I’m going to start off with a huge thesis statement: Videogame covers are supposed to sell videogames. It gets forgotten in this world of preorders, atmospheric art direction, and internet previews that make the outside of the game the least important part of the experience. But step back to a world prior to mass social communication, E3, and industry blogs. Step back to the world… of DOS.
If your box didn’t leap out and assault the gamers walking along the shelves of Electronics Boutique, it would gather dust. Your box was your movie poster — and if you didn’t have a big name star? Go back to bed, old man. Here’s 10 of the games from that era that had no hook whatsoever. No hook? You got no game, son.
10) 7 Colors
I’m not sure if this is false advertising (there are only 4 colors on the cover, unless you count the armadillo… with five plus black and white) or just a technological achievement that was an embarrassing step forward. “If you purchase this upgrade, your computer will have two extra colors when you’re doing things. That’s right. Looking at sports scores on Prodigy will feel like the Pride parade stomping across your desk.” Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, and we’ve always been at war with Technicolor Eurasia.
I have no clue. 100% honest, I’ve looked at screenshots of the game, descriptions of the game, and examined and reexamined the box art again and again. And I’m not sure what any of those things are, or their relationship to one another. On the far left, that’s a vibrator. A very popular model, but it’s a vibrator. Then it’s an eyeglass case. Then an eyeglass case for popular kids. Then… cooking tool? Dog toy? Weapon? On the far right, bong. I bet Santa did not receive many letters asking for Cylindrix.
Ever wonder what’s going through the inbred banjo kid from Deliverance‘s mind? Apparently the game Asteroid. I’m glad they didn’t go with their first advertising tagline, “Asteroid! The Game With Spaceships, Not Asteroids!” You could easily make the case that Jugibugi Entertainment had no idea what an asteroid was. After all, they never made a game after this one. See what bad box designs lead to? Unemployment. Children starved because of this Asteroid cover.
Well, okay then. But I’m confused, what am I supposed to do now? Sometimes the failure in box design can’t be blamed solely on bad art. Sometimes the copy just does a piss poor job, as Galactix proudly illustrates. Exclamation points? Nope. Adjectives? Nope. Audience interest? Nope. This was probably the worst elevator pitch that worked in the history of advertising.
I do give the designers some credit, since you have to invest more than a passing glance to determine what the box says. It’s one word. Not a very exciting word, it’s a geographical term for a strong of islands. So you’re already starting with a word people either don’t know or associate with something boring. From there, add no game-specific shots on your box cover, no characters, no landscapes. Just a checkerboard. With letters on it. This paragraph took half an hour to write because I fell asleep twice while writing it.
You’d think that an atomic blast would make your game art interesting. But that’s not what they want you to look at. Nope, your eye is drawn to a sundial. I hope that this game spouted a message every twenty minutes that read, “YOU REALLY BOUGHT A GAME WITH A SUNDIAL ON IT. YOU’LL DO ANYTHING WON’T YOU? LICK THE CAT’S BUTT.” Even the tagline, “The basic power of the universe has been unleashed.” is anticlimactic. Yeah, the power of shadows. Excitement!
4) Dune II
Don’t you dare tell me that the best image to sell Dune II was this hack job. Don’t worry, art director, you can get closer to the action. It’s okay, no one will bite. Certainly not a sandworm, which would actually show some motion, some character, some lifeform. This is like “The Battle For Arrakis, As Seen From Two Counties Over.” And you should totally want to play a Dune videogame! It’s got a built-in fanbase! This is tacitly saying, “Look kid, just play something else, okay? We did a crap job on it, just play something else. Or get into dope. We don’t care.”
3) The Patrician (Der Patrizier)
Think of all the children who were disappointed when dad brought home the family’s first computer, and brought this game as well. The joy of, “And it’s not just going to be for learning, it has games too!” is immediately dissipated by the box art for The Patrician, a word I didn’t even know the meaning to until I looked it up just now. Believe it or not, the American version of this cover was action-packed, and so beloved that sequels to The Patrician were being made as recently as 2010 (this one was released in 1989). Sorry, Germany, you get a stuffy medieval dude, a.k.a. “public domain art.”
2) The Global Dilemma
Guns or butter? Always a popular philosophical/political decision. I think as a bigger question though, would be, “Use a real map or globe as reference, or just wing it and try to draw the continents from memory?” The game itself is considered a classic, even though it was just a static map of the world, and other releases didn’t try to get all artsy with the continents. I mean, c’mon dude, you just got your big break to do a video game box, you couldn’t have cracked open an encyclopedia for twenty seconds before jumping on your CAD program?
“LET ME OUT, I WANT TO ADVERTISE THE GAME.”
“Hold on there, Lawnmower Man, you’re way too creepy for the game-buying populace.”
“I AM GREATEST ASSET TO THE GAME. BEST LOOKING. BEST FOR ADS.”
“I know, we don’t have much to go on with the rest of the game. But you’re seriously too intense. You look like you’re going to rape someone.”
“I WILL. IT WILL HELP SELL THE GAME.”
“I’m hiding you behind a wall of red.”
“THAT’S NOT GOOD GRAPHIC DESIGN. DO NOT LET MY RAPE EYES SCARE YOU. FREE MEEEEEE!”