GROWING UP, I had a closer-than-usual relationship with Atari’s games, having a family member at the then-young Silicon Valley company. They existed only on floppy disk (which could be run on the 800’s drive, given that you had the requisite BASIC cartridge installed), and were often unfinished or slightly pre-release builds. As incredible, in retrospect, as this access was, their diskbound existence meant that their frequently strange and wonderful cover art (not to mention any sort of packaging, background info, or instruction manuals) was totally absent from the experience. This meant contending not only with the games’ built-in learning curves, but also figuring out their often bizarre lore and background stories through nothing more than totemic, rudimentary splashes of on-screen pixels.
The Art of Atari
The Art of Atari (Dynamite Books, $39.99), a bold, bright retrospective of the first home console to truly enter the public consciousness, is an all-out celebration of the golden age of Atari – and as such, of videogame box art. It was an era when “game art” referred much less to the digital pixel graphics of the games and much more to the vivid, psychedelic art of the boxes in which they were packaged. The process for these pieces was almost entirely analog, as they were nearly always created by hand with paint, pen, and airbrush.
The discrepancy between in-game graphics and box art in this early era was so large that the two fields could be considered entirely different creative realms, as separate from each other as books and their covers—or, as Ernest Cline writes in his introduction, records and their covers, particularly during the more psychedelic 60s and 70s. Rather than matching up with the totemic bundles of pixels that constituted 1980s console graphics, their purpose was instead the broad, open-ended task of providing players with an aesthetic framework (far beyond what was attainable in the graphics of the time) for a game’s world, feel, and lore.
In this sense, for someone who experienced the games apart from their cover art, The Art of Atari is as much a rediscovery as a nostalgia trip. The artwork reaches incredibly psychedelic heights, particularly in the work of Hiro Kimura, whose signature bright colors and crisp, gleaming geometries illustrated iconic hits like Centipede, the original Mario Bros., and the iconic Pac-Man. The robotic avatar and massive, demonic ghosts he created for the latter were far too bizarre to make it onto the box, but they live on here in all their glory.
Alternate box concept for Pac-Man by Hiro Kimura. © The Art of Atari
Pixel map for Dig Dug with Pantones. © The Art of Atari
Crystal Castles by Hiro Kimura. © The Art of Atari
Combat gameplay screen. © The Art of Atari
Rubik’s Cube box art. © The Art of Atari
Assorted box art. © The Art of Atari
Original one-button Atari joystick with circuitry schematic. © The Art of Atari
Galaxian box art. © The Art of Atari
Joust box art. © The Art of Atari
Two concepts for Missile Command. © The Art of Atari