The late '70s and early '80s were the true glory days of home video games and arcades, and the storied name of Atari reigned as one of the crowned champions in the exploding electronic amusement market. Once the initial invasion of Atari 2600 consoles were found under Christmas trees in 1977, the video game supernova began.
Dramatic box art from these first-gen titles acted like mini movie posters, often selling a story and style that the game's graphics couldn't. From Pole Position and Space Invaders to Asteroids, Yar's Revenge, and Defender, much of the emotional resonance came from this vivid painted art that Atari brass approached with such love and attention. There was a disappointing disconnect between the sophisticated images and the primitive pixels in actual gameplay, but the artwork provided enchanted windows into the game's core experience in a way technology didn't deliver at the time. It took a talented team of commissioned artists and illustrators to bridge this gap and add a pivotal dimension to the legendary Atari product line.
A new book by pop culture historian Robert V. Conte and author Tim Lapetino titled Art of Atari seeks to resurrect those nostaglic days by collecting a retrospective of original artwork in a 352-page prestige coffee-table edition. Conte, a certified Atari maniac has coralled a rare assortment of Atari game boxes and packaging concept art from his personal hoard and collectors' dens worldwide to celebrate the triumphant days when the video game age was born. Art of Atari is published by Dynamite Entertainment and available Oct. 25, 2016.
Blastr chatted with Conte on this lavish new Atari book, memories of holidays past and how the visionary company took the planet by storm and summoned the video game era. Grab a Slurpee and listen in as he catapults us back to those gentler pre-Internet times, then check out our preview pages in the gallery below.
All images courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment, Inc. and Robert V. Conte collection.
What was the genesis of this Art of Atari book project and what is your unique perspective on the material and the cultural time capsule it exists in?
I have been a professional in the area of pop culture for over 25 years. For the past decade or so, a book about Atari was on my short list of projects to do. Growing up with the Atari Video Computer System (later renamed the Atari 2600) was a large part of my childhood, and my number-one obsession from late 1980 to early 1984. I was having a conversation with a longtime colleague at Dynamite Entertainment where he mentioned the company had acquired publishing rights to the iconic brand. I was asked to make a pitch and here we are. I am Editorial Consultant on the project and have written the Afterword.
Why is Atari such a technological touchstone for those who grew up during that era?
Most Americans born before 1975, in my opinion, are the last people to know what the world was like before home video games. Before Atari’s Pong and Stunt Cycle systems hit the marketplace, playing ball, roller skating, bike riding, and the occasional television program were what kids did after school and on weekends. Unlike most of its competition, Atari — whether intentionally or not — perfectly marketed their games for preteens (like my then self) and teens. My brothers and I would go to arcades, candy shops, gas stations — wherever there would be video games for a mere quarter per play. There was a time when our entire weekly allowance went inside the cabinets of Asteroids, Missile Command, Centipede — we would play to our hearts' content. When the VCS/2600 editions of these games were released, it was exciting because, in some respects, they were different than their arcade counterparts. For instance, the arcade version of Asteroids was a vector-based game with a black-and-white screen that required five control buttons to play: Left. Right. Thrust. Fire. Hyperspace. Later, Atari re-released the game with an overlay on the screen to create the illusion of color but, to me, the buttons were still too cumbersome. When Asteroids was released for the VCS/2600 in 1981, the game was in complete color and all its functions were controlled by a single joystick. Kids with small fingers and/or bad coordination were in heaven! (Laughs)
How is this Atari book different than working on the Star Wars Topps Cards books?
Topps did not save their original reproduction films for most of their early trading cards, so Abrams ComicArts (publisher of the four Topps Star Wars books) needed mint-condition cards, stickers, boxes and promotional items to scan for the book series. From the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, I was one of the “weird" kids who would buy multiple packs of cards, save his doubles and triples to make mint-condition sets, and store them away. My mother and grandmother thought this was bizarre and a complete waste of money. Now that those same materials were actually published as part of official Star Wars product almost 40 years later, I am finally vindicated!
What was the collaboration with Tim Lapetino like?
