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Illustrated Gaming: The Lost Art of Game Boxes

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*The original edition of this article appeared on the Retro Revelations blog site.

If you’ve been following my work for long enough, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I have a “thing” for classic gaming. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that while, yes, I do enjoy many modern games, personally, I consider the old, sprite-based games of yore to be the best. I think of many modern games, quite frankly, as “interactive entertainment”, more than “video games”, because to me, that just seems to be the direction that the industry has been heading now for a good long while.

Sufficed to say, I’ll always love the classics the most. There were so many things that were unique and, yes, “special” about the good old days, from Atari 2600 on through Super NES. And not the least of which, among so many great facets such as gameplay, sprite graphics, “chip tune” music, etc., were the games’ box artwork. Now mind you, not every game was created equal, naturally, and neither was all box art great, let alone good. Some of it, like many games themselves, just straight out sucked.

But, there was also a lot of truly, genuinely great, classic box art as well. There was even an ongoing phenomenon, dating back to the 2600, where many games had AMAZING box art, and that alone would lure potential buyers in, only to be revealed to have crappy games underneath once brought home. Of course, that was back when most game boxes didn’t show you a single picture of actual in-game graphics, something that didn’t become standard until the NES era.

Quite literally a work of art.

Above is a perfect example. Asteroids for Atari 2600 wasn’t exactly the best port of that arcade classic. It’s not terrible by any means, but the 2600 simply couldn’t pull off the real thing in its full glory. But that box art? It’s absolutely fantastic! That is the stuff of classic movie posters or old sci-fi novel covers. Bottom line: it’s just REALLY good art, in and of itself. And that’s what I’m talking about. You saw that a lot with old Atari games, and even those of it’s direct competitors like the Colecovision or Intellivision. Even if many of the games absolutely sucked, a fair lot of them, actual game be damned, had great looking artwork that was used specifically to sell the games.

Simple, yet elegant.

This one in particular holds memories and nostalgia for me. Space Invaders was one of the few 2600 games that I actually owned as a small child, inherited as a hand-me-down from an aunt of mine. While I, at the tender age of 4 or 5 years old, was absolutely no good at the game itself, and actually kinda hated it because it was so damn hard to me at the time, I really loved the artwork for it.

Even though those spaceships don’t look anything like the actual “Space Invader” enemies from the game itself, this art still captivated my attention as a child. I would often just hold the cartridge and stare at the seemingly giant cities in the domes on these ships, and wonder to myself where they came from and what they were all about. They say “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and it really can be, as my childhood fascination with this particular box art is a testament to the power of art in general.

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