For a minute, let’s forget about discussing the evolution of video games. People need to start talking about the transformation of video game box art.
Let’s rewind. It’s 1991 — I’m 6-years old. I still have hair. Life consists of the 1st grade, Sunny D, baseball, attempting to do the impossible and touch the top of the door frame in our living room, Ninja Turtles, TGIF, and video games. Anything else is irrelevant.
I remember walking with my parents through the Hawthorne Mall (which, by the way, I swear still needs to be re-opened) and convincing them to take us to KB Toys. I’d walk by the video game display and would have absolutely no idea what I was looking for. There was no way of knowing which of the games before me were awesome, and which were awful. There was no ability to go into Google, type in “top 10 NES video games”, and use that to determine what I’d buy. The closest thing we had was Nintendo Power — and I assure you, there was no way in hell my dad was going to spend money on a magazine subscription that would enable what he likely deemed was an addiction, slowly rotting my brain.
Nintendo Power – Reader’s Digest for Kids
I essentially walked into this store, knowing absolutely nothing. I had no idea what the new releases were. I had no clue which game was the top seller, which games were highly recommended by professional reviewers, or any idea about future releases. I could stand in front of this window into 6-year-old heaven, staring for hours at all the fresh, shiny boxes, trying to figure out what I wanted. If my parents bought me a game, I knew I wouldn’t get a new one for months — so it had better be good. So how did a young kid decide which game he wanted to take home?
Simple. The box art.
When the NES first came out, box art likely wasn’t as important, considering the limited number of games available to the public. Older games could simply blow up an image of the in-game graphics, slap it over a solid color background, and you were set. You’d see something like this and know exactly what type of game you were in for:
No surprises here.
Over time (and after the market was flooded with a large number of NES games), box art needed to stand out to sell a game. It’s my bet that box art became the biggest tool for game advertisement – the better the art, the better the game sold. I imagine entire advertisement departments were dedicated to box art development.
Funny thing, though — I’d also wager that, at first, there was a huge disconnect between the artists hired for the box art and the game’s developers. For example, we’ve all played Mega Man (and if you haven’t, punch yourself). Basic premise of the game: set in the future, an android runs around shooting enemies with his robotic gun-arm thingy. The result?
Yes, that’s supposed to be Mega Man.
I don’t know about you, but if you actually played the game, this is probably not what you imagined Mega Man looked like. It’s like some Native American was transported into a computer and teamed up with Tron. Or as my friend put it, it “looks like an autistic kid drew that with only three colored pencils.” Well put. That being said, as a 6-year old kid looking through the display case at a toy story, this probably triggers all the “do-whatever-it-takes-to-get-your-parents-to-buy-this” parts of your brain.
Sure, you had your cute platformers that didn’t require ultra-realistic artwork to get their point across. However, it seemed that many companies wanted to give the impression that you were taking control of powerful heroes. You weren’t playing a game, you were saving a freakin’ planet. You were no child … you were a MAN. And really, what better way to create this feeling in your customers than by hiring Fabio to pose as the protagonist of the video game. Ohhh, you think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not:
I’d bet moms bought this game in droves.
It’s hard to imagine some celebrity posing as the main character in some video game. But this is what used to sell video games.
However, games evolved just about as quickly as the technology they were using. Along with this change in technology, there was a change in attitude. Video games were no longer quick distractions made for kids; instead, they became stories in which the player was integral to the story. There’s no longer this need to focus on the box art when the entire game itself is a work of art. What’s more, now that the internet is everywhere, we know what we want as soon as we walk into the store. Hell, we all want things before we even know what they are or what they can do (I’m looking at you, Apple fanatics).
Box art just isn’t as important and, quite frankly, it shows. Compare the two items below — Bionic Commando for the NES vs. Bionic Commando for the PS3:
NES Version vs PS3 Version of Bionic Commando
The image on the left just screams at you — THIS GAME IS BADASS. There’s a story being told, and it makes me want to know more. The picture on the right, on the other hand, just makes me think that the game I’m about to buy stars a metrosexual with nice hair and a microwave for an arm. Great drawing, sure. But it doesn’t say anything.
I think it’s fantastic where games are today. But a little part of me can’t help but be nostalgic for a time when I’d stand in front of a glass display, admiring all the work that went into selling a game.