It is always appreciated when someone delves into the history of video games and takes the time to teach us about some of our roots that we may not have realized were so deep-seeded. Break Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution, a new book by author David L. Craddock, goes in depth on how the Apple II PC — a machine from the late 1970s — was host to a wealth of games which helped to shape the gaming industry that we know today. He looks back to the roots of PC gaming, discussing titles such as Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? and Prince of Persia, looking at how these games helped to revolutionize PC gaming.
I have to admit that Craddock worked some magic in pulling someone without an extensive background in PC gaming, outside of the last five years, into a book about video games which were released on a computer 40 years ago. The hook for each chapter made me want to put off my school work and keep reading to find out how certain titles and developers influenced future IPs, and is a testament to how gripping of a read Break Out was.
The author managed to lock-in interviews with a few of the biggest names in-game design from that era. Legendary figures like Richard Garriott, the creator of Ultima and a developer who paved the way for many through his inspirational works. Also featured in his interviews were Bill Budge — designer of Raster Blaster — and Bruce Webster, who created SunDog: Frozen Legacy, which is still regarded as a pioneering game in PC circles. The in-depth overviews that Craddock goes into on the creation of their games is easy to read and highly detailed, to the point that I felt like I was in the room for parts of the interview.
By far the best chapter in my opinion is the origin and history of Wizardy, a series of earlier role-playing games which helped to pave the way for modern RPGs. This section of the book drew knowledge from creators Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead to put together likely the best compilation about the game in recent memory. Greenberg goes into a wealth of detail about how he began his journey in programming from a computer sitting in an upstate New York racetrack that his dad worked at, and the journey that he went through working with PLATO and through college. In this chapter perhaps better than any other section of the book, you get an in-depth look into the dedication that developers put into their games through the recollections of Greenberg. Other chapters of note are his deep dives on SunDog: Frozen Legacy and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, both which give great insight and new information.
There are only a few issues I have with the book, neither of which are enough to stop me from recommending it to anyone who likes learning about gaming or technological history. The title of the book is slightly misleading; not in the sense that you won’t get what it is selling you on, but in the reality that it is not a complete overview of the Apple II platform as a whole. The length of this book is perfect for a weekend read, but upon finishing it, I was left wishing Craddock had remained open to the Apple II as a whole, rather than narrowing his focus down to those he could go into extreme detail with by interviewing their developers. This choice to remain focused on those parameters left a lot of holes in his coverage, most noticeable being the lack of Sierra Online, then known as On-Line Systems — a company whose titles are still coveted to this day. This led to chapters that restated information that has been iterated before; not that it was a bad call, but chapters on the games of Budge, Garriott, and Jordan Mechner, while well-documented, leave a lot to be desired content wise.
In a few instances, it reads like David Craddock is making a stretch to prove his book’s claim that the Apple II was a big influence on the developers and games that we have today. The place I saw him reaching the most in was the chapter on SunDog, where he claims it influenced games such as Grand Theft Auto and EVE Online, though further research shows no mention of the game being credited as such. Instead the game that developers cite the most as their inspiration and influence was Elite, which was released on the BBC Micro close to six months after SunDog. It felt unnatural and something that should have been addressed instead of taking leaps to fit his narrative.
While gaming as a medium will forever be linked to the past — pun intended — the Apple II is not the Cradle of Life from which all games evolved, although some titles certainly impacted future projects. Despite the credence to some of Craddock’s theory, his points about certain games such as Grand Theft Auto being influenced by the library of the Apple II is not the most solid argument. Like the examples above, many developers have their own stories about where their influence stems from. Through many interviews and social media posts, the starting point for games like Shovel Knight or the more recent title Golf Story are not hard to find. Craddock makes claims that have no concrete evidence that directly links Apple II titles to current IPs, other than a few elements being borrowed or used in a similar fashion.
That being said, while not all of his comparisons stand up, the overall argument of Break Out is solid. Craddock points to many relevant game franchises and people in today’s gaming industry that praise and recognize the Apple II, and several games in its library as accurate inspirations for their projects. Most of his comparisons work, and even the few that don’t aren’t that far off; just stretched a bit as far as arguments go. The author occasionally lacks details about why specific games resemble their predecessors, making it seem more like an opinion based on similarities rather than a fact that was researched. Clearing up these details could have enhanced the experience, but overall his main thought is backed up enough to be considered fairly objective. Other minor flaws — such as name mistakes for a few companies and publications — detract from the presentation, but don’t derail the overall experience.
I have always been a fan of learning about the history of things I am passionate about. For fans of video games, Apple, or technology, I highly recommend this book if you are looking for a quality read between classes, or just in general. While it is harder to recommend this title to people who aren’t interested in those topics, I found the book to be informative for someone who wasn’t as versed in retro gaming technology. Overall Break Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution is a very informative and well researched novel, which despite some shortcomings in concrete comparisons was very well written.
Final Score: 7/10
A copy of this book was provided to the reviewer by David L. Craddock. You can purchase it here on Amazon.
Author: Cale Michael
Cale Michael is a student at Oklahoma Christian University who studies Journalism and Marketing with hopes to forge a career in either sports or entertainment media. Since starting his career as a journalist online he has posted hundreds of articles featuring topics around sports, tech, film, animation, comics and video games.