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The Misleading World of Atari 2600 Box Art 267

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the all-hail-marketing dept.
Buffalo55 writes "These days, you don't have to worry about misleading box art, thanks to sophisticated video game graphics. In the 70s and 80s, though, companies tried to grab a consumer's attention with fancy artwork that bore no resemblance to the actual game. Atari, in particular, was one of the biggest offenders, particularly with its 2600 console."
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The Misleading World of Atari 2600 Box Art

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  • by Drakkenmensch (1255800) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @10:29AM (#33355890)
    Mostly through concept art and cinematics presented as teasers to the customers, allowing them to erroneously believe this will be actual gameplay.
  • I liked it. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Lectoid (891115) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @10:32AM (#33355948)
    I don't know. I really liked the box art. I think it helped make the game more than just the blocky pixels you saw on the screen.
  • by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @10:33AM (#33355964) Homepage
    This sort of thing was common even through the early 90s for computer games. People understood that the graphical level on the boxes wasn't anywhere near the level of the games. It is misleading to call this sort of thing misleading.
  • by pushing-robot (1037830) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @10:37AM (#33356030)

    Do you think gamers 30 years ago expected photorealistic games? If the game was well written, the screens became more than just a smattering of blocky pixels, in the same way that a cardboard box could become an impenetrable castle.

    I love modern technology, but it seems to be feeding a growing segment of the population with no desire for creativity or imagination. Read a book, people!

    </getoffmylawn>

  • by Jetrel (514839) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @10:48AM (#33356218)

    You know I have the same thing when I go to a restaurant. The picture of the burger looks oh so good but when I get it, it's just a smushed crap sandwich in a wrapper.

  • by ShannaraFan (533326) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @10:49AM (#33356228)

    Back then, you filled in the missing content with your imagination. These days, nobody has one anymore. Games (and movies) have to spell out every little detail, leaving nothing to the imagination. Remember seeing the Balrog on film? Was that what you imagined it to look like when you read the book? Wasn't what I had pictured, but I can't read the book now without seeing it the way it was depicted in the movie. Kinda sad, in a way.

  • Re:I liked it. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tverbeek (457094) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @10:53AM (#33356288) Homepage

    If they had shown actual screen shots, no one would have bought the things. ;)

    But seriously, in those days I saw the box art as similar to the painted covers on the paperbacks I was buying: a visual to feed your imagination, showing what the characters and setting "really" looked like. I didn't expect the latest Asimov or Niven book to be fully illustrated comics, and I didn't expect Atari or C64 games to be fully-rendered movies.

  • by red_dragon (1761) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @10:54AM (#33356308) Homepage

    You must['ve] gotten some bunk kool-aid.

    Probably Flavor Aid [wikipedia.org]. He should count himself lucky that he's still alive.

  • Cap guns (Score:5, Insightful)

    by michaelmalak (91262) <michael@michaelmalak.com> on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @11:07AM (#33356510) Homepage
    And the cap gun you bought at the toy store didn't shoot real bullets. Before the age of computer photorealism, there was imagination.
  • by nomadic (141991) <nomadicworld@NOSpam.gmail.com> on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @11:07AM (#33356514) Homepage
    To be fair, with 80's and 90's box art, we knew the graphics would look absolutely nothing like the cover, so it wasn't really dishonest.
  • by causality (777677) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @11:08AM (#33356526)

    I never owned an Atari 2600, but I remember the same phenomenon on the C64. Box art was usually colourful and cartoony. Very few games (at least until you got to the tail end of the C64's popular life span, when you had games like the Creatures series) could come even close to living up to this. It was a good lesson at an early age that you should never take promotional material at face value.

    Marketing is based on deception and considers it an important tool. This is nothing new.

    It's like when a toothpaste brand says "9 out of 10 dentists recommend it!". In reality they may have interviewed hundreds dentists in groups of ten, over and over again, until they finally found a group of ten out of which 9 preferred their brand. What they strongly imply but do not actually go so far as to claim is that their group of ten is a representative sample of all dentists. Because they do not actually make this positive claim, they escape any accusations of false advertising. Yet it's quite misleading.

    It's the same deal with the box art. They do not actually print "this is an in-game screen shot" yet they count on creating that impression. The intent behind this is clear enough.

    This should be called "The Misleading World of Marketing" that happens to use the Atari 2600 as an example of a much wider phenomenon. Like politics and public relations, marketing is a field that is very attractive to liars who can say anything with a straight face while performing just enough CYA to perpetuate their ability to do it. Maybe "How to Turn a Pathological Personality Disorder into Profit" would be a better title. I don't think the general public has enough appreciation for the fact that making demonstrably false factual statements is a very crude and inefficient way to deceive someone. The state of the art in those fields is far more advanced than that, relying instead on framing, subtle implication, emotional appeals, misleading use of statistics, selective presentation of information, etc.

