Video Game Art: Atari In Space

by The Video Game Critic

Having grown up in the "Atari generation" of the early 80's, I fondly recall a time when game boxes (and their manuals) featured fantastic artwork that far surpassed anything you could possibly expect to see in the actual game. Atari was in the forefront when it came to creating these dramatic embellishments. The pictures may have been somewhat misleading, but they sure did get you psyched up about playing! In this section I critique the box covers from a few of Atari's space-themed games.

Defender (1982)

Art Grade: A

defender box defender
This excellent cover has a great look which is only enhanced by the bright blue box. I love how Atari always managed to read things into games far beyond their basic premise. This picture is from the perspective of the people on the planet as they watch the chaos unfold above. On the actual game screen these people look like flickering pixels, but as you can see here, some are actually hot babes! The child represents one of the hidden victims of the ongoing intergalactic conflicts common in the early 80's. Won't somebody please think of the children?! Even the looming building serves a purpose, as it helps to justify the rectangular structures in the game (which replaced the angular mountains of the arcade version). This box cover is pretty ingenious and probably sold of a lot of cartridges on its own merits. It certainly makes me want to play.

Read full Defender review

Yars' Revenge (1982)

Art Grade: B+

yars box yars
This action-packed cover did a fine good job of capturing the spirit of the popular shooter Yars' Revenge. It looks like you're being attacked by a metallic insect spewing ping-pong balls from its mouth while firing a blaster. Take it from me - you do not want to be on the wrong end of those ping-pong balls! They can leave a serious welt! What makes this cover so memorable is the outstanding bug design. The creature looks so menacing that you're brainwashed into thinking the graphics in the game are far better than they really are! Instead of a pixelated bug, you're in control of a marauding insect of death. The rampant explosions in the background nicely overstate the level of chaos in the actual game.

Read full Yars' Revenge review

Phoenix (1983)

Art Grade: A+

phoenix box phoenix
This magnificent space fantasy depiction has "epic" written all over it. Not only does the Phoenix artwork convey key elements of the game, but it's a marvel to behold. There's a good sense of depth as small birds swoop into the foreground as a collossal hawk looms menacingly in the distance. The birds are revealed to be robots, which explains the whole premise of fighting birds in space (I think). The mother ship is clearly under attack, with the ever-vulnerable "boss" in the center. This illustration was included as a poster in an issue of Atari Age magazine, and I displayed it proudly on my bedroom wall for years. I wish the picture took up more space on the box, because this is some serious eye candy.

Read full Phoenix review

Asteroids (1981)

Art Grade: B

asteroids box asteroids
Once again Atari takes an unexciting concept and transforms it into a harrowing space odyssey. This one reminds me of the scene in Star Wars Episode II where Boba Fett was chasing Obi Wan through an asteroid field. Notice that the ship is intricately detailed yet still consistent with the ship in the actual game (which was basically a triangle). A blue planet looms in the background, suggesting a new level of urgency. What's this?! The fate of the entire planet is at stake!? Hand me that [expletive] controller NOW!! These rocks are toast!!

Read full Asteroids review

Berzerk (1982)

Art Grade: B-

berzerk box berzerk
Since the dawn of man, humans have possessed the innate desire to shoot robots with laser guns. Berzerk embodies that notion and its artwork gets the point across in an "in your face" kind of way. The metal thing exploding in the foreground is supposed to be a robot, but it's not readily apparent at first glance. Our hero assumes a cool "action pose", but his Beatle-mania haircut and black G-string do not inspire confidence. It's a nifty perspective though, and I like how you can see some shrapnel flying out of the frame. The ceiling looks high-tech, but it's hard to discern the other robots who blend into the background. This could have been better but it gets the point across.

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Space Invaders (1980)

Art Grade: C-

space invaders box space invaders
This isn't the worst box cover in the world, but you have to wonder if the artist ever actually played Space Invaders. The picture apparently depicts several of the mother ships that periodically wobble across the top of the game screen. One is apparently shooting gamma rays at the planet below, even though it never attacked in the game itself. If you look closely at its dome you can see a whole city in there! I suspect it's holding thousands of illegal aliens hoping to infiltrate the USA. Yeah, like we'd ever let something like that happen! This cover is a little weak and fails to leave much of an impression. On a final note, an astute reader (ZetaX) correctly pointed out that this image looks suspiciously similar to the cover of the second Boston album (circa 1978). You be the judge.


Read full Space Invaders review