Cool Box Art is a Twitter feed that dedicates itself to classic video game box art: the timeless, the surreal, and the sometimes woefully misrepresentative designs that have been used for decades to sell games. It’s curated by Si Cole, James Purvis, and Ross Foubister, three gamers with a penchant for game art: mostly vintage, but sometimes newer art too.
On today’s computers and consoles, we take cutting-edge graphics pretty much for granted, but yester year’s game designers had to get by with a lot less. So in the golden age of gaming, a box had to do more than just get people to want to buy your game: it had to evoke the world, the graphics, and atmosphere, because the hardware of the time couldn’t.
For example, it’s hard to imagine a game with the box art of Rainbow Islands: The Story of Bubble Bobble 2. Produced for the vintage NES in 1988, the cover doesn’t feature a single screenshot of the actual game itself: instead, it’s like a claymation diorama evoking the rainbow worlds trapped inside the box. Or consider the art to Electronic Arts’ classic post-apocalyptic RPG, Wasteland. Though it inspired the Fallout series of games, Wasteland’s box art is painterly and atmospheric, almost like the cover to some heavy metal album.
“I wouldn’t say vintage box art is, as a rule, the best,” says Cole. “You’ll find the good, the bad, and the downright ugly in any era!” Foubister agrees, but still says it’s harder to be daring with modern game art. “I think today, there’s a lot of issues with video game publishing that limits what people are willing to do with box art,” he tells me. “Publishers want to guarantee a return on investment, and that can lead to conservative, realistic imagery. American and European publishers now often use box art to reflect the game’s visuals, which can lead to a lot of bland images of CGI soldiers, instead of something more memorable.”
Regardless of what era of box art you’re talking about, though, Cole says that the Japanese still do box art best. “Not necessarily from an aesthetic point of view, as that’s always going to be subjective,” he says. “I think they do it best because they tend not to patronize their audience in the way Western publishers do. Everything is so literal with Western box-art. There’s an ‘It does what it says on the tin’ ethos to its design. Japanese box art tends to be less afraid of asking questions of its audience. It’s more expressive and metaphorical.”