It would seem that an industry as immersed in visual arts as video games, and worth around $1 billion a year in the US alone would have a steady appetite for promotional artwork. However, new formats and consumer trends are threatening to change the face of the industry. Just as downloadable music has lead to CD covers no longer being an integral part of the purchasing experience, new ways of accessing games have led to video game box art being less important as a “first interaction”. Bottom line, video game box art is not a hot a market as it once was. Competition is fierce, and artists must know what sells in this highly competitive industry.
Here is a list of the top five in video game box art, and why the artwork helped make these games successful:
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The Tetris artwork isn’t doing much more than showing the game contained within, but that in itself is remarkable. Shooters may suggest their gameplay by showing guns, flight sims by showing planes and so on, but the precise mechanics of a game are rarely communicated through its cover art.
Furthermore, the Tetris box takes a game entirely based around blocks falling from the sky and makes it look exciting. Vibrant colors, star-field and motion blurs made Tetris look like something different from a lot of the stuff available at the time. The strapline “The relentless block video puzzle” is confirmed by the (inaccurate) number of blocks whooshing towards the viewer. The style has this slightly disco-ish quality to it, and the perspective actually reminds us of the rhythm games that built upon the puzzle genre over twenty five years later.
4. Red Dead Redemption
“Genre” in gaming terms frequently refers to the mode of play, rather than its more cinematic sense. But Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption is a classic western genre piece, and its box art plays a part in expressing that impression. The red on black “look” is reminiscent of film posters for westerns like The Wild Bunch, A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More and countless others. Red brings to mind blood, as well as the dramatic, dusty sunsets of the American west. Player character John Marston appears illustrated (in the style common in the spaghetti western era) and in a classic “powerful” pose, making this game look like a cowboy-movie lover’s fantasy adventure.
3. Super Mario Galaxy
Mario’s Wii platform outing is a remarkable but somewhat abstract game that, whilst containing many elements from previous 3D Mario outings, was out of the ordinary. The game is very upfront about this, featuring its small platforming planetoids and strange structures on the front cover, whilst amping up the sparkle factor of space to emphasize the visuals. With Mario pictured with a cute little star-shaped friend and a gigantic smile, the buyer is promised a game that is incredibly fun. Which, to its credit, is precisely what this instant classic delivered.
As a bonus, Mario’s in-flight pose is at least a little reminiscent of the boxart for Super Mario Bros. 3, promising that for all its departures, Galaxy understand its roots. Why do those stars spell out the words “U R MR GAY”? We will never know.
2. Grand Theft Auto IV
After the more conventional photographic covers of the first two games, Grand Theft Auto switched to a graphic-novel illustrative style in the Playstation era with Grand Theft Auto 3. Why this was done isn’t entirely clear: perhaps it was done to defuse the controversy over the game’s violent content, emphasizing that the game is a cartoonish parody of car-theft? The North American cover went a step further than the European version, separating characters and vehicles into a pop-art style grid.
The art evolved as the games progressed to give the series a unified style: these covers look like the cells of a comic book. It’s a neat way of getting you up to speed on the key players, the setting and the kind of action involved in the game. Grand Theft Auto IV specifically dials back the “cartoonish” quality of the previous games, featuring semi-realistic art and colors that would be more suited to a mature graphic novel.
1. Final Fantasy XII
The Final Fantasy series of role-playing videomgames is nothing if not divisive. The early games offered the exact same interactivity level of the Windows Start Menu, the middle era became increasingly about ridiculous haircuts and teenage angst, and the modern games have taken a lot of the control and adventure out of the games. They’re still widely loved by fans for the interesting visual design, extensive story-lines and general epicness.
“Inconsistent” is a word I’d level at the series, but most certainly not to describe its box art. The American box art is uniformly terrible, but not inconsistant.
The box art used in Japan and Europe has stuck to a winning formula: a simple color illustration with the words “FINAL FANTASY” printed in Runic MT Condensed. Whilst preparing for this article, a colleague rightly called Final Fantasy VII’s meteor logo “Iconic” (which it quite literally is), but I think if I have a favorite, it would have to be the art for Final Fantasy XII: by simply making the art larger and more complex, the message that this iteration is “bigger and better” is loud and clear.