Saturday, December 8, 2012

Golden Age Arcade Video Game Books

Today's post is one that brings back a lot of personal memories for me. Back in the day, not only was I a video game geek but also a bookworm (I was always the dork that ordered the most books from Scholastic Book Service). So when books on video games started coming out, I immediately went out and bought almost every one of them (I have since thrown them out, but they're actually pretty easy and inexpensive to obtain). I spent many an hour poring over these volumes (plus, of course Electronic Games magazine). I tried to put many of the strategies into practice - and usually failed miserably. Note that this book only covers books published DURING the bronze and golden age, not books about them (so no Scott Cohen's Zap! or David Sheff's Game Over here).


With the explosion of video games in the 1970s and 1980s, it was inevitable that books on the topic would begin to appear. Two of the earliest were Len Buckwalter’s Video Games and the Consumer Guide’s The Complete Book of Video Games, both of which appeared in 1977. These books, however, covered only home games. Technically, the first "book" that focused on coin-op video games may have been William Arkush's The Text Book of Video Game Logic, Vol I, published in 1976 as part of a series of service manuals and books that Arkush, a former Atari technician, released under his Kush N' Stuff imprint. Only the most masochistic of video game players, however, would have considered reading them. Perhaps of even less interest was The Coin-Operated and Home Electronic Games Market, a 1976 marketing report published by Frost and Sullivan[1].

In 1981 how-to-play guides began to appear on bestseller lists, starting with Ray Giguette’s How to Win at Video Games, which sold 10,000 copies (despite checking in at only 48 pages). Michael Rubin’s Defending the Galaxy sold 25,000 but that was just a warm up. One of the biggest sellers was How to Master the Video Games by Tom Hirschfield’s (an 18-year-old Harvard student) with expert advice from Leo Daniels. The title sold over 900,000 copies.

One of my favorites


The "Donut Dazzler" pattern, from Kubey's Winner's Book of Video Games

The biggest sellers of all, however, were strategy guides for Pac-Man such as Craig Kubey’s Scoring Big at Pac-Man (March 1982), and Ken Uston’s Mastering Pac-Man (January 1982). Uston, a Harvard MBA and who formerly wrote strategy guides for blackjack, went on to make a mini-career for himself writing video game strategy guide - a far cry from his previous life counting cards in Las Vegas (a practice that not only got him banned from many a casino, but resulted in death threats). With 1.5 million copies sold, Mastering Pac-Man was Uston’s biggest hit (and probably the biggest hit of all the video game books). Uston actually had a little help with the book. He developed three patterns (P1, P2, and P3) on his own but was unable to get past the 9th key until he found a pair of teenagers named Tommy and Raymond in a Broadway arcade who taught him a new pattern (despite the fact that they spoke only Chinese). Armed with his new knowledge, Uston dashed off the book in four days and took it to New American Library. New American wanted to get permission from Bally/Midway to publish the book. Marketing VP Stan Jarocki thought it was a great idea but President Dave Marofske felt the strategies in the book were a bit too good and refused to give permission. Uston was livid. This was the same thing that had happened when he'd been banned from casinos (the fact that Bally owned a casino in Atlantic City only added to the insult). Uston decided to publish the book himself and had 500 copies printed at his own expense, only to find that New American Library had decided to publish the book without Midway's cooperation. Midway later took legal action against NAL and two other publishers. They also nixed Bob Staake's book of cartoons Torturing Pac-Man because it was deemed "demeaning and distasteful" to the character. Uston's follow-up Score! Beating the Top 16 Video Games took a bit longer to write. Not knowing the games, Uston and a friend spent 16 days (one for each game) in a pair of grubby arcades near their New York hotel writing the book. It sold 400,000 copies in the first three weeks.


The "Secret Blob Strategy" from The Video Master's Guide to Centipede


While Uston had an MBA Ernest Zavisca, co-author of Break a Million at Pac-Man (June 1982) and Win at Pac-Man had a PhD in Computer Engineering. He and coauthor Gary Beltowski (a high school sophomore in 1982) later teamed up to pen How to Conquer Dragon's Lair. In 1982 and 1983 Bantam released a five book series of Video Master's Guides to various games. The Donkey Kong volume was written by Steve Sanders, later of The King of Kong fame.
Sanders' first taste of video game fame had come in October of 1981, when he won a Pac-Man arcade game in a contest sponsored by a bar in Lawrence Kansas for the highest Pac-Man score (he score 2.88 million).  After his arcade triumph, classmates suggested that he write a book on Pac-Man. He dismissed the idea, assuming such a book wouldn't sell since the game was over a year old. Then Uston's Mastering Pac-Man was released and sold a million copies. Sander kicked himself. He knew more about Pac-Man than Uston. It could have been him with the million-copy bestseller. In February of 1982, while watching a Today show, Sanders made a decision.

