Art of Atari

A book review by the Video Game Critic


book cover

In the early days of the industry (circa 1980) video games tended to have elaborate backstories but sparse graphics and simplistic gameplay. There was a gap that needed to be bridged, and that was the job of Atari's art department. The packaging for Atari 2600 cartridges was extremely appealing. The boxes were printed in a rainbow of vivid colors and adorned with elaborate, action-packed illustrations. Some could argue that this artwork was deceptive advertising, but you can't deny it whet your appetite to play. Heck, I can't even page through this book without the overwhelming urge to pull out my Atari 2600 to indulge in some old-school fun.

Atari embraced the marketing side of the video game industry and it payed off. Its talented stable of artists would take rough concepts and produce hand-drawn images to bring each game to life. From the whimsical cartoon quality of Kangaroo to the serious "fog of war" of Combat, this art set the tone for each game. The creativity inherent in some the designs is remarkable. The cover of Defender features a woman and child running through a city, fearful of the chaos unfolding in the sky. For Haunted House, a montage of eyes, cobwebs, and bats perfectly capture the creepy yet abstract qualities of the game. Super Breakout was represented by an astronaut and space shuttle, and while it seems a bit of a stretch now, it made perfect sense at the time. Not only do these lavish illustrations bring the games to life, but they make them feel epic in scope. This can be seen in the swashbuckling grandeur of Flag Capture or the breathless image of Poseidon breaking the water surface on Swordquest: Waterworld.

The bulk of the book consists of illustrations organized by artist. The fact that the pictures have been enlarged to fill the pages allows you to savor every detail. I noticed a lot of subtle details like the floating dog in 3D Tic-Tac-Toe and the clown in the basket on Circus Atari. In addition to cover art, images from inside the manual are included and there's even some unused art. The brief but insightful commentary, often provided by the original artists, is fascinating.

Though the artwork is easily worth the price of admission, Art of Atari contains much more. The book opens with a section delving into the history of Atari, beginning with the early days of Pong and culminating with an overview of the entire Atari console line. Later in the book there's a fascinating section on long lost prototypes like the Atari 2700, a voice controller, and an intriguing "Mindlink" device. This book closes with a collection of old advertisements and promotional materials. These have a cheesy quality that will make your smile.

Art of the Atari is a joy to read or simply kick back with to peruse its colorful pages. With quality hardback binding and high quality stock, this is an ideal coffee table book (just make sure nobody sets their drink on it). I cherish this book. Art of Atari will give you a new appreciation for the old classics, and make you wish today's game publishers took as much pride in their offerings.

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More links of interest:
Video Game Art: Atari in Space

Video Game Art: Halloween Edition