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How fantastical Atari box art taught the world what makes video games special

Graphic: Nick Wanserski / Illustration: Cliff Spohn
Graphic: Nick Wanserski / Illustration: Cliff Spohn

In Art Of The Game, Nick Wanserski explores how visual design shapes video, tabletop, and role-playing games.

Atari 2600 box art is well loved and rightly revered. Some of that can be chalked up to nostalgia for a system that was released in the first years of the Carter administration, but there’s no shortage of collectors who appreciate the amount of thought and technical accomplishment that went into crafting the identity of an emerging entertainment form. A frequent angle in discussing these old covers is that Atari was embarrassed about their creations, that the crude graphics and gameplay of this nascent medium had to be draped in elaborate finery to distract the consumer from what was a malformed homunculus struggling to mimic entertainment.

But thinking these covers were compensating for a failure of the Atari’s graphics is a projection of how we’re accustomed to our video games looking now. After all, we continue to greet each new advancement in video game graphics with excitement rather than through the lens of some hypothetical future video game enthusiast who could look back with horror on our clumsy hi-resolution skin textures stretched over a polygon frame like an uncanny-valley Leatherface.

Back then, home video game systems were new and exciting. The Atari 2600, while not the first home console, was responsible for popularizing features that would become standard in these devices for the next 20 years. No kid was accepting an Atari for Christmas as a 30-year placeholder until Uncharted came out. The graphics were simple and borderline abstract, but they were also an experience unlike anything most households had ever seen. The box art was meant to coalesce that excitement into something tangible. A static screenshot from the game couldn’t possibly relate how dynamic the experience was to a neophyte audience. The impressionistic nature of the 2600’s graphics also allowed for ample interpretation of what that experience would resemble. For instance, here are the covers for Breakout and Super Breakout. Both games consist of bouncing a ball off a paddle you control and into a wall of rainbow-colored bricks that shatter on contact. Visually, the games are almost identical, but their covers are completely divergent:

Illustrations: Cliff Spohn/Atari

The one thing each cover has in common is the repeated use of the multi-colored bar that bifurcates both compositions. But from Breakout to Super Breakout, the otherwise nonexistent narrative framing the game has been completely revised. That kind of mutability, which allows you to imagine your game as either a far-flung space explorer battling their way out of a trans-dimensional rainbow maze or simply playing a game of racquetball in a deteriorating court, gives old Atari games a quality similar to radio or books. You have to invest something of yourself into filling out the experience.

The Breakout covers were both done by Cliff Spohn. He, along with Steve Hendricks, created the bulk of Atari’s most memorable covers. The artists used an identical style for their boxes: detailed, horror vacui compositions with multiple elements bleeding into each other. Their use of photo-realistic models could easily read as stiff and plastic, but the expressionist color washes and desaturated shadows create both a depth and a sense of movement that spreads across the illustration.

Illustrations: Steve Hendricks, Cliff Spohn, and Steve Hendricks/Atari
Illustration: Steve Hendricks / Atari

The commitment to creating dynamic compositions isn’t just reserved for the more action-oriented games. Here’s the cover of the Atari version of a 200-year-old board game played with black-and-white pieces that Mattel marketed under the brand name Othello for maximum racial subtext. No simple strategy game, analog or digital, is going to engender much excitement, but Hendricks still commits to imbuing tension into the cover: the tilt from thought into execution, the anticipation of a maneuver that may ruin you. And who is this mysterious opponent? Is he the grand master of some underground Othello tournament held every year in a castle hidden in the shadow of the Pyrenees? Is he God? Is he your dad? In the kinetic, brain-melting world of Othello, he could very well be all three.

