Celebrating 25 years with The Pheller
The infamous cover for the North American release of Phalanx on the Super Nintendo is constantly featured on lists of the “worst” video game covers of all time. Obviously, these people are, objectively, extremely wrong. This is something to be cherished. It’s one of the only instances where a game’s artwork is talked about more than the actual game itself. For good reason too. It’s genuinely fucking hilarious.
This work of genius has become something of a local legend around the Destructoid community. This is largely due to, Destructoid user, ZombZ’s almost fetishistic obsession with the old, banjo-wielding man on the cover. He photoshops him into everything. Around these parts, that man is affectionately known as The Phalanx Pheller, and that’s how I’ll be referring to him from here on out.
The story begins back before the internet had become popularized, and, in the world of video games, magazines were still king. A lot of the industry’s past has ended up forgotten and swallowed by the cold, hard, ever-hungry bitch known as time, but some of it is still floating around in the written word. I first came across the two men behind the notorious Phalanx box art from an old issue of EGM where they had taken part in a much-to-brief interview about their experience. They mentioned that the old man on the cover had previously worked with one of them, Keith Campbell, on a photoshoot for a Christmas album. That’s right people. The Phalanx Pheller was, once upon a time, Santa fucking Claus.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s go back to the Phalanx box art. The image had almost nothing to do with the contents of the actual game. What the hell were these beautiful bastards thinking?!? It took a bit of time, but I eventually managed to get into contact with Matt Guss, one of the two individuals responsible for this thing.
Here’s what he had to say about his experience working on the project with Mr. Campbell:
My ad agency had the Kemco account, and our task was to develop packaging and marketing materials for over 40 titles. Kemco would typically buy their games from 3rd party developers in Japan. Some were good, and some were not good. Weaker games needed more help graphically to get them to stand out on the retail shelf. We wanted people to pick up the package, get engaged with the story, and buy the damn game. The package was also used to help Kemco sell the game to retailers, so it had to make the buyers think the game would sell at their stores (i.e. Walmart, etc.). Most of the games back then were in a look-alike category: same genre, same kind of graphics. Nothing to differentiate them from each other. Keith was not a gamer, and, in fact, none of us were in our agency. But Keith was a brilliant idea guy and always was. We knew the game didn’t have a lot to offer, but we wanted to make the package arresting. Keith called this kind of thing the “heavy huh factor.” If we couldn’t do anything else, we’d try and get the potential purchaser to stare at the package and try and figure out what just happened. Today it might be called a WTF moment.
So Keith could have done some predictable spaceship shooting bullshit that would have been like every other game out there. Or he could create a story that would make people stop and think about it. And I guess it’s proof that was a good idea because people are still thinking about it. Phalanx was a very average game with an unexpected cover design. It needed a great/weird idea to stand out from the crowd.
The man isn’t wrong. There aren’t very many people out there who give a shit about Phalanx as a game, but this thing still has folks talking due to its unconventional box art. Like it or not, these two guys did a fantastic job at making the game appealing. I remember staring at that cover, back when I was a kid, among the endless wall of tickets inside a Toys “R” Us, and I wanted it badly.
After all these years, that image is still burned into my brain. That old, assumedly banjo-addicted man stood out to me. When ZombZ put out the call to help him find this guy’s identity, I was all over it. After that, ZombZ, Wes Tacos and myself teamed up to find this dude. For better or worse, we had to know. We would find the fucking Phalanx Pheller if it killed us.
Despite the fact that there were almost no remaining records of who he was, it was, surprisingly, pretty damn easy. It took a few months, but we eventually found our way to both Matt, Keith, and the identity of the Pheller.
Drum roll please……
Bertil Valley. His name was Bertil Valley. He was a volunteer Santa Claus for over 25 years, and he owned his own successful construction company for over 20 years. By all accounts, he seemed like a pretty upstanding citizen. Unfortunately, he passed away back in 2004, but he’ll always live on as the Phalanx Pheller in our hearts.
This is a picture of his butt.
Last month, October, marked the 25th anniversary of that wonderful box art. Sure, maybe it was just some freak coincidence that led to it becoming something of a legend, but I like to think that it was fate. The creators had no way of knowing that people like us would still remember it fondly, but that must’ve been a really goddamn cool feeling to find out about it after all of these years.
I’d like to thank Mr. Guss, who is still running his own agency over at Really Smart Advertising, and Mr. Campbell, who is still creating genuinely badass artwork, for taking the time to talk to me about this. I’d especially like to thank Mr. ZombZ and Wes Tacos for joining me on this journey.
The whole experience has been insanely surreal. It’s amazing how artwork can live on to become something outside of its original intent. The Phalanx box art may have started out as a simple marketing ploy, but it’s since evolved into an important part of the video game industry’s history. Hell, it’s even managed to become an important part of Destructoid’s history! Now, that’s something to fucking celebrate.
[All photoshopped images were created by, the one and only, ZombZ. You are truly a visionary.]