Inside The Art of Atari

Take a look at a book about console gaming's earliest days

In October, Dynamite Entertainment will release "The Art of Atari," a 350-page illustrated coffee table book that celebrates the packaging and games that were part and parcel of the late-1970s and early-1980s era of console gaming.

Priced at $39.95, the 9.625" x 11" hardcover format book includes interviews with many of the people who worked at Atari, as well as production and concept artwork not yet seen. The foreword is penned by "Ready, Player One" writer Ernest Cline, with the book authored by Tim Lapetino, who is also executive director of the Museum of Video Game Art.

A Golden Age

Back in 2014, Polygon spoke to some of the great artists who created classic early game packaging, as well as former Atari chief Nolan Bushnell, who was inspired by record albums, a dominant consumer-cultural form at the time.

"I felt fundamentally that this was a consumer product that needed all the care and attention that a record album did," Bushnell said. "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."

Polygon asked Lapetino to send over a few pages of the book, and to talk about their context, which you can see below, including pages that cover themes such as packaging, process and marketing as well as specific games like Breakout, Centipede and Yars' Revenge.

"For me, this book was deeply satisfying to work on, because it digs into great art and design of Atari, and obviously is really tied tightly to the games that made up my childhood," says Lapetino. "I'm glad to be able to shine a light on the illustrators, graphic designers, and industrial designers who in many ways, have been left out of design history.

"Because they worked in this pretty commercial, unusual field of video games, the emphasis usually tends to be on the game designers. That focus is earned. Without the games, we wouldn't be talking about this. But also, these people were essential to the overall game experiences, and they were doing some pretty unbelievable work that needs to be recognized by the world of art and design.

"Being a designer myself, I'm fascinated by the places and ways in which design intersects with pop culture. Video games went from having their moment to growing into an industry that brings in more money than Hollywood. And a crucial aspect of getting to that point was design. Art and design shapes how we see products, companies, and even whole cultural moments. The two are intertwined, and I'm always excited to examine those historical moments and see how art and design plays out within them."

The Primacy of Boxes

"When thinking about Atari's great artwork, I think it's easy to forget how the game packaging was often the first interaction someone would have with a game," says Lapetino. "Those boxes had to handle a lot of the sales and marketing duties that today would be done using advertising or social media. There was a crucial moment in a department store or TV shop where the box art would catch your eye — and in those few seconds — without a lot of in-depth reviews or the ubiquitous word of mouth we enjoy today. You made a decision based on the excitement and energy of that box."

A wall of bricks

"Breakout is an example of a game that is so simple and yet iconic in its game graphics that it lends itself to a wide interpretation in terms of artwork," explains Lapetino. "In home consoles, Cliff Spohn started this with the first version of Breakout for the 2600, and envisioned tennis players hitting a ball back and forth. It's almost more like racquetball, in some ways. And Steve Hendricks had another idea that's more fantasy-like and fanciful that ended up not being used, but it still comes down to those general themes of using something to break though this wall of bricks."

Inclusive whimsy

"Even beyond the great art of Centipede by Burrell Dickey, that game is intriguing because of its origins and the moment in which it was created," recalls Lapetino. "Amidst this deluge of space-based shooters and racing or sports games, you have some games like this, Pac-Man, Dig Dug and others, where I think you see a subtle shift in gameplay.

"These games seem like they are more inclusive, and a little bit more approachable, especially to women. They are friendlier, and the art also began to reflect that, with more character-based illustration. Centipede is still a shooting gallery style game, but it's also a bit more whimsical and light, and accessible. I think the fact that programmer Dona Bailey was involved in the creation might have something to do with that, bringing that much-needed female perspective."

Metallic skin

"Yars' Revenge is one of my favorite pieces in the book, just for the amazing airbrush work by Hiro Kimura. And he did a nice job of rendering the shiny, metallic skin of the flying insect.

"But it also helps that this was one of the iconic, original games for the 2600. It's got amazing gameplay and a really original look and feel, and that's reflected in how well it sold. It's worth noting too that this was Howard Scott Warshaw's first game, and he would go on to program Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the infamous E.T. game as well."

You can read more about Yars' Revenge in Polygon's feature, including an interview with Howard Scott Warshaw.

Craft and complexity

"In the book, I wanted to devote a whole section to graphic design, and the analog tools that designers of the time had to make the great packaging happen," says Lapetino. "I think it's easy in this age of supercomputing and the ubiquity of digital software tools, to take for granted the level of craft and complexity needed to turn something from idea to final printed piece in the '70s and '80s. All of this was done by hand, from the original illustrations to the type being set and placed by hand on paste-ups or 'mechanicals,' as they were called."

Behind the scenes

"These were super creative people crafting all of these pieces, but they were also artisans, people who could draw, paint, illustrate, craft typography. And they were doing this great work in the service of these video games. They were entertainment and fun, but they did this work seriously, and at a very high level."

You can find out more about "The Art of Atari" here. Babykayak