Weekend Hot Topic, part 2: Favourite video game box art

Readers discuss the most memorable box art in video game history, including classics ranging from Duke NUkem 3D to Soul Reaver.

The subject for this week’s Hot Topic was suggested by various readers, who asked what box art has made the most impression on you and why? Since physical copies are becoming increasingly rare how important do you feel key art images are in setting the tone for a game?

This was another very popular Hot Topic, with dozens of games from across the decades and most readers adamant that striking artwork is still vital for setting the tone for a game, especially if you don’t know much about it.

Consistently good
I would say that the minimalistic cover art design of the European console versions of Final Fantasies 7 through to 13 are the most memorable to me. Most important of all, there was a sense of continuity as you progressed through three console generations. More so, if you consider that the design was retconned into most of the previous iterations when they had their European debuts on the PS1 or PSP.

Comparing them against the brash cover art of their respective US versions it’s like the difference between the clean design of the menu at a posh restaurant and the photos of the food at a kebab shop.
GGEuDraco (Steam ID)/Pokémon Go: 5678-1979-9408

Exception to the rule
I’ve never really put much stock in the box artwork of a game. I think I got burnt as a child when I convinced my mum to get me an F1 Game Boy game (F1 Race) – the box art looked cool, and I was really into F1. Of course, the game played awful and I felt stupid for being tricked by the exciting box art.

Nintendo have usually nailed their box artwork. Super Mario Bros. 3 with the bright yellow background and Racoon Mario stood out, and I remember the SNES Mario Kart box artwork. The Mario games in general have some memorable artwork: Super Mario 64, Galaxy 1 and 2 and Odyssey.

GTA’s artwork is iconic now and I always thought Ico had a beautiful cover, as well as Ōkami.

The worst will probably be documented by others, so I’ll mention one that I feel underwhelmed me. Metroid Prime is one of my favourite games, but the artwork is a bit dull compared to previous Metroid games.

GC: F1 Race was a Nintendo game.

Team Ico
I couldn’t help but laugh and/or cry at the list of appalling video game box art a reader posted a few days ago. They far exceeded what I thought was the worst: the Western art for Street Fighter Alpha on Saturn and PS1. East beating West in regards to game art seemed standard to me for years, at least during the 8, 16 and 32-bit periods. Although there were some exceptions where genuine effort was made, Japanese box art just seemed on another level compared to the Western versions of the same game.

If you were to strip away the PlayStation/Sony emblems and game title, the box art that would have arty types stroking their chins in admiration at some fancy gallery would be Ico. Beautifully minimalist and it captures the essence of the game well. I struggle to think of a more striking example of box art but hope others’ suggestions prove me wrong.
Meestah Bull

Adult images
I’m going to cheat and give my two favourite boxes. First is Duke Nukem’s big PC box. When I first saw it I had to play this game, and it is very reminiscent of Doom, Army of Darkness, and even The Toxic Avenger’s video box (which, coincidentally, I saw on the same day).

The BBFC 18 rating was a big deal too, as I didn’t know they made ‘adult’ games and they certainly didn’t on Nintendo. Second is really niche: the Japanese box art for Perfect Dark. I mean, just look at it! It makes the game seem like Nikita or a Nicholas Winding Refn movie. I’d love them to use this aesthetic for the actual new game, but of course they won’t.

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In colour
I’ve been playing games since the Amstrad 464 CPC, so was used to getting tapes with the various artwork where the games graphics were not good enough to put on the front of the box, so they had artwork to entice you into buying the game. I always went by reviews in magazines before I bought games, rather than their artwork.

I did like the colourful Dizzy cases and the Fast Food game by Codemasters. As the Amstrad we had, had a green monitor everything was in green for us and I was jealous of the colour screenshots on the tape cases! I also had an Amiga with the big box games, I liked the Worms 1 and 2 artwork from the Amiga. It’s hard to remember, for me, specific artwork I liked as it was a long time ago.

I also had a Mega Drive and my brother a SNES, which had boxes with artwork on too. I really like the various designs for the GTA games. My brother bought a game by looking at the box rather than reviews and when he took it home to play on the Amstrad it did not work and when he went back to the shop the guy did not exchange it, we presumed they presumed we had copied it, which we hadn’t, so he had no game.

At the same time I bought a Codemasters game called Seymour, which was a bit like the Dizzy games, which worked OK from the same shop.
Andrew J.

Classic art
First real home-gaming for me was on the ZX80/ZX81 and then the almighty Spectrum 48K.

Living in a small mining village in the 80s, cash was very limited and your buying decisions were ones to be taken very seriously. Taking time to look through Crash (my absolute favourite magazine back then – good reviews and they would include the keyboard layout… which was useful for several reasons!) or Your Sinclair, etc. – either at home if you could afford one or in the local shop until they would kick you out, was a must.

Whenever someone got a new game there would be a pile-on around their house… looking at the box art, the instructions, etc. (you had to do something while the game loaded) and then watching the opening screen and finally the game itself – waiting patiently so who’s house it was would get around to giving you a go, and that could take hours.

