Bitmap Books Review: A Visual Compendium, Sega Master System & Atari 2600/7800

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Here’s a new (wonderful!) one… We have some books to review! And since they’re retro-centric, I’m sure we’re all shocked @AndrewAlerts asked me to take a crack at this one. Today we’ll be looking at two Visual Compendiums from the wonderful Bitmap Books: The Sega Master System (Volume 6), and The Atari 2600/7800 (Volume 7).

PRESENTATION

When I received this package in the mail, I was quite surprised. Andrew had told me he was sending some books to review, but the sheer physical quality of these volumes exceeded any expectation I had by, well, about as far as anything could. When I unpacked the Visual Compendiums, which in this case are both the hardcover versions, I was greeted by sturdy board slipcases featuring lenticular fascia mirroring the cover art. They were securely shrink-wrapped for protection, and are quite hefty.

Once opened, the quality of these tomes continues without pause. Glossy, high quality paper with clear printing is present on every page. In some other retro-related books I’ve purchased over the years, the art, with its zoomed in, blocky pixels often experiences color bleed on the pixel borders. Not so here.

Each book also has two ribbon bookmarks, and the binding is sewn, which for those of you unfamiliar, allows heavier books to lay flat while reading, which in this case is very welcome. These books are intrinsically works of art, and giving the reader options in how to display or interact with them is a fantastic thing. 

Don’t let that statement give the wrong impression, however, these volumes aren’t just pretty. Within them is some of the most comprehensive information ever assembled into one place for these systems… but we’ll get into that shortly.

SEGA MASTER SYSTEM

The SEGA Master System is an often overlooked system that was much more popular in its Japan incarnation than the US. Overshadowed by the Nintendo Entertainment System, but arguably a more powerful and better looking system. And the SMS had some fantastic games. Sega has always had a huge focus on their arcade ports, and the SMS is no different, but you also get classic epics like the original Phantasy Star, Golvellius, and several fantastic Alex Kidd platformers.

The depth of this compendium is astounding, especially the focus on the art.

The history behind the rise of SEGA is also fascinating, and this book delves into that with great interviews, retrospectives, and features. Of note, I really enjoyed the focus on artists. The SMS has some amazing art stylings in its titles, and this book really shows it off to perfection.

ATARI 2600/7800

There’s a lot to say about the Atari 2600, which was the console responsible for kicking off the mainstream American interest in video games, but also inciting the crash of 1983. The 7800, the true successor to the 2600, in the same way the SNES is to the NES, is an interesting counterpoint here thematically. Lesser known are the details of the 7800’s launch, that is explored in the book, and it gives interesting perspective to how things may have been different in American video games in the 1980’s.

The Atari 2600 wasn’t the first game console I played, but I’ve got a lot of nostalgia for it, and this book dives into really interesting parts of its history.

This is as much a book about the Atari system as it is, inherently, a book about that era of gaming history. I certainly found the side paths into discussions on prototypes and homebrew software very informative, especially given the general lack of authoritative information on those particular subjects. As with its SMS sibling, the Atari volume also contains great  interviews, features, and amazing art design of the pages, and the often incredible art that was produced in conjunction with Atari software.

FINAL THOUGHTS

On a more personal note, I’d like to thank Bitmap Books for the opportunity to review these volumes. They are truly stunning, and the fact that anything of this quality is being physically created in the retro gaming space nourishes my soul. My father is a somewhat renown Civil War historian with a focus on ephemera and letters, and when I was a younger person, I often admired his huge collection of stunning small print run reference books written by people passionate about their respective topics. The content of those volumes never interested me that much, but these compendiums immediately brought my father’s huge bookshelves to mind.

Really, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more thorough collection of information on either of these systems. Are they truly definitive? Well, that’s hard to say; is anything? They don’t cover every game, but they don’t really need to do so. There are many different angles to examine these games and their history, but the choice here to view it all through the lens of visual style is smart and superbly executed. This aesthetic resonates with so many of us.

I can say what I believe they are: absolute titans in the space of retro games. At 29.99 pounds sterling each for the hardcover, they’re not cheap, but these aren’t paperback novels. For a reference quality compendium of this quality, that’s an absolute steal. If any of this sparks your interest, you owe it to yourself to check these out. 

Now available on Amazon US!

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