Tron and Robotron:

Thirty Years of Electronic Gaming (and Counting)

by Jeff Spega

Limited Edition / 415 pp. / 2011

(A book overview by Chris Federico)

Tron and Robotron (Jeff Spega)

Possibly like you, I've read countless books about old video games (at least, I sure don't feel like counting them). In fact, I've read them since those old games were new. In terms of related entertainments that aren't the actual games, one genuinely good book, article, essay or interview easily beats all of the latter-day FMVs and cut-scenes put together. But when I know a lot about a subject, I'm a very, very picky reader. So there you have a couple of reference points against which to measure my declaration that Tron and Robotron is phenomenal.

It initially struck me as rather surreal that I could so profoundly relate to the experiences Spega shares. My family moved to a developing area in 1979 as well; I've been obsessively playing video games for thirty years, myself; they changed my life and the way in which I perceive...well, suffice it to say that the author's stories with which I can identify are numerous, from Atari to Commodore to writing about games during adulthood. I could go on, but the reason I mention all of this is not, all evidence to the contrary, to include myself in an article about someone else's book. It's actually twofold: to offer yet another reference point, so that you'll trust me as I enthusiastically praise the book, and to reflect on the fact that your story, as well, is likely to include many similarities to Spega's, whether you were originally enthralled with video/computer games in 1979 or 2009.

I'd like to start on the outside and compliment the author's decision regarding the book cover. Too often, adults who like old games are pandered-to as if they've retained the mentalities of children. It would have been easy for Spega to take the common route and clothe the book in flashy colors and splashy fonts; instead, it exhibits an intelligent, nearly collegiate style, comprising only a couple of images, which are significant in terms of the narrative within. The thinking person is thus invited to pick up the book without trepidation.

As with the welcome changes made by Editor-in-Chief Spega to the presentation and collective writing voice of the Digital Press 'zine, this represents no condescending quick-flip. It's for those who like to read, and contains gloriously few pictures -- my kind of book.

The typos and grammatical errors are relatively very few, especially as compared with those in most self-published books; only a pedant like me would wish to put it through one more proofreading. (If you know me, you'll recognize that as an enormous compliment. I mean, I'm just ridiculous.) And while I certainly disagree with some of Spega's game-specific (and even entire genre-related) opinions, that's part and parcel of being invited into someone else's personal tale. His tastes are inevitably tied to his memories, and his is obviously not meant to be an objective book.

We certainly agree on some major points (speaking of points, I'm leading to one with this bit, I promise): The VCS version of Pac-Man was truly what precipitated the first universal disillusionment with video games, having bestowed the abrupt, unwelcome discovery that Atari was not infallible after all. (In answer to the author's "I don't get it," the same console's version of Ms. Pac-Man is so much better because Tod Frye was only given 4k in which to fit the earlier game, which betrayed ludicrous greed and cockiness on the parts of the Atari executives; even Asteroids had 8k, an amount made possible by bank-switching technology in the cartridge.)

I mention these purely taste-based elements because it vexes me when someone criticizes a book simply because he doesn't agree with some of the author's opinions, especially when they don't compromise the intention of the prose (which in this case is to tell you a very entertaining story that includes historical points of interest). If you resist the easily indulged but highly inappropriate temptation to judge the relevant paragraphs based on your personal preferences, the odds are that you'll have a wonderful time reading Tron and Robotron. I couldn't put it down, myself.

In fact, although I thought before cracking it that I'd be most interested in the early chapters -- those containing Spega's memories of the 1970s and '80s -- I'd ultimately find myself riveted by the entire thing, even as I read about his first encounters with consoles that I'm not familiar with. The guy's a terrific storyteller.

This is worth mentioning: The titular movie isn't discussed, apart from some brief remarks about its hype and unremarkable commercial performance. The word Tron in the title is meant to refer instead to the occasional paragraph about the arcade game. I suppose that I should have deducted this from its pairing with Robotron: 2084; anyway, if you don't interpret the title to mean that you'll encounter recollections and insights from a fellow fan of the film, you won't be disappointed.

Spega's writing voice is witty without haughtiness, good-humored without hokeyness, breezy without hot air, and philosophical without ever growing repetitious or curing insomnia. Some of his sentences are one-liner-type masterpieces, and they're genuinely hilarious. The parallels he's able to draw between his own down-times, transformations and triumphs, and those of the gaming industry at large, are poignant, cleverly touched upon, and presented with subtlety, without ever being forced or overdone.

Almost without realizing it until you're nearly at the end, you get the story of video and computer games at large, with the author acting as your observational conduit, the everykid with a level of life-permeating obsession that's alien to most anyone born with consoles and computers already entrenched in daily life. A word to younger people who would like to know what the first major video-game era truly felt like while it was happening: This is the book to read.

For those in their 30s-plus who remember '80-plus, indulge in sensory recall as Spega relates the excitement of even just the captivating unfamiliarities of never-before-heard arcade sounds; buzz from the endorphins released when long-closed synapses flare up again as he speaks of visits to grocery stores, roller rinks and Malibu Gran Prix with the sole purpose of visiting their arcade areas; find yourself in the story as you picture the notebook or homemade booklet in which you recorded your high scores; smile for the memory camera as snapshots of the new game ideas that you sketched out instead of paying attention in class, not to mention your endless game doodles on every available surface, are re-exposed.

And all of that's found in just the first quarter of the book.

His later entry into the community that was forming around what were now starting to be called "classic" games, his first months spent "hunting in the wild" as he realized that he was interested in being a collector, his comical discovery that this entailed running out of room for his purchases...this gloriously long narrative has successfully captured the first major video-game era and the first major "retro-gaming" era, from the point of view that I've been waiting for in a gaming book: that of a player who's been there from the beginning. This affords the writer a very big picture of the evolution of video/computer games -- a long view that renders uncommon observations, insights and comparisons.

I highly recommend this book. It's a triumph.

And I don't watch cut-scenes either, Jeff.


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