An In-Depth Analysis of Early NES Box Art Trends
Hello! Everyone I know who is roughly my age grew up in the early era of Nintendo. In fact, we can remember a time before there was a Nintendo Entertainment System, back in the time when there was just Atari and Colecovision and a whole bunch of crap. Then like salt sprinkled on food that needs salt, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES as it was lovingly called) hit the scene when I was somewhere around 4th grade.
It was truly remarkable. You could go to an arcade and play Super Mario Bros. (or in my case, down to a 7-11 and play it) and then head on home and play a game that to our eyes looked and sounded and felt exactly the same as the arcade version (even though now we know that there were a few things changed). But that's not what I'm going to talk about in this article. No. Heavens no. Being a graphic designer by nature (and sometimes by profession as well), I was always fascinated by the box art of the early days of the NES.
If you were a very attentive kid, you could often tell what companies had created the games simply by viewing the game boxes from across the store without your glasses on (if you were some weenie nerd who needed glasses. Hey, four-eyes! *punch*). It seems like a really simple idea to make your company's box art instantly recognizable and different from those around you. But only a handful of companies actually put that much thought into branding their games. The vast majority put out "generic" looking box art, only distinguishable from its competitors by the corporate logo stamped somewhere upon it. In fact, as time went on and the NES got older, almost all companies abandoned their unique styles of box art and simply started putting out the generic, harder-to-instantly-identify-the-company boxes.
But before that came about, there were some very distinct styles of box art out there. Let's take a look at some of the companies that took this route, shall we? Will we have fun? SHUT UP!
Nintendo, being the makers of the NES, had one of the most instantly-recognizable box art styles of anybody. You could be walking down the street and glance over at an electronics store on the other side of the street and be able to recognize these beauties. Nintendo took a simple, literal route with their early box art, actually putting graphics from the game on the box. Well, almost. Really they artistically recreated graphics from the game. If you'll look at Kung Fu* (does anyone know why it has that asterisk after Fu?) down below, you'll notice some swishing action lines while the Kung Fu master kicks. Obviously that wasn't in the game. Also notice how the pinball on the Pinball cover is of a decidedly different resolution than the Mario below it. Also there are those action lines again. And if you look at the Super Mario Bros. box art, you'll notice that Mario has some subtle shading going on under his arms and his face from the brim of his cap.
Nonetheless, this was a really cool approach. Normally you had to ignore the fancy painting or drawing or photo on the front of the box and flip it over to see what the actual game itself looked like. With early Nintendo box art, the game itself represents itself.
A couple other things of note with Nintendo box art is the black, starry background, the slightly diagonal game titles, and the inclusion of the game "category" in the lower left corner. It's a very nice design, not overloading you with too much to look at, but still classy and attractive.
Konami had the most consistent NES box art of any company. I don't think their style changed until the NES died. It was a very simple formula, but really easily recognizable. The boxes had silver borders around the top and both sides, framing a drawn or painted representation of what the game was about. The game title appears at the top of this picture. Some interesting details are the fact that universally at least one element escapes the borders and goes all over the place, like Simon Belmont's whip in Castlevania or that soldier guy's gun in Rush 'N Attack. Also of note are the vertical silver lines that kind of "blend" from the side borders into the picture.
It was always nice to get a Konami game. The silver box made it seem somehow more special.
Ah, Capcom. Home of some of the most truly awful box art, but a couple of the most recognizable box art styles. In the earliest days of Capcom for the NES, the box art was very vivid and defined. There was an intricate, angled red grid with a blue shadow grid behind the drawn/painted game representation. This picture always had a white border with slightly rounded corners. The game title always appeared at the very top of the box. You could always tell you were getting a capcom game by that bold grid. Unfortunately you could also usually tell because the picture sucked ass. Take a look at MegaMan down there. Yikes! I put it next to Ghost 'N Goblins just to let you know that they didn't ALL suck.
A little later on Capcom would abandon the visually striking grid for a much subtler approach. A purple border with the Capcom name in a red rectangle at the top. Quite a step down if you ask me. But it still set Capcom apart from the rest of the crowd, even if it wasn't quite as immediately obvious.
Ah, yes, the ever-controversial Tengen, the game company that put out games for the NES without Nintendo's permission! It caused quite a stir in its day. Eventually the two sides came to an agreement (not that I remember what that was) and Nintendo actually put its holy grail seal of quality on Tengen boxes.
Tengen had a nice, unobtrusive box art style. They had their little crosshairs-like lines run down the left and bottom sides of the box, meeting in the lower left corner for their nice little black-white-red logo. The game representation took up the rest of the box. Usually one or two things would bleed out over the crosshair lines, like the wizard's arm in Gauntlet and the plane's wings in After Burner. In the early days the area to the left and below the crosshairs-like lines was actually gold, but I believe that once Nintendo slapped their seal onto the boxes, the game representations began to bleed underneath the crosshairs and fill the entire box front.
