July 20, 2006

Learning from Atari

Last week my brother pointed me to this wonderful original commercial for Atari’s Pole Position. After gazing in amazement at the giant hand and the kid smiling as his mom blows up, it made me realize how few commercials are quite this eye-catching anymore. I don’t know if it was the custom song, or the belligerent and screaming announcer, but damned if I didn’t want to play Pole Position again.

Atari Game Catalog, 1981

Thinking back on my childhood, I remember Atari always being great marketers because of one gigantic realization: suspension of disbelief. Despite their less detailed graphics, they saw the value in commercials and box art. Before you even turned a game on, they put you in the mindset for what you were about to experience. When you played something like Yar’s Revenge, you didn’t see a bunch of inflated pixels, you saw giant mutant house flies. Atari set up the pieces, and let your imagination fill in the blanks. This is something I have always carried with me as an designer, the power of suggestion in art to frame a viewer’s experience.

I have an old Atari Video Computer System™ Catalog of 45 Game Program™ Cartridges that has sat on my bookshelf for most of my life. Among other things, like comic books, video games and their artwork has always inspired me. The catalog is full of beautiful box art and game illustrations that I’ve always admired. Many of them are soft montages that bring to mind older styles of film posters, and perhaps that was just another technique involved in selling the games; setting up a cinematic experience.

Since it’s just too sweet to keep to myself, I scanned in all the pages from the catalog and posted them on Flickr: Atari Game Catalog, 1981. Look at how enigmatic the artwork for titles like Haunted House or Super Breakout was. Stunning.

Don’t miss some of the other Atari commercials on YouTube like Centipede or family fun night with Super Breakout—that kid shouldn’t have let his parents play after they gave him that haircut.

Commentary (24):

1. Greg says… jul 20, 2006 | 12:56 pm

I miss the artistic interpretations of 2D games on the box art. Thanks for the memories.

2. Ian says… jul 20, 2006 | 12:57 pm

It was way more than suspension of disbelief. The colors in video games themsleves, let alone the music and sound effects, were so totally new and other-worldly that it’s led me to the life of computer junkie-hood that I lead today. To be honest, I always felt a little let down by the graphics after studying the cartridge.

3. Raphael says… jul 20, 2006 | 1:41 pm

I think you’re right — the limitations of the graphics themselves in the early 80s meant that marketers had to use stunning art and design graphics to fire the imagination of the buyers.

I recently bought a collection of the old Atari Force comics (themselves, obviously, based on video games). And I was reminded how exciting so many of the ads made these cartridges seem, cartridges like the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game.

Computer games are very similar: in the 80s and into the early 90s companies like Origin Systems used to really go to town on their packaging and art (and manuals). Now, of course, with games like Oblivion, they mostly just sit back and let the 3D graphics speak for themselves. While Oblivion is a fantastic game, I think a bit of an art form has been lost in the process, and it’s always great fun to look back at a kind of art form that developed around the products in the earlier days of the industry, when the designers needed to rely on firing the imagination of the consumer in interesting ways.

4. Marty says… jul 20, 2006 | 1:46 pm

Brings back the old days … I found an Atari simulator on the web not too long ago, and actually amused myself with some Yar’s Revenge for about 20 minutes. I’ll have to track that site down for you … although if you have a system sitting on a shelf, you could pull that puppy out again.

5. Dan Hower says… jul 20, 2006 | 1:58 pm

You said it perfectly. If you want to see more video game advertisments, check out my database on coin-op video game flyers which shows how the industry markets arcade games yesterday and today!

6. Aaron K says… jul 20, 2006 | 2:21 pm

Those commercials are hilarious, thanks for sharing. Of course, you have to check out this one because it has the best soundtrack EVER.

btw, love the comment preview. Very slick.

7. Demian says… jul 20, 2006 | 2:50 pm

I guess you have to thank George Oppenheimer for most of the Atari ads and catalogs. According to the book “High Score! The Illustrated History of Electronic Games” by Rusel DeMaria and Johnny L. Wilson, he was the creative force behind that material…

8. Jason Santa Maria says… jul 20, 2006 | 3:07 pm

Great stuff Dan! And I am going to have to check out that book now, Demian. Thanks!

9. Justin Perkins says… jul 20, 2006 | 3:08 pm

That’s so funny you’re did this right now, I was just commenting to my fiance about how amazing the design of the Atari game cartridges was to my fiance just the other day. We were in a thrift store and they were selling them for quite a pretty penny.

10. Dan Hower says… jul 20, 2006 | 4:33 pm

Another key attraction to video games, especially in the early days, are the sound effects and music.

