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 Strideron 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.
From the intensely spooky via the super cute to the surreal, here are numbers 26 to one of our favourite retro box designs.
Your choices are sure to vary, so feel free to chime in with your own suggestions in the comments.
Now, on with the fabulous artwork…
26. Haunted House (Atari 2600)
Illustrator Steve Hendrickson was responsible for several great covers from the Atari 2600’s golden age, including Defender, Othello and Night Driver. His finest piece was undoubtedly this incredibly eerie, surreal cover for Haunted House – a very early attempt at a survival horror videogame. From a limited palette of yellows and browns, Hendrickson’s illustration is economical and disturbing; with those terrified eyes fixing us, we barely notice the trio of bats staring beneath. With minimal reworking, the image could just as easily have appeared on the cover of an 80s horror videotape.
25. Rainbow Islands (Famicom)
Taito’s delightful sequel to Bubble Bobble was ported across to home computers and consoles in the late 80s and early 90s, and the quality of the box art varied considerably. The relatively rare Mega Drive version recycled the disappointingly rough arcade flyer artwork, while Bob Wakelin was responsible for the stupendous art on home computers.
Wakelin’s sterling work was pipped to the post, in this instance, by the charming design of the Japanese box art for the Nintendo Famicom conversion. Apparently sculpted from clay, the game’s colourful character designs are given a deliciously tactile feeling of shape and depth. (On a side note, Japanese box designers often adopted a similar three-dimensional approach; the cover of Monster World IV on the Sega Mega Drive is so adorable, it would have made this list had it not been released in 1994.)
24. Vanguard (Atari 2600)
The boxes for Atari 2600 titles often sold a promise that the games themselves couldn’t deliver – and some of them were beautifully rendered. The cover for Cosmic Ark took the game’s blocky ships and curiously green space backdrop and turned them into a glorious sci-fi vista. The cover for the bat-and-ball game Breakout featured moodily-lit astronauts for some reason.
Some of the very best Atari 2600 art came from the brush of illustrator Steve Hendrickson (you can find his sublime work for Haunted House elsewhere on this list). This particular entry, however, from the cover for Vanguard, is a particular favourite. Like so many covers from the period when commercial artists went uncredited, the identity of the person responsible isn’t clear. But the presence of three tell-tale initials – R.M.Q – have led many to suspect that the artist behind it may be none other than Ralph McQuarrie, the concept artist behind Star Wars. Certainly, the dramatic use of colour, light and shade and scale suggests that it was McQuarrie who painted it, but we’ve been unable to find an official confirmation. It is, at any rate, at least a sci-fi cover worthy of the man himself.
23. Alien Breed (Amiga)
Videogame box artists took an increasingly minimal and cool approach to their designs in the early 90s, as developers began to target more mature audiences. At a time when movies such as Alien and Aliens dominated the imaginations of artists and players alike, the artwork for Alien Breed required little more than the title and a set of teeth to provide an impression of its content. An instance where the old ‘less is more’ cliche rings true, the artwork told the player everything they needed to know: it may not be an official Alien videogame, but it’ll enough aggressive xenomorphs, cramped locations and guns to make you feel as though you’re in the quaking shoes of Dwayne Hicks or Ellen Ripley.
22. Dragon Quest II (Famicom)
In 1986, designer Yuji Hori teamed up with manga artist Akira Toriyama to create Dragon Quest, a legendary series of console RPGs which is still going today. Toriyama, of course, was the artist behind the hugely successful Dragon Ball series and the classic Chrono Trigger, and his distinctive, colourful style remains a key component in the Dragon Quest universe. Our favourite cover design from the early part of the series is this little beauty from the second game, released in 1987. Rendered in Toriyama’s familiar energetic mode, it’s deceptively well composed; look at how that splash of red draws the eye to the vampire’s cackling face, before the paleness of the sword draws attention back to our fearless hero in the centre.
21. Atomic Robokid (Mega Drive)
There were probably rather too many side-scrolling shooters on the Mega Drive, but the relatively obscure Atomic Robokid at least tried to bring some individual touches to the saturated genre. With a range of maze-like stages which scrolled in all directions, and some devious bosses that chased the player all over an enclosed arena, it was markedly different from the numerous Gradius and R-Type clones available at the time. Besides, the game boasted a quite adorable robot character, who looked like a cross between RoboCop and a dustbin. RoboKid took centre-stage in the Mega Drive version’s cover art, which, like the game itself, is both technically competent and quirky.
