Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino. Dynamite Entertainment, 2016. 9781524101039. 352 pp.
Gene: My birthday was last month, and I’m very nostalgic for old video games again. So I built myself a MAME emulator in a Raspberry Pi computer so that I can carry it around easily. I’m a little embarrassed, but not enough to not tell you about it apparently. But this book fits in perfectly with that —
G: I don’t normally like video game art books, but this is Art of Atari, and it focuses on the art of the Atari 2600. [There are other Atari systems’ / games’ art in there, too.] I never though the box art was done by hand.
G: Atari had a lot of in-house artists. The book has the history of the company, a lot about industrial design, an introduction by Ernie Cline (who wrote Ready Player One), and a lot of Atari’s advertising art that I remember from comic books.
S: And this is back when the ad art was three billion times nicer than anything you would ever see on a video game screen.
G: Right! Here’s one for Breakout. It’s the game with the little bar across the bottom that would hit the ball up to the top and knock out a square, like a tooth, and you had to use it to destroy the rows of blocks on top.
S: One person destructo Pong. My mother played that for hours on the Commodore 64.
G: That is totally what they should have called it. That game’s art is my favorite, bar none. They were trying to figure out how to pitch it. My least favorite art is from licensed games. There was a Pigs in Space video game. The box has a photo on it from the show and it just looks sad.
This is a game called Gotcha. There’s a guy grabbing a girl from behind. Weird art for an arcade game. I’m sure I never played it because I wouldn’t have forgotten that, and I’m sure it would have been popular a the bowling alley near my house.
Did you ever play Combat? It was great because it was you against your friend. The art is this complicated picture of biplanes, jets, tanks rolling across the desert. It’s beautiful on the box. But the reality of the game couldn’t be farther from what that looks like. But you would play your friends and so it wouldn’t get boring like other games would. This was probably my favorite game to play at my friends’ houses.
S: My grandparents lived a ferry ride away and the Washington State Ferries had video games that were at least 10-20 years out of date on them, so I got to experience Asteroids in a cabinet.
G: You experienced my childhood! This is Brain Games. Looks, it’s a wizard conjuring math and spelling and stuff. And at the bottom of it is a puzzle piece.
S: There’s the artist’s signature right there. It was made by a real artist.
G: The book has artist bios in it, so you can read about them if you want to.
Here’s more Breakout art. They’re still going for the tennis metaphor. This is for some kind of Sears version which had steampunky art for some reason. Then there’s concept art they never used featuring a barbarian with a glowing ball on a string. And he’s in jeans. They didn’t know what to do with that game.
They had a video game where you could learn to program in Basic, and the art pictures this guy in a command and control center. Look at how sad that real “game” screen is.
S: And the games were expensive. You’d be saving up and saving up and saving up….and then you’d have to play that.
G: I bet they were more expensive in real dollars than $60 games are now.
S: Mini golf!
G: Sky diver. I remember this game was impossible. Here’s the Asteroids art. It looks great. It’s got perspective. You’re flying a ship. And here’s the game.
S: You’re a triangle!
G: This is Missile Command. The ultimate cold war game. You’re launching nuclear weapons trying to keep your bases from being destroyed by other nuclear weapons.
S: The guy in the command center has a red phone. And a weird helmet.
G: He looks like a Battlestar Galactica Colonial warrior. And it recalls the guys on the Death Star who operated the main weapon.
This is Defender.
G: I think this is a beautiful piece of art. I forget that it’s about aliens trying to steal humans. When the ships get the humans to the top of the screen they become human / alien hybrids that have more firepower. You need to rescue the humans to protect yourself. And if you shoot the alien that’s picked up a human you have to grab the human out of the air before they fall to their death. Splat.
S: The discovery of the buried E.T. game cartridges! Yeah!
G: It wasn’t just E.T. games that they found buried in the desert, it was a bunch of stuff Atari had written off and disposed of. The rumor had been Atari buried a bunch of E.T. cartridges because the game was so bad and they never sold. But there was a lot more there. That’s filmmaker Zak Penn, who made the documentary about finding and excavating the ultimate video game burial site.
S: When I worked at a bookstore and we had to dispose of stripped books so people wouldn’t snag them, we put them in a dumpster we shared with a pancake house. We didn’t have to own a pulper because they would dump their unused pancake batter in there.
G: There’s a history of their consoles in here, too, along with a lot of ideas that never made it to market including cordless joysticks and one that you controlled with your brain waves. Apparently that gave people headaches because they had to keep scrunching their heads, flexing their muscles, to get it to work.
S: So you controlled it with your forehead.