Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Art of Box Art

This may be hard for some to believe, but there was a time for youngsters when the only information available about a game was what was on its box. If you had a subscription to Nintendo Power you might have access to some previews or reviews ahead of time to guide you, but those were relatively few and far between, and hardly reliable (Nintendo Power, for example, rarely outright called a game bad, regardless of how incredibly hard it deserved it). The back of the box may have tried to entice you with rarely accurate flavor text and blurry screenshots that were literally photos of a tv screen, but the obvious selling point was the cover. It was the first thing you saw in the store, and what you would remember most when you eventually were pulled away from the display by your parents. To this day there are tons of games that, despite having never ever actually played myself, I will never forget the box art for.

The 80's and 90's were a particularly interesting era for this, as the box art for most games had to serve the twofold purpose of making the game look awesome AND hiding any traces of the game's probably origins in Japan. I suppose marketing guys back then looked at the Japanese art for games like MegaMan, with the big, shiny eyes and bright colors, and assumed American children would turn their noses up at such alien art styles. It didn't matter that shows like Speed Racer, Gigantor, and Astroboy had long been present overseas, or that contemporary shows like Transformers and Robotech were airing with great success, apparently. As a result of this thinking, most games had radically different art for the North American releases, usually overblown paintings influenced heavily by action movies more than the game they were supposedly based on. This era produced some really fascinating boxes, and while there are plenty of examples of famously bad illustrations, there were a fair amount of really memorable ones.

Of all the Japanese companies at their prime in the 80's and 90's, Konami probably had the best track record when it came to North American box art, with many that actually improved on their Japanese counter parts. As a kid, there was a quality to many of Konami's boxes that I found to be very appealing, and it wasn't until I grew up that I realized that many of those illustrations appeared to be by the same guy, and that there were actually a bunch of others that I had never even seen. I don't know who this guy is, or even for certain that these were all actually done by the same artist, but all of these boxes share certain brutal and rugged sense of intensity that I absolutely love. They also are shockingly accurate to the games they represent, something of a rarity back then, as if the artist actually played the games. Many of these will probably be familiar, some may not, but regardless, they are all pretty wild.

 1. The Adventures of Bayou Billy
While the game here is somewhat infamous for both its insane difficulty and shameless similarities to Crocodile Dundee, the box art is unarguably bad ass. The rough, thick brush work makes the details look more like they are hewn from rock than painted on canvas, and the greenish-yellow color palette really suites the swampy subject matter. Billy himself looks pretty awesome, way cooler than he looks in the game in fact, where he looks more like a melted cowboy in capris. The background includes several details from the game, such as the jeep from the driving stages, the New Orleans setting, the evil gangster final boss whose name I can't remember, and of course a big, bad gator. I may have never gotten remotely close to beating this game (even the famous Captain N never conquered it), but this box manages to make a kind of lame game look really cool. If this dude could make Bayou Billy look awesome (believe me, he didn't have much to work with), imagine what he did with good games!

2. Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse
For many player's, Dracula's Curse was basically the zenith of the Castlevania series, and while the box art for the first two games was certainly not bad (okay, Simon Quest's was a little hokey), neither did as good a job at showing much of the game. With Castlevania III, we get a good look at some of the game's most iconic features. You've got Trevor Belmont brandishing the powerful Vampire Killer, ready to take on a bone throwing skeleton, complete with gears and cogs, representing the infamous clock tower level. In that background there are Trevor's many transformations (although Sypha and Grant are visible here, Alucard is sadly covered by the stupid sweep stakes sticker). We see plenty of birds and bats, as well as a spooky red moon and castle spires. Although the Japanese box art has a certain charm, this is s definite improvement.

 3. Super Castlevania IV
This one was a favorite of mine growing up. Whereas the previous two have been fairly static images, for Super Castlevania IV Konami opted for a much more action packed illustration. Simon appears to be in mid swing across some kind of abyss, an interesting nod to one of the new mechanics introduced in the game. The little door knocker looking thing that he's got his whip latched too is crazily accurate to the in game dongles for swinging, which is a cool detail. Probably half of the enemies in the game are represented here, even little ones like the frogs and medusa heads, and interestingly the franchise's infamous stairs seem to be prominently featured too. I like that the crazy, nonsensical background composition make this look like some kind of swirling montage of the game as opposed to a depiction of a single scene, and the mostly grey-blue palette makes yellow-brown Simon really pop.

5. Contra III The Alien Wars
This is another one that is jam packed with shit directly from the game. Almost everything here looks exactly like its in game counterpart, even little details like the weird robots you have to hang from during the vertically scrolling stages. The giant skeleton boss bursting out of the wall is pretty much spot on, and oh my god that nightmare face in the background is unforgettable. I don't think I ever got far enough in the game to see that thing, but I'm sure its in there somewhere. Much like with Super Castlevania IV, the exaggerated perspective makes it seem like this is all happening in some kind of swirling vortex of action, as if we are simultaneously seeing every scene from the game at once. The intensity here is stuck at 11, which suites the game just fine.