20. Karateka (Amstrad CPC/Various)
A sort of prototype for Jordan Mechner’s later and better-known Prince Of Persia, Karateka was a platform fighting game with some (for the time) spectacular rotoscoped animation. The cinematic qualities of the game extend to its box art, which could quite easily pass for a genre film poster from the period. Recalling Drew Struzan’s poster art, or Bob Peak’s fabulous rendering for Enter The Dragon, it’s a handsome encapsulation of the game’s martial arts theme.
19. Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis (Amiga/Various)
Harrison Ford’s fearless archaeologist had already hung up his hat by the time LucasArts’ magnificent point-and-click adventure came out, but both the game and its superb artwork (created by William Eaken, who does a mean Drew Struzan impression) captured the daring atmosphere of the movies so successfully, it felt like another cinematic outing on its own. In fact, the title, setting and cover art for the game are so perfect, it would have perfectly logical for George Lucas to use all of it as the basis for a fourth Indiana Jones film. Unfortunately, Lucas decided to focus on dimensional travellers and Area 51 instead. And by the time Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull came out in 2008, we’d reached the point where an Indiana Jones felt less authentic than the 80s adventure game. A depressing state of affairs.
18. Tatsujin (PC Engine)
This incredibly tough arcade shooter got a widely-released port to the Sega Mega Drive in 1988, while the PC Engine version was far more obscure. This was a shame, since the PC Engine version was not only a great port in its own right, but its box art was far superior to the Mega Drive’s; with its weird, organic alien creatures lit up in shades of teal and orange (in an era before teal and orange had become a design cliche), it provided a taste of the baroque ship designs lurking in the game itself.
17. Wizball (Commodore 64/Various)
An already surreal side-scrolling shooter about a wizard capable of turning himself into a roving green sphere, Bob Wakelin took the game’s curious premise and transformed it into one of the most imaginative and striking cover designs of the late 1980s. With is central green orb providing the focal point for a chaotic swirl of necromancers, bolts of lightning and other assorted denizens, it’s perhaps the most distinctive piece of work from this prolific moment in Wizball’s career. And fittingly, the game itself remains something of a classic.
16. Musha Aleste (Mega Drive)
Lovely though the cover for this entertaining and somewhat rare Mega Drive shooter is, it’s the artwork on the back of the box which earns it a place on this list. Depicting one of the end of level bosses, which is essentially a surreal amalgam of a gigantic Noh theatre mask and heavy sci-fi ordnance, its bold colour and dramatic perspective make it really jump off the canvas, so to speak. Back when Japanese games were expensive and difficult to come by, this was the kind of box art that cash strapped gamers would gaze upon in specialist import shops and dream of owning.
15. Gift From The Gods (ZX Spectrum/Various)
Before UK developer Imagine collapsed in the early 80s (its ignominious end caught for posterity in a riveting BBC documentary), its programmers were busy working on a series of so-called ‘mega-games’, which were intended to push 8-bit computers to their limits. Gift From The Gods was one of those mega-games, rescued from oblivion by Denton Designs (formed from the ashes of Imagine in 1984) and released in somewhat cut-down form. The game itself was a free-roaming action adventure with a Greek mythological theme, something Bob Wakelin brought to the fore in his magnificent cover art. The game failed to stick in the memory, but when the artwork appeared in comics and kids’ magazines in the 80s, its sword-swinging warrior and knot of creatures hinted at all kinds of Harryhausen-esque adventures. We can only imagine how wonderful a Wakelin-designed God Of War cover might look like.
14. Ghouls ‘N Ghosts (Mega Drive)
We were torn over whether to go for the more cartoon-like artwork for the Super Famicom port of Capcom’s classic side-scrolling horror plaformer, or the more painterly illustration that accompanied the Mega Drive version. After much deliberation, the latter won out, thanks to its sheer drama, if nothing else. With both the front and back of the inlay positively stuffed with demonic beings, fire and lightning, it sums up the game’s astonishing difficulty level and electrifying special powers, if not its blackly comic sense of humour. It’s certainly a world away from the dreary art (complete with stripy purple background) which graced Ghouls ‘N Ghosts‘ home computer ports.
13. Shadow Of The Beast (Amiga/Various)
This side-scrolling platformer from Psygnosis gained attention not so much for its gameplay, but the quality of its graphics and its price – in 1989, £35 was an unusually high asking RRP for a computer game. In exchange for all that money, you got a pile of disks, and most excitingly, a T-shirt and gigantic box covered in Roger Dean’s glorious fantasy artwork. Dean’s airbrushed, mechanical creatures bore little resemblance to those in the game, but its texture and air of exoticism were both a strong talking point and the perfect addition to any 80s gaming geek’s bedroom.