Before I did delve back into the image search as a reminder I did trawl my memories first and most of the ones that I remembered are the ones that I still think are strong covers, and some would easily still work now. Vast majority for me are all Ultimate Play The Game games: Knight Lore, Underwurlde, etc. Took the box art (and the boxes I think) to a new level. I also liked their older stuff, like Jet Pac, Trans Am, and Atic Atac (first game someone ‘shared’ with me) and I even drew my own copy of that cover to go in my cassette case. Other classics for me were The Hobbit, Commando, and The Quill (not a ‘game’ I know but still counts for this I think).

What surprised me was for my favourite games their covers did not automatically become a standout for me. Manic Miner, for example. Loved that game, got the timing shaved down to where I could not complete the first nine levels any faster (forget after that, needed cheat codes to progress) and I simply did not, and still do not, like the cover.

Took a scan through various Mega Drive art as well and the only one cover that stood out for me still was Flashback. Maybe I’d just grown up too much by then.

Anything more recent I think has been lost on me.

Room with a view
Gaming box art, like classic movie posters, is an immediate window for nostalgia; the late 80s, reign of 16-bit computers and annual subscriptions to Zero magazine. Then any gaming experience was drip fed ambrosia, with the cover art intrinsically linked to the playing experience itself. Away from the CRT screen, early adolescent hours were spent copying the most evocative pictures onto cheap paper, reused Blu Tack at hand. Today, the ones I recall best are the other worldly artworks of Roger Dean; Psygnosis games are forever fixed as alien artefacts built through a prism of foreign understanding, rather than routine code.

Also, the elaborate heroism of the Dungeons & Dragons box art, with Jeff Easley’s work on Eye Of The Beholder. The pure chunky 80s Western video gaming-ness of the Ocean (et al.) conversions. Stocky action hero archetypes with big guns and bigger guns gracing Midnight Resistance, Forgotten Worlds, Operation Wolf, and Green Beret. I would welcome recommendations for a coffee table book.

Twice as good
I’ve always liked box art on games and I think it can have just as much effect on how well a game sells as the review scores preceding it, or at least it did before the whole digital age graced us with its presence. Gaming shelves used to be awash with colours and cartoons and sports stars just desperate to grab our attention.

You would have the games with the lovely artwork on, some with an inclination of what the game was about and others with just the title – but eye catching all the same. Then you would have the really lazy box art which normally would just have a screenshot of a character. Which would then unconsciously have you thinking to yourself, ‘if that’s all the effort they put into the box art, how much effort have they put into the game?’. Even though, if truth be told, they are probably completely different entities of the same business.

Yes, I know Nintendo did a lot of pixelated screenshot box art back in the NES days but home consoles and gaming shops where still finding their feet at that point and, yes, I did hate it and I thought it was terrible.

Then there is the movie poster box art, the one that makes it look like you are actually taking a piece of that cinematic masterpiece home with you and guess what? You’re the star of the show. Let’s face it, we’ve all been sucker punched into that one at least once, on one of our many gaming acquisition tours of the shopping centres.

Anyway, probably my favourite box art has to be Secret Of Mana on the SNES, the PAL version was slightly better than NTSC version because the black borders kind of detracted your eyes away from the artwork.

I must have glanced at it two or three times in the shop before picking it up. Who are those tiny characters? Why have they got their backs facing the viewer? And what are they looking at? I asked myself. It was only on closer inspection I realised it was a big tree with birds flying across it.

Incidentally, if you look at the box art for the Japanese version (Seiken Densetsu 2) you’ll realise that the image on the PAL and NTSC versions are only half the picture and you get to see most of tree with flashes of blue sky coming through it.

So, for me, Secret Of Mana’s box art wins it. The Japanese version is easily the best but the PAL version, even though half a picture, is what turned my head in the first place.
freeway 77

Double image
I remember the box art for Soul Reaver on the PS1. It had that effect where if you tilted the box the picture changed, to showcase that in the game Raziel could swap between the physical world and the spirit world, where the scenery would twist and warp.

It was a very cool idea, never seen it done again for any other game.

Accurate cover
The most memorable artwork, and the ones that set the games’ crucial excitement and stunning atmosphere from the start are the GTA games from numbers three onwards. The very comic style of artwork, with strong colours and gangster style imagery just leaping off the cover.

It’s the potential of then acting out all of these images later on as you play the game. It’s very striking artwork which sells the games so very well indeed. It is so very recognisable and will more than likely be used in the next generations of the franchise for sure.

The Metal Gear Solid series has also got such recognised artwork that Hideo Kojima pretty much made the art style as famous as the game content themselves, which is in another style again.

You just feel as though you are picking up quality as you see the box with the themed artwork, coupled with any inbox and manual images. You are just craving to get stuck into this world as the characters that have been drawn are just so darn cool looking.

My favourite video game box artwork has to go to a simpler design but so very effective at getting the point across, like a great film poster from the past: Resident Evil 4. The red and black together feels very visceral and makes for a very creepy feeling that climbs up your spine, penetrating your very mind!

Black silhouettes of the flying birds and the black encroaching trees with the Dr Salvador chainsaw guy also in silhouette, within the lighted gap between the trees, coupled with the crimson blooded background dominating the box. This was from the original GameCube release and remains one of the most intriguing, fear setting introductions to any game, even before you’ve opened the case and put the disc into the consoles disc draw.

The best art is sometimes the simplest. Just the right amount, like the ones mentioned above, hits the nail right on the head. It worked as they made me buy the games as soon as they were released and did not disappoint. In this case, judging the game by its cover case most definitely worked.

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The small print
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