The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Video game boxes have never enjoyed a particularly prestigious reputation. That’s because most of them suck. From Marcus Fenix’s gun to Lara Croft’s ‘guns’, they tend to appeal to the lowest common denominator (also known as 15-year-old boys). Consequently, the majority of game box ‘art’ resembles a bad cover for a straight-to-DVD action flick — no matter how critically acclaimed the game inside may be. Compared to music albums, with their fancy refracting prisms and American-flagged tongues, the majority of boxes are a complete embarrassment.
Occasionally, however, a games publisher will dare to think outside the box (sorry), and come up with something truly avant-garde. In these rare instances, a game will leap off the shelf and attack your giddy eyeballs like the best movie posters from Saul Bass or Drew Struzan. They are — essentially — art (or as close to art as a bullet-spewing alien can get).
In the following slideshow we take a look at some of the best and worst examples of video game box art, including a few dusty relics from our own private collection. And yes, Metro-Cross is naturally included. It wouldn’t be a game box gallery without it.
Rainbow Arts, 1990 (Amiga/Atari ST/C64/Amstrad CPC/ZX Spectrum)
A lone ship flying into the maw of a butt-ugly alien. There are times when we miss the simplicity of older video games. (Get off our lawn.)
Kemco, 1990 (SNES)
Hey! It’s that banjo-playing kid from Deliverance, all grown up! Quite why he is on the cover of a futuristic 2D shoot 'em up we aren’t exactly sure. Still, it beats selling moonshine for a living, and inbred hillbillies have to make a dime somehow. Yeeeee-haw!
Good: Mirror’s Edge
EA Games, 2008 (Xbox 360/PS3/PC)
Mirror’s Edge was probably the most original full-price game of 2008, so it’s only fitting that it had an equally memorable game box. Now this is how you render a character on a game cover — it’s classy, beautiful and engaging all at the same time. By contrast, most games slap a hackneyed action scene on the front and add a few generic explosions (if you’re lucky, you might also get some motion-blur). We don’t know much about art, but we know what we like.
Bad: Bad Company
Logotron Entertainment, 1989 (Amiga/Atari ST)
Bad drawing, more like.
Good: Elvira: Mistress of the Dark
Accolade, 1990 (Amiga/Atari ST/C64/PC)
When Accolade teamed up with TV’s famously busty late-night horror host for a fantasy adventure game, it knew just how to market her primary selling-point(s). From that blood-red vampish pout to the strategically placed logo, everything about this box is gloriously gratuitous. It makes the Dead or Alive girls’ pneumatic posturing look chaste by comparison. All hail the mistress of the dark!
Bad: The Official Father Christmas
Alternatitive Software, 1987 (Amstrad CPC)
At first glance, the box for The Official Father Christmas seems harmless enough. Until you notice St Nick’s suspiciously proffered buttocks. We shudder to think what may be lurking just outside of frame... A reindeer’s carrot?... An elf with a Wii remote? We never knew Santa had a side-gig in Christmas-themed pornography, but here’s the ‘official’ proof. (We’ll never look at his jolly wave the same way again.)
Good: Dune II
Good: Dune II
Virgin Games, 1992 (Amiga/Atari ST/PC)Westwood Studio’s precursor to Command & Conquer had one of the coolest game boxes ever. The sleek red font, the abundance of black, the letterboxed heat-tinged image — it’s all very classy and cinematic. The distant view of post-battle smoke is refreshingly understated compared to most war game covers. Sometimes less is more.
Bad: Mr. Dig
Microdeal, 1983 (Dragon 32)
To be fair, most game boxes were cobbled together by the programmer in his spare time in those days. But still. Come on.
Good: Resistance 2
Sony, 2008 (PS3)
Despite shamelessly ripping off the cover to Fable 2 (and countless prog-rock concept albums from the 1970s), Resistance 2’s box art is still pretty badass. The composition and imagery are far more effective than any of its mirroring pioneers. Plus it’s got an alien on it, which always helps.
Bad: Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy
Atari, 1993 (Atari Jaguar)
Getting people to buy a game called ‘Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy’ is a tough enough exercise in itself. But when you combine this with a piss-poor cover slapped together in Deluxe Paint, you’ve really got problems. Not surprisingly, Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy proved to be the titular tiger’s first and only galactic adventure. Trevor McFur — we hardly knew ye.
Palace Software, 1987 (PC/C64/Amiga/Atari ST)
We’re not sure what we think of Palace Software’s Barbarian box. On the one hand, it’s a trashy controversy-magnet featuring Page 3 glamour-saucepot Maria Whittaker. But on the other hand, it’s a trashy controversy-magnet featuring Page 3 glamour-saucepot Maria Whittaker. As an added bonus, the big bloke in the leotard is ‘Wolf’ from the UK version of Gladiators. It’s an avalanche of B-grade celebrities. Well, an avalanche of two anyway.
Bad: Mercenaries 2
EA Games, 2008 (Xbox 360/PS2/PS3)
Big ugly men have been flexing and snarling on game boxes since the days of the Atari 2600. Along with boobies, explosions and cutesy animals, it’s one of the cornerstones of the industry. (You can check out some gruff, manly examples here, here and here).
Somehow, EA managed to stuff up this bone-headedly simple concept with its Mercenaries 2 box art. Everything about this is just plain wrong. Firstly, its grizzled cover boy has one of the weediest scowls we’re ever seen — instead of looking badass, he looks mildly constipated. Secondly, the enforced close-up leaves no room for anything else — it’s just a big picture of a gross face. And lastly, it’s not even a particularly well drawn gross face. All in all, a rubbish effort.
