How Atari box art turned 8-bit games into virtual wonderlands

Modern games have nothing on these cartridges


The cover for Adventure on the Atari looks nothing like the title it’s promoting. The game itself is essentially made of a series of rectangles, with a few blocky enemies prowling around, while the main adventurer is simply a square. You’re forced to imagine the fantasy world you’re meant to be exploring. But imagining it is a whole lot easier thanks to the vibrant artwork of Susan Jaekel. Because of her painting on the cover of the box, you knew that you were actually venturing through a hedge maze with three huge dragons lurking inside. It filled in the gaps left by the game’s rudimentary graphics — and Adventure was far from alone.

The original Atari featured a wealth of games with box art that was quite a bit more imaginative than the “grizzled man holding a gun” template that’s so popular today. The concept of playing a video game in your house, on your television, was still in its infancy in the late 1970s, and Atari needed a way to market its games. One solution was to commission intricately detailed covers that sold the idea of a game much better than any simple screenshot could. “The game-playing experience wasn’t 100 percent of the experience,” says Tim Lapetino, an artist and designer currently working on a book about the history of Atari cover art. “Part of what made the world complete was the artwork that conjured up this other place. I wasn’t sitting in my living room anymore; I was on this desolate planet or in space. And it was mostly because of that art.”

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"My covers kind of fired up that imagination."

First released in 1977, the Atari 2600 — or Atari VCS, as it was originally known — wasn’t the first home video game console. But it did help usher in a novel concept: having games stored on cartridges that you could swap in and out of the machine. These games were sold individually in stores, and the boxes lining retail shelves had to do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of promotion. One of the earliest games to hit the Atari 2600 was Combat, which was not only part of the first wave of launch titles, but came packaged with the console for several years. It was also the first cover painted by Cliff Spohn, an artist who helped define the look of Atari box art early on. “I kind of approached them like a paperback book cover or a poster for some sporting event,” says Spohn.


Steeplechase 1975


Super Breakout 1978

His goal was to show players what screenshots couldn’t. “The little icons on the screen were so abstract,” he says, “so the kids that were playing it would be picturing submarines and battleships and airplanes and all of that kind of stuff. So my covers kind of fired up that imagination.” Spohn’s art dominated the early covers, but as Atari grew, so did its roster of artists. Soon he was joined by a crew with a diverse range of backgrounds. Adventure artist Jaekel, for instance, had experience in textbook illustration, while Rick Guidice had worked on space-colony concept art for NASA in the 1970s. Even George Opperman, the late graphic artist who created the enduring Atari logo, chipped in a few covers.

For some impressionable youths, the art even helped shape their lives. Lapetino, for one, credits those early covers with getting him into the field of graphic design. “I didn’t know there was such thing as design or illustration,” he says. “But I liked it, and it really appealed to me, and I think this idea of image making really got me thinking about art, and eventually design, as a career.” The quality of the art and the imagination it required is perhaps even more impressive considering few of the artists actually played the games their work was based on. “I never played the games, I was totally clueless about that,” says Jaekel. Likewise, fellow artist John Enright had never played a video game at all prior to taking on the assignment, and says that “to this day I have never played a single Atari game.”

Instead, the artists would get a basic outline from an art director at Atari on what the game was about and what concepts the cover needed to get across. Some artists, like Steve Hendricks, would actually interview the programmers and designers working on the games to get a better feel for what they were about. But Atari also gave them a good amount of freedom to do what they wanted, which could be one of the reasons the company ended up with such a fantastic collection of box art for its console. “It was really nice to work with them because they were pretty open about what it was that I could do,” says Jaekel. “As I recall, I don’t know that they really gave me much direction. They just would tell me what the game was about, sort of loosely, and it was up to me to come up with a concept.”

Today, covers for big games largely follow a familiar template, and trailers and screenshots can do the job that was once in box art’s domain. There’s now a formula that appears to work with consumers, something that didn’t exist when Atari was starting out. “They really spent a lot of money, and they spent a lot of time, working hard to create individual identities to help sell these games,” says Lapetino, “so that each game had a different feel based on totally custom artwork.”

  • Haunted House

    In Haunted House players explored a spooky mansion, and the cover features several bats and a spider, with a pair of worried-looking eyes lurking in the background. Those eyes weren’t just thematically appropriate, though — they were also relevant to the game itself. Haunted House took place from a top-down perspective, with the player represented by a pair of eyes. Earlier versions (pictured above) featured a similar design, but with eyes overlaid on top of a woman running from danger. This accidentally risqué placement meant that artist Steve Hendricks was forced to go a different route, resulting in one of the console’s most memorable covers. “I’ve been told that these covers really did capture the imaginations of young gamers at the time,” says Hendricks. “It gave them a tangible visual of the game that could add value to the gameplay. It brought the game to life.”