Broderbund did something very interesting. They put out the same box art style no matter what platform they were creating the game for. It didn't matter if you were buying a Broderbund game for your home computer, your NES, or whatever, they all looked consistent. You can see here on my two favorite Broderbund NES games, Legacy of the Wizard and The Guardian Legend. The top half of the box was the artistic representation of the game. The bottom half was a solid color with the game title in it. I believe the color is based on the game's "category" (in this case red for Adventure and yellow for Action). The Broderbund logo is housed in a little extension above the right side of the solid-color area. There was also usually some sort of triangle that pierced down into the top of the picture.
That Guardian Legend picture is one of the least-representational ones we've come across yet. You never see giant eyes in the game. Well, you do, but not like that.
SNK had a nice, recognizable box art style. The game representation and title were in the center of the box, with a vertical line running up each side (blue on the left and green on the right), all over a silver/gray box. The SNK logos (both of them actually) are at the top of the box, with the little double-S slightly superimposed over the picture.
A little known fact about the game on the right there, Athena? It's play control is actually the engine that Nintendo would later use to create Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.
Hudson Soft just couldn't make up its mind. It went through three distinct design phases before finally settling on one. Originally, solid bands of color (whatever color looked best with the game representation art) covered the top and bottom thirds of the box, with the game representation taking up the entire middle third. The game title and Hudson Soft logo lived in the top third, and the bottom third was taken up by a futuristic grid pattern. Bits of the picture usually bled out into the surrounding color (like that anime guy's boot in Starship Hector and the rhino's ears on Adventure Island).
Later this was simplified quite a bit. The grid pattern was removed, and the picture expanded downward , although now it had a border with slightly rounded corners and didn't bleed off either side of the box. Bits of the pictures would still sometimes bleed out of the border (like the top of Jackie's head).
Eventually they just went all the way back to the drawing board towards the end of the NES's run, and came up with this design. Black bands at the top and bottom, and a yellow band on the left with the picture on the right. The Hudson Soft bee featured prominently in the upper left corner, and the game title appeared above the picture. This time, in kind of an ironic reversal, the game title bled down into the picture rather than the picture bleeding out of its boundaries. How do you like them apples? *Punch*
Bandai was a company that had a strong diagonal element in their box art style. Basically Bandai had the game representation picture skewed at a slight angle and moved so that it bled off the bottom and right side of the box. The resulting negative space was filled with an appropriate color (or sometimes pattern, like Dig Dug II). The Bandai logo lived in the top space. The game title appeared on the edge between the picture and the top space, overlapping to cover bits of each. Also some element of the picture usually bled out into the empty space to the left.
Data east was very similar to the second iteration of Hudson Soft. The game representation picture lived in the middle of the box and had a border around it with (very) slightly rounded corners. Instead of the picture bleeding out into the space at the top of the box, the game titled would overlap both the space and the picture. The background color of the box would be different for each game. Data east had a very specific and strong oval element at the top of their boxes that was the whole "licensed for play on the Nintendo Entertainment System" thing. Most companies just tried to jam this message somewhere, usually near the Seal of Quality, but Data East gave it its own specific design with that elongated oval around it.
Sunsoft had a very striking design, yet again utilizing a strong diagonal. In this case the very top of the box art was a blue band with the Sunsoft logo within it. Below that, there was a diagonal, bordered game representation picture. Usually an element or two bled out of the borders, and sometimes the game title above the diagonal picture would overlap the picture, and sometimes the picture would overlap the game title. A strong, diagonal, solid-color background rectangle jutted up behind everything. The color of the box background and this background rectangle were based upon what looked best with the game representation picture. All this gave Sunsoft's box art a very striking, bold style.
A little trivia on Sky Kid there? Sky Kid is one of the only side-scrolling shoot-em-ups in which the good guys are moving towards the left. Why, you may ask, do most SHMUPs have the good guys moving towards the right? Well, most human cultures read from left to right, so having the good guys move from left to right is comforting and natural. Moving from right to left feels somehow uncomfortable and off-balance. Fascinating!
All right, this is the last company, I promise. LJN also had a diagonal element, but it slanted up and to the right instead of up and to the left like most all other companies with diagonal elements. Basically the game representation picture was a big, broad strip that ran from lower left corner to upper right corner. The empty space in the upper left and lower right were full of black, with the rainbow LJN in the upper left and all the Nintendo info/seal in the lower right. The game representation picture usually was bordered in gold, but the game title and a good deal of the picture would bleed out into the surrounding black areas. It was a pretty striking and unique box art design style.
After a while, most box art became kind of homogenized, with the box art basically being just a game representation picture with the game title, company logo, and seal of quality just stamped on top of it. Nintendo itself actually eventually abandoned its wonderful box art style to tread into the comfortable waters of the generic.
Eventually towards the end of the NES's run, Nintendo would slap this red bar across the top of most boxes (no matter what company made the game) to identify that it was for the NES, not the SNES.
By the time the SNES was rolling around, Nintendo had more firm control over the box art of games put out for its system, and began to homogenize the box art style for all companies. You had to look real close to see what company put out a game.
Hey, this article turned out to be kind of serious, didn't it? Like a serious report on the state of early NES game boxes. Weird. Don't worry, though. This whole article was just an excuse so that I could show you my single favorite game box of all time:
Iron Sword: Wizards & Warriors II starring FABIO, baby! That's freakin' Fabio on a video game box cover! WTF, my friends. WTF.