In the '80s, Unauthorized Game Books Were Our YouTube

In the '80s, Unauthorized Game Books Were Our YouTube

Take a trip to the past, where words on a page took the place of Let's Players and streamers.

Even though I co-host USgamer's classic gaming podcast, I don't labor under the delusion that things were necessarily better in the past.

Yet, in a world without the Internet, we '80s Kids managed to make the best of things. And even though Nintendo captured our imaginations and our parents' paychecks, at times, it felt like we were absolutely starved for content. These were the days when Nintendo Power sent out an issue every two months, which stood as an unimaginable wait for someone whose life amounted to less than ten years. There's a reason why most NES fanatics from this generation wasted the plasticity of their growing brains on memorizing every inch of those colorful layouts.

The Jeff Rovin Collection. (Image credit)

All was not lost, though. Noticing the Nintendo "fad" wasn't some flash-in-the-pan, Cabbage Patch Kids-style phenomenon, other publishers rose to fill this gaping void. Enter the brief wave of "unauthorized" game books: Compared to Nintendo Power, these creations had all the visual flair of a vacuum cleaner's instruction manual. Their covers ranged from text on a flat background to vague interpretations of video game characters that wouldn't look out of place on a carnival fun house. And if they even had pictures, they were usually blurry, black-and-white, and in an extremely low resolution—a camera aimed at your TV was the '80s equivalent of a "capture device." But we didn't care, because these were books about video games, dammit.

I'm not that old, but the Internet has changed our lives so drastically that anything prior to the mid-'90s feels like Caveman Times. The last decade has seen countless video game playthroughs uploaded to YouTube, with or without commentary, meaning you can witness most games in action if you're truly curious. Pre-Internet, information had a much higher value, and if a game wasn't available for rent in your area or in the possession of a friend, it essentially became a total mystery. This problem only increased by magnitudes if, like me, you gamed on one console at a time. I somehow weaseled my way into a Sega Visions subscription as a kid, if only to keep tabs on what was happening in SegaLand, and I dutifully recorded the short-lived GamePro TV—even if the hosts' antics embarrassed me, I could still watch and rewatch games I had never or could never play.

And that's essentially why I read these books. Even though some of them set out to give the standard tips, tricks, and walkthroughs, their pulpy pages acted as guided tours of video games—some of which were far better in my imagination. On long car rides I could essentially play out these games in my head, even if the straightforward prose strove for practicality over painting a vivid picture. And while I wouldn't end up experiencing a good portion of them until the Emulation Boom of the late '90s put decades of games at my fingertips, these little books helped give me an encyclopedic knowledge of my chosen field. Little kids tend to get obsessed over their interests, since this behavior gives them a sense of mastery and autonomy in a world where they're largely helpless. So even if I couldn't necessarily play every NES game out there, I could at least join in on the conversation—and you'd better believe "Nintendo Master" was a worthwhile title to aspire to in those days.

I live in a college town that has a used bookstore for roughly every thousand citizens, so, from time to time, I stumble upon one of these books and remember when so much of my Nintendo knowledge came from simple words on a page. And the authors associated with these works didn't just fade from existence once NintendoMania simmered down: How to Win at Nintendo Games' insanely prolific author Jeff Rovin apparently spent some time writing a Tom Clancy spin-off series, while others, like Zach Meston, went from working on guides to working within the industry itself—though he's been out of the game for close to a decade. (I still remember seeing mail addressed to him during the year I worked for Atlus.)

And, seeing as these guys were probably around my age, I can only hope the words I type will connect with a similar generation of young, like-minded folks. Just as reading text printed in a cheap paperback eventually turned me into the writer, podcaster, and reluctant video maker I am today, I'd be flattered if my own work inspires others to craft the HoloCube or VR-based video game coverage of the future. And, with any luck, they'll also come visit me in the Assisted Living Home for Ancient Game Journalists; my lack of retirement savings means I'll likely blow through my supply of state-subsidized applesauce in less than a month.

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