The first thing that caught my attention was the title: All Your Base Are Belong to Us. In big, bold, pixellated letters, this book was shouting in code: “Hey, geeks! Over here!” Up close, I could see the subtitle: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture. Although the title certainly piqued my curiosity, it’s unfortunate that it may limit the audience of the book. For those who might have missed out on the “All Your Base” internet meme and don’t know its origins, it’s easy to overlook this book with the weird title, particularly since the subtitle is so small.
Still, maybe the title makes a good shibboleth for identifying the target audience: if you get the title, you’ll probably appreciate the subject matter.
I requested a copy of the book from the publisher, thinking that perhaps it would be similar to Extra Lives by Tom Bissell or Super Mario by Jeff Ryan. Both of these books delve into videogames: Extra Lives is more of a memoir/essay collection about several specific games and their cultural impact; Super Mario focuses on Nintendo specifically.
In All Your Base, Harold Goldberg traces the long history of videogames, from early precursors like Noughts and Crosses programmed on the EDSAC and Dr. William Higginbotham’s Tennis for Two, to the advent of the Nintendo Wii (and other motion-controlled games) as well as the rise of casual gaming. His book is compiled from countless hours of interviews, plus his personal experiences working for Sony Online Entertainment, and there’s a wealth of anecdotes about the early days of many well-known companies.
Goldberg covers a very broad field, too. He talks about Pong, the meteoric rise and collapse of Atari, the tightly-controlled Nintendo empire. He describes how Tetris made the journey from Soviet Russia to nearly every single platform you can imagine. Many of the games he describes are familiar to me from my high school days, working at Waldensoftware: the advent of CD-ROMs and the attempt to cram full-motion video into games like The 7th Guest. His profile of Rockstar games and the controversy around Grand Theft Auto showed me the other side of the story, and I found myself feeling sympathetic toward the Houser brothers, even though I’ve never been a fan of the GTA games.
It’s astounding how much has happened in fifty years, and how much Goldberg manages to fit into his book. There are so many other stories and games and companies that I haven’t even mentioned yet. If you’ve ever wanted to find out some of the behind-the-scenes stories about many of your favorite videogames, All Your Base is sort of a one-stop shop for them all.
However, it’s not all 1-up mushrooms and power pellets. Although the subject matter is vast and well-researched, I found Goldberg’s writing to be somewhat crude. In my opinion, he comes off as, well, somebody who played a lot of videogames instead of reading books. Since the stories he tells are interesting in themselves, it kept my interest, but I read the book in spite of his clumsy similes and weird thesaurus-augmented vocabulary. For instance here’s a sentence that I just can’t unread, so now I’m forcing it upon you: “You shiver, thinking your goose bumps will pop like acne.” What?
I think I would have finished the book a lot more quickly if the writing had been as good as the subject matter. Perhaps Bissell spoiled me with Extra Lives, writing about videogames in a way that elevated them, making it easy to believe that videogames are an important cultural artifact. All Your Base didn’t quite have that same effect.
If you’re looking for an extensive look at the history of videogames, All Your Base Are Belong to Us is packed with some great stories, and worth a read. Just don’t expect the writing to be as exciting as the subject matter.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy for GeekDad.