The Art of Atari: A celebration of game packaging's golden age

The Art Of Atari: From Pixels To Paintbrush is an in-development coffee-table book that celebrates what some see as the golden age of video game packaging design.

Creator Tim Lapetino is seeking to collect all of the 136 cover artworks that Atari commissioned for the boxes of its console games during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He is working with artists like Steve Hendricks and Cliff Spohn to gather the art, and to figure out what their particular manner of painting means today.

Compared to the visual styles that were to come later, like the kid-friendly console boxes of the Nintendo and Sega era and the slick marketing of today, Atari console game art is highly distinctive. But it's also redolent of its time, an age of vivid montages like the Star Wars movie posters, The Six Million Dollar Man and countless concept albums. They speak of grand sci-fi vistas, humanity's innate power and the promise of technology's coming bounty.

One of the reasons the art is still eye-catching today, is that Atari spent a lot of money on its packaging. The games themselves were considered marvels at the time, but, visually, they were ultra-simple. Atari's packaging connected the blocky graphics to more mainstream ideas about entertainment fantasies.

"I felt fundamentally that this was a consumer product that needed all the care and attention that a record album did," Atari founder Nolan Bushnell told Polygon. "At the same time, I wanted to have something that was beautiful and instructive and I wanted the artwork to have a consistency to it, so that immediately, when you glanced at our packaging, you knew it came from Atari and you knew it was beautiful."


Bushnell scoffs at the notion that he was seeking to capture the zeitgeist. He recalls spending money on his art department, headed up by Atari logo designer George Opperman, because he felt games needed to compete with other entertainment forms, like movies. "We were the latecomers, so we had to be better than what was out there. It was just a feeling of, in some ways, inferiority. We always felt we were little guys compared to movies and records at the time. We felt that in order to establish ourselves as a serious industry, we had to be better."

Lapetino was one of the kids who appreciated Atari's efforts. Nowadays he runs a successful graphic design agency and he's an author on graphic design. Back in the early '80s, he was an Atari player.

"I remember being five or six, when we first would get Atari games at home, I wanted to save all the boxes," he said. "My dad thought that was ridiculous. Why would you save the box that it came in? You just want to play the game. But I just loved the look of them.

"When you lined them up on the shelf, they were all these different colors. I didn't have a word for it, but they had this uniform typography. They all had a similar look. And then the illustrations were just these really amazing worlds."


It is difficult to appreciate now, but the art of those times wasn't seeking to distract from the simplicity of the games. It was celebrating their ability to put kids in the shoes of racing drivers, baseball star and starship captains.

"When I looked at those super simplistic graphics and those chunky pixels, I saw more of what I saw on the boxes," added Lapetino. "Today, we expect that the things marketing the game will look just like the game. But this was a brand new industry back then. This was state of the art. So I don't think there was a disconnect, where people saw the packaging and went, 'this doesn't look like that'. Just the idea that you could play games on your television was mind-blowing."

Cliff Spohn was a young artist working in Palo Alto, CA, when he was commissioned to work for Atari. The company liked his action montages, which he enjoyed creating for paperback books.

"I didn't really care about what the games looked like on the screens," he recalls. "Air-Sea Battles was all about subs and ships and planes, so I did some research and designed it that way. Each one was kind of like that."

Spohn didn't play the games (except for "the video chess" which he remembers enjoying). But he quickly saw how successful they were. Originally paid $350 per illustration, he asked for a raise. Atari's art department balked, but after a fruitless search for an alternative, agreed to pay $600. More artists were brought in to satisfy demand for more games. They were told to replicate house style.

Of course, in the days before high powered computers, the artwork was painted. "We'd paint pretty big," recalls Steve Hendricks, an artist who worked at Atari. "We would do a pencil sketch for a rough, and we'd blow it up and project it on our illustration board. We used a gesso to actually mimic the texture, so if we had movement in the montage illustration we were doing, the gesso would kind of follow that, so we projected our concept sketch, and then the gesso would emulate, almost, the brush strokes and the movement of the painting. Then we'd come back in and sketch the line work, and then come in with the acrylics and gouache. I started playing around with oils as well, doing oil washes, and then you'd either use water on the gesso, or you'd use turpentine."


Hendricks and the other artists would talk to the game designers to get an idea what the games were actually about. "To look at a screen capture, for instance, of a game, you'd go, what the heck is that? I would sit down with the game designers and pick their brains. What is your concept behind the game? What's the gameplay all about? Tell me the story. We were trying to simulate what the game designer's vision for what the game was all about. And in that regard, create some excitement for potential gamers who were going to buy that stuff."

The designs tended to follow the era's liking for complexity with multiple elements, often satirised today as a cheesy throwback. At the time, such design was seen as technically demanding. "I like the challenge of putting multiple elements together," said Spohn "You have a shoe and a thumbtack and a bed of roses, anything that's totally different, and you try and make them work together as one homogenous feeling to it. A lot of illustrators couldn't do it.

"The basic principle with the Ataris was that... I didn't want it to feel like it was just plop, plop, fizz, fizz. Stick this image here, stick that one there. It was more like it's a cohesive frame all together. There's carry-through lines. There are tie-ins. It's all wired together. It feels like one thing that's all these different things."

The early 1980s was an era of innovation in the technology of color-use and printing. This is one explanation for the vivid style of the art, very different from some of the more measured efforts of today.

"Color was still a sign that something was very premium, very fancy," said Lapetino, citing rainbow hued company logos of the day, like Apple and Activision. "With the cost of production and technology now, you can put lots of colors on all kinds of things. It's not a big deal. But back then, the idea of using a lot of color meant that it was expensive and fancy and the latest and greatest."


He said that, without a legacy of video games to work from, the designers were basing their work on album covers and sci-fi novels. And Atari, which came from the coin-op business, drew on its own history of painting arcade cabinets.

"The best illustrators for Atari were great designers," said Lapetino. "It's a language that's about energy and motion. It's this kinetic thing. It has a lot of motion. The best illustration was imbuing this sense of energy and color and brightness through montage. That's a style that's all but gone. I don't think you see that a whole lot in illustration at all anymore. That's something that makes it feel very much of that era."

For the book, which he is aiming to release by the end of the year, Lapetino is hoping to collect as much of the art as possible, including the original pieces.

"A lot of that original artwork either never got returned to the artists, or got thrown out when Atari was moving buildings or when Atari was sold," he said. "It's been a detective story, trying to track everything down." He is working with the artists to sort out who was responsible for each artwork (Atari rarely gave credits). "Some of it is in the hands of some private collectors. Once an illustration was created, they'd shoot it for camera, and then they'd have camera-ready artwork they could use. I was able to purchase slides and negatives that were used for reproduction."

Even before the Atari crash of 1983, the quality of the artwork was beginning to slip. By the time Nintendo rose to prominence in the mid-1980s, and with the coming of the PC gaming book of the 1990s, game art had changed completely.

"This is my personal opinion, but I would definitely say the heyday of games artwork goes from a period of the late ‘70s through the early '80s," said Lapetino. "That's the best. I love looking at old paperback books, the pulps, things like that, and old movie posters. But for me, there's a special emotional connection to Atari, because it's the video game system I grew up with."

"It was artistically good," said Bushnell. "It was consistent. It was sophisticated. I think that good stuff stands the test of time, whether it's packaging of beans in the frozen food section, or a great logo." He said that game packaging and cover design today lacks the daring of the Atari age. "People are afraid of the different. They want to do more like what they did last year that was successful."


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