Craig Maloney writes "It's hard to imagine that over 35 years ago, video games were relegated to large computer rooms with a small dedicated computer following. With the explosion of the video game industry, characters like Pac Man, Donkey Kong, and Mario have achieved a cultural celebrity status. There has been a lot of interest lately in Classic Games and the Classic Gaming era. From the efforts of books like Supercade and Leonard Herman's "Rolenta Press" offerings, to sites such as Digital Press, AtariAge, and Good Deal Games, classic games are once again capturing the hearts and minds of those who experienced classic games first hand, and those experiencing classic games for the first time. Retro Gaming Hacks is a treat for both retro gaming enthusiasts and the retro-curious wondering what all the fuss was about." Read the rest of Craig's review.
Retro Gaming Hacks is another entry in O' Reilly's "Hacks" Series, The "Hacks" Series is an ever-growing set of books with focused attention on a particular topic, like Astronomy, Mental Improvement, or even Halo 2. Each book contains article-length "hacks" of varying difficulty. Some of these hacks may even involve taking the cover off of some electronic device and voiding the warranty on the device. The format allows for quick reference to a particular topic, and the authors present a casual, expert discussion about the topic.
Retro Gaming Hacks begins with a chapter on acquiring actual classic gaming hardware. No matter how good emulators get, there is no experience like playing a classic game on the hardware it was designed to be played on. The author describes the places one can go to pick up hardware, and gives good advice for potential consumers on what to look for and what to avoid when making the final purchase. Next the book discusses a few classic console systems in detail, starting with the grand-daddy of them all: the Magnavox Odyssey, and continuing with the myriad of Pong clones available. After the Odyssey, the book features the game system that defined classic gaming for a generation: the Atari 2600. The author is a bit critical of the system and the games, preferring the Colecovision instead, but the overview of the Atari 2600 is a good introduction to the hardware and some notable games for the system (although I would have omitted mentioning Coleco's dreadful port of Donkey Kong in favor of Pitfall or the incredible Solaris). Other "Golden Era" systems are briefly mentioned, including the Mattel Intellivision, Coleco's Colecovision, the Atari 5200 and 7800, and GCE's Vectrex. The author continues the hardware discussion with several pages on the Nintendo Entertainment System, with several pages on the NES and it's Japanese counterpart: the Famicom. Hack #6 describes the process for repairing the "toaster" NES systems, while the latter part of Hack #5 includes a description of the interesting Neo-Fami adapter for the Game Boy Advance. Also included in the chapter are tips for buying full arcade games as well as JAMMA cabinets. The chapter rounds out with a description of the Holy Grails of classic gaming. (If you find any of these, please send them my way. Thanks!)
The next chapter describes the cheaper way of playing lots of classic games in one location. Many manufacturers have introduced "X in one" TV game systems, which contain one or more controllers, that hooks up to a standard television. The author provides a very comprehensive list of the currently available "X in one" game collections, pointing out the pluses and minuses of each in great detail. Similarly, the synopsis of the classic gaming collections for modern consoles is very thorough (although I'm uncertain if the issue the author raises about the Pac Man patterns relates to a conscious reprogramming of the games, or the differences between the Midway released versions of Pac Man versus the original Namco versions). Ending the chapter is a series of tips for finding hidden classics in current console games (easter eggs), like the arcade Star Wars games in Rebel Assault III, or the hidden NES titles in Animal Crossing. There were several games I wasn't unaware were hidden, and the author helps the search by providing details of how to find each one.
The mid-section of Retro Gaming Hacks darts back and forth between classic game and computer emulation on modern hardware, and restoring classic computers to functioning status. Chapter 3 discusses MAME, and the various interfaces for running MAME. Installing MAME under Windows, Macintosh, and Linux is covered in depth, as are several graphical interfaces for using MAME under each platform. There are also pointers for running MAME on the x box, as well as creating a self-booting MAME CD. There's even mention of the rather odd project known as LASER-MAME (think vector-based games like Asteroids played using LASERs). Lest we think of MAME as just a way to play semi-legal arcade games, the book has pointers to several legal arcade ROMs, such as Gridlee, Robby Roto, Poly Play, and several homebrew arcade games. There are also tips for purchasing legal ROMs, as well as tips for caring for your ROM collection. No section on MAME could be complete without discussing arcade controllers, and Retro Gaming Hacks includes pointers to the Hot Rod, X-Arcade and Slik Stik, as well as a how-to for creating your own controllers from scratch. Chapter four continues with emulations for many classic console game systems using MESS. Also covered in this chapter are several methods for copying games to actual hardware, as well as several emulators for PDAs and Smart Phones. Chapter five continues with classic computers, both in getting the actual hardware running optimally, and in emulating the hardware on modern machines. (There's even a section on getting the Atari 8bit computers running on a Dreamcast). Chapter 6 tackles text adventures, with a healthy section on the INFORM engine from Infocom (with a hack on how to write your own INFORM games. Too cool!) Chapter 7 deals with everyone's favorite gaming operating system DOS, from getting FreeDOS running on actual hardware, to using the "why waste a whole system on DOS" alternative, DOSBox. (And just in case you wanted to develop some games in DOS, there's several hacks for doing just that, too). There's an incredible amount of information in these chapters, with just about every game system imaginable covered. (Yes, even the incredibly crappy RCA Studio II).
Rounding out the book are sections covering creating your own games. There's a brief bit of information on creating retro-style games in Flash and SDL, as well as sections for developing on the Atari 2600 and the Game boy Advance. While this section could easily be covered in separate books, the authors do an admirable job of creating a good introduction to the tools required to start developing your own games.
Lest a book on retro gaming concludes without some game hints, Retro Gaming Hacks finishes off with the pattern from Pac Man, the minus world from Super Mario, and some tricks for Leisure Suit Larry. The Pac Man pattern is only for the first half of the first level, but it does work. (All in the name of research. :) )
Retro Gaming Hacks is a book that I can't say enough about. I'm one of the co-organizers for CinciClassic, and am relatively active in the classic gaming community. I can heartily recommend this book for anyone from the casual newbie to the classic gaming junkie. The resources mentioned in the book are the same resources I would recommend to anyone to satiate their classic gaming curiosity. While some may scoff and say there's plenty of gaming resources available online, Retro Gaming Hacks provides a great resource for finding things you weren't even looking for. (I know I would never have thought to emulate an Atari 800 on my Dreamcast, nor would I have ever thought that I didn't need to gut a keyboard in order to make my own MAME controller). There's something for every gamer, whether you were weaned on the Coleco Telstar arcade, or began your journey with Ultima IV. Retro Gaming Hacks is a fun book and I highly recommend to anyone who has even a remote interest in classic gaming.
(This review was written before CinciClassic 2006 occurred. I was so impressed with the book that I asked O' Reilly if they'd send a few copies for CinciClassic 2006. Their sponsorship of CinciClassic in no way swayed the reviewer or the review.)"
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