Artcade – The Book of Classic Arcade Artwork Review

Growing up in a British coastal town during the 1980/90s, much of my youth (and pocket money) was misspent in the video game arcades that lined the seafront. Of course, my mates and I had consoles and home computers, but these never quite captured the excitement of the coin-op experience. Coin-op versions were simply faster, louder, and better looking; the screens were bigger, the control systems more elaborate and fun, and it was easier to team up with or play against another person. Seeing all those games lined up in nice neat rows, each one vying for your attention and coinage, was simply intoxicating.

In recent years we’ve had a number of books focusing on the games, their visuals and the creators, but perhaps one of the more underappreciated aspects of classic games culture is that of the artwork that adorned the wooden arcade cabinets. Not only did this serve as a means to sell the games to potential players and to allow your favourites to be quickly identified from afar, but it helped bridge the sizeable gap between the reality of the graphics and the player’s imagination. Inspired by comic books, manga, and fantasy art, these colourful and often mesmerising illustrations were very much a part of the magic and escapism of the arcades.

Created by Tim Nicholls and published by Bitmap Books, this is exactly what Artcade – The Book of Classic Arcade Artwork sets out to celebrate. It’s a 324-page coffee-table hardback showcasing the marquee artwork (i.e. the images that adorn the canopy above the screen) from dozens of classic arcade cabinets.

It all began when Nicholls, a collector and restorer of classic arcade machines, was made a once-in-a-lifetime offer – an incredible archive of over 4,000 original cabinet art images. The Hollywood props company that had amassed them over a period of 40 years was closing down and the collection was in danger of being lost forever. Determined to save them, Nicholls purchased the archive at considerable personal expense, which included selling off all of his arcade machines.

He then spent more than 2,000 hours restoring and reconstructing the multi-part scans in Photoshop, most of which were in poor condition due to years of abuse from having been attached to the cases of real working machines. Wanting to share the images and his hard work with as many people as possible, Nicholls launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the book.

Clearly this whole exercise has been a huge labour of love, and it shows. Artcade is well made and presented, and it is an absolute joy to flick through. Ordered chronologically from 1976 to 1994, each marquee has been faithfully reproduced across an entire double-page spread. The images are vibrant and lively thanks to lithographic printing on quality paper, and Nicholls has done a fantastic job of repairing (not redrawing!) the artwork to its former glory. Indeed, he states in the foreword that printing artifacts were deliberately left intact and that in many cases it would have been less effort to recreate the images from scratch but “that’s not what this book is about”.

Nicholls had originally intended to include art from a variety of cabinet positions but in the end opted just for the marquees due to their more consistent rectangular shape. It was a shrewd decision because they lend themselves extremely well to the A4 landscape format of the book. In fact, Nicholls reckons that most of the pictures are close to a 1:1 reproduction. And because they’re entirely free from the distraction of text or overlays, the images are represented as they would have appeared on the fronts of the original arcade machines. It’s a great effect and one that really gets the old nostalgia juices flowing.

Crucially, the images were chosen based on their own merits rather than on the strength of the coin-ops they represent, a philosophy that I wholeheartedly agree with. After all, Artcade is about the artwork and not the games themselves. Although, Nicholls does admit that one or two were snuck in solely due to their massive popularity (I’m looking at you Mario Bros.), but I’m willing to let that slip. Rest assured, you’ll still find many of your favourites in here, plus a few you will suddenly want to know more about. Personally, I’d never heard of Moon Patrol or Choplifter, but the stunning artwork has really piqued my curiosity for those titles. Also, it was great to see that marquees from classics I hadn’t seen in years, such as Out Run, 1942, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins, were still able to capture my imagination.

For variety and added value, Artcade is also interspersed with stylish photography of classic arcade machines in action and includes an index featuring a short but interesting write-up about each cabinet. Regrettably though, Nicholls was only able to credit a handful of the images with an artist. It seems that most were left unsigned and that the companies he was able to contact never kept any records. However, he was able to track down a few.

As a result the book also includes a selection of concept art and commentary from Larry Day (Moon Patrol, Pooyan), some of which was created for games that never saw the light of day. And also an entertaining interview with the flamboyant Python Anghelo (Joust, Sinistar; though better known for his pinball work), who has sadly since passed away. Both of these features provide a brief but fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of the arcade industry in its heyday.

All-in-all, Artcade is a fantastic and beautifully-presented browser book that oozes with Tim Nicholls’ unadulterated passion for vintage coin-ops. The reproductions and restorations are fantastic, the format really does the images justice, and it looks and feels like a quality product. It certainly should appeal to anyone with a strong interest in classic arcade games or 1980s pop culture.

Artcade – The Book of Classic Arcade Artwork is available to buy from Bitmap Books for £24.99.

Developer: Bitmap Books

Publisher: Bitmap Books

Release Date: April 2016