Author: Super Famicom Guy
Japan has a long history of well-designed video game box art. From character design to packaging and advertising, the Japanese have honed their artwork skills throughout the boom years of the 1980’s. Fast forward to the ’90s, the Super Famicom reigned supreme and publishers were releasing games across the globe at an amazing rate. Back then, publishers believed that in order to gain commercial success with a title, they had to tailor the look of the box art to fit in with the market and country they were selling it to. It’s an old fashioned approach to video game localization and a bizarre move to have designers independently working with completely different goals. If anything, we now know that the original Japanese designs retained the purest voice and the alternative designs very rarely looked anywhere near as good, resulting in muddled and confusing artwork. The following examples should illustrate this point.
Let’s start with one of the best known examples of severely misguided U.S. re-designs. In Japan, Phalanx was released with some truly awesome box art (and even better artwork on the PC Engine version). They have cleverly distorted the perspective of the ship, pulling it towards the viewer and forcing it outside of its framed background. It’s stylish, clean, technically well drawn and futuristic – everything that the developer would want when marketing a sci-fi shooter. However, the American version is just baffling. We have a old dude playing a banjo and a tiny spacecraft in the background. It is the very epitome of ‘box art fail’. The European design lazily takes the spaceship from the Japanese version and drops it over a badly re-scanned backdrop. It’s also framed within that terrible PAL version template that always had huge borders surrounding the graphic. Three very different compositions with only one that works.
The Japanese version nails it again. An Arnie look-a-like on the cover set against a heavily saturated red post apocalyptic backdrop. The U.S. version opts for a different name (The Alien Wars) and opts for a useless unimaginative re-design, but it’s the European version that has the worst box art. The name was changed to Super Probotector and the in-game human characters replaced with robots, a move made by Konami Europe to reduce the violent look of the game and to guarantee a release in Germany. Out of the three designs, it’s the Japanese version that has stood the test of time.
Just look at that Japanese artwork. It depicts the experience of the game perfectly with its vast, barren alien landscape, dwarfing the main character who is placed at the edge of a cliff. That’s exactly how the game feels when you play it. It also cleverly hides the main character’s face in the illustration, which lends itself well to the simplistic graphical style of the game. The American version keeps the name but alters the box art with a drawing of a guy in jeans and a sweater freaking out at the sight of a monster’s face that’s not even positioned properly. It’s a predictable and badly drawn effort. Awful. And that basic yellow typography … Where is the imagination in that?
What can I say? Three designs and one stands out a winner. The bustling, detailed Blade Runner-esque design of the Japanese version far outweighs the style of the U.S design – a logo set against a backdrop of a circuit board. The European design is a joke, quite frankly. It looks like something a thirteen year old child would draw on the back of his homework book.
Again, the Japanese version has stood the test of time here with its fantastic comic book illustration. The US version suffers from a badly colour-calibrated photograph and the European version manages to correct the colouring of the photo but it’s lost within all of those logos surrounding it. It may have been a movie tie-in game but the Super Famicom version is the one that captures the look of the Batman franchise perfectly.
Here is a good example of three different regions using the same artwork but with different results. The Japanese artwork is fantastic. Everything is balanced and detailed to suit the dimensions of the box. The U.S and PAL versions have a similar design but with a heavily dumb downed re-draw of the entire design by removing the atmospheric backdrop and simplifying the design of Samus and the alien. They both don’t really work when compared with the SFC original. It’s a strange move by Nintendo.
Assault Suits Valken
Giant robots! And what better way to illustrate that than having a giant robot filling the cover of the box. The Japanese version also has some nice dynamic perspective going on with the pipes and wires feeding into the mech from the bottom of the illustration, giving the static subject some dynamism and a path for the eye to work its way into the centre of the artwork. The U.S and European versions rename the game to Cybernator, butcher the in-game character design and dialogue, and to top it off, re-design the box art with disastrous consequences.
Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts
I love the design of the Japanese version. The artist has managed to illustrate each of the in-game characters perfectly, reflecting the personality and fun to be had with playing the game. The American and PAL verisions however, have an entirely different design that centers around a cold, faceless, predictable drawing of a knight. It’s not fun, paranomal, creepy, exciting or particularly Capcom looking. I also don’t understand the need for that horrid purple colour on the PAL version either.
Similar to Phalanx, the artist behind the Japanese version of Axelay works wonders with the use of perspective. Just look at the lines created with the ship and laser lights. It’s very well executed. All of this is lost on the other versions with the decision to make the title of the game the most prominent visual aspect. The illustration of the ship is re-drawn and shortened in scale – resulting in an illustration that has lost the overall impact that the original contains. The Japanese version scores 10/10 for coolness and sheer style.
Here’s an interesting one. The PAL and Japanese versions have a fantastic abstract image adorning the cover of the box. It’s intriguing, stylish, dark and most importantly sci-fi. The American design pales in comparison with its emphasis on trying to explain some of the game’s content. The result is a cover that loses some of the mystery that’s conveyed in the other two. I’m surprised to see the American publisher didn’t opt for the laser to the face design!
How do you market a poor product to the gaming public? A typical ploy would be to surround the game with press hype, dress up the box art and to generally create the illusion to the customer that what they’re buying is actually better than what the they will experience. It’s easy enough to achieve with video games and it was even more so back in the ’90s with the lack of internet reviews. The Japanese design for Vortex is one of my favourite box art designs. It’s so much better than the game! The other two illustrations are actually more in line with the game’s woeful environment and character design. Put it this way, I’d buy the Japanese Vortex simply for the cover. Its design has stood the test of time and far outweighs the quality of the game itself.
What you don’t see in this image is the gold metallic finish that the Japanese box has. It’s one of the coolest SFC covers ever released and fetches a high price with collectors. The U.S design is entirely different and the PAL design has a pointless, distracting purple border. Japan wins again.
Undercover Cops was only released in Japan. What you see on the right hand side was the unreleased American artwork. I find it incredible that the American publisher had ignored the look and style of the original versions and instead, designed a box that looks like a bad Sylvester Stallone movie. Again, it’s the Japanese cover that has aged with grace.
Operation Logic Bomb
Just look at that Japanese box art. It’s detailed, colourful, contains depth and perspective and it’s all executed with Japanese panache. The American box is the polar opposite.
Final Fantasy VI
Yoshitaka Amano’s design for the Japanese market is brilliantly executed. What we have is an elaborate, hyper detailed illustration that effortlessly blends sci-fi and fantasy art. Had this game been released in Europe, you just know there would have been a silver border that clashed horrendously. Why abandon Amano’s masterpiece?
Editor’s note: Check out Super Famicom Guy’s blog here to read more of his work.