12. Another World (Amiga)
The excitable “Another World took two years!” label on the box says a great deal about how much videogame development has changed since the 1990s, with lengthy production periods now the rule rather than the exception. But Eric Chahi’s arcade adventure was a landmark game at the time, with its wonderfully smooth polygon-based animated characters, and absence of HUD, points or lives adding to the sense that you weren’t so much playing a game as shaping the events of a movie. The box art, also created by Chahi, evoked the game’s expansive sense of scale and mystery, with its ginger-haired protagonist almost swallowed up by a barren alien vista.
11. M.O.V.I.E. (ZX Spectrum/Various)
At a time when most games were about hitting, shooting or collecting things, Dusko Dimitrijevic’s Movie dared to be different. Its setting and plot were taken straight from a Raymond Chandler detective novel, but so too was its pace; there was a quiet, faintly ominous pace to it, as your on-screen detective trudged from room to room, and never entirely sure whether the people standing around within them could be trusted.
Quintessentially 80s pink and green title graphics aside, Bob Wakelin’s artwork managed to catch this fraught, noirish atmosphere. The viewpoint’s at a low angle, and the hero (we can tell he’s the hero, because he has a pretty lady clutching his arm) has just burst through a door. A hand clutches a gun; light picks out a black trench coat. The hero’s pistol’s still smoking, presumably from an early encounter outside – and worryingly, there’s another figure emerging from the city fog behind him.
Wakelin’s airbrushed artwork is full of drama. What would happen next? The only way to find out, of course, was to play the game.
10. Gods (Amiga/Various)
The Bitmap Brothers released a range of popular games through the late 80s and early 90s, the best known probably being Xenon and its sequel, the Speedball series of future sports games, and the steampunk, top-down run-and-gunner Chaos Engine. As for cover designs, the studio’s finest was surely this one for its 1991 platformer, Gods. A brutal, kinetic affair from British comic book artist Simon Bisley, it’s arguably on a par with the work he turned out for such comics as Lobo, Hellblazer or Slaine.
Remarkably, Gods was one of only two videogame covers to have sprung from Bisley’s brush to date; the other was a similarly gritty piece of art for the 1995 fighting game, Weaponlord.
9. Flashback (Mega Drive/Various)
Delphine’s Flashback was one of a growing breed of early-90s games that introduced a cinematic sense of scope and occasion – something many developers have pursued ever since. With its smooth, rotoscoped animation and soaring music giving the platform-adventure gameplay a sense of grandeur, the cover design could also have come from a blockbuster movie. Almost abstract in its use of contrasting colour, it captured the game’s drama (not to mention its theme of amnesia) while leaving its plot a tantalising mystery.
8. Zak McCracken And The Alien Mindbenders (Amiga/Various)
Reviewers could never quite agree whether Zak McCracken was superior to Lucasfilm Games’ (later Lucas Arts) earlier adventure game, Maniac Mansion. Game aside, the cover artwork for McCracken was magnificent, capturing the zany humour of the adventure in a single image. Artist Steve Purcell was once an animator for Lucasfilm, but lost his job when the project he was involved in was cancelled. In spite of this, Purcell was still commissioned to produce the cover illustration for Zak McCracken, and it’s a wonderfully bold piece of work.
7. Prince Of Persia (Super Famicom)
Ported to just about every system known to man after its initial release in 1989, the Super Nintendo version of Jordan Mechner’s Prince Of Persia was one of the very best. Retaining Mechner’s smooth, rotoscoped animation and fiendish level designs while overlaying them with more varied and colourful visual flourishes, the Japanese iteration was also memorable for its sumptuous box art, which appeared to be influenced by the elegant, detailed work of Edwardian illustrator Willy Pogany. Although the original box artwork for the game’s western releases were also impressive, it’s the Japanese Super Famicom artwork that, for us, captures the gameplay’s eastern promise.
6. Guardic Legend (Famicom)
An early hit from Aleste developer Compile, Guardic Legend was also released in the west as The Guardian Legend, with its box art varying from region to region. None of them managed to better the beautiful and incredibly intricate artwork that graced the Japanese cover; created by Naoyuki Kato, its style has the fetishistic quality of HR Giger coupled with the technical flourishes of Ghost In The Shell artist Masamune Shirow. The dreamlike quality of the art itself is undone somewhat by the brassiness of that airbrushed title, which was no doubt added by another designer. Oddly, the game’s manual is much more tastefully done, with a smaller title giving Kato’s artwork room to breathe.