Shortly after Dynamite made the official announcement about acquiring the Atari license, Tim had approached them with a project he had in-the-works called from Pixels to Paintbrush: The Art of Atari. Dynamite asked if I was open to working with a co-author. I had done so on other projects such as Black Sabbath: The Ozzy Osbourne Years (with the late CJ Henderson) but didn’t want to commit until I knew what he brought to the table. Much to my astonishment, Tim had not only located much of the Atari art that had been previously believed to lost, but he also found the artists who created those awesome images. Having achieved similar tasks on other projects I have worked on including Godzilla, Kiss and Sesame Street, I agreed to collaborate. I commend anyone who devotes so much of their personal time and money to preserving history. In that regard, I tip my hat to him.
Give us a tour of what fans and readers can expect from this evocative coffee-table volume.
The genesis of Atari from its initial arcade offerings to its expansion into the home console-and-computers market changed our world forever. In addition to the hundreds of recognizable images the company has created in the past 45 years, now we will learn about the artists who created them. I am a firm believer that the actual video games are a unique art form all onto itself, and this book will also credit the engineers and programmers who created the consoles and accompanying cartridges. Concept art, behind-the-scenes stories, vintage advertisements, catalog art, packaging, and more. Fans, collectors, enthusiasts and historians will all learn things they had not known before — and that includes me!
What made this Golden Age of Video Games so historic?
As the late 1930s through the 1940s are considered the Golden Age of comic books, I believe Atari spearheaded the Golden Age of video games from the 1970s through mid-1980s. The company pioneered the industry with Pong and always seemed to release new titles at the optimum time. Sure, there were early competitors like Williams, SEGA, Bally/Midway and others, but Atari was the only company to have an equal stronghold on the commercial and home markets for some time. Not many people remember Magnavox’s Odyssey (initially marketed to sell more Magnavox televisions rather than on its own merit as a home video console); Bally’s short-lived Supercade (which, ironically, had significantly superior graphics to Atari’s VCS/2600); Mattel’s Intellivision (which relied too much on its own intellectual properties and did not license well-known properties for its system until it was too late); and Coleco’s Coleco-Vision which, arguably, began the decline of sales for Atari systems with the premier of its Expansion Module 1 — allowing consumers to play VCS/2600 games on its system without having to buy an actual Atari system. Arguably, the Golden Age of home systems ended there and the Silver Age began with Nintendo and SEGA's first consoles.
Can you describe your man-cave shrine to the gaming glories of Atari and how it was accumulated?
As a child and teen, I admittedly had one of the worst cases of undiagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorders ever. Anything I purchased had to be in near-mint condition which included comic books, trading cards, records, and video games. I seemed to be the only one in my family — actually my neighborhood — that cared to save the boxes, catalogs, advertisements, promo stickers, you name it. I would be the butt of many jokes over the years!
My brothers and I received our Atari VCS/2600 on Christmas Day, 1980. We were immediately hooked and my late father was a sales manager for an appliance company. There, he bartered with his customers to trade for Atari cartridges. Combined with games bought with my allowance and others from family, it was not long before I had not only every Atari-branded cartridge on the market but also every third-party game created by Activision, I-Magic, and a host of other obscure companies. I went from being the least-popular kid in school to being voted onto student council! (laughs)
Around 1984, I started high school and moved onto computer programming via Atari 800 and Coleco’s ADAM computer. I briefly dabbled in creating my own games and that soon became my new obsession. And so, all of my cartridges, consoles, promos, etc., were carefully packed away. That was over 30 years ago so unearthing my collection for this book has been surreal. I have not seen most of my own collection since I was 15-years-old!
Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell once said Atari game art was likened to creating record album covers in their color, care and conception. What made Atari art connect so emotionally to its customers?
The creative staff at Atari was brilliant. They understood the limitations of those early games and knew the packaging had to entice consumers to want to spend anywhere from $19.99 - $39.99 per gam. (Those SRPs from the early 1980s equate to $59.99 - $115.99 in 2016!). The quality of the box art was so good it easily compares to movie posters of the time. An early image that still resonates with me is the Atari 400/800 cartridge art for Star Raiders. It looked like an elegant Star Wars-styled image that could have easily been illustrated by greats like Bob Peak, Drew Struzan, and the Hildebrandt Brothers!
What do you hope to accomplish by bringing this encapsulation of Atari art into the bright light of geek culture?
