NES/Famicom: a visual compendium

Retronator Photo Review

I first came across Sam Dyer’s work a couple years ago when he ran a Kickstarter campaign for his book about the Commodore Amiga.

I’m a big fan of 16-bit era pixel art, so Sam’s concept for a tome consisting primarily of high-quality visuals immediately extended my fandom to his publishing house Bitmap Books. In fact, the look at the Amiga visual commpendium was the very first photo review in Retronator Magazine.

The many trinkets (besides the book) we got treated to as Kickstarter backers.

Commodore Amiga: a visual commpendium (punn intended) was Sam’s 2nd book, following the C64 one, and the series continued onto the ZX Spectrum for its third installment (I’m still waiting for the right moment to write about that one). The moment to write about the 4th compendium is now though, as you’ll find out at the end of the article—terrible cliffhanger, I know.

NES/Famicom: a visual compendium continues the winning formula Bitmap Books embarked on with the series; it’s packed chock-full of artwork from games, this time for the 80s favorite gaming console.

The Kickstarter campaign was so successful it smashed through all possible stretch goals and blew up the book to over 500 pages!!! (ZX Spectrum had 300 and Amiga over 400.)

When you pull the hardback out of the slipcase, you realize you got way more than you bargained for by supporting the project. I mean, look at the thickness of this:

And those are decently big 6.7-by-9" dimensions to begin with.

Another strech goal that was smashed—the ultimate one—was a lenticular print on the slipcase.

Lenticuwhat? Remember those nifty little cards you had as a kid that would change their image when looked from a different angle?

YES! The whole cover is one big childhood magic!

Another goody that was added as an extra is chibi-tech’s wonderful NES album Psycho Somatic Generation.

(This would be the place where I’d usually embed the music into my article so you could continue reading while pleasantly massaging your eardrums with square waves. Alas, it seems like the album is a backer exclusive and I can only play it for myself as I write this (you losers). Well, at least you can enjoy some great Craig Stevenson artwork on the cover.

OK, OK, how about you play some NES tunes by the legendary 80s videogame composer Tim Follin. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.)

Speaking of Craig Stevenson’s cover art, he’s been instrumental in creating custom illustrations for Sam’s books. The NES compendium has more of those than ever. As a big fan of Craig’s ZX Spectrum artworks, I’m thrilled to see his involvement grow and become almost a trademark extra visual appeal of the series.

His works are just superb and add that extra touch of care, illustrating the ins and outs and midways of the reading experience.

So, we’ve removed the lenticular slipcase, turned over the cover and flipped through some great pixel art illustrations. It’s now time to dive into our hardware subject!

When C64 and ZX Spectrum weighed computer wars in Europe, there was only one undisputed champion in 1980s living rooms of Japan and the US (no, Sega Master System, go back to your corner). While most people know the iconic grey square box that is Nintendo Entertainment System, it is perhaps less known that the system started out in Japan under a different design and the name Family Computer (or Famicom for short).

See, at the time, the North American gaming market was busy burning to the ground in the famous video game crash of 1983 (a.k.a. the Atari shock). It brought down the $3 billion industry to a mere $100 million, a whooping drop of 97% in 2 years! It was the death of the second generation of consoles headlined by the Atari 2600 (RIP E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Alamogordo, never forget).

Nintendo had its fair share of success in arcades with Donkey Kong as well as selling Game & Watch handhelds, but it took 2 years and 2 million Famicoms sold in Japan for the emerging leader to prove videogames weren’t a fad and re-enter the US.

In October 1985, Nintendo launched the Nintendo Entertainment System—essentially a Famicom in new clothes—into a gaping hole of nothingness and stole the market of third generation consoles (except for Europe, that’s the corner Sega conquered).

The two gorgeous posters that were available as add-ons for campaign backers were designed by Adam Rufino.
Sam cares about printing to the highest point, often including special metallic inks for that extra pop.

The NES launched with 17 games in the US, many of which are ingrained in 80s pop culture: Super Mario Bros, Excitebike, and of course, Duck Hunt.

The game cartridges became almost, if not even more memorable as the games.

All are done major justice with Visual compendium’s selection and presentation. From fan favorites such as The Legend of Zelda …

… and Mega Man …

… to essential ports and license tie-ins.

As you can see, Compendium won’t always serve you your typical screenshots, especially not half-a-dozen of them randomly lying around the page. Instead, Sam carefuly highlights and presents works of art, making the book an art work in itself.

Everything is neatly designed and prepared with utmost care. The colors are vibrant and pixels are printed sharp enough you could cut yourself.

I really hope people can metaphor.

The whole series is as much a gamer trip down memory lane as it is a tool for artists to do research and draw inspiration from. Yes, there is a fair share of special features such as interviews and company profiles, but the book is by no means a historical account you read from cover to cover.

Games have their own couple of paragraphs written by industry professionals, but the collection is first and foremost a visual journey as the name suggests.

Sam goes even further in his dedication to art and includes fan works, poster illustrations, or both of those things in one.

If I ever need to get my mindset into a particular era or a visual style of games, I dive into one of Bitmap Books’ creations (in fact, I used the Amiga book when setting up the art direction for Pixel Art Academy).

And there you have it. 500 and then some pages filled with games and games and art and games. You can buy the hardback for 30 of them UK dollars (also known as British pounds) on Bitmap Books’ webpage. Softcover will set you back 25, or you can go all digital with the PDF at 10 GBP.

The webpage is also the home to a centuria of high-quality photos that my 4-year-old iPhone can only dream of taking, in case you needed some more convincing.

Ah, the sharpness of a professional camera. Why do I even bother taking my own shots if I can’t afford to do the subject justice …

Enough of self-deprecation though. Remember when I said you’ll find out why now is a good time for the NES book review to come out?

Bitmap Books is expecting!

Hint: SNES on the far right is the new addition. Also, note which computer stands out the most and is thus the greatest computer of all time. Eat it, 64!

You really want to get Sam’s books during their Kickstarter campaigns. You can get any of the four now — and you should — but it was even sweeter (posters and music CDs and postcards sweeter) doing it in their crowdfunding stages.

Yes, this doesn’t help you with the NES compendium (I can’t really do a photo review of a book that isn’t out yet now can I?), but the next best thing is tell you about it when the new one is being funded. So go get your 8-bit NEStalgia satisfied here, and—assuming you’re reading this within 5 days of publication—support the glorious 16-bit SNESology here. (I’m so clever with puns.)

The SNES campaign is ridiculously overfunded again so expect another 500+ heavyweight including another lenticular cover and, oh, what is this, a scanline bookmark?!?

Sold! Check out all the goodies in the Kickstarter video:

You can see that Adam is back with his hardware posters, as well as Craig on illustrations.

But we also have the legendary pixel artist Gary J Lucken a.k.a. Army of Trolls with an exclusive poster as well!

If you discovered your life won’t be the same without this, Kickstarer is your friend.

As for me, my crappy iPhone and the NES book, we’re off into the sunset.

Thank you for reading the third photo review in my retro gaming/pixel art magazine. I stepped a bit outside the box with my last article, the 24-minute read that is the Thimbleweed Park review (or as Uwe Keim eloquently put it: “Wow, incredible, this was the most fucking awesome longest review I’ve ever read.”) It’s good to be back to the more manageable 5–10 minute format you just experienced though, and not spend 2 weeks playing and researching and writing something we don’t really have time to read in 2017 (me included). As much as I love thorough investigations, I’d love to cover more ground instead. I have a lot in store for you, so stick around!

Yours in pixels,