Bring Back Good Video Game Box Art

Bring Back Good Video Game Box Art
Video games don't look like they used to.
Facebook may have decided that you shouldn’t see the news, but we think you deserve to be in the know with Kotaku Australia’s reporting. To sign up for our daily newsletter covering the latest news, features and reviews, head HERE. For a running feed of all our stories, follow us on Twitter HERE. Or you can bookmark the Kotaku Australia homepage to visit whenever you need a news fix.

Once upon a time you’d walk into an electronics store and marvel at rows of sealed, shiny boxes depicting goblins, swords and (usually) a sexy lady or two. If you didn’t know what game you really wanted, it was the beautiful cases you chose first. The ones with metallic accents, embossed fonts or bright colours. Some were glossy, while others had a rough cardboard feel. Each had their merits, but they all shared one thing in common: older video game box art looked brilliant in a collection.

Today’s video game box art scarcely measures up.

In the era of expanding digital sales and all-digital console releases, box art has paled in importance. We get the odd steelbook or collector’s edition that looks pretty flash, but the art of a good video game box is long gone. Instead, new releases are mostly slapped into generic blu-ray cases and put up on the shelf as an afterthought. It isn’t the art that’s attractive, it’s the game itself.

In some ways, the transition has been good for video games. You should never judge a book by the quality of its cover, and having a homogenous casing system means no game stands out simply for its art. But it also means collecting feels less special. It means ‘physical media’ isn’t as appealing as it once was. There’s no real reason to collect when every case looks the same. Most even use generic fonts and plain white backgrounds on their spines.

Plastic cases just don’t have the same excitement as laminated cardboard or games with ‘peek-a-boo’ style windows and fun gimmicks.

Images: LucasArts, 989 Studios

Classic PC game cases often featured bold fantasy art, beautiful paintings or dramatic war scenes. Sometimes there were duds like the original Mega Man artwork, but for the most part a game’s box art was its most important and eye-catching feature. The art was often what made you want to buy the game in the first place.

My earliest experiences with video game box art were titles like The Sims on PC and Pokémon Emerald for Game Boy Advance. Both were housed in fun, brightly-designed cardboard boxes and included the most important video game accessory of all: a manual. You could spend hours leafing through manuals before you even started a game. Some included hints and tips or special pieces of lore. Others just featured nice artwork or instructions. It was a small touch for collectors, but an incredibly important one.

Image: Tom Dubois / Nintendo
Image: Tom Dubois / Nintendo

In today’s game cases, you’ll be lucky if you get a single piece of paper included. If you’re very lucky, you’ll wind up with a piece of advertising for another game. Pair the lack of modern manuals with generic game cases, and you’re missing a huge part of what made collecting video games so fun in the 90s and early 2000s.

Presentation was once just as important as the game itself, if not more. Sure it meant you ended up choosing a few bad games along the way, but nothing beat going down to your local Electronics Boutique, Harvey Norman or Dick Smith and picking from the excellent, glossy cases lining the walls. It’s a feeling that’s difficult to recapture in the modern era.

But the reasons for this transition are easily explained.

As the cost of producing video games went up, sacrifices had to be made. ‘Fancy’ cases require more attention, resources and money. But if you put together a CGI render of your main character on a vaguely defined background, you can reduce the overall costs of creation.

Sure, it leads to game boxes plagued by ‘sameness’, but in the digital era it hardly matters. Box art is no longer the sole marketing avenue for developers.

Images: EA, 2K Games, Activision

To market video games now we have big, cinematic trailers. We have months-long hype cycles and social media. We don’t need the sexy lady to draw us in. Because of this, box art is a marketing afterthought.

There are some games still bucking the trend and leaning into the cardboardy goodness of older games like World of Warcraft. But the art and panache of the 90s and early 2000s is mostly gone.

Physical media is no longer how most people play games. Bricks and mortar stores are struggling, with digital becoming the norm. As we continue down this path, it’s likely the concept of ‘box art’ will evolve even further. It could be that 5 or 10 years down the track, physical media becomes almost completely obsolete.

Box art could be relegated to digital storefronts and console homepages. From a cost and convenience perspective, it absolutely makes sense — but collectors will suffer in the transition.

Image: Tom Dubois / Nintendo

In the future, the beauty of classic game box art will be lost entirely. Change is an important part of any industry. But it’s going to be mighty hard to beat the feeling of bringing home a pretty new box for your collection. Digital games will never replicate the quiet calm of leafing through a game manual post-shopping trip, or smelling the fresh ink on the pages.

They’ll also never give us the Gran Turismo 2 ‘scratch and sniff’ gaming experience we all deserve. Video game box art may be changing, but at least we’ll always have the gritty, tar-smelling memories.