There was a time when the mere suggestion that superheroes could be successful film franchises resulted in laughs and immediate dismissals. Now Batman, Iron Man and dozens of comic-book-based films dominate Hollywood. I believe, one day, Atari and its properties will receive the same recognition for their impact upon the world. We are fortunate to have author Ernest Cline provide an Introduction to the book. His novels, Armada and Ready Player One, are fantastic reads and the latter is currently in production as a motion picture being directed by Steven Spielberg.
What is your most vivid memory of first playing an Atari game?
The first Atari game I ever played was Tank, followed by Pong and Space Race. This was all on the same day inside an arcade during the Summer of 1976, our country’s 200th birthday. New York had just repealed its almost 30-year ban on pinball machines, so this was a superb time for thousands of people — young and old — as “amusement arcades” literally exploded everywhere. Pinball and video games were so new it was a captivating time, especially for a then six-year-old. I will have that memory for as long as I live.
Do you have a favorite piece of art from the book, and why?
The first box for the VCS/2600 Space Invaders remains my favorite. When looking at the original arcade marquee, you see silhouetted aliens with red eyes throwing lightning bolts with apparent intent to destroy Earth. The VCS/2600 image implies a different story — UFOs shooting lasers down upon the planet. Look closely through the ship's transparent top and you see an actual city inside it. Now, I have always believed that great art provokes many interpretations, and my then-10-year-old self came to the rationalization that the aliens were not there to destroy us, per se, but that they were capturing our cities to study us. OK, I will stop with my theory. You get the idea! (laughs)
How do you see the current wave of video games influencing popular culture and entertainment going forward?
Video game sales have eclipsed movie sales for years now. Their interactivity with the user is unparalled and stretches across virtually all ages. I am almost 46 years old and look forward to playing video games with my three children whenever I can. The quality of today’s games is unbelievable but there is a certain innocence with the early days that I do not believe will ever be matched. I distinctly remember the day Dragon's Lair, the first “animated” video game using a laserdisc as its platform, was released and thought “Wow, it can’t get any better than this.” I was wrong.
What do you miss most about those pioneering days of first generation consoles and arcades?
Unlike today’s formulaic, predictable development-and-marketing strategies all too common in the entertainment industry, the late 1970s through early 1980s was a magical time for video games. While Atari’s marketing strategy was unmatched, its competition created some notable video games, too. I remember a healthy, innovative atmosphere of creating new games in hopes that they would be well received by consumers. I went to my local arcades every weekend from 1980 - 1985 and saw a lot of amazing titles hit the marketplace: Sega’s Zaxxon; Williams Electronics’ Robotron 2084; Stern Electronics’ Berzerk; Midway’s Gorf; DNA’s Wizard of Wor; and, of course, Atari’s Tempest. Amazing days.
As for home consoles, after Activision launched its first line of VCS/2600-compatible games in 1980, the floodgates opened and dozens of companies followed suit creating cartridges for every system on the market. In order to see everything available, you had to visit toy, department, record, and electronic stores. Sears had a license with Atari (and eventually Mattel and Coleco) to produce consoles and cartridges under its Tele-games imprint that offered exclusive games, too. What an incredible time to be alive and I am grateful to have seen an industry grow from its infancy to the juggernaut it is today.
As a pop culture consultant and historian, what is the next step for Robert V. Conte?
Now that my role with Art of Atari is finished, I am beginning work on a memoir — in graphic novel form — focused on my days working with “The Hottest Band in the World.” I also have a documentary film, Rebuilding Robert, in the works. Those interested should visit my website, www.robertvconte.com, for updates. The next few years will be quite an exciting time for me; I may write my own book on the early days of video games. We will see…!
How will Atari be remembered 50 years from now?
When we look back on Atari and its place in pop culture, the company contributed a platform and intellectual properties that influenced at least two generations of engineers, programmers, animators, writers, storyboard artists, and more. To think of all the great things that people once involved with Atari — including late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in their early days — is quite fascinating. For so many others who have yet to be recognized for their amazing contributions — including Atari logo designer and art director George Opperman (who illustrated the highly recognized Missile Command (artwork that graces the cover of Art of Atari) — it's long overdue. Perhaps, one day, video games history will be as familiar to the world as Superman, Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald are now. I am honored to have contributed my two cents to Art of Atari and forever grateful to Dynamite Entertainment for the opportunity.