Hey! Listen!: A journey through the golden era of computer games is a book about early computer games and gaming consoles from comedian and games expert Steve McNeil. It should come as no surprise to discover that the book is witty and full of expert insight. It’ll teach you a few new things about the history of computer games (I always thought Pong came first) and you’ll have fun learning.
I pre-ordered my book. In hindsight, McNeil has a lovely conversational writing style, and I wish I had bought it as an audiobook via Audible instead.
I had a surprise that left me worried right at the start of the book. Why was this book even commissioned? McNeil explained;
Still, we are where we are. I needed the money, and they presumably needed a book in their portfolio for 2018/2019 that covered ‘youth culture’ to meet some sort of strategic objective…
Yikes! That’s hardly a ringing endorsement from the author.
Wait, just wait…
Steve McNeil is also a Twitch streamer and most Sundays he plays horror games where the audience have the ability (through Bits, subscriptions and the other mechanics of Twitch) to suddenly, dramatically and sometimes terrifyingly inject spooky audio straight into the game. Sunday is all about jump scares. It turns out that’s what this aside in the introduction is. This comment is Hey! Listen!’s jump scare. In reality, it’s easy to see, McNeil passionately wanted to share his knowledge on early era computer games. We all benefit.
Jump scares over, let’s look at the meat of the book.
There’s a brilliant forward from Dara O’Briain at the start of the book (the usual place for forwards). If you’re in the UK, you might remember that Dara O’Briain had a show on Dave in which celebs battled each other on computer games. That might be where you know the name Steve McNeil. He was one of the team captains. As it turns out; he co-invented ‘Go 8 Bit’ which Dave bought and adapted. I doubt there’s anything in Dave’s contract for Dara O’Briain to write forwards for future and independent projects from McNeil so clearly the two got on. O’Briain is very smart, a gamer (and friendly) and thought highly enough of Hey! Listen! to write a foreward. It is an example of when a celebrity endorsement does help persuade me to buy the book.
There are twelve chapters in Hey Listen. ‘The Land Before Pong’, ‘Atari Ascends’, ‘The Golden Age of Arcades’ and ‘The Arcade… In Your Home’! are the first four.
I think those match most closely with this trailer I found from Steve McNeil for the book. It’s worth a watch. The full YouTube clip is very much in the style of the writing and is an excellent indication of the level of detail McNeil gets into and the tone of voice he uses for it.
My favourite bit in the first quarter was the introduction of some scruffy, unpopular and over-confident engineer in the early days of computer game programming. His name? Steve Jobs.
The rise of Nintendo, for me, was also another especially interesting short story. They took risks, nearly failed and ended up naming a plumber after their landlord.
What we learn from the very start of computer games is that we can thank the manufacturers of pinball arcade cabinets for investing in the early games. Also that McNeil doesn’t like game historians much.
After the era where the pioneers are the chapters; ‘The Computers Are Coming’, ‘Nintendo Dominate’, ‘Hedgehog Versus Plumber’ and ‘Don’t Forget the Computers!’
I remember most of this era… but not the very start. Commodore International founded in the mid-fifties. It was Commodore that Woz demoed the Apple II too. It feels like a small world in computer game circles at times.
The last third of the book picks up when home PCs start to compete visually to dedicated consoles. Steve put that at 1987 when VGA graphics cards allowed for 256 colours on the screen at once.
It’s these chapters of the book that most readers will see familiar names; Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Madden, FIFA and Star Wars.
The adventures in economics and marketing discussed in Hey! Listen! aren’t always successful. The list of failures is provocative. How many do you remember? The failure of CD-i? Sonic the Hedgehog on Genesis? 3D) or the Atari Jaguar?
This final section includes ‘Multimedia and the CD-ROM’, ‘3D: 50 Per Cent Better, Because Maths’, ‘All Change’ and ‘Hey! Listen!’
Since Grand Theft Auto is (in part) coded just up the road (or three) from Geek Native HQ the quick trip to the origin of Grand Theft Auto by DMA Design is a highlight from this section of the book. We discover that it was a bug that made it feel as if the police were trying to drive you off the road. The were actually trying to drive through you. This story, like so many of the others, isn’t one that McNeil lingers on. It gets a few lines, the interesting facts and then the tour continues.
I think ‘tour’ is a good word to describe the reading experience of Hey! Listen!. This book isn’t a flat piece of academia. Steve McNeil moaned at gaming historians’ collective ability to suck the fun out of anything it is no surprise that the standup comedian uses the opposite strategy and injects humour whenever possible. I think the result works. Hey! Listen! is fun to read.
While ‘tour’ is a good word to describe the reading experience, I think ‘Hey! Listen!’ are even better for describing the result of picking up the book. This journey through the golden era of video games will fill you up with banter for the pub or the chat section in your next Twitter stream. You’ll say; Hey! Listen! and then drop a quirky fact from the annals of gaming history. Books that you can quote for years after reading them are always an investment. I’m glad I pre-ordered mine.
Overall? Often funny and always interesting for the gaming geek, Hey! Listen! is worth picking up.