In the Critics: The Centenary Issue

A.S Byatt on Terry Pratchett, Mark Damazer on Charles Emmerson’s history of the year 1913 and new fiction from Ali Smith.

In the Critics section of the centenary edition of the New Statesman, our “Critic at large” is the novelist A.S Byatt. Byatt explores her longstanding admiration for the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett. “As a wartime child in the 1940s,” she recalls, “I was already puzzling over an image of a domed world poised on the backs of three elephants that stood on a monstrous turtle.” Byatt considers the latest in Pratchett’s series of books, co-written with the mathematician Ian Stewart and the biologist Jack Cohen, dealing with the science of Discworld. “Both Pratchett’s storytelling and the resolutely universe-centred perspective of the scientists make me happier to be human,” Byatt writes. “I look forward to the next volume.”

In the latest in a series of essays on visual art for the NS, the poet, critic and novelist Craig Raine writes about Picasso’s realism. Picasso “could be beautiful,” Raine argues, “but mostly he chose to be realistic … part of Picasso’s greatness is bound up with the idea that equivalence is more effective than literal representation, dull mimesis.” At its best, Raine concludes, his art is “reality tweaked”.

Our lead book reviewer is the historian Norman Stone, who reviews Brendan Simms’s Europe: the Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present. Stone is struck by Simms’s “unrepentantly old-fashioned” approach. This works best, he suggests, when Simms writes about Germany, “the history of which he knows inside out”. Simms’s book reminds us, Stone writes, that “much of modern history can only be made sense of if you accept that Germany went ape”.

Also in Books: Jon Cruddas, MP and coordinator of Labour’s policy review, considers David Goodhart’s analysis of the costs and benefits of immigration in postwar Britain. “I was fearful of reading this book,” Cruddas admits. “However, I found greater nuance and texture than before”. In The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration, Cruddas concludes that Goodhart has made an important contribution to a “durable ‘one nation’ politics” of the kind Ed Miliband is trying to develop.

Will Hutton reviews Ben S Bernanke’s brief history of the 2008 financial crisis and Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig’s manifesto for banking reform, The Bankers’ New Clothes: “The question of how capitalism is to be better organised … is surely the issue, more than any other, that the New Statesman needs to address in its centenary year.”

PLUS: Mark Damazer on Charles Emmerson’s history of the year 1913; Claire Lowdon on Emma Brockes’s memoir of her mother, She Left Me the Gun; Robert Service on Stalin’s Curse by Robert Gellately; Douglas Hurd on Six Moments of Crisis by Gill Bennett; and Leo Robson on Saul Bellow’s Heart: a Son’s Memoir by Greg Bellow.

Elsewhere in the Critics: NS culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire looks back at his predecessors in the literary editor’s chair; Labour MP Tom Watson shares his views on the Xbox’s latest game BioShock Infinite and Kate Mossman reviews James Blake’s new album.

PLUS: poems from the NS archive by W B Yeats and Philip Larkin feature alongside new poems by Christopher Reid and Wendy Cope; and The Human Claim, an exclusive new short story about the perils of credit card fraud by Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author Ali Smith


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It’s been 25 years since the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive were released – what’s changed?

Gaming may be a lonelier pusuit now, but there have been positive changes you can console yourselves with too.

Let's not act as if neither of us knows anything about gaming, regardless of how old we are. Surely you'll remember the Super Nintendo console (SNES) and Sega's Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're an American)? Well, it's now been 25 years since they were released. OK, fine, it's been 25 years since the SNES' debut in Japan, whereas the Mega Drive was released 25 years ago only in Europe, having arrived in Asia and North America a bit earlier, but you get the idea.

Sonic the Hedgehog by Sega

It's amazing to think a quarter of a century has passed since these digital delights were unveiled for purchase, and both corporate heavyweights were ready for battle. Sega jumped into the new era by bundling Sonic, their prized blue mascot and Nintendo retaliated by including a Mario title with their console.