If you want to hear authentic arcade sounds from twenty plus years ago, check out my recordings of arcade sounds.

11. Scott Orchard says… jul 20, 2006 | 6:07 pm

Thank you for a great trip back into my childhood, I remember playing Atari with my father for hours on end. It was so revolutionary to be able to interact with these games, regardless of the quality of graphics and sound. I must say that I loved playing Adventure, and I need to grab one of the Hero or Dragon shirts from Panic.

I had forgotten how beautiful the design for the catalog had been. The supporting graphics outshine the screenshots of the games, but that didn’t matter at the time.

12. Bjorn Nitmo says… jul 20, 2006 | 6:24 pm


The catalog you scanned in, along with others, are available here:


13. Smallest Photo says… jul 20, 2006 | 6:55 pm

Coolness! I was just watching the original Atari demo for Pitfall the other day on Youtube. Ah the memories.….

14. Joel says… jul 20, 2006 | 7:10 pm

Thanks for posting this! … brings back memories of the countless times I copied these on drawing paper, colored them with cheap watercolor, and proudly showed them off in my school binder.

15. trav says… jul 20, 2006 | 7:23 pm

I actually still have a couple of those catalogs. (I might be willing to part with one if someone has deep, nostolgic pockets. :)

16. MrSpeaker says… jul 20, 2006 | 8:34 pm

I recently started getting back into the ‘2600. My favourite aspect of Atari art is the box back cover. The screen shots are all given “speed lines” to show you the action. A blurred white splash of speed shows you the excitement that awaits you!

Activision did this the most - all their covers were given rainbow speed lines - now THAT’S fast!

17. Trevor says… jul 21, 2006 | 4:06 am

If you like that, you’ll love this as well:

Activision catalog, 1984. Check out that gorgeous abstract cover!

18. Christopher Fahey says… jul 21, 2006 | 11:54 am

I almost hate to reveal this, because I love this stuff so much and like to think that it’s my own secret treasure link… but the BEST BEST Atari-related art, bar none, is right here.

The skill with which these old-time illustrators wield those Pantone markers just blows me away. You will marvel at how they confidently embrace the overlapping strokes of the pen and the bleeding pauses in their linework — the illustrations are all about the Pantones instead of trying to hide the fact that they are illustrating with markers.

There are some images with detail areas where no lines at all are used and you can just feel the shape emerging from the empty space.

And I love the settings, an imaginary future in which people — adults!! — go out for a night on the town at a video game arcade. Oh wait, people do that, don’t they? Well, still, you can practically smell the hot dogs, flat fountain cokes, and cigarettes melting plastic.

19. Charles roper says… jul 21, 2006 | 2:23 pm

Even though I never owned an Atari, and this is the first I have seen of many of these fantastic artworks, they do resonate with me for the reasons you cite. They also remind me very much of the classic cover artwork of the ZX Spectrum magazine Crash. You can view them all at Crash magazine: Online Edition. Absolutely stunning stuff; its original, enigmatic, vibrant and totally original. I still have copies stashed away somewhere in my old room at my parents. You can read more about Crash on wikipedia.

20. Joel says… jul 21, 2006 | 2:44 pm

Though my cousins had the Atari, I had the rival: the Intellivision. It also featured some amazing box art and catalogue art. In many cases, just simply looking at the covers could fill you in on the story and the world of the game far more than the on-screen graphics ever could.

21. Matt O. says… jul 21, 2006 | 5:04 pm

Whoa, talk about a blast from the past! Thanks for taking the time to scan and post the entire booklet.

Is it just me or do a majority of the illustrations bear a resemblance to the work of Scott Hansen? I think its the desaturated color palette and the use of halftones that make the connection for me.

22. Kate says… jul 21, 2006 | 6:50 pm

I played my Atari 2600 games long into the Nintendo era for this very reason. Each game was an impetus for a story. The dots on Defender were supposed to represent generic humans, but I named each one. I wasn’t saving random people - I was saving Billy, or Jessica, or another friend.

Today the story is given to the player, with little room for improv. At times I miss being able to “write” my own story into the 8-bit graphics.

23. Mike D. says… jul 23, 2006 | 1:46 pm

Very nice. My favorite part is that the family members are holding their helmets on with their hands despite having chinstraps.

24. Sara Wischnewski says… jul 24, 2006 | 6:12 pm

I have one of those catalogs lying around my house too. I remember the artwork for the game adventure. It was what made me buy it. A giant dragon was draped over this huge maze. I got the game and played it and i was a dot that was fighting ducks with an arrow. Ah, good times, good times.