By: Kirk Nazar- 3164965
Video game box art is simultaneously the most important and most easily overlooked aspect of the industry. It is the identifying face of a game and tasked with conveying what the game is, and has to offer. Over the past 30 years, Cover art has evolved just as drastically as the games themselves, and arguably not for the better. Most game covers today all follow a similar safe design formula and fail to accomplish the most crucial thing required of them. With an era of digital distribution threatening the role of physical boxed copies in general, there has never been a better time to look back at the journey of an underappreciated facet of art, its shift, and its place among graphic design.
Today, utilizing an in-game asset for cover art and marketing is standard procedure, but that wasn’t always the case. In the late 70’s, Cabinets and consoles had nowhere near the hardware capabilities they have now and relied almost entirely on the imagination of the player. Publishers therefore relied on artists such as George Opperman and Rick Guidiceboth with conceptual and commercial art experience, to create imagery that would spark and excite the players imagination. All with identical boxes, the Atari 2600 generation put all emphasis on the illustration with flat monotone backgrounds, symmetrical composition and Atari sans serif cover text. While the artwork work was undoubtedly beautiful, controversy arose for misleading the consumer due to the imagery being more interpretive rather than representational.
Asteroids (1979) Berzerk (1980)
These trends shifted in subsequent years with companies like Nintendo utilizing more screen accurate imagery in their cover art. With consoles still being limited to 8-bit processing capabilities, enticing buyers, while also being transparent about the product, just wasn’t a marketable option. So a medium between the two extremes was established with artists beginning to experiment with dynamic ways to incorporate title text fonts and creative imagery that would not mislead the consumer.
NES Golf (1984) NES Open Tournament (1991)
Super Mario Bros. (1985) Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988)
This Precedent was maintained into the next generation of consoles in 1991. With graphical improvements, artists now had more identifiable source material to work with, illustrating scenes from the games themselves rather than what a game was meant to represent. The cover designs that came out of this generation by artists such as Tom dubois, maintained just the right amount of artistic freedom, and did so without overly misrepresenting the product. Original fonts styles, experimental compositions and beautiful illustrations made a generation of cover art that is widely considered to be the most iconic and aesthetically diverse of all time.
A Link to the Past (1991) Super Metroid (1994) Super Mario World (1990)
Secret of Mana (1993) Street Fighter II (1992) Super Castlevania IV (1991)
With the jump from 2D to 3D in 1996, Publishers saw the new visual fidelity as impressive enough to use in-game assets as marketing material, and subsequently illustrators no were longer necessary.
Similar to shifts from illustration to photography in advertising throughout history, the public seemed to prefer it; Regardless of its comparable lacking of detail to previous hand drawn covers. This need for 3D was initiated by western publishers and started the unfortunate trend of box art feeling designed by marketing teams rather than passionate artists. Most covers began following the same formulaic approach to their designs with a central in game character asset, symmetrical text composition and recycled font style. This and other standard design formulae became a normality that sadly continues to occupy the vast majority of store shelves today. Doing more to represent the current market zeitgeist rather than a digital work of interactive art.
Video game cover art by its definition is its own form of poster art. Visual imagery and marketing coming together with the goal of winning the interest of potential consumers. Like a lot of poster art of the 19th and 20th century, themes of mysticism, sex, masculinity and fantastical elements are commonplace among box covers, and while beautiful, they sadly do little to represent the products they are advertising. This is something that has re surged quietly among video game covers over the past 20 years. While graphically the visuals displayed on cases today look impressive, and their compositions are in fact well executed, there is a clear bias in the division of it’s two jobs, the passion and appreciation for representing a piece of art, and it’s role as a marketing tool.
- Buffa, Christopher. “Video Game Box Art: How Beautiful Graphics Ruined Everything.” Prima Games, Prima Games, 19 June 2014, primagames.com/feature/video-game-box-art-how-beautiful-graphics-ruined-everything.
- Lapetino, Tim. Art of Atari. Edited by Shawna Gore, Dynamite Entertainment, 2016.
- Webster, Andrew. “How Atari Box Art Turned 8-Bit Games into Virtual Wonderlands.” The Verge, 19 Sept. 2013, www.theverge.com/2013/9/19/4716444/how-atari-box-art-turned-8-bit-games-into-virtual-wonderlands.
- “Album Art CD Covers and DVD Covers.” Cover Century, www.covercentury.com/.