Weekend Hot Topic, part 1: Favourite video game box art

Readers discuss the most memorable box art in video game history, including classics ranging from Street Fighter 2 to Resident Evil 4.

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.

Full size
Having grown up with gaming during the 16-bit home computer era, I have fond memories of box art where reliance was on artists who had to interpret the game, probably from a rough description and a few screenshots. Or where a photograph was used, usually to represent the game, often with hilarious results. My favourites were for Xenon 2, Turrican 2, and pretty much anything from Psygnosis.

Some of the box art during the PS1 heyday was amazing, especially WipEout 2097, but there was also a lot of which had a heavy reliance on (now very basic looking) 3D rendered artwork, which has not aged well.

In the same way as physical music is being replaced by digital formats, it’s a real shame some of the beautifully designed video game box art will not be seen at the size it deserves.
TrevorMcFurr (gamertag/PSN ID)

Prince of box art
For me, the most memorable box art is the Super Famicom version of Prince Of Persia. It is also my favourite.

We did kind of get a version of it in Europe, but because our boxes were horizontal (and had a lot of logos around the edges), you could only see a small part of it, whereas in Japan with the vertical box and very little logo information, almost the whole thing was visible. A few years later I saw the Japanese version in an import shop and was blown away by it. I didn’t buy it right then because it was so expensive, and I already had the European version anyway. The artist, Katsuya Terada, is fantastic, a lot of his art cropped up in the early Zelda games too, up to Link’s Awakening.

I think a big reason it made such an impression on me is that I’ve always loved the old Middle Eastern adventure films: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, the 40s version of Thief of Bagdad with Sabu, etc. So just playing Prince Of Persia when it came out on DOS made a huge impact on me. Then a few years later the SNES version, which was almost a remake, came out and leaned into that vibe even further with some of the new content, and the box art helped suck me into it even more. It’s fantastic art on a subject I love.

I did finally have a chance to buy a small copy of the Prince Of Persia art recently as a French company did a print run of the Jordan Mechner (who created Prince Of Persia) journal, with one of the special editions of the book having the Super Famicom art as both the cover and as a bookplate (I’d already bought the journal on Kindle so didn’t worry about not being able to actually read the French book!).

I don’t think it’s that iconic either inside or outside of gaming – certainly not in the West since the only region that got to see it properly was Japan, and even then only for that one platform release almost 30 years ago. But Jordan Mechner did mention that he loved it, and given it was selected for the special edition cover I guess there must be a certain amount of people who feel the same way as me.

I would like to give a shoutout to Bahamut Lagoon (again Super Famicom) too, which also had wonderful box art.

I think key art for games is certainly still very important. When I get emails from companies about new games they’re releasing, I am more likely to click through when the image looks interesting – same when I see a game on a digital store I wasn’t aware of.
Lord Darkstorm

The King
For me, the best cover art was from the 80s and 90s, when cover art sold the game, good or bad.

The best artist who created the artwork for the games is the late Bob Wakelin when working for Ocean.

The list is endless but the outstanding artwork is Where Time Stood Still, Rampage, Operation Wolf, Green Beret, Cabal, Mikie, Chase H.Q., Pang, Rainbow Island, Batman, Game Over, and my personal favourite RoboCop.

The Micro Museum did a video of his work last year

Job done
I have a lot of art (on my walls and also some books) from my favourite games, especially the Uncharted series.

But for the most memorable I’ll go for the first Max Payne. It was incredibly simple, but that simplicity made it really stand out. It was a white brick wall with a silhouette of Max holding a gun. In front of that was yellow crime scene tape with the words ‘A man with nothing to lose. Do not cross’. I was pretty new to gaming at the time and didn’t know about the game, but the box art really did its job in grabbing my attention in the game shop (the cheesy name Max Payne in large red letters helped too!) as I picked it up to see what it was about.

I liked what I read on the back and bought it. It became one of my favourite games on the PlayStation 2. I don’t have a physical copy of it anymore, only a downloaded version on my PlayStation 4, but the fact that I can remember it all these years later makes it a standout for me.

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Memorable image
It may not be the best cover exactly, but Phalanx for the SNES definitely stands out in my mind. The game was a side-scrolling shooter along the lines of R-Type – ‘The hyper-speed shoot-out in space’, as the tagline on the box puts it. Next to this tagline is a small, fairly blurry image of a spaceship boosting its thrusters but that’s not the main focus, that honour goes to a photograph of an old man holding a banjo.

This photograph had absolutely nothing to do with the game – there’s no banjo soundtrack or bonus level set in the Deep South – but the bizarre non-sequitur is what makes it so memorable. I remember reading an interview with the cover’s designer a few years back, and he made the point that any sensible cover would basically just have been a picture of a generic spaceship which would have blended in with a dozen near-identical boxes on the shop shelves.
Instead he made the decision to go with something weird that would make people stop and look at it.
TGN Professor

GC: The guy with the banjo was only the US box. The Japanese artwork was gorgeous though.

Sticky images
I was reading the Hot Topic and was thinking about memorable box art and there are two that stick with me from a loooong time ago, both of which were from the Spectrum days.

First up is Vixen, a platform game where you were a scantily clad, buxom lady with a whip who changed in to a fox. The box art resembled this and kind of looked like it was a page out of the Daily Sport.

