Top 50 retro videogame box designs

Odd List Ryan Lambie 12 Apr 2013 - 06:55

Covering the years 1982 to 1992, we take a look back at 50 of our favourite videogame box designs...

It's weird to think that, as the videogame drifts inexorably from the physical to the digital, the days of buying treasured experiences in boxes is drawing to a close. For those of us raised in an era when games still came on cartridges, discs or (whisper it) cassettes, box designs were an integral part of the experience - not necessarily because we judged the games by their cover (though that probably did happen now and again), but because the best examples expressed a level of movement and detail that the games themselves could only hint at. At a time when games couldn't come close to replicating the sights and sounds of movies, the best box designs provided a stronger sense of identity and place.

This list is therefore dedicated to the artists and designers responsible for a golden age of cover design, which we've limited to the years 1982 to 1992. We've gone for covers which are hand-rendered rather than photographic (though some are drawn from photographs), and original pieces of artwork rather than replications of movie posters. Other than these (somewhat arbitrary) rules, we've chosen freely from the realms of computer games and consoles with a range of origins - from America to Europe to Japan.

There's sure to be plenty of favourites we either didn't think of or didn't have room to include, so feel free to add your suggestions in the comments. And bear in mind, too, that beauty is very much in the eye of the box art beholder, so your opinions of the running order are also sure to vary. With all that in mind, let the nostalgia commence...

50. Green Beret (ZX Spectrum/Various)

More than a decade before the Call Of Duty series sent office chair soldiers into battle, Konami’s arcade classic Green Beret armed players with little more than a kebab knife and super-human jumping abilities. The artwork for the home computer ports of Green Beret were created by the astoundingly prolific Bob Wakelin, and the sense of movement and violence in his cover design captures the mood of the game perfectly - even if its soldier protagonist never does get his hands on the gun seen in the picture.

Wakelin’s box art for Green Beret is infinitely better than the artwork generated for the coin-op cabinet or the console versions - and as we’ll see later on, Wakelin’s artwork would appear time and again on classic cover illustrations throughout the 80s and early 90s.

49. Kid Dracula/Akumajo Special (Famicom)

Just as Parodius provided a more light-hearted, surreal angle on the Gradius series, so Akumajo Special sent up Konami's Castlevania games, with a young, white-heard Kid Dracula waking from his sleep to battle through a series of side-scrolling levels. Colourful and full of fun, this cover for a relatively obscure Konami release (it only came out in Japan, though a Game Boy version did appear in 1993) sneaked onto the list thanks to its clean, simple style and playful typography.

48. Chase HQ (ZX Spectrum/Various)

Just as movies such as Rambo: First Blood Part II and Commando provided the inspiration for an incalculable number of military shooters throughout the 80s and 90s, so the buddy-cop antics of Lethal Weapon and 48Hrs appeared to inspire Taito’s action driving game, Chase HQ. Giving the player the task of apprehending a variety of criminals by smashing repeatedly into their fleeing vehicles, Chase HQ’s high-octane gameplay and bickering snatches of dialogue (“Let’s go, mister driver”) were crystallised in the game's artwork.

Like so many hand-painted covers from the 80s and 90s, Chase HQ's artwork used photographs as a reference. As Hardcore Gaming points out, its cops are essentially Harrison Ford and Billy-Dee Williams, with the latter's moustache placed on the former. Cheeky.

47. Super Kiki KaiKai (Super Famicom)

Is it wrong to include a videogame cover because it has a racoon (or tanuki) on it? Probably, but no matter. This indescribably cute illustration from one of the Super Nintendo's finest shooters is a charming mix of the cartoonish and the traditional; there's the wide-eyed shrine maiden Sayo-chan and her sidekick Manuke (known as Pocky and Rocky over in America, for some reason) framed by a Torii gate on the steps of a shrine, while a hooded villain looms in the clouds above.

The Japanese title, by the by, translates to Mysterious Ghost World: The Riddle Of The Black Mantle, which is possibly one of the best videogame names ever.

46. Gunhed (PC Engine)

There's nothing especially daring about the cover for this fantastic PC Engine shooter, but there's something so bold and dynamic about it, we had to include it somewhere on the list. The ship's spiky enough to prod its way out of the CD case, while that crimson title is so bold and sharp that it's almost hypnotic. The way these violent elements contrast with the largely empty space on the left creates a more compelling, sophisticated atmosphere than most shooter covers from the period, which were often just crammed with elements fighting for attention.

By the time Gunhed had been relocated to the US, it was under the assumed name of Blazing Lazers. Its cover, which depicted a triangular ship shooting at what looked like a collection of spare parts from a Vauxhall dealership, was as half-arsed as the Japanese version was striking.

45. Gryzor (Amstrad CPC/Various)

It isn't difficult to spot the film references in this 80s art from Bob Wakelin, but then, that's part of its appeal. At a time when most youngsters weren't allowed to watch stuff like Aliens or Predator, videogames provided a tantalising hint of their macho heroes and vicious extra-terrestrial terrors - and since Konami's platform shooter (called Contra elsewhere) evoked the atmosphere of those films itself, it's only fitting that Wakelin's artwork did the same thing.

44. Parodius (Super Famicom)

The popularity of Konami's Gradius series was such that, in 1988, Konami felt confident enough to create a spin-off string of shooters which lampooned its deadly-serious sci-fi theme. The first Parodius appeared on the MSX home computer, but it was its sequel, Parodius Da!, which really got the series going. Offering much the same side-scrolling shooting action as Gradius, but adding an oblique sense of humour replete with Japanese cultural references, the Parodius series is full of penguins, sentient cherry trees, randy octopuses and pirate cats.

Ported to numerous consoles, from the Nintendo Entertainment System to the Sega Saturn, the finest box art accompanied the Super Nintendo version. Drawn in a lively anime style, it's the perfect summary of the frantic, frankly mad content found in the game; it's so busy, in fact, that it takes a few moments before you even notice that the octopus in the foreground has a pair of ladies' knickers on his head...

43. Tetris (Gameboy)

It must have been difficult to create a truly striking image from a game about slotting shapes together, but the artist behind the Japanese Game Boy version managed it. Featuring a jumble of those Tetris shapes and a stylised reflection of St Basil's Cathedral (a building which featured quite a lot in 80s games, thinking about it - see also Bombjack and Pang), it's the vivid red and blue which give the image impact. Other artists used similar elements in their own Tetris cover designs before and since, but none are as striking as this 80s gem.

42. New Zealand Story (Amiga/Various)

Bob Wakelin's style is technical yet playful, and he was as versatile in the 80s and 90s as he was prolific; as well as illustrating any number of military shooters available from the period (Operation Wolf and Cabal to name but two), he also turned his hand to all sorts of cute and fluffy works, such as this great piece for Taito's The New Zealand Story. Western artists seldom recapture the elastic sense of vitality and quirkiness found in Japanese game art, but Wakelin manages it perfectly here, applying just the right amount of light and shade to make his characters leap from the page, while retaining their bold and loveably dumpy, super-deformed proportions.

41. Phoenix (Atari 2600)

The technical limitations of the Atari 2600 were such that most of its arcade conversions could only provide a sketchy impression of what the coin-op originals were like. To its credit, Atari commissioned some quite wonderful artwork for its videogame covers in its early-80s golden era, including this one for the shooter Phoenix. Rendered in aggressive reds and greens, its amalgam of laser-spitting mechanical birds and planets is like an avian-stuffed Star Wars.

40. Rolling Thunder (Famicom)

Namco’s brilliantly-designed side-scrolling platform shooter Rolling Thunder brought with it a decidedly 60s spy show theme, underlined by its incredibly catchy, prowling soundtrack. That theme was carried through to the Famicom port’s lovely box art, which depicted its long-legged agent protagonist (code-named Albatross, appropriately enough), as well as a variety of his opponents. Evoking the distinctive, elongated style of manga artists such as Kaoru Shintani and Leiji Matsumoto, the Japanese cover artwork is much closer to the game’s content than its western counterparts - and if you can track down a complete copy of the Famicom port, the box even contains a set of matching stickers.

39. Ant Attack (ZX Spectrum)

This fast-paced adventure game turned heads in the early 80s thanks to its then-remarkable isometric graphics, elegantly programmed by Sandy White. The distinctive cover, meanwhile, came courtesy of artist David Rowe, who produced the box artwork for Populous and designed the CGI dungeons for classic 80s gameshow, Knightmare. With the use of a second-hand microscope and an ant from the garden, Rowe created one of the most memorable cover designs from the Spectrum's heyday. You can read more about the cover and the game itself on Sandy White's website.

38. Underwurlde (ZX Spectrum)

One of the most respected and prolific developers of the 8-bit era, Ultimate: Play The Game's care and attention over its games extended to the boxes they were packed in. Designed by Tim Stamper, their use of simple shapes and bright colours made them immediately stand out among some of the more crude covers of the 80s era, and this list could have been populated with half-a-dozen or so of them. But we decided to choose just one cover as an example of Ultimate's talents, which is this wonderfully ominous design for 1984's Underwurlde. It's a fittingly striking, devilishly simple piece of artwork for this sinister sequel to Sabre Wulf.

37. Karnov (ZX Spectrum/Various)

A rare example of a minor 80s videogame character acquiring his own videogame, fire-breathing Russian strongman Karnov made a cameo appearance as a level one boss in Bad Dudes Vs Dragonninja before becoming Data East's mascot and starring in his own 1987 platformer.

Although not the finest piece of art from the era, the home computer version of Karnov made the list thanks to its rather charming fold-out, landscape cover design. Unusually, the artist's given the usually bald character a little ponytail.

36. Arkanoid (Various)

The humble Breakout-style bat-and-ball genre was already rather long in the tooth by the time Arkanoid appeared in arcades in 1987, but a mixture of power-ups, smooth mechanics and sci-fi graphics spruced up this most basic of games for a new generation. The cover art for Arkanoid's home ports captured the essence of the gameplay, and brought with it a sense of movement and dynamism - a commendable feat, given the rather staid back-and-forth rhythm of the game itself.

35. R-Type (ZX Spectrum/Various)

This influential and incredibly popular side-scrolling shooter got an exceptionally faithful port to the ZX Spectrum in 1988, and those who bought in on first release would have ended up with an impressively large box featuring some great airbrushed cover art. It's an artist's impression of the nightmarish boss encounter from the game’s legendary first level, and while it doesn't provide much of a sense of movement, it certainly gets across the boss's unnerving sense of menace.

34. Hector 87 (Famicom)

Admittedly, we’ve chosen the cover for Hector 87 partly because it reminds us of the classic Greek-myth-in-space premise of the 80s anime, Ulysses 31. But it’s also a masterfully rendered piece of artwork, and brings with it a sense of mystery lacking in the fun yet rather generic top-down shooter itself. Lacking the usual selection of space craft and blazing lasers you’d normally expect on the cover of a shoot-em-up, it’s the kind of eccentric concept we see less and less in these modern, more marketing-savvy times - which merely makes its weirdness more appealing.

33. The GG Shinobi (Game Gear)

Sega's battery-hungry handheld was doomed to toil in the Game Boy's shadow, which means that the system's finest games were largely overlooked. This 1991 title was one of the finest in the entire Shinobi series, with Sega seeing fit to come up with an entirely new adventure for gaming's most flamboyant shadow warrior. The cover for the Japanese release (which differs considerably from the European version, which features a giant floating head) is appropriately traditional in style and execution, with its intricate, kinetic brushwork recalling classic Japanese art, and perfectly suiting the game's premise. Sadly, we've been unable to discover the name of the artist responsible, but both the game and its box art are among the very best on Sega's humble handheld.

32. Jet Set Willy (ZX Spectrum)

It took a bit of digging to discover who the artist was behind the marvellous Jet Set Willy cover. Although never credited on the cover, it seems that Roger Tissyman was responsible for this and numerous other Software Projects covers in the early to mid-80s, including one version of programmer Matthew Smith's Manic Miner. Jet Set Willy was, of course, the sequel to Manic Miner, in which the titular character, now rich beyond his dreams of avarice, has to tidy up his mansion after a drunken party. Smith was a fan of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics, and there's a certain sense of the same counter-culture chaos in Tissyman's cover art, albeit shot through with a very British, 80s sense of anarchy akin to The Young Ones.

31. Alien Storm (Mega Drive)

It's chaotic, messy, and only really makes sense when you open up the box and lay it down flat. But it's the madness of the box art for the 1991 port of Sega's Alien Storm that makes it so endearing; it looks as though the artist played through the game, drank a gallon of coffee and set about cramming everything he or she could remember about it onto one canvas. Still, the game itself was a colourful, frantic affair, and obviously based on Golden Axe; players walked from left to right killing invading aliens, and in a surprising twist, occasionally engaged in first-person shoot-outs in supermarkets. Borrowing ideas from The Thing, Aliens and Ghostbusters, it's appropriate that the cover art should be so crazily eclectic, too.

30. Bubble Bobble (ZX Spectrum/Various)

Cute, effervescent and infuriatingly additive, Fukio Mitsuji's 1986 coin-op hit is one of the first - but still the best - two-player co-op games. Such a simple yet endearing game deserved a cover to suit, and the one which accompanied home computer ports was perfectly judged. Using the same artwork which Taito developed for its arcade flyers, the Bubble Bobble covers for 8-bit computers looked like something torn straight from a Japanese picture book. Unfortunately, the American NES cover for the game used entirely different artwork, which looked absolutely horrible, with its mis-shapen dinosaurs failing to capture the plump, baby-faced Bub and Bob of Taito's original designs.

29. Castlevania (Famicom)

The Castlevania series has haunted our game collections for more than a quarter of a century, but the cover for the first game remains one of our favourites. Although its horror theme might suggest a palette of blacks, blues and reds, the original Japanese box art threw in all sorts of acid greens, golden browns and glints of yellow. Atmospheric and neatly composed (note the whip, drawing the eye up past the hero, across the spire of the castle, and into Dracula's leering face) it was the perfect introduction to what would become one of gaming's most enduring action horror franchises.

28. Sonic The Hedgehog (Mega Drive)

You may have noticed by now that, for the most part, we’ve chosen Japanese videogame box designs over their American or European counterparts. For whatever reason, Japanese artwork seldom made it to foreign shores intact, and the attempts of other artists usually suffered in comparison - just look at the difference between the Japanese and European boxes for Strider on the Sega Mega Drive for one example.

Just for a change, though, here’s an instance of a western design which manages to be rather better than the Japanese original. While the eastern design was perfectly servicable, its busy collection of squiggles and shapes look distractingly like a 90s teenager boy’s boxer shorts, or a Carlos Santana album cover. By contrast, the western cover of Sonic, with its more elegant, restrained approach, has aged far better, and allows Sonic himself to take centre stage.

27. Steel Empire (Mega Drive)

It's said that when developer Hot B were working on this side-scrolling shooter in the early 90s, designer Yoshinori Satake was influenced by Hayao Miyazaki's steampunk aircraft in Laputa: Castle In The Sky. That influence carries through to the stunning wrap-around cover artwork, which depicts an armoured zeppelin floating above a city in the clouds. Rendered in pen-and-ink, its proportions and remarkable technical detail recall the work of Miyazaki-san himself, who was and remains a master draftsman of war machines and aircraft. Sadly, we've been unable to track down the cover artist responsible for Steel Empire; a pity, since he deserves some attention for this sumptuous, timeless piece of art.

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