Today's equivalent console battle involves (primarily) Sony and Microsoft, trying to entice customers with similar titles and features unique to either the PlayStation 4 (PS4) or Xbox One. However, Nintendo was trying to focus on younger gamers, or rather family-friendly audiences (and still does) thanks to the endless worlds provided by Super Mario World, while Sega marketed its device to older audiences with popular action titles such as Shinobi and Altered Beast.

Donkey Kong Country by Rare

But there was one thing the Mega Drive had going for it that made it my favourite console ever: speed. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was blazingly fast compared to anything I had ever seen before, and the sunny background music helped calm any nerves and the urge to speed through the game without care. The alternative offered by the SNES included better visuals. Just look at the 3D characters and scenery in Donkey Kong Country. No wonder it ended up becoming the second best-selling game for the console.

Street Fighter II by Capcom

The contest between Sega and Nintendo was rough, but Nintendo ultimately came out ahead thanks to significant titles released later, demonstrated no better than Capcom's classic fighting game Street Fighter II. Here was a game flooding arcade floors across the world, allowing friends to play together against each other.

The frantic sights and sounds of the 16-bit era of gaming completely changed many people's lives, including my own, and the industry as a whole. My siblings and I still fondly remember our parents buying different consoles (thankfully we were saved from owning a Dreamcast or Saturn). Whether it was the built-in version of Sonic on the Master System or the pain-in-the-ass difficult Black Belt, My Hero or Asterix titles, our eyes were glued to the screen more than the way Live & Kicking was able to manage every Saturday morning.

The Sims 4 by Maxis

Today's console games are hyper-realistic, either in serious ways such as the over-the-top fatalities in modern Mortal Kombat games or through comedy in having to monitor character urine levels in The Sims 4. This forgotten generation of 90s gaming provided enough visual cues to help players comprehend what was happening to allow a new world to be created in our minds, like a good graphic novel.

I'm not at all saying gaming has become better or worse, but it is different. While advantages have been gained over the years, such as the time I was asked if I was gay by a child during a Halo 3 battle online, there are very few chances to bond with someone over what's glaring from the same TV screen other than during "Netflix and chill".

Wipeout Pure by Sony

This is where the classics of previous eras win for emotional value over today's blockbuster games. Working with my brother to complete Streets of Rage, Two Crude Dudes or even the first Halo was a draining, adventurous journey, with all the ups and downs of a Hollywood epic. I was just as enthralled watching him navigate away from the baddies, pushing Mario to higher and higher platforms in Super Mario Land on the SNES just before breaking the fast.

It's no surprise YouTube's Let's Play culture is so popular. Solo experiences such as Ico and Wipeout Pure can be mind-bending journeys too, into environments that films could not even remotely compete with.

But here’s the thing: it was a big social occasion playing with friends in the same room. Now, even the latest Halo game assumes you no longer want physical contact with your chums, restricting you to playing the game with them without being in their company.

Halo: Combat Evolved by Bungie

This is odd, given I only ever played the original title, like many other, as part of an effective duo. Somehow these sorts of games have become simultaneously lonely and social. Unless one of you decides to carry out the logistical nightmare of hooking up a second TV and console next to the one already in your living room.

This is why handhelds such as the Gameboy and PSP were so popular, forcing you to move your backside to strengthen your friendship. That was the whole point of the end-of-year "games days" in primary school, after all.

Mario Kart 8 by Nintendo

The industry can learn one or two things by seeing what made certain titles successful. It's why the Wii U – despite its poor sales performance compared with the PS4 – is an excellent party console, allowing you to blame a friend for your pitfalls in the latest Donkey Kong game. Or you can taunt them no end in Mario Kart 8, the console's best-selling game, which is ironic given its crucial local multiplayer feature, making you suspect there would be fewer physical copies in the wild.

In the same way social media makes it seem like you have loads of friends until you try to recall the last time you saw them, gaming has undergone tremendous change through the advent of the internet. But the best games are always the ones you remember playing with someone by your side.