Video games have changed a lot since the 80s and, let’s face it; a lot of those changes have been for the better. Modern games immerse the player in huge, interactive worlds and feature arresting plots and breathtaking graphics. But, as a designer, I feel like there’s at least one way that modern video games can’t compete with their retro video game counterparts—box art. Older video games caused us to use our imaginations much more and get involved in those crude pixels.
We asked ourselves “What would the Contra guys look like if they were in my backyard?” and “What kind of air freshener is dangling from the Gradius ship’s rearview mirror?” and imagined the possibilities. We never knew the answers to these burning questions, so we relied on the game’s box art to tell us a little bit more about the world these games took place in and what their creators intended. The following is a list that doesn’t include the best games of the 80s and 90s, but instead includes some of my favorite box art and why it’s solid from a design perspective. I’d love to have any of these as a wall print or on a t-shirt– even if I wouldn’t want to sit down and play some of them ever again.
Retro Video Game: Ten Best Box Art Images
1. Final Fight
This photo-realistic image of a conservative, mustached man in a wrestling outfit staring down one of the bad guys from The Road Warrior is an instant classic. Combined with all of the crazy jumpkicks and pool cue attacks in the background, you know these guys hate each other and that the fight will, in fact, be final.
The two faces instantly draw me in with their intensity and the simplicity of the design, which makes my eye wander to the prominent logo. There are a ton of details, but you get the gist of the whole thing from a quick glance: something violent is about to go down.
2. Mega Man 2
I love this one because it falls into the realm of “having nothing at all to do with the game.” Mega Man is a little blue robot with a laser gun for a hand, but whoever drew this didn’t know and didn’t care. Instead, based on the game sprites, the artist created a somewhat-realistic depiction of what being trapped on a Mega Man boss’ level might actually be like in real life.
The color gradient and 3D effect used on the logo are great, and they match that menacing lava perfectly. Personally, I’d love to see a live action Mega Man movie based on this box art, even if I’m the only one in the world that wouldn’t hate it.
3. Dr. Chaos
I remember the cover for this game both scaring me and intriguing me when I saw it in the video store as a kid. There are all sorts of weird monsters, one of which has a syringe in its head. Our protagonist is squatting down in a pool of blood (don’t let the potion bottle fool you because it is totally blood) and clutching a knife while the gnarliest demon imaginable floats over him. The black background works great with the aforementioned winged demon framing the artwork, and the font and color choice on the logo are fantastic. This is better than most movie posters I’ve seen.
This was the game that made me want a Nintendo Entertainment System in the first place. There’s some crazy stuff going on here with some tough-as-nails commandos, rugged jeeps and menacing helicopters. This one really got my imagination going—the possibilities for hard-nosed military action seemed endless when I looked at this cover.
Beyond that, the grey background color works in perfect synergy with the green of the vehicles, all of which accentuate the game’s name and logo. Overall, this is brilliant and eye-catching piece of design.
This cover’s a bit simpler than a lot of the stuff we’ve looked at before, but that’s what makes it so great. The spiky alien that dominates this cover is so big that he goes outside the lines and brushes up against the Super Nintendo logo.
Not only does he look mean, he looks like no other alien or robot I’ve seen before… and what’s that thing in his head?! This cover got me to ask questions, which got me to play the game. The swirling background color and bold foreground design helped this game to stand out on the shelves and appeal to kids who had no idea what the game was about.
This was another one of those games that scared me when I saw it in the store. It looked like the cover to any multitude of super-gory 80s horror movies, yet there it was sitting alongside Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 and Super Mario Bros 3.
The old-lady-wizard-skeleton and her ghost minions were the last thing I ever wanted to encounter in my own home, let alone while exploring a strange haunted house, so that really got my mind going. The peephole theme and circular border do a great job of emphasizing the spooky artwork, which uses shades of yellow and blue to burn itself into your retina. This is an unforgettable video game cover.
7. Golden Axe 2
We’ll get this out of the way first—yes, the cover art for this game was rendered by legendary fantasy artist Boris Vallejo. Vallejo’s trademark style works perfectly for the barbarian, amazon and dwarf as they descend on their quest through some haunted swamp.
This box art really breathes life into the game itself and allows us to see an oil painting instead of primitive sprites on a screen. The grid-pattern background emphasizes the artwork quite well, and allows the game’s logo to stand out, even against such dynamic art.
8. Mutant League Football
I was never a big fan of sports games, but the cover to this one changed my mind in a heartbeat. This is another cover that uses “breaking out of the frame” to great success—it lends tremendous energy to this depiction of a cyborg skeleton blasting past a robot and a lizard man in the name of apocalyptic gridiron glory.
The game’s name dominates over half of the box, which works with the artwork pointing downward toward that logo– which means you will remember that you saw Mutant League Football and not just some generic “sci-fi skeleton sports special.”
9. Ninja Crusaders
On the surface the cover to Ninja Crusaders almost looks pretty normal, with its depiction of a crumbling city and two ninjas. You then realize that it involves a giant robot and a sky full of flying eggs, which sets this apart from the typical ninja-themed video game cover art of the time (there was a lot of it).
Though this cover is pretty surreal, there’s great attention to detail here. The logo itself isn’t great, but it’s positioned and angled in a great place above the characters and a nuclear sky. The buildings and crumbling cement frame the image perfectly.
There’s a lot going on in this one, but it still works from a design perspective. The dinosaurs and bold, sci-fi font immediately draw your eye—but there’s much more to it than that. There are all sorts of sea creatures, mammoths and reptiles all vying for your attention here, and it gives a real sense of competition without overwhelming the viewer.
The Earth floating in the background adds a surreal element to this image, but it also draws the eye back toward the game’s logo. Each creature’s color is carefully selected as well, which prevents it from looking too busy.
These ten games only represent a small fraction of the great game art that was abundant throughout the 80s and 90s. Instead of relying on internet marketing and an oversaturation of video game magazines, we just relied on the game’s box art and the tiny screen shots on the back to determine what we wanted to take home and play.
To me, a lot (but not all!) of these boxes are much more memorable than the games they actually housed. Video game covers were what got me interested in gaming in the first place, but the great artwork and solid design choices keep me coming back to them all these years later.
Adam Farwell is a writer, blogger and designer. He generally blogs about design, marketing, small business branding and the various creative projects he’s involved in. He currently writes for funnyshirts.org, where you can customize and design your own funny shirts.