I was eager to review Derek Slaton’s The Sega Master System Encyclopedia Volume 1: Action Fighter to F-16 Fighting Falcon when I first saw mention of it on my Twitter feed. The SMS is one of my favorite retrogaming systems, and I saw an opportunity to share a little positive press towards someone giving the system some literary attention. After reading it, I’ve struggled to write the review in a way that points out the book’s many shortcomings while attempting to maintain a positive overall message.
First, the good: this book is fairly comprehensive, covering a wide range of North American Sega Master System titles. The layout of the pages is clean and easy to follow, and there are many screen shots, robust descriptions of gameplay, and basic data on each game, such as number of players, release date, and so forth.
To quote Forrest Gump, “And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.“
The book’s failings are many and varied. To begin, it is clear that it is self-edited. An actual editor would have probably returned some of the game descriptions to be cleaned up, reworked, and reworded to limit the usage of colloquialisms to improve its readability. The editor would probably have also caught errors such as the two paragraphs of the Cloud Master description being repeated on page two of the Columns description. (I’d give you the page numbers, but there aren’t any. Not a one. Rather strange for an encyclopedia not to have easy reference points, unless, of course, it was never meant to be read in paperback format. More on that thought further in this review.)
While we’re on the topic of omissions, the list of games is not complete, as it is missing at least one title that was released in North America, Dragon Crystal, an old-fashioned dungeon-crawl game published by SEGA in 1990. I was also disappointed that none of the European games were covered, especially considering how many more SMS titles were published in Europe. Games such as Aladdin, Alien3, Asterix, Back to the Future III, Batman Returns, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Bubble Bobble, Chase H.Q., Chuck Rock, Deep Duck Trouble starring Donald Duck, Earthworm Jim, and more found their way onto the PAL Sega Master System. (The much deeper game base was a byproduct of the simple matter that the SMS was THE most popular gaming system in Europe, far more so than the Nintendo Entertainment System. True fact!) It’s understandable why the focus was only on North American games, but adding the European ones would have dramatically added to the book’s page count. Which leads me to my next concern…
For an encyclopedia, this book is thin. The page count is 114 pages, which on the surface seems reasonable, until you discover that the text is printed in MASSIVE size. Between the half-page pictures and large text, the pages average only 150 words each, which means the book contains just over 17,000 words. I’ve read blog entries bigger than that! Based on this and that the price of the actual paperback version ($25 US), I would suggest that this book was never meant to be read as an actual book, but as an electronic text, and sure enough, it is available in Kindle format for a mere $4.95. (This is the point where I display antiquarianism by bemoaning the rise of electronic media and the slow diminishing of concrete, real-world literary and multimedia formats, but then I would be digressing. Which I am.)
The author’s preface has a curious statement: “Given that playing games is incredibly fun I believed that reading about them should also be.” The writing itself is bereft of fun. I would describe it as juvenile, with attempts at humor that fall short, and a motif not of a gamer writing about something he enjoys, but more of how much hassle it was playing the games to review them. Complaints about accepted game design concepts from the day (such as shallow storylines and non-sequential, perhaps even dreamlike jumps in level locations) show a lack of understanding of historical context, which is completely surprising considering the wealth of gaming experience and knowledge that Derek Slaton possesses. I suspect that this is a byproduct of being self-edited, as an editor would have given this kind of feedback to the author. Ultimately, between reading the same complaints and same joke over and over in many of the writeups, the book became extremely challenging to finish.
As I said at the start, I sincerely want to support writers who delve into the deep waters of the retrogaming phenomena, but I also believe that honesty is paramount in the review process. The Sega Master System Encyclopedia Volume 1 may appeal to some, but based upon the various failings I’ve previously outlined, it fell short with me. I did email Derek Slaton with a few questions to help me clarify his choices for how he approached the format and style of the book, but did not receive an answer back. I will post it as an addendum if he does indeed respond. (UPDATE: Derek has responded, and his response is below.) In the meantime, the final word on The Sega Master System Encyclopedia Volume 1 is this : Not recommended.
Derek Slaton’s response to my review:
In regards to my criticism that it the encyclopedia would have been better listing the massive PAL library of SMS games: Honestly when I started it never occurred to me to do the PAL versions. I grew up with the master system and wanted to cover the games that were near and dear to my heart. However after getting feedback from several gamers overseas it’s opened my eyes to the fact that I have a global platform, so it’s in my plans that once I’m finished with the USA releases to release a volume or two on the PAL exclusive versions.
In response to my concerns about the book’s format: The print version is really an afterthought as the true version of the book is the iPad version (since it contains gameplay footage). That was my true vision for the project and the most effort went into that. As you can no doubt tell I”m nowhere close to being a designer, and since I’m doing this project completely on my own I don’t have the budget for designers (or editors for that matter). I’m hoping that one of these days I can have the budget to do that, but as it stands now this is a labor of love project. As to your direct question of large print and lack of page numbers, I did the large print to accommodate more screenshots. I realize I could have squeezed some of these entities into a page or two, but since games are a visual medium I wanted there to be as many screenshots as possible. On the page numbers i don’t really have a specific reason as to why I left them out. I just felt as though since the games go in alphabetical order and each entry has a different color bar at the bottom it should be easy enough to find the game you are looking for.
In regards to my thoughts on the book’s tone: I decided to go with encyclopedia because it is a reference guide of sorts with the screenshot collections and gameplay footage (on the iPad). I do realize that since the reviews are more casual it isn’t technically an encyclopedia, so I guess the proper term for this book would be edutainment?
In response to my specific complaint about a missing SMS game: One thing however, you criticize me for leaving out Dragon Crystal. Dragon Crystal was only released in the EU on the Master System, however it was released here on the Game Gear, which is why it is not in the book. (Derek might be right: although the game is listed in several SMS lists as released in both PAL and NTSC formats – including Mobygames.com and Videogamegeek.com - those lists may be in error. Unless someone can show a scan of a NTSC version of Dragon Crystal for the Sega Master System, that is.
Regardless, Derek shows his class and commitment to the retrogaming cause with his final words: ”Again, I thank you for doing a review on the book and I’m sorry that you didn’t like it…I shall try to do better with the next volume.“
I’m certain he will!