The Art of Video Game Box Art

11.10.2011

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Doug Walker of Nostalgia Critic fame once paid tribute to the movie box artist named Drew Struzan. For those who are unaware, Drew Struzan was the man responsible for some of the most iconic movie posters in the late 70′s, all the way up to his final piece before his retirement, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. His artwork told stories, and helped entice moviegoers into putting down their cold hard cash towards the movies he painted a story for. While Drew started with album artwork, his work on the posters for films such as the original Star Wars trilogy, Blade Runner and The Goonies will often be remembered first and foremost. Any and every project he applied his creative direction to, helped tell a story for each album, movie or even comic book cover, even before the patron begins their journey with any one of those forms of media. He even made the Masters of the Universe movie seem epic, helping weave a story together that was arguably more fleshed out in water colors than in costumes, undefinable accents and special effects.

In the world of gaming however, there’s more of a predominance towards the most comical, ill-fitted pieces of art adorning the cover of a video game box, than the exquisite composition that relays any sort of story telling before the game is inserted. But why is that so? How come the tender love and care isn’t applied to this form of media? Are there any box covers that portray any semblance of intrigue and passion?

Going back a couple dozen years, cover art was actually quite spectacular, capturing the subject matter in ways that even the actual game couldn’t even do successfully. The visuals in a typical Colecovision or Intellivision game were basic, without much, if any, detail to be found. With meager graphical power offered by those systems, box art could help tell a story in ways that the game could not. Like Drew’s work with movie posters, these box arts were able to tell a story before players even purchased the title. Imagination was the vessel for immersion; while the in-game graphics might be composed of sticks and blocks, viewing the box art in which this video game originated from would help stir the imaginations and creativity of the player. Unfortunately, while there were a plethora of impressive covers for these games:

there were still quite a few that left little to the imagination:

Hell, these artists made a checkers game look incredibly appealing, solely based off of what the cover looked like. I ask you this – when was the last time you ever saw an advert for a checkers game that looked as gripping as this:

One could even argue that these cover art pieces were too good. The fascination of seeing the outer space themed 3D Tic-Tac-Toe on the cover of the box and witnessing the massive letdown once the game is powered on, might have put off those that didn’t enjoy having the pictures aid in their imagination as they played. It could also have something to do with a flood of poorly developed video games that were streaming out in the early 80′s, which led to the eventual video game crash in 1983. Even though there were titles released on the Commodore 64 and Amiga at that time, the quality those cover pieces started to slowly degrade.

Whether they were arcade marquees or standard cover work, things weren’t the same anymore. As time passed and with the re-establishment of the video game market, the technology used within these systems have improved drastically, making humanoid characters appear as such, as opposed to seven white blocks that barely animate. The games themselves were able to convey more imagination and creativity with them than they were able to in years past. But with these visual upgrades, the boxes that housed these games for retail purchases started to show more and more laziness and barely emphasized any kind of storytelling for the gamer that has never heard of the product before. Maybe this was for the better?

The mid to late 80′s didn’t have a whole lot of places where gamers could read up on the latest releases. With magazines such as Nintendo Power, Electronic Gaming Monthly, GamePro and Game Players being a late 80′s birth and slow to expand its circulation territories, curious gamers were subjected to the prenatal care of their peers for their gaming information. But with the slow rise of gaming coverage via print magazines, it became either a bit more difficult, or all the more easier to sell these games, thanks to ratings and such. Why put much effort into making the cover of your game look dramatic, trepidations or eye catching, when you can now get free press and promotion by having your products featured in magazines?

The 8-bit generation had a distinct lacked of creativity with the images on their boxes. The gaming market as a whole picked up drastically, whereas these game boxes became more and more obtuse. There weren’t any stories being told anymore, no way to stimulate ones imagination before the adventure begins. Lets take a quick look at a couple of the more imaginative covers that managed to squeak by in the United States, shall we?

Konami/Ultra Games had a knack of featuring some of the more immersive covers, as well as some of the most piss poor box arts. One of the most impressive pieces comes from Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. Trevor Belmont is shown battling a skeletal minion, Grant is climbing a pillar on the upper right portion with his dagger unsheathed, Sypha’s taking on a hydra in the background, a bat on the upper left portion that could very well be Alucard doing a fly by, all within the shadows of Dracula’s castle. The battles on the front look rather fascinating, showing me a sense of deep rooted action at every corner. If I had no previous history with this title, I would think that the guy with the whip seems like the all-around character, that person in the middle would be the magician, and that odd fella hanging off that pillar would be the agile thief. It was actually one of the few box arts that reflected a story to players that was mimicked within the titles its self. It didn’t reflect the sheer balls to the wall difficulty within, but the artist portrayal of the events within the game was as spot on as one could find during this era.

