Bonus Post: Galaxian!

This homage to DC Comics' Atari Force was tough.

This homage to DC Comics’ Atari Force was tough.

My students in Period One English have become obsessed with me having a modern gaming console. The asked me which I had when I was their age, and without thinking, I said “Atari 2600.” Needless to say, being 13, they had no idea what that was. I tried to explain it, and how cool it was, but that was not really easy to do.

So…I downloaded the game Galaxian to my Kindle Fire, to show it to them. I explained a lot of things that seemed arcane to them…like the idea that it was an advance that the enemies could fly toward you. Or…”No, you can’t fly up the screen, you can just move side to side.” Another was, “Well, this game was advanced, because you could have more than one bullet on screen at the time.” The big revelation though was with the question, “how do you save?”

“You mean save the game?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh…you can’t. You can get extra lives though. If you got enough, you could eat a piece of pizza.”

That blew their minds.

I read an article about Atari Game art that was fascinating, in response. “Compared to the visual styles that were to come later, like the kid-friendly console boxes of the Nintendo and Sega era and the slick marketing of today, Atari console game art is highly distinctive. But it’s also redolent of its time, an age of vivid montages like the Star Wars movie posters, The Six Million Dollar Man and countless concept albums. They speak of grand sci-fi vistas, humanity’s innate power and the promise of technology’s coming bounty.” That’s a bold statement, but very much on point.

In an interview, an Atari Marketing rep said that games needed to compete with other entertainment forms, like movies. “We were the latecomers, so we had to be better than what was out there. It was just a feeling of, in some ways, inferiority. We always felt we were little guys compared to movies and records at the time. We felt that in order to establish ourselves as a serious industry, we had to be better.”

A gamer and collector said about the packaging and art, “When you lined them up on the shelf, they were all these different colors. I didn’t have a word for it, but they had this uniform typography. They all had a similar look. And then the illustrations were just these really amazing worlds.”

The process to make this kind of art was complex, to say the least. Of course, in the days before high powered computers, the artwork was painted. “We’d paint pretty big,” recalls Steve Hendricks, an artist who worked at Atari. “We would do a pencil sketch for a rough, and we’d blow it up and project it on our illustration board. We used a gesso to actually mimic the texture, so if we had movement in the montage illustration we were doing, the gesso would kind of follow that, so we projected our concept sketch, and then the gesso would emulate, almost, the brush strokes and the movement of the painting. Then we’d come back in and sketch the line work, and then come in with the acrylics and gouache. I started playing around with oils as well, doing oil washes, and then you’d either use water on the gesso, or you’d use turpentine.”

Hendricks and the other artists would talk to the game designers to get an idea what the games were actually about. “To look at a screen capture, for instance, of a game, you’d go, what the heck is that? I would sit down with the game designers and pick their brains. What is your concept behind the game? What’s the gameplay all about? Tell me the story. We were trying to simulate what the game designer’s vision for what the game was all about. And in that regard, create some excitement for potential gamers who were going to buy that stuff.”

The box art from "Defender", one of my favorites.

The box art from “Defender”, one of my favorites.

Without a legacy of video games to work from, the designers were basing their work on album covers and sci-fi novels. And Atari, which came from the coin-op business, drew on its own history of painting arcade cabinets. Even before the Atari crash of 1983, the quality of the artwork was beginning to slip. By the time Nintendo rose to prominence in the mid-1980s, and with the coming of the PC gaming book of the 1990s, game art had changed completely.

Atari Force was the name of two comic book series published by DC Comics from 1982 to 1986. Both were loosely based on trademarks of Atari, Inc. The first Atari Force comics, which only counted 5 issues, were published in 1982 and were created mainly to illustrate story lines for home console games being released by fellow Warner Communications subsidiary Atari, Inc. The comics were packed in with the games Defender, Berzerk, Star Raiders, Phoenix, and Galaxian. The comics were written by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas and the artists included Ross Andru, Gil Kane, Dick Giordano, and Mike DeCarlo.

Hence…today’s art. It’s a celebration of how the work of artists took what were crude 8-bit graphics and transformed them into a story, into the very definition of cool. That the lavish art of the time, much like sci fi or pulp art, guided the imagination to something greater, to something epic.

I like the protagonist as somehow part of Atari Force, as it gives her an 80’s era uniform. I tried once before to give her an eighties era uniform, and hated the result. Here…it seems to work. The Atari force is entirely human though, and the game, Galaxian has the following as it’s sole instructions:

“WE ARE THE GALAXIANS / MISSION: DESTROY ALIENS”.

Since Our hero is an Alien American, it seems a bit hypocritical for her to be hanging out with the Atari Force. Still….I liked Galaxian a whole lot, and perhaps that right there is the root of our hero’s siding with the Humans aboard the Galaxip…or as DC Comic called it, Scanner One. We are suckers for cool spaceships.

As it is, this post is a celebration of art from the Golden Age of Video Games. Well worth a retrospective look, and some nostalgic love.

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