Review: Speccy Nation by Dan Whitehead

Some people might wonder what the purpose might be to having a book of reviews of Spectrum games? Such a collection seems unintuitive when you consider that reviews for these games no longer aid consumer decisions, the games being mostly available online to run for free on emulators. To complain that it doesn’t make sense to read a book of reviews though, especially so long after the event, would mistake Speccy Nation as only a book of reviews. Its repeated comparisons between the mores of games past and present are a pause in the whitewater rapids of advertising and launching that accompany technology. It’s easy to get beguiled by these retrospective appraisals that draw you into reading them as an art form in their own right.

Some reviews concentrate on the mechanics of the games and comparisons with others (Dark Sceptre and The Wild Bunch for example), which will appeal more to dedicated gamers than to curious outsiders. That said, these details are often used in revealing ways. The difficulty to The Wild Bunch (heightened by its existence being prior to comforts like Save Game), for example, highlights the way that contemporary games swaddle players with hand-holding and longevity. Another historical comparison is made about Ocean’s When Time Stood Still. Here, there is randomness to events instead of today’s set-pieces. The world the game inhabits is a more compact and eventful experience for the player than today’s pointlessly sprawling landscapes apparently there for their own sake.

Speccy Nation also gives glimpses of the cultural and historical context. It’s particularly gratifying to find that the ‘puerile British mindset’ is deemed worthy of mention (regarding Jack The Nipper), not only because the rise of toilet humour and other assaults on taste during the 1980s usually go mysteriously unnoticed, but also because it’s something I’ve written into my own book with some nervousness. Another useful and reassuring source I found was in the review of Deathchase. Here, the disparity between inlay illustrations and the games they depicted highlights one of the many aspects to 1980s hype.

These and other small descriptives convincingly convey the feel of 8-bit gaming, making the reviews greater than the sum of their parts. It’s pointed out how many games required a pen and graph paper to map them as you went along. Then there’s the way that tips in magazines were such a life-saver for the truly stuck. The multitude of observations begs the question as to why there isn’t a concluding section that pulls them together into an over-arching commentary? This would have given readers some analysis to help form a bigger picture than reviews can achieve on their own.

I can’t help but wonder how Whitehead’s vision would read? Conventional wisdom is sometimes daringly questioned, such as when he criticises the pervasive religiosity towards Ultimate in the light of them milking their cinema 3D engine. And Speccy Nation is full of poetic passages that promise eloquence to any concluding remarks. Take this example of the movement to Nodes of Yesod:

A slow motion, molasses-thick feat of low gravity acrobatics, it takes the Spectrum’s less than athletic pace and turns it into a strength, giving your adventure below the surface of the moon a weird dreamy quality that is enhanced by the typical array of bizarre enemies.

In summary, Speccy Nation offers insight earned through countless hours with these titles and doubtlessly more unmentioned. Its nous, confidence and wordsmithery point to how the instantly likeable and trusty format of the review can do so much more than help consumers make choices. A work borne of love.

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