... Van Burnham

By Joe Santulli

 

 

 

STELLAR. I've had a few people ask me what I thought of Van Burnham's first book: Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984, and the word that continually comes to mind is STELLAR.

Books about retro video gaming seem to be the latest rage, with books by John Sellers (Arcade Fever), Steve Kent (The First Quarter) and Jaro Galiens (Electronic Plastic) joining veteran Leonard Herman (Phoenix) and a slew of others in the works. But Van has gone a different route, concentrating in equal parts on imagery and lore. Supercade is a gorgeous book. A glamourous book. It's the kind of book that demands to be kept on the coffee table. But it's also a stunning documentary, which makes it something more than just a coffee table book.

For 448 pages you'll experience the birth and growth of our favorite pastime, with Van leading us through the origins of both arcade and home machines with the help of an impressive array of industry legends. Drawing on the personal experience of the "Father of Video Games" Ralph Baer and the founder of Atari Nolan Bushnell, among others, each page gives you the feeling that you are THERE. The highlight of the book for me is the first 100 pages which detail in both words and pictures the events at Brookhaven National Labs, where physicist William Higinbotham  invented the first electronic game (Tennis for Two) in 1958; "Building 20" at MIT and the origins of Spacewar!; the original "brown box" TV Game Project by Ralph Baer; and the birth of Atari. This is to date the most interesting account of those early years.

There's so much to love about Supercade beyond it's visual account of history. The typically dead-on use of the primitive graphics of these early years is effectively sprinkled throughout its pages. Interviews with notable personalities Tim Skelly and Walter Day as well as brilliant guest submissions by Leonard Herman, Steven Kent, and even our own Keita Iida lend additional substance to an already substance-packed compendium. Look carefully into the nooks and crannies of the book and you'll find loads of rare items beautifully photographed, and trivia in every little corner (do you know what the historical significance of the coin-op Radarscope is? Better take a look!).

Supercade is a history book. It is a vivid snapshot of a vivid era. But most of all, it is an account of the time and pastime that, if you're reading this, has affected and shaped your life in some way.

I was able to catch up with Van in-between her various engagements to talk a little about Supercade.


DP:
This is really more than a book Ė itís a work of art! How long did it take you to compile all of those wonderful pages into one final product? Tell us about any unforeseen circumstances that may have come about during the process or stories behind the making of it.

Burnham: Thank you so much. The concept for Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984 came to me in 1998. I had been collecting classic videogames for about five years and kept visualizing the book I wanted to have. I imagined something that captured the dynamic of videogames as well as their culture, presented in a format that conveyed the impact of the videogame phenomenon. After a while, I realized that maybe I was the one who was supposed to write it. So. I found a publisher and started working on Supercade in 1999.

When I look back at the layouts from my initial proposal, its amazing how much has changed and how much has stayed the same. It's funny, because if I had stuck to my original content outline, the book would be over eight hundred pages long! As for interesting stories, the original title of the book was Supercade: Context and Aesthetics of the Videogame Age, but a focus group thought it sounded way too academic. So. It was changed. I like the new title much better.

DP: What makes your book different than others like Leonard Hermanís Phoenix, John Sellersí Arcade Fever, or Digital Pressí Collectorís Guide. Assume Iíve already got those other books and am not sure why I should buy yours. Sell it to me!

Burnham: You forgot to mention Jaro Gielens' Electronic Plastic, which is one of my favorites. I love all of these books, and feel they each have their own perspective that makes them well worth owning. To be honest, I don't feel comfortable debating why my book would be "better," other than saying that it's the heaviest. I'm kidding. Supercade is really a totally different experience. The book is unique in that it's a large format hardcover "coffee-table" style book with full-color images throughout. Also, the content covers both home and arcade videogames, and features contributions from some fantastic writers - from industry veterans to contemporary game journalists to cultural commentators - including Steven Kent, Tom Vanderbilt, William Cassidy, Chris Charla, Warren Davis, Justin Hall, Steven Johnson, Ryan Lockhart, Nick Montfort, Bob Parks, and Marc Saltzman, as well as Leonard Herman who wrote an absolutely brilliant chapter on the Atari VCS.

DP: What is your favorite snack food?

