Video games have an endlessly fascinating history, and author Brett Weiss has been writing about the industry and pop culture in one form or another for over 20 years. He says his Classic Home Video Games series is the first to comprehensively cover consoles like the ColecoVision and Intellivision.
Weiss and I talk about how he got started in his writing career, why his upcoming SNES Omnibus book stands out from other works that detail the 16-bit console, and why it’s important to write about the industry’s history.
How did you get involved in writing about video games and pop culture in general?
Growing up, I was always a huge fan of reading. I remember getting War of the Worlds and The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, and I always got Dynamite Magazine every month, which was a great pop-culture magazine. Plus, I really liked reference books a lot. My parents had encyclopedia sets and I would look at those.
As I grew up playing video games as well, I started reading Electronic Games magazine, JoyStik, and Electronic Fun With Computers & Games. In the 1990s, I combined my love for reference books and reading with my love for video games and started writing reference books about games. [In the early 2000s], I started working on a book, Classic Home Video Games. Each volume covers a particular era. The first book covers all the old consoles system before the NES. I’ve continued the series to cover the NES, the Genesis, the NeoGeo, TurboGrafx. Ten years ago, it was kind of hard to do. The video game book-publishing industry still wasn’t like it is today, where there’s lots of video game books coming out. When I pitched my book covering the Atari era, [publisher McFarland] loved the idea and they said go for it. Here, 10, 11 years later, McFarland has an entire division devoted to video game books. I think it’s kind of cool that my book was the first one for them.
Each of your books are ambitious in scope. How do you get started on something like that? Where do you go after you cross that starting line?
Each book takes a couple of years. The next book I have coming out along these lines covers specifically the Super Nintendo … The SNES Omnibus: The Super Nintendo and Its Games, Vol. 1 (A-M). That book has write-ups for every single Super Nintendo game beginning with A through M. In addition to write-ups by me for each game, it’s going to be supplemented by nostalgic stories from a whole lot of people in the industry. Guys like Martin Alessi, who was the senior editor and art director for Electronic Gaming Monthly back in the day; Dain Anderson, the guy that founded NintendoAge; Rusel Demaria, he was writing Genesis and Super Nintendo strategy guides back in the ’90s. There’s a bunch of YouTubers and other authors and programmers contributing nostalgic stories to this book. It’s going to be comprehensive in nature like the Classic Home Video Games books, but at the same time it’s also going to have screenshots, full color photos, contributions from all of these different industry insiders, as I call them. It’s a big coffee-table book.
There are already a fair amount of books out there that talk about the Super Nintendo. What does your book pore over that these other books don’t?
I think there are two things that separate it. These contributions from these other writers are actually write-ups they did themselves and then submitted them to me. There are stories about people bonding with their grandmother playing games, when their parents played it even though they weren’t into it, how video games helped some people get through things like a friend or a parent dying. I think the other thing is my write-up for each game where I describe the gameplay and provide critiques. Each game is thoroughly described. I’ve been writing professionally for 20 years, and I like to think that shows in the quality of the text.
You write about a lot of older video games and video game systems. Do you have any plans to write about more modern stuff?
It can happen. I have one book called The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987. A lot of people have been wanting to know if I’m doing a sequel like ’88 through ’98, or ’88 through 2008. If I do write about newer games for newer systems it will most likely be in the context of the next 100 greatest console video games book. It’s possible I could do something else, but at this point I’m mostly a retro gamer.
Why do you think writing about video games – more particularly in your case, the retro systems – is important?
I think with any field if you know where it came from you have a richer experience. If you play the modern games, and if you’re playing some 2D game on your phone and you know the history of it and you know the games that came before it, I think it just makes the experience a little bit richer for the player. And it’s to preserve the past and to recognize the people that paved the way for what we have today. That’s one reason I included a lot of programmers in the SNES Omnibus, is to recognize their accomplishments. It’s important to know where we’ve come from, to help paint a picture of where we are now.
So after all of the research you’ve done with these books, what in your opinion would you say is the most important era in gaming and why?
It’s gonna be hard to say the most important because if you didn’t have the first generation, would you ever have the second? But there’s several touchstones. When Ralph Baer conceived of the idea of playing video games on the television in 1966, which eventually led to the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972. You have 1980, when Space Invaders came to the Atari 2600. That really blew up the system. Then in 1985 the NES was a step to making video games even more mainstream. Then the PlayStation in ’95 and ’96 made video games grown up. It was disc-based and it was hip to play music CDs on it, you get to play cutting-edge games that seemed adult in nature. Then you have the PlayStation 2 with the DVD compatibility, and that sold a ton of PlayStation 2s. Those were some definite touchstones for eras. [It’s] hard to say which one was most important. The NES resurrecting the home-console industry was huge.
The SNES Omnibus is available to pre-order here. Check out Weiss’ website here, as well as his other books here. If you’re feeling nostalgic, check out our SNES Classic Edition review and the story behind the once-cancelled Star Fox 2, or read our list of the top 25 Super Nintendo games.