Bitmap Beauty: Exploring classic video game box art from the 80s and 90s

Bitmap Books lead us on a deep dive into classic VGM branding and packaging. Who needs Striking Vipers when you've got Striking Designers?

What got you into graphic design? It's a question that elicits all sorts of responses, but one of the most interesting we've heard comes from Sam Dyer, founder and book designer extraordinaire of retro game lit institution Bitmap Books.

"It was pixel art," Sam tells me by email. "I used to be obsessed with my Commodore 64 as a youngster and would stare at the pixellated loading screens while the game loaded, wondering how on earth they made these wonderful images.

"Given the limitations the artists had, this pixel art is a real work of art and deserves to be treated as so. However, the box art also hugely influenced which games we purchased before the internet. It really was the cover art that would draw you in, when in a shop."

The unsung design wonder that is classic video game packaging has been explored by Bitmap Books for five years now, with Sam founding the indie publisher following a decade as design head for brand agency The House. The first release was a visual compendium dedicated to the 1982 Commodore 64, and like all the vintage console-dedicated books on Bitmap, the tome is packed out with game screengrabs, creator interviews and lovingly annotated looks at box art from around the world.

It also comes with Sam's now trademark design mastery, with game graphics displayed in detailed, high-res spreads and the kind of packaging touches which remind you how great it is to hold an object designed with love and cultish care.

As Sam says, the gaming industry wouldn't have taken over the world without the classic box art that caught eyes in Japan, the US and beyond during the 1980s and 90s. Back then, the package was as important as the game, if not more so; what you held in your hands really needed to have that 'Wow' factor.

Editions of Bitmap Books have come with lenticular covers and special metallic inks; their most stunning release remains the Super Famicom Collector's Edition (below), decked out as it was with exclusive Will Overton art in the shape of an oversized Super Famicom-style game box.

"To be designing books on retro video games is a special thing," Sam writes. "Being able to have the freedom to add special treatments and touches is one of the best parts of creating the books. In mainstream graphic design, it’s rare to get these kind of opportunities."

Pure design freedom

Likewise it's just as rare perhaps that mainstream graphic design today ever gets close to the freedom afforded creatives during the glory days of the NEOGEO and Sinclair ZX. Reading the oral histories provided by Bitmap over the years, one is struck by the free rein designers had in gaming's early years.

Japanese artists for example wouldn't feel beholden to depicting the exact game contents, making for box art that often had little relation to the game (something which frustrated Sam as a boy when he got home to find a huge disparity between gameplay and the amazing cover art that lured him in.)

Another interesting example of the freedom in those days came from when Japanese games travelled across the pond to be rebranded for American markets. While these days armies of marketing teams armed with data would be in charge of refiguring a game for foreign gamers, back then it was simply left up to the box art designers to work their magic.

A good example of this from the books comes from a chat with acclaimed creative Tim Girvin. Faced with the task of selling the Nintendo Japan cult classic Mother 2 to a young teenage American audience, Girvin and team decided to re-Christen it as EarthBound much to the satisfaction of their Nintendo America bosses. No audience research, no fuss; the team simply came up with a name and designed the box art accordingly.

The big design names in games

Alongside Tim Girvin, other game branding legends include Toshiaki Mori aka Shinkiro, the man behind legendary NEOGEO covers for The King of Fighters (as featured on the below cover to Bitmap's gorgeous NEOGEO book from 2017) and Thomas duBois, whose Japan-inspired style came to define the look of Konami in the 1990s.

"Without these guys, we wouldn’t be talking today," Sam agrees. "They’re pioneers of the industry and have all helped shape the history of video games.

"What I love the most is how humble most people are – they had no idea 30 years ago that people would be so interested all these years later. It also helps that they’re incredibly talented artists.

"Other artists that deserve recognition are guys such as Steve Purcell (LucasArts), Bob Wakelin (Ocean Software, below) and Cliff Spohn (Atari) to name a few."

Together these talents created the art which remains beloved to this day, both in the West and the East.

"Even as far back as the Atari 2600, box art was a huge thing and companies invested heavily in this – commissioning professional artists and creating a striking design for the game boxes," Sam tells me.

"I would say that more often than not, Japanese box arts tend to be much nicer. Take the Super Famicom (Super Nintendo's Japanese name) for instance – the western boxes had a kind of frame design with loads of logos around the art on the middle which looks quite cluttered.

"The Japanese covers meanwhile tended to be full-bleed beautiful artworks. The art was allowed to take centre stage which really makes them stand out. Throughout gaming history, this tends to be the case with other systems such as the Mega Drive/Genesis."

With his work on the books, Sam has noted how designers on both sides of the world followed a similar design process, often being in dark about the game itself, besides perhaps - if they were lucky - seeing a design document or mock-up screenshots. These were the pre-internet days, after all.

There are also common influences on the designers of the time, such as comics legend Simon Bisley, who was eventually hired himself to provide box art for games like Gods, The Terminator: Rampage and Judge Dredd.

"I love how proper professional artists would be commissioned such as Simon, Bob Wakelin and Roger Dean (Shadow of the Beast). This happened more as the things got more competitive and there was more need for one's game to jump off the shelf and stand out."

Sam's personal favourite covers include 1989's Batman - The Movie game on Ocean, although purely for nostalgic reasons.

"That gold Ocean logo on the black box will stay with me forever from when I first saw it on Christmas Day as a nine-year-old," he explains. "After this, my other faves would have to be Super Famicom box art, notably covers such as Hagane and Super Metroid . They are real works of art in their own right."

From game to book

Just as the box art was as important as the cartridge inside, Bitmap's visuals in its books are as important as the testimonies and revelations that accompany them. Some readers may be surprised how graphics from decades-old games manage to look so sharp on the page (as below).

"A large part of creating the books is getting the screenshots just right," Sam explains. "Once captured, the screenshots are loaded into Photoshop and prepared for print. This will involve converting to CMYK and enlarging, ensuring that the pixels are kept pin-sharp.

"Some images will also need subtle retouching to make space for text, so we often move objects around to make the perfect composition. It can be quite a painstaking process but very rewarding - and the best bit is that you get to play loads of games.

"Plus when showing box art," he adds, "it’s always my preference to photograph the actual game box, opposed to scanning as this can feel flat."

The book have been a huge success in Sam's opinion thanks to a mixture of great presentation and gamer sentimentality.

"I think much of it is down to nostalgia," Sam admits when asked why this retro art remains so popular. "Don’t get me wrong, a large amount of covers are good art but some are remembered fondly simply because of nostalgia.

"As I said before, the box art cover was so important to us buying a game, it’s become synonymous with our memories.

"I just wish that the game lived up to the hype of the cover art as more often that not the game bore little resemblance."

That said, as a creative himself Sam knows that such wonderful visuals and design came from the freedom and importance placed on the making of box art.

"Box art nowadays tends to be much ‘safer’ and in general much less risks are taken," he concludes. "With the decline of physical sales and the move to digital games, box art is sadly becoming less relevant."

Not to the Bitmap audience, though, and summer 2019 will see a visual compendium dedicated to the SEGA® Master System, out on Bitmap Books this June 17th, and The CRPG Book, a guide to computer role-playing games out July 29th.

Here's hoping for a book soon on the weird and wonderful world of Hudson Soft and PC Engine box art, as those'd be whole other trips down the rabbit hole.

Read next: The pulp art of Oliver Frey's 80s computer game magazine covers

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