Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Illustrated Gaming: The Art of the NES

The last time I visited this topic, I talked of the incredible and in these times increasingly rare art-form of video game box art. I pointed to many great examples from the Atari 2600, NES, SNES and even Sega Genesis. Speaking in a more general sense, I pointed out the basic nature of how for the first good decade and a half or so of video game home console history, games would more often than not, come with truly amazing hand-drawn artwork, on the boxes, the booklets, promotional art, etc. That has, these days, become more rare, and started to become so in the mid-90s with the Playstation and Nintendo 64 generation of consoles, as hand-drawn art began to become replaced by  renders of three-dimensional graphics instead.

Today I'm going to spend some time discussing the art of one console in particular, my personal favorite console of all time: The Nintendo Entertainment System (aka NES). The Atari before it had some great box art, fantastic really, as did it's contemporaries such as Collecovision, Intellivision, etc. They almost had to have great art, because showing off the in-game graphics was not all that impressive. But while the NES certainly had far more impressive graphics to display, most companies still chose to have hand-drawn art to promote their games instead, and it was a very wise choice, as far as I'm concerned. For my money, the NES had among it's roster, some of the greatest games ever made, and many of those had some of the greatest box art ever drawn. For that matter, there were many games that were themselves absolute stinkers, that still possessed bad ass box art to lure unsuspecting buyers in.

To begin, I'll discuss the NES' launch in 1985. The system launched with around 18 games within its launch window, and almost all of those were either Nintendo developed or Nintendo published games. In fact, third party games would not surface for the console until midway through 1986. But those initial crop of Nintendo games, all had a uniform look, now dubbed by collectors as the "black box" look, and it was a more unique approach in the market at the time, as they basically displayed accurate portrayals of in-game sprite graphics, showing buyers exactly what they would be getting.

Below are some examples:

THE game of the 1980s (besides Pac-Man)

The birth of Luigi, and the concept of "The Bros."

One of the two R.O.B. games.

So as you can see, these boxes just show depictions of the actual in-game sprites, and thus people see exactly what they're buying without even looking at the back of the box. While I absolutely prefer hand-drawn illustrations, I will admit that there is something very nostalgic and charming about these early NES boxes.

Moving right along, now we're going to look at a few of the very early Capcom boxes, and the evolution they themselves took as they got deeper into the NES life-cycle. Keep in mind, that for all intents and purposes, Capcom had almost exclusively been an arcade game maker before this, and so the Famicom/NES was where they really first cut their teeth on home console gaming. Hence the reason many of their original NES games were arcade ports, outside of the first Mega Man.

Capcom's first NES game.

The hard as nails arcade port.

The Original North American box art.

The FAR superior PAL (European) box art.

Now as you can see, Capcom had their own version of that same "themed" early NES box art style, with the odd (but very 80s, and pretty cool) vector graphic grid behind the art itself. But as you can also no doubt see, just look at the contrast between the cheeseball artwork that our North American version of the original Mega Man got, and now look at the absolutely bad ass artwork that the European version got. Not that the original NA art is bad, really. It's quaint in it's own way, but it looks silly compared to the PAL artwork, which actually LOOKS like Mega Man, arm cannon and all, and the bosses LOOK like the bosses from the game, etc. Not only that, but it's just incredibly well done art in general, like a painting.

Of course, Capcom wasn't alone in this. As it so happened, many European games, but NES games especially, seemed to have a way of not always, but often getting far better box art than we in North America did. Perhaps it was some way to make up for the fact that the PAL region generally got games later than we did, such as the fact that while we got Mega Man in December of 1987, Europe didn't get the first game in the series until 1990. Here's another example, from Nintendo themselves:

The original North American NES release.

The gorgeous PAL region art.

The pretty awesome NA re-release.

Now to be fair, in Metroid's case, the original release box art is alright. It's keeping more in time with the original NES releases from Nintendo, just as certain other games like Kid Icarus did. But there's no denying that again, the European box art is SO much cooler looking. Though the American re-release did feature some sweet art of Samus though, so that's pretty "radical", dude.

