The year was 1982-83 when I was in 3rd grade. Video games were very popular. ’83 would become known as the Year of the Crash for home gaming, but we didn’t know it yet.
Anywhere you went out in public, you were likely to see an arcade cabinet or two. At gas stations and convenience stores, at the checkout of the grocery store, at bowling alleys and at the local recreation center, and especially at dedicated arcades like Aladdin’s Castle or Chuck E. Cheese’s.
Space Invaders. Asteroids. Scramble. Donkey Kong. Pac-Man. Galaga. Dig Dug. Defender. Missile Command. Pole Position. Berzerk. Joust. Frogger. Popeye. Q*Bert. Qix. Time Pilot. Zookeeper. Legends. It was a golden age.
At 8 years old, I was now tall enough to reach the controls and see the screen. We had an Atari 2600 hooked up to the TV at home, and a growing collection that was about to explode when the Crash put games in bargain bins for pennies on the dollar.
And I occasionally had quarters and enough time to insert coin into a cabinet and get my ass handed to me in under a minute. Arcade games were beautiful — with vibrant, bright colors, booming sound, and evocative, illuminated marquee cabinet art. But they were damn difficult compared to the games we had at home. Arcade games were tough.
Sometime during that year, one of my classmates brought this book to school:
I was blown away by the photos of the arade graphics. So colorful. So detailed.
There were other books published about video games in this same period, but none of them had the production values of Consumer Guide. Most of them were in black and white and had few illustrations, and frequently the illustrations were actually drawings rather than screen captures or photos. Photography of CRT monitors was difficult, laborious, and expensive at this time, and printing at good enough quality for screen shots to be legible was expensive. Consumer Guide really stood out in giving this publication an outstanding treatment.
It was endlessly enjoyable to read. Each game was given a 4 page spread which briefly explained the game’s basics, and then went in depth to provide strategies for advanced play.
How much would it have retailed for back then? It must have cost a lot to publish, with its high quality printing in full bleed, full color. Consumer Guide showed the games so much respect by going high end. Justice done. I imagine today it would have run about $10. Back then, maybe $3-4? $6? I carefully peeled the price sticker off of my copy after I got it home, so it wouldn’t ruin the cover.
I don’t remember how, but I managed to get a copy of my own. I think maybe they had it at one of the scholastic book sales that they had at my school’s library, or something. Possibly it may have been on a magazine rack at the Waldenbooks at the local mall. Its format was like a glossy magazine, but the cardstock cover made it feel like it was meant to be a more permanent tome, to be held onto.
However I managed to find it, I bought a copy and immersed myself. I wanted to memorize it cover to cover. The patterns of to allow perfect play of Pac Man and Dig Dug were a bit much for me to memorize, but I still loved learning that there was some kind of order to the way the games presented their levels, that this order had a pattern, and that knowing the pattern could give you an edge to play better and get a higher score.
I also loved reading about the glitches in some of the games, like the trick in Galaga that causes the bugs to stop firing, or glitches in Robotron: 2084 that could be triggered by a skilled player with specific knowledge of them.
I spent hours and hours studying this guide, even for some of the games that I never saw in an arcade, such as Sinistar, which I only ever saw on a new TV game show, Starcade. I only saw a Sinistar cabinet in person many years later, at CLE PIN, just a few years ago.
Although short at only 96 pages, How to Win at Video Games was an encyclopedic guide to some of the best arcade games of 1982-3. I wish that they had done more of these books, in the same style, covering more of the classic pre-’84 arcade games.
Those games were so hard, if you didn’t know what you were doing you’d be out a quarter in under a minute. And a book like this only gave you evened odds to last a bit longer, and if you practiced, you could get the high score.
Today it’s a time capsule and a treasure. I still have my copy on a bookshelf, and it’s in remarkably good condition considering how much I read it. I really cared about keeping it in good condition. It bears the wisdom of the ancients.
This was like a precursor to 1987’s The Official Nintendo Players Guide, a black book that was the Holy Bible for the NES before Nintendo Power existed a few months later. A much thicker volume, it covered what at the time must have been the full library of games that were available at the time, or close to it.
And for a time, in the 1990s, it became customary for popular games to receive their own strategy guides, dedicated to a single game, going far more in depth, to give readers all the secrets.
Today, books like these have been largely (if not entirely) supplanted by the web, with sites like GameFAQs, Fandom, and others, usually fan-made, sometimes official. The web is a better medium for this content, for many reasons. But I do miss these books. Not that books are completely absent, but mostly it seems these days that books being published about video games tend to be more focused on the industry history, or take a more academic interest in appreciating their design, and putting them into a cultural context, than they are at providing tips and strategy. We are rather fortunate to have so much material available to us today.