5 Bizarre Trends in Old Video Game Cover Art
You don't need to go to business school to learn how to business. Just follow the one rule all video game marketing departments in the 1980s and early '90s lived and died by: copy whatever other people are doing. That explains why there were about 7,387 side-scrolling beat 'em ups released between 1990 and 1994, and it also explains the nearly two-decades-worth of terrible, unimaginative video game box art.
I searched through thousands of covers and found that cover artists stopped caring about originality sometime in 1982. They all started imitating each other, making their characters do the same very specific things, even when it made absolutely no sense. For example, I bet you weren't aware that a lot of old video game covers featured ...
Characters Who Weren't Aware They Were Firing a Gun
If you were a video game character during the photoshoot for your game's box art in the 1980s and early '90s, there's a good chance you had no idea you were shooting a gun, mere inches from your own cartoony face. Characters were firing solid beams of death from their guns as their expressionless faces told all prospective buyers that these characters have no control over how they make death happen. It's just a natural reflex that they don't respond to anymore.
Everyone looks like they were solemnly contemplating poetry as they were killing people:
This is how the guy from Arnie 2 tells the waiter he wants the check:
He showed up to a gun fight with a novelty cigarette lighter, which instantly tells players he's a psycho or he's got a spectacular sense of humor when it comes to mass slaughter. Replace the gun with a red balloon and he's the sad kid at the carnival whose parents won't let him ride the roller coaster.
When the badass heroes weren't obviously shooting their guns because they were straining themselves trying to look so casually cool, they were misfiring because they were paying more attention to the camera than to precaution.
Cyborg ninjas or ginger soldiers -- no one is immune to the alluring presence of a photographer. Not even a guy being attacked by dogs:
I honestly believe this image was Photoshopped and that gun was originally a meatball sub, which explains why the dogs were attacking.
None of these people have any sort of regard for gun safety. They walk around and strike poses with their fingers firmly mashed on the trigger like the gun version of Speed. Let up for even a second, and it's over. Though, now that I think about it, a Speed-like gun bomb would make a pretty damn cool game.
Men With a Death Grip on Women
It's a classic visual trope in adventure stories. The square-jawed hero stands triumphantly as he holds the damsel in distress close, protecting her from foes. Early video game covers adopted the trope, and most of them kind of, sort of looked like sexual molestation. Not always. Sometimes it's pedophiley, like when an old-timey guy steals a little girl:
But other times, like on the cover of Double Dragon II, there's a vague savagery to it ...
Meh. Probably nothing. Surely, we'll move on from this weird trend that seems to be getting exponentially rapier as it goes along.
Or not. That mutant-freak-pig-human-monster has one hand in that lady's butthole, the other is trying to steal her spine, and she's juuuust beginning to realize both of those things.
Hey, look at that, it gets worse. Who holds a woman that way? He has her kidneys in a headlock. That's not a rescue, that's how you hold a person before you feed them to a dragon. If that's Sinbad, our hero, and everyone else is a bad guy, why does the bad guy up front look like he just walked in on a murder? You mean there's something worse happening off camera? Sinbad seems like a real asshole. And the covers get worse:
I'm assuming the title is describing the emotional state of the ass on Zapp Brannigan's shoulder. Based solely on how he's holding her like he's looking for a dark cave to defile her in, I'm guessing the shifty Asian guy, the monsters, and the three hearts in their classic kindergarten cutout shape but with all the detail of real hearts are all trying to save the girl from becoming this space Aryan's sex toy/next meal. Whenever she complains he probably finds it incredible that a rectum can talk.
Characters Loved Jumping Hurdles at You
Creating an action shot that encapsulates the gameplay experience can be tough. Luckily, a long time ago designers of video game cover art devised a way to cheat the system: if the character looks like they're leaping over a hurdle in an Olympic race, people will assume at least one of the gameplay features is movement. In all my research, I found only two covers where a character was actually jumping over a hurdle. Everyone else is in the same position, suspended in midair, as they hurdle away from aliens:
Hurdle out of aliens:
Or any number of twists on hurdling away from the grasp of dastardly walls:
Or even between walls:
Characters would hurdle off of the beach:
Onto a building:
Off the building:
And then, finally, hurdle themselves into space:
Where they could finally escape the cold grip of gravity, forever hovering in a blissful state of perpetual hurdle.
Every Man Was a Ripped Sweat Monster
I'm often surprised at how rarely professional wrestlers burst into flames. With all that oil they lube themselves in to get those hot lights to glisten off their chests, plus all the friction of their bodies rubbing against each other, it really is amazing they don't all explode. When giant, ripped, shiny man-monsters were at their steroid-aided cultural peak in the '80s, that was the go-to image that cover artists went with for all their heroes.
All of them looked like mock-up movie posters producers would use to lure Arnold Schwarzenegger to their project. "Picture this, Arnold -- you as Crocodile Dundee, but in a Louisiana swamp":
"Imagine this one, Arnie: you and another you seek to avenge the theft of your shirts." By the way, muscle guy No. 1 also belongs in the first entry because neither he nor his sweaty friend is aware he's shooting dirt.
"Can't you see it now, Arnold? You and a black version of you, back-to-back: Twins Two: Total Carnage!"
"Arnie, you'll play a thin, wispy wizard whose chest is slowly transforming into a craggy mountainside!"
"You'll play a mangled mash of sausages as they're passed through a waterfall of doughnut glaze":
These aren't men. These are stacks of Philly cheesesteak meat LARPing.
People Getting the Shit Punched Out of Them
If your game is about obliterating someone's face with a monsoon of punches, don't dick around; put that facial slaughter right on the front of the box.
Even if it's a basketball game, let everyone know they can expect a face to be turned into a meaty jelly smeared on a mannequin.
They also came in varying degrees of damage. There was "I Made Him Fly With My Hands":
Or this one, where the puncher is entirely unaware that his attempt to grab a fly killed a gimp:
Then there's the "Feet Can Punch Faces Too!" genre, wherein we are reminded that the feet are the fists of the legs.
And finally, there's the "Oh My God! I ... I think I Killed Him! Oh, God ... That Wasn't Supposed to Happen! Dude, I Think He's Fucking Dead!" genre:
What better way to promote the wholesome family fun of early video games than with hands exploding faces.
Bonus: The Holy Grail of Box Art Tropes
As you noticed, there was some overlap between the covers. There were a handful of box covers that could have fit into multiple entries. But only one could fit into four of the five. That game cover belongs to Rocket Ranger.
He's a burly muscleman hurdling through space holding a damsel, and he has no idea he's shooting a laser gun. Rocket Ranger is a Megazord of video game box covers. There may not be any punching going on, but look at that face.
Don't tell me you don't want to punch the features off that face.
For more from Luis, check out 4 Great Movie Characters Who Need to Try a New Genre and 4 R-Rated Sequels to Children's Movies Too Awesome to Exist.
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