The Atari 2600 had a lot going for it when it launched. It was affordable, easy to use and, unlike many other systems that came before it, was capable of playing games on removable cartridges. The system became the ecosystem for an avalanche of over 500 games of varying quality. A vast marketing machine would grow around the advertising and release of them. When the Atari came out though, it only had nine games. Nine games that were basically abstract concepts represented by a couple of pixels on the screen with a few beeps thrown in for good measure. How do you make those games compelling?
You do it by using your packaging to tell a bigger story about what the game is about and asking your consumer to use their imagination. No small feat, but luckily Atari had an ace in the hole. They hired talented artists like Cliff Spohn, Jaekel, Rick Guidice, and George Opperman to design the packaging and cartridge art. All of these talented people had varied backgrounds, from commercial art to concept art for NASA, but they all had one thing in common. They could take a simple idea and translate it into a visual reality that the consumer could use to enhance their gameplay experience.
Some might say that this practice "misleading". While I agree that to a modern eye, this art misrepresents what you are going to be playing, but it makes total sense when you look at the art in the context of the time it was released and try to understand how it was useful to gamers during this period.
Modern audiences who have grown up with realistic graphics scoff at these simpler times, but that is because they lack insight into how these games were consumed. When you were driving a pixel block around a track that was supposed to represent a car, you were using your imagination to picture an Indy race car. This took added creativity by the players of the game, but coming up with your vision for the game along with a complete backstory and narrative just made the game that much more endearing. Here is where the art comes in, it gave you a nudge in the right direction. Not showing what you would see, but what you should see when you play the game.
Unfortunately no amount of amazing art will make a game playable and the original lineup of for the Atari 2600, like many consoles, had a few duds. At least with the Atari we still got some wonderful packaging to stare at after the game was thrown in a box never to be played again.
Here's the box art for the nine launch titles of the Atari 2600 along with a screenshot of the gameplay. Maybe seeing them side by side will jar some great memories, or if you never played these games before, give you some insight into how early gamers dealt with the disadvantages of early technology.
While graphics continue to get better and we move into immersive worlds that trick our brains into accepting technical realities. Undoubtedly we will spend long periods of time in these new games, but you got to ask yourself, how much of this technological advancement is necessary. 40 years ago, people would spend the same amount of time pushing single pixels across the screen and deriving the same amount of pleasure that we do today. So maybe those expensive processors aren't what game designers should be trying to tap into, but instead they should be looking at the human imagination. It is more powerful than any computer we can make now, it is upgradable and most important, it comes standard on all people.
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