A noted sci-fi artist in Japan, Kato’s work appeared on book covers and in magazines, as well as on game boxes, including 1992’s Super Aleste. His Guardic Legend piece is inarguably his most eyecatching.
5. The Secret Of Monkey Island (Amiga/Various)
It’s sad to think that LucasArts, the developer responsible for Monkey Island and a legion other great games in its 90s heyday, is no more. But although Disney saw fit to close down the studio, at least we have its classic output to return to now and again, and Monkey Island may well be the most fondly-remembered of all LucasArts’ games. Steve Purcell is the artist behind Sam & Max, but also created the covers for several of LucasArts’ titles in the 80s and 90s.
Purcell’s artwork for Monkey Island is a masterpiece, with its characters picked out in cool shades of ochre, blue and green. A skull provides the central point for a busy composition that is nevertheless laid out in a logical ‘X’ pattern, with Guybrush ‘s sword guiding the eye round in a clockwise motion, through the game’s various settings and down to Elaine Marley on the left.
Vibrant and playful, it’s fitting that one of the finest adventure games should come wrapped in some of the best cover art of the 1990s.
4. Awesome (Amiga/Atari ST)
Psygnosis became almost as recognised for their eye-catching box designs as their games in the 80s and 90s, with artists such as Roger Dean (whose Shadow Of The Beast artwork can be found above) and Melvyn Grant’s detailed paintings most often featured. Some of these were painted years before they were used as cover art; Grant’s eye-catching work for the 1988 shooter Baal, for example, had appeared years earlier as one of a set of cards given away in boxes of Weetabix cereal – hence its absence from this list.
Our favourite Psygnosis work is surely this one: 1990’s Awesome by the UK artist and illustrator, John Harris. Technically stunning, its dramatic light and shade and extraordinary sense of scale makes it look like a piece of concept art from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Harris had previously had his work featured on the covers of sci-fi novels by Ben Bova, Orson Scott Card and Isaac Asimov, while his smoky surfaces and dramatic use of perspective were put to brilliant use in the manual covers for the ZX 81 and ZX Spectrum. This piece of work for Psygnosis, meanwhile, really lives up to the game’s title. You can find more of Harris’ glorious artwork on his website.
3. Gradius (PC Engine/Various)
Konami’s shooter Gradius was a genre-defining game, bringing elements such as huge bosses, varied levels and a novel power-up system into one hit arcade machine. Such a radical shooter deserved some memorable artwork, and the illustration which first appeared on Konami’s arcade flyers in 1985 was used time and again, albeit edited as each layout required. It’s not hard to see why it was so frequently used; it’s almost impossible to improve upon. Rendered with both technical detail and a sense of urgency, its cool blues are broken up with perfectly-positioned splashes of red, whether it’s the blaze of a distant planet or the interior of the Vic Viper’s thrusters.
2. Batman: The Caped Crusader (Amiga/Various)*
As Simon pointed out in his top-50 underrated ZX Spectrum games list, Batman: The Caped Crusader was one of the great, unsung licensed games from the 8-bit era. Taking a comic-book view of the character, it was a flick-screen adventure game where the environments overlaid one another like panels from Detective Comics. It was a more cerebral, measured take on the character than we’ve seen before or since, concentrating on Batman’s crime-solving abilities as much as his brawn.
This cover design by Bob Wakelin is one of the illustrator’s finest pieces of work; drawn in the graphic style of American comic artists, particularly evoking the character redefining colour and contour of Neal Adams in the 70s, it’s both vivid and dynamic, and a true high point of 80s videogame cover design.
1. Salamander (ZX Spectrum/Various)
A year after Gradius appeared in 1985, Konami brought out Salamander (also known as Life Force), a kind of spin-off from the main Gradius series with an altered weapons system and levels which scrolled vertically as well as horizontally. Its flyer artwork appeared to be by the same artist who illustrated Gradius, since it displays the same style of mark making and use of colour. Whoever this artist was (to date, we’ve been unable to find their name, regrettably), they were incredibly talented.
Colourful, disturbing and surreal – all violent reds and greens, swirling shapes and hissing mouths – it was used in just about every subsequent port of the game, from the PC Engine to the ZX Spectrum. And with good reason, because the illustration for Salamander may be the most striking of the decade.
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