6.Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time
For the home port of this gem, Konami decided to produce art that kicked the hell out of the original arcade cabinet art. Whereas the last two boxes simply looked as if they were occuring in some kind of temporal whirlpool, this one definitely is, as elements of the many time periods the turtles visit all look to be caught in a sparkly tornado. The turtles themselves look downright MENACING here, with insanely detailed and chunky musculature and faces of absolutely fury. This is probably the scariest the animated turtles ever looked in their heyday. Yeah, that's the cartoon turtles. The movie turtles would never be caught dead with those alphabet belt buckles. Also, it's neat that Raphael is front and center here.

7. The Legend of the Mystical Ninja
I spent a long while debating whether to include this one on the list, as I'm not positive it's done by the same guy. In fact, the more I look at it, the more I think it isn't, but I still love it, so boo. This was probably the single most Japanese game to ever make it to the US, and it's a miracle that it made it over with much of it's character intact. Sure, Goemon looks a little more like a Garbage Pail Kid than I would like, but that tiger looks absolutely amazing, and the wacky look of the enemies seems to be pretty intact. While a little less action packed and intense than some of the others, but it's still jam packed with tons of weird shit from the game. I'm willing to bet this was a really hard one to do, so congrats to the artist for getting this done.

 8. Sunset Riders
I never really played or even saw Sunset Riders other than at the arcade, but when I saw this box later in life I instantly recognized the Konami aesthetic. Like with Bayou Billy, there isn't as rich of a world to Sunset Riders for the artist to work with, but he did an admirable job of sweeping the western action into a furious stampede of frenetic madness. Only two of the playable characters are here, unless the others are behind the logo, but a boss or two is there, and horses! Scary, scary horses. Also, check out that terrified chicken. Now that is detail.

 9. Castlevania Bloodlines
Konami didn't make a ton of games on the Genesis, but after a while they seemed to notice that the machine was getting a little traction, and decided to start dropping a game or two. The more vertically aligned boxes of the Genesis seem to have given Konami's artist a little trouble with his usual "swirling vortex" composition which seemed to fit so naturally on the Super NES's wide format. The result is two slightly unusual compositions, the first of which was done for the first and only Castlevania game for the Genesis. Here, musclebound John Morris struggles to look at enemies that are  both behind and above him. Unlike the wooshing whirlpools of the previous pieces, this is more like a hazy tower of evil, with far fewer background details than usual. Still, there are plenty of wonderfully rendered enemies on display. This cover also weirdly omits the second playable character. Still, it's a colorful and memorable piece overflowing with machismo.

10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyper Stone Heist
I remember being really excited for this game. I don't know why, as I already had Turtles in Time for SNES, but having Turtles game on the Genesis was something I was really looking forward to. Again, no swirling vortext montage here, but in terms of composition I think this is a really strong piece. It uses the tall format of the box to provide a great sense of scale, with the towering heights of New York City ascending into the darkness of the sky. The lighting on the turtles, who are again rendered as visceral beings of fierce determination, draws the eye to the heroes immediately and contrasts the largely blue palette of the background pleasantly. While little of the game is really represented here, the illustration is still overflowing with detail. It's one of my favorite boxes, and one of my favorite illustrations of the Ninja Turtles in general.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Radical Rescue
Again, I never played Radical Rescue, but upon seeing the cover I couldn't help but see the connection to the other Turtles related art. The other Gameboy games didn't use this particular art style, opting for art from Mirage artists, so this, Turtles in Time, and Hyper Stone Heist are unique as being the only TMNT games to have box art done by Konami artists. I don't like this piece nearly as much as the others, but I couldn't not include it, as it isn't without it's charms. First of all, only one turtle is pictured, but that almost makes sense, as the game is mostly about rescuing the other turtles. Granted, in the game you start as Michelangelo, but whatever. Leonardo appears to be utilizing a drilling strike to tear through a wall, which I think is actually from the game, which is a cool detail. Much like how the tall Genesis boxes seem to have prompted a shift in design, so did the small format of the Game Boy boxes. This was probably about half the size of a SNES box, and perfectly square, so the artist opted for a simpler composition, as if Leo is bursting out of the box itself. The contrast between the bright light of the background in the cool blues of the wall and Leo is a pleasant effect. I think it works, even if the logo is a little cheesy.

That took a lot longer to do than I expected, but ultimately I'm glad I went through this. I have no idea who this guy is or what he is up to now, but I know there was something wonderful about these boxes. The sheer frenetic energy of these illustrations managed to sell me on an entire game in just one feverish image, and many of them stuck with me for my whole life. These are objectively beautiful pieces, dripping with raw intensity, and still manage to be remarkably accurate to the games they adorned.

Although this was sort of a grueling process for me, I think that I like this enough to probably do more of it, though I think in the future I'll probably stick to a single piece at a time, as it's past midnight while I am writing this, and I am both super tired and need to use the bathroom something fierce.

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