Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Illustrated Gaming: The Lost Art of Game Boxes

If you've been following Retro Revelations for long enough now, you've probably gotten the feeling that I have a "thing" for classic gaming. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that while, yes, I do enjoy many modern games, personally, I consider the old, sprite-based games of yore to be "true" video games. I think of most modern games, quite frankly, as "interactive entertainment", more than "video games", because to me, that just seems to be the direction that the industry has been going in now for a good decade plus.

Sufficed to say, I'll always love the classics the most. There were so many things that were unique and, yes, "special" about the good old days, from Atari 2600 on through Super NES, And not the least of which, among so many great facets such as gameplay, sprite graphics, "chip tune" music, etc., were the games' box artwork. Now mind you, not every game was created equal, naturally, and neither was all box artwork great, let alone good. Some of it, like many games themselves, just straight out sucked. But, there was also a whole lot of really, genuinely great, classic box art as well. There was even an ongoing phenomenon, dating back to the 2600, where many games had amazing box art, and that alone would lure potential buyers in, only to be revealed to have crappy games underneath once brought home.

Quite literally a work of art.

Above is a perfect example. Asteroids for Atari 2600 wasn't exactly the best port of that arcade classic. It's not terrible by any means, but the 2600 simply couldn't pull off the real thing in it's full glory. But that box art? It's absolutely fantastic! That is the stuff of classic movie posters or old sci-fi novel covers. Bottom line: it's just really good art, in and of itself. And that's what I'm talking about. You saw that a lot with old Atari games, and even those of it's direct competitors like the Colecovision or Intellivision. Even if many of the games absolutely sucked, a fair lot of them, actual game be damned, had really good looking artwork that was used specifically to sell the games.

Simple, yet elegant.

This one in particular holds memories for me. Space Invaders was one of the few 2600 games that I actually owned as a small child, inherited as a hand-me-down from an aunt of mine. While I, at the tender age of 4 or 5 years old, was absolutely no good at the game itself, and actually kinda hated it because it was so damn hard to me at the time, I really loved the artwork for it. Even though those spaceships don't look anything like the actual "Space Invader" enemies from the game itself, this art still captivated my attention as a child. I would often just hold the cartridge and stare at the seemingly giant cities in the domes on these ships, and wonder to myself where they came from and what they were all about. They say "a picture is worth a thousand words", and it really can be, as my childhood fascination with this particular box art is a testament to the power of art in general.

The epitome of "Classic".

Now when the NES first launched, its initial lineup did not sport what you would call great art. While there is a certain charm now to the old "Black Box" set of launch titles, they were hardly "artwork" at all, simply displaying sprites from the games, in a fashion. But thankfully that certainly didn't last for long, as good lord, did the NES have it's share of gorgeous game covers. The one pictured above is, I think, the quintessential perfect example. It's perfect, not only in the elaborate, great design of the artwork itself, but it's also economical in how it's used. Unlike some game art, which tells you too little or nothing at all in vague images, Castlevania's did a superior job of conveying to the buyer exactly what they were getting into and precisely what the game was about.

You have the hero, Simon Belmont, standing prominently in the foreground, brandishing his trademark whip. Next you have a mist-covered, mysterious landscape before you, with this great, foreboding castle in the distance, and above it all, the haunting, almost laughing specter of the game's main adversary, Count Dracula. In that one image, you are told everything about the game that you need to know: You are a hero, who uses a whip, and has to make his way through a haunted castle to defeat an evil vampire. The end. That is literally perfection, and I would have a hard time imagining any game box art ever crafted doing a better job.

Vague, but beautiful.

Another good example, for a different reason, is this box art for the North American version of Final Fantasy on NES. It doesn't do the same things the Castlevania art did, telling you all you need to know about the game. In fact, it kind of does the opposite in some respects. On the one hand, it does show you some medieval weapons, as well as a mysterious crystal ball, showing some kind of floating city. This does (SPOILERS) literally foreshadow a location you travel to late in the game, and that's cool. The art piece as a whole also hints to the buyer of battles and magic, things heavily featured within Final Fantasy itself. So in that respect, it does tell you a bit about the game, if you're paying attention. But on the other hand, of course, it is also incredibly vague, perhaps by design, the kind of evocative art that is meant only to grab the viewer's attention, and leave them curious enough to want to find out what it's all about. It's not the same pure classic example such as Castlevania, but at the same time, I for some reason have always loved this particular art, and think the simplicity and vagueness still serves the game very well.

So awesome, yet so misleading.

Another good, but in some ways also bad example, is the above pictured box art for the NA release of Mega Man 2. This was one of my favorite games as a kid, and one of my favorite game boxes as well, because of this art. This box art alone, similar in a fashion to the Space Invader box art of old, really sparked my imagination, and filled me with a bunch of box art fueled backstory for Mega Man that as it would turn out, sadly, would be proven dead wrong as I got older and learned more about the series and it's hero. At that young age, inspired by this infamous yet erroneous artwork, in my head evolved a story about a Mega Man who was actually a human being, who was hired by the benevolent Dr. Light to fight evil robot creations, using a souped-up robotic power suit, ala Iron Man. And if you ask me, to this day, I honestly still think that sounds pretty bad ass, and kinda wish that it was Mega Man's actual story. You see, this box art, and in fact one of the box art pieces for Mega Man 1 as well, show a very human looking hero, wielding a gun, and fighting bad guys. Now mind you, the gun bit didn't really grab me so much, I knew that he used an arm canon weapon, called the "Mega Buster", but hey, for all I knew he could have been just like another human hero who also used a suit of power armor and an arm canon: Metroid's hero Samus Aran.

