Matt Barton knows how to tell stories, and he knows how to tell stories across the spectrum of media. Between books and his popular "Matt Chat" series of video podcasts, he's interviewed dozens of developers in his quest to document how games are made, and not just who's-who names like John Romero and Richard "Lord British" Garriott. Some of Barton's most memorable interviews are ones where he talks to wizards who, for one reason or another, stayed behind the curtain of some of the best games of all time.
Barton's interview style, a laidback, conversational tone that encourages developers to dig into the nitty-gritty of their experiences, made the jump to Vintage Games 2.0, his latest and best book that delves into the histories of the names you know and ones you don't but should.
The original Vintage Games was published in 2009. While well-written, it suffered from a confusing structure. Barton's goal with the book, to provide an insider's view on some of the most influential games of all time, was hobbled by the decision to structure it alphabetically. It's difficult to make clear just how much game design and technology has evolved when you jump straight from Castle Wolfenstein (1981) to Dance Dance Revolution (1998), then back down to Diablo ('96) and Doom ('93).
Vintage Games 2.0's structure is both more welcoming and more intuitive. Barton writes about games in chronological order, and organizes chapters into eras with an introduction at each dividing line that sets the stage for the games and creators that follow. And unlike the first book, Vintage Games 2.0 is printed in glorious full color, complete with screenshots, photographs, and box art.
Barton gives games their due by blocking off an entire chapter for each one. Chapters conclude with information on how to play the game in question, an invaluable resources for readers interested in experiencing games made before their time but that exerted considerable influence over contemporary titles.
Best of all, Barton draws deep from first- and secondhand sources to emphasize intimate details about—and in cases where he pulls from his vast archive of interviews, anecdotes from—the developers who made games like Space Invaders, Elite, Super Mario Bros., Rogue, Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto III, and more. For example, the makers of Wizardry modeled elements of their game after Oubliette. Barton points this out, but goes a step further by talking to the makers of Oubliette to get their take on criticisms that Wizardry cribbed perhaps too much from their game, which predated Wizardry but is less well-known due to being available only on PLATO terminals at universities.
Reading Vintage Games 2.0 is like sitting down with Barton to have a few drinks and listen to him tell stories he's accumulated over years of excellent conversations and research. My only knock against the book is its asking price—between $45 and $55 depending on where you buy.
That's steep for a trade-sized paperback, even one as beautifully crafted as Vintage Games 2.0. At the same time, you'll get what you pay for and then some.
This impressions article is based on a copy of the book provided by the author. Vintage Games 2.0: An Insider Look at the Most Influential Games of All Time is published by CRC Press and available from the publisher and on Amazon.