How to Create a Retro Sci-Fi Computer Game Poster
This post was originally published in 2010
The tips and techniques explained may be outdated.
Combine stock photos and design resources to create an awesome retro sci-fi themed game poster that takes inspiration from Atari games of the 80s. By mixing up bright and vibrant cosmic designs with old, distressed and grungey textures we’ll create a retro futuristic poster design for ‘Galactic Attack’.
Research and inspiration
I knew from the start what theme and style of poster I wanted to create, but to further develop my ideas I took to the web to research my chosen theme in order to pick out common design elements which would help tailor my design to the style I was after. A quick search for Atari games and retro sci-fi movies soon brought up plenty of creative ideas to start with. Here’s a quick mood board I put together for the theme of retro sci-fi.
Open up Adobe Photoshop and create a document at your desired poster dimensions. Remember to use a high DPI (150-300) if you’re looking at having your design printed. Fill the background with black, then dab a couple of spots of dark blue in opposite corners.
Find an old paper scan, such as this one from SXC. Paste it into the document and desaturate. Run a quick Sharpen (Filter > Sharpen) command to give more definition to the texture. Change the blending mode to Soft Light at 50%.
Switch over to Illustrator to create a vector resource. Draw a rectangle onto the artboard at the same dimensions as your poster, then go to Object > Path > Split into Grid.
Change the gutter setting to zero, then adjust the number of rows and columns until the grid squares are equal in size.
Change the black stroke to white, then paste the grid into Photoshop. Add an Outer Glow of a bright Cyan, with the blending mode Color Dodge.
Give the layer of the grid a blending mode of Soft Light to allow the colours to interact with the blue tints in the background.
Open up a photograph of the moon and paste it into the document. Change the blending mode to Color Dodge, then lower the opacity to 20%.
Use the Brush tool to dab a large spot of white over the planet. Change this layer’s blending mode to Overlay to give a vibrant lighting effect.
Duplicate the grid layer, then add a layer mask to the new copy. Use a large soft brush to erase out areas of the duplicated grid to give varying levels of vibrance across the poster.
This handy photograph of a rocket engine will fit perfectly as our sci-fi cannon. Open up the shot in a new document and clip out the object with the Pen Tool.
Paste the cannon into the document and scale into place. Position it in the bottom right corner, so it fits within the grid area.
Change the blending mode to Linear Light, then duplicate the layer. On the duplicate, go to Filter > Blur > Motion Blur. Adjust the angle to follow the direction of the cannon and adjust the amount to around 100px. Drop the opacity of this layer to 50%.
Use a soft brush to roughly draw a bright pink explosion. Change the blending mode to Exclusion at 50% to allow the pink to recolour the underlying artwork.
Download a simple explosion graphic and open it up in Photoshop. Desaturate the graphic, then change the blending mode to Lighten at 5%. This will add a subtle texture and impression of exploding motion.
On a new layer, use the Brush tool to draw a laser trial and start of the explosion. Change the layer’s blending mode to Color Dodge to allow the colours to interact.
Add a large spot of white to the end of the cannon, change the blending mode to Overlay.
Find a photograph of some lightning. Paste the shot into Photoshop then scale and rotate to follow the line of the laser shot. Change the blending mode to Color Dodge, then add a layer mask to erase out any hard edges or corners from the photograph.
Switch back to Illustrator and quickly draw a Heptagon with the Polygon Tool. Give it a white stroke then paste into Photoshop.
Position the Heptagon into place as a target marker, then double click the layer to add an Outer Glow style. Use a bright Cyan with the Color Dodge blending mode to create the feel of a sci-fi computer display or HUD.
Paste in another Heptagon, this time scale it so it’s slightly larger than the original. Rotate it slightly to give the impression of a radial movement.
Continue creating and pasting various geometric shapes into the document. Give each one the same layer style by right clicking the original target layer and selecting Copy Layer Style, then Paste Layer Style on the following shapes. Mix in a couple of triangles and circles to add variety.
Use some star brushes to paint in a cosmic background. Adjust the brush settings to that the brush scatters and varies in size. Change the blending mode to Soft Light.
Download a detailed cosmic photograph, then paste it into the document. Change the blending mode to Overlay at 50% to allow the textures and colours to interact with the design.
Add a grungey border to the design with some tape brushes. Adjust the angle from the Brushes palette, then paint over the edges of the document.
Open up Illustrator once again and create a title logo for our retro game. Galactic Attack sounds like a typical Atari game from the 80s! A sci-fi font such as Viper Squadron makes a fitting design.
Paste the logo into the document, then add a Drop Shadow to allow the title to pop.
Next, add a bright blue Inner Glow. Change the settings to Normal at around 20px.
Finally, a large pink stroke with the blending mode of Overlay gives an outline that interacts and blends with the underlying design.
Hold CMD and click the layer thumbnail of the logo, then Hold the ALT key while dragging with the layer mask to remove a portion of the selection.
On a new layer fill the selection with a gradient. We’re aiming for that retro chrome look that’s typical to the 80s, so use samples of purple from the design.
Repeat the process for the first word to finish off the logo.
Press CMD+A to select all, then Copy Merged (CMD+Shift+C). Paste the clipping onto a new layer, then go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise. Enter around 20%, and change the blending mode to Screen at 30%. This step helps add that detailed texture often associated with old prints.
Finish off the design with some typical game branding. I’m taking inspiration from my old Atari 2600 games from my childhood.
The final poster design fits right in as a retro sci-fi game. The bright and vibrant colours help give that futuristic space theme, while the various textures and outdated design styles send it right back to the 80s era.