  • by nedlohs (1335013) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @11:10AM (#33356554)

    It had a color picture on the cover.

    Yet inside there were just black letters on white pages bearing no resemblance to the scantily clad lady on the cover.

  • by jekewa (751500) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @11:15AM (#33356616) Homepage Journal

    Owning and/or having mates that owned almost all of the consoles of the era, I was keenly aware of the romance novel approach to cover art. I longed for the day when graphics in the game would match or exceed the package (and sometimes still do). I used to get by, however, by falling back on the imagination built as a younger child playing with Legos or other similar representations of near-real life. The blocky representations of characters and objects were abstract due to technical limitations, but by applying imagination to fill in the gaps, the sprites and geometric shapes would flush out in my head to be what was needed to make the experience enjoyable.

    No LSD required.

  • Not Just Atari (Score:3, Insightful)

    by StikyPad (445176) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @11:16AM (#33356620) Homepage

    Atari? Try Infocom, or any of the other less established companies that produced text adventures into the early 90s.

    Which isn't to say that I take exception with this practice; on the contrary, it's an example of why box art needn't accurately represent the contents. The art was simply something to admire, like the dust sleeve of a sci-fi novel. In some cases it added to the overall effect of the game; in others it added to the mystery. And back in the age of a prepubescent internet, genres were less rigid and reviews of a given title could be much harder to come by, so each new game purchase was almost always a mystery.

    Of course, there was also *zero* expectation that a game would resemble the cover art back then. Everyone knew this and for the most part nobody cared. These days, a CG scene on a box (or TV commercial) could reasonably be construed to represent the game content, and a variance between the two could therefore be seen as misleading, or worse.

    Still, I've always been told that you can't judge a book by its cover, and packaged software, while typically (though not always) sold on a medium other than book/paper, was no exception. That's was as true back then as it is today.

  • Re:I liked it. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @11:23AM (#33356724)

    I concur. I haven't seen news of women rising up across the nation because there are no naked pictures of Fabio in the latest Danielle Steele novel.

  • by xaxa (988988) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @11:26AM (#33356782)

    I clearly remember looking at it and knowing full well it was false, but that I could tell that it was attracting me to pick up the box and want it. I remember feeling tricked, and wondering what the actual game would be.

    Could you just turn the box over? Almost all my games (which were for the Acorn Archimedes, and published around 1988-1994) have a nice picture on the front, and actual screenshots on the back.

  • by Quirkz (1206400) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @11:32AM (#33356908) Homepage

    Even today, it still goes on to some extent.

    Oh man does it ever! To harp on the most disappointing game I've ever purchased: Transformers2 for the PS2 has movie-quality art on the front, and looks like utter crap when you play. (The PS3 version is downright stunning, though. I thought the robots looked nearly as good in the game as in the movie.)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @12:38PM (#33358038)

    Using the cover art like a primer; giving you visuals for your mind's eye to work with while you enjoy the (largely) non-realistic experience of reading text/looking at sprites.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @01:08PM (#33358578)

    In a word, BULLSHIT. The screenshots were on the BACK OF THE BOX. If you picked up any game magazine of the day, like "Electronic Games", you'd get plenty of screenshots of everything, from the Atari 2600 all the way up to arcade games. No one was trying to hide ANYTHING.

    Look, the game boxes were like the marquees on the stand-up arcade games and pinball machines. Arcade games still ran in demo mode showing what gameplay was like even if the marquee on the cabinet was some painted work of art.

    The artwork for Atari 2600 Pitfall looked nothing like the game! Oh noes! That didn't stop it from being one of the best selling games on the 2600. They showed the graphics readily on...GASP...TV commercials. The actual graphics of those ancient consoles was part of the "console war" of the day. No one was trying to hide anything.

  • by blair1q (305137) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @01:27PM (#33358898) Journal

    We thought the box covers were lame, and the games were totally cool.

  • Re:I liked it. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @04:06PM (#33361562)

    Right. I think the fact that this is spun as "misleading" reveals a sort of generation gap, if the article is to be taken seriously.

    Growing up with the dawn of PC gaming, the graphics were often more symbols than anything else, and the element of imagination was actually a big portion of the experience. I think some of my sense (shared with others) that graphics has acquired too much weight in modern gaming are coming at things from this point of view: graphics weren't necessarily supposed to be realistic or even aesthetically sophisticated, just symbols that your imagination filled in.

    Nethack is actually a good example of this, if you think about the fact that ASCII characters are in fact graphics. No one would expect Nethack to be graphically sophisticated, but that doesn't mean it isn't fun. The graphics in a lot of earlier PC games were just one step removed from ASCII characters. Hell, nearly any glyph in modern computer typography is more complicated than the graphics on those early systems.

Life would be so much easier if we could just look at the source code. -- Dave Olson

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