Five of the Best Video Game Books

An obsession with video game-related books may strike you at any time but, from personal experience, it usually occurs post your first ‘gaming shelf’ and just before you start listening exclusively to SNES OSTs. There are few things finer in life than finishing a damn good game and diving into a well-researched tome dedicated to the experience. Just as good is the feeling of discovering something completely new via a collected book of essays or specialist introductions. Fortunately for us, thanks to a rise in self-published, crowd-funded projects, we have hundreds of video game volumes to indulge in. Let’s start small though; here are five of my all-time favourites.

5. Art of Mana — Square Enix

Easily my favourite game of all time, Secret of Mana will always hold a special place in my heart. There are several personal factors contributing to its importance in my life, but I think most will agree that Mana’s quality soundtrack and art direction transcend the boundaries of subjectivity into the rarely attained realm of objectively good (I make this claim subjectively, of course). Art of Mana is a collection of (surprise) original artwork (design documents, concept art, promotional art etc.) covering every mainline game in the Mana series and pretty much every spin-off as well. This hefty tome is packed with various artists’ work on the series, interesting liner notes and an excellent ‘special interview’ with franchise creators Koichi Ishii and Hiromichi Tanaka. However, the late Hiroo Isono provides the standout contribution to Mana. Adorning both the front cover of the collection and the first few pages, Isono’s iconic paintings combine the grandeur and mystical naturalism of romantic landscape artist Caspar David Friedrich with the evocative colours and intensity of symbolist Gustav Klimt. The book also provides a fascinating insight into the evolution of the series art style outside of Isono’s work, giving particular focus to Shinichi Kameoka’s distinct, quasi-watercolour designs found in Legend of Mana and Sword of Mana. Outside of all the bonus content, it is worth owning Art of Mana purely to appreciate these breath-taking pieces on high-quality paper.

4. Metal Slug: The Ultimate History — Bitmap Books

If you want the best of the best, the finest fan-centric, specialist material, nobody does it better than Bitmap Books. Containing almost five hundred pages of concept art, screenshots, original advertising material, interviews, facts and trivia, Metal Slug: The Ultimate History lives up to its name and then some. The amount of illuminating (not to mention exclusive) information packed into this book is no mean feat, considering the Metal Slug series spans numerous mainline games, several spin-offs and has sat under the direction of multiple individuals. Like the series itself, Metal Slug: The Ultimate History dedicated much of its read time towards graphics and art. Expect stunning, high-resolution screenshots of every game in the series, complete with pre-production sketches and initial design documents for characters and vehicles within the series. Of particular interest are the early conceptual draw-ups for the SV-001, the titular Metal Slug, which acts as something of a representative artistic genesis for the entire franchise. I would also be remiss not to mention the stunning illustrations of Toshiaki Mori, better known by his pen name ‘Shinkiro’, who (when drawing them) provides the central cast of the Metal Slug series with a mature and understated gravitas. The final hundred pages or so of the book are dedicated to new and exclusive interviews with some of the biggest names attached to Metal Slug, balancing the art-centric aspect with a considered amount of textual information. The level of passion and raw insight contained in Metal Slug: The Ultimate History is almost giddying, and no series deserves it more than this beautiful, frustrating and challenging run and gun classic.

3. Japanese Video Game Obscurities — Kurt Kalata

Presented by Hardcore Gaming 101, Kurt Kalata’s Japanese Video Game Obscurities is a fascinating compendium covering titles that were never localised in the West. The book does an excellent job of talking about some very important games that never received (at least at the time of writing) an English translation, while also covering several that remain niche even within Japan, their country of origin. Genres are covered outside of the expected category of role-playing games and anyone with even a slight interest in gaming will find themselves captivated by the idea of one or two of the discussed titles. If you’re anything like me, the internally monologued cry of ‘God, I wish that came out over here’ will fire across your synapses non-stop. Kalata covers so many strange, ambitious little experiences; the kind of game that you can’t help but shove into Google right away just to try and absorb every little drop of information you can. Highlights include the yet to be fan-translated Linda3 (Linda Cube), an incredibly violent PC Engine CD RPG with a gameplay loop about collecting animals (described in the book as a ‘Noah’s Ark JRPG) with an antagonist based on Adolf Hitler, and the stellar N64 game Wonder Project J2: Corlo no Mori no Josette, a wonderful Ghibli-esque point and click adventure in which the player is tasked with the education and training of a young, human-like robot girl. As mentioned, Japanese cult classics like Live A Live and the recently localised Moon: Remix RPG Adventure, also receive write-ups, giving the entire book a lovely sense of balance. Veterans are bound to discover something, while those new to import gaming will get a full, rich educational experience via Kalata’s considered, informative style.

2. Legends of Localization Book 2: Earthbound — Clyde Mandelin

Are you an Earthbound fan? Of course you are. Stupid question. In that case, go ahead and get yourself a copy of Clyde Mandelin’s Legends of Localization Book 2: Earthbound, if you haven’t already. An exceptionally detailed comparison between the original Japanese Mother 2 and its much-loved English localisation EarthboundLegend of Localization succeeds in taking the complex field of video game translation and turning it into an easy to understand, entertaining history lesson. Mandelin is known best as the driving force behind the English fan translation of Mother 3, perhaps the most famous and successful of its kind. His passion for the series is present in every microcosm of this book; each page is packed with information, little asides and illustrative screenshots. Earthbound is covered in its entirety, from creative inception, all the way through a play-by-play of its plot, wrapping everything neatly together with secrets, unseen text and easter eggs. I particularly enjoyed the segments dedicated to the eccentric renaissance man director of the Mother series, Shigesato Itoi, whose life, career and interests provide the defining influential features of Earthbound; he is a man as interesting as the games he makes. Particular praise should be directed at the gorgeous presentation of Legends of Localization, with its embossed purple hardcover, invoking the psychedelic background of Earthbound’s battle screen, and its expert and appealing inner page layouts, which often pack a great deal of information into quite a small space. This is, without a doubt, one of the finest videogame-related books to add to your collection, whether you actually like Earthbound or not.

1. A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games — Bitmap Books

Combining the expertise of books focused on individual video game titles, with the sheer reach of compendium collections, A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games provides an unequivocally comprehensive guide to one of gaming’s best-loved genres. A collaboration between Bitmap Books, Kurt Kalata (yet again) and several independent writers, this absolute bible is 652 pages long and covers well over 600 games. You can expect every mainline franchise to receive its due, from Final Fantasy to Pokémon, but as with Kalata’s previous entry, Japanese Video Game Obscurities, you can also find in-depth pieces covering obscure, unappreciated and occasionally downright bad games. The variety of coverage is also matched by the variety of editorial opinion and, while Kalata’s voice is most prominent, it is complemented by the presence of several other authors; each one providing a level of expertise regarding their chosen game. I adore the authorial range of A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games, which elevates the book above the educational, matter-of-fact style that a lot of compendiums exhibit — I want to see (and enjoy) unique opinions. You can turn to any page of this tome and experience a beautifully concise review of a game you love, a game you’ve never heard of, or that favourite game you’ve yet to play. A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games is a stunning achievement.

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