Well no, in fact, as it turns out, Rock, the hero who becomes Mega Man (or Rockman in Japan), was always a robot. According the series' story, Dr. Light created him originally as a lab assistant, but later when his other creations went haywire thanks to that dastardly Dr. Wily, he refitted Rock and turned him into the "Super Fighting Robot" Mega Man, who could battle evil and save the day. Still a cool backstory, absolutely. But to this guy, somewhere deep down, the 10 year old in me still thinks that an armored dude fighting evil is somewhat cooler than a robot doing it. But I digress. As for the art itself, even though this image is somewhat infamous today as a bit of "cheese art", as some consider it, I personally consider the quality of the artwork itself to be rather good, and in spite of it's misleading bent, concerning the nature of our titular hero, it does still tell you what the game is about: you play a guy who shoots things, fighting evil robots, and taking down a mad scientist (even IF the dude pictured in the art looks more like Dr. Light, not Dr. Wily). All of that still rings mostly true, so at the end of the day, Mega Man 2's art still holds up, and does it's job.

Lighting bolts and dragons....that's pretty much all anyone needs.

The great art of Tom duBois.

As you can see, the jump from the 8-bit to the 16-bit era of gaming didn't create a lack of good box art. In point of fact, the 16-bit generation was truly the last stronghold of great, hand-drawn game art. Sega Genesis, Super NES, and even other more obscure systems like Turbo Graphx 16 and Neo-Geo, had many games with great artwork. Mystic Defender happens to be a great choice to show off, because it combines elements of what was great both about the Castlevania and Final Fantasy art, in that it tells you certain bits about what the game is, you play a guy who throws lightning and fights monsters, but at the same time, it is vague and cryptic enough to leave you wanting to know more. And then the artwork for one of my top favorite games of all time, Super Castlevania IV, much like the CV series boxes before it, is just beautiful. As in that would make a great painting in a gallery somewhere, whether it has to do with a video game or not.

But, as I intimated, the 16-bit era really was the last stand for the regular use of great, hand-drawn/painted game art. In the following generation, of the Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation, and Nintendo 64, a new trend arose to go along with the "leap" to 3D, polygon-based graphics, and that was the prolific use of pre-rendered 3D images for game covers, in place of traditional art. Now don't get me wrong, not all of this pre-rendered stuff was bad. But feast your eyes on the picture below, just to get a taste of the difference I am talking about.


This is just one example of how, as the pic quote says..."Blah" many of these "3D" game covers could look. Castlevania 64 (as it's unofficially known), was a nice first attempt at taking the series into 3D. But honestly, the series has never really worked as well in 3D, and this box art in particular was just uninspired and painful. Part of a game cover's job, is to make you want to buy the game, it's supposed to be an evocative image that jumps out at you and makes you interested enough to want to check the game out. This cover? Wouldn't make much of anyone interested, if you ask me. I rented this game because I loved the series and I wanted to try it. But people who knew nothing of Castlevania, but saw this box on store shelves? Likely would pass it up, because it just screams "Blah". Honestly, it looks like rushed demo art that they decided to slap on the box. And this wasn't uncommon in those early 3D days.

Better, but still missing something....

And in the interest of fairness, from the same early 3D era, here is the box art for Super Mario 64. A much better game with MUCH better art. It's simple, to the point, shows Mario using one of his new power-ups, shows just a glimpse of the kind of game worlds you might find when playing, and otherwise gives the viewer the sense that "It is still Mario after all". But even for all it's positives, and honestly, it looks okay, it's still just missing that "something" that the cool, hand-drawn Mario artwork of old had. Those old images looked like a cartoon. This? Just kinda looks like a....pre-rendered image. I'll fully admit that I am biased in this estimation, but I also just firmly feel that the old-style, hand-drawn game art had more "life and spirit" to it. Plus it quite simply tended to be more beautiful.

Now, game box art has come a long way, it's continued to evolve, and while it's improved, the fact remains that hand-drawn art is still used rarely, especially for home console games. It IS used, but not nearly enough. And since 3D gaming has taken on a much more "realistic" bent in modern times, you will often get modern box art that looks something like this:


Double Yup.

The images for these games are fine, they're certainly not poorly made, they're well-rendered, and they convey what the games are about: guns, fire, smoke, explosions, war, lots of brooding, etc. They're not BAD by any means. But for my money, they also don't really spark the imagination the way that old box art used to either. It's just kind of very cut, and dry, and to the point. In some cases they're almost literally just images directly from the games, and in others, they may have stylized titles, but they're still just terribly uncreative or unimaginative. That isn't to say there aren't still some cool, creative, and interesting looking game covers. There certainly are. It's just that, as far as I've managed to notice anyway, they seem to be relatively few and far between.

I realize that in these articles of mine, in this ongoing blog of mine, I do rather often seem to frame things in a very stark "things were better back then" slant. And I don't really apologize for this, because at least in my view, when it comes to a lot of things in the realm of entertainment, things really WERE better back whenever. There's a reason it's called "Retro" Revelations, and there is most certainly a reason why I tend to focus mostly on things that are usually no younger than, let's say, 15 or more years old, usually far older. But when it comes to the matter of game box art, I really do feel like it has become a mostly lost art. And I can't help but wonder, what ever became of all of those amazing artists who used to so regularly find employment making these great (and sometimes not so great) game covers that so many of us would still wonder over for decades to come?

Whatever happened to them, I'd like to thank them for adding an important part to the overall appeal of the phenomenon that was video gaming in the 1980s and early-to-mid-90s. Because in many ways, some of those game covers are just as important, and just as classic, as the games themselves. So to you mystery men (and women), I'd just like to tip my proverbial hat, and say "Cheers".