Classic Video Game Art vol. I
Nowadays, you can go online and find a choking quagmire of opinions and reviews regarding just about anything. Video games are far from an exception, and with the DIY self-publishing nature of social media and YouTube, it's exponentially more vast. The very idea is a quagmire now, an abyssal ocean trench filled with people who think they're the next PewDiePie or Markiplier or whoever the hell is “on top” right now. My point is, what did we have before this, to help us decide what cartridge or disc to blow upwards of $40 on? Well, in the mid-to-late 90s, we saw the birth of magazines like GamePro, predated slightly by the admittedly brand-centric Nintendo Power. This was the source of peoples' cloned opinions for a good decade or so... but what about before that?
Well, you had three options. The first was talking to your dumb-ass friends about it. This has varying appeal, depending on who your “friends” are and how lousy their taste is. You could also check out grainy, tiny screenshots in ads, or on the game's back cover. The problem here was, a lot of what ends up there is subject to change, as the ad copy and dressing is usually done in advance of the release.
Then there's the real knee-jerk way, the “intuitive” lie we've all told ourselves before: judging the book (video game) by its cover.
Regardless of the quality of any given game, there was an era in the 80s and 90s where box art could make or break counter sales of a game. No punches were pulled. The phenomenon produced some real horrible shit, but we also saw some undoubted masterpieces. I've chosen five of them to look at this time over, and will probably do this again in the future... it was hard to narrow it down, so I chose five that impacted me as a young man that still hold a striking presence now, to the adult me.
I would like to note that the order is not a ranking. I would not dare to do that with raw visual art; each piece should really stand or fall on its own merit. I should also note that, while I made an attempt to credit individual artists, that information can sometimes be tricky to get ahold of. If you see a mistake or missing information, feel free to contact me or message our Facebook page. I have also not strictly grabbed the art as it is off the box; if I found a higher resolution or better version of that same art in a flyer, ad, or elsewhere, then I have used that.
Argus no Senshi/Rygar
Artist: Unknown; if you know, please contact me
Not one single bit of anything happening here is soft, gentle, kind, or anything less than a testament to divinely-inspired violence. There is a gigantic, demonic lion-person leering and reaching from the heavens. Rygar, having just decapitated some manner of ogre-beast in his endless quest for monster blood, holds up his trophy to the sky-lion and roars back in defiance. The bodies of other unthinkable creatures lie submissive and vanquished before him. Rygar will not bow to any being... no god, lion, or demon. If you would have Rygar, then descend from your sickly-green heaven and come take him! He will add your ridiculous head to his collection.
Seriously, there is nothing truly lacking here, except that Rygar's weaponry is a bit dishonestly represented. I can't even fault it, though, because it's under-represented, leaving the pleasant and brutal surprise for when you play the game.
Exile: Wicked Phenomenon
Artist: Vic Ireland
This one probably took a lot of time and talent, and it shows... this art is sufficiently dream-haunting that for a while I set that face as the image to show when my phone alarm went off. That way, I heard loud noise, picked up my phone, saw THAT, and was jolted awake by two senses instead of just one.
I hazard to say that the art is better than the game, which is okay if not a little slow-moving and unnecessarily inflated in terms of storyline. The game is immaterial. From the floor-fog to the lighting to the soulless, predatory eyes of the face in the wall, you know a dark story lies inside that game box.
Artist: Gerald Brom
Brom has gotten the nod for tons of art any gamer or fantasy fan has doubtless seen; just google “gerald brom art” and toodle around for a while. You'll recognize plenty. I have always loved this particular work of his, for several reasons. Firstly, it accurately depicts the world of Heretic as a dark, dying realm where little hope exists. The only strong light source in the picture is the mage's spell ripping into one of the undead warriors. Secondly, the mage's face is perfect. It's this exact blend of grim hardness, sheer terror, and arcane focus. I also love how the focal point of the image is twofold: the mage himself and the bolt of magical energy he is casting. It all seems initially off-balance to one side, but the dynamic movement implied in the figures present makes everything seem to fit right where it is. Lastly, something about these skeletons just looks punk rock as fuck to me. I'm into the undead as antagonists in any medium or genre; it's even better when they look like extras from Return of the Living Dead.
Artist: Ken Rieger
I've mentioned this one before. This is an image that transcends what it is meant to depict and shows us a glimpse of what lies in one single moment of violence. A Nazi guard is sprawled on the floor, his vividly red blood spattered across the cobblestones as he gasps his last “mein lieben.” BJ Blazkowicz roars in brute triumph as he unleashes the full power of an impossibly huge chaingun on out-of-frame foes who are likely in the throes of Biblical-level terror. Nazi imprisonment has not weakened any part of the animal that is BJ; his instincts, supernatural physique, and bloodlust are every bit as powerful as they were when the Krauts lucked out and caught him. Now he's going to singlehandedly send each one of them to the mockery of Valhalla reserved for such villains.
When you sit down to craft a piece like this, it's ballsy to take the perspective of “sort-of underneath the guy.” You could end up with an image framing a crotch, or one that's just unappealing. Rieger nailed this. He knew he had to show BJ Blazkowicz the way most mortals should see him: as if looking up into the stratosphere, to see where the divine scream of vengeance was coming from.
Castlevania/Akumajo Dracula/Vampire Killer
Artist: surprisingly, I could not find this information.
Looming above everything else, above and beyond the decrepit castle on the cliff, sneering arrogantly at the young man with a whip, we see Dracula. The Prince of Undeath. An ancient, horribly potent, and unsinkable evil. Standing defiantly below, we see Simon Belmont: the man who has come not only to kick Dracula's shit in, but to do it with a whip.
There's not a lot I can say here... this image has become iconic as a symbol of the protagonist/antagonist struggle that defines most platform games of the era. The player is presented with the bold but intangible outline of a villain supposedly beyond defeat, and given control of a modestly-depicted hero to get the job done. In the end, it turns out that legends die hard... but they can die. Even the vibrant streak of sky-hues across the middle of the picture doesn't clash; it fits in and even adds to the tone of grey struggle. With eyes that sparkle like a cat's, Dracula taunts not only Simon, but the potential player. As with its music, the art of the Castlevania franchise is consistently top-notch. This image set the standard.
I hope you've enjoyed this look at some of the indelible images that played a part in our hobby's history. I will be back with more. Thank you so much for reading.