Donkey Kong
Image: Nintendo

One of the most influential and acclaimed novelists of his generation, award-winning writer Martin Amis – famous for books such as Money, London Fields and The Information – isn't the kind of name you'd perhaps expect to see on a site about video games, but in the early '80s, Amis was gripped by video game fever and even went as far as to produce a book about the topic: 1982's Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines.

Complete with a foreword by none other than Hollywood heavyweight Steven Spielberg, the book not only attempted to pick apart the explosion of interest in arcade video games but also take a look at the seedier side of the industry. Amis describes his 'addiction' in worrying terms like he's hooked on some kind of new-age drug that he finds impossible to give up.

Authors turning their attention to the 'next big thing' is nothing new, and it's quite likely that Amis assumed that video gaming was a fad that needed to be properly documented before it vanished forever, but it's clear from the book that he gained quite a talent for gaming, having mastered Space Invaders, the Taito coin-op from which the book takes its rather clumsy title.

However, in recent years, Amis has tried to pretend that the book doesn't exist; in the opening paragraph of his review of Steven Poole's excellent Trigger Happy, Nicholas Lezard mentions that he once told Amis that Invasion of the Space Invaders was one of the best things he had ever written. "The expression on his face, with perhaps more pity in it than contempt, remains with me uncomfortably," Lezard recalls. No wonder Amis was happy to allow the book to fall out of print for years (it was finally republished in 2018 by Johnathan Cape, which is fortunate, as original copies were changing hands for well over $150 at one point).

Leafing through the pages of this glossy and captivating study of '80s arcade gaming, it's perhaps easy to see why Amis is so reluctant to acknowledge this spirited but flawed endeavour. The text is disarmingly earnest, and Amis – while clearly a skilled gamer at this point – makes some rather unfortunate predictions which not only date the book but also make it seem woefully ill-informed.

While he rightly heaps praise on the likes of Defender, Missle Command and Centipede, he calls Frogger "a dogger" that "just hasn't got what it takes", and as for Nintendo's Donkey Kong, he's even more critical, managing to throw in a rather unfortunate slur while he's at it:

Through some masterstroke of mistranslation, 'King Kong' has become 'Donkey Kong'. How did this happen? It seems that, over there on Kamikaze Street, King means Donkey, or Kong means King, or something. Anyway, the game is a poodle.

Donkey, your days are numbered. The knackers’ yard awaits you.

It is more fun to speculate what Nintendo will bring us in the future. The Missing Lynx. The Loch Ness Marmoset. The Puppy from 20,000 Leagues.

Of course, it's easy to poke fun at this book in 2021, with the benefit of considerable hindsight. Amis was doing a lot of pathfinding with Invasion of the Space Invaders as no one had seriously attempted such a project before, and many of the games listed boast detailed hints and tips which can only have come from hours and hours of hands-on experience. It's an imperfect slice of gaming history, for sure, but one that's well worth discovering if you haven't already.

Who knows, increased interest in the book might finally encourage Amis to acknowledge its existence.

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