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VGHW Feature: The best video game history books that inspired Fight, Magic, Items
From significant zeroes to gamer girls, monster kids to video games of the year, gaming history is full of fascinating stories
Welcome to Video Game History Week! In honour of the first anniversary of my book Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West, Astrolabe is celebrating video game history with a plethora of stories, features, lists, and interviews about video games, the people who make them, and the people who write about them.
Fight, Magic, Items is on sale! Use the code “LEVELUP” at checkout to get 20% off a physical copy through the Running Press website!
A Trip Down Memory Lane
If you’re a regular Astrolabe reader, you probably enjoy two things: video games and books. Throughout my life, these portals of imagination, knowledge, and adventure have been steady companions, and provided immense joy. Last year, I combined my love for the two mediums into my own book, Fight, Magic, Items, as I chronicled the history of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the rise of Japanese RPGs in the west. But, no book is an island, and I was inspired to write my book thanks to many other brilliant games writers out there chronicling the history, evolution, and future of gaming.
So, today I’m running down a list of some of my favourite video game history books, with a particular focus on the books I read while researching Fight, Magic, Items. Some of the titles here—like Kurt Kalata’s A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games—are directly referenced in Fight, Magic, Items, while others—like Chris Kohler’s Final Fantasy V and Significant Zero by Walt Williams—had an outsized influence on me and my approach to blending personal memoir with heavily-researched history.
If you enjoyed Fight, Magic, Items, you’re sure to love what’s on this list. So, let’s get reading!
Gamer Girls: 25 Women Who Built the Video Game Industry by Mary Kenney
Exploring the history of video games through the stories of its creators, Gamer Girls: 25 Women Who Built the Video Game Industry introduces readers to 25 legendary female industry pioneers—from Yoko Shimomura to Rebecca Heineman, Jade Raymond to Roberta Williams. Fully illustrated and packed with information, Gamer Girls is a blast to read, and something I've regularly referenced for my work as a games writer ever since getting my hands on it. I thought I knew a lot about the history of video games and the people featured in Kenney's book, but I walked away with a wealth of new knowledge and appreciation for these amazing creators.
Gamer Girls: 25 Women Who Built the Video Game Industry by Mary Kenney was featured in Astrolabe 26. It’s available now from Running Press.
Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry by Jason Schreier
Jason Schreier's well known for his online coverage of working conditions in the games industry (and Japanese RPGs, of course), but the co-host of the Triple Click podcast and Video game reporter for Bloomberg News’s Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry is a look at what happens after games studios close, and presents a grim narrative of the human cost to gaming's insatiable hunger for profit. Like his first book, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, Press Reset is effortlessly easy to read, and highlights Schreier's knack for couching broad narratives about the games industry within personal stories that showcase the people behind the games.
Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry by Jason Schreier was featured in Astrolabe 17. It’s available now from Grand Central Publishing.
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Any Boss Fight Books Title
In September 2021, I explored the world of boutique games publisher Boss Fight Books and revelled in their deep library of books covering the histories of games like Majora’s Mask, Goldeneye, and Metal Gear Solid. I love that these books exist, and with over 25 titles so far, chances are they’ve covered a game that’s perfect for your friend, colleague, or loved one. My personal favourites are, not surprisingly, Chris Kohler’s Final Fantasy V (which had a huge impact on how I wrote Fight, Magic, Items), Sebastian Deken’s Final Fantasy VI, and Michael P. Williams’s Chrono Trigger.
Boss Fight Books titles are available through their website or most other book retailers.
Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World by Matt Alt
Fight, Magic, Items chronicles how the Japanese RPGs skyrocketed to immense popularity in the west thanks to mid-90s games like Final Fantasy VII. Part of writing the book included a lot of research, not just into the games of the era, but also Japan’s cultural impact and western proliferation. Matt Alt’s Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World is a history of Japanese pop culture’s takeover of the west is a fascinating and thorough narrative told with an informed, casual voice that’s just a delight to read. From post-World War II toy Jeeps to Hello Kitty, karaoke and Evangelion, Alt covers a vast range of Japanese products, history, and creators, and makes it all eminently readable. Few books influenced Fight, Magic, Items as heavily as this one.
Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World by Matt Alt was featured in Astrolabe 10. It’s available now from Penguin Random House.