Comments

  • Oh goodness me the PC game boxes used to be glorious. Up until about 2004 they were big boxes that promised much. Some of my favourites include the original World of Warcraft, Rollercoaster Tycoon 3, Left 4 Dead, Civilization 2, The Sims, Theme Park World and so many more.

    • I loved the big box pc games back in the day. I remember going to target and kmart and browsing through the games all the time.

  • I always loved the Escape from Monkey Island big game box. All the different characters displayed in that distinct art style.

    • The good news is poster technology has come a long way. It’s a bit more expensive but rather than a perma-creased poster in the box you can get a top quality Escape from Monkey Island poster in your choice of sizes. I just saw a Day of the Tentacle poster that looks pretty awesome.

      If digital game stores wanted to make some easy money they’d partner with a printing chain, then convince as many developers as they can to upload high quality files to sell as on demand prints. Individually it’s hard to make money selling Sekiro posters, but with a large/convenient platform like Steam or the eShop there’d be enough going through to keep everyone involved happy.

  • Ahh, that nostalgia. I was struck by the box art trends when I was going through and doing an image compilation of my most memorable games of 1996, 1997, and 1998.

    There was some great stuff in there, much of it burned into my memory from also being the images used in the full-page magazine ads that I must’ve read and re-read hundreds of times. …Back when magazines were the main way to get reliable gaming news.

  • I really don’t need to see any more generic game covers that feature Dude With A Gun.

    He’s everywhere. He’s like the Troy Baker of box art.

  • I appreciate the argument put forward here, but I wouldn’t say it’s a laziness or lack of passion for cover art for game covers now that have eroded the practice. A majority of those older games, the cover art helps you imagine what the game’s graphics couldn’t deliver. When a game character was 10×10 chunky pixels in-game, but the box art had them fully painted in actual human proportions. Video game devs and publishers would be under such scrutiny if they printed a game that had promo art that didn’t reflect what the game actually looked like. The only most recent example that comes to mind of an illustrated box art depicting photo-realistic game would be Horizon: Zero Dawn Complete Edition.
    I dunno. I work in video game retail, and appreciate the little design choices when you can see a game had fun with it. I’d like to point out Little Hope (Dark Pictures Anthology), look at the slip art for the Xbox One and PS4 versions. They have to be printed in the respectively mandated green and blues. But they tried to add the illusion that the cover graphic is a burnt bit of parchment/map. It’s not much, but it was somewhat clever. It’s just something you notice when you’re looking at new game releases every day.
    Anyway, I appreciate what you’re saying and just wanted to add my two cents to say that it’s not a dying practice, it just had to transition to new media and a new generation of players.

    • Yep. It’s also nostalgia that drives these articles. I’ve seen these same topics before and tbh a lot of older box art looks about ugly and too busy

  • It’s a feeling that’s difficult to recapture in the modern era.

    I would argue being ten was what made this stuff fun and it’s alive and well in modern gaming. My nephew gets just as excited watching a game download. I’m not exaggerating. He’s genuinely just as foaming at the mouth bouncing off the walls excited watching the bar move as I was reading the manual on the way home. He’ll sit there telling everyone this and that about the game then vanish the second it’s done installing.
    He loves to browse the eShop and look at trailers/screenshots for everything. He does the exact same thing you’re talking about but with the crappy thumbnails on the eShop. Although he doesn’t fall for the old awesome cover art crappy game scam as much as we did because it’s easier to pick a bad game based on screen shots now.
    A full page magazine ad might be a thing of the past but kids still fall down those rabbit holes. Limited screen time and a lack of understanding of how to find specific content does the same job. I mean just look at how many 20 year olds talk about obscure channels and things they learned about through word of mouth.

    It makes sense because when you think about it we were hyping ourselves up using any marketing material we could get our hands on. Any time I was excited about a cover or manual it was because I was crazy excited about playing the game. I was super particular about keeping the boxes and manuals in pristine condition, but when I look back I was just as hyped about renting a game or borrowing a game when it didn’t have a box/manual. I remember staying with family once and they said they had a SNES, and I was so excited on the way there even though I didn’t know what games they had.

    As an adult I’m just too clear headed to really care about games that way. Be it a box, manual or trailer I can’t lose my mind that way anymore. I’m (relatively) patient and I don’t fixate. I’m hyped enough for Resident Evil that I’ll probably take the day off work, but if I don’t take the day off I’ll just go to work like normal. I won’t sit at my desk drawing pictures and telling all my friends how cool it’s going to be.
    If you hand me the most beautiful cover art in the world and it moves me to tears I’ll appreciate it as art but I can’t love it the way I would when I was a kid.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!