The Computer Will “Razz” You – 1981 Atari VCS Catalog

The idea of print catalogs being annually mailed to houses as the sole way of informing a consumer of a company’s upcoming product line is a quaint one; it harkens a time when marketing technology was limited and opted-in consumer interest was guaranteed – two qualities that don’t exist anymore.   Taking that view would suggest that companies needed to do very little in the way of making their catalogs attractive past the point of just showing what products they had on offer.  Some adopted that view (looking at you, Sears) and some didn’t.  Here’s an instance of the latter: Atari’s 1981 catalog.

Right off the bat there’s something unique and charming about this catalog: the hand drawn cartoon art representing Atari’s portfolio. This is an insane level of effort on Atari’s part to distinguish their offering, and I love, love, love it as you’ll see, but it really ends up eclipsing their actual product line and nets out as just some neat drawings related to their games.

This sort of follows the trend of video game box art in the 1980s, 1990s and, to an extent, today; the box art NEVER represents what the game actually looks like.  I always thought it was an attempt to convey what playing the game felt like, but I have to admit that’s a pretty optimistic and forgiving view; others might paint the effort as misleading and call it a day, and they wouldn’t be wrong. But man, that 1980s box art is beautiful.  Same idea here with these drawings – they’re very stylistic interpretations of the game universes and they’re very good ones. But take a look at the real estate given to the drawings versus the screenshots of the games, or even the descriptions of the games themselves.

Pretty heavily skewed on the art.  No surprise, really – Atari games are adorably basic.  I want to be clear that I’m not really bagging on this catalog; it’s a beautiful and unique thing. It’s just not really made to do the job it’s trying to do.  That said, here are some of my favorite pages.

I’m delighted at the legitimate concern the commanding officer has about the asteroid threat, contrasted by the delight the two board operators are exhibiting. This isn’t a game, guys!

Again with the inappropriate smile.  AND WHY IS THE KING OUTSIDE ON THE TOWER?

I do not understand the chain of events that led to two people playing Othello in space under the guidance or judgement of an alien species.

The passed-out dad in the Casino panel really does it for me.

Is that Pelé? Is that supposed to be Pelé?

The whole catalog’s worth a look. Check it out over at Archive.Org.