Burnham: CHEETOS! No, I'm kidding again. My favorite snack food is probably Tim's Cascade Style Grilled Steak & Onion Potato Chips. Tim's totally rules the chip universe. These radical snack mavericks also offer Alder Smoke Barbeque, Coney Island Hot Dog, and Zesty Dill Pickle flavored chips for steak-adverse snackers. As a matter of fact, I am enjoying one now.

DP: At CGE 2000 you demonstrated the game Escape from Supercade, an Atari 2600 game designed by EbiVision that was to be released in tandem with the book to a select number of customers. Whatís the latest on this?

Burnham: Owing to a chip shortage, I was forced to push back the release to later this year. I'm hoping to have the carts completed just in time for the holidays. Just wait until you see the packaging!

DP: Of the personalities you interacted with to put Supercade together, who made the most lasting impression on you, and why?

Burnham: Having the opportunity to meet all of my gaming heroes - people like Ralph Baer, Nolan Bushnell, Tim Skelly, and Shigeru Miyamoto - was one of the great pleasures in writing this book. I have been inspired by all of them.

DP: Was there anyone that you would have liked to have met while writing this book, living or deceased, but could not?

Burnham: I would have loved the chance to meet Willy Higinbotham before he passed on. And I have yet to meet Eugene Jarvis, programmer of Defender. Someday soon, I hope.

DP:: What were your favorite games from the era that your book spans? Why?

Burnham: My all-time favorite arcade games are Galaga, Pac-Man, and Space Ace for their combination of genius gameplay and classic design, magnified by my personal history with the games. However, I've recently been playing a lot of Journey!

DP: You have impeccable taste in games, Van. And since you list Space Ace as a favorite, let's settle something. My friends and I argue incessantly on who's "hotter", Princess Daphne (from Dragon's Lair) or Kimberly. So let me pose this question: Dirk the Daring or Dexter?

Burnham: Dexter without a doubt... space jumpsuits are sexy!

DP: What are your favorite games today? Do they ďmeasure upĒ to the classics in your opinion?

Burnham: As far as arcade games go, I really love Arctic Thunder (it's air-conditioned!), Shakattao Tambourine, The Grid, and Eighteen Wheeler: American Pro Trucker. At home, I've been playing a lot of Xbox lately and can attest that Dead Or Alive 3 and Halo totally kick ass. I'm also really into Ka for PlayStation 2 at the moment. As for "measuring up," I think it's impossible to compare modern games with the classics because they are competing on a totally different level... it's like trying to compare The Adventures of Snow White and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. You just can't.

DP: Then I'm not wording the question properly. Let me put it this way: you have two hours and every machine is on free-play. Do you spend most of your time on the older arcade machines or the newer ones?

Burnham: It totally depends on what I'm in the mood for... however, I tend to gravitate toward the classics.

DP: If you could date ANY classic video game journalist in the field today, who would it be (note that there is only one correct answer to this question), and what would be your perfect date?

Burnham: Well, you're married so I know that isn't the answer!

Actually, my boyfriend occasionally writes for The Edge and kicks serious ass at Robotron... so I think he qualifies as a classic game journalist! As for a perfect date, well, that would be today. This afternoon, we went to Hi-Score arcade - a totally awesome classic video arcade in downtown Seattle (which is sadly closing on the 29th of this month) - and played Galaga, Tempest, and the pinball game Attack From Mars. After that we went to see the Vans Triple Crown Freestyle Motocross, sponsored by Xbox. All in all, it was a totally excellent gamer date.

DP: Ha ha! WRONG answer! Okay then... whatís NEXT for you?

Burnham: I'm launching a new electronic entertainment magazine early next year called SUPER. Right now I'm working on the preview Issue which is going to be published as a special holiday gaming supplement in the December issue of Gear Magazine. So be sure to check it out! I'm also beginning to work on the sequel to Supercade which will cover the years 1985-2001. My editor is calling it Son of Supercade! I'm hoping to do a box set for holiday 2002...  

DP: Thanks, Van! I'm sure everyone has already clicked on the link at the top of this page and ordered their copy, so this mini-contest is in order: on what PAGE does the official Digital Press mascot appear? First person to correctly email the page number to us wins a six-issue subscription to Digital Press!

And if you haven't ordered yet, here's another chance to do so. Just click here.

Go to Digital Press HQ
 Return to Digital Press Home