On a system that featured some of the most putrid pieces of artwork, as well as some of the most putrid pieces of gaming, one of the stronger on the latter was Golvellius: Valley of Doom. Judging from the image on the right, the adventure looks fierce, with a under-equipped, green haired individual wielding a shiny shield and dull sword raising his weapon towards an approaching phenomenon that appears to be chasing a damsel in distress. Though the heroes pose is goofy, and the undefinable menace approaching looks like a cross between Marjory the Trash Heap from Fraggle Rock, and the Swamp Thing’s morbidly obese sister, it tells its own story. Unfortunately I’ve never had any hands on time with Golvellius: Valley of Doom, but from this YouTube clip, it looks like a rather peculiar action adventure game with bits and pieces of an overworld similar to The Legend of Zelda, with vertical scrolling and horizontal platforming segments thrown it, as well as a boss fight with the creature that caught Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. For a Sega Master system game, it does look rather intriguing, though the cover seems like it gave more credit than it possibly deserved.

Now lets take a peek at some of the more uninspiring boxes that don’t even bother to illustrate anything of relevance, or importance, to the source material. For arguments sakes, I’ll pick out two NES boxes, since just about every Sega Master System game box is as atrocious and unimaginative as one can ever think.

 I know, I know….what more could one expect from a game based off a plastic doll that’s made for little girls? While just about everyone under the sun knows of the Barbie line of toys, but that doesn’t excuse this pathetic cover. It’s just a Barbie doll, with pink earrings with a pink outfit, in a pink background. The text on the box proclaims “A Glamorous Quest Full of Magic, Fun and Adventure!” yet even that doesn’t say much. I know a potential customer could flip the box around and get a bit more of an analysis, but if the front of the box doesn’t grab you to flip the box over in the first place, who’s going to know? While I wasn’t born a female (as far as I know) this Barbie game on the NES wouldn’t even hold the attention of any girl of any age. There was a distinct lack of games geared towards the female player-base, mostly because that player-base was so minute. A more unisex approach like Super Mario Bros. 2 gave more appeal to girl gamers as a whole than this abomination.

Shatterhand is not a game that many NES players played. While it certainly wasn’t one of the more horrific games on the system, it didn’t set the sales charts on fire. If you walked into the gaming department of Woolworth’s during the Nintendo’s lifespan and saw a guy with hideous shades on and a plain white shirt on, punching a piece of his logo off with knuckles that are peeling, would you even bother to give this one a second look? There’s nothing that tells me what to expect, no kind of message, short story or creative measures to pull me in and excite me. In fact, when the cover to your video game looks less imposing than Michael Dudikoff on the cover of American Ninja, you’re doing it wrong. It’s not the bottom of the barrel like Mega Man, but its blandness seemed more like a deterrent than anything.

As the newer generations came along, the lack of imagination continued to take center stage. With gaming magazines becoming a bigger staple in the lives of gamers around the country, that reliance on cover illustrations became even further nullified. I guess this was for the better, as each succeeding generation of consoles introduced storytelling a a higher level than the consoles before it. Going further and further into each generation of consoles, gaming started to become something more than a children’s hobby; television commercials, the rise of the Internet and a much more broadened distribution for a plethora of gaming magazines aimed at more than just kids, began to promote gaming. With the promotional powerhouse pumping out free press for publishers, as well as the fact that each video game that came along focused a lot more on storytelling than the previous generations of games, it seems as if the days of a game cover telling a story to the masses had come to an end.

Who’s to say that a company still can’t promote their own game with a cover that’s fitting to the game world within? While it might be cost effective to slap on a logo and plop a miscellaneous avatar on top of it all, making a more impressionable package could go a long way as well. There are still parents or guardians out there that are not as keen as most other gamers, so when they are asked to purchase a video game on the Xbox 360, something catchy could always flag them down and get their attention. Hell, the look can be more appealing to even those that were looking forward to the games release anyway, and would purchase the title even if the box had a picture of Gumby and Rob Van Dam playing golf.


Jason V.

I am the Co-Editor-in-Chief here at Chocolate Lemon. Over the last 15 years, I have been writing gaming articles here and there, including my time with GameSages, a then IGN affiliated video game code database that's now owned by IGN, as well as my near four year stay on this very site. I'm quite the gaming enthusiast, have a somewhat "old school" soul, and enjoy a wide variety of geeky shows, movies and so on. Follow me on Twitter @Jas0nVelez