Games, Imagination, and Reality: The Power of Early Video Game Art

asteroids box

asteroids screenshot

LeftyLimbo made a good point on my Intellivision post about the box art on all these old games being so much more awesome than the actual game play. There’s nothing new about the importance of cover art in marketing, especially when marketing to kids (think of fantasy and sci-fi pulps, comics, RPG modules, toys, etc.), but I thought it would be interesting to make a comparison. Above is the cover of Asteroids for the Atari 2600 and a screenshot of the game:

Now here’s the cover to Halo 2 and a screenshot.

halo 2 box

halo 2 screenshot

The in-game graphics have caught up to the box art, have surpassed the box art, even. There’s no longer a need to use the imagination to fill in the gaps left by all those 8-bit games. It’s all about emulating reality now, or rather emulating the perception of a reality in which we’re protected by magic armor and moving at hyperspeed.

I’m not saying the old games are superior (we would have literally died of ecstasy if we’d seen and played Halo 2 in ’82, even ’90), though many of them are much more challenging as games. You can’t save your progress in Donkey Kong or Super Zaxxon. When your little men are gone, that’s it; you start from scratch. That’s why the high score meant so much.

The gaming industry, now and then, is in the escape business. It does what it has to do to get us to put more coins in the escape machines. The difference is that the escape is much more pervasive today. The time I spent in the arcades or on my Atari 800 simply doesn’t compare with the hours kids and adults today spend on World of Warcraft and StarCraft.

Another thing: adults didn’t used to play, at least not the way they play now. Parents would occasionally indulge, but they were usually embarrassed; they had “something more important to do.” I’m not sure that any activity post-internet is more important than keeping and staying entertained. Escapism in moderation is a good thing, but gamers tend to have a different idea of moderation than non-gamers and dabblers.

8 Responses to “Games, Imagination, and Reality: The Power of Early Video Game Art”


  1. 1 leftylimbo February 6, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    Truth. If all my friends and I went ape-sh** over Dragon’s Lair in ’83, I can’t imagine what would have happened if someone handed us Halo 2 back then. I think I would have vaporized on the spot. Or maybe have that totally overwhelmed look like those ’50s prom kids had in Back To The Future when Marty went crazy on that guitar.

    Kids these days were born with mice in their hands; perhaps that’s why it’s almost natural for them to turn to computers for entertainment.

    But adults? Hmm. Hard to understand why/how the escapism is so pervasive. The longest I can remember playing an Atari game consecutively may have been a few hours…I know I played my pal’s Defender game (Atari 5200 version, it ruled) from about 11pm–2am during a sleepover, trying desperately to reach a personal best (while he snored away). I have friends now that have played World of Warcraft for over 10 hours straight…like total all-nighters, literally. Have game-makers succeeded in making their games that addicting, or are adults these days so desperate to escape reality? Or is it a combination of both?
    The world may never know.

  2. 2 2W2N February 6, 2012 at 11:46 pm

    Part of it is that is was so damn frustrating getting so far into the game and having to start all over. There’s only so much of that you can take. Whereas now when you die you just respawn, and the game never stops. If I could keep drinking beer without getting full or throwing up, would I stop drinking beer?

  3. 3 leftylimbo February 7, 2012 at 6:02 am

    Agreed…starting from square one was not only hard on the morale, but hard on the allowance, lol. I remember having “bad days” where I simply could not connect with my favorite arcade game, and wouldn’t come close to beating my high score at all. It’s almost as if my “best days” were ones were I took some kind of relaxed Zen type of approach (almost like using The Force, I suppose).

    Perhaps that’s what arcade hot shots were made of back then – pure commitment and determination. That’s the stuff that makes movies like The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (which you must see if you haven’t already).

    I remember wanting to meet the mysterious person who always placed first or second in the Xevious rankings at my local bowling alley. For many, the 3-letter moniker you placed on the chart was something to be proud of.

    “Dood, you’re DEZ?”
    “Yeah.”
    “Cool! Man, how’d you get that score? I can never pass that one part!”
    “Dood, I’ve been playing this for days.”

    Speaking of which, do you remember how creatively mischievous some people got with those? DIK, SUK, FUK…

    Oof. Respawn. Surely the dividing word between now and then. Good point about the beer. Mmm…Beer.


  1. 1 Filling In The Blanks. « Lefty Limbo Trackback on February 7, 2012 at 8:59 am
  2. 2 Pac-Man in the News, 1982 | 2 Warps to Neptune Trackback on May 27, 2014 at 1:50 pm
  3. 3 Commodore Power/Play #6 (1983): ‘Are You An Adventurer?’ | 2 Warps to Neptune Trackback on August 29, 2014 at 2:13 pm
  4. 4 Christmas Morning, 1982: Pac-Man for the Atari 400/800 | 2 Warps to Neptune Trackback on December 21, 2015 at 7:01 pm

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