimpse into the lives of some of the people who worked there. Whilst the publication might not contain anything new (all the articles have previously appeared in Retro Gamer), collecting them all together in one place makes for a fascinating read and shows the influence that Atari had on the gaming industry.

      You might ask why you would want to shell out £10 for this. After all, a lot of information on Atari's history is available for free on the web. The answer is the quality of the writing. Since most of the authors are well known in retro gaming circles and professional journalists/writers to boot, they can get direct access to some of the key players and hear about their histories and experiences first hand. This makes the articles far more interesting than a simple, straightforward chronological history because they are full of anecdotes, asides and insights that might not otherwise be known.

      The writing throughout is of an incredibly high standard. Whilst there might be the odd frustration at the occasional typo, there can be no doubting the passion of the writers. They have the ability to tell interesting tales, sprinkled with anecdotes which a bit too technical. Instead, they focus in the people and the games. Whilst there might be the odd technical nugget thrown in, you don't need a PhD in Electronics to work it out and if you don't understand the technicalities, it's not essential to the rest of the article.

      Articles are also very varied. Some focus on the hardware Atari produced, others profile influential programmers or companies who were responsible for some of Atari's most popular games, whilst others look at particularly influential games they developed. In other words, they focus on every aspect of Atari as a company to give a complete overview of its history and influence.

      Articles are nicely laid out with well laid out text and sensible use of publishing tricks to break the text up. Side panels are used to highlight certain interesting features, whilst the liberal use of colour photographs throughout adds to the visual appeal. The magazine also eschews some of the more horrific colour schemes employed by some magazines so that for the most part, the text is very readable and not drowned out by hideous background colours.

      As mentioned above, you do need to bear in mind that there is no new material here and all the articles have previously been published elsewhere. This is a deliberate decision by the editors who don't want completists feeling the need to fork out £10 just one or two new articles. However it does mean that if you own a hefty collection of back issues of Retro Gamer you may not be getting much that you don't' already own. Having said that, articles are drawn from across the lifetime of the magazine (although with an inevitable bias towards slightly later ones), so unless you've been buying since day one, the chances are there will be at least a few articles you haven't read before.

      Where I do think a mistake has been made is in the way the material is organised. Previous compilations have varied the articles, so that an article on a piece of hardware might be followed by one on a particular game or specific programmer. This added a lot of variety since you never knew what you would be reading about next. This compilation takes a more thematic approach so that all the articles on Atari hardware are collected together at the start of the volume, followed by all the articles on key software developers, then all the ones on influential games. The trouble with this approach is that, whilst the individual articles in themselves might be interesting, after a while they do start to become a little repetitive as you read about yet another Atari computer and try to remember how it differs from the one you read about on the last page. A more mixed approach to the content would have benefitted the publication for me.

      Of course, a collection like this is not cheap, and at £9.99 it costs a lot more than your standard magazine. This very much moves into the realm of a niche publication aimed at the serious retro gamer. That said, it's got over 200 pages of content (all articles, no adverts) so if it's a subject that interests you, it's worth it.

      If you are interested, I'd suggest you pick up a copy quickly. It's only available in limited quantities from places like W H Smiths or direct from the publisher (Imagine). Experience with similar previous publications suggests that the limited print run is likely to sell out quickly. Once that happens, copies tend to change hands on eBay for double or even triple the cover price for a second hand copy, so £10 starts to look quite reasonable!

      This is certainly a niche publication, but if you are interested in finding out about the roots of today's multi-million pound computer industry, you could do a lot worse than read about the history of Atari.

      (c) Copyright SWSt 2013

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