What's the first game you remember playing?
That you remember really vividly?
Do you remember the box art for it?
I played a lot of games as a kid, and I mean A LOT, pretty much all demos really because we didn't have any money. Some stuck with me, some didn't. I have vivid memories of playing (and loving) Midnight Resistance on my cousin's Amiga, the early Sonic games on the Megadrive, Streets of Rage, Sol Feace, Revenge of Shinobi, Virtua Racing 32X. I'm leaving a lot out here obviously.
One of the games I remember most vividly though is Doom.
Doom scared the hell out of me as a kid (I think I was about 6 or 7 when I first played it), I remember booting it up and creeping through corridors, fighting off imps, rushing to grab the chaingun or a rocket launcher the first chance I got, and a cold shiver running down my spine at the oh so familiar cry of a Baron of Hell. I don't think it helped much that I first played it on the Sega 32X (FPS gamepad controls weren't up to much in those days.)
What I remember most about Doom though, and specifically the first Doom, was it's box art.
(check the gallery below for a much larger version of the picture)
As a seven year old confronted with the cover of Doom I was terrified. Though I obviously wasn't the man on the front cover (despite having the best damn six-pack of any child in the neighbourhood!) I could relate to him and feel the horror of his situation to the best of the ability of my child mind. Assailed from every direction by nightmareish creatures, desperately struggling to beat them back as they reach out to snatch him away, it was the stuff of nightmares.
I don't think it helps much that I come from a part of England that is sort of atheist, sort of agnostic, but values the Christian traditions as part of it's middle-class identity, so the idea of demons and angels were familiar to me, and here I was, a little kid, face to face with actual demons ...atleast as actual as a really good painting seems to a kid.
It made an impression on me, to be sure.
I think the one thing I remember most about the picture, and that sort of sealed the deal (so to speak), when it came down to scaring me, was the single demon at the forefront of the box, to the left, closest to you. He's not looking at Doomguy like the others, he's looking straight at you. An almost mischievous smile on his face (on one of the covers his tongue actually comes down over the border on the box, almost as if the box is just a window), and a knowing looking in his eyes. As a kid used to reading and watching pretty passive media, to be able to 'play' a game like Doom and to be looking at this piece of art that almost seemed to break the rules of how pictures worked (in the mind of a child) with a character looking at us, it offered the terrifying prospect that what I was seeing and playing might not just be entertainment but real aswell.
Even now the picture still unsettles me a little.
Why is this important?
I think box art for games is important, not just as decoration for the cover of your game but to draw people in, to excite them. We may not be kids anymore, excited by dumb stories about muscle-bound action heroes and princesses that need rescuing, but that doesn't mean as adults we've lost our imaginations. Why else do we play games? Surely we'd just mess with spreadsheets or wireframe games if all that mattered were the mechanics.
Games are about imagination, action, excitement, exploring fantasies and worlds we never could in real-life, and I think the box art of a game can say a lot about the experience you're in for.
Maybe it's because of the gaming era I grew up in in the 90's but 'box art' for me (and I include board game art, videogame art, book covers and CD sleeves in this) is about conveying a sense of what the thing is about, sure some games work best with non-descript covers but I think there are games that would benefit from a strong piece of art on the cover, and for the most part games seem to have forgotten that they can impress us.
Granted I'm now a jaded old man so maybe my judgement's a little obscured, but I haven't really seen a piece of box art that really blew me away in quite awhile. I should probably admit aswell that I am pretty biased towards the old-school oil paintings that primarily used to end up being used on covers. The Doom cover is a brilliant example, but I remember the cover art for Revenge of Shinobi, Streets of Rage, Dune 2, Golden Axe and X-Com – the cover to X-Com especially I remember giving me similar vibes to Doom, with the alien seemingly lunging out of the cover.
I guess it's a part of the way the medium's changed that the covers have changed so dramatically – the culture around gaming was much more nerdy and closeted in the 90's, and tbh sort of orientated around children and the idea that you had to capture the imagination of the consumer to get them interested in your game, which considering the graphics of the day and the attitude that most people had to games was understandable. The culture hadn't really grown up properly yet, people didn't really know where to look to really find out about games so cover art could be a big factor in whether a game stood out to you and piqued your interest enough to make you buy it.
So the art was a lot more over the top at times, and a lot more focused on emphasising drawing the viewer in (hence using the fourth-wall so much). Now things tend to be a bit more subdued, most people know about a game before they pick it up (atleast there are generally more people 'in the know' than there were back then), so games don't try to wow people so much.
I kinda miss the art though, like I said I think good cover art serves an important purpose with anything we consume, we can't instantly know what a book, or a DVD, or a game, is about, and having that visual element can be important to making a good first impression on the consumer. Arguably the rise of digital has reduced the importance of box art, but aslong as physical retail exists, and indeed aslong as publishers try to foist collector's editions on us, there will always be some importance to good box art.
I think the MGS games were probably the last thing to impress me with their boxart, though that's probably more because I like Yoji Shinkawa's art than because they really captured the atmosphere of the game or made an impression on me.
I was kind of hoping given the topics and themes it seemed to be tackling that Bioshock Infinite would do something interesting for it's box art, but then it just turned out to be a white guy with a gun, and I felt somewhat under-impressed.
I 'd love to see a few games come out though and try to impress you with their box art. I know it'll never matter anywhere near as much as anything else about a game like the graphics, or the gameplay, or the sound - and rightly so, but it'd still be interesting to see how the box art may in the end help shape the impression of the game that the player has.
So what do you think? Is there a piece of box art that you think really stood out to you?
Is box art pointless?view gallery