Monster Kids: How Pokemon Taught a Generation of Catch Them All by Daniel Dockery
Monster Kids: How Pokemon Taught a Generation of Catch Them All delves into childhood, major cultural shifts, and how a young Satoshi Tajiri turned a childhood fascination with insects into a worldwide phenomenon. Dockery's rich history with the series, enviable ability to tie personal experience into larger cultural moments, and top-tier reporting make this a must read not just for Pokemon fans, but for anyone with a passing interest in the rise of Japanese culture in the west. It's a careful, meticulously researched history that helped me appreciate some of my favourite games in entirely new ways. It also saved me from making an egregious error in Fight, Magic, Items’s chapter on Pokemon’s origins—so, there’s that.
Monster Kids by Daniel Dockery was featured in Astrolabe 24. It’s available now from Running Press.
A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games by Kurt Kalata, et al.
A thorough history of Japanese RPGs, you say? Sound right up my alley. This book from Kurt Kalata and Bitmap Books is the perfect complement to Fight, Magic, Items. Where my book is a narrative journey about the genre, its creators, and its fans, this encycolpedic tome is a rundown of over 600 reviews covering games from across its history—from Bealphareth and Black Onyx to Chrono Trigger and Earthbound. It’s a visual delight, and Kalata assmbled a wonderful group of writers to dig into the games with a depth that goes far beyond the mainstream titles that feature most prominently in my book. A Guide to Japanese Role-playing Games is gorgeous, supermely hefty, and bursting with old favourites and new discoveries.
A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games by Kurt Kalata, et al. is available now from Bitmap Books.
Significant Zero: Heroes, Villains, and the Fight for Art and Soul in Video Games by Walt Williams
With wit and verve, games writer and all around storyteller Walt Williams weaves a tale about the games industry, creative drive, and his own personal journey in a way that’s captivating, informative, and, wickedly enjoyable. Following his career as a writer carving a path through the games industry, Williams balances personal experience with writing wisdom, cutting critique of the industry, and profound insight into effective storytelling. Significant Zero sings with Williams’s sharp voice, and had a huge impact on how I chose to weave my own personal story into Fight, Magic, Items.
Significant Zero: Heroes, Villains, and the Fight for Art and Soul in Video Games by Walt Williams is available now from Atria Books.
Ask Iwata: Words of Wisdom from Satoru Iwata, Nintendo's Legendary CEO by Hobonichi and Sam Bett
As I explore in Fight, Magic, Items, Satoru Iwata was a gift to not only Nintendo, but gaming as a whole, and creators worldwide. Compiled of various interviews over the years, Ask Iwata: Words of Wisdom from Satoru Iwata, Nintendo's Legendary CEO showcases his unique perspective on creativity, business, and the good in people, and holds lessons for everyone, whether they’re into video games or not. Iwata was undeinably one of gaming’s greats, and taken far too soon.
Ask Iwata: Words of Wisdom from Satoru Iwata, Nintendo's Legendary CEO by Hobonichi and Sam Bett is available now from VIZ Media.
BONUS: A Handheld History by Lost in Cult
A Handheld History isn’t out yet, so it obviously didn’t inspire Fight, Magic, Items, but, like A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games it’s a visually stunning history crammed with history and perspective, so I’m including it as a bonus recommendation. Handheld gaming has been a huge part of my life, connecting me with friends on the schoolyard thanks to Link’s Awakening and Pokemon, or providing an escape on public transit, and A Handheld History beautifully chronicles the journey and impact handheld gaming has had on gaming history and culture.
A Handheld History by Lost in Cult will be released in October, 2023.
BONUS: Video Game of the Year: A Year-by-Year Guide to the Best, Boldest, and Most Bizarre Games from Every Year Since 1977 by Jordan Minor
Oh, what a glorious book. Jordan Minor is one of my favourite games writers, so as soon as I saw he was writing a book chronicling the best games every year from 1997 to 2022, I needed a copy. Minor’s an astute and careful historian, valianlty arguing why he’s chosen each specific game as the “video game of the year” (even when I disagree with him), making this a compulsive and easygoing trip down memory lane. Minor’s choices tend toward mainstream hits, which is fair, but he’s also pulled in a who’s-who of video game-adjacent folk—Jason Schreier, Rebekah Valentine, Devindra Hardawar, Mike Drucker, Nadia Oxford, Alex Moukala, and more—to fill in the gaps with a bevy of other notable games from each year. Video Game of the Year is a gorgeous, endlessly entertaining love letter to gaming’s past.
Video Game of the Year: A Year-by-Year Guide to the Best, Boldest, and Most Bizarre Games from Every Year Since 1977 by Jordan Minor was featured in Astrolabe 33. It’s available now from Abrams Image.
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