It may be hard to believe, but video games are turning the big 4-0 this year. Modern consoles can trace their roots all the way back to 1972, which marked the release of the Magnavox Odyssey and Atari's "Pong." To celebrate the anniversary of their release, the Smithsonian American Art Museum commissioned an art exhibit and book, both entitled The Art of Video Games.
To create the book and exhibit, author and curator Chris Melissinos built a list of 240 video games from six of the eight generations of video game consoles, from the Atari 2600 up through the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (the first generation Odyssey and its counterparts have no featured games and the eighth generation is set to begin once Wii U releases later this year). From that list of 240 games, 80 were chosen by fan voting to be featured in the book and exhibit.
"The Art of Video Games" (Welcome Books, $40.00) features those 80 games split among five categories in chronological order: Start, encompassing the early Atari systems; 8-Bit, which covers the first Nintendo console; Bit Wars, which features the SEGA Genesis and Super Nintendo; Transition, encompassing the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation era; up to the Next Generation section, which features the last two iterations of consoles from the big three companies.
Each category contains four games from the most famous platforms of those five eras. The four games represent different genres of video games: target games ("Space Invaders"), adventure games ("Final Fantasy VII"), action games ("Halo 2"), and combat and strategy games ("Starcraft").
Authored by Melissinos and freelance designer Patrick O'Rourke, the book plays a double role: it's a perfect coffee table book for the consummate gamer, but it's also a history lesson in the evolution of video games, from their 8-bit roots up to their lifelike graphics today.
Each game has a two-page spread, the background of which is essentially a giant screenshot of the featured game. Some games have smaller pictures, and all the games in the book have a written portion on how the game's design was inspired or its graphics achieved. Each era includes interviews with industry leaders, like former Atari figurehead Nolan Bushnell and legendary video game designer Warren Spector.
The book contains dozens of iconic games, ranging from arcade classics like "Pac-Man," early 3D games like "Star Fox," to current games like the massive open world of "Fallout 3" and the graphically breathtaking adventure game "Heavy Rain." There are a few notable snubs: none of the "Grand Theft Auto" games were selected for the initial 240 game pool and aside from initial nominee "Tony Hawk's Underground 2," no sports games are represented (games like "Tecmo Super Bowl" and "NBA 2K's" last two offerings definitely come to mind).
The Art of Video Games Smithsonian exhibit will run from March 16 to Sept. 30 in the American Art Museum before moving to several other art museums nationwide. The tie-in book was released March 6.
"The Art of Video Games" by Chris Melissinos and Patrkc O'Rourke (Welcome Books, $40.00).