Atari I/O Reviews Art of Atari
With every new generation of video game consoles have come games that are more complex, polished, and photorealistic than those before. Modern games feature increasingly advanced graphics and carefully-crafted narratives, and gameplay is no longer necessarily complemented by active imagination in the same way or to the same degree as during video gaming’s earliest days, when graphics were primitive and game stories were elementary (if they existed at all). A game publisher’s marketing and design departments were often tasked to try to fill some of the imaginative gaps left by limitations of the early technology.
I’ve eagerly awaited the publication of Art of Atari since I first read about author Tim Lapetino’s in-progress book project many years ago. As someone who grew up with Atari (but somehow never owned another console until a PS3), and as someone with an admittedly lacking fantastical imagination, the artwork that accompanied Atari products made an enormous impression on me as a kid. I’m fairly certain that I would never have, on my own, envisioned the kind of elaborate and wondrous imagery depicted on Atari merchandise given the content of the games themselves. It’s the talented artists and designers under Atari’s employ who deserve the credit for allowing me to dream of ideas and worlds bigger than those generated by glowing phosphor lines on a CRT screen, and Art of Atari does a spectacular job in affording them the recognition and credit they well deserve.
Art of Atari is aesthetically striking in a number of ways. It’s big, heavy, colorful, and exudes the feeling of a quality, professional product. The Deluxe Edition with its cartridge-emulating leather-bound cover and heavy-duty cardboard slipcase is artwork in itself, if you ask me. These were clearly not produced by some fly-by-night publishing house — it’s professional quality through and through. The subject matter necessitated high-quality printing in order to show off color, texture, and other subtleties in the artwork, and the book certainly delivers on that front, using extra-white paper to really make the imagery “pop” off the page. The page layout and graphic design work is both bold yet minimal at the same time; it grabs the reader’s attention while allowing the content room to speak for itself.
Upon opening the front cover the first thing one sees are Atari game screenshots that grace the front and back endpapers (i.e. the pages affixed to the covers’ insides). I was struck by how this seemed to be an inversion of the usual way of things — here, the artwork finally gets to take the spotlight while the games are relegated to be outside window-dressing. Flipping through the book for the first time I immediately remarked on the size and detail of the artwork. The oversize dimensions of the book seem almost a necessity in retrospect; zoomed and/or inset images showing off smaller details would not have had the same kind of impact.
Five Atari Artwork Details I Never Noticed Until Reading Art of Atari
The superb quality of writing (and editing) becomes apparent to the reader even as soon as the introduction. Books on the subject of video games are often overly simplified or made too concise, but Lapetino’s prose in Art of Atari manages to be detailed and thorough without becoming long-winded. The book is a page-turner for the artwork, but the contextual substance is provided through clear, well-crafted writing that invites the reader to slow down and take in the artwork for longer than they otherwise might, while avoiding the pitfall of getting bogged down with excessive detail. Lapetino turns some excellent phrases in the process — the section header “From Pixels to Paintbrush; Crossing the Imagination Bridge” is but one example.
The artwork that was tracked down and reproduced for this book is nearly worth the price of admission by itself. Hiro Kimura’s original (rejected) attempt at artwork for Pac-Man (2600) is not to be missed. Likewise, to see things like artwork for the unreleased Swordquest: Airworld enlarged to full-page size was an unexpected gift. Especially interesting to me were the comments and instructions left on artwork from other Atari creative team members — directions to adjust color hues, fix line work, correct placement of design features, etc. One can get a pretty good sense of the cooperative coordination that went on behind the scenes at Atari to result in the finished products. It’s easy to forget that all of this was taking place before things like modern desktop publishing, bitmap typography, and computer-aided graphic design; this was analog’s heyday of using tools like copy galleys, transparencies and overlays, paste-up art and mechanicals.
Beyond the iconic artwork, one of the book’s many highlights are the numerous individual profiles of artists and designers who contributed their skills and creativity to the Atari “aura”. For the first time, one can get a clear sense of how graphic designer George Opperman’s artistic philosophies and design aesthetic helped to shape Atari’s look and feel for consumers. Lapetino’s interviews also generated some great quotes, like Nolan Bushnell referring to Opperman as the “Matisse of Graphic Design”, while Steve Hendricks deemed him an “artistic dynamo”. There are amusing anecdotes mixed throughout — one particularly memorable example was Atari Design Director George Faraco calling “BS” on Opperman’s somewhat convoluted origin story for the “Fuji” logo. Another was the tale of how Warner Inc. paid $100,000 to do a “brand refresh” upon purchasing Atari, only to learn that the same Fuji logo for which Atari originally paid just $3,000 already had better brand recognition than Mickey Mouse.
One of the more well-known bits of Atari corporate lore is how many of their game programmers felt underappreciated and undervalued; the famous alleged quote from Atari president Ray Kassar about how programmers were no more important to Atari than the assembly line workers putting cartridges into boxes was a perfect distillation of that attitude. Art of Atari makes it abundantly clear, however, that the design team members and artists were both highly regarded and well-paid, and that this treatment “went against the grain” of the tendencies of most Silicon Valley companies. The creative teams were largely encouraged by senior Atari staff to do what they wanted; having lots of funding afforded them this luxury, of course. All told, it was refreshing to read that the artists and designers largely looked back at their time and experiences with Atari in a very positive light.
So, what’s not to like here? Initially I thought that a better effort could have been made to procure game boxes in better condition for the box scans, but on further reflection I decided I liked the slight patina and edge wear on some of them. The price stickers on Adventure and Miniature Golf were the only things that I think ultimately detracted from their presence. That said, to actually scan game boxes and not just use mock-ups ended up being a nice touch that gives the images some depth to them; they feel more “real” to me. I also think a caption like “Artist unknown” for artwork with unidentified artists was warranted (rather than have nothing at all listed), but these are ultimately pretty minor complaints. In terms of content, I suppose the only thing that I’d really like to have learned more about were some of the reasons behind the design evolution. The progression from the bright rainbow-colored boxes to the silver-styled boxes is explained away in a photo caption as being related to product line differentiation, but no further detail is given. Atari Corporation’s cost-cutting measure of printing manuals in black and white is mentioned in passing, but I’d have liked to know what the artists and designers thought of this. Granted, the answers to these questions may no longer be knowable.
The bottom line is that Art of Atari is everything I hoped it would be, if not more. It’s a perfect gift book, especially at the price of the standard hardback edition. I’m hard-pressed to imagine someone being disappointed given its scope and sheer amount of content included. The quality of research, curation, and presentation leaves readers wanting even more — and this is meant as a compliment, not a complaint. Tim Lapetino and Dynamite Entertainment have done the video gaming community a great service with the release of Art of Atari, and this Atari gamer and collector couldn’t be much happier with it.
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Art of Atari
Art of Atari (hardcover, 352 pages) is due for release on October 25. Also available will be a Deluxe Edition of the book, which will include a unique leather-bound “Game Cartridge” cover and slipcase, a Steam key for Atari Vault, and a frameable Limited Edition Print featuring new artwork by original Atari artist Cliff Spohn. Additional book details are available at artofatari.com and dynamite.com.
Rob Wanenchak is an Atari player, collector, researcher, and occasional armchair historian. You can find him on the Atari I/O Forums under the name Ballblaɀer, often documenting his growing game collection with photos and fun facts. You can also follow him on Twitter and over on Flickr.