Spohn and Hendricks were responsible for defining Atari’s house style, but other companies created their own looks:

Illustrations: Activision

Activision, the first third-party publisher to create games for the Atari 2600, cultivated a decidedly more kid-friendly look than Atari’s comparatively mature compositions. Less technically competent and just simpler all around, Activision’s heavily outlined and flat-colored covers still have a distinct charm, namely in the reoccurring device of the rainbow streak that follows behind the game’s protagonist, be it person, fighter plane, or car. The motif is used to reinforce movement for the same reason we saw on Atari’s covers: It identifies games as a dynamic medium.

Creating a dynamic cover was a key for these illustrators. That motion, that dynamism, is what separated an unfamiliar (and expensive) medium fighting for attention from a slew of available analog entertainments. And it worked. You can see that in how the focus on movement has largely disappeared from contemporary box art. While there are exceptions, it’s become increasingly common over the last few years to strip away all surplus information so a grim, solitary warrior (almost exclusively a dude) standing at the cover’s center is all that remains. Today, games are a well established medium, and it’s a given they’ll be crammed with all sorts of intense set pieces and action. There’s no longer any need to assure a prospective audience that you’ll be able to do stuff.

Illustrations L to R: Remedy Entertainment, Bethesda Softworks, and Bethesda Game Studios

It’s the same with dense, visually rich covers. When a single screenshot from most any big-budget game displays more detail than a designer could reasonably invest into an image, there’s no point in trying to match it. The most generous interpretation of this evolution is that it shifts the box art’s message from kinetic energy to potential energy. If consumers implicitly understand that a game will deliver nonstop stimulus, the box itself merely becomes a character-select screen. With so many dudes poised and ready with a giant weapon, who do you choose for the inevitable cascade of frantic violence?

Illustration: Playtonic Games

The mood of stoic minimalism presented on so much modern box art also speaks to a kind of tonal disparity games suffer. Unlike Atari 2600 covers that promised nonstop entertainment, these games are supposed to be fun, but not “fun” fun. They’re “keep at least one empty urinal between you and fun in the bathroom, lest it seems like you’re not fully appreciating the somber rumination on the exhaustion of all that killing” fun. Demonstrating any sort of enthusiasm for your product has almost entirely been relegated to bright, family-friendly games. To the right is the box art for the upcoming game, Yooka-Laylee. Even without the cartoon mascot and pastel color palette, you can tell it’s a fun game because a character has its leg up in the air. A leg more than 30 degrees off the ground = fun. Below 30 degrees = serious. After all, both feet must be planted firmly on the ground if you’re going to successfully thwart an oncoming armored tank or stray feeling.

While facing-forward dude is persistent, a more recent variation takes him and turns him around. Perhaps it occurred to some thoughtful layout artist that since the person on the cover is your proxy, maybe you’ll feel more connected to them if you’re both looking at the same thing.

Illustrations L to R: Electronic Arts, Ubisoft
Illustration: Square Enix

Final Fantasy XV mostly uses this composition, but doesn’t want you getting too intimate. While the cast are all running in the direction of your gaze, the protagonist Noctis has his head turned slightly to make eye contact with you. This states in no uncertain terms that you’re not one of them… but you can tag along if you want to.

Illustration: Ralph McQuarrie/Atari

While the busy, sketch-collage style established by Spohn and Hendricks was emulated by a few other artists, the Atari 2600 had a lot of games and boxes illustrated in a wide range of styles. For example, Atari commissioned a single painting from Star Wars concept designer Ralph McQuarrie for the game Vanguard. McQuarrie’s extreme economy of line is evident in his use of a high-contrast, monochromatic palette, and the spare use of a few flash points of contrasting blue heighten the tension.

This is a very narrow sampling of video game box art. There are so many games, across such a range of studio and budget sizes that there isn’t really a clean parallel between what we see now and what we saw when the Atari 2600 was almost the sole provider of home video game entertainment. Invariably, video games have to be marketed differently today, but when you picked up a box for an Atari 2600 game—the art bursting with color and trying to escape the frame at every corner—it wasn’t to distract you from an inferior experience, it was because that box held something so amazing to show you that it couldn’t hold it back.