So elegant

I’ve already written on the excellent Platform Series from MIT Press, and since discovering the series, the platform that I have been waiting for is the one that meant the most to me growing up – the Nintendo Entertainment System.

I AM ERROR by Nathan Altice finally dives deep into the hardware architecture and the expressive capabilities derived from the chips in the NES. I bought the book immediately, but surprisingly I wasn’t that engaged as I thought I would be.

ERROR is an excellent book, incredibly detailed, and well-researched with a breadth of topics from hardware development in Japan, assembly coding of music, and ROM hacking across the internet in the early 90s.

These topics aren’t why ERROR didn’t pull me in. Instead, it’s a victim of the series own success. Racing the Beam, the inaugural title from the series covering the Atari 2600, is also amazingly detailed particularly in the translation of games concepts through the examined hardware architecture to actual expressive gameplay.

ERROR mirrors this same level of translation, which is after all the intent of the series, and while the NES has a lot more going on, the ah-ha nature of the translation described above is much clearer in Beam and more accessible.

ERROR moves around a lot more, and specifically is concerned with the idea of “translation” given that the NES is also known in its home country of Japan as the Famicon. The book’s goal from the introduction is to determine how many perspectives on translation we can take when studying the NES, and it’s a brilliant thematic idea.

But, the hardware isn’t as interesting in this case if you have been following the series, and honestly, for a person of my acumen in the realms of PCB and chip technology, was a little over my head at times. That said, maybe one day I’ll appreciate it a lot more.

In contrast, two other titles in the series - The Future Was Here and Codename: Revolution - took their platforms, the Commodore Amiga and the Wii respectively, and while touching on the hardware, explored other aspects of expressive interaction with the machine beyond its hardware to a point where the hardware was only a stepping off point.

It’s like getting really into the details of how strings and pickups on a guitar interact, whilst most folks would only be concerned with “what does it play?”

Future primarily covered the expressive gaming and the demoscene provided by the new multimedia computer, and Revolution discussed what it meant for software and hardware to interact in a physical space. Sure, hardware had to be mentioned to start these conversations, but again, they are our baseline for further exploration of artistic and human ideas transformed into a digital medium. In this way, the books remind me a lot of 10 Print’s vignettes on maze generation code.

Fairly, I should backtrack on my criticism, which only comes from an embarrassment of riches. The intricacies required to program games cleverly on the NES are amazing, deserving a nod of respect to those developers, and are a rich primer on how graphics programming developed into a higher level of complexity than the Atari. Likewise, the chapter “2A03” on the sound chip architecture in the NES would be my first recommendation to anyone interested in sound chip programming and nice slice of humble pie for any contemporaries who currently do it with any degree of ego.

Finally, the chapter “Tool-Assisted,” while a titled after popular tool-assisted speedruns (and I’d note as well glitch fun), has a wonderful and well-explained history of hardware emulation, digging deep into IBMs history, that for even a software person not interested in games, is interesting on its own and of emergent importance for emulators used in production / development environments.

Overall, I’d recommend buying the book if you have been reading any of the Platform Series, as it is likely the most well-researched book as of yet, and if you have not read any of these titles and are not a hardware nut, reading Racing the Beam and I AM ERROR back-to-back would be excellent combination to get you started on that path.