When you're looking to make a video game purchase these days, chances are there are many factors which contribute to your ultimate decision. Pre-release hype and online opinion will almost certainly influence your choice, but the image on the cover on the box is unlikely to carry quite as much weight. We're not saying that modern games have poor covers – it's just that the industry has moved on, and many games are sold digitally, reducing the impact of good box artwork.
Back in the '90s, before the internet arrived and games got hyped months (if not years) ahead of their eventual release, box artwork was so important when it came to selling a game that Western publishers would go as far as to commission entirely new cover imagery when localising Japanese games, and, in some cases, all three major regions (Japan, North America and Europe) would get different box artwork.
The Art Of The Box, the latest 564-page tome from Bitmap Books, aims to celebrate this period in gaming history by shining a light on the work of the artists who, perhaps without you even knowing, influenced many of the purchasing choices you made back in the '80s and '90s.
Names such as Bob Wakelin, Steve Hendricks, Ken Macklin, Oli Frey, Rodney Matthews, Tom DuBois, Mike Winterbauer, Steinar Lund, Marc Ericksen, Julie Bell and Susumu Matsushita all feature, with the 26 biographies included, each going into surprising depth on the careers and history of these often-unsung video-gaming heroes – some of which, such as Wakelin and Frey, have now sadly left us. These biographies draw comments from interviews with each artist, giving additional context to the unique pieces of art they produced.
Of course, the real selling point of a book of this nature is the artwork, and The Art Of The Box is bursting with over 350 full-colour images taken from some of the most famous video games of their era. These range from the evocative covers of early Atari VCS titles – which often had to do a lot of heavy lifting when it came to selling the concept of each graphically primitive title – to the wonderfully complimentary art of the '90s, when video game graphics had caught up just enough to ensure some degree of parity between the characters on the box and those in-game. There are even some quite recent titles included here, such as Dishonored and Blazing Chrome. The included artwork looks utterly fantastic, boasting plenty of detail and vibrant colour – we assume some kind of touching-up process was involved with the older pieces, but these images look as fresh as the day they were created.
While there's a global mixture of artists here, it's almost inevitable that the balance is skewed towards the Western audience. Japanese legends such as Matsushita, Shinkiro and Eisuke Ogura are featured, but it would have been nice to see more of their countrymen make the cut – however, given how tricky it is to get Japanese developers and artists to talk about their work, it's an understandable omission.
As we alluded to earlier, the industry is shifting towards a digital-only future; just like movies and albums, video games will soon be defined less by their cover artwork and more by the online buzz which surrounds them. This natural evolution isn't necessarily a bad thing – goodness knows how many terrible games were purchased back in the day thanks to above-average box artwork – but it does feel like we're losing something as part of the process; if you harbour similar misgivings, then The Art of the Box is likely to be right up your street.
Celebrating a more innocent time when purchasing decisions were often influenced by the quality of a game's cover, The Art Of The Box shines a long-overdue light on the talents of legends such as Bob Wakelin, Tom DuBois and Susumu Matsushita, and is a must-have for any self-respecting retro gamer.
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