  • Defender

    Defender is an example of a cover that looks a lot more exciting than the actual gameplay. While the game itself was a side-scrolling shooter where you fought off waves of pixels purported to be alien invaders, the cover featured a sleek-looking spaceship firing lasers at an unsuspecting populace. According to artist Steve Hendricks, he took on the job despite not being very familiar with Atari or gaming. “We approached each new cover as if it were a paperback book cover,” he says. “The illustration needed to capture the imagination of potential gamers since the game graphics themselves were so primitive at the time.”

  • Warlords

    Warlords was a huge arcade success in the early 1980s, and its Atari port was equally loved. Steve Hendricks’ cover for the home version featured a sword-swinging knight, with an epic battle reflected on his armor. The knight’s look was based on Jim Heather, designer and programmer on the game. While Hendricks was one of Atari’s more prolific cover artists, he says that he only worked on projects like Warlords because he personally found them interesting. “I would get a list of all the new game titles from [design manager John Hyashi],” he says, “and then I would divide up the illustrations among our internal staff of illustrators and many freelance illustrators. So I would work on the titles I thought would be fun to work on.”

  • Night Driver

    Night Driver is perhaps best known for being one of the earliest racing games to feature a first-person perspective. The cover art for the Atari version has a different perspective, though, showing a road filled with high-speed racers driving as the sun sets in the background — the game does take place at night, after all. For the driver, artist Steve Hendricks used the likeness of fellow Atari illustrator Jim Kelly, whose face also served as the inspiration for the cover of Othello, an Atari game released in 1980. “He was a great model and illustrator,” says Hendricks.

  • Flag Capture

    Ubisoft may be delving into the world of pirates with the next edition of Assassin’s Creed, but Atari was doing it long before with the release of Flag Capture. This strategy game had players attempting to locate a flag hidden in a grid of boxes, and it’s a great example of just how primitive video game visuals were three decades ago. The cover art, in contrast, is a lush swashbuckling painting created by John Enright, who felt particularly drawn to the subject matter. “I have always had a fascination for pirates, so this was a no-brainer,” he says. “I remember being completely energized during each painting session, which would last approximately six hours between breaks, 12-15 hours each day until it was completed, packaged, and delivered in person to their corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley.”

  • Slot Racers

    The cover art for Slot Racers depicts a particularly 1980s vision of the future — big, sleek cars on winding roads in a neon light-filled city. It wouldn’t look out of place in a movie like Tron. The game, meanwhile, consisted of a series of increasingly complex mazes in which two players track each other down while driving missile equipped vehicles. The piece was created based entirely on feedback from one of Atari’s art directors. “As illustrator, I took careful notes and sketches as well as reference materials to refine the final composition,” says artist John Enright.

  • Vanguard

    Originally released as an arcade game by Japanese developer Tose, Vanguard was later ported by Atari to both the 2600 and 5200. It was one of the first scrolling space-shooters ever made, but aside from its achievements as a game, it’s also notable for its cover. If the sci-fi style looks familiar, it should — the Atari version of Vanguard featured a cover painted by none other than the late Ralph McQuarrie, a concept artist who helped define the look of the original Star Wars trilogy. He also worked on iconic films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Total Recall, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but in between those gigs he managed to craft one of the Atari’s most enduring covers.

  • Adventure

    Adventure is one of the Atari 2600’s most iconic games, so it’s only natural that its cover would be fondly remembered as well. While much of the cover art for Atari games had a dark and serious feel, Susan Jaekel’s painting for Adventure differed in its upbeat style and bright colors. Her background may have been in textbook illustration, but the subject matter for games proved to be much more creatively fulfilling — and it’s something players still remember today. “I’ve had several emails and phone calls over the years,” says Jaekel, “and it’s usually people who played [Adventure], and I don’t know if it was just a happy time in their childhood or what. Artwork always adds so much to anything, whether it’s a book cover or a game cover.”

  • Basic Math

    Given her experience with children’s books and textbooks, it seems only natural that Susan Jaekel would work a on project like Basic Math. In contrast to the educational game’s straightforward arithmetic-based gameplay, the cover is vivid, colorful, and full of wonder. While the subject matter was similar, creating artwork for a math game was much different than doing the same for a math book. “With the textbook illustrations, you’re given a real specific assignment,” says Jaekel. And not only that, but the actual pieces were tiny, since they had to fit on the pages of the book. That wasn’t the case here. “To do these, they were so much larger, with exciting subject matter, and it was really fun.”

