A Review of The Unofficial NES/Famicon: A Visual Compendium.
When reading a review for a product, if you slice through all the wordy prose, you generally arrive at one of two distinct messages:
Either buy it, or don’t.
So, if you’re the impatient type or just glancing down at this review as you move through another hectic day, trying to glean the overall gist as your attention is drawn to a million other points of light on the information superhighway, the answer is this:
But caveat emptor: The Unofficial NES/Famicon: A Visual Compendium requires that at some point, you take the time to slow down and appreciate the artistry of its many images – visuals that were originally designed to dart across the eyes at dozens of frames per second. Held in the type of stasis only a physical book can provide, you are essentially forced to hit the pause button as you peruse the collected artwork of a bygone era, comprised of boxy, pixelated images that manage to convey a profound, storied history.
Bitmap Books is an emerging, independent UK publisher largely funded by Kickstarter goals to generate sufficient operating revenue but despite these humble origins, their products are of the highest quality and caliber, evidenced by the NES Compendium, which is a slick, softback volume encased in a hardback sleeve and embossed with a holographic replication of the cover art. At over 500 pages, this is a hefty volume with quality binding and a reasonable price tag. Essentially an archive of 8-bit art, each of which is generously splayed across a two-page format, this particular book is not only an informative, celebratory work that showcases the attractive, minimalist sprites from some of the NES’s most popular games but also serves as an archive of said art and a memorial, albeit lighthearted, of an era that is regrettably gone but definitely not forgotten.
The book is a sumptuous visual feast, containing a hearty selection of classic NES games ranging from Nintendo-produced exclusives to third party offerings, each with a brief but interesting bit of exposition detailing the history of the featured software. With nearly 200 titles included, this compendium doesn’t include every NES game contained within the console’s massive catalog but does highlight the majority of essential software with a few notable exceptions. (Castelvania III is probably one of the more notable omissions.) As I mentioned, each game enjoys an attractive, two-page spread that displays the pixelated art and effectively makes each of these selected images worthy of being individually framed. A handful of games enjoy a larger, four-page fold-out and while the titles that receive this extra-special treatment seem arbitrary, they are a welcome addition nevertheless.
Despite being touted as a visual resource, this book also contains a multitude of interesting, well-written informative pieces, including a preface that delivers a detailed account on the history of the NES/Famicon and several key interviews with designers, programmers, and artists in regards to their experiences working on the games. It also includes a segment where numerous, brief testimonials from everyday people share their passion for the console and its software. Additional segments include NES-inspired fan artwork, a sampling of various box art, and an addendum that contains images from unreleased games, many of which I didn’t know existed. (That unpublished Superman game is especially striking)
The end result is something that feels like a fusion of a coffee table book and a gaming encyclopedia. Written and compiled by aficionados who are clearly targeting a very niche and like-minded retro-enthusiast crowd, the authors know precisely what to include to hold our collective attention. It’s rare that a book of this type fits the psyche so snugly, yet there is a warm, almost homey comfort to flipping through the pages of the NES Compendium and I’d venture to say that any serious retro-gamer will want a copy of this remarkable book on their shelves. Like the NES and its library, this little book is meant to be shared, discussed, and lovingly poured over and I cannot recommend it enough, especially for those of us who appreciate the visual splendor of 8-bit gaming at its historical zenith.
Perhaps more importantly, this book archives and preserves the work of innumerable people that might otherwise fade into obscurity, making it a significant contribution to the ever-expanding movement of videogame preservation.
The Unofficial NES/Famicon: A Visual Compendium is one of the slickest books I’ve purchased in recent memory and available directly from Bitmap Books.
Do yourself a favor and get a copy soon. (You’ll thank me later.)
Retro head and key holder of RVG.