Atari Arcade: From Concept to Cabinets

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.

New Wave Toys homage to Atari’s Centipede. Twelve inches tall and fully playable!

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?

Read on to find out! 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 much cheaper of course than a full sized wooden cabinet.

Seeing everything actually come 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 back in 1982 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:

Atari’s George Opperman & Bob Flemate

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:

Note how the side art is closed off at the top. On the table is the original marquee design and a red control panel. Clearly a very early version of the Star Wars upright cabinet.

The model pictured there is recognisable from an early shot of the first cabinet design shared with me by Mike Jang a while back:

Designed by Ken Hata (as per the somewhat clear watermark!) notice the cool marquee design at the top. Star was originally designed to be played using a single joystick (as per Atari’s earlier vector title, Red Baron)

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:

Atari Star Wars

The final version of the cabinet began rolling off the Atari production lines in 1983. Take a look at this rare footage of the assembly process from the factory floor:

Footage from Atari’s Factory Floor circa April 1983. Note Crystal Castles was also being constructed at the same time

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, Opperman is pictured here discussing with a colleague the proposed artwork on a scale model of the upright cabinet:

George Opperman examining a model of Gravitar

Here’s a close up:

Gravitar’s side art. Conceptualised and drawn by one of Atari’s in-house artists Brad Chaboya

If you’re not familiar with the artwork on Gravitar, it differs quite significantly from that early design. Compare the two:

The main changes to the final design were the addition of the character at the bottom and the ship in the middle is much larger

I spotted a couple more of these models in a video that I’ll be sharing on the blog at a later date. This screengrab shows two of them captured during filming:

Note the cabinet models top centre and bottom right on this desk in the design department

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.

That blank cabinet model was furnished with artwork and became this:

Here’s the scale model complete with impressive looking artwork. Sentinel was a working title at the time

To the best of my knowledge, there were only two or three full sized cabinets produced for field testing, but for various reasons Akka Arrh never made it to full production

Atari went all out designing the dedicated cabinet for this title. Most prototypes just used 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:

Atari’s Akka Arrh – although the game never saw the light of day, just three full-sized prototype cabinet exist in the hands of collectors in the USA. Note these prototype cabinets have no side art, unlike the scale model

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:

This is the best I can capture of the mystery cabinet model – let me know in the comments if you know what this might be!

Edit: Thanks to blog reader Alan McClelland we have identified this cabinet! What’s more there are complete pictures of the cabinet model with hand drawn artwork:

Atari’s Runaway. This is the mocked up miniature model cabinet of the proposed design. Loving that artwork – very cool

Runaway it seems never made it beyond a prototype cabinet, now believed to be long lost. Here’s the only pictures we have:

The Runaway prototype cabinet and close up of the control panel

The game is playable on MAME – footage here:

Moving on, here’s another – 1980’s vector title, Battlezone:

This pic isn’t the greatest, but I think we’re looking at L-R: Jim Arita, Gjalt Van Der Wyk and Roger Hector examining a scale model of the Battlezone upright cabinet, complete with artwork

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:

Atari’s Battlezone cabinets on Atari’s factory line. Circa October 1980. (Image courtesy of The Strong, Rochester NY)

Let’s finish up here with Atari’s Paperboy. The first mocked up cabinet looked like this would you believe:

The design of Atari’s Paperboy arcade cabinet, started out life looking like this (credit: Jeff Bell)

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 Jeff 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, iRobot, Firefox, 720 and Return of the Jedi would eventually be housed using the design.

As for Paperboy, well thanks to some digging by some guys over at KLOV, it turns out there are a few prototype cabinets using the original proposed design:

This cabinet was owned by former Atari employee Milt Loper

However, we assume because of cost implications, the eventual cabinet was rather generic looking in the end, using Atari’s System 2 design:

Atari’s Paperboy – here on the production line at Atari’s factory in California. Circa January 1985
Atari’s head of Marketing at the time, Lyle Rains, pictured here with Paperboy at a trade show in the spring of 1985

Paperboy is a cool cabinet, but its a shame that the designers didn’t stick with the original design.

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.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Kevin says:

    Another great article.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Joseph Safago says:

    I’ve never seen these mock-up cabinets before, so I really enjoyed the history lesson! Thanks for all your research Tony.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robert David Swan says:

    Great article, would love to know what that mystery mockup is for as well!

    Liked by 1 person

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