Good: Psygnosis box art
From the mid-'80s to the early 1990s, Psygnosis was the king of video game box art. The Liverpool outfit was famous for producing lavishly illustrated boxes that were so large and bulky you could comfortably house a small family in them. Most of the covers were painted by fantasy artist Roger Dean and rarely had anything to do with the game in question. (We suspect they were commissioned in bulk and then chosen at random.) Here are a few of the psychedelic highlights...
Psygnosis, 1989 (Amiga/Atari ST/C64)
Psygnosis, 1989 (Amiga/Atari ST)
Psygnosis, 1988 (Amiga/PC/C64)
Psygnosis, 1989 (Amiga/Atari ST/C64)
Psygnosis, 1991 (Amiga)
Psygnosis, 1991 (Amiga/Atari ST/C64)
Psygnosis, 1988 (Amiga/Atari ST/PC)
Psygnosis, 1987 (Amiga/Atari ST/C64/Amstrad CPC)
Shadow of the Beast
Psygnosis, 1989 (Amiga/Atari ST/C64/PC/Amstrad CPC/PC Engine)
Shadow of the Beast II
[That’s enough Psygnosis covers — Ed.]
Bad: Resident Evil 4 (U.S Edition)
Capcom, 2005 (Nintendo Gamecube/PS2/PC/Nintendo Wii)
The U.S. of A has a reputation for taking a perfectly good game box and turning it into a generic pile of crap. Observe the evidence. To the left, we have the hauntingly effective European cover for Resident Evil 4 — a lone chainsaw-wielding silhouette lurking in a smothering woodland canopy. To the right, we have the American ‘re-imagining’ — a guy modeling his emo haircut. Other examples of this curious trend include Fatal Frame, ICO and of course, the infamous Mega Man cover from 1987. (Oi! Americans! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!)
Good: Left 4 Dead
EA Games, 2008 (Xbox 360/PC)
If you’ve ever spent more than five minutes with us in person, you’ll doubtlessly be aware of our passionate love for zombies. We simply cannot get enough of those shambling puss-bags, which makes Valve’s Left 4 Dead box one of our favourites on this list. From the putrid grey-green colour scheme to the grisly munched-on hand; it’s everything a zombie cover should be. Braaaaaaaaaaaains!
Bad: Twisted Metal Black
Sony, 2001 (PS2)
While undoubtedly a very stylish and eye-catching cover, we-OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, THAT CLOWN!!! THAT CLOWN!!!! ARRRRGGHHHHHHH!!!!! His evil face will forever be in my nightmares! Kill me now!!!!!! [Note to readers: Chris may suffer clown phobia — Ed.]]
Good: Gee Bee Air Rally
Activision, 1987 (Amiga/Atari ST/C64/PC/Mac)
We love this one for its sophisticated framing and symmetry, along with the jaunty Roaring Twenties font. Props must go to the artist for giving those creaky biplanes a sense of speed — they really look like they’re zipping through the sky.
Bad: Karnaaj Rally
Paragon 5, 2002 (Nintendo Game Boy)
We have not the words.
Good: St. Dragon
Storm, 1990 (Amiga/Atari ST/C64/Amstrad CPC/ZX Spectrum)
It’s a giant robot panther fighting a giant robot dragon above a planet covered in lava — what’s not to love? As if that wasn’t cool enough, it’s also the only game box we can think of which shows you getting owned on the cover (you play the role of the dragon). We wish more games did this. Imagine if the next Tomb Raider box depicted Lara midway through panther-dismemberment — awesome!
Activision, 1991 (Amiga/Atari ST)
This free-roaming, 3D action/adventure game is one of the great lost gems of gaming. The ability to drive anything, go anywhere and shoot anyone paved the way for every sandbox title that came after. (Amazingly, some of its features are still unique to the genre, such as the ability to windsurf and fight sharks.)
So how come Hunter isn’t as well remembered as it should be? Could it perhaps have something to do with that terminally bland box art? Whatever possessed them to put a floppy disc on the cover is a mystery for the ages — it makes the game look like a spreadsheet program for army enthusiasts. The box is so inoffensive and boring that we doubt many of you have even bothered to click on the image. Which means we could pretty much write whatever we want here... hmmm... [Snip! — Ed.]
Good: Last Ninja 3
System 3, 1992 (Amiga/Atari ST/C64)
It’s a well known fact that any game box can be improved by the addition of a ninja on the cover...
Bad: Ninja Golf
Atari, 1990 (Atari 7800)
... except when that game is called Ninja Golf.
Sony, 2001 (PS2)
It takes a brave publisher to put a Giorgio de Chirico-inspired abstract painting on a game box — especially when the game is a completely unknown property. This bold gamble unfortunately did not pay off for Sony. Despite phenomenal reviews worldwide, ICO sold quite poorly. The company should have gone for a pic of the main character diving away from an explosion or something. Gamers are morons.
U.S. Gold, 1986 (Atari ST/C64/Amstrad CPC/ZX Spectrum)
We told you it was coming. Truly, Metro-Cross is the nadir of all video game box art. We have no idea what U.S. Gold’s managers were thinking when they approved this monstrosity. Look at it. Just look at it. There are no words to describe the horror. From the ghastly homemade backdrop to the gurning mutant in skintight lycra, it is perhaps the worst commercial product ever created by human beings. In fact, we think everyone involved should be charged with human rights abuses on the grounds that innocent people actually had to view this thing. What has been seen cannot be unseen.
But perhaps the biggest victim of all is the poor, feckless programmer who was strong-armed into being the ‘sk8ter boi’ for the cover. Little did he realize that his ineffectual skateboard-wobbling would be immortalised on countless Web sites and forums for all eternity. The day his kids stumble across this pic will be the saddest day of his life. Poor bugger.