Monday 23 October 2023

The Games That Weren't Book Review


Written by Dan Gill

Picture the scene: it’s 2006. A fresh-faced young(ish) writer with a full(ish) head of hair is on the staff forum of much missed website GameStyle. Staff are putting in requests for what they want to review, so I – being a fan of StarCraft (despite being rubbish at the game) - request to cover the upcoming StarCraft: Ghost. I get the thumbs-up, and eagerly await news from Blizzard. By this point, it had been about four years since the spin-off was announced, so surely, it’d be due soon. A few weeks (possibly even days) later, I see the news that it’s been cancelled. It was a bit of a blow as I had been looking forward to it, but that’s the games industry, I guess. There’ll always be something new around the corner. But still I wonder, what would it have been like? Frank Gasking asks that same question, but about a multitude of games spanning the past fifty years or so.

TGTW is divided into decades, so starts with games from Atari, Dave Nutting Associates and the like, then works its way through the evolution of the medium to its current high-stakes projects and massive studios. The early days of game development came with some wild ideas. The industry was new and testing the waters. Pitches were thrown out during lavish pool parties or by engineers messing about in the office. But even then, some ideas were too expensive to realise, up against similar competition, or just no fun to play. The book is presented cleanly, with full developer and publisher information, and a handy guide to whether the game can be played or not (some ROMS are out there if you know where to look). Through interviews, archives and vague descriptions, Gasking pieces together info on these phantom titles. Where there’s no pictorial evidence, artists reconstruct what things may have looked like if they’d materialised.

As one would expect, the insights vary in depth; some games or hardware may have a few words and a screenshot, while others have pages of information. There’s a wealth of information on the well-known Dreamcast port of Half-Life, multi-format drive-‘em-up Carmageddon TV, and even the 32X-bound Virtua Hamster. The book covers a lot of ground in its 600 or so pages and does well to highlight games the reader may never had heard of. It’s the lesser-known games that tend to have more information in some cases, supposedly because the bigger publishers are reluctant to discuss their misses, but the author still manages to present enough detail to pique the reader’s interest. I’d almost forgotten about the ambitious Game Boy Color remake of Resident Evil until its minimalist yet impressive graphics leapt from the page.

It’s quite a bold move by Bitmap Books – a publisher who presents lavish tomes chock-full of glorious gaming art – to release a book based around games that never saw the light of day and don’t always come with any solid visual evidence of their existence, but it’s a fascinating read. It’s a glimpse into an alternate reality where Super Mario’s Wacky Worlds may have become the CD-I's killer app, or where Flashback Legend took its place as the rightful sequel to Flashback. Sadly, StarCraft: Ghost is relegated to a special mention rather than a full feature, so the Dan of 2006 will just have to imagine how it would have looked or played. I guess you can’t always get what you want, but thanks to the author, you can at least have a glimpse into what could have been.

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*Picture from Bitmap Books. 

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