Computer and video games get a rough ride from most art critics. Roger Ebert has famously said that they cannot be art. Surely that's a ridiculous assertion. Art takes many forms, and just because Mr. Ebert likes films and not video games, it doesn't necessarily mean that they are a lesser art form than movies... rather, a different one.
I'm not here to discuss that, though. I'm going to look at an aspect of computer games that are most definitely art... the loading screen and/or the title screen.
Graphic artists had a difficult job with loading screens or title screens. They had to convey a sense of excitement and anticipation about the game they represented for a fleeting moment, with the creator having the knowledge that whatever they produced would be instantly forgotten when the "Start" button was pressed. They could almost have been forgiven for knocking out some quick, barely-representative rubbish, and some did, but many took pride in their work and produced some top quality efforts. Let's look at some.
Thrust (Commodore 64)
Thrust is an incredibly difficult game, which sees you piloting a craft into the mining systems of planets, retrieving an energy pod and then, if luck and skill allow, escaping before the planet blows to smithereens.
This dramatic piece offers the pilot the light of hope as he heads out of the darkness with his hard-earned prize, yet reminds the player that complacency kills, with even the exit to freedom looking more like the mouth of a monster. The subtle use of monochrome with just a hint of colour in the ship's tail lights prepare the player for the simplicity of the game's wireframe graphics, but also serve to heighten the effectiveness of the piece.
Eliminator (ZX Spectrum)
The idea of a roadway in space seems ridiculous to those of us trapped squarely on terra firma, but when you think about it, is it any more ridiculous than the idea of a space elevator? No, it isn't, and that's been mooted for many a year now.
Eliminator has the premise that you must clear these roads of alien infestation. It's a bit like today's M6, but with more missiles. This Spectrum loading screen leaves you in no doubt as to what you'll be up against, as it contains all elements of the game: aliens, space, explosions, and a futuristic highway (complete with what might even be road works). The large spaceship emphasises the fact you are a bad-ass, and this is further enforced by the large yellow ELIMINATOR game logo positioned under your ship. This is a very effective loading screen.
Tetris (Commodore 64)
Everyone in the developed world knows about Tetris. It's not just a game, it's a cultural phenomenon. However, as the game involves nothing more than manipulating coloured bricks into a fixed area, it doesn't really lend itself toward imaginative artwork.
Thankfully, then, this game's loading screen artist eschewed the notion of representing gameplay, choosing instead to portray a naked man in space. In one image, he appears confident, even seeming to sprinkle magic from his fingertips. In the other, his back is turned, and he holds his head as he is engulfed by a storm.
I think we can determine from this that the artist wanted to convey the simplicity of the game, with the naked man representing the stripped-back game mechanics. He may also have been attempting to portray the mental anguish and torment that comes from actually playing Tetris, as the player finds himself addicted to the challenge of continually placing shapes in a manner that will prolong the game.
On the other hand, maybe he just didn't fancy drawing a loading screen featuring a purple 'L'. We may never know.
Wizball (ZX Spectrum)
The Commodore 64 version of Wizball, a game about colours developed for and programmed on a machine that was very good at handling multiple colours, had a somewhat bland loading screen. There was lots of white, and a frankly average looking wizard standing in the middle of what ends up being an ellipse, rather than a ball shape.
I find it slightly ironic, then, that the Spectrum version had a markedly superior loading screen, featuring bold images of all the main elements of the game, loads of character, and above all, bags of colour. Remarkable, for a machine that was mocked for its problems in that area. This is a loading screen that would have had any Spectrum owner excited at the prospect of the game to come.
Samurai Warrior: The Battles of Usagi Yojimbo (Commodore 64)
The path of a samurai is a noble one. Usagi Yojimbo is about a samurai rabbit... probably no less noble, but I can see why he would keep his ears under his hat at times. That said, in the game itself, they are proudly on display, and the peasants he encounters recognise him instantly for it and are humble.
The Spectrum loading screen is a more literal translation of the game box. I prefer this more imaginative image. Its use of Japanese symbolism is strong, with the dragonflies signifying the courage and strength of the warrior, and the lotus flowers in the foreground indicative of the purity of the samurai's values. The picture shows a serenity that the warrior is forced to give up a short way into his tale.
Hydrofool (ZX Spectrum)At first, I didn't realise this striking effort was a game screen. It was so markedly different to any Spectrum art I had seen that I thought it was a pack shot. When I discovered I was wrong, I was actually quite excited.
Although the game is set on a planet that is like a giant aquarium, I like to think that this image is a metaphor for life, with the protagonist feeling as though he is trapped in a giant fishbowl. The giant eyes seem to express surprise, or maybe even fear. Perhaps the artist here was implying that we are all like goldfish, with somebody bigger watching us all the time, in some way.
Sorry, what was I doing again?
Oh well, not to worry. I've enjoyed this little guest spot. Maybe I can come back and do it again sometime. Art, out.
Well, I think that went quite well. I've called this part one... perhaps our guest columnist will be persuaded to visit again sometime, and discuss more of the graphic delights of our 80s games. I, for one, would look forward to that. I hope you enjoyed this enough to look forward to it, too.