We don't do a lot of book reviews here at GameCritics.com. It seems like including more literature would be a natural fit for the site, but one explanation for our lack of coverage is that there aren't many books written about videogames in the first place. Those few books that do come out tend to either be aimed at people already well-versed in videogames or too technically oriented to have broad appeal. There have been some exceptions to this rule, but they're few and far between.
However, videogames are slowly but surely creeping deeper into the mainstream every day, and you can tell a thing's really on its way when mediocre coffee-table books start popping up. 1000 Game Heroes was first brought to my attention by a brief review in a nationally published pop-culture magazine. While the book's contents may be disappointing, the fact that the book exists and was reviewed in such a source can be taken as a very positive sign for videogames as a whole.
A hefty volume, 1000 Game Heroes is a 608-page 8"x10" softback weighing approximately five and a half pounds. The pages are glossy, substantial stock and the contents are broken up into ten categories such as "Fearless Heroes," "Strange Heroes," and "Licensed Heroes." Each section begins with a brief introduction, and a few are contributed by impressively big names like Shigeru Miyamoto and Peter Molyneux. Once past the opening, each individual listing receives a one-paragraph synopsis of plot or back-story, a rundown of relevant facts (the exact title, publisher, year of its release, etc.) and at least one full page of visual images, usually more. On the cover is a bold rendering of a recent Lara Croft 3D model, gun at the ready.
Diving right into things, it quickly becomes apparent that the book's title is very misleading. There are only 122 entries, and almost none of them focus on a "hero" or any one character in particular. Rather, the book covers specific games or series with eclectic taste in visual images. The term "heroes" is also inappropriate in this context since many of the characters don't fit the traditional definition. Is Super Monkey Ball a fun, worthwhile title? Most definitely. Do any of the characters in the game qualify as "heroes"? It's doubtful. Adding to the confusion, the number 1000 only comes into play if you add up every single character in every single picture in the entire book, whether they are the subject of a given photo or a tiny speck in the background. (The Pokémon entry alone accounts for about a fifth of the total.)
The jarring discrepancy between the book's title and its contents doesn't end there, however. Rather than being full of history, information or profiling prominent creations, the book's thrust is to present visuals with an absolute bare minimum of text. I think featuring the imaginative avatars and fantastic worlds found in videogames is a fine idea, but it's unfortunate that the volume introduces itself to the reader under false pretenses.
Once clear on the nature of the project, I have to say that its selection and composition leaves much to be desired. I don't know anything about the editor or the publisher, but 1000 Game Heroes feels like it was put together by people who don't play games and know almost nothing about them. The themes and logic are wildly erratic, and quite frankly the various galleries look like they were compiled from stacks of "available for cheap" content rather than hand picked for a sincere purpose or vision.
For example, there's no apparent rhyme or reason in the types of shots selected or how they're arranged. Some profiles use stills from CG cutscenes, some use hand-drawn art, and some use screenshots. Several have a mix of all three. As a reader and viewer I can appreciate the qualities each medium offers, but the choices lack consistency and strength, giving the entire book a very haphazard feeling. Titles like Sonic and Fur Fighters have arresting and provocative full-page layouts well worth scrutinizing. But for every one that grabs your attention, there are a dozen you'll skip right past(And, if given the option, I would have removed the hideously low-polygon versions of Lara Croft. They look like nothing so much as worst-case Botox scenarios.)
Besides the lack of structure, 1000 Game Heroes' ignorance of heritage is also quite unsatisfying. The majority of these pictures are quite recent, and in no way give a comprehensive or long-term view. The only shots in the book for Final Fantasy are taken from Final Fantasy X, and keep readers in the dark about the diversity of its nine earlier incarnations. The entry for the legendary Castlevania series shows only two lifeless hand-drawn images taken from the Chronicles re-release disc. The stunning work from Symphony Of The Night (or any of the other games) is nowhere to be seen. A particularly egregious case, the only stills for The Legend Of Zelda are items and basic character shots from Majora's Mask. Such treatment of some of videogaming's greatest works leaves me with the impression that practically no research was done on the high points and precedents of the medium. Further reinforcing my thought that the book wasn't created by those in the know, I find it hard to believe that anyone possessing even a moderate amount of information about games would have been content with this array.
The editor's methods for picking subjects left me baffled as well. Too many of the titles featured had no significant impact or value (artistic or otherwise) when viewed in the context of videogames as a whole. I was left wondering why nowhere efforts like Azurik, Project Eden, Shadow Man or Outtrigger were included. They add almost nothing to the visual vocabulary, being comprised of crude renderings, well-worn material and more than a few clichés. Additionally, several of the games featured haven't even been released yet. I found it highly presumptuous to give space to the likes of Project Ego (now known as Fable), Xenosaga, and Crimson Skies when there were dozens upon dozens of deserving games that didn't get any coverage at all.
Nearing the end of the volume, I started wondering what a non-gamer picking up the book on a whim would take away from it. Since the only information given about the games are blurbs about vengeance quests or fighters in a tournament, it was nearly impossible to tell which were important, vital games and which weren't. What justifies the inclusion of Dead Or Alive and the exclusion of Street Fighter? Something more than the bare-bones context we're given would have greatly enhanced the work as a whole because it's impossible to do so based solely on such poorly chosen images. This may seem unreasonable considering that it's a visually oriented book, but when a fifth-rate layout makes Mario look like junk next to clearance rack piffle like Urban Chaos, that just ain't right.
While I admire the concept, the graphics aren't powerful enough to carry the book on their own, and the text left me hungry for something more substantial. Too lopsided for videogame enthusiasts and too superfluous for curious readers, there's not much to be gained from this publication that can't be found for free with a little bit of knowledge and a few minutes of web surfing.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway