One of the more disappointing aspects of the move to digital distribution is the loss of all the great box art that helped sell games in past generations. Back when the internet was in its infancy and all we had to go on were gaming magazines for reviews, box art could sometimes make or break a purchase.
Sure, that sometimes meant terrible purchasing mistakes like Friday the 13th for the NES, but even if the games were awful, we still had sweet looking boxes and cartridges to add to our collections. Some big name talent contributed to cover art, too, such as H.R. Giger (the man who designed the look of Alien) and sci-fi artist Richard Clifton-Dey. We just don’t get work like this on cover art anymore.
And with Halloween right around the corner, there’s perhaps no better time to remember the absolute best horror box art ever created:
20. Friday the 13th
1989 | Atlus | NES
Where better to start than with Friday the 13th? First things first: this is not a good game. At all. It’s not even so bad that it’s good and worth spending a few minutes watching on YouTube. The actual gameplay has no redeeming qualities. But pretty much everyone who had an NES back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s played it. Why? Because of the fantastic box art.
While every other publisher out there put cutesy cartoon characters on their boxes to copy Nintendo’s success, publisher LJN used a freaky photo of Jason Vorhees holding an ax with some psychedelic colors in the background. The game’s cover did look great while it collected dust on your shelf for all eternity.
19. Resident Evil 4
2005 | Capcom | GameCube
Resident Evil 4 has been released so many different times now that it’s easy to forget its roots as a GameCube exclusive. While subsequent re-releases have added more modes and better graphics, the original release still has the very best box art, featuring an armed Leon Kennedy running from an army of Las Plagas and the iconic chainsaw guy. It’s baffling as to why Capcom ever ditched this image for covers just focusing on Leon in later releases. If you have a psychopath with a chainsaw in your game, that’s something you really want to play up on the cover.
18. Doom 3
2004 | id Software | PC, Xbox
There’s a lot to be said for understated and well-thought out box art (there’s quite a few of those on this list), but sometimes a giant, pissed-off demon just gets your point across just as well. Doom 3’s graphics were insanely advanced when the game first came out, and there was perhaps no better way to get that across than with the screaming face of a Hell-Knight standing in front of a pentagram on the front cover. Doom 3 may be something of a black sheep of the franchise now after the more action-packed follow-up came out earlier this year, but it easily holds the title of best box art in the franchise.
17. The Evil Within
2014 | Tango Gameworks | PC, Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3
Shinji Mikami’s follow-up to his work on the Resident Evil franchise received some flack for being much more difficult than those games, but that really just adds to the tension that makes The Evil Within a much more unsettling game than the last few Resident Evil titles. Mikami has talked about how he wanted to get across to players the idea that every enemy in The Evil Within was being punished. Nothing gets that point across better than the cover, which features protagonist Sebastian Castellanos screaming, his face covered in barbed wire. There are a lot of disturbing scenes in The Evil Within, and the first one actually hits you as soon as you pick up the box.
16. XCOM 2
2016 | Firaxis Games | PC, Xbox One, PS4
The lore of the XCOM games has long portrayed the grays as uncaring conquerors of the human race, and XCOM 2 begins with the aliens actually controlling Earth. While the cover of first game in the rebooted series, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, focused on the military unit at your command, the second game perfectly illustrates the depressing state of the world in the sequel. The vacant stare of a gray alien is always unnerving, but what really makes this cover over the top is when you look at it for a few seconds and realize that this gray is actually made of hundreds of human skulls.
2003 | Rockstar | PS2, Xbox, PC
Manhunt is a game that will actually make you feel dirty from playing it. OK, in part, that’s because it’s not the greatest game. Certainly it’s one of Rockstar’s weaker titles. But the tone of the game itself is pretty damn disturbing. You play as an escaped death row inmate who must violently kill psychopaths with makeshift weapons like plastic bags and pieces of glass as part of a sick TV show. Manhunt is basically a playable snuff film, and the unnerving image of one of the game’s bloody masked killers on the cover is certainly gets across that this is not a game for the weak-stomached or easily offended.
14. Shadow Man
1999 | Acclaim | PC, Dreamcast, PS1, N64
Mixing voodoo, serial killers, and regular trips to hell, Shadow Man was one especially freaky game for the late ‘90s. Acclaim made a lot of terrible decisions during this time period (which is why the company no longer exists), but they absolutely nailed this box art, featuring a very creepy image of protagonist Michael LeRoi holding a skull in front of some of the more unsettling enemies in the game. We’ll probably never get a modern Shadow Man game, but at least the original is now readily available on Steam. Too bad it doesn’t come with this awesome box art, though.
1991 | WJS Design| Commodore Amiga, Atari ST
That is one weird giant creature on the cover of the obscure Psygnosis platformer Ork. Unfortunately, while the cover of Ork is truly monstrous, it loses points for lack of originality. This is a portion of a larger painting titled “Behemoth’s World” by acclaimed sci-fi artist Richard Clifton-Dey, and even if you aren’t terribly familiar with his work, practically the exact same image appeared in reverse on the cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s Cultosaurus Erectus album. Still, while it’s not even the first time this image was used on the cover of a piece of media, Psygnosis does deserve credit for having the good taste to use such an unusual and memorable image.
12. Resident Evil 2
1998 | Capcom | PC, Dreamcast, PS1, N64, GameCube
For a series as beloved as Resident Evil, most of the games have had disappointing box art. Most covers in the series have focused simply on the protagonists, but for Resident Evil 2, which many fans will still argue is the best chapter in the series, Capcom went for the shadowy face of a zombie peeking through a doorway. It’s arguably the most memorable image in the entire franchise, and certainly one of the creepiest. Capcom is currently working on a remake of Resident Evil 2. A lot of gamers have high hopes for that title. We’ll see if it can also top the box art of the original.
