This week, I wanted to share some cool shots of very early concept models of Atari cabinets from the early eighties. These things have never really been highlighted before, but represent a key part of the design function at Atari Coin Operated Division during the Golden Age of arcade gaming.
Most of you will be familiar with the pint-sized reproduction arcade cabinets produced in recent years by Numskull and New Wave Toys. These diminutive cabinets are incredibly detailed and give space-conscious collectors an opportunity to build up a collection of cabinets without breaking the bank, or dealing with the wrath of a partner who doesn’t want huge lumps of wood co-habiting the house. I reviewed New Wave Toys’ Missile Command Replicade cabinet here if you missed it.
Now I’ve spoken before on the blog about prototype cabinets – these are early full sized pre-production cabinets, and usually differ from the final designs eventually released, they are prized possessions of those collectors lucky enough to own them.
But what came before the prototypes?
What many people don’t realise is Atari actually produced miniature versions of their arcade cabinets during the early design phase. Typically made from balsa wood and using hand-drawn artwork, these tiny cabinets were hand built to give the artists, cabinet designers and management a feel for how a cabinet might look out on the arcade floor. These models could be built very quickly and muh cheaper of course than a full sized wooden cabinet.
Seeing everything actually pulled together on a small, hand constructed cabinet model – to the correct scale of a fully assembled cabinet of course – allowed the teams to see the artwork in situ on the proposed cabinet design. Would the cabinet be eye catching? Does the artwork “pop” in the way the artist envisioned it would? is the marquee eye catching enough? Does everything work from an aesthetic point of view?
Talking about the role of these balsawood cabinet models, Head of Graphic Design at Atari, George Opperman, put it like this:
We get involved in the design process of decorating the cabinets. The characters, the action and the objectives of the game; we try to express in a two-dimensional form, with the cabinet graphics. This will then go to a quarter-sized mock up of the game, so everyone here can see how it all fits together
Atari’s George Opperman
Let’s start with Atari’s Star Wars. This was an important licence for obvious reasons for Atari. Everything had to be right, not least of which the artwork used on the proposed cabinet design. Pictured here are Atari’s George Opperman and Visual Communications Supervisor, Bob Flemate looking over some of the Star Wars arcade assets:
Lots of interesting detail here. Note the black plastic monitor and control panel shroud to the left on the table, along with some cool looking artwork, along with the mocked-up tiny cabinet. But the eagle eyed amongst you will notice the cabinet design is somewhat different to the final design.
Zooming in on the cabinet model:
The model pictured there is recognisable from an early shot of the first cabinet design shared with me by Mike Jang a while back:
Of course Star Wars would change with the addition of the yoke controller, side artwork that stretched right to the top of the cabinet and a flat marquee that brought out more of the Star Wars branding and IP:
The final version of the cabinet began rolling off the Atari production lines in 1983.
Here is rare footage of the assembly process from the factory floor:
Gravitar has arguably some of the best artwork of any classic arcade game. Although a commercial failure, there is no denying the eye catching look of this colour vector title. Again, George Opperman discusses with a colleague the proposed artwork on a model of the upright cabinet:
Here’s a close up:
If you’re not familiar with the artwork on Gravitar, it differs quite significantly from that early design. Compare the two:
I spotted a couple more of these models in a video that I’ll be sharing on the blog at a later date. This screenshot shows two of them captured during filming:
The cabinet at the top, would be the design that housed the unreleased game Akka Arrh.
The name Akka Arrh is an an pseudo acronym for “Also Known As Another Ralston Hally production”. It was named after the programmers Dave Ralston and Mike Hally.
To the best of my knowledge, there were only two or three of these produced.
Atari went all out designing the dedicated cabinet for this title. Most prototypes just use leftover cabinets from other games, and tend to have hand drawn artwork. But Akka Arrh was not like most games. Akka Arrh used a totally unique cabinet that had a strange tubular marquee, and a bunch of chase lights ringing the monitor area. The game’s sideart, marquee and other artwork were of the same high quality as Atari’s normal production games. But, apparently it didn’t do well in location testing, so all that work went to waste, and the game never went into wide production:
As for the cabinet at the bottom of that picture – I have no idea. Let me know in the comments if you can figure it out:
Here’s another – Battlezone.
I can’t see too many details on that cabinet, but given the complexity of the design features of Battlezone, it made perfect sense to see how the art fit to the cabinet before going into production! That said, it looks pretty much like the final production Battlezone released in 1980:
Let’s finish up here with Atari’s Paperboy. The first mocked up cabinet looked like this would you believe:
Apparently this model is 18 inches high and was created using foam board. The hand drawn graphics are on paper and stuck to the cabinet. Originally owned by Jess Melchor and gifted to Jay Bell – both former Atari Coin-op employees.
The cabinet design shown here was originally intended to be used on several cabinets, Including Star Wars, Crystal Castles and it seems, Paperboy. All would eventually be released using different cabinets (bespoke in the case of Star Wars and Crystal Castles). But Major Havoc and iRobot would eventually be housed using the design.
As for Paperboy, well the eventual cabinet was rather generic looking in the end, using Atari’s System 1 design:
Paperboy is a cool cabinet, but its a shame that the designers didn’t run further with those original sketches.
So there you go, a cool piece of Atari Coin-Op minutiae which I hope you found enjoyable.
Thanks for reading this week – see you next time.