Video Game Box Art: How Beautiful Graphics Ruined Everything

An illustrated journey, and the narrowing gap between graphics and artwork.

Arcades began to disappear the moment console game graphics caught up to their coin-op counterparts. On a somewhat related note, video game manuals started to vanish when publishers realized they could make them digital or ditch booklets entirely with in-game tutorials. Point being, the video game industry is in a constant state of evolution. Today’s innovations will be old and discarded several years from now.

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Case in point, video game box art.  Atari will forever hold the undisputed crown for best all time from the golden age of the 2600 console.  Consider this box art for the classic game, Asteroids, with a spaceship blasting rocks to smithereens. It pulls you to the store shelf and practically begs you to pick up the box.


Of course, Atari had to rely on such visual stimulation with the actual game looking like this.


The same can be said of Berzerk, one of the finest 80s shooters ever made. Equip that blaster and shred giant robots. The box art is intense.


The in-game graphics, on the other hand, are primitive by comparison.

This trend continued through the 80s and 90s because companies had to rely on flashy box art to grab eyeballs. Check out the cover for the original Metal Gear on NES, containing an image of Solid Snake that bears a striking resemblance to a scene from James Cameron’s The Terminator, which you can read more about here.

Now let’s check out those Metal Gear graphics, which are a far cry from the glorious box art.

Numerous publishers use these tactics to sell games, and there’s a chance you purchased a game as a kid purely based on its box art alone. We’re guilty of this.

Nintendo thankfully kept it real with the initial line of NES releases, the bulk of which stayed true to their 8-bit roots.

Here’s the 1985 Super Mario Bros. box art.

Compare it to the actual game.

Duck Hunt also relied on this simplistic yet highly effective artwork.

The 8-bit duck looks exactly the same in this screenshot.

This is in stark contrast to Double Dragon 2 for NES. Here’s the original box art.

Now check out the actual game. Appealing, yes, but nowhere near as action packed as the cover art.

This brings us to today. Publishers still churn out excellent box art, but advancements in video game graphics leveled the playing field. Companies don’t have to go all-out with sweeping Atari 2600-like images.

The Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes box art looks cool.

It also bears a resemblance to the actual game. Snake looks just as good.

Forza Horizon 2 box art features the sexy Lamborghini Huracán.

How does the car look in the actual Forza Horizon 2 video game? Even sexier.

At the end of the day, perhaps the best approach is the one 2K Games and Turtle Rock Studios took with the upcoming Evolve, which features a presumably gigantic footprint. This box art says “this game looks amazing, and all we need is this awesome footprint.”

Seriously, though, what sort of box art would you create for a game that looks as gorgeous as Evolve? It’s footprint or bust at this point.

There’s a chance you asked yourself, “What’s the point of this article?”  If you expect a longwinded response, prepare for disappointment. We’re just old gamers reminiscing about the “good old days.” Today, video game publishers don’t try as hard with box art as they did decades ago because they don’t necessarily have to (Rockstar Games’ GTA cover art notwithstanding), and similar to arcade and console graphics, it’s something we noticed over the years; imagine what Portal 2 box art (wonderful artwork in its own right) would have looked like in the early 80s. If anything, reversible covers are in many cases superior to the ones that get top billing, as is the case with BioShock Infinite. Nintendo, on the other hand, produced plenty of attention-grabbing cover art for its Wii U games, Pikmin 3 and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD in particular. Bravo to the big N for going all out.


Simply put, we’ll always appreciate more realistic visuals, but considering history, we sort of miss the Atari days.

Of course, there’s always Konami’s Metal Gear Solid approach.

What’s your favorite video game box art? Let us know!

Find out what it was like playing video games in the 80s and 90s!

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Prima Games Staff
The staff at Prima Games.