  • 3D Tic-Tac-Toe

    There’s perhaps no more exciting image of tictactoe than the cover for Atari’s 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, which depicts a robot playing against a woman and dog wearing spacesuits. And unlike many of the Atari covers that graced store shelves, 3D Tic-Tac-Toe was a collaboration between multiple artists. “I collaborated with Rick Guidice with that one,” explains Susan Jaekel, “because he was so good at structures, so he helped me with those four grids that are going across.” Their aim with the beautiful sci-fi illustrations was simply to make the game seem exciting to shoppers browsing the rows of game boxes in store — and nothing says fun like a dog with a space helmet.

  • Basic Programming

    For Basic Programming artist Rick Guidice had a particularly challenging task: to make learning to program seem exciting. To do so, he created a cover featuring two men working at huge consoles full of blinking lights. It makes programming look as intense and awesome as operating a spaceship. Those sci-fi influences shouldn’t be too surprising, though, as Guidice had spent time in the 1970s creating concept paintings for NASA, providing the world a glimpse of what the space colonies of the future might look like.

  • Air-Sea Battle

    Air-Sea Battle was one of the earliest Atari games, launching alongside the console in 1977. The gameplay covered all manner of warfare: you could shoot down planes with an anti-aircraft gun, pilot a submarine to down warships with torpedoes, and bomb ships while soaring through the skies. The game’s cover captured all of this with an epic battle featuring ships, planes, submarines, and plenty of dangerous projectiles. Fitting all of that onto one box wasn’t easy. “How am I going to get submarines, ships, planes, bombs, and get them all together? It’s like building a puzzle,” says artist Cliff Spohn.

  • Star Ship

    Like any good sci-fi classic, the cover of Star Ship features an epic space battle with lots of cool ships and large-scale explosions. That’s in stark contrast to the game itself, which was little more than a black screen and colored blocks. The sci-fi illustration not only caught the eye of gamers, but artists as well. “Cliff Spohn did some amazing illustrations for Atari,” says fellow artist John Enright. “This artist has a remarkable talent for color and elegant composition. His style is so fluid and relaxed.”

  • Surround

    Surround was another of the original Atari launch titles, and it’s notable for being the precursor to the Nokia gaming favorite Snake. It was essentially a clone of the arcade game Blockade: two players would take control of tiny blocks, trying to stay clear of each other for as long as possible, while leaving a Tron lightcycle-like trail that had to be avoided. The cover, meanwhile, depicted those two players as a pair sitting in front of a huge bank of computer consoles, complete with Atari-style joysticks. “With Surround, I wanted to create a very futuristic, very dimensional look, because it was a very flat game,” says Cliff Spohn.

  • Super Breakout

    The concept of Breakout and its sequel is incredibly abstract: you control a paddle and you need to bounce a ball to clear out bricks at the top of the screen. But the cover for Super Breakout made it feel a bit more real. You weren’t just a paddle, you were an astronaut gripping a paddle. And it was the small details that really made Cliff Spohn’s cover stand out. “The thing I loved about that,” says Lapetino, “was the idea that this rainbow-bricked wall in Breakout was an actual thing, because you could see it reflected on the helmet of the astronaut.”

  • Missile Command

    Originally released in the arcades in 1980, Missile Command was ported to Atari’s home console soon after. Its cover was created by the late George Opperman, who was not only responsible for the graphic design featured on many of Atari’s arcade cabinets and pinball machines, but also created the company’s iconic logo. For Missile Command, he created a complex scene with firing rockets and huge computer terminals. “I love Missile Command,” says Lapetino. “I love to stare at it because that game is so different than what the box art was like, and it was just amazing to look at this really complicated scene.”

  • E.T.

    E.T.: The Extraterrestrial is the Atari’s most infamous game: it was so bad and sold so poorly that rumors persist that truckloads of unsold copies are buried somewhere in New Mexico. Someone is even making a documentary about it. But as notoriously bad as the game is, the cover is actually quite wonderful, capturing the feeling of the film in a way the game failed to do. It was the handiwork of Japanese artist Hiro Kimura, whose work has been featured by everyone from Coca-Cola and General Electric to the NFL and The New Yorker.

Photography by Michael Shane, sketches courtesy of Steve Hendricks