if i didn't grow up with it, it didn't exist
I have just finished reading Chris Kohler's book "Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life." In it, he makes the claim that, "Prior to Donkey Kong, there were zero video games with [the beginning/middle/end] narrative structure." Donkey Kong was released, according to the Killer List of Videogames, in 1981. The fact that he can spend pages analyzing and praising Donkey Kong's primitive narrative without once mentioning the fact that there was an entire genre called interactive fiction invented nearly ten years earlier in 1972 damn near infuriates me. Hell, you had the first RPG and first graphic adventure come out the year before. Don't tell me Shigeru Miyamoto invented the videogame narrative, because that's just bullshit. Undoubtedly, he was the first to bring it to the arcades, but not to the whole damned medium.
And don't tell me that Nintendo was wary about releasing Dragon Quest to the US because they didn't think American kids could handle it, without mentioning that Dragon Quest was essentially a watered-down version of Ultima, a game written by a then-20-year-old American.
Because of the way the history of videogames has developed, every amateur videogame historian looks almost exclusively at their niche. Look past your nostalgia, people. Emulation has made it possible to have the entire history of all videogames in your goddamned living room. It's time we started sifting through it. The closest thing this medium has to a textbook, "The Ultimate History of Videogames", appears to leave out computer games almost entirely.
Back to the book. Kohler produces pretty compelling evidence that the Japanese school of videogames -- one focussed on visual design, and cohesive experience -- produces compelling videogames. This is his basic thesis, I think -- the book was originally called "The Cinematic Japanese Videogame" -- and so on that level, he succeeds. But as the book goes on, he begins to give the Japanese credit for inventing pretty much any positive aspect of any videogame that he has ever enjoyed. The book examines Japanese videogames almost entirely in a vacuum, even though many of the raw ideas used in them are basically American ideas, distilled and re-imagined through manga glasses, and handed back to us. It's difficult to deny that North American games influenced the development of Japanese ones -- three years after Ultima 4 introduced the idea of asking questions and gauging the player's character, Dragon Quest III up and did the exact same thing.
I'm not belittling the accomplishments of Japanese game designers -- they took these scattered ideas and turned them into fantastic things, whereas North American game designers have tended to take these scattered ideas and turn them into muddled and confused games. I'm just saying, if you're going to write a book about what makes Japanese games so uniquely great, then give credit where credit is due. Miyamoto came up with many wonderous ideas that took decades to have the life squished out of them; you don't need to make it out like he was the only one who ever thought a videogame might have a narrative. He did more interesting things than that.
Anyway, Chris Kohler, I guess my point is that I'm not ashamed to own your book, but I would have liked it better if you'd have thought through your conclusions a bit more instead of including that chapter on Akihabara and spending eight pages detailing a non-comprehensive list of Final Fantasy soundtracks.