Review: Break Out

Posted on March 11th, 2018 @ 21:20
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Break Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming RevolutionBreak Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution by David L. Craddock

My rating:


Around the world, millions of people hijack cars in Grand Theft Auto, role play fantastical heroes in World of WarCraft, and crush candy on phones as small as wallets yet nearly as powerful as desktop computers. But long before video games became a multi-billion-dollar industry, two hackers invented the Apple II, a PC that contained less memory than the average Microsoft Word document and bowled over consumers by displaying four colors at once. Some users tapped its resources to design productivity software. Others devised some of the most influential games of all time. From the perils along the Oregon Trail and the exploits of Carmen Sandiego to the shadowy dungeons of Wizardry and Prince of Persia’s trap-filled labyrinth, Break Out recounts the making of some of the Apple II’s most iconic games, illustrates how they informed the games we play today, and tells the stories of the pioneers who made them.


[I received a copy of this book through Netgalley.]

I never owned an Apple II, but my family did have a Commodore 64 when I was a kid, and I do have a soft spot for the history and evolution of computing (and computers) in general, and I was glad to read this book, for it reminded me of a lot of things. The Apple II, after all, was part of that series of personal computers on which a lot of developers cut their teeth, at a time when one still needed to dive into programming, at least a little, if one wanted to fully exploit their machine. (I’ve forgotten most of it now, and was never really good at it anyway since I was 7 and couldn’t understand English at the time… but I also tried my hand at BASIC to code a few simple games, thanks to a library book that may or may not have been David Ahl’s “101 BASIC Computer Games”, I can’t remember anymore now.)

In other words, due to a lot of these developers coding not only for the Apple II, and/or to their games being ported to other machines, C64 included, I was familiar with a lot of the games and software mentioned in Craddock’s book. Even though, 1980s and personal computer culture of the time oblige, most of what we owned was most likely pirated, as we happily copied games from each others to cassettes and 5 ¼ floppy disks on which we punched a second hole (instant double capacity! Just add water!).

A-hem. I guess the geek in me is just happy and excited at this trip down memory lane. And at discovering the genesis behind those early games which I also played, sometimes without even knowing what they were about. (So yes, I did save POWs with “Choplifter!”, and I haunted the supermarket’s PC aisle in 1992 or so in the hopes of playing “Prince of Persia”. And I had tons of fun with Brøderbund’s “The Print Shop”, which I was still using in the mid-90s to make some silly fanzine of mine. And even though that game wasn’t mentioned in the book, I was remembered of “Shadowfax”, which I played on C64, and some 30 years later, I’m finally aware that I was actually playing Gandalf dodging & shooting Nazgûls. One is never too old to learn!)

This book may be worth more to people who owned and Apple II and/or played the games it describes, but even for those who never owned that computer and games, I think it holds value anyway as a work retracing a period of history that is still close enough, and shaped the world of personal computing as we know it today. It’s also worth it, I believe, for anyone who’s interested in discovering how games (but not only) were developed at the time, using methods and planning that probably wouldn’t work anymore. All things considered, without those developers learning the ropes by copying existing games before ‘graduating’ to their own, so to speak, something that wouldn’t be possible anymore either now owing to said software’s complexity, maybe the software industry of today would be very different. And, last but not least, quite a few of our most popular post-2000 games owe a lot, in terms of gaming design, to the ones originally developed for the Apple II.

My main criticism about “Break Out” would be the quality of the pictures included on its pages. However, I got a PDF ARC to review, not a printed version, and I assumed from the beginning that compression was at fault here, and that the printed book won’t exhibit this fault. So it’s not real criticism.

Conclusion: If you’re interested in the history of computers and/or games; in reliving a period you knew as a gamer child or teenager; and/or in seeing, through examples and interviews, how developing went at that time: get this book.

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