[Steve Sanders] It's 1982. I'm in my senior year at high school and I'm watching the Today show with my parents…I can still see Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley…they announced a brand new game that was being released - Ms. Pac-Man…what went through my mind was "Look how big video games are becoming. They're now being talked about on the Today show. I slammed my hand down on the table and said "That's it. I'm writing a book."

At lunch, he called Bantam Books (because they published most of the novels he read).

[Steve Sanders] I called them from the high school pay phone reverse the charges to my house…I said I wanted to talk to the guy who was in charge of video game books…you've got to realize I'm a 17-year-old kid and I just assumed there would be a guy in charge of video game books.

Sanders was connected with Jack Looney. He told Looney he wanted to write a Pac-Man book, falsely claiming a high score of 4.5 million. Looney told him they already had a Pac-Man book lined up as part of their Video Master's series and asked what other game he was good at. He told Looney he was good at Donkey Kong. "How good are you?" asked Looney. Sanders said he had scored 175,000. "How good is that?" asked Looney. Sanders said he didn't know but it was the highest score he'd ever hear of. Looney told him to contact Walter Day at Twin Galaxies, who had just issued a press release proclaiming himself video gamedom's official record keeper about two weeks before. Sanders called Day, who told him that his score of 175,000 was a record. He called Looney back and Looney asked for a writing sample. Sanders sent him an English paper on which he'd gotten an A. A  couple of weeks later, he inked a book deal for $5,000 for the first 40,000 copies sold and 15% of the sales of each additional copy. Released in February of 1983, the book sold 38,000 copies (other volumes in the series reportedly sold 125,000-225,000 each).

Photo from the Abilene Reporter-News website

Not all of the video game authors were adults – some weren’t even teenagers. 10-year-old Rawson Stovall wrote a column called "The Video Beat" for five Texas newspapers. A year later, it was picked up by Universal Press Syndicate and went national as  “The Vid Kid”. Stovall parlayed his fame into appearances on The Tonight Show, The Today Show, and That's Incredible and wrote the book The Vid Kid's Guide to Home Video Games in 1984.

     The books weren't limited to the non-fiction aisle. Some fictional works were coloring and activity books aimed at pre-teens, such as John Robison's The Adventures of Q*Bert, Suzanne Weyn's series of Dragon's Lair books, and The Donkey Kong Activity Book. Also popular (or at least published) were cartoon and joke books like Blips! The First Book of Video Game Funnies, Pac-Mania: The Official Pac-Man Joke Book, and Tim Skelly's Shoot the Robot, Then Shoot Mom. Some books tried to capture the video game experience in book form. Bantam's Find the Kirillian  was the first of twelve books in the Be an Interplanetary Spy series. The series was designed "to bridge the gap between the arcade and the library" and to "…capture the video game experience in a book". The concept was similar to that used in Choose Your Own Adventure and other books but featured video game like illustrations and puzzles in place of text. The first book involved recapturing a criminal alien named Phatax and rescuing a prince. Perhaps the most unlikely titles were The Story of Asteroids  and The Story of Missile Command, a pair of read-along book-and-records published in 1982 by Kid Stuff records. While the idea of a work of fiction based on Missile Command might sound plausible enough, a fictionalized version of  Asteroids sounds like anything but. The Story of Asteroids recounted the efforts of Captain John Strohmeyer (sp?) of the Outer Quadrant Recon Patrol to investigate the sudden disappearance of an unmanned robot ore carrier (Kid Stuff was apparently not the only company who didn't find such an idea ridiculous - in 2009 Universal Studios reportedly inked a deal for the movie rights to Asteroids). Aimed at a slightly older crowd was Stephen Manes' Video War. A novel about a disaffected teen named Zoz who designs video games in his head (after his mom drags him out of an arcade in front of his friends, for example, he creates the game Big Mama, in which you try to pry a 300-pound other off your back). The main plot involves Zoz's battle against adults in his hometown who want to ban video games entirely (though, predictably, he falls in love with a hacker named Rowena, whose parents buy her expensive computer equipment as a substitute for the time they can't spend with her).

Another personal favorite of mine was this small but info-packed volume

I had to mention this one since it is partly responsible for my own book.
Video Invaders (1982) was one of the first books to cover coin-op history in any depth  - it even included a chapter with interviews with video game designers. Bloom later went on to write for Video Games magazine.

[1] I haven't read the book, which actually sounds quite interesting to me.


  1. How To Master The Video Games and its sequel, How to Master the Home Video Games were great to work on with Tom! :)

  2. I'm surprised you don't mention the Micro Adventure series from Scholastic.