11. Dead Space
2008 | EA | PC, Xbox 360, PS3
Dead Space deserves a lot of credit for the new ideas it brought to the action-horror genre. Not only are some of the gravity-defying areas truly awe-inspiring, but the game also featured innovative combat. In Dead Space, it’s not about going for headshots or filling your enemies full of bullets. The only way to permanently end them is to dismember them. So how did EA advertise this? With a simple disembodied hand floating through space on the cover. It’s an understated yet perfect representation of the game within, and just creepy enough to make you want to try it out.
10. Left 4 Dead
2008 | Valve | Xbox 360, PC
Valve knew it had a winner with Left 4 Dead. Released at the height of the zombie craze, gamers were instantly salivating at the prospect of playing through the zombie apocalypse with three other friends using the silky smooth Source engine. Valve could have slapped any gory zombie photo on the cover and the game still would have sold like hot cakes, but never ones to take the easy way out, the publisher crafted a particularly artistic and horrific cover that perfectly illustrates the point of the game: a left hand holding up four fingers and a fresh bite mark where the thumb should be.
9. Silent Hill 4: The Room
2004 | Konami| PC, PS2, Xbox
You could make a solid argument that there hasn’t been a great Silent Hill game since this fourth entry in series. Instead of focusing on the actual town of Silent Hill, this title focused more than ever on the psychological aspects of series. Your main objective is to simply escape from your locked down apartment, but the only way out is through several undead worlds. Perhaps nothing better encapsulates the uneasiness of this experience than the chained up door and horrific monster on the game’s cover.
8. Dark Seed
1992 | Cyberdreams | PC
If you’re looking for great horror art, you really can’t go wrong with H.R. Giger, famed for his design of the xenomorph in Alien. Dark Seed featured a cover that was unmistakably Giger, the vacant, pale stare of a woman who is being consumed by unknown, but obviously malevolent technology. Cyberdreams would go on to commission an equally disturbing Giger cover for the sequel, but as talented as the artist was, it’s really surprising that more publishers didn’t try to work with him during his lengthy career.
7. The 11th Hour
1995 | Trilobyte | PC
Like its predecessor The 7th Guest, The 11th Hour is one creepy and confusing puzzle game. While nothing on the front cover is as gory or obvious as a lot of other entries on this list, there’s just something unsettling about broken doll parts, especially when you add in broken clocks. And the cover is pretty tame compared to some of the horrific stuff you actually encounter in the game.
6. Suspended: A Cryogenic Nightmare
1983 | Infocom | PC
Yes, a text game can be terrifying. Well, at least it’s box art can be. Suspended shipped in a “mask” box featuring a plain male expression molded in white plastic. Yellow and black eyes are positioned just behind mask. This gives it the effect that the eyes are actually following you as you move around it. Even if the game doesn’t creep you out, just putting this box on your shelf will.
5. Clock Tower
1995 | Human Entertainment | PS One
Clock Tower had a fairly simple concept: a maniac with giant scissors is after you and you must avoid him at all costs, or you will die. The box art for Clock Tower features a truly disturbing drawing of Scissorman nearly coming off the packaging with his giant, bloodied weapon. The bandaged face and creepy castle in the background ohelp drive home the horror. Sadly, even though the original Clock Tower was pretty great for its time and the series showed a lot of promise, the two sequels were extremely lackluster. Even the covers for those games are disappointing.
4. Fatal Frame
2002 | Tecmo | Xbox
Fatal Frame first launched on the PS2 in March 2002 with some good, surreal box art featuring a disembodied head and screaming red ghosts. It’s OK art, if maybe a little too abstract. The Xbox port, released in November of that year, does a much better job of showing exactly why Fatal Frame is still considered one of the scariest games of all time more than a decade later. Gone is the surrealism of the PS2 box art. In its place is a simple screaming portrait of a ghost in negative. It’s easily one of the scariest pieces of box art ever released.
3. Haunted House
1982 | Atari | Atari 2600
Haunted House is about as scary as you would expect from an Atari 2600 game, which is to say it’s not very scary at all. The game’s box art is genuinely freaky, though. Two nearly disembodied eyes stare directly at you at dusk, three vicious looking bats and a spider in front of them. Oddly enough, this is actually a pretty good representation of the game, where you play as a pair of eyes avoiding bats, spiders, and a ghost. It’s hard to know exactly what you’re getting into from the box art, but it’s clear that this is going to be a much scarier experience than your typical Pac-Man clone of the era.
2. The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery
1995 | Sierra On-Line| PC
This is a real piece of art. Werewolves have been done to death. It’s easy to slap a hairy beast on the cover of your game or movie and call it a day. But to really get across the themes here, The Beast Within features the traditional wolf-creature, but covered in silken white. You have no doubt what this game will feature when you look at this cover, but Sierra left just enough to the imagination to make gamers want to try out this point-and-click adventure for themselves.
1988| Konami | NES
Graphics and technology were pretty limited in the NES era, so the box art really had to tell a lot of the story. There was no mistaking what Castlevania was about from looking at its box art. Here’s the mighty warrior, Simon Belmont, whip in hand and ready to attack the castle of a particularly evil-looking Dracula. If that doesn’t get you at least a little pumped to try out the game, then nothing will. And while there have been a lot of Castlevania games over the years, and most of them have great box art, still none of them top the original in design or scariness. Heck, in the whole horror game genre, this is as good as it gets when it comes to box art.
Chris Freiberg is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.