The second was Barbarian, the classic one vs. one sword fighting game. The box basically had Wolf from Gladiators oiled up in his furry pants welding a sword…. with a scantily clad, buxom lady draped off of him.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this or what it says about me. But they did stick with me!

Moments before death
Ever since first playing Super Mario Bros. in 1992, I’ve always wondered WHY is Mario, the hero/player, falling into fire/lava, which in-game is an instant death?

Especially considering back then, Mario couldn’t wall jump.

*Not actual gameplay
I vividly recall going down to the local newsagents as a six-year-old, as that was usually the best place to browse the Spectrum cassettes. The cover of Mastertronic’s Chiller stuck out for me as I was already a huge fan of horror movies and at the time it was so easy to see something like that and assume the game would be amazing even though it was going to be rubbish (only had the 48K).

I’m also reminded of latter years when a title called Werewolves Of London came out and because a movie which has a rather similar title was my personal favourite (both film and cover) my older brother got it for me. Yet again the cover duped you into thinking you were going to dive into a nightmarish world of computer game terror. Ended up like going to the local video store to marvel at all the covers in the horror section, you’d eventually watch most of them as you aged and a good half were nearly always terrible, plotless, hackneyed garbage. Such is the life of a horror aficionado.

A cherished one though is OutRun. I remember my father helping me play it when it came out in the arcades and I thought that that’s what the world must be really like. A red Ferrari, a blonde love interest, and nothing but the open road with a high and low gear stick that was always a pain to shift. Even now just seeing the, now rudimentary, artwork on that cabinet, the start screen, and the option to choose Passing Breeze over Magical Sound Shower (we all know it’s better) is enough to invoke nostalgic tears. It’s still a great driving game too.

The many faces of Street Fighter
For me the best and most iconic box art is Street Fighter 2 and all its different versions. Mega Drive version Street Fighter 2 Turbo had M. Bison smiling, with folded arms and Ryu with a beat up face. SNES had Ryu KOed on the floor and Blanka doing a death roll while Chun-Li doing her lighting kick. Another SNES version was E. Honda vs. Sagat looking like he’s about to cry in the baths doing a hundred hand slap.

The USA version had Guile performing a sonic boom while fighting Vison on the airfield. My favourite was Super Street Fighter 2 with the brick wall and the shadows of Dee Jay, T. Hawk, Cammy, and Fei Long, showing the new characters for the first time. There are more I’m sure but these I remember well.

Any one of the boxes are top class, which connects you to the characters of the game and their specific moves, personalities and the settings they fight at, which influences the player’s mind to play the game.

The art style is still fantastic and the Japanese anime influence rivals even the Marvel comics. They say a picture is worth a 1,000 words and Capcom know how to grab your attention and keep it.

A quick mention to Resident Evil 4 too.
OZ ILLUMINATI (gamertag)/genghis1492 (PSN ID)/Odin seein (NN ID)

Winners and nominees
The most memorable/iconic video game box art for me, the nominees please: Street Fighter 2: Championship Edition, Sonic 3, Tekken 3, Streets Of Rage 2, Metal Gear Solid 2, Mortal Kombat 2, Pro Evolution Soccer 3, Ōkami, Legacy Of Kain: Soul Reaver, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, Tekken 2, Halo 2, and Pokémon Red/Blue.

Although I do find Streets Of Rage 2 iconic, I also find it baffling that the character art is quite terrible and inaccurate, especially looking at Max with the wrong hair.

The winner would have to be Super Mario Bros. 3! There’s something about the colours, the choice of yellow that demonstrates and signifies that you are about to play a standout game. Every time I see the box art, I just want to play the game.

By the way, I liked the Super Mario Bros. movie a lot as a kid, but in my teens I realised it was bad, but after watching it again as an adult this year, I actually thought it was quite enjoyable. I do hope the new movie is a sequel to the original, maybe not.

The question is also, has good box art made you buy a game? I did buy Midway’s Rampage World Tour over Capcom’s Street Fighter EX Plus Alpha because of the box art.

Simply great
I like the original black and gold PAL box art for The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time on the N64.

You could argue it was boring but it’s got a gravitas to it that was very fitting for such a landmark game. Even though it’s very understated you’re almost drawn to it because of the simplicity of it and the way that contrasts with the usual busy, colourful style of box art.

Similarly, I liked the old plain white Final Fantasy artwork from the PS1 era for the same reasons. The way those games were packaged just exudes confidence in the quality of the product contained within. Again, these were PAL only.

I’d love to know why Nintendo and Square thought we’d be happier with that stripped back artwork, as the US packaging was a lot more colourful in both cases.

Other than that, one that I’ll be very pleasantly surprised if it attracts any other mentions, is the original NiGHTS Into Dreams artwork for the Saturn which has got something about it. I can’t really describe why very well but it’s just a banger, the colour scheme is great and it’s got an air of mystery to it which fits the tone of the game. It was a box worthy of how big Sega thought this franchise was going to be, and yet another example of the PAL artwork being so much better than the US, which was horribly generic.

GC: American box art, particularly up till a decade or so ago, always emphasised violence and aggression more than other territories. There’s some amusing examples of how Kirby, of all characters, is usually always angry on US box art but cheerful in Europe and Japan.

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