Jumping forward, while we already looked at the beautiful art for the original Castlevania in the first article, it's very much worth taking a glimpse at other Konami box art of the era, because they had a real knack for great artwork.

Totally reminds me of an Atari 2600 painting.

The action sci-fi classic.

Also known as Salamander. Great art.

And of course, more awesome Castlevania art.

It's clear to see that Konami had a fantastic artist or artists working for them back in the day, as they continued to have awesome art like this on through to the Game Boy, Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo as well. Once again, especially looking at Castlevania III, you can see how the art is both complex yet simple, and manages to convey what the game is all about, and what you can expect in the adventure: A group of heroes, fighting monsters, and all of their unique abilities are succinctly on display for the buyer to see. That manages to work on both a great marketing level, because it is the kind of image that really makes the game seem awesome and gets you hyped to play it, but it also works on an artistic level, because the artwork is true to both the spirit and nature of the game.

The art for Gradius and Contra both also work on that basic level, as you can clearly see from the artwork that in Gradius, you play a ship, fighting other ships in space, and in Contra, you play human soldiers, fighting against aliens (though to be fair, you mostly fight guys and robots, but still, there ARE aliens). Lifeforce, on the other hand, while it has great art, just by looking at that box you would not be able to tell what the hell the game itself is about, without turning it over and seeing the screen captures of actual gameplay on the back. You would have no idea that Lifeforce is fundamentally another horizontal space type shooter like Gradius. But that's okay, because it's still amazing artwork, and it is the kind of arresting image that would jump off of a shelf and grab a buyer's attention, causing them to want to know what the game is about. And at the end of the day, that is the first and most important job of cover art when it comes to anything, be it video games, movies, books, comics, etc.: Grab the buyers attention.

So let's take a quick look at some other NES arcade ports:

Are you a bad enough Dude to save the President?

Where did the hair go?

Hella 80s.

The Kaiju classic.

Those are some very different art styles on display, though they tend to accurately portray the games they represent. Again, much like the Konami boxes, these pieces of artwork very succinctly tell the buyer what the game is about, in one image. In Bad Dudes, you're a couple of guys who have to beat up some folks. In Ikari Warriors, you're a couple of soldiers who have to shoot up some folks. In Road Blasters, as the name itself implies, you play a car, racing down a highway, that can also shoot other cars while it's driving. And of course in Rampage, you play giant mutant monsters, who climb and smash buildings. All very accurate, and very artistically sound. I would say that Road Blasters has the least elaborate and thus potentially least cool looking art, but to be honest it does its job, representing both the facts of the game, as well as the 80s era from which it was born.

There is so much more box art to look at, even just on NES, as the NES itself, I feel, had arguably the highest volume of great box art to be found in gaming history. But I purposefully held back on showing or discussing some, simply for the sake of possible future articles, either about those games in particular, or maybe even more box art articles. But I'll wrap this one up for now, by leaving you with just a few more great examples of the varied and stylish kinds of art you could often find adorning NES games in that late 80s to early 90s era.

He's a huge guy who can breath flames. Fighting dinosaurs.

The awesome art for the original classic.

Better than Ninja Gaiden? I'd say so.

The original game that helped innovate a genre.

A top contender for most bad ass box art ever created.

So there you go. All of those games are well represented by incredibly artwork. Though I must say, even though it's a great game, Wizards & Warriors is a slight case of false advertising, as that art is SO bad ass, but the game itself, nor even the main character, looks anything like that. But it's incredible art just the same, and for that it deserves a powerful 80s high five.

I hope you enjoyed and are even inspired by this great pulp art of yesteryear. And by all means, check out any or all of the games pictured in this article, as they are all anywhere from good to absolutely fantastic. You have my word. Until next time, play some games, and keep on rockin' in the free world.